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PLUGGING HOLES: FROM ESPN


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38 Days to the Draft: NFC South holesCould a Peppers-for-Cutler deal solve an impending Carolina problem?Comment Email Print Share By Robert Weintraub

Football Outsiders

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With 38 days until the draft, Football Outsiders is taking a tour of the NFL to identify the biggest holes each team has left on its roster and the best possible way to plug that hole. After stops in the NFC East and AFC East, the series continues today with a look at the NFC South.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Biggest hole: linebacker

From the moment Keith Brooking bit on an underneath route and left Arizona TE Stephen Spach wide open behind him for a pivotal third-and-16 conversion in the wild-card playoff game, it was apparent the Falcons were going to do some offseason housecleaning at linebacker. Brooking was released, as was Michael Boley, and three other defensive starters.

Worst defenses against tight ends

The Falcons' linebacking problems are highlighted by their inability to cover the tight end.

Rank Team DVOA Yds/gm Yds/pass

28. Lions 38.2% 58.7 8.5

29. Broncos 31.9% 54.7 8.2

30. Jaguars 26.6% 53.1 9.1

31. Jets 25.2% 59.9 8.1

32. Falcons 25.1% 54.3 7.7

GM Thomas Dimitroff sat out most of free agency with the exception of signing oft-injured LB Mike Peterson, a solid but aging player who reunites with old position coach Mike Smith. Last season's rookie sensation Curtis Lofton is suddenly the lone proven entity on a unit that is otherwise short on speed, coverage ability and bodies.

The pass to Spach that iced the Cards game was an example of Atlanta's biggest defensive problem in 2008. While the team covered wide receivers reasonably well (ranking 16th in DVOA against the opposition's top wideout and 17th against each team's No. 2), the Falcons were abysmal against tight ends and running backs -- 28th and 29th in the NFL, respectively. That speaks to the pressing need to upgrade the linebacker corps.

Picking 24th, Atlanta could be able to snag one of USC's outside 'backers, Brian Cushing or Clay Matthews (who ran a slightly faster 40 at the combine). Aaron Maybin of Penn State is another possibility. Strong safety is another weakness, and if the Falcons go that way in the first round, LB Cody Brown of UConn could be a second-round target.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Biggest holes: defensive line, quarterback

On the morning of Jan. 10, the Panthers felt pretty good about their QB situation. Then Jake Delhomme turned in an epically awful playoff performance against Arizona and suddenly, the team was forced to ponder whether it needed to address the position in the draft. Hampering any rebuilding effort is the fact that the Panthers don't pick until the 27th choice in the second round, 59th overall (their first-rounder was traded to Philadelphia last year so the Panthers could move up and draft Jeff Otah).

Paul Jasienski/Getty Images

A Peppers-for-Cutler deal would ignite the PanthersMeanwhile, defensive end Julius Peppers has been franchised and is disgruntled. But two time zones west in Denver, the communication gap seems to have shattered the relationship between QB Jay Cutler and new coach Josh McDaniels. Why haven't the Panthers been mentioned as a possible landing spot for Cutler? After all, the Broncos are moving to a 3-4 defense and desperately need a pass rush. A Peppers-for-Cutler trade would rock the NFL and make Carolina's offense fearsome.

The Panthers would then certainly concentrate on the depleted D-line in the draft. While the pass rush was slightly above the league average in '08, Carolina's run defense was steadily pushed around for more than 4.5 yards per carry. The Panthers ranked only 20th in both stuffing runs at the line generally and stuffing short-yardage runs specifically.

Without a first-round pick, the Panthers will probably target a solid-but-unspectacular lineman such as DE Matt Shaughnessy of Wisconsin, DT Ron Brace of Boston College or DT Evander Hood of Missouri. Backup DE Charles Johnson, entering his third season, played well last season and could replace Tyler Brayton as a starter.

Assuming a trade for Cutler doesn't happen, the Panthers also could use that pick to look for Delhomme's replacement, especially if Kansas State's Josh Freeman falls to them. Free agent Kyle Boller also remains available and is an intriguing player who could benefit from a change of scenery.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Biggest hole: cornerback

The Saints have only the 14th overall pick to play with on the first day, and then they won't check back in until their two picks in the fourth round. That makes hitting on that top choice critical for a lopsidedly offense-heavy squad (first in offensive DVOA, 24th on defense). Just about every position in the back seven can use an upgrade, save Jon Vilma at middle linebacker.

New Orleans would prefer to concentrate on the secondary, and, after the free-agent signing of cornerback Jabari Greer, safety should be targeted. Roman Harper, Josh Bullocks (who left via free agency) and Kevin Kaesviharn fell down on the job last season, and the Saints are in dire need of an impact player in the rear. Unfortunately, the only player to fit the bill is Vontae Davis of Illinois, and he would have to switch from corner to safety, although many scouts feel he has the speed and instincts to do so.

If Davis feels like too much of a reach at 14 -- and assuming Malcolm Jenkins isn't available -- an outside linebacker would be the choice, perhaps USC's Brian Cushing or Virginia's Clint Sintim, or even a convertible inside linebacker, such as Ohio State's James Laurinaitis. Veteran corner Ken Lucas, cut by Carolina in a salary dump, would be a logical pickup but he would have to accept less money to fit the Saints' salary structure.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Biggest hole: outside linebacker

[+] EnlargePeter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Freeman could be a solution for more than one NFC South team.Imagining Tampa Bay without Derrick Brooks at Will linebacker will take some doing -- he is arguably the greatest player to man the position in the Tampa 2 defense perfected in South Florida. Nevertheless, he and fellow outside linebacker Cato June, also released in Tampa's late-February purge, slipped in production down the stretch last season.

Beyond unfocused defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the front line got most of the blame for the Bucs' stunning defensive collapse. Only nine teams gave up more yards per carry to running backs than Tampa (4.52). However, the Bucs were a decent 11th in adjusted line yards, which attempts to isolate the D-line's responsibility for stopping the opposing team's ground game. And while the team mustered only 29 sacks, it ranked eighth in adjusted sack rate, bringing down quarterbacks once every 7.2 attempts.

So Tampa should look for linebacker help in the draft, even though quarterback is a perennial need and the pressure will be on to select Mark Sanchez or Josh Freeman with the 19th pick (or by trading up). Cushing, Mathews or Maybin will fit here, along with Northern Illinois' Larry English, although he might not be a perfect fit for new defensive coordinator Jim Bates' defense, which is more aggressive than Tampa's eponymous Cover 2. If the Bucs can land Bills free-agent LB Angelo Crowell, it may affect their draft-day thinking.

Thursday: The AFC South

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ALSO from Mel Kiper:

Team Needs

Duncan Williams/Icon SMI

In order to be firing on all cylinders, the Giants should shoot for RU's Kenny Britt.Giants: The Giants need to find someone to replace receiver Plaxico Burress, who was lost after his well-publicized firearm incident last year. This is crucial because Eli Manning is not the most accurate passer, so a player like Burress, with a "big body, that power forward mentality" will fight for balls thrown in his general vicinity. "Who has that? Kenny Britt out of Rutgers," Kiper said.

Also, the Giant could upgrade at left tackle by moving David Diehl inside to guard and finding a tackle in the draft, like Eben Britton out of Arizona.

Titans: The biggest need is at defensive end, with both Jevon Kearse and Kyle Vanden Bosch getting old. The options are Robert Ayers(Tennessee), Everette Brown (Florida State), Connor Barwin (Cincinnati) and Michael Johnson (Georgia Tech).

With Nick Harper getting old and the Titans' losing Eric King in free agency, Kiper said the Titans should look at cornerbacks. A good option would be Darius Butler from Connecticut.

Colts: GM Bill Polian is a "hall of famer" at drafting players, Kiper said. In recent years, the Colts have had especially good luck with drafting offensive players in the first round -- Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark -- and they may opt for another offensive player this year after cutting future Hall of Fame pass catcher Marvin Harrison this offseason. "Will they still go offense and draft wide receiver? They could, but wide receiver is the deepest position, along with defensive end, in this draft. You can get a good guy, second or third round."

In Round 1, Kiper said the Colts should go with defensive tackle Peria Jerry from Ole Miss, who has been under the radar all season.

Falcons: Last year, the Falcons struck gold with quarterback Matt Ryan. This year, it's time to find players on the other side of the ball. "The only offensive need I see is a pass-catching tight end, and they can probably get that between the second and fourth rounds," Kiper said. A few possibilities are Shawn Nelson out of Southern Mississippi, Jared Cook from South Carolina, James Casey from Rice, Cornelius Ingram from Florida and Travis Beckum from Wisconsin.

However, in Round 1, the Falcons should look to draft for defense. They lost two linebackers -- Keith Brooking and Michael Boley -- and they lost cornerback Domonique Foxworth to Baltimore. Safety is also a need. These secondary holes must be filled because, Kiper pointed out, Atlanta faces sharpshooting QB Drew Brees and the Saints twice a year

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Disagree.

If we can upgrade our D-line & continually put pressure on the opposing QB, the rest of our defence improves automatically. Look at the Giants team that won the Superbowl, with that D-line can anyone name the linebacking corps? Exactly

agreed... our lb`s looked bad because our d-line failed to get pressure. That kept us in a cover 3 zone most of the time.

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If that's true, why have you got us choosing a DT in the 1st round of your mock draft?

I didn't say we couldn't take a DT, I just think the view that we are fine at linebacker is ridiculous. I've said before I think LB and DT are our biggest needs, but to downplay just how badly we need an OLB just doesn't make any sense. Particularly the opinion that we have the linebackers we need already.

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i agree that the LB is our pressing need. especially when we are asking our LB to drop back and cover (nickel situations). that was one of our big issues last season. the saints exposed this last year with the spread formation and also the delay hand off up the middle and then every other team started to gauge on our weakness. i just dont see alot that impresses me in the draft a NT or a complete DE ready to push for a starting position in this year draft. sure there are some solid work in progress players but picking at #24 where pretty much the best NT will be gone by then. i am hoping we grab a LB or take a chance on a DE in the 1st round.

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I didn't say we couldn't take a DT, I just think the view that we are fine at linebacker is ridiculous. I've said before I think LB and DT are our biggest needs, but to downplay just how badly we need an OLB just doesn't make any sense. Particularly the opinion that we have the linebackers we need already.

I think that we need depth, but we can find that in later rounds, even the 4-6th round. This draft is fully of quality LB that can sit behind and learn and develop into good quality LB. I hope that we draft at least two LB.

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I think that we need depth, but we can find that in later rounds, even the 4-6th round. This draft is fully of quality LB that can sit behind and learn and develop into good quality LB. I hope that we draft at least two LB.

We don't need a linebacker to sit on the bench and develop, we need a playmaker to put on the field. Mike Peterson is aging and Stephen Nicholas is only a backup-quality LB. We need two starters. We're going to have to get one in this draft.

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We don't need a linebacker to sit on the bench and develop, we need a playmaker to put on the field. Mike Peterson is aging and Stephen Nicholas is only a backup-quality LB. We need two starters. We're going to have to get one in this draft.

I think that you are underestimating the LB that we have on our Roster right now, especially in Nicholas, but i could be overestimating our LB core too. I just feel like an improved D-line will help out our LB a lot. Who do you think at 24 will be available to come in and be a starter having immediate impact, compared to a 11 year Vet who can still play and Nicholas who the coaches seem really high on? :D

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I think that you are underestimating the LB that we have on our Roster right now, especially in Nicholas, but i could be overestimating our LB core too. I just feel like an improved D-line will help out our LB a lot. Who do you think at 24 will be available to come in and be a starter having immediate impact, compared to a 11 year Vet who can still play and Nicholas who the coaches seem really high on? :D

At 24:

James Laurinaitis

Brian Cushing

Clay Matthews Jr.

At 56:

Marcus Freeman

Gerald McGrath

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Regardless of what our biggest need may be it more than likely is going to come down to who is the best player we can get at one of our top needs. If some people think LB is our biggest need, but Matthews and Cush are gone then we might have to get someone like English or Maybin or MJ or Hood. If we want to focus on DT but Hood gets swiped up there is no DT worth getting at that pick. So its not a matter of LB is our biggest need so we are getting one with the 24th pick. We'll just have to see how the draft plays out.

Either way we will be fine because we could use a LB, DT or DE. One of those we will get with our first pick.

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I didn't say we couldn't take a DT, I just think the view that we are fine at linebacker is ridiculous. I've said before I think LB and DT are our biggest needs, but to downplay just how badly we need an OLB just doesn't make any sense. Particularly the opinion that we have the linebackers we need already.

I agree we are definitely not settled at linebacker. The problem is we have several holes to fill & the philosophy of this team is to build from the inside out so all I'm saying it's not the main priority as mentioned in the original thread. That being said I think we will take the best defensive player avaliable, if that happens to be an OLB great. This draft is deep at linebacker, in fact I love your second pick of Freeman from Ohio State. The more I hear about him, the more I hope we wait to round 2 for a 'backer.

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I disagree with the motion that we are weakest at LB. DT or Safety for me.

I think we are equally weak at LB & S.

That being said we are also weak on the D-Line.

A good DE or DT would make both positions LB&S better.

We also have young untested talent at LB and S that could be the answer.

Nicholas & Decoud

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At 24:

James Laurinaitis

Brian Cushing

Clay Matthews Jr.

At 56:

Marcus Freeman

Gerald McGrath

I could see James Laurinaitis being the most NFL ready and making a push to start but still dont think he will. I still think that Nicholas will be a player to watch. I think he will excel as a LB in our system. I dont think Cushing will be there when we pick at 24.

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I could see James Laurinaitis being the most NFL ready and making a push to start but still dont think he will. I still think that Nicholas will be a player to watch. I think he will excel as a LB in our system.

I don't. I think any of the players I listed would start over him.

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I don't. I think any of the players I listed would start over him.

well i guess we have to wait and see. Even though i think that TD loves the draft, I still dont believe that he would put all his eggs in one basket. I dont think he didnt sign a bunch of FA and let our current staters walk because of the draft, it was because of the players that we have on our roster that they think can step up and fill those holes, in addition to the draft. Nicholas is one of those players IMO. :D

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