1) Atlanta Falcons
(2008 record: 11-5, 2nd place, Wild Card)
I like this pick even more when you consider that no team in the division’s 7 year history has won back to back division titles. The Falcons were one of the league’s surprise teams last season going 11-5 after an ugly ’07 where they went 4-12 and suffered through the Bobby Petrino garbage. The biggest key to their turnaround was the overall #3 pick in the ’08 draft, Matt Ryan. The rookie was named starter prior to the season opener, becoming the first Falcon to hold that honor since Steve Bartkowski in ’75. Matty Ice led the Falcons to their first playoff appearance in 4 years and parlayed 3,400 yards passing (13th) and an 87.7 QB rating (11th) into an AP Offensive ROY award. The rookie showed tremendous leadership and poise, bouncing back from a 13 for 33, 0 TD, and 2 INT performance in his second game of the year at Tampa to win 5 of his next 7 games. It’s not a good sight to see from a divisional foe, but it’s hard to not be impressed with Ryan’s present and future possibilities. Don’t expect the Falcons to have him throwing 600 passes this year, but 4,000 yards and 20 TDs aren’t out of the realm of possibility. Looks like this guy is going to be around for a while……….Although I call Ryan the key to the Falcons’ ’08 season (with QB being the most important position in pro sports), Michael Turner, the free agent signing from San Diego, finished second in the NFL with 1,699 yards rushing on an NFL-leading 376 carries. His 17 TDs were second only to DeAngelo Williams’ 18. Turner’s huge season was certainly impressive, but one has to wonder if the one year starter can repeat the massive feat. Prior to his 376 carry season, Turner had totaled 228 carries in 4 seasons at LaDainian Tomlinson’s change of pace. There’s also that curse of 370 to consider. While I don’t consider Turner a one year wonder, I think a combination of factors (one of them being Ryan’s development) will see his numbers decrease in ’09. Barring injury, Jerious Norwood returns for his 4th season of backup duty where he’ll end up with his customary 120 touches and provide a change of pace to Turner’s battering running style……….At receiver, Roddy White put up his second solid season in a row with 88 catches (9th in NFL) and 1,382 yards (4th). The 5th year receiver struggled to establish himself as a serious receiving threat in his first two years in the league with VD Vick throwing him the ball. Go figure. That’s certainly not the case any longer. Expect another similar season from White with a spike in TDs to at least 10 and for him to earn consideration as one of the game’s best #1s. Michael Jenkins hasn’t had similar success, struggling to establish consistency despite very little competition for catches during his tenure as a Falcon. He’s the Falcons’ version of Michael Clayton. Behind those guys is, yet again, very little at receiver. Speedy Harry Douglas will miss the season with a torn ACL. The Falcons had high hopes for the second year receiver from Louisville who had a couple of bright moments in ’08. The remaining receivers wouldn’t help many flag football teams – Brian Finnernan, Marty Booker, and Robert Ferguson. Puke! Thankfully (for Ryan) the Falcons traded for Kansas City Chiefs icon Tony Gonzalez this offseason. He immediately provides Ryan with a legit option in the middle of the field. Yes he’s 33 and his production is likely to decline, but the guy caught 96 passes and 10 TDs last year. The Falcons would surely take his “mediocre” ’07 performance of 73 catches, 900 yards, and 5 TD. Yeah, slight upgrade over Justin Peele……….Another area of improvement in ’08 was the play of the Falcons’ offensive line. Sam Baker, the 21st overall pick in the ’08 draft, didn’t have a ton to do with that having missed 11 weeks of the season with a bad back. Coming out of USC, Baker was a nice technical pass blocker, but he wasn’t strong or aggressive enough in the running game. That said, he should be an improvement over Todd Weiner. At RT is Tyson Clabo, a little-known 330 pound mauler from NFL Europe. He can show Baker a thing or two about playing with a nasty streak. Clabo is a success story who has come from a practice squad player in ’06 to a dependable starting RT. Justin Blalock was a versatile T/G with a ton of strength coming out of Texas in ’07. He had the ability to anchor well at the line and be an effective lane maker on the move. Blalock brought those skills with him to the NFL and has been a fixture at LG ever since, starting 30 of a possible 32 regular season games. RG Harvey Dahl isn’t as talented as Blalock, but he’s got the aggressive thing going for him. He was quiet effective last year opening holes for Turner. Todd McClure returns as the starting center for an 8th consecutive season. He’s probably the least effective run blocker on the line, but he’s the unquestioned leader of the group and has been a rock of consistency by never missing a start.
There was quite a bit of turnover on defense, most of it for the good. It’s pretty scary that John Abraham had his biggest year in his 9th season. The fourth year Falcon collected 16.5 sacks and totaled 3 in a game 3 times, once against our beloved Bucs. The 16.5 set a Falcon single season record. A Pro Bowl selection would have been warranted. Opposite Abraham is a guy who has had a bit more trouble getting to the QB. Jamaal Anderson has really struggled to harness any of his talent into becoming an effective defensive end. He came into the league with huge potential in ’07, but he looks like a huge bust so far, registering 2 sacks in 31 career games. It certainly isn’t for lack of opportunity. Chauncey Davis would take the job from Anderson if they let him, so that’s worth watching. Kroy Biermann, an ’08 pick, was a really nice pass rusher at Montana, and ’09 fourth round steal, Lawrence Sidbury, is really quick off the ball and puts forth a lot of effort in getting to the passer. They have some options. To address much needed help in the middle, the Falcons spent the 24th pick in the draft on Peria Jerry, the “elder” defensive tackle from Ole Miss. He’s a penetrating, backfield-disrupting tackle who will team with veteran Jonathan Babineaux to give them some athleticism in the middle of the line. Babineaux, the 5th year veteran from Iowa, should have his best season yet. Trey Lewis is their only real depth in the middle, and he missed all of last year with knee issues……….Mike Peterson was sent packing from the Jags for making the game more about himself than his team, and he was snatched up by the Falcons where he’s reunited with his former Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mike Smith. No matter how they try and spin it, going from Keith Brooking to Peterson at WLB wasn’t a step in the right direction. On the strong side, I wasn’t a fan of over-hyped Michael Boley and don’t see his departure as troubling the Falcons. He’s replaced by Stephen Nicholas, a guy who may not have the natural ability that Boley does, but he’ll play fundamentally sound football every snap. He’ll be supported by veteran Coy Wire. Another piece to Brooking’s departure is that it means MLB Curtis Lofton will be counted on as a three down player this year. Lofton was an early 2nd round pick in ’08 who stepped in right away in the middle and finished the year second to New England’s Jerod Mayo in tackles among rookies. I don’t see it being a problem because the super-athletic Lofton was a pretty good in coverage at Oklahoma. Anyone’s going to struggle in space, but he’s skilled enough to cover his ground in the middle……….Here’s where it gets dicey. The Falcons only intercepted 10 passes all of last season, and they watched
Domonique Foxworth sign with the Ravens. He was a fine tackler, but he’s not a big help in man coverage. Despite their still shaky situation, I don’t see him as a big loss. He’ll be replaced by Brent Grimes a former practice squad player. While I don’t see Foxworth as a loss, that doesn’t mean they’ve improved. On the other side, Chris Houston really needs to step it up. The feisty, physical corner from Arkansas has been far too inconsistent and gives up too many big plays. The Falcons apparently weren’t too hip on this Grimes-Houston combo last year, hence the Foxworth trade. Yet here we are back to the same starters again. I really liked Chevis Jackson coming out of LSU in ’08. He probably doesn’t have the speed to be a consistent starter at corner in a predominantly man coverage scheme, but he’s very experienced, plays consistently smart ball, and has nice size. The Falcons like this year’s 3rd round corner Chris Owens, a player I admittedly didn’t pay much attention to heading into the draft. He’s a really good cover corner who likes to play with his hands; a nice fit for the scheme. He should see the field plenty in his first year. William Moore (Missouri) was drafted to start at SS, but he’s continued his horrendous year, sitting out most of the preseason with a knee issue. Moore was once considered an early first round pick before the ’08 football season started, but a lackluster season sprinkled with nagging injuries followed by piss poor performances in all star games and workouts saw him slide to the 55th overall pick. He looked like a completely different player at times last year. When he was on, Moore was a big, aggressive playmaker who ran sideline to sideline and caught everything thrown his way. Erik Coleman, the team’s leader tackler and interceptor, returns, and with Moore out, he’s moving over from FS to the strong side. Lawyer Milloy, last year’s SS, is still looking for work, and with Coleman in his old spot, that makes last year’s 3rd round pick, Thomas DeCoud, the starter at FS. That’s probably the better arrangement because, at Cal, DeCoud was a corner turned safety with range and discipline. He’s not a ghost in the run game either, but the Falcons would rather have him make plays on balls in the air.
I hate to say it, but I really like what I see in this team. They’ve given a young QB with a seemingly fabulous future a Pro Bowl target in the middle of the field. He also returns one of the game’s better runners along with an improving offensive line. With all the new parts, I think it might take them a few games to get it together on defense. I do think their corners will get picked on, and Mike Peterson may prove to be a liability. All said, I think they have a serious shot of making a deep run in the playoffs.
2) New Orleans Saints
(2008 record: 8-8, 4th place)
Drew Brees. #1 in yards, #1 in completions, and #1 in TDs. His 5,069 yards were 15 shy of Dan Marino’s single season record. Can he do it again? Brees has been the perfect general of Sean Payton’s offense, seemingly always under complete control and able to lead his offense for a score whenever they need one. He doesn’t have the strongest arm in the league, but with his touch, he doesn’t need to. He has strong pocket presence and uses his mobility to make plays outside the hashmarks. There’s not much more that can be said about the guy. Since ’06, he’s led all QB’s with 13,910 yards which is the 2nd highest 3 season mark in NFL history. Oh, he also made his 3rd Pro Bowl and was named the AP’s Offensive Player of the Year in ‘08. He can do it again, and what’s scary is that the rest of his offense appears to be even better this season……….After 8 eventful seasons, Deuce McAllister is no longer a member of the Saints. The one-time face of the franchise has two really bad knees and only played in 16 games over the last two years. He’s still looking for work, but if/when he does find a home, he’ll have to sit out the first 4 games due to violating the league’s banned substance policy. Pierre Thomas took over as the primary ball carrier in November last year and even with having started only 5 games, he led the Saints in TDs with 12. He’s the guy that was keeping Rashard Mendenhall on the sidelines at Illinois with a nice between the tackles running style. As the preseason comes to a close, Thomas is dealing with a minor MCL sprain and is doubtful to play in the opener against Detroit. Keep an eye on this situation. Also returning is hype machine Reggie Bush. The former Trojan hasn’t played 16 games since his rookie year and has watched his production shrink the last two seasons. If I could, I’d put money on him not making it through this season unscathed either. He had offseason microfracture knee surgery and hasn’t played in a preseason game not only due to that recovery but due to a calf injury as well. If/When healthy, he’ll be a big part of the passing game where he can use his quickness to elude defenders in open space. Mike Bell figures to make the roster too, but he shouldn’t be much of a threat to either Thomas’ or Bush’s playing time if they’re both healthy……….You’d think that Brees was throwing to Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Randy Moss with the numbers he puts up. Their receivers aren’t awful, just not what you’d expect from such a potent passing game. Former 7th round steal Marques Colston is the #1, but he’s not without his issues. The big WR missed 6 games last year with a torn ligament in his left thumb, and when he returned, he was dropping far too many passes. Like Bush, not only has Colston played in 16 games only once, but he also had offseason microfracture surgery. He’s a big play receiver, and if healthy, wow, look out NFL. Brees has proven he doesn’t need a ton of help to put up yards and points. Lance Moore was the Saints’ leading receiver, catching 79 of Brees’ 413 completions. He’s a terrific slot receiver, doing the dirty work over the middle of the field, rarely dropping a pass. Moore is barely 5-9, 190 but plays like he’s Colston’s size. He’s quick in tight spaces and hardly ever makes a negative play. I’m not a fan of Devery Henderson on the outside. Sure he’s fast, but you’ve got to catch the ball before you can run with it. Robert Meachem was a 1st round pick in the ’07 draft, but he missed all of that season with a knee injury and was irrelevant this past year. He was inconsistent coming out of Tennessee, playing down to competition, and so far, he smells a lot like Henderson. TE Jeremy Shockey is the only Saint more overhyped than Reggie Bush……….A big strength of this team is the play of the offensive line. They’ll take a hit starting out the year as LT Jammal Brown is going to miss time recovering from a sports hernia. As good as he is, he plays too sloppy for a guy with perennial Pro Bowl talent. Jon Stinchcomb re-signed this offseason to once again line up at RT. He’s a much better pass protector than run blocker and has had a real up and down Saints career. Back up tackle Zach Strief is built like a barn. Center Jonathan Goodwin replaced Jeff Faine in the Saints’ offense, but he hasn’t replicated his production. RG Jahri Evans is the best player on the Saint’s line IMO. He was a powerful, small school (Bloomsburg) prospect I liked as a pick for the Bucs back in ’06. He went in the 4th round which was a little earlier than I expected, but he’s been worth every penny for the Saints. He’s developed nice footwork and consistent technique to go with his strength and size. I’m predicting a Pro Bowl for the 4th year guard. Carl Nicks, last year’s 5th round pick, starts at LG. He was an interesting prospect as a tackle, but after getting into some on-campus trouble prior to the draft, his stock fell. He started the majority of last year at LG for the Saints ahead of Jamar Nesbit. Nicks showed a good deal of promise last year, but he’s got a ways to go.
New Orleans was one of the worst defenses in the league last year in yards and points allowed. Hoping to light a fire under these guys is Gregg Williams who replaces Gary Gibbs as DC. Defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith will play as long as their suspensions are under federal appeal. Both players have seen their play fall off the last two seasons, especially Grant. He’s been a huge disappointment, playing in only 22 of the team’s last 32 games. I still think Smith can have a nice bounce back season, but it will be tough to get (or stay) up to speed when everyone’s got 4 games on you. Former Jaguar teammates Bobby McCray and Paul Spicer would see a lot of action on the ends with Smith and Grant suspended. Neither one is anything more than a situational player at this point. Free agent from Buffalo, Anthony Hargrove, will also be in the mix. Last year’s 26th ranked defense (points allowed) could be starting in a big hole. The Saints are really counting on last year’s 7th overall pick, Sedrick Ellis, to produce as a penetrating tackle. He tallied 4 sacks last year, but I think Williams is going to have him be a lot more active. Ellis made a lot of plays in the backfield at USC, and while I expect him to take nice step forward this year, he’s still probably a year away from Pro Bowl consideration. They’re also going to be counting on NT Kendrick Clancy shutting down the run game along side of him. The better Clancy performs, the better chance Ellis has to be a difference maker. There’s not a lot of depth in the middle, especially with Hollis Thomas playing in St. Louis and Spicer focusing on DE. Second year man DeMario Pressley will need to step up, as will reserve NT Remi Ayodele……….MLB Jonathan Vilma should benefit from the DC change as well. He didn’t have a poor ’08, but he wasn’t exactly dominant either. Was it the knee? He had surgery on his right knee late in ’07, and that may have sapped some of his explosiveness. Was it the lack of talent around him? Scott Shanle is an unspectacular WLB who wouldn’t start on the majority of the defenses in the NFL. I think a little better of Scott Fujita, but aside from being a nice run stopper, he really doesn’t make any big plays. Dan Morgan wasted everyone’s time with a comeback attempt……….Addition by subtraction in the secondary. Jason David was picked on often and successfully in his two years as a Saint after robbing them blind in the ’07 offseason. Mike McKenzie and Randall Gay manned the LC position in ’08, but neither will be starting there in ’09. McKenzie fractured his knee cap and is teamless. Gay performed admirably, but he’s better off as a nickel man. Taking ownership of the LC position is free agent signing from Buffalo, Jabari Greer. The 6th year pro is another guy who truly shouldn’t be starting on a contending team. Tracy Porter, last year’s 2nd round pick starts at RC as he did last year for 5 games until dislocating his right wrist while giving up a TD to Bernard Berrian. He went on IR, and David saw more playing time. Porter was a bit of a sleeper in last year’s corner-heavy draft, but he’s got nice cover skills and started out pretty well as a rookie. That said, he’s not going to match up physically with guys like Antonio Bryant and Roddy White. Let’s close out this position on a good note. The Saints spent the draft’s 14th pick on Malcolm Jenkins, the physical, intelligent, shutdown corner from Ohio State. He’s on the low end of what you’d want as far as straight line speed goes for a cover corner, but the two time All American does a good job of consistently putting himself in the right place. I know it’s not part of the equation at this point, but FS might be in Jenkins’ future down the line since it’s a nice way for a corner to extend his career. The Saints are really thin at safety. Roman Harper will start at SS and likely moved around quite a bit by Williams. The 2nd round pick in ’06 excels in run support and is one of the few playmakers in the back of this defense. Old man Darren Sharper signed a one year deal with the Saints this offseason on his way out of the NFL, but even at 33 he’s certainly no worse than Kevin Kaesviharn was last year.
Drew Bress is the only person in the NFL who can slow down this offense. I expect him to have another insane passing season and for Pierre Thomas to be an effective #1 back. Will Colston be healthy and sure handed? Can Gregg Williams turn this defense around? I like Sedrick Ellis’ chances of doubling his ’08 sack total of 4, but will Jonathan Vilma have a resurgence? I think the Saints will top last year’s 8-8 and contend for a Wild Card spot, but it won’t be enough to outdo the Falcons. I think the prognosticators are, once again, too in love with this team. Defense wins championships!
3) Carolina Panthers
(2008 record: 12-4, 1st place)
The Panthers finished up last year’s regular season winning 4 of their last 5 games and appeared poised to make a run in the playoffs after earning the NFC South crown for the first time since ’03 as well as a first round bye. Everything looked good until Jake Delhomme got a hold of the football against Arizona. In the worst performance of his career, the Louisiana native completed only half of his passes and threw 5 interceptions. He couldn’t complete a single pass to Steve Smith in the first half (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had a lot to do with that too) and was booed out of his own stadium. As a reward for that performance, the Panthers signed him to a 5 year extension that could pay him over $40 million. Will he rebound in ’09? They’re going to be paying a lot for a long time to find out. Assuming he makes it through a full season as the starter, I think he’ll finish right at the 3,000 yard passing mark. Will that be enough?..........The Panthers are hoping they don’t have to rely on Jake’s arm this season and can repeat last year’s strong rushing success where they finished third in the league with 152 yards a game on the ground. DeAngelo Williams exploded in the third year of his NFL career, rushing for over 1,500 yards which was good for 3rd best in the league. He’s not the biggest rusher in the league, but he’s one of the more patient, finding the right time and spot to hit a hole and make the most of what’s given to him. Of the top 10 rushers in the league, his YPC average was over ½ a yard higher than the next closest runner (5.5 vs. 4.9, Chris Johnson), so he can obviously bust the long runs. Oh, and his 18 rushing TDs were most by any RB in the league last year. He plays with really good balance, gives his all in pass protection, catches passes out of the backfield, and is hard to get a good hit on. Sound like anyone we know who had two stints as a Buccaneer? I wouldn’t put it past him to rack up another 1,500 yards on the ground, but defenses will be keying on him even more this year. The second starting caliber RB in the rotation is Jonathan Stewart, the second year guy from Oregon. When the Panthers took him in the first round last year, they expected to get a guy who would be a change of pace to the quick Williams, providing the physical running that puts a hurtin’ on defenders. The formula is usually reversed, with the battering ram getting the early downs, but this arrangement works for the Panthers. Stewart is a fine receiver as well and could step in and carry the rushing load should something happen to Williams. Strange fact: the 13th picks in the first and second round were two very productive rookie runners – Stewart and Matt Forte. All that said, Stewart spent all of OTAs on the sidelines with a sore Achilles. That same injury has kept him very limited in preseason practices and inactive for every preseason game. Think he’s magically going to step on the field and hit the ground running in a few days? Not me. I have no idea what to project for the former Duck this season, but the fact that he has seen terribly limited action makes it hard to be optimistic. The Panthers wisely added depth to the position this offseason, taking former Aggie, Mike Goodson in the 4th round of the draft. He’s kind of a mix between Williams and Stewart; the quickness and agility to break off big plays and a hard running style despite ideal power back size. He, Glenn Coffee, and James Davis were the most impressive rookie RBs this preseason. If Stewart is to miss any significant time, the Panthers appear more than comfortable handing the ball to Goodson. Tyrell Sutton, who spent the preseason with Green Bay, was added to the mix as insurance……….The Panthers are very thin at receiver, but Steve Smith returns as Delhomme’s #1 target. He’s still one of the toughest, more productive pass catchers in the league, but the decline in TDs the last 4 seasons (12, 8, 7, 6) isn’t encouraging. Smith has been limited this preseason with a shoulder injury, and they can’t afford to start the year without him. If he’s healthy, 90 catches and 1,300 yards are well within reach. Muhsin Muhammad may be 36 years old, but he’s still a consistent #2. He’s not spectacular, but on a team that is run heavy and has a legit #1, you need your #2 to be a steady possession guy. Muhsin fits the bill. His attention to detain in route running and blocking and his consistency as a red zone threat allow him to be productive at an age when most receivers are in their 3rd or 4th year of retirement. Local favorite Torry Holt was an option in free agency this offseason, but the Panthers showed little/no interest. They also didn’t spend a draft pick on the position. Instead, they’re rolling with Kenny Moore and the disappointing Dwayne Jarrett as their top reserves. Jarrett should be the #2 receiver on this team, but by all reports, he has about 20% of the discipline that the veteran Muhammad has. He’s still sloppy (mentally and physically) and hasn’t done the little things it takes to become a productive pro. At 6-4 he’d be quite an offensive asset if he could decide that he wants to play football. Moore probably has ¼ of Jarrett’s talent, but he gives 200% more effort than the former Trojan. Moore, a 5th round pick by the Lions in ’08, won’t be a star, but he does all the little things that you need to do if you want to have a chance in this league. Jeff King is a very poor receiving option at TE, but he’s retained for his blocking ability. He looks to have lost his starting job to 2nd year player, Gary Barnidge, who is pretty much the opposite. In his last two years at Louisville, Barnidge caught 84 passes from Brian Brohm and found the endzone 10 times. He’s not much of a blocker, but with a team in need of receiving options, I expect him to be on the field often……….Carolina fields one of the more impressive offensive lines in football, and their bookends are both well paid former #1 picks. After earning $7.5 million in ’08 as the Panthers’ franchise player, Jordan Gross signed a 6 year $60 million deal in February to hang around long term. He’s not the most physical lineman in the league, but he’s an intelligent blocker who has succeeded on both the left and right sides. I’m not convinced that he deserves to be paid top player money, but that’s another discussion. At RT is the other big money player, first rounder Jeff Otah. Last year the Panthers were so enthralled with Otah that they sent their #1 in ’09 to the Eagles for the right to draft him. I’d say it worked out well for them. A high right ankle sprain kept him out of the lineup for 4 games, but he started the other 12 and was everything they hoped he’d be. Coming out of Pitt, Otah was a tremendous run blocker with intriguing athleticism for his size (6-6, 325). He’s already the best RT in the division IMO, and I think he’s a year away at most from being a consistent Pro Bowler. High upside here. When Gross jumped over to LT last year, Travelle Wharton slid over to LG. Wharton’s a better fit here where his lack of footwork and athleticism isn’t a detriment. DeAngelo gets a lot of his yards running in Wharton’s direction. Keydrick Vincent starts at the other guard spot. The 9th year veteran had a nice season at RG, but he’s not been terribly consistent throughout his career. Surprisingly to me, Duke Robinson wasn’t drafted until the 5th round this year and ended up being the 6th guard off the board. At OU he was a beast in the run game, using his massive size (6-5, 330) and fiery nature to overwhelm defenders. He’ll need a little coaching on his technique, but I think he’s a real steal. Lining up at center is the 3rd year man from USC, Ryan Kalil. In his first season as a starter, Kalil started 12 games and missed 4 due to an ankle injury. He’s an athletic, intelligent center who looks to be a good line general for the foreseeable future.
The Panthers have been hit pretty hard by the injury bug this preseason, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Starting with the most significant injury, run stopping DT Maake Kemoeatu went on IR a month ago after tearing his Achilles. He’s not their best player, but he’s far and away their biggest run killer. That won’t help them corral Michael Turner twice a year. They’re really hurting with the top replacements being Marlon Favorite and Nick Hayden. The latter was a nice run stopper at Wisconsin prior to being drafted in ’08, but he gives up quite a bit of weight to Kemoeatu and is better off as a rotational player. Favorite was an undrafted free agent from LSU with decent lateral movement and experience but is another guy who is a rotational NFL player at best. After signing a 6 year deal this offseason, Damione Lewis returns for his 4th year as a Panther at the other tackle spot. Lewis won’t elevate the play of those around him and will really feel the loss of Kemoeatu this year. He finished third on the team in ’08 with 3.5 sacks, but coming off rotator cuff surgery and without Kemo, he’s not going to get any better. Corvey Irvin of Georgia, 3rd round pick in this year’s draft, is more of a penetrator and didn’t excel against the run in college. The loss of Kemo is felt on the outside at well. Without the big man to occupy multiple blockers, guys like Julius Peppers, Charles Johnson, and Tyler Brayton are going to have a harder time getting to the QB. Peppers was adamant about not wanting to return to Carolina but grudgingly accepted $16 million as their franchise player. His 14.5 sacks last season were a career high and helped him earn his 4th straight Pro Bowl appearance. Calling him athletic would be a gross understatement. He’s consistently one of the top pass rushers in the game and is tremendous in pursuit. Will his contract situation impact his play this year? Tyler Brayton, again the starter at LE, is a hard working run stopper but applies little pressure to the QB. He offers versatility as a DT and DE, so if either of these next couple of guys steps up, the Panthers might want to consider seeing if Brayton can give them much needed run support in the middle. Charles Johnson backed up Brayton and accumulated more sacks last year (6 vs. 4.5). Johnson is apparently going to start this year again as a reserve, but he’s the more dangerous player of the two. He’s easily more athletic and has more big play potential than Brayton. Ideally, he’d take the job outright early on. Another athletic guy added to the mix this year was FSU’s Everette Brown. He was their first of two second round picks and a player I believe will turn out to be a huge steal in short time. No, he’s not the biggest DE in the game, but he combines a nice burst off the line with good hand technique and a full arsenal of pass rush moves to be a consistent force in the backfield. Last year alone he totaled 21.5 TFL and 13.5 sacks……….MLB Jon Beason made his first Pro Bowl last year and is one of the few players who can give Patrick Willis a run for his money as the best interior LB in the game. This year he’s struggling with a sprained MCL and might not be ready for the season opener. Beason’s a stud in his own right, but he’s another Panther who’ll feel the loss of Kemo up front. The former Cane has a really nice size-speed combo and instincts and will chase down any play sideline to sideline. He’s probably going to see more action coming right at him this year, and it will be interesting to see how he responds. Dan Connor, the 2nd year LB from Penn State, would be his replacement. WLB Thomas Davis has an MCL sprain of his own and is on the same schedule as Beason. They pair to give the Panthers two really active backers that aren’t afraid of contact. Davis seems to be establishing himself as one of the game’s better WLBs, but he’s got plenty of unrealized potential. Na’il Diggs is a two down SLB and consistent yet unspectacular veteran. He does the little things well, but he’s going to have his hands full with Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow, and Jeremy Shockey this year………. When the Panthers brought in Ron Meeks, I think the initial thought was that they’d run a lot of Cover 2. I haven’t seen too much this preseason, but I’m guessing Carolina’s defense will have a few new wrinkles but not undergo a massive change. Top corner Chris Gamble was signed to a huge (6 years, $53.5 million) extension last November, and the Panthers are granting his wish to match up with the opposing team’s #1 receiver on a regular basis. He’ll get a workout competing with Roddy White, Marques Colston, and Antonio Bryant twice a year. Gamble is good, but a guy with his natural talent needs to be producing more than 3 INTs a year; needs more consistency. Ken “Toast” Lucas drew a lot of attention last year, but still, Gamble needs to be better. Drawing those targets this year is 4th year corner Richard Marshall. Switching to more aggressive schemes would fit his talents much better as he likes to be in constant motion and play close coverage. Keep an eye on him because he will be tested. Sherrod Martin of Troy was taken in the 2nd round of this year’s draft. He’s a combo corner/safety who is active and likes to run. CJ Wilson, 3rd year player from Baylor, is in the mix as well. At SS, Chris Harris is a powerful in the box type player. He likes to rattle cages, and he’s familiar with the Cover 2 having been drafted by and played two years with the Bears. Last year’s 3rd round draft pick, Charles Godfrey, started every game at FS last year. He played both corner and safety at Iowa but looks better suited to watch plays develop in front of him. He should only get better.
There’s a lot to like about this team (Williams, Smith, the OL, Peppers, the young ends, Beason, and Davis), but there are just too many questions. How does ’09 play out for roller coaster Delhomme? Does anyone want to be the third receiver? How much do they suffer the loss of Kemoeatu? Will there be more big plays out of the secondary this year? I don’t see any way they’re competing for another division title. It’s a two team race, and the Panthers are likely looking at an 8-8 season at best.
4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
(2008 record: 9-7, 3rd place)
Where do we start? How about the most recent display of directionlessness (yeah, my word)? Jeff Jagodzinski, the offensive coordinator hired by the Bucs in January, was fired a little over a week before the start of the season because Raheem Morris and the rest of the organization just realized that Jagz isn’t as qualified as they had thought. He’s replaced by Greg Olson, the QB coach and member of the staff the Bucs wouldn’t even let interview for the position when Jagz was hired. Back in February, the Bucs headed into free agency with the most salary cap space in NFL history, and early reviews on the results haven’t been overwhelmingly supportive.
One move was to bring in Byron Leftwich to seemingly make the QB competition a three man race between himself, Luke McCown and Josh Johnson. Well, things didn’t end there. Two weeks after signing Leftwich, the Bucs drafted Josh Freeman, the big giant human QB from Kansas State. Head coach Raheem Morris was reunited with his mancrush, and the future of the franchise was placed squarely on his large shoulders. While it doesn’t appear that it will be long before he’s handed the reigns of the offense, that honor goes to Leftwich who beat out McCown for the starting gig. After keeping all 4 QBs in their 53 man pare down, McCown, who was given a $2.5 million signing bonus in February, was sent to the Jags for a conditional pick in ’09 where he’ll provide Jacksonville with a much needed backup to Garrard. I have no delusions that Leftwich is going to take this team to the Super Bowl, but given the lack of leadership and veterans on offense, they could have done a lot worse than hefty lefty. Yes his windup is incredibly long and he won’t win many foot races, but he has a very strong arm, pocket presence, and the type of leadership/toughness that teammates rally around. He also doesn’t get flustered in pocket and makes quick decisions. Those latter skills are McCown’s biggest deficiencies and (probably) the primary reasons he’s now in Jacksonville. Luke has the athleticism, mobility, and arm to succeed in this league, but you won’t play long if you can’t master the mental aspect of the game. The most athletic QB, Josh Johnson, remains a part of the team, and I’m very pleased about that. He and Brian Brohm were my favorite QBs of the ’08 draft, and thankfully we got one of them. Johnson is a very dangerous player with the ball in his hands, having uncommon mobility and elusiveness for the QB position. He probably has the “weakest” of the three arms, but he can heave it deep as well. It doesn’t stop there. He’s attentive to the little things, demonstrating the commitment to improve himself. IMO, the NCAA’s all time passing efficiency leader just needs more snaps to make himself a legit starting QB option. Unfortunately, that might not happen in Tampa because of the presence of Freeman. I’ve already voiced my displeasure enough regarding this move, but it’s time to get past that. He had an expectedly spotty preseason, but Freeman has a really strong arm and big upside. I’m still concerned that he threw 34 INTs in 3 seasons in a weak defensive conference. I also don’t like that he wasn’t able to raise the play of those around him. 1st round QBs are supposed to do that. Is he a leader? Ok, so maybe I’m not over this decision quite yet.
If only every position on the team was as well stocked as RB. That depth is a reason one of the Bucs’ most impressive preseason performers, Kareem Huggins, is a practice squad player. Huggins displayed a decisive, hard running style and the ability to catch passes out of the backfield. The Bucs deemed Huggins expendable due to the ability and status of four other runners. Although Raheem has stated his desire to run a 2-2-1 series system with his backs, headlined by Carnell Williams, I expect Derrick Ward, a free agent signing from the NY Giants, to be the primary ball carrier on this team. Ward was the second half of the combination that led the NFL in rushing last year with 2,518 yards. The dash to Brandon Jacobs’ smash totaled 1,025 of those yards, including 215 of them in a dominating effort against the Panthers. He’s also a sound receiver out of the backfield, catching at least 2 passes in every game but 4 this past season. Ward is an upgrade to Warrick Dunn, last year’s leading rusher. Earnest Graham would have finished atop that list had he not missed the last 6 games of the season with a severe high ankle sprain. Graham and Ward are similar runners in that they are decisive, run north-south, catch the ball out of the backfield, and fall forward upon being tackled. Prior to the ’08 offseason, I said that finding another RB capable of carrying a heavy workload was a priority, and a year later they got one in Ward. If they’re both healthy and the Bucs aren’t down a lot early, this could be a productive duo. Clifton Smith displayed explosiveness in limited action this preseason. There’s no question he has the ability to contribute as a change of pace guy out of the backfield, but again, I’d hate to lose a Pro Bowl return man due to an injury sustained on a 3rd and 12 scenario. He may not be needed because impressively, for a second time, Williams has made a full recovery from a major knee injury. We know he had breakaway speed in the past, and if he can regain that ability, he should be a significant contributor. He’s currently listed as first on the Bucs’ depth chart, and I find that interesting. He was limited/restricted this preseason, and you’d have to work pretty hard to convince me that he’s a better back at this point than Ward. Not sure if this is a motivational, inspirational, or reward type move. Williams was never the best pass catcher, so he probably won’t be counted on a ton on 3rd down. I do expect a share of responsibilities in the backfield, but they wouldn’t have guaranteed Ward $6 million if they weren’t going to lean heavily on him. Gotta mention fullback BJ Askew here as well. He’s a well-rounded blocker who’ll never get a ton of praise, not that many of them do. He can block, he can catch, and as he showed in the preseason, he’s capable of handling the rock and running decisively with it. Last year, Askew missed 6 games with a hamstring injury, and should the Bucs need a backup at the FB position, that duty looks likely to fall on Graham’s shoulders since Jameel Cook was sent packing once again. On a semi-related note, I loved the rhino backfield or whatever they called it when they lined up Zuttah as one of the two blockers in front of the halfback. I doubt they’d use Zuttah since he’s starting at guard, but Roy Miller lined up as a blocking back quite often at Texas. Tell me Graham and Miller couldn’t open a lane or 3 for Derrick Ward on the goal line.
At receiver, we’re not very deep, and our #1 and #2 (by default, not merit) spent most of the preseason on the sidelines. Antonio Bryant, who the team tagged as their franchise player for $9.8 million, has missed a lot of time due to a knee injury that required a scope. He’ll head into the opener against Dallas having not taken a preseason snap. After checkered seasons with the Niners and aforementioned Cowboys, Bryant revived his career last season with 83 catches and 1,248 yards, 4th and 6th in the NFC respectively. Last year he showed that when he’s focused, there’s not much he can’t do on the football field; speed, physicality, ball skills, competitiveness. I’m concerned that he hasn’t had time to develop much chemistry with Leftwich, but I’m glad that it’s Leftwich throwing the deep ball instead of twinkle toes Garcia. He’s got a new teammate at TE who should keep defenses honest, so Bryant may get his share of one on ones. Across from him is Michael Clayton, the re-signed free agent receiver, who’s guaranteed $10.5 million was one of the biggest headscratchers of the offseason. The annual disappointment who wasn’t able to catch even half of his rookie year 80 passes in any of the next 4 seasons was inexplicably given just $4.5 million less guaranteed money than TJ Houshmandzadeh got from the Seahawks this offseason. Yes, he’s one heck of a blocking receiver, but so is Hines Ward. Anyone know the difference between those two? Hopefully Clayton flashes some semblance of his ’04 rookie self and learns to take responsibility for his performance, or lack thereof. The third receiver situation is a source of contention amongst many Bucs fans. Old reliable Ike Hilliard was let go prior to the kickoff of free agency, and the Bucs waited until the 7th round of the draft to make an attempt at improving the position. Brian Clark isn’t the most exciting wideout, but this preseason he showed the ability to get open and catch the ball when it’s thrown his way. I look for Olson to utilize him much as Gruden did Hilliard. He’s not a burner, but I believe he’ll give you five and a half on those 3rd and fives. I do like his game. Stroughter was taken with the 233rd pick in this year’s draft, and with the combination of his ability and the Bucs’ sad depth, he’s in the mix for significant playing time. The former Beaver shows the balls that Dexter Jackson left in Boone, NC, making decisive runs in both the receiving and return games. With Clifton Smith having a firm grasp on return duties, look for the Bucs to feature Stroughter heavily on offense with receiver screens and short routes that he can turn into long gains. Our playmakers are limited. He’s more quick than fast, but his decisiveness is a real asset. Rounding things out is 4th receiver Maurice Stovall. He’s one hell of a special teams gunner, but his accomplishments as a receiver are lacking. After going into ’07 with expectations of being a starting receiver, he spent the last two years as an afterthought, his ’08 season ending with a hamstring injury. He has good size and a fine attitude, but Stovall has real trouble separating and doesn’t consistently make catches in traffic. If there were more quality options available, Stovall might be looking for work elsewhere.
Here's another position on the ’09 Buccaneers with impressive depth. The position was so deep that the Bucs were able to trade middling TE Alex Smith to the Patriots for a 5th round pick in next year’s draft. That said, I’m still not a fan of trading 2nd and 5th round picks to Cleveland for injury-plagued TE Kellen Winslow, and I’m even less of a fan of the $20 million guaranteed he got from the Bucs upon his arrival, making him the highest paid TE in the game. He missed 6 games last year due to an ankle injury, and amongst other hindrances I’d rather not mention, he’s running on two known bad knees. The Bucs will surely look to utilize him heavily in the passing game because when he’s healthy and focused (something else he struggles with at times), his size/speed/power combination allows him to capitalize on mismatches and be one of the best at his position. It’s a big if, but a full 16 games would have Winslow once again ranking at the top of his position in receptions. The Bucs will need all of them. Returning via free agency is the second pass catching TE on the roster, Jerramy Stevens. The former Seahawk headcase has settled in well as quite a bargain in his two years as a Buccaneer. In a bit of a surprise, the lengthy pass catcher was re-signed even with the addition of Winslow and two other TEs on the roster. Even with Winslow on the team, due to a lack of depth at receiver and his ability to take advantage of mismatches, look for Stevens to push 30 catches again and be a redzone favorite of Leftwich’s. Rounding out the tight end crew is veteran John Gilmore. He’s the best blocker of this bunch by far and will likely be called on to do that 99% of the time he’s in the lineup. Gilmore has proven himself to be a fine pass catcher in his one year as a Buccaneer, but with Winslow and Stevens on the roster, he’s not going to see many targets. He was limited by a quad injury this preseason, so that may be worth following as we get into games that matter. Ryan Purvis isn’t on the roster, but him impressive preseason performance earned him a spot on the practice squad. I doubt the Bucs would hesitate to pull him up if something should happen to one part of the previously mentioned trio.
Up front Jagodzinski implemented a new zone blocking scheme prior to his departure, and that change will rely more on intelligence and athleticism than pure power. Probably the most important player on the Buccaneers this year, center Jeff Faine, was slowed by groin and back injuries all offseason. He was a very valuable addition from the Saints last year and quickly became the leader of the group. I was a bit surprised that he was the target last offseason being that the team’s stated desire was to get bigger at the position. He worked out just fine, but the move to the ZBS should allow him to be even more effective. Unfortunately it appears as if the Bucs will not be able to count on Aaron Sears in the ’09 season. He’s been a no-show due to personal reasons, and it doesn’t look like he’s anywhere close to returning this year or ever again. In his place at LG is last year’s 3rd round pick, Jeremy Zuttah. The versatile lineman from Rutgers showed his value early last year stepping in for Davin Joseph who missed the first four games with a broken foot. Zuttah played RT in Rutgers’ ZBS, and he did it well. This should be a fairly smooth transition for the second year player. Remember, he was the only OL at last year’s combine to have a sub-5 forty. He’s known as an athletic, intelligent, hard working lineman, and I’m confident that he’ll handle his own on the left side. Returning for his 4th season as a Buccaneer is Pro Bowl RG Davin Joseph. The former Sooner was the second offensive lineman taken in the ’06 draft (23rd overall), behind D’Brickashaw Ferguson who went 4th to the Jets. Joseph is a very physical run blocker who will be asked to block more on the move than he has in the past. He’s not known for his quickness, so watching his ability to jump out effectively and help with the nose on runs to the left or get to the second level to seal off a linebacker will worth watching. His preseason results were mixed, but I’d look for him to become more consistent when he gets Faine back in the lineup next to him. At left tackle, Donald Penn returns after grudgingly signing a one year restricted free agent tender of $2.8 million. The third year starter has gone from undrafted free agent to starting LT and is looking for a long term deal. Tampa has yet to approach him with such a proposition, but I’d like to think one will be forthcoming. Penn’s a guy who has gotten better each year, with his strength being protecting the QBs blindside. He’s not the biggest or strongest LT in the league, and I think the change in scheme should do him well. Penn’s been able to hold his own pass blocking against speed rushers because of good footwork and quickness; key ZBS skills. Hopefully his contract situation won’t be an issue and he continues his progression as a left tackle. On the other end of the line is Jeremy Trueblood, a guy I think is really going to struggle this year. He’s never been consistent, physically or mentally, and while his strength has been run blocking, he’s lacking in the agility/quickness department. He’s always made great use of his massive wingspan, so that should come in handy even more so when blocking on the move. His issues will be quickness off the snap, getting out in front of defenders and technique; like whether or not he can keep his shoulders square when moving down the line, especially important since he’s not the widest RT in the league. I really think he’s going to struggle and be the source of a lot of frustration for Bucs fans this year. I’m getting WAY ahead of things, but I think the Bucs will be looking for a RT in rounds 2-4 of next year’s draft.
The key to this year’s backups is versatility. Sean Mahan was recently released in a cost savings move, so backing up this starting five is a very inexperienced foursome. Center Jonathan Campos and G/T Marcus Johnson are Oakland castoffs who have experience in this scheme but again were Oakland castoffs. They were Bucs for only about a week before making the final roster. I was surprised that the Bucs went with Marc Dile over Rob Bruggeman, the guy who got the majority of the time at center in Faine’s absence, but I assume Dile is more versatile. Demar Dotson, the extremely undeveloped lineman from Southern Miss, rounds out the backups. He’s about as raw as they come, having played only one year of football in his life and doing so as a defensive tackle. He’s huge at 6-9, 315, and being a former basketball player, you’d expect him to be an athletic big man. I can’t claim to know much of anything about the guy, but I don’t think there’s really anyone who does. The Bucs are working him at tackle, and I’m particularly intrigued about his possibilities. He could be an absolutely huge steal or a very low risk venture. Thumbs up Morris and Dominik. I completely missed Xavier Fulton going down with a knee injury during the Houston game, so my calling shenanigans on his being placed on IR was buffoonery on my part.
The offensive side of the football isn’t the only one to undergo massive change. Starting on the sidelines, the Bucs will take the field without the legendary Monte Kiffin for the first time in nearly 15 years. With him goes the Tampa 2, the longtime predominant defense of the Buccaneers. On December 2, Monte was named defensive coordinator for his son’s Tennessee Volunteers for the ’09 season, and the Bucs defense went into shutdown mode (not the good kind). Three of their last four games were putrid performances. Six days after Kiffin’s announcement, the Bucs defense gave up 38 points to the Panthers, including 21 in the 4th quarter and 464 total yards (299 of them rushing; over 8 yards a carry). Two weeks later against the Chargers, the Bucs gave up 41 points, including, yep another 21 in the 4th frame and totaled zero turnovers. In the finale against the Raiders, Monte’s boys laid down once again, allowing 31 points to the hapless Oakland Raiders, including 17 in the final quarter. The low point was a 67 yard TD by Michael Bush on the first play of a drive with 7:00 left in the game. On the Bucs’ first ensuing play, Garcia threw a horrible interception. The Bucs’ defense then proceeded to give up their collective manhood by allowing Michael Bush to run the ball 9 straight times for 51 yards, which was followed by a put-away FG. In Kiffin’s place is longtime NFL coach, Jim Bates.
Where the Cover 2 was more of a bend, don’t break defense that relies on speed, turnovers, penetrating tackles, and gang tackling, Bates will employ more of a run contain system which, when performed correctly, funnels the action to the middle of the field. The most noticeable difference might be in the play of the defensive tackles. Under Kiffin’s system, the tackles were quick, penetrating players who relied more on speed than size. With Bates, the defensive tackles are relied upon moreso to hold their ground, shut down the run lanes, occupy blockers, and keep the LBs (especially the MLB) clean to make tackles. Any sacks they get are a plus, so don’t be discouraged if the tackles don’t rack up high stats in that category. If you see Barrett Ruud running free often, they’re doing their jobs. This defense relies strongly on the play of the DTs and OLBs, and I think it’s safe to say that Bates isn’t done tinkering with the personnel in the middle. Regardless of how they perform in ’09, I’d expect a stud DT like Ndamukong Suh (Nebraska) or Terrence Cody (Alabama) to draw serious consideration in next year’s draft. The ends need to bring the speed, and again, force things to the middle of the field. The OLBs do the same, containing outside plays, and funneling the action back inside for the reliable Ruud to pile up high tackle totals. Bates would like to get effective blitzes from his OLB and support a pass defense that relies more on aggressive, bump and run coverage than the Bucs have played in the past. If executed correctly, you’ll see more coverage sacks from the guys up front. Onto the personnel.
Let’s start with the big guys in the middle. In one of their first moves after the conclusion of the ’08 season, the Bucs re-signed Ryan Sims to a 4 year $8 million deal. He got a hefty $3.25 million signing bonus but has base salaries of only $1 million this year and next. Sims came over from Kansas City where he was ineffective as a space eater, but this regime believes he has a place in this scheme. The preseason results have been impressive as Sims has been part of a defensive front that has shut down run lanes early on. He’ll be key as the Bucs look to establish a rotation of solid contributors up front. Starting next to Sims is the veteran defensive captain Chris Hovan. The ten year pro returns a little thicker in attempt to be more effective against the run. His hustle will never be in question, and I look for him to once again be a consistent contributor. Looking to have an early leg up on the third player in this tackle rotation is Roy Miller, the 3rd round rookie from Texas. Miller is a very strong tackle with good leg drive and a solid anchor against double teams. He gets into opposing backfields, but he’s not a tremendous pass rusher. He’s a high effort guy who played in 49 games for the Longhorns, so he’s got plenty of reps under his belt. Additional depth is provided by second year man Dre Moore, an ’08 4th round pick who basically had a red shirt season last year. Lack of focus and inconsistent effort were Moore’s biggest weaknesses, but he appears to be putting it together, demonstrating hustle and consistency the coaches had been waiting for.
Gaines Adams led the Bucs in sacks with 6.5, giving him 12 in two years as a pro. He’s going to need to put up that number in a single season if he wants to start proving his worth as the 4th overall pick in the ’07 draft. Adams has shown very little development in his time as a pro, still relying far too much on speed in getting to the passer. I’ve seen flashes of improvement in his discipline against the run, but he’s still way too ineffective in that aspect of the game for a guy who was given $42 million as a rookie. The switch in scheme should better make use of his speed skills and ability to force things back to the middle. He’s still going to have to put forth a lot more effort and consistency if he’s going to be the dominant defender the Bucs expected of him. Just ask Raheem. The coach says Adams needs to register double digit sacks this season, or he’s a bust. Well, KABOOOOM!! Starting at LE is last year’s free agent signing, Jimmy Wilkerson. Though he was not known for his pass rushing abilities when he joined the Bucs, he only had 1.5 less sack than the bonus baby, despite playing behind Kevin Carter. Unlike his RE counterpart, Wilkerson is a reliable tackler and run supporter who doesn’t continually take himself out of the action. Wilkerson is in the second season of a two year deal and has a chance to earn himself a significant payday. It appears as if the Bucs are going to give him every opportunity to do so, counting on him to contribute as a 3 down player in ’09. I like his chances of having a solid season.
Providing depth at end are Stylez G. White, rookie Kyle Moore, and recent free agent acquisition Maurice Evans. In his two years as a Buccaneer, White has been at both ends of the spectrum. His first year performance, accumulating a team leading 8 sacks, led fans to rally around a pay increase from his meager $370,000 one year deal. Well, the Bucs obliged with a 3 year $2.8 million contract, and White’s play declined in ‘08. Due to his lack of consistent effort, I wouldn’t count on the guy being anything but a situational pass rusher, especially if the Bucs get what they hope to from the young guys. The Bucs traded up three spots in the 4th round to get Moore, the DE from USC. I was confused by the decision to go with Moore, a player with nice size (6-5, 275) who came into the draft a little under the radar, because while he projects as a strong tackling, run supporting LE, the bigger need was a pass rusher to go with Adams. Lawrence Sidbury from Richmond was still on the board when the Bucs took Moore, so it will be worth following his career in comparison to Moore’s. So far this preseason, it’s been all good reviews for the rookie. He’s backing up Wilkerson at LE and even playing some defensive tackle on third downs. If he’s able to continue his contributions into the regular season, then he was worth the selection. Let’s hope he fares better than Julian Jenkins. Rounding out the group of ends is one of the newest Buccaneers, Maurice Evans, an ’09 undrafted free agent recently cut by the Giants. Evans was a victim of numbers in New York, so it’s hard to fault a guy for being cut for players like Umenyiora, Tuck, Kiwanuka, and Canty. Reports say Evans had an impressive preseason, flashing the pass rushing ability he showed at Penn State as a sophomore in ’07 when he totaled 12.5 sacks. Disappointingly, off field trouble and a lack of focus made his ’08 season basically a waste. He gives up about 4 inches to Kyle Moore, so he’s not very big. Considering how hard it is to find decent pass rushers, if he has the discipline to utilize his abilities, he could be a huge steal. Nice low risk signing Dominik. I still would’ve liked to have kept Louis Holmes on the practice squad at least……….
You can’t mention the linebacker position in Tampa without first acknowledging the departure of Buccaneer great Derrick Brooks, the face of the franchise who was unceremoniously sent packing in February. Debates continue as to whether or not Mr. Brooks was capable of continuing as a productive defender here in Tampa, but in an effort to get stronger and faster at the position, the Bucs parted ways with the future Hall of Fame WLB as well as SLB Cato June. In Brooks’ place was assumed to be Jermaine Phillips, the safety turned linebacker, but that change was put on hold due to issues in the secondary which will be discussed in just a bit. Instead, another former Nole, second year man Geno Hayes, will attempt to fill those rather large shoes. Last year, Hayes was well on his way to an impressive rookie campaign when his season was cut short due to a knee injury sustained in November against the Vikings. Geno certainly has the burst and aggression that Jim Bates and Joe Barry want to see from their OLBs in this scheme. He has great pursuit and closing speed, and as long as he continues to show disciplined adherence to assignments (i.e., keeping contain), the Bucs are going to be very pleased with him. I don’t see Phillips getting the job back from Mr. Hayes. Quincy Black has earned the starting SLB job and provides the Bucs with another very athletic, quick/sudden, aggressive tackler on the outside. I found it a bit disappointing that Kiffin couldn’t/didn’t work him onto the field more in his first two years. Now it appears as if he’s not only going to start at SLB, but he’s also seeing some time as a pass rushing LE. Back in June when we were throwing around breakout players, I said that Black would be the guy, and it wouldn’t even be close. I still feel that way. Yes, Talib will probably put up the better numbers as a corner, but I think Black is going to open the most eyes on this defense, at least locally. We haven’t seen a lot of him, but in addition to the Hayes-like athleticism/speed skills, he plays very physical football; moreso than his WLB counterpart. Black beat out veteran free agent signing Angelo Crowell in a pretty one sided competition. Unfortunately, Crowell sustained a torn biceps and was placed on IR August 24. The man who’s having all this action funneled his way is 5th year MLB and 3rd year starter, Barrett Ruud. The former Husker is the on field general of this defense and a player who is in the last year of his contract. I would have liked to have seen them address this by now, but I guess there are other priorities. Last year was a real breakout year for Ruud, posting career highs in tackles (4th most in the league) and sacks and missing out on a deserved trip to the Pro Bowl. He’s not the flashiest or biggest MLB in the game, but the guy doesn’t miss many tackles. He’s also really improved in coverage and shows a continued increase in field awareness; not a lot of overpursuits anymore. He’s a disciplined leader who continues to grow his game. As I’ve discussed, this defensive scheme will give him every opportunity to beef up his resume, and hopefully he doesn’t price himself out of town. As down as I am on this team, I’m very pleased with the possibilities at LB.
Returning for his third year is Adam Hayward, the former 6th round pick, who is a key contributor on special teams and a versatile backup at LB. He was apparently in the running for the starting SLB job with Black, but that competition never materialized. I’d of course like to see consistent starting caliber play from Hayward, but having a young athletic backup with the versatility to play multiple positions is an asset. Rod Wilson is a little-known backup who joined the Bucs late in the ’08 season after spending parts of the last three years with the Bears. Wilson was similar to Black coming out of college, in that he didn’t just pursue sideline to sideline, he was effective dropping into coverage as well. He’s added a good 15 pounds (up to 230) in his years as a pro and is being asked to play MLB for the first time. Rounding out the LB position are veterans Niko Koutouvides and Matt McCoy. Koutouvides was a target of the Buccaneers last offseason but ended up taking more money and playing time from Denver. There he basically demonstrated that he’s a special teams player, and seeing as how the Bucs already have Wilson and Hayward if need be to back up Ruud, Koutouvides likely won’t see much time on defense. McCoy has been a regular in the transaction column in recent years, and he starts the year second on the depth chart at WLB. I’m not trying to push the guy out the door just yet, but when Tanard Jackson comes back from his suspension, McCoy might be the one to go in order to free up a roster spot. Despite plenty of opportunities in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Tampa, McCoy has never established himself as anything more than a body on special teams.
Things get a bit shakier at corner where the Buccaneers return without two year starter Philip Buchanon. It’s not so much the loss of Buchanon that hurts but the extreme lack of urgency in addressing the position in any way whatsoever that was/is frustrating. Bryant McFadden (Arizona) and Leigh Bodden (New England), two corners who signed relatively cheap deals in free agency, would have been fine additions. Assumably one of the reasons this did not happen is because Raheem is not ready to make Ronde Barber a backup player at this point. One of the best to ever don the red and pewter had a really rough year in ’08. If he wasn’t getting toasted by Tyler “my god a QB just beat you deep” Thigpen, he was overpursuing and making mistakes that his athleticism just won’t cover up anymore. Sure, he’s not without his bright moments, as a lot of that has to do with the reps that come with being an 11 year starter. He still knows how to diagnose the action and put himself in the proper position more often than not. It’s just that his margin for error is a lot smaller now. Barber is still a solid nickel corner, but that’s what I’d like to see him limited to. He’s 34 years old and still has another year left on his contract after ’09 ends. I realize he’s played his share of aggressive, bump and run coverage, but can he survive with that being his predominant assignment? I have no doubts that Talib will flourish in this scheme. No his game isn’t flawless, but he has rare ball skills and should have even more opportunities to flip the field for the Bucs in ‘09. Coming out of Kansas, he was my top rated corner, but I thought his off field concerns might knock him off Tampa’s board. That didn’t happen, and Talib had quite a rookie year, tying for the team lead and NFL rookie lead in interceptions with 4. A lot will be expected of him this year, and that includes him getting his head out of his ass. All the talent in the world won’t keep you in the lineup if you continue to swing helmets at your teammates and your fists at cab drivers. That stuff in inexcusable. As I mentioned in the linebackers section, I have Talib rated higher than Black in my breakout candidates, but that’s based on a league level perspective where I believe an increase in interceptions (I’m calling for 6) will earn him plenty of airtime on highlight shows. That said, Black’s play will be the biggest “Here I am!” as far as the Bucs are concerned.
I’m not thrilled with the depth at this position, but they can’t all be winners. Elbert Mack, Leodis McKelvin’s teammate at Troy, starts the year as the third corner and will come in and slide Ronde into the nickel spot in multiple receiver sets. Mack is going to be counted on heavily to step his game up, as there is terribly little experience behind last year’s free agent find. That said, I wasn’t pleased with the lack of communication and poor fundamentals from Mack in a couple spots this preseason. He’s got to be tighter than that. If he isn’t, then the Bucs might be pressed to go with a corner like Joe Haden (Florida) or Trevard Lindley (Kentucky) early in next year’s draft. Torrie Cox is back as well, but he’s never been known for his coverage skills. From my perspective, he did little to separate from the young corners this preseason, so I’m guessing the Bucs went with his experience and special teams skills. 7th round draft pick, EJ Biggers made the team but will likely be counted on very little. He showed a lot of aggressive, press man coverage ability at Western Michigan and seems to have the size, athleticism, and attitude to be a pro corner. I think he’ll need a bit of seasoning, and thankfully our head coach specializes in that area. I can’t claim to know much about recent pickup William Middleton, the Falcons’ 5th round pick in this year’s draft. He was relatively unknown coming out of Furman, and from what very little I’ve seen, I don’t think he’ll become a starting caliber corner, at least in this scheme. He’s pretty thick for a corner (5-11, 195), is active against the run, and relies more on aggression than cover skills. I was surprised that second year corner Kyle Arrington didn’t make the final roster seeing as how he was on the practice squad last year and, by all reports, was well on his way to earning a roster spot in ‘09. He seems to have the ball skills, speed, and aggression to fit right in at corner, so I expect him to be on the roster at some point this year.
The safety position doesn’t look terribly pretty itself. Starting FS Tanard Jackson has been suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. I’ve heard that it was related to failing a marijuana test, but I can’t confirm that. Jackson entered the league two years ago as a corner from Syracuse, but he was quickly (and wisely) moved to FS. There, Jackson has been able to utilize his size and instincts to become one of the best up and coming safeties in the game. He had bouts of inconsistency in his second year as a Bucs, and sitting on the sidelines due to a suspension like this won’t help him resolve those issues. Starting SS Sabby Piscitelli was a big reason the Bucs were comfortable letting Jermaine Phillips sample the free agent market this offseason. When they eventually re-signed Flip, the thought was that, despite playing safety his entire 7 year NFL career, he’d attempt to take over at WLB for Derrick Brooks. Well, Piscitelli’s preseason play and Jackson’s situation are the two reasons a beefed up Phillips is returning to the secondary at FS. I’m not really worried about the added weight or having to go back to a position he hasn’t been focusing on all offseason, but those facts are worth mentioning. His fondness for laying the wood and recognition skills are two of the main reasons he was moved to LB, and it looked like he was making a smooth transition this preseason. That experiment (for lack of a better word) is now on hold. The book on Sabby is simple. While his athleticism, speed, and playmaking ability are very apparent, he’s far too undisciplined and inconsistent in his assignments. Although he and Jackson entered the league at the same time, Piscitelli’s development is noticeably behind Jackson’s. When free agency was about to start, I said I wanted to see him on the field more in ’08, but because of his deficiencies, I was afraid about a lack of depth without Phillips or any added free agent. Will Allen, the 6th year veteran out of Ohio State, will be counted on a bit more on defense during Jackson’s absence. He’s always been a willing run defender, but he lacks the coverage and recognition skills to be a reliable long term starter at safety. His special teams skills are a big asset to the Bucs, and upon Jackson’s return, the majority of Allen’s time will be re-focused on that area of the game.
On special teams, Mike Nugent now kicks the ball, Dirk Johnson now punts the ball, and All-World snapper Andrew Economos returns as the extended hiker.
I’m sticking to my 3-13 prediction and still don’t have high hopes for this team record-wise other than securing a top 5 pick next year’s draft. That said, I’m very anxious to watch the development of a lot of these young guys and see if we have some long term talent to build around. As negative as I’ve been, there could be some real bright spots among Quincy Black, Geno Hayes, Josh Johnson, Josh Freeman, Jeremy Zuttah, Roy Miller, Kyle Moore, Dre Moore, Brian Clark, Sammie Stroughter, Aqib Talib, EJ Biggers, and Elbert Mack.
As frustrating as this offseason has been and as much as I’ve disagreed with a lot of the choices being made by this regime, I’ll always get behind the guys in red and pewter. A QB interception here, a lost fumble there, or an occasional missed tackle isn’t going to mean much in the whole scheme of things this year, but us Buc fans (and the coaches as well) just want to see players with heart who give it all they’ve got and are trying to help themselves and their teammates get better.
I’ll gladly sit through a 3-13 year if it means that the Bucs are on the path towards winning another Lombardi trophy, and I’ll do my best to find the positives and see what we can build upon. I think the Bucs are far from a completed puzzle, but there are more than a couple of pieces in house that I believe can and will be a part of the next championship team.
MVP – Matt Ryan (watch for a big year with a lot of W’s)
Offensive POY – Drew Brees (puts up the best stats in the league once again)
Defensive POY – Jon Beason
Rookie of the Year – Josh Freeman
Offensive Breakout Player – Pierre Thomas
Defensive Breakout Player – Quincy Black