by Mike Tanier
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Returner
With the departure of Eric Weems to the Bears, the Falcons need to find a punt and kickoff return man.
Head coach Mike Smith said early in the week that slot receiver Harry Douglas and reserve cornerback Dominique Franks were "leading candidates" for the return jobs. Douglas returned punts as a rookie in 2008, averaging 11.9 yards per return and scoring one touchdown. He also returned four kickoffs, uneventfully, that year. Franks returned one punt for zero yards last year.
Smith also noted that the players who win the wide-open fourth and fifth wide receiver spots on the roster would be expected to contribute on special teams. (It’s an obvious statement, but he stated it.) The Falcons did not address the return game or receiver depth in the draft, but they did sign some rookie free agents who fit the return man profile.
James Rodgers returned kicks and punts for Oregon State until his senior season. The 5-foot-7 jitterbug played the 2011 season with his left knee in a brace after a 2010 ACL tear, but he has the quickness to be a factor in the return game. Marcus Jackson of Lamar returned both a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in his college career, though he did so against opponents like Oklahoma Panhandle State. Other free agent rookie receivers, like Michael Calvin of Cal or Kenny Stafford of Toledo, are big guys who are more likely to stick as gunners.
The Falcons are contenders, and contenders cannot afford to have kickoffs fumbled away or punts fielded at the three-yard line by raw rookies or uncomfortable veterans. There are not many professional return men on the free agent market right now (no, Kevin Faulk will not sign with any team but the Patriots), but the Falcons may want to kick tires on a player like Greg Camarillo, who has enough experience to call a fair catch and field the ball cleanly.
Important Undrafted Free Agents
Michael Calvin reportedly ran a 4.32 second 40-yard dash at Cal’s Pro Day. He is 6-foot-3 and weighs 215 pounds, which makes you wonder how he managed to only catch 42 passes and score one touchdown in his college career. Calvin blocked a kick at Cal and may be a Devin Thomas clone: an amazing specimen who can't contribute on offense, but can help on special teams.
East Carolina quarterback Dominique Davis threw for over 7,000 yards and 62 touchdowns in his final two seasons and has the size, speed, and arm to succeed. The Falcons have space for a developmental quarterback on the depth chart.
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Receiver
The Panthers let No. 2 receiver Legedu Naanee depart via free agency and do not appear interested in re-signing second tight end Jeremy Shockey. That leaves them with 81 receptions and over 900 yards of passing offense to replace, but they did little to address the wide receiver or tight end positions in the draft.
Brandon LaFell caught 36 passes last season and pushed Naanee into a supporting role. David Gettis is on the mend from an ACL tear and is the favorite to take over in the slot. Rookie Joe Adams is shifty and can contribute in the slot and on end-arounds. There is no real "difference maker" in the bunch, but the second receiver in the Panthers run-heavy offense is typically the fourth or fifth option.
Replacing Shockey may be trickier. Gary Barnidge showed promise in 2009 but has played in just three games since and is now recovering from a broken ankle. Veteran Ben Hartsock is not a viable second tight end on a team that uses two tight ends on such a high percentage of snaps. The Panthers may tweak their offense, replacing some two-tight end sets with two-back formations that make use of free agent acquisition Mike Tolbert, an all-purpose fullback.
The absence of Naanee and Shockey will be felt in the red zone, where they were targeted a total of 23 times. Naanee was not very successful in the red zone (seven catches in 15 attempts, one touchdown), but Shockey caught four touchdowns. Someone will need to step up and provide the counterpunch to Cam Newton options and Steve Smith fades.
Important Undrafted Free Agents
Jared Green, son of Redskins legend Darrell Green, took the scenic route to the NFL. He was relegated to the bench at Virginia, so he decided to enroll at Southern for one year after earning a degree in anthropology. He caught just 17 passes at Southern, but he did receive this 100 percent unbiased endorsement from his dad: "I am the only human living that played 20 years at cornerback. When I judge him, I judge him fairly, and critically. He should have an excellent career. He is not perfect, but he is equal to most of the receivers I played against in the 20 years."
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Tauren Poole rushed for 1,034 yards in 2010 before slipping into a committee role at Tennessee last season. Poole is a tough little back with good hands and a good rep as a blocker. He reportedly has the mental makeup to be a backup and special teamer, and can do just enough to help an offense if called upon.
New Orleans Saints
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Cornerback
The departure of Tracy Porter left the Saints dangerously thin at cornerback, and the team’s dearth of draft picks made it hard for them to address the problem.
Starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson are set, but beyond them are question marks. Johnny Patrick, last year’s third-round pick, played sparingly in 2011. Kamaal McIlwain, who bounced around the Falcons and Niners training camps and practice squads in 2011, is among the most experienced backup cornerbacks on the roster.
Fifth-round pick Corey White is also in the mix at cornerback, though many draft experts considered him a better prospect at safety. White made news early last week for saying that he was looking forward to intercepting passes from Drew Brees during practices, prompting Brees to needle him on Twitter: "Love your confidence, but I will throw 10 over your head for every 1 time you get me. Make sure you’re working." Translation: fifth-round picks should be seen and not heard.
The Saints finished 27th in the league in DVOA against third and fourth receivers last year, and that was with Robinson as the third cornerback and Porter in the lineup
They are now relying on a mouthy mid-round pick and a little-used sophomore in the critical slot corner role. And they have so many other things to worry about that they cannot shop for veterans at the position.
Undrafted Rookie Free Agents
Oklahoma State safety Johnny Thomas was projected to be a mid-round draft pick after the 2010 season but was ruled academically ineligible for the 2011 season. Thomas then failed to blow anyone away during offseason workouts. He has a reputation as a big (but legal) hitter in the middle of the field, and he could make the roster for a Saints team as thin at safety as it is at cornerback.
Travaris Cadet of Appalachian State is a fascinating small-school prospect. A converted quarterback who played running back for a team that does not run the ball much, Cadet profiles best as a return specialist. Lauren Scott is another fine I-AA return man: he returned three kickoffs for touchdowns at Georgia Southern. The Saints have Darren Sproles, of course; maybe they should switch rookie free agent classes with the Falcons.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Center
Last season, while playing mostly at left guard, Zuttah committed seven holding penalties and committed four blown blocks that led directly to sacks, according to Football Outsiders' game charting project. His numbers in 2009 and 2010 were better, but Zuttah has never been able to settle into a permanent position on the line.
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Zuttah has started nine NFL games at center and did not play the position at all in college. As an emergency swing lineman who can play all five positions, he is valuable. Bucs coach Greg Schiano likely has faith in him based on their time together at Rutgers, but Zuttah is an unlikely choice to be the long-term solution at a critical position.
Behind Zuttah on the depth chart are Ted Larsen, a college center who has started 14 games for the Bucs at guard (including three last year when Zuttah was hurt or filling in for Faine), and undrafted rookie Moe Petrus, a 26-year-old try-hard guy from Connecticut. The team appears unlikely to pursue a veteran.
Perhaps Zuttah has finally found a home in the middle of the line. Or perhaps Schiano is making the classic "college coach" mistake of being too optimistic about a former player.
Important Undrafted Free Agents
Cornerback Leonard Johnson of Iowa State was one of the best players in the draft pool to make it to free agency. Johnson is short, a half-step slow, and does not have top ball skills, but he loves contact and finds a way to cover bigger receivers. He could have a long career as a slot corner who excels in run support and when buzzing around in underneath zones.
Texas running back Cody Johnson scored 36 touchdowns as a short-yardage specialist and battering ram. He is not an ideal fullback (so-so blocker, no receiving chops) and is a big, slow, tractor of a runner, but it will be interesting to watch him compete for a specialist role.
LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson had a 24-8 record as a collegiate starter. Here at Football Outsiders, citing a quarterback’s won-loss record is like citing a blind date’s personality, but there are worse things to do than give a player with Jefferson’s experience a tryout.
(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)