Southbound and Up: The Top 10 Offseason Moves In The NFC South
2010 is a big season for the NFC South.
On one end are the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints, who return 20 of their 22 starters and are poised to make a run at back-to-back Lombardi Trophies.
On the other end are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, now entering year two of a post-Gruden rebuilding phase and with seemingly nowhere to go but up.
And, in between, you have the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers looking to return to the playoffs after a season away.
All in all, you have four teams who have made dozens of personnel moves, draft picks, and front office shake-ups over the last six months.
In the pages that follow are perhaps the 10 biggest moves, and I say perhaps because of a couple caveats.
Firstly, none of the next 10 slides will say “Team X drafted Player Y.” Seriously, if Tampa Bay didn’t think Gerald McCoy would make an impact, they wouldn’t have drafted him at No. 3, right?
So while McCoy, Brian Price, Sean Weatherspoon and the like could be huge for their new teams, I can’t count drafting (either for need or talent) as a key move.
Secondly, any “re-signed” free agents won’t be included, as that says more of “maintaining the status quo” than acquisition.
And finally, any “lost” free agents won’t be there, as whether the loss was due to money, the player simply wanting to go somewhere else, or any other reason, so you can’t fault the team for a situation that was at least partially out of their hands.
So with that, let’s take a look at those moves that will make the most waves in the South.
No. 10: Carolina Gets "Special" wIth Aaron Francisco and Wallace Wright
The Panthers had a history of great special teams play, but last year, they were awful across the board—from coverage to returns to the actual kicking and punting.
They ranked No. 16 in net punting average, No. 24 in net punt return average, No. 19 in kickoff coverage drive start average and No. 21 in kickoff return drive start average.
Enter a slew of newcomers, most notably Aaron Francisco and Wallace Wright.
Now sure, you’re probably saying, “Wright was that guy from the Jets, but who the hell is Aaron Francisco?”
Well, for one, he’s the guy Santonio Holmes victimized for the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII. But seriously, he’s a special teams ace who was the Cards’ ST captain in 2007 and 2008.
Wright, meanwhile, only has eight career receptions and two career kick returns, but he’s an excellent gunner with 66 career special teams tackles.
Between Francisco and Wright, the Panthers have two guys who fill a huge void on special teams and can also potentially serve as depth in two of their biggest problem areas (wide receiver in Wright’s case).
Not a bad haul.
No. 9: New Orleans Declines to Keep RB Mike Bell
Note to self: This slide would have been higher had Lynell Hamilton not suffered a torn ACL a couple weeks ago…but we’ll go with it.
Only two restricted free agents changed teams in the off-season, and the Eagles were involved both times.
In this case, they signed Mike Bell to a one-year, $1.7 million offer sheet, one that the Saints declined to match.
Sure, Bell led the team in carries (172) last year and picked up 654 yards as part of a three-headed rushing attack.
But there’s a simple reason they declined to match that seemingly minuscule offer (especially in an uncapped year): It’s easier to replace one-third of a moving part than
Quite frankly, the Saints thought that Lynell Hamilton, who had a couple of decent games while getting an extended look in Weeks 16 and 17, could fill Bell’s role as the “thunder” to Reggie Bush’s “lightning” and Pierre Thomas’ “rain.”
In a good system, parts are often interchangeable.
Of course, now that Hamilton has been lost for the season, that decision looms large—especially if PJ Hill, rookie Chris Ivory, or someone else can’t fill that role.
But at the time, it was an easy decision for a Saints team that is still a favorite to win the NFC this season.
No. 8: New Orleans Replaces Charles Grant with Alex Brown
The Saints get back-to-back props, although this time it’s an addition of sorts that makes the list.
Charles Grant was a very good player for New Orleans, but the problem was that he seemed to peak in 2004, declined rapidly in 2005 and maintained that plateau all the way through 2009.
More than half of Grant’s career sacks—27.5 of 47, to be exact—came from 2002-04, and his 2009 season of 44 tackles and 5.5 sacks was about his average over the last five seasons.
Great…but with four years and more than $30m remaining on the seven-year contract he signed in 2007, Grant was en route to becoming more of an albatross than a benefit.
Brown, meanwhile, has been pretty consistent.
His career averages are roughly 46 tackles and 5.5 sacks—slightly better than Grant’s averages since signing the huge deal—but unlike the incumbent, Brown’s numbers are about the same every year.
Seven of his eight years have seen him between 40 and 50 tackles, and he’s produced between 4.5 and seven sacks in seven of eight campaigns.
Basically, you know pretty much what you have right off the bat. Plus, while Brown is the same age as Grant (31), he’s a lot cheaper, as Alex’s contract terms ($5.5m over two years) equals roughly half of what Grant would’ve made in 2010 and 2011.
In fact, Grant actually got less than that—two years, $4m—from the Dolphins this summer.
That’s a win-win situation for an already scary New Orleans defense.
No. 7: Tampa Bay Trades for WR Reggie Brown
Yes, there are action shots of him as an Eagle in 2009.
As a Philly guy, I’ve spent much of my recent journalistic career trying to make anything positive out of Reggie Brown (and usually failing).
But, sometimes a change of scenery can do wonders for a player.
In Brown’s case, he has more experience in the league than eight of the other nine wide receivers on the Bucs’ current roster, with the lone exception being Michael Clayton (who he’s still two years older than).
Unlike any of those guys, though, he knows what a winner looks like.
There is no true “No. 1” guy in Tampa, although there is a lot of talent. From rookies Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams to 2009 surprise Sammie Stroughter to veterans in Brown, Clayton, and Maurice Stovall, the Bucs roster has plenty of guys who can work together to be a fairly effective receiving corps for Josh Freeman.
If Brown can even just be a veteran presence who helps them develop and catches 30 balls to boot, he’ll be well worth the 2011 sixth-rounder Tampa gave up to get him.
No. 6: Atlanta Trades CB Chris Houston
Yes, that other cornerback move in the ATL is somewhere on this list, and it’s also the reason that the “Dirty Birds” were able to trade Houston without suffering too much from the loss of a starting corner.
Make no mistake, Houston was a solid player. He had 61 tackles, six passes defensed and two interceptions in 2008, and in only 12 games last year, still had 47 stops, nine PDs and one pick.
But that’s all he was, and the problem is that he was “good” when he came into the league.
Despite what Mike Smith said to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a post-trade press conference, Houston had clearly hit a plateau.
He had mild success right away and was a three-year starter, yet never really progressed beyond the level at which he came into the league.
In that same press conference, Smith said “It was just an organizational move in that once we got Dunta Robinson, we felt it was a move we could make,'' but that’s totally coach-speak for “once we got Dunta, he was useless to us.”
When your unit is 28th in the league in pass defense, you’re on the hot seat as it is.
However, a team doesn’t usually replace their “best” starting corner when they signed another really good on; usually, that player becomes a complementary piece, not a trading chip.
Clearly, though, while guys like Brent Grimes and Chris Owens aren’t “better” than Houston per se, the Falcons think they can get better than they are now.
They couldn’t say that about Houston, though, and that thought makes this a hard-to-swallow example of addition by subtraction.
No. 5: Tampa Bay Signs G Keydrick Vincent
Even though they didn’t show it last year, the triumvirate of Cadillac Williams, Derrick Ward, and Earnest Graham is capable of dropping 2,500 yards or so on opposing defenses.
If they plan to try, Keydrick Vincent will go a long way towards furthering that cause.
Jeremy Zuttah did a decent job as the starting left guard last season, but Vincent was one of the key cogs in a Panthers offensive line that helped them rank third in the league in rushing in both 2008 and 2009.
Last year, in particular, both Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams reached that magical 1,000-yard plateau.
In addition, the 32-year-old Vincent provides a stabilizing veteran presence on a line where 29-year-old center Jeff Faine is the “old man.”
Vincent and left tackle Donald Penn could form one hell of a run-blocking duo that should allow the Bucs’ backs to run wild over the league.
That’s a good thing, because as you’ll see in the next slide, they may need that stability.
No. 4: Tampa Bay Hires Alex Van Pelt As QB Coach
Why is this move at No. 4? Well, because as minuscule as it may seem, this might be one of the moves that finally shows Bucs brass what a lot of critics have already said: Raheem Morris is in way over his head.
The Bucs’ offensive scheme is…well, no one’s really sure. Morris loves power running, coordinator Greg Olsen is a West Coast guy, and quarterback Josh Freeman’s biggest asset is his huge arm.
So how do you make the parts work? If you’re Morris, you bring in another coach who fits your scheme and force the players (specifically, your newly anointed franchise quarterback) to adjust around it.
Yeah, that’ll work.
Van Pelt’s big pro is that he did an okay job as Buffalo’s quarterbacks coach in 2008 and was instrumental in the continued development of Trent Edwards.
That year, the Bills used a simple West Coast-based offense, and Edwards was able to execute it more than adequately.
His big con, however, is that the only quarterback in the league less suited for a West Coast offense is JaMarcus Russell.
Throw in the fact that Van Pelt was a disaster as the Bills’ offensive coordinator last year, and this is sure to be a fun situation to watch.
It’s said that mediocre pros make the best coaches. Van Pelt certainly had the former down, but I have no idea how exactly he’s going to help a guy in whom Tampa has invested a lot of time and money.
No. 3: New Orleans Trades OT Jammal Brown
Brown is one of the two starters who won’t be back in the Big Easy next year…and that’s a good thing.
Sure, Brown was considered one of the elite left tackles in the game just two years ago, when he allowed only three sacks, led the league in rushing average behind right tackle, and was selected to the Pro Bowl.
But he was a notorious malcontent, and 2009 proved that New Orleans would be just fine without him.
While Brown was sidelined with a hip injury in 2009, Jermon Bushrod stepped in to start 14 games in his place—and the Saints won the Super Bowl.
Okay, specious reasoning, but neither their passing game nor their rushing attack suffered, and on the brighter side, Bushrod is three years younger, much cheaper, and injury free.
So, instead of a gimpy, whiny distraction who has lost his place, the Saints will have an extra third or fourth-round pick in 2011, depending on which of those Washington has to send to Philly as the final piece of the Donovan McNabb deal.
Drew Brees will take it, I’m sure.
No. 2: Carolina Releases QB Jake Delhomme
Having a veteran quarterback on your roster to be a backup/mentor to a young emerging star is never a bad idea.
But since the final game of the 2008 regular-season, Jake Delhomme has been virtually useless.
He threw five picks in the Panthers’ embarrassing playoff loss to Arizona that season, bookended his 2009 campaign with a pair of four-pick disasterpieces, still threw three in his “best” statistical game of the year (a 325-yard game against Buffalo).
Hell, his 2009 total of eight touchdowns was equal to or worse than such luminaries as Brady Quinn, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and his own replacement, Matt Moore.
Oh, yeah, and the Panthers were 4-7 in his starts…and 4-1 in Moore’s.
Absolutely terrible, yet despite logic saying otherwise, everyone knew that if he finished out his contract in Carolina, Jake Delhomme was going to be the starter.
Problem solved, and we call this addition by subtraction, folks.
While the Tar Heel Kitties could still use a veteran to help mentor Moore, top pick Jimmy Clausen, Tony Pike and/or Hunter Cantwell—who, to be fair, have less combined NFL experience than Delhomme—Jake The Mistake is not that guy.
Although in his new role in Cleveland, Delhomme can at least teach Colt McCoy how not to be an NFL signal-caller.
No. 1: Atlanta Signs CB Dunta Robinson
The Falcons secondary was awful last year. How awful? Well, they were “Jake Delhomme had a great game against them” bad.
The No. 10 overall pick in the 2004 draft has amassed 392 tackles, 54 passes defensed and 13 picks in seven seasons, and while his “hard numbers” have “declined”—his rookie totals of six picks,13 PDs and 87 tackles as a rookie are all career-highs or just short of them—he has become one of the top cover corners in the league.
There’s a reason Arthur Blank signed off on giving Robinson the second-richest cornerback contract in NFL history (six years, $57m with $22.5m guaranteed)—he’s earned it.
Whether it’s incumbent Brian Williams, projected starter Christopher Owens, rookie Dominique Franks, or someone else, whoever is opposite Dunta will be seeing A LOT of balls this season.