Four Downs: NFC South

Four Downs: NFC South
Four Downs: NFC South
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Aaron Schatz

In a series of articles over the next few days, Football Outsiders will be looking division-by-division at the biggest hole left on each team's roster after free agency and the 2015 NFL draft.

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Tight End

The Atlanta Falcons did an overall excellent job of addressing their roster weaknesses this offseason, and they did it in an efficient manner. An analysis by Football Outsiders' Andrew Healy suggests that the $3 million contract for Adrian Clayborn has the most expected bang-for-the-buck of any contract signed by a free-agent lineman this offseason. The Falcons also filled their depth chart with three veteran linebackers: two of those contracts are likely under value, and the third, for Justin Durant, is roughly at value. On draft day, the Falcons then selected Vic Beasley, who we projected as the top pass-rusher in this class, and added much-needed depth at cornerback and running back.

That leaves one huge gaping hole: tight end. The Falcons have not adapted well to the retirement of Tony Gonzalez last offseason. Replacement Levine Toilolo is more of an in-line blocker than a receiving threat, and finished dead last among all tight ends in Football Outsiders' DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric last season. In search of a better receiving option at the position, Atlanta signed Jacob Tamme away from Denver. However, Tamme finished 47th among 50 qualifying tight ends in DYAR a year ago; he's now 30 years old and this will be only his second season playing without Peyton Manning as his quarterback. The Falcons also signed Tony Moeaki, who has been limited to eight games in the past two years due to injuries, and Mickey Shuler, who played for five different teams over the past five seasons.

The remaining pool of free agents doesn't really offer many possible solutions either. Jermaine Gresham, formerly of Cincinnati, ranked 48th out of 50 tight ends in DYAR a year ago, falling right between Tamme and Toilolo. Zach Miller, formerly of Seattle, might be a good fit if his ankle can pass a physical, but Miller hasn't had 400 receiving yards in a season since 2010.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Somehow, the Falcons did not end up signing every available tight end when the draft was over. Instead, they signed just Beau Gardner, whose 28 receptions for 412 yards and 5 touchdowns as a senior at Northern Arizona won't really set Falcons' fans hearts aflutter. A more intriguing name, not just because of his name, is "the other" Kevin White, a cornerback out of Texas Christian who was second-team All-Big 12 last year and was projected to go in the fourth or fifth round by NFL Draft Scout. Another interesting pickup was Eric Lefeld, an offensive tackle from Cincinnati who was on the Outland Trophy preseason watch list in 2013 and 2014. A full list of Atlanta UDFAs can be found here.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Left Tackle

One of the big debates when it comes to the NFL draft is best player available vs. drafting for need. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has never hid his preference for taking the best player on his draft board, no matter what the Panthers needed at the time. Unfortunately, if the best player available never includes a player at a position where you have a huge hole, you still come out of the draft with a big hole to fill. That problem is even worse when you trade away your third-round pick to move up in the second round to pick a player who doesn't fill the big hole that you had going into the draft.

So while Shaq Thompson and Devin Funchess might be very talented football players, the Carolina Panthers have to ask themselves how on earth they will make it through the entire 2015 season without getting Cam Newton killed.

Neither offensive tackle position is particularly strong for the Panthers, but at least they have reasonable right tackles. The problem is that they only have right tackles. Penciled in to start on that side is Mike Remmers. He's a journeyman who has been on six different teams in three years, but our game charters only charged him with two blown blocks in five starts after he took over the position for Carolina last season. Behind him on the depth chart are Nate Chandler, last year's original starter, and the one lineman the Panthers snagged in the draft, fourth-rounder Daryl Williams out of Oklahoma.

But on the left side, the Panthers are currently counting on former Baltimore and Tennessee right tackle Michael Oher. Last year, our game charters had Oher ranked 30th among 39 right tackles in snaps per blown block (minimum 400 snaps). This is at least better than Oher ranked in 2013, when he was 36th among 37 right tackles. Things are only going to get harder for Oher on the left side. Carolina's other alternative is Jonathan Martin, who ranked 26th in snaps per blown block for San Francisco last year… and he was also playing on the easier right side.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The decision to draft Funchess was criticized by some because the Panthers needed a vertical threat more than another physical red-zone target. They hope to have maybe found a speedy diamond in the rough with South Carolina receiver Damiere Byrd, who is tiny (5-foot-9, 173 pounds) but ran his pro day 40 in 4.28 seconds. Carolina's ten UDFAs also included four defensive linemen, highlighted by defensive end Steve Miller, a four-year starter at Ohio State. And Mike Tanier wrote a piece at Bleacher Report about running back Brandon Wegher, who found himself at NAIA Morningside College after personal issues led him to transfer out of both Iowa and Wisconsin. Carolina's UDFAs are all covered here.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Receiver Depth

Kenny Stills caught 63 passes for 931 yards last year, leading the Saints in receiving yards. Jimmy Graham was right behind him with 889 yards and caught 10 touchdowns, twice as many as anyone else in New Orleans. The Saints traded Stills to Miami and Graham to Seattle and then replaced them with nobody… or close to it. The Saints did not draft a single player at wide receiver or tight end and signed only one free agent: Josh Morgan, a 30-year-old veteran who caught just 10 passes for 70 yards in Chicago last year.

Brandin Cooks and Marques Colston are a strong pair of starting wide receivers, but what kind of personnel will the Saints be able to put on the field when they want to go three-wide, which they did on 51 percent of plays last year? Right now the replacement for Stills is Nick Toon, who has struggled with injuries for three years in the NFL and has only 21 career receptions. The Saints' best deep threat is Joseph Morgan, a player Sean Payton was so angry at a few months ago that he cut Morgan as a scapegoat after the Week 14 loss to Carolina. (Morgan was re-signed in April.) Also hoping for playing time is Jalen Saunders, a fourth-round pick of the Jets a year ago who has also been through practice squads in Arizona and Seattle in his brief time in the NFL.

Tight end presents similar issues. The Saints are expecting big things from third-year tight end Josh Hill, who was strong last year in limited playing time (176 yards and five touchdowns on only 14 catches). They also have veteran Benjamin Watson. But if the Saints want to use two tight ends, which they did on 35 percent of plays last year, what happens if Hill or Watson gets hurt? Behind them on the depth chart are former Cincinnati H-back Orson Charles, who spent last year on the Saints' practice squad, and two UDFA rookies, Jack Tabb (North Carolina) and Harold Spears (New Hampshire).

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Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Spears was one of two Saints signings from the University of New Hampshire; the other, wide receiver R.J. Harris, had 100 receptions for 1,551 yards and 15 touchdowns and was a first-team FCS All-American as a senior. Doniel Gambrell, an offensive tackle from Notre Dame College (in South Euclid, Ohio, and not related to the university) was also covered in the same Tanier article that covered new Panthers running back Wegher. Defensive lineman Kaleb Eulls was a four-year starter for Mississippi State with 118 tackles a year ago. All Saints UDFAs are covered here.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Defensive End

Choosing Tampa Bay's biggest weakness depends on which you find to be a bigger problem: depending on highly-drafted rookies with no NFL experience, or depending on undrafted journeymen coming off surprise breakout seasons.

History certainly teaches us that high draft picks are usually the better bet in the long-term. The Bucs now have Jameis Winston at quarterback and will likely start two second-round picks on the offensive line, Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet.

But you won't find similar young talent at defensive end after Michael Johnson was cut and Adrian Clayborn left in free agency. Currently penciled in at one starting end position is Jacquies Smith. Smith had no sacks while spending his first two years in the league with three different teams. The Bucs picked him up after Buffalo cut him early last season, and Smith ended up with 6.5 sacks and 14.0 hurries (according to Football Outsiders game charting). Both figures were second on the team to Gerald McCoy. On the other side will be George Johnson, acquired from Detroit by trade. Johnson actually began his NFL career with Tampa Bay in 2010 and had no sacks in four years with Tampa and Minnesota before breaking out with 6 (and 11.5 hurries) for Detroit in 2014.

What can we expect from players with sudden breakouts like this? It's hard to say because they are so rare. I went looking for edge rushers since 2000 who were undrafted, had one sack or less in their first two seasons, and then broke out with a season of at least six sacks. There are only five, and three of them had their breakout seasons a year ago: Smith, Johnson, and Ryan Davis of Jacksonville. The fourth is Adewale Ogunleye, but unlike Smith and Johnson, Ogunleye did not bounce from team to team; the Dolphins realized what they had when they signed him and they nurtured him on their roster until he blossomed. The fifth was Mark Word, who bounced from Kansas City to the CFL to Cleveland to NFL Europe and then back to Cleveland where he had eight sacks in 2002. However, Word had only four sacks in 2003 and then headed back to Canada.

If Smith and Johnson are more like Word than they are like Ogunleye, struggling to match their breakout 2014 seasons, the Bucs don't have many notable players to replace them in the starting lineup. The second string is taken up by William Gholston, who had only two sacks last year despite nine starts, and former Chargers first-round bust Larry English, who in six years has never had more than three sacks in a season.

If this seems like a familiar problem for Tampa Bay, it is. The Buccaneers have only 147 sacks in the past five seasons, tied with Atlanta for the fewest in the league.

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Notable Undrafted Free Agents: It certainly isn't surprising to see that Tampa Bay brought on additional pass rushers in this year's UDFA class. Towson defensive end Ryan Delaire had 22.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Defensive tackle Caushaud Lyons from Division II Tusculum College had nine last year, and linebacker Michael Reynolds of Kansas had seven. Also, since this is Football Outsiders, you can't expect us to go without a mention of long snapper Courtland Clavette, a member of the Reggie Cleveland All-Stars who comes to Tampa Bay from the birthplace of Football Outsiders and unofficial Cradle of Long-Snappers (TM), Brown University.

Comments

10 comments, Last at 12 Jun 2015, 9:39pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Being that Tampa is in all likelihood going to start rookies at QB, LT, and RG, and second-year players at TE and one WR, let's just assume it's all a wild guess at this point anyways.

The pass rush has sucked for years, so no big changes there.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

I don't think Falcons fans are particularly worried about the TE position. The defensive front seven was so awful last year that I will consider it our biggest weakness until I see otherwise.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Can't help but feel that the Saints are moving to a Seahawks model of football: run the ball, don't rely on the QB all the time, play strong defense. That's the impression I get looking at their offseason trades. And this makes sense to me given that Brees will likely start to decline soon and the Saints may transition to that rookie QB they just drafted.

If the above is true, then their lack of receiving weapons is probably not a big issue. They're not likely to go three, four, or five wide all that often. They would be more likely to use two or three tight ends to block for Mark Ingram. And I would've thought that between Hill, Watson, and Charles they have sufficient TE resources to execute that game plan.

On a related note, I feel that the Seahawks are moving in the opposite direction offensively. Trading for Graham and signing Lynch to what could effectively be a one year extension says to me that from next year the offense will be centred around Russell Wilson. Will be interesting to see how that works out.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

With C.J. Spiller on the roster, I'd expect more running backs on the field for the Saints this year and fewer receivers, even if they use the run mainly to set up play-action passing. One reason the Saints used a lot of receivers last year was none of their running backs were fast enough to get open in the passing game. Spiller's dual running/receiving threat will make the offense less predictable, so I think he'll be on the field a lot.

Edit: I intended this as a reply to post #3.

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC South

Yeah, and to add to that, Brandon Coleman and/or Seantavius Jones seem like they may join the WR rotation, and they weren't mentioned. I know to take "This former UDFA is getting camp raves!" talk with at least several grains of salt, but given that they don't actually have anyone else on the roster, it seems like it will happen (though I wouldn't be surprised if they saw very limited use).