Other than the signing of Mario Williams by Buffalo and Peyton Manning by the Broncos, no team did more to upgrade itself than Tampa Bay. It’s fair for ex-head coach Raheem Morris to ask if he would have lost his job had the Bucs been this aggressive last year. New coach Greg Schiano inherits a talented young team, including quarterback Josh Freeman.
Tampa Bay used considerable resources the past few years to build a defensive front four that could become one of the best in the NFL. Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn in last year’s draft were a bit of a risk but might prove worth it going into Year 2. Defensive lineman Gerald McCoy was picked up in the first round in 2010 while Brian Price was landed in the second. The Bucs added veterans Amobi Okoye inside and Eric Wright in the secondary, along with getting Ronde Barber to return for his 16th season.
On offense, wide receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Carl Nicks were signed, which reversed a trend that saw the Bucs remain quiet in free agency over the recent years.
With the fifth pick in the 2012 draft the Bucs have another chance to add a blue chip player at one of several possible positions. Whether it’s offensive tackle Matt Kalil, running back Trent Richardson or defensive back Morris Claiborne, the Bucs will benefit.
In the second round they might have the option of wide receivers Stephen Hill from Georgia Tech or Alshon Jeffery from South Carolina. They could also go running back with Doug Martin from Boise State or Miami’s Lamar Miller.
Defensively they should focus on linebackers and continue to rebuild the secondary.
Schiano gets a scheduling break in his first year. The Bucs play in the tough NFC South and will have to face the NFC East, but get the AFC West, along with a rebuilding St. Louis Rams team and the Minnesota Vikings as well.
Finished: 6-10 Drafting: Ninth pick
Cam Newton has made a believer out of everyone in Carolina, and second-year coach Ron Rivera is just the guy to address their No. 1 issue: defense. The Panthers added guard Mike Pollak and in a curious move, signed running back Mike Tolbert from San Diego. With DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both on the roster, it remains to be seen what the Panthers intend to do with Tolbert.
That being said, outside of picking up a wide receiver, Rivera needs to lock the offensive coaches out of the draft room and load up on defensive players to help rebuild a unit that was 29th in the NFL in scoring defense.
At No. 9, the Panthers should have their pick of linebacker Courtney Upshaw of Alabama, defensive tackle Michael Brockers of LSU or defensive end Melvin Ingram from South Carolina. They will likely have to decide if defensive end Quinton Coples is worth the risk. They might let the offensive coaches back in the room for the second round, where wide receivers Alshon Jeffery from South Carolina, Rueben Randle from LSU or Mohamed Sanu from Rutgers could be a good value. If the Panthers chose to go defense again, linebacker Mychal Kendricks of Cal or defensive end Vinny Curry of Marshall could be an upgrade.
Finished: 10-6 Eliminated in Wild Card Round Drafting: No first-round pick
It’s hard to imagine that a 10-win season and a playoff appearance in 2011 would be a disappointment, considering how far the franchise has come. That road loss to the eventual world champions should give them some reason to be optimistic, but the Falcons have a lot to do to establish themselves as Super Bowl contenders.
They sold the farm last year to move up and grab Julio Jones in the draft and still have all the firepower they need to get Matt Ryan his first playoff win. Still, the offensive line needs a great deal of work to match the level of the skill positions. The loss of guard Harvey Dahl last year had more of an effect than anticipated, and tackle Sam Baker has to return from injury to solidify the left side.
Defensively, Mike Nolan has been brought in to take the defense up a notch. But the team will have to upgrade that unit without a first-round pick. John Abraham is likely to return, but Ray Edwards didn’t have the impact the Falcons hoped. They franchised cornerback Brent Grimes and re-signed safety Thomas Decoud but lost linebacker Curtis Lofton to free agency, replacing him with Lofa Tatupu.
They might have to address their weak pass rush in free agency, given the weak crop of defensive ends in the draft. Defensively, they might be interested in linebacker Ronnell Lewis from Oklahoma or defensive end Vinny Curry from Marshall. Guard Kelechi Osemele from Iowa State would be a good offensive line pickup, or they could look at tight end Dwayne Allen from Clemson as a good future move for when Tony Gonzalez eventually retires. Center Philip Blake could also be a good find, since Atlanta’s starter Todd McClure (38 years old) is at the end of his run.
Finished: 13-3 Eliminated in Division Round Drafting: No first round Pick
Free agency loomed large for the Saints, particularly without a first- and second-round pick (they gave up the first-rounder to get Mark Ingram last year and lost their second-rounder due to “Bountygate”). New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo doesn’t have the talent in the front seven that he had in New York, or St. Louis for that matter.
The Saints need to revamp their linebacking corps and find an edge rusher that can help provide pressure on the quarterback without bringing the house. They added linebacker Curtis Lofton from Atlanta and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley from the Eagles in free agency. They also lost defensive back Tracy Porter to the Broncos.
Offense hasn’t been a problem for New Orleans for some time. Losing Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks was offset by the signing of Ben Grubbs from Baltimore. Center Brian De La Puente is a journeyman, and the Saints will not want to let the interior of the offensive line become a problem for franchised quarterback Drew Brees. They were able to hold on to wide receiver Marques Colston but lost Robert Meachem.
Because their draft will be limited, the Saints will need last year’s first rounders, Ingram and defensive end Cameron Jordan, to come up big in their second year. Jordan was average at best, and Ingram was injured.
In the third round Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict could be an option. An excellent athlete, he would have a special teams presence right away. He’s fallen down the draft charts but could be a good value at 91.