Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC South

Four Downs: NFC South
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by David Gardner

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Defensive End

Heading into the draft, we wrote that defensive end was the Falcons' biggest need. Then the Falcons ignored the position completely on draft day.

Defensive end John Abraham, the Falcons' premier pass rusher, had only 5.5 sacks last year. As a team, the Falcons were 26th in the NFL with a 5.6 percent adjusted sack rate. ASR measures sacks and intentional groundings per pass player, adjusting for situation and opponent.

The other bookend is Jamaal Anderson, who defends the run much better than he rushes the passer. The eighth overall selection from 2007 has become just a marginal starter and seems to have hit a wall in his development.

To help stimulate the pass rush, the Falcons selected Kentucky defensive tackle Corey Peters in the third round. Peters is a strong one-gap player who improved every year for the Wildcats and has a lot of upside. The Falcons wanted another tackle to pair with Jonathan Babineaux, who has been carrying their defensive line from the inside, and Peters will push last year's first-round pick Peria Jerry for time at the position.

But if either Abraham or Anderson can't come through with a double-digit sack season, the Falcons will have to manufacture sacks through blitzes and stunts. And they don't have the secondary to do that.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

The Falcons didn't secure much help along the line in the post-draft period, either. The best player they were able to sign was Mississippi's Emmanuel Stephens who was an inconsistent junior college transfer. The Falcons did secure some other interesting small-school prospects, though. Gabe Derricks of San Diego has the size (6-foot-3, 202) to develop into a nice strong safety, and he was a four-year starter for the Toreros. At Villanova, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Brandon Harvey led his team with 53 catches, 694 yards and five scores. The Falcons also picked up a big tight end, Clenson's Michael Palmer (6-foot-5, 260), a local product who had more than 500 yards and four scores last year.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Defensive Line

Quick, name the best player on the Panthers defensive line. Actually, if you're not from the Carolinas, name any player on the line.

The Panthers were 27th in the league in our defensive line rankings against the run last year. And that was with Julius Peppers on the team. They were 13th in adjusted sack rate, a ranking very likely to drop without Peppers around.

The Panthers may have made big splashes in the draft by saving quarterback Jimmy Clausen from his long fall and picking back-to-back wide receivers in the second and third rounds, but they lack both talent and depth along their defensive line.
On the outside, Everette Brown flashed his potential as a rookie, but he isn't ready to carry the load. He may regress this season because he won't have the benefit of all of the attention opposing teams put on Peppers. Charles Johnson has the potential to be a difference maker, but he hasn’t put it all together yet. He may not even start over Tyler Brayton. The only end the Panthers took in the draft was Mississippi's Greg Hardy in the sixth round.

Inside, the Panthers are trusting potential. Louis Leonard made his first career start -- and suffered a season-ending Achilles injury -- in the second game of the season at Atlanta in Week 2 and will be back in the battle with another pair of injury-stricken players from last season, Tank Tyler and Corvey Irvin.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

For a streak of more than a decade, the Panthers selected at least one offensive lineman during each draft. They broke that streak in 2010, so they focused on the offensive line in the post-draft signing period. Oklahoma State's Noah Franklin played alongside Russell Okung for the Cowboys last season, but it was his first year as a full-time starter. Michigan's Mark Ortmann played every line position but center at Michigan, and his versatility could lead him to a reserve role this year. New Hampshire linebacker Sean Ware turned heads with a 4.46 40-yard dash at his pro day, and he was a solid starter and team captain for his team last year.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Outside Linebacker

It's difficult to balance value and addressing needs when you are picking at the back of each round, but the Saints missed out on a big area of concern by not selecting any linebackers in the draft.

In the previous Four Downs, we wrote about the Saints' need for an outside linebacker. The Saints' front seven struggled last year. DVOA ranked them 29th in the league against the run, and opposing teams averaged nearly 4.5 yards a carry against the Saints.

First-round pick Patrick Robinson will hopefully close a revolving door for the Saints at corner, but the playmaking secondary was actually a strength for the Saints last year. The problem is that there isn't a viable candidate to replace the departed Scott Fujita, and it wouldn't hurt to find an upgrade for Scott Shanle on the weak side.

Evidently, the front office believes that their replacements are in-house among a group of young players that includes Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Jonathan Casillas and Stanley Arnoux. The group has a combined 60 tackles and zero starts, so we're not inclined to agree with the front office just yet.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

The Saints managed to find one of the best undrafted linebackers in UNLV's Jason Beauchamp. Beauchamp was a four-year starter and has good size and the kind of versatility that Gregg Williams likes in his linebackers. The Saints also added a corner who could end up on the opening-day roster, TCU's Rafael Priest. Priest was a Sporting News third-team All-American last year and started 47 consecutive games for the Horned Frogs during his career. He didn't get a ton of interceptions last year because teams tended to shy away from his side of the field. Big Norfolk State receiver Chris Bell (6-foot-2, 211) led the Mideastern-Athletic Conference in receiving last season. Texas Tech's Brandon Carter led the Bid 12 in game-time makeup.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Safety

This year, for the first time, the Football Outsiders game charting project tracked broken and missed tackles. On defense, no defense player was shredded more than 15 times, with one exception: Tampa Bay safety Sabby Piscitelli, who led the league with 19 broken tackles.

(Ed. Note: For those curious, more broken tackle numbers are coming in next week's ESPN Insider article.)

Fellow safety Tanard Jackson, who has never quite been able to repeat his excellent rookie performance, also missed quite a few tackles when he came up in run support. When they weren't busy missing tackles last year, Jackson and Piscitelli were trying to trying to cover up the play of cornerbacks Ronde Barber -- who may have finally hit the age wall -- and Elbert Mack, who allowed a dismal 11.4 yards per pass according to our game charters.

The addition of Sean Jones and the return of Jermaine Phillips will bolster the Bucs' depth chart, but neither is going to turn around a defense that ranked 26th against the pass according to DVOA. Third-round pick Myron Lewis of Vanderbilt could take a little bit of pressure off the safeties if he can play the nickel behind Barber and Aqib Talib and thus keep Mack off the field.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

One big name stands out among the Bucs' free-agent signings: Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead. Snead had a lot of pre-season hype for his junior year, but he didn't have much love after the season. He was inconsistent at best and displayed poor decision-making and accuracy. Still, he decided to forego his senior season and went undrafted. His main competition will be Rudy Carpenter, so he has a good chance to make the opening-day roster. Rico McCoy led Tennessee in tackles last season with 119 and has familiarity with the Tampa 2 defense, having played for Monte Kiffin last season. At 6-foot-3 and 318 pounds, Virginia Tech's Sergio Render could become a reserve offensive lineman after the release of Arron Sears. The Bucs also extended a contract to Josh Freeman's college roommate, Kansas State tight end Jeron Mastrud.


52 comments, Last at 07 Jun 2010, 11:59pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Saints signed OLB Clint Ingram from JAX yesterday to a one year deal. He ain't an all-pro, but he's a fine substitute for Fujita.

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Not sure if he'll provide the same skill set as Fujita, who has basically stayed in the league as long as he has because he has the length to set the edge and cover tight ends.

18 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I think another reason the Saints signed him is that he played 2 yrs ago under DC Williams. He should already know his responsibilities, etc. That makes the signing a little better than it looks on paper. He prob. starts, giving the Saints this year to see if one of the young guys (Dunbar, Arnoux, Casillas) has what it takes, or if they need to take a SLB in the next draft. From what I understand, Arnoux & Casillas are better suited for the WLB.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

"The other bookend is Jamaal Anderson..."

"For a streak of more than a decade, the Panthers selected at least one offensive lineman during each draft."

Is that a long streak?
One 5th of your starters are offensive linemen. 7 rounds... 1.4 linemen per draft.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

On defense, no defense player was shredded more than 15 times, with one exception: Tampa Bay safety Sabby Piscitelli, who led the league with 19 broken tackles.

What is the point of a huge SS that can't tackle?

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

So, we line up three secondary players: a corner who can't cover anything but is a sure tackler, a safety who can't tackle anyone, but is excellent in coverage, and Sabby Piscitelli. Who do you take?

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

The thing that impresses me about all these division synopses is how many teams ignored their most glaring weakness, according to FO. I believe in statistical analysis and in the Moneyball principles. But I have to wonder - can the gm's and coaches be this consistently wrong? After all, their jobs depend on, eventually, putting together a winning team - maybe they have a perspective that is more accurate, at least in some cases, than FO's. On the other hand, we all know that teams are not always run efficiently and gm's and coaches do make poor judgments in some cases. Where is Truth? (Forget Beauty - as a fan of the Houston Oilers/Texans/Rockets/Astros I have learned to live without that as the Truth rears its ugly head on the field every year.)

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

At some point, you have to project what your own players are going to do. In the Panthers' case, they have a lot of D-line players coming back after injury. So it comes down to "can they recover to their full potential?" How much improvement can you expect from a year of practice, conditioning and filmwork, but little on field work?

If you are trusting the PREVIOUS drafts, then you can focus on other needs.

15 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Well, most of these articles don't really talk about the needs that WERE addressed with the draft - the point of the "post-draft needs" sections isn't to say "look at this dumb team ignoring their needs, look how dumb they are," it's just a rundown of the needs that REMAIN after the draft, which EVERY team has. Unless you actually think a team can fill every 'need' with a single draft, which would be nuts.

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Another thing to consider is that the players at the position of biggest need don't always offer the best value at that point in any particular round. Do you reach or do you take a player you feel better about, maximize your draft hits, and wait for a better opportunity in the future? It's the age-old dilemma between doing what's best for your job security or what's best for the team.

Oh, and also, the staff writers don't know all teams they write about as well as they could. Which is all right, that's not what the site is about.

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

In the second Atlanta paragraph, shouldn't it be "per pass play" rather than "per pass player"?

14 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I don't think Jermaine Phillips will be back. He was only signed for one year last season, and they seemed pretty reluctant to give him that.

32 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Yip. He hasn't been resigned and I've heard nothing whatsoever on the guy this offseason - except that he got in some domestic violence trouble and then out of it again.

17 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I'll betcha that Peria Jerry is gonna be an injury bust. I think the Falcons believe this as well - thus the drafting of Peters instead of the best available DE. That, or they think THIS is the year than Anderson finally breaks out.

20 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Jo-Lonn isn't half the athlete his cousin Jor-El is and both of them are strangely lousy against teams in green.

Hail Hydra!

21 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Falcons analysis is incorrect. Jamaal Anderson is a situational pass-rusher who will be spending time at DT. Kroy Biermann is likely to be the opening day starter with Lawrence Sidbury also getting game time. The 2008 NFL executive of the year has stated the reason they didn't address DE was because of their belief in the guys they are still developing.

22 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Yeah, pretty much. Jamaal Anderson isn't really in the picture, and you can't talk about the Falcons' situation at DE without mentioning Chauncey Davis, Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury. I'd bet that the coaching staff is expecting more in the way of development from the latter two guys than they are from Anderson, who is going to be a swing DT/DE type player - and with good reason, because they have a lot more athleticism and potential than he does at this point. JA also isn't really that good against the run, but I guess that's kind of a nitpick.

24 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

"The Saints' front seven struggled last year. DVOA ranked them 29th in the league against the run, and opposing teams averaged nearly 4.5 yards a carry against the Saints."

Could this stat be misleading...afterall, were the Saints not often playing with a significant lead and therefore stopping the run game was not a concern? What were the Saints Run Defense Splits by Quarter?

26 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

For what reason?

When I look at N.O.'s Defensive DVOA, I see a team that was pretty much average on defense, awesome at stopping teams number one receiver and on the other side of avearage stopping other receivers. The run defense does look atrocious, unless you factor in what I mentioned before, that playing with a lead like they did most of the year means not having to have great run defense and addressing it may not be the smartest of moves. I'm not sure how just looking at the DVOA numbers you can reach this conclusion. Personally, when I look at the numbers, it seems that N.O. drafted pretty well if their secondary drafts pan out well.

28 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Go to "About" and click on "Our New Stats Explained" and familiarize yourself with what DVOA actually is.

"Every single play run in the NFL gets a "success value" based on this system, and then that number gets compared to the average success values of plays in similar situations for all players, adjusted for a number of variables. These include down and distance, field location, time remaining in game, and current scoring lead or deficit."

Notice the last sentence?

29 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

DeltaWhiskey, you sound like a NOLA guy. I am too (grew up on the West Bank). The Saints run D WAS a problem last year. The difference was this--their offense was and is so good, that most teams didn't get to use the run that much. The other thing that minimized this was that the pass D was pretty good, at least when both Greer and Porter were healthy. Especially in the red zone--iirc, they were the best pass D in the league at something like -37%. (This would be '85 Bears- scary-good-type defense) IMO, the NFL has become more dependent on the pass than ever--and this is one of the reasons the Saints are the defending champs. If this Saints' D played in the 70's, they would be in real trouble.
Another reason the Saints' run D numbers look bad is the number of long TD runs they gave up. IIRC, most were in the first quarter.

39 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

"Go to "About" and click on "Our New Stats Explained" and familiarize yourself with what DVOA actually is."

Damn, after almost 5-years of reading and posting at this sight, I guess should get around to reading the "About" section....While DVOA may consider factors such as time, distance, down, score, etc. when calculating the value, in the end, DVOA is a composite score for the entire season.

"The Saints a gave up 4th most value per play on running plays. You don't see that as an issue?"

Not if you're up by 21 points at the time. That's the crux of my point. If the Saints are giving up this yardage on the ground while holding a significant lead, it's not that significant. Maybe it's a concern, but not the most significant concern. The premise of the article is that the Saints needed to be concerned about this. Perhaps this is so, but I think the context in which they were poor against the run must be considered.

BUF (27)
TB (28)
NO (29)
CLE (30)
JAC (31)

One of these is not like the others. Four out of five of these teams probably should be concerned about their run defense, as there's a good chance their opponents are racking up run yardage while holding the lead.

40 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Don't you find it odd that the Saints are the only good team with a ranking that low?

Also, you act like the Saints were nursing huge leads in every game which wasn't the case. They nearly lost to the Rams almost solely because of run defense.

42 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

When you win 9 games by 2 or more scores, it is not surprising that your run defense is statistically suspect. The question is, does it matter.

In 2007, NE's run defense was ranked #21.

ARI (19)
CLE (20)
NE (21)
SD (22)
KC (23)

Again, when I looked at NO's Defensive DVOA, what leaped out at me was that while the pass defense was good, almost all of the goodness seemed to come against defending the number one receiver and against the other receivers, the Saints were rather pedestrian. The box score of the Rams' game seems to reflect this finding.

Finally, I'm not sure the Run Defense almost lost them this game, as the Saints gave up 293 yds through the air and had a -2 turnover ratio in the game.

43 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Well if your pass defense stays that good, you should be fine. However, these things can be variable, you lost Sharper, and are relying somewhat on Tracy Porter, who is not known for being durable.

45 Re: Four Downs: NFC South


My point is that looking at the DVOA, the pass D was not as great as the overall Def Pass DVOA would suggest - a need this article suggests that NO attempted to address, and that given last year's offensive performance, the poor run D may not be an accurate assessment or may not be relevant. It would have been nice to see some sort of additional breakdown of the Run Def DVOA either by quarter or by situation (i.e. leading by <1 score v. >1 score). IMO, At this point, that is the kind of analysis that qualifies as "in depth" for analysis from this site.

46 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

These Four Downs articles aren't really meant to be in depth. They're just giving a quick overview. We have the great FO commentators to fill in the gaps (or correct mistakes).

48 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Unfortunately that's not a breakdown available with the premium data. It might be something they could generate if you asked them, though ... perhaps it would be better to see both VOA and DVOA broken out by either split combination or both (run defense by quarter or run defense by score gap).

49 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Noted, and thanks.

I don't think for this series of articles, it's that important, mainly raising a discussion point. Perhaps it could be addressed in NO chapter of the Almanac.

50 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

The Saints had a major run of injuries to their secondary in the second half of last year. There was a time when their top 3 corners were all injured. They also lost some other defenders in that stretch. The Rams game was during this period.

The Saints did draft another corner #1, so evidently they want even more depth to guard against injuries this year.

27 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

So the Bucs just came off of a 3-13 season. We've got Raheem "I was a teenaged coach" Morris, and the only good thing you can read about him is "he looked a lot less overwhelmed near the end of the year last year". The hope for the future is a second-year QB who, while he showed poise and some good promise, still threw 18 picks in just 10 games. The offensive line is questionable, the secondary has huge holes and, barring the Bucs having hit a home run on pretty much every draft pick, it's going to be a long couple of years.

Yet, with all that, you still put a picture of Sabby Piscatelli on the front page of Football Outsiders. Thank you, FO. Thank you so much. Please, twist the knife juuuuuust a bit more. Please, remind me that he's still on the team, that's really what I need at this point.

34 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I think you're getting a bit too down on your team (and trust me, as a Texans fan I know a thing or two about suckitude). Are the Bucs likely to be crappy again in 2010? Absolutely. But you appear to have some very talented young players in the likes of Talib and Ruud, and Freeman (who I wasn't thrilled about as a draft prospect) looked very good when I saw him. It's a shame about Sears, but the offensive line is so-so, rather than a shambles (and that's a big difference). Most important of all, though, your front office does not appear to be incompetent. That means you may suck now, but you won't suck for ever. You're not the Raiders or the Bills or the Millen-ial Lions. You'll be competitive again in 2011 or 2012.

35 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I'll grant you that. I'm actually reasonably pumped for the future, as it's really looking like Tampa's had a couple of solid drafts and, while 2010 will sucks, 2012 should be a lot of fun. That being said, the presence of two people still on the roster are like having giant spikes jabbed into Tampa fans' heads--Sabby Piscatelli and Michael Clayton. Every time I see a picture of either of them I start swearing. Seriously, I just need them to go away.

36 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

2010 will only be as bad as Josh Freeman. The team around him is shaping up pretty nicely, but he's a mystery. His play last year inspired me with neither confidence nor despair, but I think we should all have a pretty good idea about whether or not he's cut out for this after this year. If he's the guy (and if nothing else, he has a fantastic work ethic) then the worst is over and 9 wins is a possibility as soon as this year. If he was a mistake then it's 5-11 and back to the drawing board.

38 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I think the defense will be back to around '07 levels. Good, but not enough to carry a team that has no offense. I think the whole Jim Bates fiasco was the biggest part of the problem on defense. The guys we had just weren't made for it. Things improved when Morris took over. Now that we're back to running a more familiar scheme, the linemen playing at a more natural weight (on both sides of the ball, I was against the attempt at zone blocking), some contributions from the rookies, and with Sabby Piscitelli likely losing his job to Sean Jones while the undersized Elbert Mack gets pushed by draftee Myron Lewis I think the pieces are in place for a solid rebound.

The problem is that bad enough QB play can make the whole team look worse than it really is. I have a lot of optimism about what can happen, and soon, but I honestly have no feeling either way on Freeman so I can see the doom, too. This season will go a long way towards shaping their outlook for the next 5 years or so.

41 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Plus, don't forget that the bucs should win the division next year, based on the previous years trend...

On a more serious note, you guys had an amazing draft IMO (I know it doesn't mean much), I especially think A.Benn will surprise a lot of people when he'll look like the next Bodin/H.Nicks. I expect him to be contending for OROY as soon as this year.

47 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

True that given his style of play, it's a concern.

And please ignore the dumb part of my sentence ("as soon as this year") about Benn (like he could contend for OROY in 2/3 years...)

30 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

The point about the Saints' reserve linebackers' inexperience still stands, but Jo-Lonn Dunbar has 5 career starts, 3 of them last year, and Jonathan Casillas started the last 2 games of the regular season.

52 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

The Saints should be just fine. Porter didn't get his 16th start until halfway through the season, and he picked it up big time in the playoffs. They have 3rd and 4th round picks at safety and OLB who were on IR before last year even started, so in effect, they didn't need to run out and just grab anybody because they already knew what they had. The light turned on for Jenkins towards the end of the season as he got more playing time due to injuries.... he was great in the Superbowl. And then they got Patrick Robinson, who will eventually be a highly talented CB to round out that group.

Two years ago, the secondary was the weakest part of the defensive part of that team. Now? They're arguably the strongest. I would have liked to have seen them pick up a DT earlier, but Al Woods is a tremendous prospect who was misused at LSU, and his coaches there admitted as much. They signed Alex Brown and Clint Ingram, upgrading that DE spot and doing no worse than treading water at LB.

Do I expect them to go on a 13 game streak this season? Not really, but they'll easily be the elite team in the division, and be in the mix for the #1 overall seed at the end of the season. They didn't lose a game last season until they had a huge rash of injuries that ate up most of their defensive starters.

And something that some football pundits seem to forget: The Saints vs. 3 HOF quality QBs in the playoffs? New Orleans: 107, AZ, Minny, Indy: 59