Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

Most Recent FO Features


» 2018 Free Agency Cost-Benefit Analysis

Is Kirk Cousins the best free-agent quarterback in recent memory? Should Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler have gotten the larger contract? And what makes a free-agent contract good or bad, anyway?

01 Mar 2013

Four Downs: NFC South

by Vince Verhei

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest hole: Running back

There were 42 running backs with at least 100 carries in 2012, and among that group, Atlanta's Michael Turner ranked 41st in rushing DVOA. The Falcons' top rusher averaged only 3.6 yards per carry, and he fell below 4.0 yards per carry in 12 games, 13 including the playoffs. Atlanta was the league's worst team on short-yardage runs. By the end of the year it was clear that Turner was a liability. In two playoff games, Turner had just 22 carries, while backup Jacquizz Rodgers had 20. As a duo, they gained only 62 yards on 18 carries in the season-ending playoff loss to San Francisco.

Turner turned 31 just before Valentine's Day, which qualifies him for senior citizen status among NFL running backs. While a bounce-back season is still possible, it's nearly certain that his best days are behind him. Rodgers just turned 23, but it's not realistic that he'll be any kind of long-term solution at only 5-foot-6. No player that short in league history has ever gone over 1,000 yards on the ground, and since the 1970 merger with the AFL, only three have even managed 500 yards. Rodgers has 151 career NFL carries, and is averaging just 3.8 yards per rush.

There's no savior to be found in free agency, unless you think Rashard Mendenhall or Reggie Bush is capable of getting Atlanta over the hump. It's more likely that the team will target this position in the draft. Right now, it appears that only one running back (Alabama's Eddie Lacy) will go in the first round, and he'll probably be gone when Atlanta picks at 30. Would the Falcons consider trading up to get him? The last time they traded up in the draft they got Julio Jones, and that's worked out quite well.

Grabbing a new runner isn't Atlanta's top offseason priority. They risk losing important starters to free agency (Sam Baker, William Moore) or retirement (Tony Gonzalez), and keeping those hands on deck is Thomas Dimitroff's most critical task. As the roster currently stands, though, it's clear that the biggest hole is in the backfield.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest hole: Defensive tackle

The Panthers defense made giant strides last season, allowing 22.7 points per game, down from 26.8 points per game in 2011. There's still room for improvement, though, and most of it can occur up front. The Panthers were 23rd in FO's Adjusted Line Yards metric, which measures a defense's ability to prevent opponents from gaining consistent yards on the ground. They were also 23rd in short-yardage run defense, and 29th at stuffing opposing runners for a loss.

Carolina's primary starters at defensive tackle last season were a pair of journeymen named Edwards. 31-year-old Dwan Edwards was on his third team in four years. Ron Edwards, 33, is also on his third NFL team, and has missed 21 games in the past two years due to injuries. Dwan is entering free agency, while Ron has one more year left on his deal.

The top free agent at this position is probably Miami's Randy Starks, and while he'd be an upgrade, the Panthers would be wise to draft a tackle too. The Panthers have the 14th pick in the draft, and they'll certainly miss out on Utah's Star Lotulelei. (Unless his heart condition discovered at the combine scares teams off.) However, they could have their pick of Missouri's Sheldon Richardson, Florida's Sharrif Floyd, or North Carolina's Sylvester Williams.

One way or another, Carolina must get help for middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. The rookie was the only player in the league to make at least 20 percent of his team's defensive plays (tackles, assists, passes defensed) in 2012, and the Panthers can't let a star like this go to waste.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest hole: At least a half-dozen spots on defense, maybe more

Let's not mince words here: The 2012 New Orleans Saints were a defensive disaster of historical proportions. They gave up a league-record 7,042 yards of total offense. Remarkably, they were last in the league in average yards allowed on both passing plays (7.4) and rushes (5.2). No doubt some of this mess can be blamed on the bounty scandal that saw defensive coordinator Gregg Williams kicked out of New Orleans and Steve Spagnuolo rushed in to take the job. Spagnuolo's defensive scheme was good enough to win a Super Bowl with the Giants, and though it was obviously a bad fit for the Saints roster, at some point the players must be held accountable for their own performance.

Regardless, it won't be Spagnuolo's job to fix things here. Rob Ryan has been hired to turn things around, and Saints coach Sean Payton has said he wants Ryan to run the 3-4 scheme he used as defensive coordinator for the Raiders, Browns, and Cowboys. The Saints' best front-seven players last season were linebacker Curtis Lofton and ends Cameron Jordan and Will Smith. It's hard to tell how those players will fare in a 3-4 look. Both Jordan and Smith go over 280 pounds, so it's hard to see either moving out to linebacker. As 3-4 ends, they'll have a hard time matching the combined 14 sacks the collected in 2012.

All is not rosy on the back end of the defense, either. Neither starting corner (Patrick Robinson and Jabari Greer) ranked among the top 70 players at his position in yards allowed per target in FO's charting numbers. Safety Roman Harper is 30 years old and could be cut to get the Saints under the salary cap.

It's going to be a transitional year for the New Orleans' defense, with plenty of new faces both in free agency and the draft. But it's likely they will improve (they can't get much worse, after all), and even a little improvement on defense could get them back in the playoff race.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest hole: Pass rush

Tampa Bay opponents threw the ball 627 times last season, more than any defense except Washington. Despite all those opportunities, they collected just 27 sacks. Only two teams put opposing quarterbacks on the ground less frequently. And six of those sacks, nearly a full quarter of their entire season's output, came in one game against Philadelphia (a game the Bucs lost, ironically). Michael Bennett led the team with nine sacks, which was not among the top 20 players in the NFL. He was the only Bucs player in the top 50.

The Bucs have tried to build their pass rush in the past, but it's been a failed effort. They added two defensive linemen in the first two rounds of the draft in both 2010 (Gerald McCoy and Brian Price) and 2011 (Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers). Though McCoy deserves credit for Tampa Bay's excellent run defense, those four players have just 24 career sacks between them. Price was traded to the Bears, who went on to cut him. Clayborn missed 13 games last year with a knee injury. And Bowers, who has come off the bench in 20 of his 26 career games and has only 4.5 career sacks, was just arrested on gun charges. His future is uncertain.

The good news for Tampa Bay is that defensive end is one of the deeper positions in this draft. Texas A&M's Damontre Moore, Florida State's Bjoern Werner, or LSU's Barkevious Mingo could find themselves in a pewter helmet when the Bucs make the 13th selection.

(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)

Posted by: Vincent Verhei on 01 Mar 2013

21 comments, Last at 07 Mar 2013, 3:40am by nath


by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 03/01/2013 - 12:10pm

The Rodgers 5'6" thing is an example of a false endpoint.

Joe Morris, at 5'7", had three 1000 yard seasons for the Giants in the 80s.

Notable runners who were 5'8" include DeAngelo Williams, Maurice Jones-Drew, Bryan Westbrook, and Barry frickin' Sanders.

Darren Sproles is also 5'6". For god's sake, there's only been 10 RBs in NFL history who stood 5'6" or shorter. Can you imagine how many 6' flameouts there have been?

by rfh1001 :: Fri, 03/01/2013 - 12:22pm

Well hello, Napoleon.

by Vincent Verhei :: Fri, 03/01/2013 - 2:03pm

Actually, Napoleon Kaufman was 5-foot-9 and averaged nearly 5 yards per carry in his career.


by RickD :: Sat, 03/02/2013 - 1:40pm

Most short running backs aren't Barry Sanders or Maurice Jones-Drew.

Brian Westbrook is 5'10". (Apparently he has a brother named Byron Westbrook, but he's also 5'10".) DeAngelo Williams is 5'9".

The lack of RBs in NFL history at Rodgers height does not mean that there is an issue with the sampling process. It means that people of that height generally have not been able to play RB in the NFL.

Sproles has never carried the full-time rushing load for a team.

I think the main point here is that Turner is done and that Rodgers is small and unlikely to be a feature back. If he were capable of playing at the level of Barry Sanders or MJD, we would know that by now. RB is the one position where elite talent gets noticed the most quickly.

My advice for the Falcons would be to not obsess about drafting an RB early just for the sake of getting an RB (that approach usually backfires), but to find a solid guy along the lines of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. There are few elite RBs but plenty of reasonable ones.

by theslothook :: Sat, 03/02/2013 - 4:30pm

That's good advice, but I'm not so sure rb's are really that necessary for the falcons. Sure, it would make their offense even better, but their offense is plenty good enough. The real problem is that defense, which to me is a house of cards and really can get exposed for its lack of talent. I think edge pass rush is an absolute must have for the falcons right now.

by fb29 :: Sat, 03/02/2013 - 6:50pm

Exactly. "Biggest hole" depends on if you are looking at last season or this coming season. Pass pressure is going to be a huge hole this season, and one that is much more difficult to fill than RB.

Most Falcons fans I talk to mention DE/pass rusher first, and add "and we should pick up a RB somewhere."

Jacquizz is about as good as a player can be given how small and slow he is. He catches the ball well, he has a few good moves, he reads the field ok. He's just small and slow.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Sun, 03/03/2013 - 12:23pm

There haven't been any 5'6" RBs because the NFL spent 50 years with an obsession with tall fullbacks. But that's been a downward trend for years, and RBs are shorter than ever. Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders are the only two men in the HOF who were shorter than the average adult male at the time of their careers.

Had they played even 15 years before, they likely wouldn't have been starters because of their short stature. As far as whether we'd know or not, I remind the audience that Sanders spent 3 seasons riding the bench at OK State because his coaches didn't realize he was better than Thurman Thomas.

by DisplacedPackerFan :: Sun, 03/03/2013 - 6:35pm

Well it's not like Barry didn't get any carries, and it's not like Thurman Thomas, a Hall of Fame running back, was awful either.

At OK State
In 85 Thomas had a 302-1553-15-5.1 season
In 86 Thomas had a 173-741-4-4.3
In 86 Sanders had a 73-325-2-4.4 season so about 30% of the total carries and did about the same as Thomas
In 87 Thomas had a 250-1613-18-6.5 season
In 87 Sanders had a 105-603-8-5.7 season so again about 30% of the carries and a lower level of production

Sanders 88 season was insane of course with a 344-2628-37-7.6 season and I can't speak for usage in the years they were both running the ball, as that of course can make a huge difference, but considering the career Thomas had, and went on to have in the NFL, and the numbers they put up on the same team, it's not obvious that Sanders was clearly better. Running backs that have been 3 year starters have blown up their senior year before as well so you can't just say look at what he did his senior year. It was a different team they were 10-2 with a bowl win in both 87 and 88 so Sanders better season than Thomas's senior year didn't change the on the field outcomes that much either. Did Sanders prove to be better? Clearly he did and while his NFL career was shorter, he had 10 great seasons and Thomas only had 8 and they weren't as good as Sanders and then had 4 hang on years and so so rookie year where most of the goal line carries were giving to Riddick.

To make the statement that it was coaching bias based on player physique in this case is a bit of a leap. It's not like Thomas was that big at 5-10 vs Barry at 5-8.

by Dean :: Sun, 03/03/2013 - 8:59pm

Thomas was also a year ahead of him in school. That makes him, presumably, a year more mature emotionally, if not physically. It also puts him a rung higher on the pecking order in an enviornment (college football) which still makes a pretense about being fair. It's too much of a stretch for me to buy into the idea that his height had anything to do with it without any, you know, real evidence.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Mon, 03/04/2013 - 12:29pm

"To make the statement that it was coaching bias based on player physique in this case is a bit of a leap. It's not like Thomas was that big at 5-10 vs Barry at 5-8."

But the 2" difference between 5-8 and 5-6 does matter?

The comment about Thomas was less about stature and more about the difference between ideal player selection and actual player selection on the part of coaching staffs. That short RBs didn't exist as a practical matter until the 1980s doesn't mean that good ones didn't exist earlier -- it may just mean that coaches didn't recognize their utility until the 1980s.

by DisplacedPackerFan :: Mon, 03/04/2013 - 6:08pm

I never said the 2'' difference between 5-8 and 5-6 mattered. I just found your example to be very very flawed at trying to make your point, even the point about the difference between ideal and actual player selection because the evidence that Barry was better than Thurman doesn't appear to have been in any way obvious when the coaches had to choose between the two.

I do not dispute that there might have been an excellent short running back that was overlooked by coaches because of bias. I do not dispute that coaching bias based on ideal physical traits exists either. I just found your example to be one that almost seemed to be in favor of the opposite of the point you were making.

by rfh1001 :: Fri, 03/01/2013 - 12:21pm

Nothing to see here.

by BlueStarDude :: Fri, 03/01/2013 - 1:26pm

Cam Jordan was viewed as a potential 3-4 end coming out of college. He'll be fine. Since he's a 3-down player and just now hitting his third year, I think there's a decent chance he matches his 8 sacks from last year. If the Saints keep Smith he might not fit into the base D, but as a rush end in the subpackages he'll still be on the field for more than 50% of snaps anyway. The Saints D will show significant improvement this year.

by nath :: Thu, 03/07/2013 - 3:40am

Yeah, Jordan is probably better suited to being a 3-4 end. That, honestly, may have been a big reason the team made the change.

by MilkmanDanimal :: Fri, 03/01/2013 - 3:17pm

I don't see how the pass rush could be a bigger need than the secondary for Tampa. Adrian Clayborn was looking very impressive the three games he played last year; he didn't have any sacks, but he was getting into the backfield and being disruptive, and he and Bowers (presuming he doesn't get Plaxico'd into jail) are at bare minimum perfectly serviceable, particularly if Michael Bennett Sticks around as the third guy in the rotation. The cornerbacks are absolutely, utterly, and completely abysmal in every conceivable way, and the team was starting UFA rookies and guys who were just grabbed off the street by season's end. Add to that Eric Wright is going to be leaving soon, and there is NOBODY in the secondary who can be relied on to cover.

Yes, a good pass rush can help a bad secondary, but this is not a "bad" secondary, it's an abysmal one.

by Peregrine :: Fri, 03/01/2013 - 3:28pm

Upgrading on Turner was the most obvious way the Falcons could improve for 2013. Cut this morning, so hooray for doing the most obvious thing. Personally, I'd like for the Falcons to pick up two RBs to join Quizz in an RB by committee.

Other holes:
* OL - big questions on what we're doing at C and RG, not to mention whether we re-sign Baker at LT.
* DL - after cutting Abraham, DE is an even bigger need, but a massive DT wouldn't be a bad idea either.
* LB - horrible LB depth.
* DB - after cutting Robinson and with Grimes a free agent, expect we'll see a CB move here. I'd be very surprised if we don't re-sign S William Moore before March 12.

by Sifter :: Fri, 03/01/2013 - 5:15pm

I'm with you. Rodgers seems perfectly reasonable, at least an average 3rd down back - maybe more. So just look for a complement (or is it compliment? :)) back. I'd be looking for a big RB in about round 4, or taking a cheap gamble on someone like Mendenhall who is still young enough and talented enough to become something. Even Shonn Greene or Peyton Hillis probably do better than Turner.

The other areas you've highlighted are spot on. I'd draft on the D-line, grooming some new talent behind Abraham and Babineaux, and pushing guys like Jerry and Peters who haven't quite developed as planned. Try and fill the other holes in FA.

by theslothook :: Fri, 03/01/2013 - 8:26pm

Does anyone else feel like the falcons are a team that routinely overachieves given their talent? Don't get me wrong, I like Ryan and Jones and White and Gonzo, and I guess witherspoon and the safeties are pretty good. But their o line as a collection feels average, as does most of their D. They don't have any pass rush beyond abraham(now cut) and I still am not a fan of their corners other than grimes(off an injury). Somehow this team has made the playoffs the last three years with 2 years as the number 1 seed. It's kind of amazing and a testament to their coaching staff.

by RickD :: Sat, 03/02/2013 - 1:43pm

I think Smith is really underappreciated as a coach. The Falcons are usually among the league's best in terms of not committing penalties. They're disciplined and don't make stupid mistakes.

by fb29 :: Sat, 03/02/2013 - 7:24pm

You can thank Matt Ryan's ability to avoid sacks and adjustments at the line for making a very average offensive line look good.

I was very impressed with what Mike Nolan was able to do with our Defense, particularly our Safeties. Remember the game against Peyton? We never really had any down lineman, we had Biermann dropping back into Safety coverage, it was nuts.

I think Moore has to be a priority, and I would like to see Grimes back under $9 million.

by theslothook :: Sat, 03/02/2013 - 8:08pm

I don't think I've ever seen a team scheme like that before. They played that game entirely to stop Peyton. I suspect part of it was Manning and denver were unfamiliar with the audibles and didn't have a feel to properly attack those coverages. But it was a stellar bit of chess match that I've never seen done before. The entire front was a mush of linebackers, linemen, and safeties all rotating and crossing the field in an absolutely bizarre way. I remember gruden said, moore's post snap assignment was to run all the way across the field toward his zone. It was so unorthodox and unusual.