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23 May 2011

Four Downs: NFC South

by Robert Weintraub

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Defensive End

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff spent the pre-draft months talking about "explosion players," and went all-in on offense in the draft. Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers should give offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey a chance to expand his drowsy playbook. But the defense still lacks still lacks TNT, especially in the pass rush where 33-year-old John Abraham remains the lone threat.

The Falcons are counting on the return to health of recent high draft picks, such as defensive tackle Peria Jerry and outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, to improve the unit's overall speed and tenacity. If they return, and Kroy Biermann emerges from his wife's shadow as a reliable pass rusher, the team should be a top contender once again in 2011.

Atlanta will look to sign a proven defensive end like Minnesota's Ray Edwards should the new CBA grant Edwards unrestricted free agency. (Edwards says Cliff Matthews, a two-year captain and solid pass rusher at South Carolina, was a late-draft heist and will provide quality rotation play. But one thing is certain -- fans who thought Dimitroff gave up too much in the Jones trade will be counting Julio's receptions while measuring them against the team's total sacks.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Defensive Line, Safety

Like their division-rival Buccaneers, the Panthers plugged gaping holes by spending two high picks at a position of need along the defensive line. And as with the Bucs, the position in question remains in need of help. Third-round picks Terrell McClain and and Sione Fua are nice players, but they won't turn the interior of Carolina's defensive front into the Seven Blocks of Granite overnight.

Carolina will be implementing more 3-4 looks under new head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Rivera's ties to Chicago's Tommie Harris has led to speculation that the tackle would come south to shore up the middle of the line. The quality of the end play in the new look depends heavily on whether or not Charles Johnson stays in town. Johnson, who had 11.5 sacks in 2010, would be an unrestricted free agent under the old CBA. On the opposite side, Tyler Brayton (zero sacks) needs to be replaced, probably by promising second-year man Greg Hardy.

Safety is generally considered to be position of relative strength in Carolina, with corner being a weakness; but on closer inspection, the opposite is true. Carolina was Top 10 in defending the opposing team's first two wide receivers, but plummeted to 24th in the NFL against slot receivers, and dead last against tight ends.

Local interest is high in acquiring a shutdown corner a la Nnamdi Asomugha or Johnathan Joseph. Captain Munnerlyn and Chris Gamble did a respectable job last season, but depth is a concern if Richard Marshall leaves via free agency. The secondary's weaker spot is safety, where Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin were frequently out of position. The Panthers were also in the bottom half of the league in allowing second-level runs, a fall-off from the defensive line's strong play against the run, suggesting that the safeties weren't quite up to snuff in tackling. Godfrey is a promising ballhawk, however, and could thrive under McDermott, who helped mold attacking safeties in Philadelphia.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Outside Linebacker

Like division-rival Atlanta, the Saints traded up to get targeted players and denuded the back half of their draft in doing so. Unlike Atlanta, New Orleans addressed its pass rush problem by drafting defensive end Cameron Jordan. Jordan excels against the run, and is good-not-great as a pass rusher. (In seventh-rounder Greg Romeus, the Saints got a boom-or-bust rush end.) Despite the selections, opposing passers still are likely to find tight ends and running backs running free when matched against the Saints outside linebackers. In 2010, New Orleans ranked 27th in DVOA against tight ends and 24th against running backs swinging out of the backfield. The team drafted Martez Wilson of Illinois in the third round, but he will have much learning to do -- and in less time, thanks to the lockout -- in order to fill the gaping hole on the strong side.

The team could pick up Buffalo linebacker Paul Posluszny, a restricted free agent under the current CBA. He would provide help in space while mentoring Wilson, and his surname would be chanted in a zesty Cajun manner. Assuming Posluszny doesn't relocate to the Big Easy, incumbents like Scott Shanle and Jo-Lonn Dunbar are among several Saints linebackers in contract flux (only mainstay Jonathan Vilma is a signed certainty, locked up through 2013) who would need to be re-signed. If Shanle doesn't resign, Jonathan Casillas, who missed the 2010 season with a foot injury, would perhaps be handed a starting role.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Cornerback, Defensive End

Given the Bucs' rumored starring role in this season's "Hard Knocks" (which by rights should film the labor negotiations), the biggest hole might be a lack of Buccaneers who pop off the screen as Rex Ryan did a year ago. But we'll restrict ourselves to on-field concerns. As with the rest of the NFC South, defensive end was a pre-draft need in Tampa. The Bucs double-dipped at defensive end in the first two rounds, taking Adrian Clayborn of Iowa and Da'Quan Bowers of Clemson, who dropped precipitously due to injury concerns -- mainly, that his knee has the consistency of oatmeal. Some teams have already written him off.

Tampa went one-for-two at defensive tackle a year ago -- Gerald McCoy played well and Brian Price was injured -- and the team seems to be gunning for a similar batting average with the Clayborn/Bowers combo. Both choices carry risk (Clayborn suffered nerve damage during childbirth that weakened his right arm and shoulder, though he has done OK with it so far), and it would be optimistic to call the hole "plugged" on the strength of the draft. "At least partially filled in" would be more accurate.

Meanwhile, with the uncertainty surrounding Aqib Talib's legal troubles, Ronde Barber's age, and Tanard Jackson's dependency issues, the secondary looms as a trouble spot. Tampa took a couple of Sunshine State secondary players in the later rounds, Florida's Ahmad Black and FIU's Anthony Gaitor, but while both are versatile, neither is as talented as Talib, Jackson, or Barber. Tampa was sixth in the league in DVOA against opposing No. 1 wideouts, a figure that seems certain to fall if Talib isn't on the team.

That puts the onus on E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis, a pair of corners the Bucs like and feel can replace Talib. There is sentiment that the Bucs will make a play for ultra-talented and expensive corner Nnamdi Asomugha when/if free agency resumes, and the Glazers have said that they will spend money on the team. Whether that means nickels or silver dollars remains to be seen.

A version of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.

Posted by: Robert Weintraub on 23 May 2011

30 comments, Last at 31 May 2011, 2:13pm by Anonymouse


by MilkmanDanimal :: Mon, 05/23/2011 - 7:12pm

Asomugha is such a lovely pipe dream. It won't happen, but ohhhhh . . . what a pipe dream.

by Rhombus (not verified) :: Mon, 05/23/2011 - 7:23pm

This is the sigh of every team with a sub-par secondary in the league. Alas, only one may claim this coveted prize.

by Theo :: Mon, 05/23/2011 - 7:34pm

Where can Asomugha end up?
- Probably Playoff/Superbowl contender (or he won't go there):
Fins Pats Jets Ravens Steelers Colts Titans Chiefs Chargers NFC East Packers Falcons Saints Bucs.
- Willing/able to spend A LOT of money on it:
Fins Jets Ravens Titans Chiefs Chargers Cowboys Eagles Skins Falcons Saints Bucs.
- Needs CB
Fins Jets Ravens Titans Chiefs Chargers Cowboys Eagles Skins Falcons Saints Bucs

by justanothersteve :: Mon, 05/23/2011 - 10:12pm

The Titans are a "Playoff/Superbowl contender"? I think not. Same with the Skins, especially with Beck or Grossman at QB. For some reason, I keep thinking Cowbots. JJ needs something big after last year's underachieving squad. I can't imagine Asomugha underachieving anywhere.

by Theo :: Mon, 05/23/2011 - 10:21pm

True true, but would you scrap out the Skins as a landing space for Awesomeuga, or the titans. Well the titans are just ... with the Jax and Tex. So a playoff contender (they have that runningback sellpoint sellpoint!!)

by justanothersteve :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 12:53pm

If the first breakout is playoff/title contender, then regardless of money he isn't going to Tennessee, etc. I'll remove the Raiders since I don't think he'd resign even if offered a monster contract. So the first cut might be something like this (in stream-of-consciousness order: Pats, Colts, Ravens, Steelers, Jets, Texans, Chiefs, Chargers, Packers, Falcons, Saints, Giants, Cowboys, Eagles, Lions, Bears, Rams. I'd add a few other teams if they can fix a major hole like QB (e.g., rest of NFC West, Fins, Vikings). Next, possibly willing to spend the cash: Pats, Ravens, Jets, Texans, Chiefs, Cowboys, Eagles, Lions, Rams. (If playoff contender, add Seahawks, Fins, and/or Vikes.) All but possibly the Pats and Jets need a CB, and they might want him anyway. If he wants a warm weather/dome team, it's down to Texans, Cowboys, Lions, and Rams (and possibly Seahawks, Fins, and/or Vikes). He could use other teams as bargaining chips though. Asomugha may get less than he expects as a FA, especially if there is a short signing period due to lockout.

by mm (not verified) :: Mon, 05/23/2011 - 11:28pm

Although the corners didn't play as well last year as they did in the Super Bowl year, the Saints are probably content with their cornerback situation. Unless he's willing to play at a bit of a discount, I'd be surprised to see him in New Orleans.

by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 12:01pm

Why don't the 49ers ever get included in these lists? With him they'd have a very good shot in the NFC West and I think you could make the case that Harbaugh should be able to get more from the offense and especially the quarterbacks than Jimmy Raye and Singletary. The niners have also showed willingness to spend big money on a cornerback before. More pertinently, he's lived in California his entire life, his US based charity work is largely centred on California and he wouldn't have to disrupt his family life, finding new schools for his kids etc (no idea if he has kids or is even married but if free agency is going to be a frantic week before camp affair that could be more of a factor than normal)

All that said, I reckon Houston are the favourites.

by Slim (not verified) :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 3:59pm

Probably because this is an NFC South page, an a the 49ers are not in the NFC South.

by Shattenjager :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 4:39pm

Neither are the Dolphins, Patriots, Jets, Ravens, Steelers, Colts, Titans, Chiefs, Chargers, Packers, Colts, Texans, Giants, Cowboys, Redskins, Eagles, Lions, Bears, or Rams, who were all mentioned above.

by Theo :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 4:53pm

"lists" as in "where Asomugha might go"

by Sifter :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 7:03pm

Agree with this for the most part. 49ers make a lot of sense, as long as Nnamdi doesn't care about a Super Bowl. If he wants a ring, he'll have to move.

by Mr Shush :: Thu, 05/26/2011 - 4:10pm

I do think Harbaugh will be a solid coach, but I still don't think the 49ers have much chance of more than 8 or 9 wins. I'm not sure "candidate to win the NFC West by default" fully counts as a "playoff contender" in anything more than a technical sense. Moreover, I rather fancy the Rams to dominate the division for some time to come, because I think Bradford will be a bona fide superstar, so the days of crappy NFC West teams scraping into the playoffs may soon be just a memory.

I hope and pray that he ends up in Houston, and the cash, desperation and nice weather are all there, but I think it could take a hell of a lot of persuasion to convince a man who is by all accounts desperate to win that a team which has never made the playoffs in its entire history is the place to do that.

by Parmenides :: Mon, 05/23/2011 - 9:10pm

I wonder if there has ever been a charting that compares players and style of play to various types of defensive schemes. I know there is talk that a particular corner is a better cover corner then man corner but does it work for other positions like wide receiver.

So for example the panthers safeties suck at cover two systems but are better at something else.

by Theo :: Mon, 05/23/2011 - 10:17pm

You mean they are good or bad in their OWN system?
That would take some players to be 3 years in one rotation and then 3 years in another.
That's hard.

by Parmenides :: Mon, 05/23/2011 - 10:27pm

Oh I'm not saying that it would be easy. You might be able to do it as an aggregate by finding whether or not their were consistent types of players who have particular types of deficiencies and skills.

by OmrothYes (not verified) :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 4:56am

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Quarterback

by BJR :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 5:07am

Whenever these articles come around each year, at least half the teams seem to have their biggest need at DB. Seems there just isn't enough quality to go round at those positions. Or perhaps we have to adjust expectations in this pass-friendly era?

by Jimmy :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 8:40am

It has been said for years that teams can't have enough corners and it remains true. What no one seems to talk about is that there are probably fewer than 15 'good' safeties in the league (where 'good' means a player who a fan of another team would agree is good).

by Joseph :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 9:53am

Rumors out of NO last preseason was that Casillas was starting at WLB until he was injured in the last preseason game and was put on IR.
"mm" (comment 9) is right--the Saints have Greer, Porter entering his 4th year, and last years' 1st rounder Patrick Robinson as their top 3 corners--then drafted another one in the 3rd round (iirc). They also have Randall Gay on the roster, although it has been rumored even before the lockout that he would retire because of concussion problems. While Asomugha would be an upgrade on ANY team, I don't see the Saints making a play for him.
They have 25+ FA's--most unrestricted--and although they won't resign them all (some were end-of-the-year roster filler--esp. at RB), they will keep about 15 of them. Then they must deal with Bush's contract renegotiation, iirc give Brees a raise, and will probably try to sign G Carl Nicks & CB Porter to extensions also. Even though GM Loomis is getting a rep for playing hardball with lower tier players (Darren Sharper, for example, signed last year for about 1M less than what Jax offered), there doesn't seem to be enough $$$ to go around--and Asomugha would need the $$$ that would be required to resign about 10 of those FA's.
If Asomugha comes to the NFCS, it will be TB--Atlanta just shelled big $$ for Dunta Robinson (sp?) last year.

by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 11:51am

The Glazers are paying $100 million plus per year in interest on the money they borrowed to buy Manchester United. For that layout they are slowly buying one of the two or three most valuable sports franchises on the planet with a fan base that makes teh Cowboys look like Everton. So I don't think they'll be in a hurry to give Nnamdi $50 million in cash. (That's exactly the sort of risk that the owners take that makes their contribution to the game worth more than 50% of the revenue!)

by Sophandros :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 12:12pm

"For that layout they are slowly buying one of the two or three most valuable sports franchises on the planet with a fan base that makes teh Cowboys look like Everton."

If by "two or three most valuable" you mean "most valuable according to Forbes", then yeah... and I hate Man U.

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

by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 1:07pm

I don't think Forbes has anything to do with it. They're the biggest club in the most watched sports league in the world, and one of the only Premiership clubs that makes money (or they would if it wasn't for all the debt that the Glazers "bought" the club with). Their size of their global fan base is absurd, for example, there are more Man United supporters club members in Thailand than the UK. I'm largely indifferent to Man U, I'd rather they did well than the clubs owned by quasi-criminal oligarchs.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 4:02pm

The question of whether the NFL or the Premier League have larger viewership is an interesting one. The Premier League claims around 160M viewers in 202 nations. The NFL generated 150 million viewers in the US alone, but has a more narrow international following. The NFL seems to have higher per-game viewership numbers (~18M per game versus ~5M per game), but fewer matches in a season.

I suspect both are dwarfed by American college football viewership numbers. FBS had 38M people *in the stands* in 2010. ABC and ESPN had 200M viewers in 2010, with no data easily available for CBS, NBC, or the conference/local carrier channels.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 4:05pm

It's worth remembering that a 6-7 University of Tennessee football team draws more fans to a random game against a Sun Belt team than Man U draws in a home match against Real Madrid. And both are drawfed by what Penn State can draw to the middle of nowhere PA against Temple.

by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Tue, 05/31/2011 - 2:13pm

Tennessee's stadium holds more than 100K fans, and they sell it out for every game. While it's not the biggest football stadium in the country, it's something of an exaggeration to say that anyone's attendance "dwarfs" TN. It's likely that the only stadium that "dwarfs" UT on a regular basis is in Indianapolis, and that's for just two races a year.

by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 5:26pm

Well if it's raw TV numbers then I'd point to the Indian Premier League I'd expect their figures are going to be pretty amazing for this year's playoffs.

by Sifter :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 7:13pm

The Indian Premier League isn't rating near as well as the cricket World Cup finals did in India. Probably because it's so damn long (well as far as cricket tournaments go). The official Indian ratings show that the cricket World Cup final got 135million Indian viewers, IPL's getting only about 20% of that for an average match I believe. As for a global audience, Wikipedia tells me that the India v Pakistan semi final of the World Cup got around 1 billion viewers worldwide: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most-watched_television_broadcasts

Saying the NFL gets 150m viewers seems a bit misleading. For the Super Bowl maybe, but for week to week stuff - no way.

by Duda (not verified) :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 3:13pm

Third-round picks Terrell McClain and and Sione Fua are nice players, but they won't turn the interior of Carolina's defensive front into the Seven Blocks of Granite overnight.

Mainly because that was an offensive line, not a defensive line.

by Sifter :: Tue, 05/24/2011 - 7:02pm

I thought it was a bit rich to put DE as one of the Bucs biggest needs. Stylez G White isn't the worst player and they have 2 fresh HIGH draft picks. Yes I know they aren't proven, but it would be a fairly awful call in my eyes to go and find a big money DE when free agency starts before even checking out the rookies. A low priced veteran? That's more like it. But you don't fill big holes with low priced veterans, hence DE not being a big hole.

Good call on the Carolina safeties though. Everyone's been talking CB for them ever since Pat Peterson was seen as the top player in the draft.