by Mike Tanier
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.
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.)