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11 May 2009

Four Downs: NFC South

by Rob Weintraub

Atlanta Falcons

The pre-draft acquisition of tight end Tony Gonzalez fills Atlanta's lone weakness on offense -- a pass-catching tight end who can give Matt Ryan a hot read outlet on blitzes, a great red zone target and a veteran desperate to win a ring. Tight ends Justin Peelle and Ben Hartsock are blockers first and are now free from receiving responsibilities. But they can't all play, and it remains to be seen how effective Gonzalez will be in Atlanta's blocking scheme. He was a decent blocker for Kansas City, but at age 33, his willingness to mix it up on the line of scrimmage may be the first thing to go. Someday he will slow as a receiver, but despite annual projections of slippage, Gonzalez remains one of the league's best. Specifically, he was very effective when the Chiefs reverted to the Pistol formation to energize their dormant offense.

Defensively, Ole Miss first-rounder Peria Jerry provides "country strength" -- in the words of General Manager Thomas Dimitroff -- to the front four. He will be asked to penetrate and make plays in the backfield, which he will need to do. After all, the Falcons were 29th in yards per carry allowed and 31st against runs over the offense's left tackle (5.37 yards per carry) position, Jerry's projected spot. In 2008, Jerry led the SEC in tackles behind the line of scrimmage with 18, so he's a big boost to a line in need of run-stoppers at the point. Free agent linebacker Mike Peterson is getting up in years but is familiar with coach Mike Smith's schemes from his time in Jacksonville. Backup Stephen Nicholas may take Coy Wire's strongside linebacker job; Wire is a good tackler but lacks speed and coverage ability.

Missouri safety William Moore dropped into the second round after a disappointing senior season, but he brings good coverage speed and the ability to hit from the "box" position to the team. Dimitroff would prefer interchangeable safeties who can cover (as opposed to more fixed "free" and "strong" positions), and Moore could grow into that role. Third-rounder Chris Owens from San Jose State is undersized (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) but he's a physical player who amassed 50 or more tackles in each of the last three seasons. Teammates Dwight Lowery and Coye Francies were more successful as opposing quarterbacks started to throw away from Owens. Richmond end/linebacker Lawrence Sidbury could be the pass-rushing threat the Falcons need from a depth perspective -- right now, it's John Abraham and several question marks. Most people expected the Falcons to tee off on linebackers in this draft after losing Keith Brooking and Michael Boley in free agency, but Dimitroff's draft strategies are as unpredictable as they are effective.

Undrafted Free Agents

Dimitroff was unpredictable in his signing of free agents the day after the draft, too. Quarterback wouldn't seem to be a need, but John Parker Wilson of Alabama and Hoover High fame was brought in to camp. With a poor completion percentage, he wouldn't seem to be a threat to make the roster, but Wilson was a three-year starter, and could displace D.J. Shockley. The Falcons are desperate for bodies at linebacker, which means tackling machine Brock Christopher from Missouri and Derek Nicholson from Florida State have a shot at sticking.

Carolina Panthers

Despite the howls of dissatisfaction from their fans, the Panthers didn't make many changes in the offseason. The front office hasn't panicked over a nightmarish playoff showing, choosing instead to concentrate on the 12-4 regular season.

The biggest move was a hedge against the potential departure of Julius Peppers, whose refusal to sign the franchise tender hangs over the team. General Manager Marty Hurney dealt next season's first-rounder in order to vault up in the second round and pick Everette Brown. He may not be Peppers, but Brown was considered the best pure pass-rusher available. Second-rounder Sherrod Martin could force his way into the lineup at cornerback, continuing the pipeline from Troy University's defense to the NFL (including players like DeMarcus Ware, Osi Umenyiora, and Leodis McKelvin). Third-rounder Corvey Irvin of Georgia will attempt to address Carolina's biggest need: stuffing the run inside. The Georgia D-tackle will help, but the position remains iffy.

While Carolina's offensive line and running back combo are state of the art, the rushing attack may have gotten even better in the draft. Syracuse's Tony Fiammetta is a rock 'em, sock 'em blocking machine, and he may spell the end for longtime fullback Brad Hoover. Another draftee, Mike Goodson, will step in for departed third back Nick Goings.

Undrafted Free Agents

Does anything give hope to those who wish the Jake Delhomme era would end sooner rather than later? Well, the Panthers signed Hunter Cantwell the day after the draft. He's an intriguing prospect from Louisville whose draft stock fell with a poor 2008, but he definitely has the requisite size for an NFL starter, and hey, he's never had six turnovers in a playoff game.

Cantwell was just of 21 undrafted free agents the Panthers signed, the most of any team. Marlon Favorite is another excellently-named D-lineman out of LSU, and his 315 pounds and above-average strength make him suited for Carolina's interior needs. Lonnie Harvey is even bigger -- 346 pounds -- and shows exceptional agility for a man his size. You can see for yourself; the Morgan State grad posted his pro day workout on YouTube.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints wisely resisted the impulse to draft a running back and instead targeted their biggest need, secondary help, by taking Malcolm Jenkins. The versatile Ohio State Buckeye was easily the best corner on the board; he could start there or at safety. The free-agent signings of Jabari Greer and Darren Sharper suddenly make an awful unit from 2008 seem at least competent. Backup Usama Young may push for a starting role at safety.

The linebacker corp still needs reinforcements -- fourth-round pick Stanley Arnoux only helps, but more is required past middleman Jonathan Vilma. Teams had a staggering 80 percent success rate against the Saints, which was mostly on the linebackers and defensive ends. New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is the most significant addition. Williams arrived after head coach Sean Payton fired his buddy Gary Gibbs. If Williams can get more out of players like Scott Fujita, Sedrick Ellis, and Charles Grant, the Saints might field a defense their offense won't be ashamed of.

That high-flying offense added an interesting piece. Fullback Heath Evans was signed away from New England. While he won't provide the inside running of the departed Deuce McAllister, Evans is a dangerous receiver with nifty feet. His blocking should also help the smallish duo of Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas find running lanes between the tackles.

Undrafted Free Agents

That inside running need was evident, as the Saints signed the "Wisconsin Winnebago," P.J. Hill. Hill has little speed or explosiveness, but is plenty tough and showed good blocking ability with the Badgers. The Saints beat out seven other teams to sign Herb Donaldson, the all-time leading rusher in the Missouri Valley Conference and AFCA All-American. Donaldson is a swift 225-pounder, and he put up 157 yards and two touchdowns on Arkansas. He could well stick around as insurance against injuries to Bush and/or Thomas.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

As new coach Raheem Morris put it, he is now "married" to his first draft choice, quarterback Josh Freeman from Kansas State, whom Morris once coached in Manhattan. The Bucs are publicly attempting to take pressure off Freeman by saying their preference is to sit the rookie behind either Luke McCown or the newly added Byron Leftwich. Leftwich managed to resurrect his career with a couple of highly effective relief efforts in Pittsburgh (66.0% DVOA, exactly 131 points higher than his abysmal 2007), but he is not even a short-term answer. McCown threw exactly one pass last season, and didn't even complete it.

Whoever takes the snaps, the rushing attack (ranked 23rd in our advanced DVOA stats) will have to improve. Derrick Ward was signed from the Giants for just that reason. Ward was the second-ranked back in DVOA last season, but his new offensive line doesn't quite have the quality record of his old one. New tight end Kellen Winslow is another weapon that will help open up a staid attack, provided he bounces back from a mediocre year (he caught just 52 percent of intended passes in Cleveland). Of course, his effectiveness and happiness are tied to a quarterback getting him the ball on a regular basis.

On defense, Tampa Bay no longer employs the Tampa-2 zone and has plenty of new faces in town. New coordinator Jim Bates prefers run-stuffers inside and perimeter players who force runners to the middle. Third-round choice Roy Miller from Texas is a physical presence at defensive tackle and should start immediately. Kyle Moore from USC, whom the Bucs moved up to grab in the fourth round, will see plenty of action at end.

The key defender may be Jermaine Phillips, who moves from safety to Will linebacker, and faces comparisons with the man he replaces, Derrick Brooks, perhaps the best 'backer in franchise history. Angelo Crowell comes in from Buffalo to man the strong side, flanking holdover Barrett Ruud.

Undrafted Free Agents

Tampa Bay went heavy on the offensive line on UFA signing day, bringing in four big boys. Maurice Miller played well opposite Michael Oher at Ole Miss, but isn't nifty enough for the pros. Ryan Purvis from Boston College could stick as a blocking tight end, and he has good hands.

Posted by: Robert Weintraub on 11 May 2009

24 comments, Last at 20 May 2009, 4:25pm by ammek


by dryheat (not verified) :: Mon, 05/11/2009 - 10:59am

"Perhaps" the best backer in team history? How many slam-dunk Hall-of-Fame linebackers has Tampa Bay had in their existance?

I'm curious to see what kind of rotation Morris will set up with Ward and Graham. Anecdotally, Graham strikes as as a criminally underrated running back.

by MilkmanDanimal :: Mon, 05/11/2009 - 1:00pm

Yeah, the "perhaps the best backer in team history" is kind of silly. Not even a question. After the Bucs cut Brooks, Pat Yasinkas at ESPN (who I'm not a fan of) had some post about "Brooks is the most important player to his team in NFC South history", which also seemed pretty basic. You're talking about a guy whose draft largely coincided with the team being turned around from a total laughingstock to a competitive, eventual Superbowl-winning team. He led the defense for years, is pretty much the archetypical "not huge, but smart and fast" WLB for the Tampa-2 and, to top it all off, is well-known for his humanitarian and charitable activities off-the-field. He's a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer on the field, a great human being off the field, and . . . well, if anyone needs me, I'll be in the closet clutching my Bucs #55 jersey, sobbing softly.

by ammek :: Mon, 05/11/2009 - 11:27am

A defensive division, with one notable exception

DVOA 2008 by ranking: offense/defense:
NO: 1/24
Atl: 8/23
Car: 6/10
TB: 21/6

Come on, banish the received wisdom — and use your own statistics!

by sundown (not verified) :: Mon, 05/11/2009 - 5:08pm

Awesome point. Sometimes they inexplicably lose track of what makes their site special. It's the stats, stupid. We don't need another regurgitation of the conventional wisdom.

by Anonimouse! (not verified) :: Tue, 05/12/2009 - 1:01pm

I don't get why the conventional wisdom would think the South played any D either; conventional stats have them at:
Atl 24th
Car 18th
NO 23rd
TB 8th

Pretty much every RB that touched a football in the division was good for 4.5 yards/carry. I honestly have no idea how anyone from any perspective would think the South had anything but godawful defenses last season. Only thing keeping scores down were the low possession totals as teams never went 3 and out.

by Karl Cuba :: Mon, 05/11/2009 - 1:54pm

Why do the Four Downs pages keep appearing in a weird format on my Mac? The other pages seem fine. Odd.

by *Legion* (not verified) :: Mon, 05/11/2009 - 4:03pm

>> Yeah, the "perhaps the best backer in team history" is kind of silly.

No, it's not. The idea that Brooks is the no-questions-asked choice over Lee Roy Selmon is what's silly. Arguments can be made, but there's no automatic bid here.

Also, while there's less of an argument to be made for him, in Brooks' first few years in Tampa, he wasn't even the best linebacker on the team. Hardy Nickerson was.

by dryheat (not verified) :: Mon, 05/11/2009 - 4:29pm

I thought of Selmon, but I seem to remember him as a defensive end. If I'm mistaken, then yes, there's an argument to be made.

Comparing Nickerson's prime to Brooks's rookie years, though, isn't really fair. In Tom Brady's rookie year, he wasn't even the best quarterback on the Patriots. You could say the same about virtually every player in the league...Peyton Manning probably being the notable exception.

by Theo :: Tue, 05/12/2009 - 4:33am

Ben Roethlisberger made a pretty big impact in his rookie season - replacing Tommy Maddox and going 13-0.

by Whelk :: Tue, 05/12/2009 - 9:18am

Selmon was definitely a defensive end.

Does anybody (older than me) remember the Bucs' linebacker corp from the 1979 team? I assume there must have been at least one noteworthy linebacker on that team.

by TomKelso :: Tue, 05/12/2009 - 8:37pm

Dewey Selmon ("LeeRoy plows them under and Dewey notifies the next of kin") was the linebacker -- also Richard Lewis (?), who I remember mostly for wearing the Batman logo on his elbow pads.

by *Legion* (not verified) :: Mon, 05/11/2009 - 4:48pm

Well there was more overlap between Nickerson and Brooks beyond just his "rookie year(s)", but yes, their time together isn't quite a prime-to-prime comparison.

The point wasn't to create a facetious argument, though, but simply to bring Nickerson into the conversation. As I said, his argument for the spot isn't quite as strong, but I think his name at least deserves mention before Brooks is awarded the crown outright.

by MilkmanDanimal :: Mon, 05/11/2009 - 8:26pm

I realize things like Pro Bowls and All-Pro nods often take the form of the "golden watch" as frequently a lifetime achievement sort of thing, but Nickerson had five Pro Bowls, Brooks had 11. Nickerson never made an All-Pro team, Brooks was a six-time first-team All-Pro, three-time second-team. He was also Defensive Player of the Year the year the Bucs won the Super Bowl. In terms of accolades, awards, or statistics, Brooks far outweighs Nickerson. A large part of that is because of the longevity aspect of it--Nickerson was very good for what, four or five years? Sure, impressive, but Brooks was a first-class linebacker for ten or twelve years. He'll walk into Canton. Not to play the "small market makes you underrated" card again, but if Derrick Brooks played for the Giants, he'd get Ray Lewis/Brian Urlacher sort of press.

Honestly, the "best Bucs linebacker ever" is a pretty easy one, the easiest on the team (OK, maybe Paul Gruber for offensive line as well).

by Independent George :: Tue, 05/12/2009 - 12:20pm

Does Steve Young count as the best Bucs QB ever, or are we limited to best Bucs QB as a Buc?

by c_f (not verified) :: Mon, 05/11/2009 - 9:05pm

...the Falcons were 29th in yards per carry allowed and 31st against runs over the offense's left tackle (5.37 yards per carry) position (and 23rd in runs over left end)

So over offensive left = against defensive right.

Grady Jackson, whom Jerry replaces, was a liability at the nose, but do these numbers not indict RE John Abraham as well?

by TruFalcon (not verified) :: Tue, 05/12/2009 - 12:14am

Yes they do. Also WLB Keith Brooking, one of the league's most underrated defensive liabilities. The Falcons will not miss his black hole of suck.

by Sophandros :: Tue, 05/12/2009 - 1:15pm

You're not going to miss a guy who amasses a lot of tackles 8 yards down field?

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

by Natmicuss (not verified) :: Mon, 05/18/2009 - 12:23am

Abraham was often on the bench for running downs in an attempt to keep him health throughout the season. Plus he specializes in pass rush, that is his job.

by Joseph :: Tue, 05/12/2009 - 12:47am

4th rounder Stanley Arnoux from Wake will miss the entire season because he tore his Achilles in minicamp.
If the Saints secondary plays average, the D numbers will go up DRASTICALLY. They lost to the Bears, Vikes, & the second game against the Panthers by giving up long passes late (or DPI's). They lost to Washington by giving up a long TD pass, although it wasn't quite as late. And they lost at Denver because of a missed FG late. This is a last place 8-8 team that was a few plays away from a 10-6 season--that's why they finished 9th/10th overall in DVOA. I don't know for sure, but it wouldn't surprise me if they had noticeably worse 3rd down (defensive) stats versus 1st & 2nd, which we know is an indicator that their D will be better this year.
My prediction for the Saints: If DC Gregg Williams can pull the Saints defensive DVOA to 15th or better, they win the South. If they have a top TEN D (according to DVOA), they might make the SB. Their offense is good enough--the question for the last two years has been if the defense was. On paper, they have improved the D--the question for this year is, will what looks good on paper look that good on the field.

by VDeuce (not verified) :: Tue, 05/19/2009 - 1:58am

The D moves made by New Orleans do look good on paper. Even so, I'm goin out on the limb and sayin: 1) They won't have a top ten defense. Why, because 2) Your so-called number 1 offense DOESNT RUN THE BALL ENOUGH. They need to come up with a real solution at RB in order for me to believe they're making a SB run. Reggie Bush cant stay healthy SHARING carries, and Pierre Thomas was cute last yr but also has durability questions. Carolina and NO are preseason contenders every year and continue to NOT live up to expectations. I do believe that the Saints will make the playoffs this year. Between them and my Falcons, one will be the division champ and one will get the wild card.

by ASaint :: Wed, 05/20/2009 - 2:02pm

Look at the stats, the Saints ran ALL OVER you last year, especially PT. He went for over 6ypc that game. And what durability issues?...why do people just make things up?

If you have the most yardage and most points in the NFL you then have THE #1 offense. Not the "so-called number 1".

Is our D going to be great? probably not. Will it be better, probably. Right now, you are right, it is all paper. But you can not say that just because someone doesn't run the ball as much as other teams that it is going to sotp them from succeding. Don't get me wrong, a true bruiser of a RB that gets a yard when you need a yard could definetly help. But not neccesary.

Lets recap on our lessons learned so far. Pierre Thomas is the truth, not cute. No history of injuries, and he ran all over the dirty birds. The Saints have THE #1 offense.

by ammek :: Wed, 05/20/2009 - 4:25pm

Can we call you 'Raider Jeaux'?

by The Anti-Dave (not verified) :: Tue, 05/12/2009 - 4:36pm

Tampa's excellent set of linebackers in the late 70s included Richard "Batman" Wood, Dewey Selmon, and David Lewis.

Hugh Green was also a Pro Bowl-caliber OLB for the Bucs in the 80s.

None of which is to dispute Brooks' greatness in the ranks of Tampa LBs, but the discussion doesn't start and end with him either. Hardy Nickerson merits at least a passing mention too.

by CornerBlitz (not verified) :: Mon, 05/18/2009 - 7:52pm

Brooks is at the top of the list in every major category (except sacks) that applies to LBs in Bucs history, and is up there with the best in NFL history. For me, there's no question. The guy is my favorite player of all time and a great person off the field. Yes, that's rampant and unapologetic homerism with a small side of man-crush.

And there is no best Bucs QB. It's just one big...what was that term? "Black hole of suck."