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Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Filling the Holes: NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

Notable Free Agents: Tony Gonzalez (TE), Brent Grimes (CB), Sam Baker (LT)

Holes: Cornerback, Defensive End, Running Back

The Falcons were not far away at all from their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history last season, and unfortunately for them, the main reason for them falling short is not able to be fixed through free agency or the draft, but through a change at the top – the conservative decision making of head coach Mike Smith, which let the 49ers back into the NFC Championship game and would have let the Seahawks snatch victory over Atlanta a round earlier if not for a miracle drive from Matt Ryan. Still, Smith is unlikely to change his ways – and owner Arthur Blank unlikely to change his head coach – any time soon, so we may as well focus on what holes can be filled through FA and the draft.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the three holes I see in the roster correspond to three veteran players who the Falcons cut to save cap room: Dunta Robinson, John Abraham and Michael Turner. Robinson was definitely over paid, but with the team unable to reach a deal with free agent Brent Grimes, the Falcons have been left very thin at corner, with Asante Samuel now the only starting-calibre corner on the roster; the situation would have been even worse if the team hadn't been able to re-sign safety William Moore. If Atlanta can't come to an agreement with Grimes in the few hours before FA kicks off, expect them to go after a corner aggressively this offseason.

Cutting their best pass rusher in John Abraham, who has averaged 11 sacks a year over the past three seasons and was responsible for a third of their sacks in 2012, was always going to be a difficult decision, as there was little behind him to bring heat to opposing quarterbacks. Defensive end is a position that is sorely in need of upgrade if Atlanta hope to take the next step in the post-season – unless, of course, there was more to the hiring of Mike Nolan last offseason (a 3-4 guru) than initially met the eye?

On the other side of the ball, the Falcons will need to find a new running back – Jacquizz Rodgers is simply not built to tote the rock down-in, down-out. Still, running backs are a dime a dozen, so I imagine Atlanta will wait to draft a ball carrier in the mid rounds rather than look to free agency to fill this hole. Assuming Tony Gonzalez comes back, though, the Falcons merely need to fill those self-inflicted holes to be in with a real shot at post-season glory – as long as Mike Smith doesn't get in the way of Mike Smith.

Carolina Panthers

Notable Free Agents: None, really

Holes: Cornerback, Defensive Tackle, Wide Receiver

The fact that Carolina have no notable free agents is not a testament to the front office's shrewdness in locking up any potential notable FAs that might have left the team; quite the opposite, in fact. It actually reflects how poor the talent on this team is, with only three or four units that could really be said to have both talent and depth (one of which is that criminally underused backfield). Defensively, they have a very good pair of defensive ends, and two great middle linebackers – which means playing one of their best defensive talents out of position in a 4-3. Outside of those four players, though, their defense is a shambles, and they need to both seriously improve their entire secondary in a pass-happy NFC South, and find some decent defensive tackles to prevent offensive linemen just heading straight up into the secondary to deal with Kuechly and Beason – something offenses can afford to do while the DT situation remains as poor as it does.

Offensively, the biggest improvement that can be made is if new offensive co-ordinator Mike Shula actually uses the running backs the team paid so much for in order to make life easier for Cam Newton. Newton would also greatly benefit from the addition of a second receiving threat on the outside, as, right now, opposing defensive co-ordinators can afford to rely on a strategy of “double Steve Smith, keep an eye on Greg Olsen in the middle, and otherwise sell out to stop the run”. The Panthers will struggle on offense if they can't open up the entire field for Newton to do what he does best, and that will simply not happen until defenses are given something else to worry about in the passing game besides an ageing receiver and a decent tight end.

New Orleans Saints

Notable Free Agents: Jermon Bushrod (LT), Chris Ivory (RB, RFA), Sedrick Ellis (DT)

Holes: Outside Linebacker, Defensive Backs, 3-4 Defensive End, Tackle

Unsurprisingly, the team with the worst defense in NFL history has most of it's holes on the defensive side of the ball – that much was patently true even before the team announced they will be switching to a 3-4 under Rob Ryan. Taking into account the change in base defense, it's clear that there needs to be some major retooling in the front seven. They have a potential nose tackle in Brodrick Bunkley, but with bust Sedrick Ellis a free agent, they will need to find someone to play the 3-4 end position. More importantly, however, is the need for a outside 3-4 linebackers to pair with Cameron Jordan, with (presumably) Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Vilma both manning the middle. Will Smith is on the decline, and is not a good fit to move to the 'rush' linebacker position, so an upgrade here is a must if the shift to the 3-4 is to be successful.

Of course, even if they hadn't made the switch in base defense, the secondary needed a massive overhaul. Both safeties struggled in deep coverage, and the Saints were forced too often to play bad corners in nickel and dime packages – unfortunately, they are in such poor shape cap-wise, fixing both the front seven and the back end in one season is not going to happen. If I were advising the Saints, I'd work on the front seven first – with Drew Brees under center, outscoring the opposition is always a valid strategy, so it's more important to shore up the front seven (to stop opponents controlling the clock on the ground) and then just putting their faith in Breesus. Speaking of which, Jermon Bushrod was hardly a good tackle, but he was solid (even though he clearly missed the safety blanket of having Carl Nicks inside of him) – if they don't re-sign him, the Saints need to do something to make sure Brees stays up right, because without him, the Saints have pretty much nothing right now.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Notable Free Agents: Michael Bennett (DE), Ronde Barber (FS), Roy Miller (DT)

Holes: Corner, Free Safety, Defensive Tackle, Tight End

As noted above, the Saints gave up more yards last season than any defense in history. It speaks volumes, therefore, about how bad the Bucs' secondary was that Tampa Bay actually gave up more receiving yards than the Saints. There is no question that the number one hole that needs to be filled in the Bucs' roster is a corner... or that the number two hole that needs to be filled is a second corner. Or that, also in the top five holes that need to be filled, is free safety, with it looking like Ronde Barber will be hanging up the #20 jersey after 16 years of service in the red & pewter. While the offense went through huge peaks and huge troughs over the season, nonetheless the Bucs secondary actively lost the team three games on game winning drives – an improved cornerback corps would have seen the 2012 Bucs into the playoffs, instead of their third losing season in four years. Finding new (better) starters at both CB spots instantly would fix a lot of what ails the Bucs, as would a deep safety to cover the back end and allow Mark Barron to do what he does best – playing in the box, covering tight ends and laying huge hits in run support.

On the other side of the ball, there is absolutely a need for a pass-catching tight end, with Dallas Clark unlikely to return after an average-at-best season, and Luke Stocker appearing to fail to develop into anything more than a decent run blocker with a tendency to come down with a case of the 'dropsies'. The Bucs have two legitimate stud receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, but have failed to find a tight end who can consistently take advantage of the underneath routes cleared out by VJax and MWill (as I have chosen to christen him). In a similar vein, a solid and reliable slot receiver would be a great compliment to the aerial attack, with Tiquan Underwood having a few highlight reel catches but fading far too often when he his number was called. While we're at it, the Bucs could undoubtedly use a long-term fix at right tackle – or better yet, a right tackle who can, in a season or so, take over from the far-too-overhyped Donald Penn at left tackle.

Finally, for all that the Bucs' passing defense was more porous than a sponge in a blender, they did boast the best run defense in the league last year. Unfortunately, two major, major cogs in that top-ranked run D – defensive end Michael Bennett (who is truly an elite run-stuffing DE, as well as an ever-improving asset in brining pressure on quarterbacks) and 1-tech Roy Miller (a two-down tackle only, but absolutely beastly last season versus the run) – are both free agents, and the Bucs have made no real concerted effort to retain either at this point. Bennett will be hugely, hugely missed – but the front office claim that they believe a now-healthy (for the moment) Da'Quan Bowers can step into Bennett's role without a drop off. Miller, however, will be harder to replace, as he did a fantastic job out of the 'cocked nose' (YOU made that dirty, not me) DT spot, forcing interior offensive linemen to double team on him and freeing Gerald McCoy up to wreak havoc in the backfield. Without Miller, the Bucs will need a solid defensive tackle if they want to get the best out of McCoy, and the defensive line as a whole.

- Gur Samuel (@FredTheGur)
- The Pulling Linemen

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