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24 Feb 2017

Four Downs: NFC South

by Andrew Potter

Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Hole: Offensive Guard

Finding a significant hole on the Falcons roster is tricky, because the 2016 Falcons were clearly one of the best teams in the league even before their magnificent run through the NFC playoffs. Our numbers had the defense pegged as the sixth-worst in the league, which is certainly a weakness, but that doesn't necessarily make it a hole: starters at most positions are young and widely expected to improve. Three of the defense's best four performances by DVOA came in the final four weeks of the regular season. That improvement continued throughout the playoffs until they simply ran out of stamina in the final third of the Super Bowl. Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, but it seems reasonable to expect that the return of top cornerback Desmond Trufant, coupled with improvement from the youth movement around him, would allow the Falcons to field a better defense without making significant changes to personnel. Depth is a potential issue, and the pass rush could stand to be upgraded, but there's nary a team in the league for whom neither of those is true.

The opposite is true of the offense: despite being comfortably the best in the league, the unit has one clear weakness. Right guard Chris Chester is probably the worst starter on the Falcons offense, and Sports Info Solutions charting ranked him fourth among NFL guards in blown blocks. He is also 34 years old, making him the oldest regular starter on the team, and a free agent. The team reportedly intends to bring him back, but there is no shortage of available alternatives should they decide to move on. Though this draft is generally expected to be a poor one for offensive linemen, an unusually large number of established guards are expected to hit the free-agent market next month, and any of a half-dozen of those would be upgrades for Atlanta.

Major Free Agents: Chris Chester, G; Taylor Gabriel, WR (RFA); Patrick DiMarco, FB; Jacob Tamme, TE; Levine Toilolo, TE; Jonathan Babineaux, DT; Dwight Freeney, DE

Chris Chester has already been mentioned, but he is the only established starter on the Falcons to be headed for free agency. Breakout receiver Taylor Gabriel is a restricted free agent, but he has expressed a firm desire to return to the Falcons and will probably get his wish. Fullback Patrick DiMarco and tight ends Levine Toilolo and Jacob Tamme are also free agents, but with the emergence of Austin Hooper neither of the latter two would be a major loss.

On defense, the free-agent class is mostly veterans who have lost their starting jobs. Sean Weatherspoon, Paul Worrilow, Phillip Wheeler, Jonathan Babineaux, and Dwight Freeney are the most recognizable names, but none of those departures would count as much more than a hit to the team's (admittedly quite shallow) defensive depth.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Hole: Offensive Tackle

Again. We didn't run this column in this format last year, but we did in 2015 and 2014. Both times, the listed hole was the same. This column now makes it three-for-three on offensive tackle being Carolina's biggest hole since the surprise retirement of Jordan Gross in February 2014. Michael Oher and Mike Remmers are an adequate NFL right tackle and a capable backup, respectively, but neither will be confused for Gross any time soon. Which is a pity, because both have been asked to man his old position since the Panthers legend chose to end his career. Despite a Super Bowl appearance at the end of the 2015 season, it generally hasn't gone well.

Of the incumbent pair, Remmers is clearly the worse player. In our staff discussion for Scramble's "All-KCW Team," Ben Muth referred to Remmers as "probably the worst full-time starter [he] watched this year." SIS charting data "credits" him with the fourth-most blown blocks in the league. In addition, he was called for 15 penalties (11 accepted, two declined, two offsetting), including nine holding calls and four false starts. On one glorious play against Minnesota in Week 3, Remmers was called for holding and Cam Newton still got sacked because of pressure from Remmers' side. Finding a competent left tackle would really upgrade two spots at once, because it would allow Michael Oher to move to right tackle, and move Remmers out of the lineup altogether.

Or they could do what they usually do and draft another defensive lineman. They seem to really like defensive linemen.

Major Free Agents: Charles Johnson, DE; Mike Remmers, OT; Ted Ginn, WR; Mario Addison, DE; Michael Griffin, S; Kawann Short, DT; Fozzy Whittaker, RB; A.J. Klein, LB; Andrew Norwell, G (RFA)

Defensive tackle Kawann Short is widely considered the most likely Panthers free agent to receive the franchise tag, as the Panthers look to work out a long-term deal with the excellent lineman. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison are proven pass-rushers who will be coveted by other teams. As previously noted, Mike Remmers had a disastrous 2016 season, so he could probably be brought back cheaply if the team so desires. Linebacker A.J. Klein will probably be inundated with offers for a starting role (and corresponding paycheck), which should be enough to entice him away from his current home as the backup to Luke Kuechly.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest Holes: Linebacker, Defensive End

Where to start with the Saints defense? For once, the secondary was not the biggest weakness. Delvin Breaux was absent with a fractured leg for half of the season, but Sterling Moore, B.W. Webb, P.J. Williams, and Ken Crawley were functional, albeit not fantastic, in his absence. Jairus Byrd is presently overpaid relative to his contribution, but the trio of Byrd, Vonn Bell, and Kenny Vaccaro is capable of being diverse and dynamic, particularly with Vaccaro in the big nickel role in which he was deployed on a number of occasions.

Linebacker is more of a problem, with Craig Robertson the only constant in the middle of the defense. Dannell Ellerbe showed flashes of his old self in contributing four sacks in eight starts, but he yet again battled injuries throughout the season. That has been a feature of his time in New Orleans: Ellerbe has only managed 12 starts in two seasons, and is now on the wrong side of 30 to expect that to improve. The other linebackers were special teams stalwart Nate Stupar, who was competent when called upon to start, and Stephone Anthony and the mummified remains of James Laurinaitis, who were very much not. Linebacker is a major hole for the Saints, particularly in coverage, as evidenced by the team's league-worst 44.8% DVOA on passes to running backs. Still, at least they aren't in a division with any particularly great receiving backs...

The other major hole is at defensive end. Yes, Cameron Jordan is one of the very best defensive ends in the game against both run and pass. The problem is that he's only one player, and the other defensive end spot has been a black hole for production. Starter Paul Kruger managed 1.5 sacks in 13 starts last year, with Darryl Tapp and Kasim Edebali combining for another 1.5. To put that in perspective, four other players on the Saints defense had at least 4 sacks, including two different defensive tackles. Hau'oli Kikaha is the team's next big hope for that position, but there's no margin for anything to go wrong: if Jordan is injured, you can forget about rushing the passer from defensive end. That hasn't been a problem so far -- Jordan has played in every game since he was drafted in 2011, starting 95 of 96 -- but even the best can only do so much.

Major Free Agents: Tim Lelito, G; Roman Harper, S; Jahri Evans, G; Tim Hightower, RB

Roman Harper and Jahri Evans are aging players on the downslope of their careers, and it would not be a surprise to see either or both leave or even retire during the offseason. Tim Lelito is a more interesting proposition, as a four-year veteran with 63 games under his belt and experience at every spot on the interior of the offensive line. He will probably get a starting opportunity, whether in New Orleans or elsewhere. The Saints have a deep and talented front five, though losing Lelito would hurt that depth; still, given their tight cap situation and obvious roster holes they may be inclined to put that money to use elsewhere. Tim Hightower is expected to return as Mark Ingram's deputy, and is unlikely to be the sort of player other teams throw money at to lure away.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Hole: Safety

Tampa Bay's pass defense ranked a surprising sixth by our numbers in 2016, but safety was the obvious weak spot on an otherwise very good unit. The good news is that Keith Tandy finally supplanted all-decade woodchopper Chris Conte in the starting lineup for the final five games of 2016. The bad news is that Keith Tandy is the only safety the Buccaneers currently have signed through 2017 who has any starting experience at all. Bradley McDougald, who started all 16 games last year and 15 the year before, is an unrestricted free agent. Chris Conte, who started 24 games over the same period, is also a free agent and is (mercifully) unlikely to return. The only other safety on this season's roster to have started even one game for the Buccaneers, Major Wright, was released in December and not re-signed.

That it took Tandy two years to oust Conte -- after he spent his first three seasons backing up Mark Barron and/or Dashon Goldson -- tells us that he probably isn't the long-term answer at either safety spot. He may, however, get first crack at a starting job over the summer, depending on what happens in the draft and free agency. McDougald is widely expected to be re-signed by the Buccaneers, but as an unrestricted free agent that's far from guaranteed. Fortunately, he isn't likely to be in huge demand, which means returning to Tampa Bay probably makes sense for both the player and the team. A starting tandem of McDougald and Tandy wouldn't be the worst outcome in the world for the Buccaneers, but it would leave the safety spot as probably the weakest point on their defense.

Alternatively, the Buccaneers could look to free agency for an upgrade: Eric Berry is probably a pipe dream, but Tony Jefferson of the Cardinals has been mentioned as a possibility. Jefferson would provide exactly what Chris Conte didn't as a deep safety: range and ball skills. He would also be cheaper than Berry, leaving room for the team to address its other holes.

Major Free Agents: Vincent Jackson, WR; Russell Shepard, WR; Bradley McDougald, S; Brandon Myers, TE; Mike Glennon, QB; William Gholston, DE; Jacquies Smith, DE (RFA); Jacquizz Rodgers, RB

The largest of Tampa Bay's other holes, potentially, is wide receiver. Veteran Vincent Jackson began last season as the starter opposite top receiver Mike Evans, but was placed on injured reserve after tearing his ACL in Week 5. Jackson is now a 34-year-old free agent who has only played 15 games in two years, and he will be coming off a major knee injury -- it would surprise nobody if he retired or went unsigned this offseason. Adam Humphries finished last year as the team's second-highest receiver, and is going nowhere as an exclusive-rights free agent, but Russell Shepard is an unrestricted free agent and the depth chart behind those two was a disaster. Cecil Shorts probably won't play again after destroying his knee in December, and Josh Huff was cut after destroying the Bucs' kick return DVOA later that month. That leaves Freddie Martino, who, despite his small-sample 40.1% DVOA, has more chance of catching on as an exotic Floridian cocktail than as a starting receiver for the Buccaneers. More to the point, even if they do re-sign everybody they want, the team would still probably be looking for an upgrade at the second starting spot.

Elsewhere, everybody's favorite ball-throwing giraffe, Mike Glennon, may well get a chance to compete for a starting job somewhere after his disaster-free period as Tampa Bay's starter in 2013 and 2014. Glennon did manage to hover somewhere around 25th in the league by DYAR during that period, which puts him right around the level of a Brian Hoyer or Matt Cassel or Ryan Fitzpatrick. Clearly, he's destined for the AFC South, especially as he may be the only other quarterback who can reach the shelf on which Brock Osweiler has stashed the Texans' playbooks to keep them away from Tom Savage. William Gholston and Jacquies Smith both leaving would open a sizeable hole at defensive end behind Robert Ayers and Noah Spence, while Jacquizz Rodgers was the most reliable back on the team last year and should get an offer to re-sign assuming the expensive Doug Martin is cut.

Posted by: Andrew Potter on 24 Feb 2017

5 comments, Last at 28 Feb 2017, 8:43pm by Parmenides


by MilkmanDanimal :: Fri, 02/24/2017 - 12:10pm

Between "exotic Floridian cocktail" and "favorite ball-throwing giraffe", I certainly laughed. Also, mad props for skipping the obligatory kicker joke.

Vincent Jackson should get a lovely front office or coaching job in the Bucs organization; he seems pretty clearly done from a physical standpoint, but he's incredibly active in the community and would ideally be part of the team in some way forever. Great guy, but just can't play anymore.

Russell Shepard is the special teams ace, McDougald is at least vaguely competent at safety, Jacquizz Rogers isn't an overly-expensive drug-addled, PED-using soon-to-be-cut RB named "Doug Martin", and Will Gholston and Jacques Smith . . . play football? Gholston is a good run-stopping DE, and Smith has a pulse. If cheap, re-sign.

The Bucs should re-sign Chris Conte, just so they can cut him. And then do it again.

by PirateFreedom :: Fri, 02/24/2017 - 3:29pm

Does this mean Osweiler is "everybody's least favorite ball-throwing giraffe"?

by Bryan Knowles :: Fri, 02/24/2017 - 4:09pm

Your Pointless Trivia Fact of the day:

According to PFR's database, there have only been three quarterbacks with a recorded height of 6'7" or larger and 100 career pass attempts. Glennon has the best stats, with a QB rating of 84.6 Osweiler's in the middle, at 77.4

But your "least favorite ball-throwing giraffe", all-time edition? 6'8" Dan McGwire, who might well be Russell Wilson's evil mirror image in Seattle, and finished with a 52.3 QB rating.

by Vincent Verhei :: Fri, 02/24/2017 - 4:34pm

He was not very good...


... but he was cool to watch. Between his size and helmet visor, he looked like Darth Vader playing quarterback.


by Parmenides :: Tue, 02/28/2017 - 8:43pm

Panthers have had to find a Tackle for the last couple of years because either there are none in the draft at the point where they have drafted or, like this year, none in the draft. Not to say that there aren't Tackles in the draft, but there isn't exactly a lot of talent.