We’re down to our final two divisions as we break down the key needs for every NFL Team.Carolina Panthers
Pass Catching Tight End
While the quarterback position could use a boost, Jake Delhomme is fully capable of leading this team into the playoffs for the next couple of years. The Panthers get a lot of pub for their stingy defense but the league may find out this year just how strong this offense is capable of being. They have one of the four or five true stud wideouts in the game in Steve Smith and arguably the top rushing duo in the NFL. The offensive line is strong and deep across the board and should be able to dominate most opponents throughout the winter months when running the ball is crucial. Now the final piece to the puzzle is not on their current roster. Tight ends Dante Rosario, Jeff King, and Gary Barnidge do not scare linebackers and safeties because none of them create those mismatches across the middle and up the seams. While Steve Smith can handle a double team bracket coverage better than anyone, a threat that can keep safeties in the middle of the field would bring the air attack to another level.
Pass Rush Addition
It is tough to find a true weakness on the Carolina defense. It has been built over the past few years with balance and efficiency. The unit is strong across the board with more than adequate depth. That is a recipe to keep this team in contention for the next few years. However there is a dilemma that has been brewing for over a year now when it comes to the defense’s best player, Julius Peppers. In 2008, Peppers recorded 14 sacks and the second leading sack artist on the team was rotational defensive end Charles Johnson with a mere 5. While the Panthers did pick up the explosive Everette Brown with the 43rd overall selection in the 2009 draft, the pass rush could still use a boost. Brown is not the sure thing that many were assuming prior to the draft. If he does not pan out along with the inevitable departure of Peppers, the Panthers pass rush goes from average to poor. You can have all the talent in the world in the back seven but without a balanced pass rush, your defense will always be beatable.
Boost to the Interior Offensive Line
If Matt Ryan continues on this rapid rate of progression, and there are plenty of reasons to believe he will, the Falcons offense could be on par with the Saints in 2009. The top tier talent is there at the wide receiver, tight end, and running back positions. The only aspect of the unit that could hold them back is up front in the trenches. While Sam Baker and Tyson Clabo do a good enough job on the edges and left guard Justin Blalock has evolved into one of the game’s top young linemen, the Falcons had issues at times against the more physical defensive lines. Ironman center Todd McClure has done a fine job for the Falcons calling the shots from the middle but Michael Turner did not have the success running inside that he should of in 2008. On his right side is Harvey Dahl who gets by on effort and a high motor, but can really get thrown around when faced with a presence across from him. There are countless examples across the league’s history when it comes to the offensive line dictating a young quarterback’s success. If the Falcons can add a couple of stronger blockers inside, Matt Ryan could go from good to great, or even great to special.
Strong Side Presence
Mike Smith is one of the best defensive minds in football. He is a relatively unknown and underrated coach because of the markets he has been in over the past few years. If he had the success in New York or Dallas that he displayed in Jackonville and Atlanta, his name would be right under the likes of Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan. He brought his cover 2 scheme to Atlanta and helped turn around a franchise in shambles to one of the most promising teams of the future. The secondary and defensive line will give Smith’s scheme exactly what it needs, physicality and aggression. However the unit in between them, the linebackers, are in need ot at least one personnel upgrade. Curtis Lofton will be a stud within that defense for years, but Mike Peterson is a one, maybe two year holdover option to man the middle. Next to him on the strong side, there is nothing to speak of. Will Corey Ivy step in? That role may be too physical for him. If the Falcons cannot add a stronger, bigger presence on the strong side, their run defense will be suspect and that does not coincide with the Mike Smith way.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs are going to try and overshadow their issues in the passing game by using a deep and balanced rushing attack behind a strong, young, and improving offensive line. Journey man Byron Leftwich appears to be the favorite to win the starting job and one thing he still has is a cannon for an arm. He can get the ball deep downfield with the best of them. With the departure of Joey Galloway, a receiver that has earned himself the reputation of being one of the best deep threats in the game, the Bucs are left with little to work with behind Antonio Bryant and the newest asset Kellen Winslow. While both are capable of beating their man downfield, there are not any true threats that keep a deep safety back pedaling. In order for the Bucs to get the most out of their running backs and underneath weapons, a presence needs to be on the field that causes a defense to tweak their scheme by keeping an extra man back.
Stronger Pass Rush in the Trenches
What was once feared across the league, the Bucs defense has become very pedestrian with a lack of intimidation across the board. The dominance across the board at all three levels of the defense is all but gone as Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks are out of the league and Ronde Barber no longer deserves a starting spot with his mere presence. The aggressive, gap shooting, speed based scheme is still set in place but the lack of a pass rush up front really brings the level of quality down. The jury is still out on Gaines Adams, but the chances of him ever becoming the top tier pass rusher the Bucs were hoping for are slim. He led the team in sacks in just his second season, however the glass half-empty approach to that statement would center around the lack of quality pass rushers around him as he only had 6.5 himself. The Bucs have a young, and in some areas unproven, back seven that will be defending the pass. The best way to overshadow that issue is to fill your depth chart in the trenches with guys that can get to the passer. Easier said than done, but it will be crucial as Raheem Morris attempts to bring that defense back to where it once was.
New Orleans Saints
True Running Back
Finding a hole on the Saints offense is more difficult than finding a weakness on the Steelers defense. They can score points with anybody and even if the Patriots get into a shootout with Drew Brees and company, my money is on the Saints. However there is an unknown behind Brees in the backfield that was not addressed in the offseason. We are figuring out what Reggie Bush is going to be in this league and while we are not exactly sure of his defined role, we know what he is not. He is not an every down running back that you want to give 20+ carries a game to. Split him out wide, get him the ball in space, but him in as a return specialist. But his place is not in the backfield. Pierre Thomas impressed in 2008 with his 4.8 yards per carry and at age 24, the best is ahead of him. However if he is the guy with only Bush behind him, the Saints will continue to be too one dimensional and will not make it into deep January football, especially if road games in cold weather are a factor. PJ Hill is not the answer as his spot on the 53 man roster is far from a guarantee.
Top Tier Edge Rusher
Will Smith started off his career with 26.5 sacks in his first three seasons. He was considered to be one of the game’s top young defensive ends but a disappointing 7 sack 2007 season followed by a horrid 3 sack year in 2008 paves the way for the Saints to search for a new defensive end to throw into the rotation. Smith along with Charles Grant and Bobby McCray give the Saints defense presence and some respectability but if they continue to be lackluster at collapsing he edge, their jobs have to be given to others. The issue however is that there is nothing on the roster that seems ready for those spots. The Saints have boosted the personnel in the back seven but the lack of a pass rush will continue to keep the pressure on Brees to put up points every time they have the ball. If the Saints can get any sort of quality pass rush, their defense will be able to be good enough to propel the team into serious contention.