In our first two installments, we looked at the positional rankings of all NFC South teams on offense, defense and special teams. Today, we discuss how each team ranks on the three sides of the ball. We'll also talk about the trends that are prevalent in the division and the NFL, and by extension, where each team needs to improve in free agency now that a CBA is all but etched in stone. Teams (and agents) will have 72 hours to interpret and digest the laguage of the new CBA, and an additional 72 hours to re-sign their own players starting July 25 when the new CBA is ratified (hopefully); the flood gates of free agency will likely open at 00:01 AM July 28.
What is the NFC South known for? It used to be termed the "worst to first" division because the parity was such that every year the last place team finished first after an off-season to regroup. A division like the AFC North was known for their defense and running game while the NFC North was "the black and blue division." If we were to describe the NFC South now, what would it's hallmark be? We'll try to come to a consensus on that subject below
We begin this segment with trends and division strengths. Over the past five years, offenses in the NFL have utilized more 3 and 4 WR sets than ever before. The NFL has truly become a passing league. As a result, the old-school "in the box" safety is being phased out for safeties with "cover corner" skills. Due to the fact that there are only so many Ed Reed caliber players on the planet, many teams are starting a "nickel" corner more than 50% of their defensive snaps. In fact, over the last three years, every team played in nickel defense the majority of the time. Either a linebacker or a safety comes off the field in most instances when a team goes to nickel. That makes the fifth defensive back or "third corner" more of a starter than the guy he replaces.
The next trend is also offense oriented. Antonio Gates isn't the first tight end who created nightmarish match-up problems, but he illustrates the example perfectly. Teams are looking for that TE or RB (think Reggie Bush) who creates an instant mismatch in the passing game. A player at those positions with those unique skills force a defense to defend differently, and in many cases declare how they are defending when said player is set in motion. Most defenses use a linebacker or a safety to cover a running back or a tight end, but the Gates/Bush type player forces a defense to do one of two things -- use bracket coverage (a combination of LB and S coverage) or put a nickel corner on the player. Either way, this creates problems. If it is bracket coverage, two players must cover one player who isn't the stud receiver which means someone in the receiving corp will have exploitable 1-on-1 coverage. If a nickel CB comes into the game to cover said player, it becomes much easier to run. This is exactly why finding that hybrid safety is a must for every team. The Saints were/are blessed enough to have both a TE and RB who can create separation and coverage problems as pass catchers; hopefully it stays that way.
Keeping in mind the direction offenses in the NFL are evolving, we can look at the teams in the NFC South and come to a few conclusions. First, three out of four teams have that tight end who creates separation or mismatches if not properly accounted for. Carolina tried to fix this by adding Jeremy Shockey, but he's lost his legs. Three out of four teams have Pro Bowl or Super Bowl caliber quarterbacks. Maybe Cam Newton will transition well and make it four for four, but at this point we just can't know. Currently, two teams have that running back with unique skills -- Atlanta (Jacquizz Rodgers -- can he stay on the field) and New Orleans (Bush -- can he stay on the Saints). You can bet the other two teams will be making a run at Reggie if he doesn't negotiate with the Saints. Of the biggest trend, only one team has a great nickel defense -- the New Orleans Saints. If Atlanta and Tampa want to defend a lead, they will need to upgrade the position. Carolina doesn't need to worry, because it's not likely they'll have a lead to defend. Every team in the NFC South has a solid offensive line (at this point, pre-free agency), and every team has a solid stable of RB's.
With that said, we could describe the NFC South as a division where the offense dictates the pace. The top three teams are building to get the lead and turn it over to what is known as "4 minute offense" -- where you can hand it over to the running game and control and milk the clock. Every team has the ability (offensive line and RB's) to be top five in rushing offense (provided good health and not being down by multiple scores).
On defense, I'd say no team has a pass rush that strikes fear in it's opponent. Three out of four teams are susceptible in coverage. I can't speak for Carolina (new staff), but the top three teams are well coached and get the most out of their players on defense. The Saints and Falcons were top three in take aways in 2009 and 2010, respectively. This year will surely be competitive in the South and I don't believe Carolina will be an easy out.
Now let us see how the units rank:
1. Saints -- No offense has done better over the last five years.
2. Falcons -- They needed to get more explosive, perhaps that was addressed in the draft?
3. Buccaneers -- They just need to stay healthy on the offensive line and get more out of an up and coming WR corp.
1. Saints -- 4th ranked last year, they addressed their three biggest needs with the draft and Shaun Rogers.
2. Falcons -- 16th ranked last year, but they were top three in take aways. They still need a nickel defense and pass rush -- John Abraham is getting old and doesn't take a lot of snaps, and Green Bay just threw all over them.
3. Buccaneers -- They may wind up with a top five defensive line, scary. Yet they need experienced quality help on the defensive line and in the secondary.
4. Panthers -- Possibly the best group of LB's in the division, this team needs to bolster its secondary and defensive line.
1. Atlanta -- The combination of kicker, punter, return, and coverage puts them on top.
2. Saints -- Their punter and a new rule change should dramatically help their kick coverage. Perhaps they upgrade a few fringe players in free agency and one of the biggest camp battles takes place in the coverage units.
3. Buccaneers -- Tampa is slowly getting better in all facets of special teams with value players. We all laughed when Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris were named GM and head coach, but whose laughing now? They won 10 games last year with a young and cheap roster (they've only got $60 million committed to 2011 cap).
4. Panthers -- They need youth and need to stay healthy. With the injuries they incurred last year, many core special teamers were worn out by having to play on offense or defense.
Now that we see where the units stack up, we'll look at the positions each team might be targeting in free agency. Aside from New Orleans, I won't discuss who I think each team needs to re-sign because I hope they lose every important player. We'll discuss each team in the order I think they'll finish:
1. Saints -- What do you get when you take a top five offense and top five defense and add balance to both sides of the ball? The Saints addressed their top four needs before the new league year has officially begun (free agency). They need to keep Roman Harper, Lance Moore, and two of the following three -- Bushrod, Goodwin and Strief. They need to re-sign Dave Thomas and add another tight end. They could use youth at full back. They could also use youth and starting depth along the defensive line (please splurge on Cullen Jenkins, he can play both DE and DT in the 4-3). Many of us would love to see a good OLB added.
2. Falcons -- As much as I
dislike hate the Failclowns and that NFL Network commercial where just about every player can't nod their head to the beat (you hear me Arthur Blank), and as much as I can't stand their style of play, best described as having a leprechaun shoved up their wazoo, I have to rank them 2nd. I don't care what they need in free agency and hope they lose all important players to the Saints so they can see how that feels. Anyway, their needs are as follows: pass rush and coverage. In other words, they need a DE, a few CB's, possibly a safety, depth at TE, a dependable slot WR, a LB to eventually take over for Mike Peterson and a DT. Maybe Tyson Clabo can become a Saint.
3. Buccaneers -- Some might assume the battle for first and second will be between New Orleans and Atlanta. I'm here to say that the Buccaneers don't know they aren't supposed to be "that good," and therefore will play balls to the wall because they aren't afraid to fail or take risks. Tampa will need to bolster their secondary at CB and safety -- you can't defend a lead without doing so. Also, they could benefit from experienced quality starter-type depth at DT and DE to teach the young bucs how to be good (no pun intended). They could use a Burress type WR or an explosive player at any offensive position and health along the offensive line. Maybe Barrett Rudd or Jeremy Trueblood can become a Saint.
4. Panthers -- With a new coaching staff, a new QB and needs across the board, this will be a long season for Panther fans. At least they'll sell some tickets and a few jerseys. Carolina needs multiple WR's, health on the offensive line, a guard, defensive tackle, tight end, and multiple DB's. They could use youth with equal accuracy and more leg strength at kicker -- they'll need it. Maybe James Anderson, Charles Johnson and Thomas Davis would like to play for New Orleans.