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 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.

Carolina Panthers

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

With Jeff Faine gone, the current Buccaneers center is Jeremy Zuttah, who signed a new four-year contract with the team in March. Unfortunately, Zuttah is: a) a guard, and b) pretty terrible.

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.)


25 comments, Last at 03 Jun 2012, 4:52pm

1 Returner? Seriously?

I'm hoping by way of omission this is a vote of confidence for the offensive and defensive lines.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

As a Saints fan, the word I've heard on the Bucs O-line is giving Carl Nicks one guard spot, and putting Larson or Zuttah at C, depending on who can handle it better.

Re: Tracy Porter
Part of it was cap-related, and another part was that Porter was often injured, and did not do a good job of tackling. There were too many times that he had an opportunity to make a tackle 2 or 3 yds short of the sticks, and didn't get it done. They signed a vet CB last year (can't remember who), who was then injured in TC (hamstring?), and was released. IMO, if they added any vet CB, it would be a guy who gets cut, or for the veteran minimum, or both.
After last yr's playoff loss, I look for Spags to play much more zone/basic coverages, and have a bend-but-don't-break philosophy. With the Saints offense, that seems like a pretty good idea. I am still convinced that Darren Sharper covered up a TON of mistakes in the Saints SB year, and/or got guys in the right position to make plays with his veteran smarts. IMO, simpler D schemes make reliance on younger players somewhat less risky.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

"I look for Spags to play much more zone/basic coverages, and have a bend-but-don't-break philosophy"

Didn't see much of the Rams last year then?

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Reading my mind. He hasn't left his Jim Johnson roots behind. Spags never met a double-A blitz he didn't like. They may not put any bounties on people this year, but you have to figure that New Orleans is still going to get after some QBs.

14 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I meant that there wouldn't be as many BIG blitzes. I mean, everyone but the Colts blitzes sometimes, right? I was thinking that Spags' blitzes will be more rush 5, maybe 6 once in a while, where Gregg Williams seemed to think that it was necessary to blitz every 3rd down and blitz 7+ a couple of times per game.
With those A gap blitzes, I prefer those verses overload blitzes. IMO, if you diagnose an overload blitz coming, you can adjust protection and roll out away from it, possibly breaking contain and picking up some free yds. If you diagnose an A gap blitz, you leave the back in--but you still have to stay in the pocket, and you might not be able to step up.

18 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

However, since escaping the restraining influence of Tom Coughlin Spagnuolo has been dialing up the big blitzes like crazy. Greg Roman, the 49ers' offensive coordinator, did a lecture for the fans where he showed some of the rams blitzes to illustrate how complex things are in the NFL nowadays and some of plays were insanely agressive (though that might have been influenced by the 49ers demonstrating that they struggled with red dog blitzes). Spags is a good DC but he's very, very aggressive or was in St Louis with nobody looking over his shoulder.

19 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Well, maybe I'm wrong, then.
I still stand by my point that the Saints should try to limit big plays, making the opposing offense execute 10+ play drives. Without Payton there for the year, we won't know exactly what he was ordered to do before April, but I got tired of watching the defense give up a conversion on 3rd & 10+ because GW sent 6 blitzers, the QB found the open guy, and the 1st down was picked up.

Question to NFCW followers: was Spags aggressive at all times, or was the Rams' D just so bad that Spags had to do SOMETHING to try to get a stop? I mean, it's not like the Rams are swimming in talent.

20 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

He's most definitely aggressive. I never thought of him as hyper-aggressive, but I cut my teeth on Buddy Ryan and the 46, so I don't think there's a defense in the league that's hyper aggressive these days. Maybe I'm n ot the best one to ask there. The Rams D actually wouldn't have been too bad had 7 of their top 8 CBs not gotten injured. If Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher hadn't gotten injured, there's a very good chance Spagnulo is still the head coach there today.

21 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

But FO's research showed that Jim Johnson and Bill Belichek were the only coaches to actually field "bend but don't break" defenses with any regularity. Johnson preached not giving up the TD on the big play (Dawkins' always came flying in after a 45 yard run to make a tackle at the 3) and then shutting teams down inside the twenty. They got after QB's, but Johnson's teams are one of the only ones in FO's research shown to have been consistently of the "bend but don't break" variety.

24 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I'd have to check the Prospectus. Could be that Herm was also one - I just remember Johnson and Belichick because I watch the Eagles and noticed it about JOhnson's and also the line Pats fans have been taking for years is "these defenses are better than they appear by conventional or advanced stats - the whole plan is to bend bu not break." There might have been another coach or two in there that I'm forgetting.

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I always thought teams should do the opposite. If you have an excellent offense, playing risky on defense. Any turnovers you generate are likely to be even more valuable, and you want the game to have as many possessions as possible so your strength of offense has more of a chance to show itself.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Yeah, I'm perplexed to see returner as the Falcons' biggest need. We made a few moves and picks to add players to the OL and DL... but who knows whether they are worth a Moon Pie.

As for returner, I expect Domonique Franks will have first dibs. He is the #4 CB now, after the Samuel trade, and returned punts at Oklahoma and looked good on a few punt returns in preseason action.

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Saints: If Brees plays football this year, he'll (a) Be a fool; and (b) Make this team a vague playoff contender. Still, this is a team that had (and took!) it's shot, and is now a declining entity. I would look for Jimmy Graham and Sproles to have big years for a team that plays a lot of 30-28 and 38-35 games. And loses more of them than they have lately.

Falcons: What to say? The Falcons have a pretty good defense and a franchise quarterback, so they should make the playoffs. But Matt Ryan is no Drew Brees, Mike Turner is in the Jamal-Lewis-in-Cleveland phase of his career, and the offensive line is Carl Nicks and four guys who really -want- to be NFL linemen. That isn't going to impress the Packers or Giants. This is an eleven win team in a weak-ish division.

Panthers: Cam Newton works 60% of the time, every time. The Panthers were a cute team last year, exciting, scrappy, and full of young and young again players trying to outperform the critics. They did; going from the goliath of suck that was the 2010 Panthers to 6-10 is an achievement, especially if you have a rookie quarterback who has some success. Getting past 8-8 is going to be tougher, and will require Cam Newton to play more like Michael Vick in 2010 than Michael Vick in 2005.

Buccaneers: Josh Freeman's 2011 wasn't so bad, and his 2010 wasn't so good, as the average NFL network talking head would have you believe. His completion percentage actually increased, so the difference basically amounts to Mike Williams arriving out of shape and running lazier routes in his sophomore season, plus some interceptions. I am optimistic that Vincent Jackson can help with this problem. On defense, some health on the defensive line would help a lot; opponents got a Shaun-Alexander-behind-Walter-Jones 5.0 ypc average in 2011; Aqib Talib's departure for the penal system will not matter if they allow 2500 rushing yards again.

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Oh for Pete's sake. I was wondering why that sounded wrong when I wrote it. Thank you, and corrected.

Or not. Apparently you can only edit in the first five seconds after you post it. That said, the Falcons certainly should have signed Nicks.

22 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I also have to dispute your fanciful analysis of Josh Freeman - but conventional stats, there's no comparison between his 2010 and 2011: 25TD/5 INT versus 16 TD/22 INT, respectively. That's not "some" interceptions - that's difference of 17 freaking INT's, a number larger enough by itself to constitute a really crummy amount of INT's for a decent QB. He also threw 9 fewer TD's, which while isn't as big of a difference takes him from Flacco, Shaub, Matt Ryan levels down to what guys like Shaun Hill in Detroit, Alex Smith and Chad Henne throw.

But advanced stats, it's even more brutal:
In 2010, he was 9th in DYAR & 10th in DVOA.
In 2011, he was 28th in DYAR & 29th in DVOA.

He was not only really good in 2010, was fucking awful in 2011. It's virtually impossible to say which is the fluke year or guess what he'll do in 2012 precisely because his numbers are so wildly difference. He went from being in the same league with Drew Brees and Michael Vick to Seneca Wallace and Colt McCoy.

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Didn't the Bucs cut Jordan Jefferson like three days after they signed him? And didn't that happen two or three weeks ago?

15 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

The Falcons' biggest need is a better quarterback. Ryan is fine, but he has the lowest ceiling in the division. They're good at everything, but great at nothing, and they're maybe the blandest team in the league

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

While you may think Ryan's ceiling is limited, and honestly you might be right in comparison with the other 3 in the NFC South, it's irrelevant to the matter of winning a Super Bowl in the next couple of years. He has the second-highest floor, which is probably a bit more relevant, but not overwhelmingly so.

I think most would agree that Ryan is a top 12 QB -- I think he's about 8 or 9 and improving every year. That's plenty good enough to win with, and well down the list of "biggest need". I imagine many teams would trade multiple high draft picks to get Ryan on their roster.

17 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Ryan gets a lot of crap, but he's a top 8 QB and one of the best five players on the Falcons. He can't provide his own pass protection, unfortunately. The Falcons have done very well in adjusted sack rate with Ryan, but if you watch the games you would know that has much more to do with Ryan than the OL. He also didn't have the benefit of throwing screen passes in Mularkey's asinine system.

Going by FO statistical rankings...

DYAR: #7
DVOA: #4

DYAR: #13
DVOA: #15

DYAR: #6
DVOA: #7

DYAR: #7
DVOA: #7

Replacing the QB is waaaaay down the Falcons' list of priorities.