Today in 4 Downs we will examine some of the moves from the NFC South’s off-season.
1st Down–New Orleans Saints:
Though each team goes through a slew of off-season transitions, New Orleans had two moves on each side of the ball that really stood out. Offensively, they first traded away pass gobbling scat-back Darren Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles for a fifth round pick. Initial reaction from fans around the country was one of confusion. Sproles has essentially been one of the best pass catching Running Backs in the NFL for half a decade, and happened to play on one of the most pass happy teams in the NFL. It was speculated later that the Saints were going to try and become more physical in the ground game and that they felt Pierre Thomas was an easy substitution for Sproles. This move also shed some salary which in turn allowed the Saints to lock up premier Tight End Jimmy Graham to a long term deal. I do think it is likely that Drew Brees may find himself missing Sproles occasionally when he is flushed from the pocket; however, I also believe the Saints have been one of the top organizations in regards to drafting a developing Running Back depth. Drafting the explosive Brandin Cooks was the other offensive move this off-season that really stood out to me. Cooks is the dictionary definition of an electric player. He has phenomenal top end speed, is elusive in space and has deceptive strength and power for a player of his size. The addition of Cooks will undoubtedly make the loss of Sproles much easier for Drew Brees and the Saints to stomach. Defensively they went out and signed Denver Broncos cast-off Champ Bailey and Buffalo Bills super Safety Jairus Byrd. Though Bailey has suffered through injuries the last few years in Denver, he will not have to carry near the load in New Orleans talent rich secondary. The addition of Byrd and Bailey to play alongside last year’s rookie sensation Kenny Vaccaro ensures that New Orleans is set up to have one of the most formidable secondaries in the entire league. If they can get even average Cornerback play from Keenan Lewis, Patrick Robinson, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, the attacking defense of Rob Ryan is going to be very entertaining to watch this year.
2nd Down–Atlanta Falcons:
Most fans and followers of the Atlanta Falcons have high hopes for the “dirty birds” this season, and they should. Last year saw Matt Ryan attempt to conduct an offense that was missing 60% of its elite skill position players (and that is excluding a hobbled and virtually ineffective Wide Receiver Roddy White). Though they are already without starting Left Tackle, Sam Baker (torn patellar tendon), the Falcons have a vastly improved offensive line that should equal a significantly cleaner pocket for Matty Ice. They also drafted Running Back Devonta Freeman to serve as an understudy to oft-injured current starter Steven Jackson. If Freeman can learn on the go, and the pass catchers stay healthy and focused, Matt Ryan should have no problem leading this offense back to “elite” status. The biggest concern comes from future Hall Of Famer and current Quarterback safety valve Tony Gonzalez retiring at the conclusion of last years dismal season. Though he hinted that he might be receptive to a mid-season return if the Falcons position themselves for a playoff run early in the season. Although questions still remain at every level of the defense, the offense is poised to have a monster season.
3rd Down–Carolina Panthers:
Carolina saw several offensive starters retire or leave via free agency. The offensive line can be described as patchwork at best and the current Wide Receiving corp is certainly in the bottom five of the NFL (although Kelvin Benjamin has shown flashes of brilliance this off-season). With all of the change in turmoil on the offensive side of the ball, the Panthers are still led by one of the most dynamic players in all of football in Quarterback Cam Newton. Defensively, they still possess the framework to put out a suffocating defense on any given week, swarming ball carriers and pass catchers with a monster front seven that is highlighted by perpetual backfield invader Greg “The Kracken” Hardy, and sideline to sideline enforcer Linebacker Luke Kuechly. Though on paper the Carolina Panthers seem to have lost as much as anybody in the league, when you control the clock by running the ball, and have a defense that is incredibly stout in the red zone, you will always give yourself an opportunity to win games. The addition of Defensive End Kony Ealy in the 2nd round is a move that only strengthens what was already the dominant unit on this top flight defense. It is hard not to anticipate a step back in the win department; Carolina won 12 games last season, but they should still be in the thick of things in a newly competitive NFC South.
4th Down–Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The 2013 season seemed as if it was almost doomed from the beginning as drill sergeant coach Greg Schiano publicly doubted the commitment and desire of then-starting Quarterback Josh Freeman. Ultimately, the Bucs ran off 8 straight losses to begin the season in the middle of which Freeman was benched for draftnik favorite Mike Glennon. After installing a rookie signal caller and losing bell cow Running Back Doug Martin to a season ending labrum tear, it seemed as if this was a team that was destined to pick atop the 2014 NFL Draft. After the 1/2 way point of the season, and the release of publicly disgruntled former starting Quarterback Josh Freeman, the team showed a little more fire and was able to put together a 4-4 record over the final 8 games. The off-season began with the firing of Schiano and the hiring of defensive guru Lovie Smith, formerly the head coach of the Chicago Bears. After trading talented and troubled Wide Receiver Mike Williams to the Buffalo Bills for a sixth round pick, and the release of big money acquisitions Darrelle Revis and Carl Nicks, it became clear that the new regime in Tampa was not going to tolerate anyone who was not fully buying into the system. With a freshly signed veteran at the helm, former Chicago Bears backup signal caller Josh McCown; and a rookie Wide Receiver that is an absolute measurables freak in Mike Evans, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are hoping to put last years debacle behind them and continue the popular trend of bottom feeders rising to the top in the NFC South.