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17 May 2017

Four Downs: NFC South

by Andrew Potter

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Right Guard

The Falcons don't have many remaining weaknesses truly worthy of the title at this stage of the offseason. Not only are their starting lineups strong on both sides of the ball, but they have added depth in most positions to last season's relatively shallow defense while retaining almost all of their league-best, multifaceted offense. The one starting player lost from that offense was also its worst, as right guard Chris Chester has now retired. Former Colts guard Hugh Thornton was signed as a potential replacement, but the 25-year-old surprisingly retired earlier this week.

That probably leaves 2016 sixth-rounder Wes Schweitzer atop the depth chart for the moment, though fourth-round rookie Sean Harlow of Oregon State should compete for (and eventually win) the spot. Moving Ben Garland from center to guard is another option if the team prefers a more experienced player. Either way, what started as Atlanta's biggest offseason hole is no closer to being definitively filled as camp approaches.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Norwegian quarterback Alek Torgersen, a three-year starter at Pennsylvania, probably has as good a chance as any undrafted quarterback of making his team's final roster given Matt Schaub's drastic decline. Former Citadel Bulldogs and All-American fullback Tyler Renew is the kind of dynamic all-purpose player Steve Sarkisian loves, and has a chance to supplant Derrick Coleman as the replacement for free-agent departure Patrick DiMarco. Offensive tackle Andreas Knappe (Connecticut) is notable mostly for being the first Danish player in the NFL since Morten Andersen, though the 6-foot-8 Knappe is expected to compete for at least a practice squad spot. Fellow offensive lineman Travis Averill of Boise State is considered to have a good chance of making the 53-man roster at guard. The rest of the free-agent pool consists mostly of defense, where most of the players will have the opportunity to compete for depth and practice squad spots. Notable names here include cornerback Tayler Reynolds (James Madison), linebacker Christian Tago (San Jose State), and defensive ends Chris Odom (Arkansas State) and J.T. Jones (Miami of Ohio).

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Secondary

Carolina's defense has a standard composition under Ron Rivera: elite front seven, spare part secondary. Rivera's Panthers have never started either the same safety tandem or the same cornerbacks in consecutive years, and have only once selected a player for the secondary in the first two rounds of the draft (James Bradberry, 62nd overall in 2016). Instead, they have typically relied on low-price veteran free agents like Quintin Mikell, Mike Mitchell, and Charles Tillman alongside low-round draft picks such as Captain Munnerlyn, Tre Boston, and Bene Benwikere. Even Josh Norman, a star of their 2015 Super Bowl run, was a 2012 fifth-round pick turned good -- and was allowed to leave without much of a fight as soon as he became too expensive for their philosophy.

Panthers fans, then, will be accustomed to seeing the secondary considered a weakness. For most of those seasons, their approach has served them well -- their pass defense has been in the top third of the league by DVOA every year since 2012, and their overall defense has only dropped out of the top third of the league once (2014, 15th). Even last year, after a disastrous start to October saw the team allow more than 1,100 passing yards in just three games and release its only veteran cornerback, the Panthers still recovered to finish a respectable 10th (fifth in weighted DVOA). The returning Munnerlyn should be an upgrade over 2016 third-rounder Daryl Worley, while Mike Adams is exactly the type of solid veteran safety the Panthers just love. Still, compared to the embarrassment of riches in the front seven -- and the investment made in the team's other weaknesses on offense -- it's once again down to Rivera's staff to make their coverages work in a division jam-packed with outstanding receivers.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Despite signing only a small class of college free agents, the Panthers were able to add two of the most sought-after undrafted prospects in linebacker Ben Boulware out of Clemson and receiver Fred Ross out of Mississippi State. Ross was his college's all-time leader in receptions (199) and receiving yards (2,528), and the first receiver in school history to be named All-SEC in consecutive seasons. Boulware was a three-year starter at Clemson, a Jack Lambert Award winner, and the defensive MVP of Clemson's National Championship win against Alabama. It was a surprise to many that he went undrafted -- including Panthers coach Ron Rivera -- but Boulware goes immediately into the mix behind Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis at linebacker, with an excellent chance to make the final roster.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Defensive End

After being widely expected to take a defensive end with their first pick of the draft, the Saints found the allure of Marshon Lattimore -- widely considered the draft's top cornerback -- too enticing to resist when the Ohio State prospect surprisingly dropped out of the top ten. It's impossible to fault them for that: cornerback and defensive end were the team's top two needs entering the offseason, and Lattimore should be a Day 1 starter and a substantial upgrade over P.J. Williams. He and Delvin Breaux should form a very decent tandem at cornerback, part of the most talented Saints backfield in what feels like forever.

That still doesn't fill the hole on the defensive line, however. Third-round pick Trey Hendrickson will have a chance to compete against presumptive starter Hau'oli Kikaha for the spot opposite Cameron Jordan, but Kikaha's next healthy season will be his first and there's very little depth behind those two. If, heaven forbid, anything were to happen to Jordan, the Saints pass rush would be in deep, deep trouble. Darryl Tapp is still around after appearing in all 16 games last year, and last year's starter Paul Kruger is still unsigned, but neither of those players can be relied upon to do much more than fill a jersey.

The one other name to watch might be former Cardinals edge rusher Alex Okafor, added in free agency. His 13.5 sacks over the past three years would have ranked second on the Saints, behind only Jordan, over that span.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: After a defense-heavy draft, the Saints focused on offense with their UDFA pool. The best of the bunch is probably receiver Travin Dural of LSU, a projected late-round pick with a good chance to catch on as an outside receiver if (and it's a big "if") he can stay healthy. The rest of the offensive pool includes another receiver (Ahmad Fulwood, Florida), five offensive linemen, and a fullback. Long snapper Chase Dominguez (Utah) is likely to compete directly against Jesse Schmidt for that job, with longtime incumbent Justin Drescher still a free agent. Of the three defenders signed, edge rusher Sae Tautu (BYU) probably has the clearest path to a roster spot purely due to the aforementioned lack of depth at defensive end.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Safety

It seems strange to say it after the team invested both a high draft pick and a high-profile free-agent signing in the position, but Tampa Bay still has concerns at safety. Last season's better starter, Bradley McDougald, is now with the Seahawks. Last season's lesser starter, Chris Conte, has been rather mystifyingly re-signed. Last season's top backup, Keith Tandy, never left, but Tandy has never really looked like much more than a reasonable backup at any point in his five-year Buccaneers career. Reputed safety conversion project Ryan Smith, who did not play a single snap on defense last year despite Conte's struggles, is returning to his natural position of cornerback.

All of which means that the Buccaneers will probably have to look to their new arrivals for improvement at the position. J.J. Wilcox, signed from Dallas early in free agency, is pretty much a like-for-like replacement for McDougald -- a fine strong safety, but not a player who will provide the deep range that the Buccaneers most noticeably lacked. Second-round pick Justin Evans could eventually be that guy, but will have to significantly improve his tackling, technique, pursuit angles, and play diagnosis -- a lot to ask of a young player in his rookie year. More likely, then, Buccaneers fans will continue to see a lot more of Conte than they would hope, and the defense will still have issues in deep coverage.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Wide receiver Bobo Wilson was a teammate of Jameis Winston at Florida State in 2013 and 2014, and has averaged more than 40 receptions per season since the start of 2014 despite a succession of foot injuries. Tight end Anthony Auclair faces stiff competition to make the Buccaneers roster but is good enough to potentially become the first NFL player from Canada's Université Laval. A decent career in the CFL beckons if he misses the NFL cut. Most of the other signings were devoted to the bottom end of the defensive back seven. Cornerbacks Maurice Fleming (West Virginia) and Jonathan Moxey (Boise State) will probably compete for a single cornerback spot. (A third corner, Iowa's Greg Mabin, was also signed, but then released Monday morning.) Meanwhile, two of the three linebackers -- Richie Brown (Mississippi State), Riley Bullough (Michigan State, cousin of Houston's linebacker Max Bullough), and Paul Magloire -- could find spots in a relatively shallow linebacker depth chart.

(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)

Posted by: Andrew Potter on 17 May 2017

17 comments, Last at 21 May 2017, 7:15pm by Theo


by Raiderjoe :: Wed, 05/17/2017 - 3:25pm

geuss if healthy m. lattimore coudln be good for saimts. but frquerntly injured in college.

unfirosm rankings nfc south (keep in mind this is only reghular unikforms- not throwbacks or colr rush)
1. Saimts
2. Panthers
3. falcobns
4. Buccameers

do nto like weird side stripes and marking on falcs jersyes. buccaneers weird number fonts .

if falcos amnd bucs permanently turn back clock to 1977 unfjroms both would be top 10 nfl uniforms

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Wed, 05/17/2017 - 4:08pm

In my opinion, the all-black Jerry Glanville/Deion Sanders era Falcons uniforms were the best. They would instantly vault to #1 in the division if they went back to those.

Agree with Saints being best in division right now...thankfully they stopped wearing the horrific all-black leotard look from the early 2000's.

Panthers would move up if they wore their Carolina blue alt uniforms as their primary home jerseys. Do not like their all-white look, and their black jersey/silver pants look is too reminiscent of the Raiders (one of the few things I agree with late-career Al Davis on).

Milkman and I already had comments about the Bucs unis in the NFC North thread: If they only changed their number fonts to something suitable for human viewing, their uniforms would go from absymal to not bad.

by Eddo :: Fri, 05/19/2017 - 11:05am

The Falcons uniforms and helmets pre-musclebird are right up there with the old blue-and-yellow Rams, even older blue-and-white Rams, and silver-numbers-on-white-jerseys throwback Raiders uniforms for my favorite ever. Now, the Falcons have a bottom-five helmet logo, in my opinion.

by dryheat :: Fri, 05/19/2017 - 11:06am

I prefer the old creamsicle Bucs unis to the red-and-pewters. I also prefer the Steve Bartkowski/William Andrews Falcons look to anything they've had since.

I think I would put them in the same order...Saints are definitely the top of the class and Bucs on the bottom. I hate the Panthers black jersey look, but like the whites or teals. I might flip the Panthers and Falcons, but I like/dislike them about the same.

by MilkmanDanimal :: Wed, 05/17/2017 - 3:25pm

We've replaced Sabby Piscitelli with Genuine Folgers' Chris Conte; let's see if anybody notices.

"Second-round pick Justin Evans could eventually be that guy, but will have to significantly improve his tackling, technique, pursuit angles, and play diagnosis -- a lot to ask of a young player in his rookie year."

I was OK with the Evans pick; it was in the midst of a run on safeties, and the kid at least could improve. That being said, he sounds a lot like . . . Chris Conte at this point?

Ugh. Hopefully this team has added enough parts to just outscore everybody, because safety has been a train wreck on this team for years.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Wed, 05/17/2017 - 4:10pm

"We've replaced Sabby Piscitelli with Genuine Folgers' Chris Conte; let's see if anybody notices."

The next logical move once they finally get rid of Conte is to trade for Chris Prosinski and insert him as the starter.

by Jimmy Oz :: Wed, 05/17/2017 - 6:59pm

2016 1st round pick Sheldon Rankins returns for the Saints at DT having missed the last 7 games from last year.

Did that have much of an effect on the Saints defence?

by Vincent Verhei :: Thu, 05/18/2017 - 1:53am

Saints Defense DVOA and rank

Weeks 1-9: 18.8% (29th)
Weeks 10-17: 8.7% (27th)

So if anything they played better after he got hurt.

This information and more available in our DVOA Database for Premium Subsribers!

by milo :: Thu, 05/18/2017 - 10:19am

Except he was hurt during the beginning of the season. Played at the end. Fractured fibula in training camp practice after first preseason game.

by t.d. :: Wed, 05/17/2017 - 7:09pm

To me, Atlanta's biggest question mark/weakness is the loss of Kyle Shanahan- Matt Ryan's been really good throughout his career, but last year he was on another level- this after Shanahan was a miracle worker in Cleveland (and they regressed as soon as he left). Super Bowl hangover is a real thing these days, and, tactical errors in the Super Bowl notwithstanding, the Falcons are really going to miss Lil Shanny

by Jerry :: Thu, 05/18/2017 - 4:43am

Norwegian quarterback Alek Torgersen, a three-year starter at Penn State...

Penn, not Penn State. (Which is why I didn't recognize the name.)

by Theo :: Thu, 05/18/2017 - 11:02am

2014: 14 TD / 11 INT
2015: 19 TD / 3 INT (69% compl)
2016: 17 TD / 4 INT (66.9% compl)

Interesting prospect.

by TomC :: Sat, 05/20/2017 - 11:50am

He will have opposing secondaries quaking in their boots.

by Jerry :: Sun, 05/21/2017 - 1:36am

No, he's the Quaker.

by LionInAZ :: Sun, 05/21/2017 - 4:15pm

But he's a Viking Quaker.

by Theo :: Sun, 05/21/2017 - 7:15pm

He cut his ints drastically and has a high completion % for an UDFA.
Ive seen far worse being picked in the first round.

by Andrew Potter :: Thu, 05/18/2017 - 11:45am

My mistake. Will fix.