Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC South

Four Downs: NFC South
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Mike Tanier

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest offseason hole: Left Tackle

Four years ago, Sam Baker looked like one of the brightest young tackle prospects in the NFL. Last season, chronic back injuries took their toll, and Baker was so ineffective that he was benched early in the season, had back surgery in October, then briefly moved inside to guard before ending the season as a player without a position.

According to the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project, Baker blew 13 blocks that led to sacks or pass pressure in just five weeks as the starting left tackle. Journeyman Will Svitek replaced Baker and fared better, but Svitek is a multi-position sub, not a long-term solution at the most important position on the line.

Assuming Baker can return at something close to full strength (a big assumption), his future may be at guard. Garrett Reynolds was awful at right guard early in 2011, with Brandon Mebane of the Seahawks and Ndamukong Suh of the Lions repeatedly tossing him aside. Replacement Joe Hawley was just a little bit better, though top defensive tackles like Kevin Williams manhandled him. A healthy Baker could put out the fire on the inside.

As for left tackle, the Marcus McNeill rumors have already begun circulating; the Chargers are expected to cut McNeill, who finished last season on injured reserve with a neck injury and is due to earn $10 million if he stays in San Diego.

Then again, if the Falcons want a left tackle with a troubling injury history, maybe they should stick with the one they have.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest offseason hole: The Nickel Package

The Panthers are likely to pull a page out of the Giants personnel playbook this offseason: they will try to get better by standing still.

The team that finished dead last in the NFL in our defensive DVOA ratings and allowed 46 offensive touchdowns expects to get an immediate boost when Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason returns from an Achilles injury. Most of the team’s core defensive players are under contract, and the team is expected to release injured linebacker Thomas Davis, clearing the necessary cap room to sign linebackers Dan Connor and Jordan Senn, who grew into their roles when Beason and Davis were hurt.

Even if they stick with the slow-and-steady approach, the Panthers need more bodies in their nickel package: a cornerback, a coverage linebacker, a nickel safety, or all three. The Panthers finished last in the league at covering tight ends, with Senn or fellow linebacker James Anderson often drawing the short straw and chasing Jimmy Graham or Tony Gonzalez up the seam. Connor almost always leaves the field on passing downs, and if they lose Davis, the Panthers still need a Davis-type to platoon with Connor, whether it’s a linebacker who covers like a safety or a safety who tackles like a linebacker.

If the Panthers upgrade the cornerback position, safeties Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin can do more than play deep and clean up after their teammates: they can draw more assignments against Graham-types. Chris Gamble is an adequate starter on one side, but Captain Munnerlyn fits best as a scrappy slot corner, not a starter.

The Panthers defense allowed opponents to convert 42.8 percent of third downs. The sooner they add a cornerback and an over-the-middle nickel defender, the sooner they can get off the field and let Cam Newton go to work.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest offseason hole: Pass Rusher

A safety should never lead a team in sacks, but Roman Harper did just that in 2011, recording seven of them in Gregg Williams’ blitz-happy Saints defense. According to the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project, the Saints rushed six or more defenders on 28 percent of all passing plays. That was an awful lot of blitzing, even by Williams’ standards, and the additional rushers hid the fact that only Will Smith was consistently able to win one-on-one battles with offensive linemen.

Williams is gone, and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo earned his reputation by building outstanding pass-rushing front fours that can apply pressure with minimal blitzing. There are few building blocks for a vintage Spagnuolo front four in New Orleans. Smith still gets the job done, and while Cameron Jordan had just one sack as a rookie, he is the kind of versatile defender that Spagnuolo likes to slide all over the defensive front. Junior Galette recorded four sacks, but most were the result of blown blocking assignments; he picked up two of them late in the feeding frenzy against the Bears, for example.

Sedrick Ellis is an adequate run stuffer at one tackle position, and the other was manned by old-timers like Shaun Rodgers and Aubrayo Franklin last season. Turk McBride, who showed some flashes early in the season, battled injuries and ended the year as a healthy scratch. Rodgers, Franklin, and McBride are all free agents, so any or all of them could quietly disappear.

Luckily for Spagnuolo and the Saints, this year’s draft class is crawling with outstanding defensive linemen of every shape and size. The Saints also have Greg Romeus hiding on their injured reserve; Romeus was a top pass rusher at Pitt before suffering knee and back injuries. If he is healthy, he could be a nasty situational edge rusher.

No one mixes and matches defensive linemen like Spagnuolo. The Saints just need to make sure that he has enough pieces to work with.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest offseason hole: Leadership

It is senseless to sift through the stat sheets and game tape in search of the Buccaneers’ most glaring on-field need. This is a team that stopped trying in mid-November and stopped pretending to try in mid-December. The Buccaneers quit on their coaching staff and each other, and everything from the 2,497 rushing yards they allowed to their league-worst -16 takeaway differential is a reflection of their lack of direction, identity, and interest.

They are also a team with a lot of young talent. The nucleus of the Buccaneers team that went 10-6 in 2010 is still intact, joined by some promising newcomers like defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Greg Schiano arrives from Rutgers with a reputation as a program builder, and the Buccaneers need the kind of top-down management that can turn a loose collection of promising players back into a team.

That’s what makes the early days of the Schiano regime so troubling. Schiano hired Butch Davis to an undefined role that was later clarified with the Dwight-Schrute-esque title of “Special Assistant.” The compromise title allowed Davis to keep collecting money from University of North Carolina. While Davis double-dips, the Buccaneers keep searching for a defensive coordinator willing to accept Davis’ special assistance.

New offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, meanwhile, was not the team’s first choice and appears to be Kevin Gilbride-lite. It’s easy to write things like "Sullivan can turn Josh Freeman around the way he turned Eli Manning around," but Manning already had a Super Bowl ring when Sullivan was a receivers coach. Sullivan is the coordinator you settle for, not the one you want, but as of mid-February he had a huge advantage over the team’s defensive coordinator: he existed.

Schiano is a defensive coach, and he proved at Rutgers that he can adjust his scheme to his personnel. Schiano and Davis prefer a blitz-heavy, man-coverage scheme like the one they used at Miami, but Schaino knows that he must be more conservative while the Buccaneers upgrade their roster. A figurehead coordinator can probably coexist with Schiano and Davis, assuming he owns lots of Hurricanes pullovers, and this staff can still pull itself together and provide some direction once real offseason activities begin.

It is just troubling to see an "organization" guy begin his NFL career with so much disorganization.

(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)


11 comments, Last at 15 Feb 2013, 6:04am

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I'll be surprised if the Falcons don't cut Sam Baker.

Hawley was drafted as a center and he might slide over to center from right guard in 2012, after McClure is allowed to walk. The Falcons have some candidates to move into the RG slot. The left tackle spot is a nuclear wasteland: we've got Svitek, Baker, and a few crossed fingers.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

The Panthers will bring back Davis with a new contract. We'll see if he holds up. My guess is that they'll get line backer in the draft and might even convert a safety like they did Davis. The whole defense is hard to evaluate because of the number of hurt players and developing players. My guess is that they'll grab a line backer, a corner, and a DT somewhere in the draft. Their first pick is a complete mystery.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

The NFC South may have the most interesting off-season of any NFL division. Brees is one of the best QBs in the game and the other three teams all have intriguing young QBs.

Spags is a great signing for NO. He didn't do great with the Rams, but he did an ok job with their D. They don't need much improvement on D to be considered the NFC favorite.

I wonder if Atlanta will go after Nicks. I've seen they have something like $30M in cap room. Given a decent OL and a bit of improvement by Ryan, they could leapfrog the Saints again.

I was surprised the Bucs didn't go after Mike Sherman harder. He was a lousy GM but a great coach for the Packers. I think he could have coached up Freeman to the next level. I could be wrong, but I don't think Schiano was a good idea. Most of their talent is on the O side and a great offense can mask a bad defense. Ask the Pack, Saints, and Pats.

I'll admit I was wrong about Cam Newton. I thought he'd be a bigger bust than Ryan Leaf, though not approach JaMarcus status. Surround him with some talent besides a past-his-prime Steve Smith and you might see the best QB ever. Carolina may need a fair amount of help on both sides of the ball, but I think they're set at QB. If Minnesota has any doubts about grabbing RG3 if available, Cam is Exhibit #1.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC South



I'm starting to be very scared of New Orleans. I actually think that if they can maybe pick up one or two solid players on the back end of the defense to improve coverage, they're going to be pretty hard to handle. That's assuming Cameron Jordan makes the normal jump you'd expect from a year two pass rusher, but I think Spags will have enough to work with.

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Hasn't all this been true of NO since Brees arrived? Although to be fair they have won a Superbowl in that time.

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

but Captain Munnerlyn fits best as a scrappy slot corner, not a starter.
Isn't slot DB basically a starting position at this point?

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Can someone explain to me how Greg Schiano (a defensive-minded HC), Butch Davis (the "Defensive Special Assistant"), and Bill Sheridan (the theoretical Defensive Coordinator) wind up working together? I mean, I know the defense was terrible last year, but I'm having a hard time imagining this many defensive cooks will not take a giant dump in the broth.

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

The Bucs hired Bill Sheridan as DC? Perhaps I shouldn't judge too harshly based on his one season as Giants DC but WOW was that a bad season. He alienated one of his top players (Umenyiora) the first week of training camp and then proceeded to oversee a defense that, IIRC, gave up the most points in NYG history.

And yes, injuries and CC Brown were part of the problem but that defense grossly underachieved regardless. I can't believe he has a job two years later.

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

The Giants' record for points allowed in a season was actually in 1966 when they gave up 501 points in 14 games. That might have been the worst defense in NFL history (by pfr's simple rating system, it's second to the 1954 Redskins).

In 2009, they allowed 421, which is the second highest in franchise history.

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Good thing the Saints traded this year's number one out to get Ingram when this years draft is overflowing with the exact type player they desperately need. Especially since, even when healthy, its hard to see Ingram even being in the huddle on more than 20% of the offensive plays. The fact that he just isn't very good is another plus.

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

thanks for this very nice