‘Tis the season of hope, when fans of most NFL believe in a better future as their teams restock and, hopefully, address outstanding needs. Unfortunately, very few teams are able to address all outstanding issues, and of course only one can hold the Lombardi Trophy. FYS’s own Packers, Vikings, Bears, Lions, draft, free agency, NFL schedule, NFL opponent, game preview, and game review beat writer, Russ Thomas, covered the NFC North. Here are some remaining weaknesses for our brethren in the South.
The 2015 Atlanta Falcons went 8-8 on the season, and were perhaps a it better than their record. Sporting the league’s seventh best offense (by total yards) and 15th best defense, they were not far from competing for a spot in the playoffs.
The Falcons fell short, however, in no small part as a result of an absentee pass rush. They finished dead last with a meager 19 sacks on the season (less than half the haul of division leading Carolina), and fans were clamoring for help in the pass rush.
Rather than directly address that need, however, the Falcons opted to go safety, linebacker, tight end, linebacker, guard and wide receiver in a draft with just six total picks. This leaves the Falcons hoping that Vic Beasley, who will be moved into a pass rushing role, and Brooks Reed, a replacement-level 2015 acquisition from 2015, can step up and add some pressure to the defensive lineup. It seems like a big gamble, but the Falcons have nowhere to go but up.
After playing the Bridesmaid for the second time in their short history, the Panthers will look to add offense. Not that the Panthers, who led the league in points per game in 2015, lacked punch against most teams. And of course their biggest post-season loss was Josh Norman, the standout cornerback, in free agency.
However, with a very-good to great defense for the last several seasons, it was the offense that ultimately stuttered in the Super Bowl against the Broncos. In addition, the Panther spent 3 of 5 draft picks on corners. As a team that should be shooting for nothing less than a return to the show, and the missing piece is someone to help Cam Newton take the offense to new heights against the best defenses.
The most obvious way to do so is to find a reliable speedster on the outside. However, the Panthers do not appear to have done so. Ted Ginn played admirably in 2015, but his inconsistent hands led to problems in the Super Bowl. The Panthers opted not to pursue wide receivers in the draft, instead banking on the return of Kelvin Benjamin. Will it be enough to relieve the pressure on Newton? Only time will tell.
New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints allowed a league worst 29.8 points per game in 2015, and a second-to-last 413.8 yards. Their defensive failures were evenly spread out, as the Saints’ yardage ranking was consistent against both the pass and run. In the NFL draft, the team used 3 of their 5 picks on defense, two on defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata, and a third on Ohio State safety Vonn Bell. They also added veteran linebacker James Laurinaitis and defensive tackle Nick Fairly in free agency.
While these moves would seem likely to impact the Saints’ run defense, the remaining question is whether they have done enough to address their pass defense woes. Last season they started an undrafted rookie, Bobby Richardson, at defensive end, and finished with just 32 sacks (well ahead of the Falcons, but still just 27th overall in the NFL). Richardson recorded half a sack in 15 games.
Meanwhile, the secondary is perhaps more solid than it at first appears, as Keenan Lewis will return after playing just six games in 2015. However, having let the disastrous Brandon Browner walk, and in light of the fact that Lewis went through three hip surgeries and is now 30 years old, the team could use more help at cornerback.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one weak spot stands out among all others: safety. While they also had trouble rushing the passer a year ago, Tampa Bay drafted two outside linebackers, including Noah Spence, who are expected to contribute up front.
They passed on adding any safeties in the draft or add any to the roster via free agency, however, which leaves Lovie Smith with Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald in the starting positions, and Major Wright waiting in the wings. While we can appreciate Lovie’s commitment to players he is familiar with, Conte and Wright were never more than replacement-level players, and potentially not even that. With Lovie now gone, there is little reason to believe new head coach Dirk Koetter, formerly offensive coordinator for Tampa Bay, and his staff can coach those players up to a new level.
For his part, McDougald was an undrafted free agent picked up by the Bucs in 2013 off waivers, and has developed nicely for the team. At just 25, they will be counting on his continued ascent. Nevertheless, even if McDougald takes a step forward and becomes more of an impact player, rather than a filler, this leaves Tampa Bay a playermaker short in the defensive backfield.