Post-draft: 4 things to glean from the NFC South
MAY 01, 2013 7:47a ET
1. The Falcons need Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford to be signed, sealed and healthy for the first four-pack of games
The NFL schedule-maker certainly didn't do Atlanta any favors in the first quadrant of the season, pairing the Falcons secondary against the likes of Drew Brees ( Saints), Sam Bradford ( Rams), Ryan Tannehill ( Dolphins) and Tom Brady ( Patriots) — four quarterbacks orchestrating pass-first offenses.
In this era of air-tight Collective Bargaining Agreements, where contract holdouts involving rookies are scarce, there is little chance of Trufant (No. 22 overall pick) or Alford (No. 60) skipping training camp or the exhibition slate. However, there are legitimate concerns of all first-year players getting injured or simply being not ready for full-time duty on September Sundays.
And if neither Trufant nor Alford are ready for game action early on, the Falcons will likely struggle to handle a quartet of passers (and deep receiving corps) with good-to-prolific track records in September. For example:
**Tannehill threw for 431 yards against the Cardinals in Week 4.
**Of his 10 career games in September, Bradford has attempted 30 or more passes eight times.
**In his last seven September games (2011-12), Brady has averaged 41 pass attempts, 365 yards passing and 2.5 touchdowns.
**In that same span, Brees has per-outing averages of 40 attempts, 344 yards passing and 2.7 TDs.
2. The Bucs' secondary might have undergone the greatest transformation since the 1981 Niners
In 1979, the 49ers forever changed the course of NFL history by drafting Notre Dame QB Joe Montana in the third round. But San Francisco didn't evolve into a viable championship contender until two years later, after head coach Bill Walsh had seen enough from a vulnerable secondary that couldn't stop anyone in 1979 or '80 — his first two seasons on the job.
The payoff: Four Lombardi trophies for the 49ers (1981, '84, '88 and '89 seasons) in a 10-year span ... and 18 combined Pro Bowls from Ronnie Lott (Hall of Famer, 10 Pro Bowls), Carlton Williamson, Eric Wright and holdover safety Dwight Hicks.
Fast forward to the present, as Tampa Bay, the NFL's worst pass defense in 2012, suddenly has the NFC South's best secondary — after trading for Darrelle Revis, signing All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson (from the 49ers), retaining cornerback Eric Wright and second-year safety Mark Barron (first-rounder last year) and drafting Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks last week (Round 2, 43rd overall).
What a difference a few months can make, huh? In January, Buccaneers fans might have cowered over a 2013 schedule that opens with the Jets, Saints, Patriots, Eagles, Falcons, Panthers and Seahawks. Instead, they're intrigued by the potential of a young, athletic, deep and dynamic defensive backfield.
And that's assuming Revis (torn ACL last year) — the NFL's most bankable cornerback, when healthy — will need some extra time to recapture his All-Pro form.
3. Don't bet against Drew Brees attempting less than 650 passes this season
When assessing the Saints' draft (minus one forfeited pick from Bountygate), the priorities clearly lie with 1) improving the NFL's 31st-ranked pass defense (safety Kenny Vaccaro, defensive end Rufus Johnson), 2) bolstering the league's worst run defense (defensive tackle John Jenkins) ... 3) and giving Brees yet another passing toy to play with (Oklahoma receiver Kenny Stills) — should he get bored with Marques Colston (83 catches, 1,154 yards, 10 TDs), tight end Jimmy Graham (85 catches, 982 yards, nine TDs) and receivers Lance Moore, Chris Givens and Joseph Morgan.
Of his last six seasons with the Saints, spanning 218 touchdowns and 29,153 passing yards, Brees has attempted 635 or more passes five times. The lone exception: New Orleans' championship year of 2009, when Brees threw only 514 balls (34.2 per game) for 4,338 yards and 34 TDs.
The first inclination is to blame the increased passing on a crumbling defense which allowed a staggering 440 total yards last year (293 pass, 147 rush). But that's a convenient crutch to account for three full seasons of at least 41 passes per game — seemingly riding Brees to the point of exhaustion.
Bottom line: The Saints, for better or worse, know their bread gets buttered with the passing game; and if that calls for abandoning the best-laid plans for tailbacks Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram (only one goal-line TD last year) sometime before halftime, so be it.
And if that puts more pressure on Brees (the only NFL passer in history with back-to-back 5,000-yard campaigns) and recently reinstated coach Sean Payton to carry this proud, but wounded franchise back to championship contention ... then so be it.
4. The Panthers are going all-in with receivers Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon
As Carolina's No. 2 wideout, LaFell (44 catches, 677 yards, four TDs) accounted for only 15 percent of the team's receptions last year. That's a low percentage for an asset who impressively collected seven or more targets — my Threshold Of Usefulness in fantasy circles — seven times.
As for Hixon (39 catches, 567 yards, two TDs last season), it's fair to wonder if the Panthers' faith in the ex-Giant stems from one stellar outing last year, when he ravaged the Eagles for six catches, 11 targets and 114 yards (Week 4) — on the same day Victor Cruz rolled for nine catches, 109 yards and one touchdown. (Hixon essentially filled Hakeem Nicks' spot against Philly.)
Steve Smith (73 catches, 1,174 yards, four TDs last year) and tight end Greg Olsen (69 catches, 843 yards, five TDs) remain ultra-reliable talents within the Panthers' passing game. In 2012, Smith notched 10 outings of seven catches, 85 yards and/or one touchdown. And Olsen still gets major props for his nine-catch, 102-yard, two-TD demolition of the Broncos last season.
That aside, it's weird that Carolina had no true interest in drafting a receiver or tight end last weekend, a blue-chip talent that could eventually replace Smith or Olsen for the long term.
Instead, the Panthers are apparently loving the upside of LaFell, Hixon, Ted Ginn Jr. and Armanti Edwards, the QB-turned-WR from Appalachian State who has drawn a grand total of 11 targets in three NFL seasons.
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