Four Downs: NFC South
by David Gardner
Biggest Hole: Defensive End
Thanks to a top-notch run defense (No. 2 in our metrics) and a strong season from defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, the Falcons pass defense didn't derail Atlanta's entire season.
But it came close.
The Falcons defense finished slightly below average, No. 20 in our advanced DVOA metrics which measure play-by-play success based on situation and opponent. The pass defense was near the bottom of the league at No. 27.
Part of the problem was the secondary. The Falcons addressed their biggest need -- acquiring a No. 1 corner -- by signing free agent Dunta Robinson. Robinson's play last season didn't match his big pay day, but he was the best corner on the market, and he immediately becomes the best corner on the Falcons roster.
The other part of the problem is the lack of a consistent pass rush. Defensive end John Abraham only had 5.5 sacks, his lowest total since injuries derailed his 2006 season, and he'll be 32 next year. The Falcons finished with just 28 sacks on the season, and were 26th in the NFL with 5.6 percent Adjusted Sack Rate. ASR measures sacks (and intentional groundings) per pass play, adjusted for situation and opponent. (To give an example of why ASR is different from total sacks: Carolina had 31 sacks, just three more than Atlanta, but ranked 13th in ASR because they did that against 42 fewer pass plays.)
The Falcons could look for an outside linebacker or a wide receiver at No. 19, but defensive end will be the top priority.
Free Agency Recap
Besides the acquisition of Robinson, the Falcons have been quiet in free agency. The Robinson deal, explained here by FO's J.I. Halsell, is one of the most lucrative ever for a corner. Robinson was inconsistent as a starter last season, but he is an obvious upgrade over Brent Grimes and Chris Owens.
The Falcons traded one of their starting corners from last season, Chris Houston, to the Lions for a sixth-round pick this year and a conditional seventh rounder in 2011. Atlanta will look to the draft to shore up its remaining needs.
Biggest Hole: Wide Receiver
Writing that the Panthers need a second wide receiver behind Steve Smith is like writing that the Colts need a defensive tackle. It happens every year.
But in 2009, the problem was even worse than usual. The always reliable Smith went under 1,000 yards for the first time since he broke his leg in 2004. Among wide receivers with more than 50 catches, Smith finished 52nd in DYAR and 57th in DVOA.
And he was the best Panthers' receiver.
Part of that can be attributed to the poor play of quarterback Jake Delhomme, but Smith is also 30 years old, and he could be starting the descent of his career. Mushin Muhammad performed admirably last season -- almost as well as Smith, according to our numbers -- but he isn't a long-term solution. It doesn't look like Dwayne Jarrett is the long-term solution, either. And no other receiver on the roster caught more than 10 passes.
The Panthers are expecting big things out of Matt Moore this season after he started five games and had a 4-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season. Still, he'll need weapons to succeed as a full-time starter.
Free Agency Recap
The main move by the Panthers during this free agency period has been a quarterback purge. The Panthers released embattled quarterback Jake Delhomme.
Delhomme went on to sign with Cleveland for a cool $7 million, which makes Delhomme the most overpaid player in free agency by far.
The Panthers also let go of A.J. Feeley, whom they signed in September last year after a horrific game by Jake Delhomme. Backup Josh McCown, who went on injured reserve at the time of the of the Feeley signing, is also a free agent.
With these other passers gone, the Panthers re-signed quarterback of the future Matt Moore to a one-year offer sheet worth $3 million.
The team also lost starting defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers wasn't worth the contract that he was offered by the Bears, but he was the best defensive player on Carolina, and his absence on the defense will be felt.
New Orleans Saints
Biggest Hole: Outside Linebacker
The Saints' resurgence on defense came thanks, in large part, to a playmaking secondary. Darren Sharper intercepted eight passes, and former second-round pick Roman Harper fully matured into a starter alongside Sharper.
The front seven wasn't as strong. DVOA ranks the New Orleans run defense as 7.7 percent worse than league average, 29th in the league. The defensive line allowed opposing teams to average 4.5 yards per carry.
Scott Fujita is not an All-Pro player, but he was an above average starter on a team that lacks depth at linebacker. His backup last year, 32-year-old Troy Evans, isn't the answer to fill Fujita's shoes on the strong side. On the weak side, the Scott Shanle has been a mediocre player in his four seasons in New Orleans.
The Saints will be forced to replace Fujita, who signed a three-year, $14-million deal with the Browns, but they should also consider finding some talent for the weak side. The Saints may also look to draft help in the secondary, particularly if free-agent safety Darren Sharper signs elsewhere, but linebacker is the first priority.
Free Agency Recap
The Saints have managed to escape the curse of Super Bowl champions losing free agents. Fujita and back Mike Bell, who signed an offer sheet with the Eagles, are gone, but a number of Saints players remain unsigned.
Offensive tackles Jammal Brown and Jermon Bushrod are both restricted free agents. Bushrod's play was pretty good -- for a backup -- but the Saints hope that Brown will be back 100 percent from his ACL tear.
The Saints' top priority from this point will be signing RFA Jahri Evans to a long-term contract. After Darren Sharper tests the market for a little while longer, the Saints may be able to re-sign him to a short-term contract.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Biggest Hole: Defensive Line
The Bucs have been searching for Warren Sapp since he left Tampa in 2004.
Although the team moved away from the Tampa-2 at the beginning of the 2009 season, defensive coordinate Jim Bates was later demoted and Raheem Morris returned the team to its traditional defense. For the Tampa-2 to be successful, the Bucs need a dominating defensive tackle who can command double teams and collapse the pocket. No such player is on the roster right now.
Partly because of the lack of a dominating defensive tackle, the Bucs were unable to generate any kind of pass rush last season. The Bucs generated just 28 sacks last season, with an Adjusted Sack Rate of 5.8 percent, 24th in the NFL . No offensive coordinator is staying up late worrying about Stylez G. White or Tim Crowder coming off the edge.
Really, the Bucs can't go wrong with a defensive player at the top of the draft. Eric Berry would start in place of the woeful Sabby Piscitelli, who made Football Outsiders' 2009 All Keep Choppin' Wood Team, made of the players at each position who did the most to hurt their teams.
Free Agency Recap
Bucs' fans are almost ready to mutiny over the team's absence in free agency.
GM Mark Dominik believes in rebuilding through the draft, and although that is definitely more effective for sustained success, the Bucs faithful are just looking for signs of life. There are even rumors of possible black outs next season.
The Bucs didn't show any interest in re-signing No. 1 wideout Antonio Bryant, so he bolted to the Bengals. Reserve safety Will Allen reunited with his former coach Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh. They also lost reserve linebacker Matt McCoy to the Seahawks and starting punter Josh Bidwell to the Redskins.
To address an obvious hole at safety, the Bucs signed former Eagles' safety Sean Jones last week. He has been the team's only signing.
(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)