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Four Downs: NFC South | Football Outsiders

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Atlanta Falcons

Biggest Need: Pass rush

It’s a new season with the same weakness for the Falcons. They’ve finished in the bottom 10 in adjusted sack rate on defense in 10 of the last 11 seasons, and their pass rush is poised to further decline unless they make it a priority in the draft and free agency.

The Falcons haven’t exactly ignored their pass rush problem over the last decade. They just haven’t hit on their swings to upgrade those positions. Vic Beasley looked like the answer when he broke out with 15.5 sacks in his sophomore season in 2016, but he has barely exceeded that single-season total with 18.0 combined sacks in the three seasons since. That’s still better than 2017 first-round pick Takkarist McKinley, who has yet to reach 10 sacks or 30 pass pressures in any of his three professional seasons. Meanwhile, The Falcons had just four players reach the low bar of 10 pass pressures in 2019, and two of those four — Beasley and Adrian Clayborn — are free agents. Beasley, at least, will play elsewhere in 2020. The Falcons have already indicated that they will make no attempt to retain him.

With or without Clayborn and free agent defensive tackle Jack Crawford back, the Falcons need new talent to help rush the passer. And that need is heightened by the team’s corresponding weakness in the secondary where their three primary cornerbacks — Isaiah Oliver, Desmond Trufant, and Kendall Sheffield — finished in the bottom quarter of qualifiers in coverage success rate in 2019, and where injuries have rendered former star safety Keanu Neal a possible cap casualty.

Major Free Agents: Austin Hooper, TE; Vic Beasley, DE; Adrian Clayborn, DE; Jack Crawford, DT; De’Vondre Campbell, OLB; Matt Bosher, P

Beasley, Clayborn, and Crawford may not be standout options to rush the passer, but for the Falcons roster in its current state, they would be better than nothing. The team may choose to prioritize Clayborn, who at 280 pounds is an effective run-stopper at defensive end and at 31 years old will likely not be overly expensive. He’s a good fit for a team up against the salary cap and approaching the end of their potential Super Bowl window with Matt Ryan at quarterback. The 25-year-old tight end Austin Hooper likely has broader appeal, and that may make him difficult for the Falcons to keep. But perhaps they could free up the necessary money by releasing veterans like Neal and running back Devonta Freeman and by letting their other prominent free agents like Clayborn and starting linebacker De’Vondre Campbell leave in free agency.

Carolina Panthers

Biggest Need: Quarterback

It’s impossible to know what the Panthers have in long-time quarterback Cam Newton right now. He has had two major surgeries to address shoulder and Lisfranc injuries in the last 13 months and won’t be ready for football drills before March. But even if Newton shows a remarkable recovery next month, it’s hard to envision his return to the Panthers for the 2020 season. Since he last played, the team has turned over its entire coaching staff, released Newton’s most prolific receiver in tight end Greg Olsen, and seen their best player, 28-year-old linebacker Luke Kuechly, retire. Even if Newton could rejuvenate what was the No. 28 DVOA offense, he wouldn’t fix the team’s No. 25 DVOA defense or No. 31 DVOA special teams. The Panthers likely need to rebuild, and that timeline may prompt the team to trade the 30-year-old Newton and look for a longer-term solution at the position.

The Panthers’ problem is that, if they move on from Newton, they don’t have great prospects for his replacement. Undrafted second-year quarterback Kyle Allen had the second-worst DYAR (-408) and DVOA (-22.7%) at the position in 2019 thanks to his 16 interceptions, 13 fumbles, and 46 sacks in 13 games. Third-round rookie Will Grier was way worse with a Josh Rosen-like -65.7% DVOA in limited action. He may not make the team’s 2020 roster. And the team’s 5-11 record landed them the No. 7 pick in the 2020 draft, which will likely be too late to nab Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa, the two consensus standout prospects at the position.

Major Free Agents: Greg Olsen, TE (released); Daryl Williams, RT; Greg Van Roten, G; Gerald McCoy, DE; Vernon Butler, DT; Mario Addison, OLB; Bruce Irvin, OLB; Luke Kuechly, ILB (retired); James Bradberry, CB; Ross Cockrell, CB; Tre Boston, FS

If the 34-year-old Olsen’s release and 28-year-old Kuechly’s retirement foreshadow a rebuild in Carolina, then the writing may be on the wall for 32-year-old defenders Gerald McCoy, Mario Addison, and Bruce Irvin. All three would presumably add value to a contending team. They were the team leaders in defensive pressures in 2019 with 26, 24, and 23, respectively, but Carolina’s pass defense (ranked 11th in DVOA) would not be decimated by losing them assuming last year’s top pick Brian Burns reaches his potential in his sophomore season.

Still, things could get dicey for a defense already with holes if the Panthers release defensive tackle Dontari Poe (who has an expensive team option for 2020) and lose James Bradberry, Ross Cockrell, and Tre Boston (likely their best three defensive backs) in free agency. Coming off a broken leg that cost him all of 2018, Cockrell exceled on his one-year prove-it deal with a 62% coverage success rate. Bradberry has consistently finished between 52% and 54% in success rate in recent seasons, but he typically covers other teams’ top receivers, has been healthy, and is two years younger. Those factors may make him the team’s No. 1 priority to retain.

New Orleans Saints

Biggest Need: Wide receiver

The Saints avoided what could have become their biggest hole when Drew Brees decided last week to return to play in 2020. With Brees’ contract extension a formality, the Saints are left with few holes to fill. They were top five in adjusted line yards and pressure rate on both offense and defense as well as broken-tackle rate on defense in 2019. They could lose three prominent players in the secondary with Eli Apple, P.J. Williams, and Vonn Bell set to be free agents, but top cornerback Marshon Lattimore remains under contract. That means that, despite having maybe the best player at the position in Michael Thomas, the Saints’ biggest hole is at wide receiver.

Saints Passing to Michael Thomas vs. Other WRs, 2019
Stat Thomas Other WRs Diff Rank
WR Tgt% 67.1% 32.9% 34.2% 1
Catch% 80.1% 61.5% 18.6% 1
Yds/Tgt 9.3 7.6 1.7 9
Rank compares to other teams passing to their
most-targeted WR from 2019 versus all other WRs

The Saints relied on Thomas to a ridiculous degree in 2019. He was one of just two receivers who saw more than half of his teams’ wide receiver targets, and Keenan Allen’s 50.7% wide receiver target share for the Chargers fell 16.4% short of Thomas’ 67.1% rate for the Saints. Thomas showed himself worthy of such an extreme reliance with an exemplary 80.1% catch rate and 9.3 yards per target. But the Saints’ current lack of a Plan B at receiver could submarine their 2020 season if Thomas were injured. It might make sense for the team to draft a receiver with their 25th overall pick since this year’s loaded wide receiver class will likely push some exceptional players at the position later than they would typically be selected.

Major Free Agents: Drew Brees, QB; Teddy Bridgewater, QB; Taysom Hill, QB; Andrus Peat, G; David Onyemata, DT; Eli Apple, CB; P.J. Williams, CB; Vonn Bell, S

Brees’ intention to return to the Saints in 2020 wipes out the concern the franchise had for the potential losses of free-agent backups Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill. One could argue that Brees’ age and the win-now Saints roster place added importance on the backup quarterback position, but that increased importance probably won’t justify Bridgewater’s asking price. He’s a good bet to end up as a starter on another team. Hill’s situation is more complicated because he’s a restricted free agent and has thrown only 15 regular-season passes in the NFL.

If the Saints are going to spend money in free agency, it will most likely be to retain left guard Andrus Peat. Teammates Terron Armstead, Larry Warford, and Ryan Ramczyk have a combined five Pro Bowl selections and one First-Team All-Pro selection in the last three seasons and could likely sustain the team’s strong line play without him. But Peat has proven himself the team’s most versatile lineman by taking snaps at several different line positions. The Saints will likely covet him as much for the depth he represents as for his stellar play at his natural position.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Biggest Need: Running game

I’m not sure how to partition blame for the Buccaneers’ run offense, which ranked 27th in DVOA in 2019. Running backs Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber are easy targets, ranking 29th and 45th among the 45 backs with 100 or more carries with 4.2 and 3.1 yards per carry, and 23rd and 45th with -2.7% and -29.7% rushing DVOA. But the Bucs’ offense line also struggled to block for Jones and Barber, finishing among the bottom 10 teams with 3.99 adjusted line yards. One way or another, the team needs to find a way to make improvements there for 2020, and not just so they’ll fare better on the run plays they call.

Incumbent quarterback Jameis Winston has been particularly sensitive to the downs and distances of his pass attempts. His aggressive nature has led him to a 4.0% career interception rate on obvious passing downs (which I’m defining here as first-down attempts with at least 11 yards to go, second-down attempts with at least 7 yards to go, and third- and fourth-down attempts with at least 3 yards to go). That’s 34th of the 34 quarterbacks with at least 1,000 attempts since 2015 and 54% worse than the league average of 2.6%. In contrast, Winston has produced a palatable interception rate of 2.9% on other downs and distances, fifth worst and just 38% worse than the league average of 2.1%. Winston has been unable to cut down on his turnovers on his own in his five-year career, so if the Bucs want to continue to rely on him at quarterback — which is not a given since he is also a free agent — they should aim to minimize his plays with increased turnover potential.

Major Free Agents: Jameis Winston, QB; Breshad Perriman, WR; Ndamukong Suh, DE; Jason Pierre-Paul, DE; Shaquil Barrett, OLB; Carl Nassib, OLB

The Bucs may be reluctant to increase their financial commitment to the running game if it would rob Peter to pay Paul. The team’s surprising jump from five to nine wins and 24th to 14th in overall DVOA was carried by defensive improvements, and that has left the team with a handful of costly free-agent defenders. The most valuable of that bunch is pass-rusher Shaquil Barrett, who led the league with 19.5 sacks and finished fifth with 55 pass pressures. But Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, and Carl Nassib added 29, 28, and 24 pass pressures, respectively, as well as four, five, and six run defeats to contribute to the league’s best run defense by DVOA.

The Bucs may want to hold onto several of those key defenders. Fortunately for the team, they may be able to. Their near-$85 million in available cap space is the third most in football and way ahead of all three of their NFC South rivals. They should have some financial flexibility even after they address quarterback, and even if the way they address quarterback is a cap-expensive franchise tagging of Jameis Winston.

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