1. DE. With John Abraham turning 35 this offseason, there seems to be nowhere to go but down for a pass rush already appears stagnant and responsible for several playoff losses. Expect Atlanta to finally make a concentrated effort on multiple fronts to find players capable of getting after the quarterback. Their addition of Ray Edwards in the offseason was meant to alleviate the dire need at defensive end, but less than a season through he was released due to ineffectiveness. Even if it takes one-dimensional specialists to shoot up the field, they have to be able to close out games defensively. Improving their cover linebackers in nickel defense has to also be another focus on the team. They were equally responsible for Atlanta's demise in 2nd half against Seattle and 2nd quarter onward against San Francisco.
2. DT. At impact player at defensive tackle may be hard to find at the end of the first round, but it's another area of major concern for the Falcons. The defense finished fourth from the bottom, allowing 4.8 yards per carry in run defense. In base, Atlanta has been solid against the run, but in nickel situations they've struggled. Of course the ideal cure for this would bring in a player capable of playing the run and rushing the passer at a high level, but they're a rare breed. It's more likely the team finds a pair of players can be played based on down and distance.
3. TE. Tony Gonzalez is invaluable to the offense on 3rd downs and the red zone where his ability to make catches in traffic ranks among the best to ever play the game. His ability to move the chains when blanketed has played an enormous role in the development of Matt Ryan and the growth of the Falcons offense. With retirement a near certainly, they need a strong transition from the future Hall of Famer to ensure the offense doesn't suffer a mild hangover after he calls it quits.
4. OL. The offensive line may have a lot of moving pieces next year beginning with the contract situation of Sam Baker. With two up and two down seasons he performed reasonably well this season finally getting healthy. Depending on the maturation of Lamar Holmes, he could potentially slip into the starting lineup at left or right tackle, the latter potentially indicating a move for Clabo inside to guard. Peter Konz should continue to flourish at right guard or center. With youth already in the mix, the Falcons are more likely to look through free agency for a tackle or guard, depending upon their offseason evaluations of Baker and the their young depth.
5. RB Depth. Unless they believe a 5'6, 196 pound Jacquizz Rodgers is capable of handling the work, the Falcons will be active players in the running back market over the next two years. Absent the leg drive of years past, Michael Turner ran like a back who had been beaten to the ground. At 31, the Falcons have to begin thinking about the future of that position. Matt Ryan falls a little short of the elites at quarterback who can carry offense on their arm for the duration of a 16-game season, many of whom even find the task impossible in the postseason.
1. DT. With a pair of terrific ends and fast, athletic, productive linebackers, the Panthers have the making of a dominant front 7 defensively if they can find a star at tackle. Star should be gone by their pick, but if he begins to fall even a little, the Panthers could be a team looking to move up a couple picks. Any sort of defensive tackle that can attract attention in the middle can vastly improve both the pass rush and the flow of the linebackers to the ball.
2. OL. With some help on the offensive line, Carolina could establish an identity as an elite rushing offense, allowing Newton's arm talent to make enough big plays per game to maintain enough balance. While the organization had dedicated large sums of money to the run game, a mismanaged cap situation won't allow them to make similar commitments to a middling offensive line. The situation up front could be exacerbated with left tackle Jordan Gross owed an untenable $16 million over the next two seasons on the active roster. Losing his leadership, toughness, and dependability would hurt and leave the line with just a single above average starter in Ryan Kalil, a Pro Bowl caliber center. In the expected starting lineup, right tackle Byron Bell is the weak link, making tackle a more desperate situation than guard.
3. CB. The Panthers are in need of talent in the secondary. Though in most metrics they finished in the middle of the league, they allowed a league-high 66.8% completion rate against them and picked off only 11 passes all year indicating a lack of ball skills at the top of routes. The starting corner Josh Norman was benched late in the year in favor of second year players, none of who instilled enough confidence in the organization to head into next season with the same lineup. With the return of Chris Gamble from injury, the expected re-signing of Captain Munnerlyn, and the addition of another potential starting caliber player, the cornerback position should be in good shape heading into next season.
4. WR. With the lofty superstar expectations on Cam Newton, the Panthers should keep the receiving corps stocked with talent, helping him improve as a passer. Steve Smith was effective at 33 years of age, but can be expected to gradually slowdown from here out. Brandon LaFell is a solid #3 receiver in the ideal situation, leaving room for an upgrade at the starting position. Free agency holds a few of those types that could truly open up the offense, but with Carolina's expect cap situation, they may settle for a lesser option or turn again to the draft to fill the void.
5. S. After Chris Gamble went to IR early in the year, Charles Godfrey turned into their only consistent backfield starter as the glue that held the secondary together. The Panthers other options are Haruki Nakamura, Sherrod Martin, and DJ Campbell, none of whom have proven to be starting-caliber safeties. If nothing else, look for the Panthers to make a modest veteran free agent pick-up to stir up competition.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
1. CB. The situation couldn't be worse for the Buccaneers who traded their only starting caliber corner midseason to New England because of constant off-field headaches. If the Bucs can find a pair of starting corners to supplant last year's duo of EJ Biggers and Eric Wright, the secondary may be in decent shape. In a pass-happy league, finding one starting corner is difficult, so the task on hand this offseason will require nothing short of a miracle. With plenty of cap space, the team figures to be active in both free agency and the draft to settle into their future at the position.
2. TE. It's hard to evaluate any offensive position without discussing the need for an internal improvement from Josh Freeman, but looking at the team's options, he's still the best bet to lead the offense. In his first two years starting, Kellen Winslow averaged 750 yards per season while Dallas Clark finished with 435 last year, averaging less than 10 yards a catch. Adding a dynamic tight end on offense will return the safety blanket back to Freeman who has utilized his tight ends to the fullest.
3. Slot WR. Completing only 36% of third downs, the Buccaneers ranked inside the bottom 10 of the league despite an effective running game and strong boundary receivers. Alongside the upgrade that should come at the tight end position, establishing a passing game out of the slot may be the useful tool needed to sustain drives and improve the offense. A slot receiver that could double as a return man would be the ideal upgrade, but a polished, less athletic route runner may be better suited to improving the position with less draft capital.
4. DL Depth. After finishing with the league's best run defense, re-signing Roy Miller and Michael Bennett, the team's best run defenders, will be Tampa's top priorities this offseason. With Da'Quan Bowers coming off the PUP and Adrian Clayborn on the IR early in the year, the Buccaneers lacked a pass rush off the edge. As those players return, the defense should immediately improve, but further depth may be acquired at end for injury insurance while one-gapping defensive tackles should help bolster the interior rush.
5. QB. For a 6-game stretch in the middle of the season, Josh Freeman was among the hottest quarterbacks in the league as his team averaged 34.2 points per game. In the other 10, the offense averaged 18.4 points while Freeman threw 14 of his 17 interceptions. It's no coincidence that his best play came against a stretch of awful to bad pass secondaries, but his entire game just looked right. Finishing the season with 9 picks in 3 games, Coach Schiano promised to bring in competition to challenge for the starting gig. There isn't much in free agency, so it'll be interesting to see how high a draft pick the Buccaneers are willing to spend to make a trade or bring in a young quarterback to apply pressure on the former first round pick in his contract year.
New Orleans Saints:
1. DL. Steve Spagnuolo will enter this year already on somewhat of a hot seat needing to improve his defense by a touchdown per game just to improve to the middle of the pick. A less chaotic offseason will help, but he'll need more than just that, particularly in the form of a defensive line. With a 1st round bust likely to be glanced over among expiring contracts in Sedrick Ellis and an aging defensive end with an unreasonable salary in Will Smith, the Saints will need to find an impact pass rusher at either end or tackle while adding more depth at both. A strong DL drove Spagnuolo's defense in New York and will be expected to do the same in New Orleans if he's to succeed.
2. S. With 66 pass plays of 20 yards or more and a league-high 14 of 40 or more, the Saints need to address a safety position where they were optimistic about a couple years back. Malcolm Jenkins played at a reasonable level, though he uncharacteristically missed a couple tackles last year. Roman Harper is a good safety inside the box, but is a total liability in coverage and isn't worth the $11 million he's due over the next two years. The Saints could reasonably move Jenkins to strong safety in a role similar to that of Antrel (pardon the pun) in New York and use the draft to find a deep zone free safety.
3. CB. Coming off back-to-back seasons with a bottom five pass defense and a starting defensive backfield that has played together for a couple years now, changes should be made this offseason. Jabari Greer is still the team's top cover guy while Patrick Robinson is better suited as a nickel corner on a strong unit, leaving an upgrade possibility at the other starting position. The Saints do have a couple of young players they feel could compete for that position at some point in the near future, but on a team ready to make another Super Bowl run now, addressing the need in free agency seems like a better option if they can break with poor salary allocations to free enough room under the cap.
4. OT. If there's any level of concern about the outlook of the offense, it's the Saints' ability to block the edges. Jermon Bushrod at left tackle had a poor season, but is expected back as the best option on the table. Zach Strief on the right side is also upgradeable suggesting that New Orleans will use a high pick or make a free agent play to bring in another capable pass blocker to the competition on both sides.
5. OLB. Between the stink of the bounty case, injury, age, and the nearly $6 million the Saints could save by cutting Jonathan Vilma, it may just be worth it. If they value his leadership too much to let go of him in a year where the defense must improve, the unit still falls short a playmaker next to Curtis Lofton who was a tackling machine at middle linebacker. Injuries cut into David Hawthorne's season on the strong side while the unit's top two back-ups are free agents. This area will likely be addressed through the draft.
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