Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC South

Atlanta Falcons RB Brian Hill
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

For this May round of Four Downs, we will be looking at each team's biggest remaining need as well as notable undrafted free agents who will be going to camp with each franchise.

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Need: Running back

At their peak with Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator, the Falcons had a top-10 rushing offense to pair with their exceptional passing attack, with multiple backs who could contribute as both runners and receivers. Four years later, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are gone, and replacements Todd Gurley and Ito Smith are trying to overcome injuries -- knee arthritis and concussions, respectively -- that could persist for the rest of or even cut short their careers. So far, Gurley hasn't missed many games, but his performance declined in 2019. He finished below average in both rushing and receiving DVOA for only the second time in his career. Reserves Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison will both be 24 this September, but their pedigrees as fifth-round draft picks with below-average rushing DVOA finishes in 2019 temper optimism for their potential breakouts. Running back produces more capable undrafted free agents than most positions. The Falcons would be smart to add one or two to give them more bites at that apple.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: So far, the Falcons haven't added any undrafted running backs, but they may have snagged a pair of UDFA gems in tight end Jared Pinkney and wide receiver Chris Rowland. Pinkney was regarded as a likely Day 2 draft pick after his 774-yard, seven-touchdown junior season at Vanderbilt, but an unproductive senior season (with lesser quarterback play than he had the year before from Kyle Shurmur) and a poor combine caused him to fall. Hayden Hurst had a top-five receiving DVOA of 28.1% at the position and could break out as a first-time starter in Atlanta, but Pinkney retains strong odds to make the team at a thin position on their depth chart. Rowland faces much stouter competition at receiver from the likes of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, but he could be an immediate impact player as a kick and punt returner. He scored touchdowns on both types of returns in 2019 for Tennessee State.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Need: Cornerback

The Panthers made the unprecedented decision to use all seven of their 2020 draft picks on defensive players, and yet the team somehow still has several holes on that side of the ball. Star linebacker Luke Kuechly left a prominent one at middle linebacker when he retired, but his replacement Shaq Thompson is an experienced, capable starter. The Panthers don't have the same to replace departing free agents James Bradberry and Ross Cockrell at cornerback. Alongside Donte Jackson, the team will have to rely on some combination of a 2017 fifth-rounder in Corn Elder, an undrafted second-year player in Cole Luke, and a pair of Day 3 rookies in Troy Pride and Stanley Thomas-Oliver. Aside from Jackson, none of those corners has started an NFL game, and yet two of them will need to play first-team reps in nickel situations this season.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Panthers added just one defensive back as a UDFA. Myles Hartsfield (Ole Miss) reached his NFL dream on the strength of his tackling and may stick as a safety rather than a cornerback. Still, the Panthers targeted a number of other holes in their UDFA signings, most notably on offense. Mike Horton, a former Auburn teammate of Derrick Brown, could fill the team's need at guard. And tackle Brandon Bowen (Ohio State) and tight end-turned-lineman Sam Tecklenburg (Baylor) have the versatility to provide depth at the position as well. Tecklenburg is particularly interesting. He retired from football in January, but new head coach Matt Rhule was his former coach at Baylor and talked him back into playing. In terms of skill talent, the Panthers landed one of the most prolific college receivers after the draft in Arkansas State product Omar Bayless. He had absurd totals of 93 catches, 1,653 yards, and 17 touchdowns in 2019. As a deep threat, he could start to become a factor if the team decides to trade speedster Curtis Samuel as has been rumored.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest Need: Cornerback

The Saints entered the draft with one of the best and deepest rosters in football, and they took the justifiable approach to draft need and quality over quantity. They traded up for their second, third, and fourth selections, forfeiting additional picks in both 2020 and the future that might not have made the cut anyway on such a talented team. Add to that the recent free agent signings of backup quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill, and the Saints shouldn't have any holes to fill until 2021.

The Saints' current privilege shouldn't delay their addressing of potential future needs, especially at cornerback where players often need multiple seasons to develop. Marshon Lattimore's pair of Pro Bowl berths will likely inflate his free-agent asking price beyond what his coverage success rates suggest they should be. With his fifth-year option already exercised, Lattimore is under contract for two more seasons, but this is a similar situation to what Jalen Ramsey was in with the Jaguars last year. The Saints would gain leverage and a contingency plan if they could add more depth at the position.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Saints added a pair of cornerback prospects in Keith Washington (West Virginia) and Tino Ellis (Maryland) who have a chance to make the team. Washington didn't receive a combine invitation despite second-team All-Big 12 honors in his senior season, but he ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at his own workout that would have landed him third among defensive backs at the combine. Ellis doesn't share Washington's athleticism, but he did play for former Saints defensive assistant Cory Robinson when he was Maryland's cornerback coach. It could be an uphill battle for the Saints UDFAs at other positions to make the team, but several have the talent to do so. Defensive end Malcolm Roach had nine sacks for Texas in his senior season and may make sense as a defensive tackle if he can add some more weight. Tackle Calvin Throckmorton was a productive member of an excellent Oregon offensive line but likely fell from his potential as a Day 3 draft pick with a poor combine performance. And Oregon teammate Juwan Johnson has a big frame at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds that could help him transition to tight end, where he would have an easier time separating from linebackers and could take advantage of his skills as a run-blocker.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Need: Backup quarterback

The Buccaneers built their super team very differently than the home-grown Saints, but their approach still got them to the same place of a talented and complete roster. And like the Saints, the Bucs filled their few outstanding holes in the draft, trading up for blue-chip offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and then snagging a safety (Antoine Winfield Jr.), running back (Ke'Shawn Vaughn), and slot receiver (Tyler Johnson) with their second-, third-, and fifth-round selections.

The one drawback to the Bucs' free-agent-heavy approach is that it is expensive, and that deprives the team of the Saints' luxury of depth and a succession plan at quarterback. All of the Bucs' eggs are in the Tom Brady basket, and while Brady is obviously skilled enough to shoulder that burden, he will also be 43 years old in September. Last year, the Saints went 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater as the starter when Drew Brees injured his thumb. The Bucs have the overall roster talent to do something similar if Brady missed time, but current backup Blaine Gabbert may not be up to the task. Gabbert has not improved his efficiency since falling from grace as a former top pick, finishing with DVOAs worse than -25.0% in 2016, 2017, and 2018 before missing 2019 with a dislocated shoulder.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Reid Sinnett likely won't supplant Gabbert as Brady's backup in 2020, but the inexperienced quarterback from San Diego was very productive in his one year as the team's starter, throwing for 32 touchdowns and rushing for six. It isn't out of the question that he could become a future starter. On the defensive side of the ball, cornerback Parnell Motley was highly productive with 33 passes defensed and six interceptions in his final three years at Oklahoma. Concerns about his quickness dropped him out of the draft, but he still excelled against top drafted receivers such as Jalen Reagor and Denzel Mims, the former of whom he held to one catch for 9 yards in 2019.

Portions of this article originally appeared at ESPN+.

Comments

4 comments, Last at 22 May 2020, 11:33pm

1 What need do the Panthers…

What need do the Panthers have for a cornerback? Why would a team bother to throw on the worst run defense in the league? Call four runs and then punch it in. From the 25.

2 Re: Panthers

That truth hurts me haha.  I think the hope for the team is that a new front seven with Derrick Brown and a hopefully-healthy Kawann Short on the interior line will be better against the run this season.

4 Losing Rivera.

In reply to by Scott Spratt

Honestly, Rivera was the best coach you had and letting him go was a mistake.

With the mass exodus of players, I expect a huge regression from the Panthers..

I sucks that your team was good enough to beat my Cardinals in successive playoffs, but never actually won a SB in any of those years with Cam and Ron.  

3 Missing info

Reagor may have had one catch for 9 yards against OU, but how many times was he targeted?  TCU had an odd (read: bad) tendency to not try to get their playmakers the ball last year.