Tuesday, February 15, 2011
NFC South Prospects
So I planned this going up earlier, but when you over sleep, you over sleep. Again, we'll do this alphabetically. Atlanta Falcons: Having stormed the regular season, it might be easy to think that Atlanta will simply come back next year and everything will be the same once more. Right? They won 13 games. 13!!! Surely that's not the kind of team you need to go toying around with? But it is. We can't get away from the fact that Atlanta did, at many times, ride their luck. Trust me, I'm a 49ers fan. We took a bitter loss early-ish in the season when we should have walked home safely with the win. Unfortunately our defensive backs are fond of carrying the ball on interception and fumble returns as if they were parading the Super Bowl around Candlestick Park. Now I should temper that by saying that you don't win 13 games purely on the back of luck. Nobody is that lucky. It does take some input for the players and coaches beyond just "show up, be lucky". But the stage is set for potentially a big fall in 2011, so free agency and the draft could be a dicey time for the Falcons this year. In free agency both the Falcons punter and kicker are up for unrestricted free agency, as are some other important names like; offensive linemen Justin Blalock, Harvey Dahl & Tyson Clabo, WR Brian Finneran, and running backs Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling. That's a big loss to the Falcons if those guys leave. The offensive line has been a consistent strength for Atlanta over the last few seasons, while Norwood and Snelling have been solid back ups to Michael Turner who has had some issues with injury. If all of those guys leave, expect the Falcons to take a big step back right there. On the restricted list is two names that are also worth mentioning. One is Brent Grimes, the cornerback who had an exceptional season for Atlanta this year. The other is receiver Eric Weems, who became a big impact player in the return game. As restricted free agents their departure is less likely, but don't forget for example that the Patriots are lurking and have two picks in every round. Belichick might just feel like parting with a pick to acquire a player of Grimes's ability to boost his ailing secondary. As for the draft? Even if the Falcons get most of their free agents back, their offensive line could use a lower pick for some depth, their linebacking corps could use one more key player to take the field with Lofton and Weatherspoon, and the defensive back corps badly needs upgrading. A shiny new receiver wouldn't go amiss either. Atlanta picks 27th overall in the first round. Looking ahead to 2011 it could go either way. The Buccaneers are on the rise. The Panthers may be too, depending on how well their off season goes. The Saints had another strong year in 2010 and so Atlanta's 13 win record is in serious danger this season. If they stumble in the off season it is perfectly foreseeable that they might finish 3rd in 2011. Still, they always have Matty "Ice". Yeah, don't hold your breath. Carolina Panthers: It's all change in Carolina after a shockingly bad season. Ron Rivera, former Chargers defensive coordinator, will be taking over the head coaching role this season. Good luck to you sir. Rob Chudzinski will run the offense, having previously served as the Chargers tight ends coach. That might be a surprise success (notice I said might) as the Chargers have done well at the tight end position recently and Rivera obviously knows the guy from working with him, so he must have some faith in his abilities. Sean McDermott, formerly of the Eagles, will take over the defense. Which is where things get interesting. Both Rivera and McDermott are more 3-4 pedigree guys. The Panthers are all about the 4-3. Will they take the same approach Washington did in the off season and try to make the switch to a 3 man front? They're certainly bursting with pass rush talent, so maybe they'll try and get some of those guys to take their hands out of the dirt and rush from a two point stance? It's not all doom and gloom though. McDermott may have come from a 3-4 lineage, but the Eagles have essentially been running 4-3 for the last couple of seasons so he has some experience handling this type of front. It's just the tools that pose the big problem, and how to get the best out of them. In free agency the Panthers have a long list to keep an eye on. Some of the names that jump out at me are tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario, whose departure would leave the Panthers with just Gary Barnidge. That's not good, especially as the Panthers have leaned on their tight ends a lot lately. King and Rosario (and Barnidge) don't get anywhere near enough credit for what they do for the Panthers. The big name on the way out of course is RB DeAngelo Williams. I've said it before and I'll say it again; I think the Panthers should let him leave. They have Jonathan Stewart, who is a very good back. They have Mike Goodson who is a pretty good back up. They really don't need Williams now. Better to let him go and use some of the free cap money to improve the rest of the team. Two other names that stick out from the list are Center Ryan Kalil and QB Matt Moore. Moore is the big one. Do they bring him back for another shot? Do they roll with Jimmy Clausen and Tony Pike? Or do they hit the draft and bring in yet another QB fresh from the college game? Glad I'm not running the Panthers, that's all I'll say. Which brings us neatly to the draft itself. They have the number one pick overall and they have needs all over the shop. If they can, my guess is the Panthers will drop down the draft ladder. They seriously need the extra picks to start covering all these holes. Wide Receiver is a huge hole, defensive back is a huge hole. They could use another quality linebacker. They need a QB from somewhere. And they might need some new tight ends as well. Honestly, 2011 for the Panthers will center on rebuilding. Panther fans should brace for another crappy season, not because they can't compete but because it is time for someone to come in and stamp their mark on this team. That means saying "this is how we're going to play, but it'll take some time to get it right, even if we lose some along the way". Patience from the fan base will be required. More importantly, patience from the ownership will be required too. Good luck Carolina, I don't hate you really. Well. Maybe a little. New Orleans Saints: The Saints had the dubious honour of being the first NFL team to get dumped in the playoffs by a team with a losing record. Nice work guys. But they did us all a favour really. They proved that the "any given Sunday" rule can still happen in the modern NFL and that even a 7-9 team should be allowed in if it wins it's division. So where now for the Saints? Well, they've managed to keep hold of their coaching staff, but free agency is going to be all kinds of fun. By my maths they have 27 unrestricted free agents. Twenty seven. If you draw up the list of players at each position that will be left if all the free agents leave, it looks like a High School team where the offensive starters are defensive backups and vice versa. I'm just going to list some of the notables; Jermon Bushrod OT, Heath Evans FB, Jonathan Goodwin C, Anthony Hargrove DE/DT, Roman Harper S, Julius Jones RB, Kawika Mitchell LB, Lance Moore WR, Courtney Roby WR, Scott Shanle LB, Darren Sharper S and Pierre Thomas RB. Now as far as the running backs are concerned, that's not a huge issue for the Saints. They have spares so to speak. Wide receiver is an issue of sorts, given how wide open the Saints like to play. Charles Brown could fill for Bushrod, depending on how well he's developed since the 2010 draft. But linebacker and safety are two huge concerns for the Saints. Picking 24 in the draft, I see this being a very defense heavy approach. Unless they can bring some guys back or reach out into free agency and find some talent, the linebacking and safety corps are going to be barren come draft day. I imagine the Saints will prioritise their pass rush, given their tendency to jump ahead of teams in games and forcing them to pass to get back into the game. 2011 outlook then? Erm, grim I would say. Sort of. The Buccaneers are rising. Atlanta can come back strong. Carolina will be... Carolina. But the Saints defense is going to be holding its breath this offseason. If they can't recoup their loses then it's going to be a miserable year for the 2011 Saints. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ah Tampa Bay, the pirates that you can trust. Sort of. They had a resurgence in 2010 off the back of some exceptional work by Josh Freeman. Sort of. And some greatly improved defensive play. Sort of. Free agency offers up a mixed bag for the Buc's. Some names stand out at me; Ronde Barber CB, Quincy Black LB, Barrett Ruud LB and Jeremy Trueblood OT. Barber is a mixed bag. He's old, but he still seems to come up with plays now and again. Trueblood's loss will be a problem, but Black and Ruud are the main concerns. The Buc's have some talent at linebacker, but they need Ruud and Black back to support their defense. As for the draft, they pick at 20 which is almost unknown territory for the Buc's in recent years. Where will they go with this? I honestly am not sure. After last years performance in the draft and with signing undrafted free agents, the Buc's are in a nice spot. I imagine that the subject of running backs will eventually come up, as LaGarrette Blount can't do it all himself. A true pass rushing defensive end will probably top the list unless they decide to slide McCoy over (where he's shown potential). Another receiver would be nice, as well as another inside linebacker. Overall though, the 2011 Buccaneers have their sights on the playoffs. Their division could be in a very vulnerable state this year. If the Falcons lose their O-line and the Saints lose their defense, to free agency that is, then nothing is standing in the way of Tampa having a run at the division title. Even just a moderately good free agency and draft will set them up nicely. So with that, we come to the end of the NFC South 2011 preview thingy. Next up is the NFC West, which will be posted around Thursday or Friday. As for the CBA situation.... err, nothing has changed. We're still headed towards a delayed start to the 2011 season and honestly I've given up caring to some degree. The arguments being put forward by both sides are mundane in the extreme, neither side seems to really give a shit about the fans and their persistence in trying to convince us of how wonderful they are and how evil the other side is doesn't wash. As always in these things, it's all about the money and has nothing to do with the quality of the game and fairness. If it did, we could probably solve all this crap in a few hours with some strong coffee, swiss iced buns and a few well placed punches. Have a great day everyone.