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Two NFC teams were hit hardest by injuries last year. One already set the AGL record in 2016, while the other has a coach with the worst AGL since 2002. Also: the Rams' incredible bill of health in L.A., and Tampa Bay's questionable injury reporting.

21 Feb 2014

Four Downs: NFC South

by Vince Verhei

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Hole: Defensive Line

As you might expect from a team that won only four games last season, there are holes all over Atlanta's roster. Question marks abound along the offensive line, at running back, and in the secondary. The defensive line, however, may have been the NFL's worst in 2013, and things look to be getting worse before they get better.

The Falcons were among the league's bottom three defenses in rushing yards allowed per game, yards per carry, and sacks. The advanced numbers at Football Outsiders aren't any prettier on the whole. While their rushing yardage totals were somewhat skewed by a number of long runs, they were still 27th in Adjusted Line Yards (which measures a team's ability to prevent consistent gains). They were also dead last in Adjusted Sack Rate, which accounts for pass attempts, down and distance, and quality of opposition.

It's the lack of pass rush that really killed Atlanta in 2013. Since their defensive linemen couldn't win one-on-one battles at the line of scrimmage, the Falcons were forced to blitz in an attempt to pressure opposing quarterbacks. That tactic often backfired, though, leaving their cornerbacks (a mix of very old and very young players) exposed in coverage. The Falcons sent five or more pass rushers on 38 percent of all pass plays -- they were one of the five most blitz-happy teams in football. When they blitzed, though, they gave up 7.4 yards per play, worse than anyone except Dallas.

At least there is youth and optimism in the secondary. The Falcons have already cut ties with Asante Samuel, who looked completely washed up in 2013 and turned 33 in January. First-round rookie Desmond Trufant started 16 games at one corner spot, and second-rounder Robert Alford started the last four games on the other side of the field. Both players took their lumps last year, but cornerback has usually been a very difficult position for rookies to play, and it's reasonable to expect improvement from both in 2014.

The defensive line, however, is old and unstable. Only one of last year's starters (defensive tackle Corey Peters) was younger than 29 years of age. Three of them (Peters, Jonathan Babineaux, and Peria Jerry) are entering unrestricted free agency, and the fourth, Osi Umenyiora, is a potential salary cap casualty. Babineaux told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he would like to re-sign with the Falcons, but would it be wise for Atlanta to invest in a 32-year-old lineman?

The good news for Atlanta is that they have bountiful means to acquire talent, in terms of both cap space (at least $21 million, according to the AJC) and the draft, where they hold the sixth overall selection. In the slim chance that the Carolina Panthers are foolish enough to let Greg Hardy hit the open market, the Falcons should do whatever it takes to sign him, which would fix their biggest weakness and also strike a blow at the reigning division champions. That's not realistic, though; more likely, they'll be high in the running for Cincinnati's Michael Johnson, Oakland's Lamarr Houston, or Seattle's Michael Bennett. At defensive tackle, the top targets appear to be Chicago's Henry Melton, Linval Joseph of the Giants, or B.J. Raji of Green Bay.

It's hard to see South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney falling all the way to Atlanta. They could trade up in the draft (they've done it before), but it's a safer bet that they'll stay put and take the next best edge rusher, either Khalil Mack out of Buffalo or Anthony Barr from UCLA.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Hole: Wide Receiver

The Panthers can use the franchise tag to keep Greg Hardy in town, and Cam Newton has made it clear that he will not be a training camp holdout. That should make things easier for Panthers GM Dave Gettleman, though he still faces some tough decisions. Two starters on the offensive line (Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton) and three more in the secondary (Captain Munnerlyn, Quintin Mikell, and Mike Mitchell) will be unrestricted free agents, and Gettleman must determine how to re-sign or replace them. After all that is done, however, the Panthers will still have to fix their biggest weakness: a receiving corps that ranks among the worst in football.

According to Football Outsiders' wide receiver rankings, no Carolina wideout made the top 50 players at the position, despite having Newton at quarterback and playing in a run-heavy scheme that should have opened up opportunities downfield. Since Muhsin Muhammad left town in 2009, the Panthers have been trying to find a bookend for Steve Smith. Now, it looks like Smith himself needs to be replaced. Likely the best player in franchise history, Smith turns 35 in May, and he's coming off one of the least productive seasons of his career. He averaged fewer than 50 yards per game in 2013, only the second time that has happened since he became a starter in 2002. The other was in 2010, when he was catching passes from Jimmy Clausen.

Newton has one of the strongest arms in the league, but with no receivers able to get open downfield, the Carolina deep passing game collapsed. The Panthers threw 40 bombs at least 25 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, very close to the league average of 43.5. However, they completed only seven of those bombs (worst in the league), a completion rate of 17.5 percent (also worst). They averaged only 7.1 yards per pass on bombs, worse than every team except Jacksonville. You'll recall that Jacksonville's quarterbacks last year were Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne. There's no excuse for Carolina to be in this company.

Brandon LaFell is the co-starter alongside Smith, but he's a restricted free agent and a better blocker than receiver. Only two other wideouts on the roster (Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon) even caught a single pass all season, and both of those players are unrestricted free agents and likely to be gone.

The Panthers sit about $16 million below the salary cap, which sounds good, but a lot of that money will likely be spent on Hardy. They could clear up some space by cutting defensive tackle Dwan Edwards and sticking 2013 second-rounder Kawann Short into the starting lineup, and maybe that would be enough to get a deep threat like Hakeem Nicks of the Giants. Still, they're not likely to make a big splash in the free agent pool.

That leaves draft day, and picking at 28th, the Panthers would do well to land a wideout like Davante Adams of Fresno State or Brandin Cooks of Oregon State. Or, they could roll the dice, like the Atlanta Falcons did in 2011. Like this year's Panthers, the 2011 Falcons were coming off a division championship and a disappointing playoff loss at home. Not content to stand pat with the 27th pick, they sent a bundle of picks to the Cleveland Browns to take Alabama wideout Julio Jones with the sixth selection. The Falcons returned to the playoffs each of the next two seasons and nearly made the Super Bowl before their disastrous 2013 campaign (caused in part by an injury to Jones). It's pretty clear that the top wideout in this year's draft is Clemson's Sammy Watkins, but he's a virtual lock to go in the top 10. Would the Panthers be as bold as Atlanta to get a dangerous weapon for their young quarterback? This is pure speculation, but it's a move that makes sense in a lot of ways.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest Hole: Secondary

Usually writing these "biggest needs" pieces is a simple manner of finding what a team did poorly in 2013, and determining who was most at fault and how they can be best replaced. It's a different situation in New Orleans. The Saints' pass defense was quite good last season though, finishing in the top ten in yards per attempt and in Football Outsiders' advanced numbers. There were big changes, though, following a playoff defeat in Seattle. The Saints need all the cash they can find to re-sign Jimmy Graham (who really deserves wide receiver money, but that's another article), so they've cut ties with cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Roman Harper, who started a combined total of 164 games in black and gold. Safety Malcolm Jenkins (63 career starts in New Orleans) is also an unrestricted free agent, and likely to get a better offer on the open market than the Saints will be able to afford. (Linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith were also let go, but they were essentially both out for all of 2013 anyway.)

So what's left? Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro lived up to his first-round status as a rookie. Rafael Bush, a journeyman who has bounced around rosters in Atlanta, Denver, and New Orleans, started six games in the regular season and one more in the playoffs, and he would be the top free safety on the roster. He's an unrestricted free agent, but expected to return. At cornerback, Keenan Lewis struggled in his first season after coming over from Pittsburgh in free agency, in part because he was often asked to cover the other team's top receiver for the first time in his career. On the other side, the top corner right now is Corey White, a 2012 fifth-round draft pick. White was outstanding as a nickelback last year, but the league is full of corners who looked good as nickelbacks and then struggled in full-time roles. Patrick Robinson, a first-round pick in 2010, finally earned a starting role in 2012, but missed most of the 2013 season with a knee injury. He's also due $1.36 million in salary this year, and could be a casualty of the Graham sweepstakes. These roster worries are exacerbated by Rob Ryan's scheme, a blitz-heavy attack that often leaves corners in man-to-man coverage, and also routinely puts three safeties on the field at the same time.

For obvious reasons, the Saints won't be big spenders in free agency, which means they'll have to look to the draft for an influx of cheap young talent. With the 27th pick, they're strong candidates to take a cornerback like Jason Verrett from TCU, Bradley Roby from Ohio State or Marcus Roberson from Florida. They might also jump on Louisville safety Calvin Pryor should he slip out of the top 20.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Hole: Offensive Line

You could make a strong case for several units as Tampa Bay's biggest need. New coach Lovie Smith's defenses have traditionally relied on zone coverages and four-man pass rushes, and there's not a lineman on the roster who can be relied on to pressure opposing quarterbacks. The wide receiver depth behind Vincent Jackson is pretty sorry, and Jackson himself turned 31 in January. Since we've already talked about the options at those positions, though, let's talk about the Buccaneers offensive line, a unit that has gotten a little long in the tooth and could use an infusion of new talent. Tampa Bay has not drafted an offensive lineman in the first three rounds since 2008.

Four spots on the line last year were sure things; left tackle Donald Penn, center Jeremy Zuttah, right guard Davin Joseph, and right tackle Demar Dotson each started every game. The left guard spot, though, was a big problem. Carl Nicks played only two games, bringing his two-season total with the Buccaneers to nine. His career is in jeopardy after multiple toe surgeries to deal with staph infection and nerve damage. Smith sounds optimistic about Nicks making a return, but Tampa Bay could save $7 million by letting the lineman go. Joseph and Penn may also be released unless they are willing to take pay cuts. Regardless, there's plenty of room for improvement here. The Bucs' O-line ranked 28th in Football Outsiders' run-blocking metric, and 21st in pass protection.

The Bucs will have about $19 or million or more to spend in free agency, though, as noted, they have a lot of holes to fill. Top offensive line free agents include include Baltimore's duo of Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher at tackle; Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz of the Kansas City Chiefs at guard; and Alex Mack of the Browns at center. Or, they could raid the rosters of their division rivals, signing Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton away from Carolina and Brian De La Puente from New Orleans.

In the draft, two tackles seem head-and-shoulders above their peers: Auburn's Greg Robinson and Texas A&M's Jake Matthews. If one of those players should fall to the Bucs at number 7, they'd be a great fit. Otherwise, look for Tampa Bay to grab a pass rusher or perhaps Sammy Watkins, then come back and address the line in the second round.

This article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.

Posted by: Vincent Verhei on 21 Feb 2014

11 comments, Last at 22 Feb 2014, 8:07pm by Joseph


by Parmenides :: Fri, 02/21/2014 - 6:47pm

For the Panthers there will probably be a wide receiver taken in the first two rounds, but I sincerely doubt that they will trade a bevy of future picks to get into the top ten. Maybe if some how Watkins slides into the teens I could see it. There are too many holes on the team to be trading picks for wide receivers.

by nath :: Fri, 02/21/2014 - 7:26pm

"At cornerback, Keenan Lewis struggled in his first season after coming over from Pittsburgh in free agency"

Uhh, what? From everything else I've read and seen, Lewis was dynamite, unless you can provide evidence otherwise. Just look at the difference in the pass defense in the divisional game against Philadelphia after he went out.

It's weird, because the Saints don't have any huge, glaring needs, just a few small needs and/or units that are thinner than they first appear. The WR corps is suddenly shallow with Lance Moore's age and decline (and a cap number that might have sent him packing anyway). Ditto the DBs, where Lewis and Vaccaro are great to have, but the guys who were next to them are all gone. Same with the offensive line, which has two tackles hitting free agency.

by Vincent Verhei :: Sat, 02/22/2014 - 2:51am

We haven't compiled all of our charting data yet (which is why I didn't reference it), but so far Lewis ranks 64th among CBs in yards/target, 77th in Success Rate.

by Perfundle :: Sat, 02/22/2014 - 3:04am

Yards per target doesn't sound like a good way to rank cornerbacks. If a CB has a reputation as a shutdown corner and QBs only target him on the rare occasions he has blown his coverage, he would have a high yard/target average on very few targets. Seems like yards/snap would be better.

by felton51 :: Sat, 02/22/2014 - 11:05am

Vince: Pro Football Focus rates Lewis 16th out of 40 corners who played at least 75% of the team's snaps in 2013. The Saints also held a 20-7 with about 19 minutes left at Philadelphia when Lewis went out. 18 minutes later, it was 24-23 Eagles .

by Perfundle :: Sat, 02/22/2014 - 3:21pm

To be fair, the quality and game-preparedness of his backup is half of that equation.

by Will Allen :: Sat, 02/22/2014 - 12:45pm

Success rate per snap would be even better. Who cares if a receiver catches a 15 yard completion on 3rd and 20, on the offense's 35 yard line?

It's really hard to rank dbs with precision, without very intensive film study, and very good charting.

by Joseph :: Sat, 02/22/2014 - 8:07pm

Nath, I agree with you. The Saints will not go for a S with their 1st round pick--they just did that LAST year. Their draft plans will be contingent upon what they are able to do in FA, where they are really helped by that extra ~$4M available on the salary cap. They could use a #2CB, a FS if Jenkins leaves, a ILB to pair w Lofton, a WR3 if Joe Morgan doesn't pan out, and 1-2 OL, depending on whether De La Puente and/or Strief leave on FA. #1CB/secondary is the least of their worries.

by jtr :: Fri, 02/21/2014 - 7:43pm

"New coach Lovie Smith's defenses have traditionally relied on zone coverages and four-man pass rushes, and there's not a lineman on the roster who can be relied on to pressure opposing quarterbacks."
I'll admit I haven't watched much Tampa Bay football recently, but I thought Gerald McCoy was a good disruptive 3-technique, pretty much ideal for a Tampa 2 scheme which typically generates much of its pressure from an undertackle.

by Peregrine :: Fri, 02/21/2014 - 9:21pm

VV, you also could have built an airtight case for OL being Atlanta's biggest need. We were whipped along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball all year, which was sadly just continuing the downward trend observed in prior seasons.

by Vincent Verhei :: Sat, 02/22/2014 - 2:53am

You're not wrong, but the Falcons finished 14th in DVOA on offense, and 29th on defense, so D-line seemed more pressing. Obviously, Matt Ryan covers up a lot of his line's mistakes.