One day away from the NFL Draft we are. One draft strategy that is often cited by NFL Draft analysts and executives around the NFL is the desire to draft based on the strengths of your division rivals. By building countenances against division rivals, one is able to match up against the supremacy of an opponent. Logistically, this philosophy makes sense, seeing as each team plays six games against their respective division.
The Panthers are members of a particularly tough division, commonly referred to as the NFC South. Over the past few seasons, the NFC South has sent two teams to the playoffs, and more often than not, it has been the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, while the Panthers and Buccaneers have ridden a roller coaster of success, that is currently on the bottom but trending upwards. However, if the Panthers want to make the playoffs in 2012, they need to assert their stamp on the NFC South before elevating to the playoffs. As such, the Organization may seek to draft around the trends of the NFC South in concordance with BPA and Team Needs.
The New Orleans Saints:
The Saints excel at moving the ball down the field with the arm of Drew Brees in concert with the Running Back quartet of Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Darren Sproles, and Mark Ingram. The Saints operate primarily out of the shot gun in order to create space for the Saints WR's as well as the churlish Jimmy Graham. The shot gun formation spreads out the defense, opening mismatches for the offense, putting playmakers in space, as well as distilling blitzes, discouraging any aggressive blitz packages for fear of leaving a target open. Tight End Jimmy Graham is probably the most dangerous weapon at Brees' disposal. At 6'6 Graham is practically always open, possessing an intrinsic separation form all defenders. Putting a Linebacker on Graham isn't an option as he can out run the LB, but Graham can also out muscle nearly any defensive back. Another arrow in Brees' metaphorical quiver is the diminutive, yet puissant Darren Sproles. Sproles has the soft hands of a WR and is lethal in the screen game, as well as check downs. Nothing is more frustrating than covering all bases with the WR's and TE's and then surrendering a cheap first down to Sproles out of the backfield.
The Saints are nowhere near as potent on the defensive side of the ball as the offensive side. However, this offseason the Saints have quietly addressed one of their bigger weaknesses, the Linebacking Corps. The Saints have pilfered Curtis Lofton from the Falcons and signed the talented yet troubled David Hawthorne formerly of the Seahawks. With the infusion of talent, the Saints should be more salient against the run next year. The secondary is nothing to brag about, but is solid nonetheless.
The Atlanta Falcons:
Over the past half decade, the Falcons have relied on the power run game of Michael Turner and at times Jason Snelling. However, as Matt Ryan has matured as a NFL QB, the Falcons have opted to air the ball out. The Falcons of Hotlanta have also accrued an impressive receiving corps headed by Roddy White and Julio Jones, and supported by speedster Harry Douglas. The Falcons definitely want to use White and Jones to their advantage, especially with deep shots; the lack of deep strikes attributed to the axing of the Falcons OC Mike Mularkey, and the installation of Dirk Koetter. The relentless thumping and pounding of the Falcons run game is effective even when it's not moving the chains. The constant run calls succeed in drawing the safeties and CB's closer to the ball, opening up deep shots down the field to the aforementioned receivers. Another component of the Falcons attack is Tight End Tony Gonzalez, one of the all time greatest TE's, who provides Ryan with a safety blanket.
Defensively the Falcons are above average in most categories, yet they aren't elite in any. Jon Abraham provides a consistent pass rush (at least against Jordan Gross), and Brent Grimes is adept in coverage, and Sean Weatherspoon is finding his way as an OLB in the 4-3. DeCoud is pretty good at Safety too. However the departure of Curtis Lofton could impact the solidarity of the Defense as the Falcons move forward. If the Falcons find another pass rusher to place opposite of Abraham, the Falcons pass rush could become a strength of the Falcons Defense.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
The Bucs as a whole are undergoing a metamorphose as an organization, and as such it's tough to know schematically how Greg Schiano and Mike Sherman intend to utilize their weapons. Josh Freeman is at a metaphysical impasse, Freeman can either elevate into the player that flashed greatness in 2010, or he can regress back into his 2011 form. Personally, I'm leaning towards the former. Freeman has two quality WR's at his disposal, in Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson. Williams is a solid possession receiver who received a lot of attention from opposing secondaries in 2011, yet with the addition of Jackson, Williams could receive favorable match ups, paving the way for a big season. Jackson is a playmaker, capable of reaching the ball at its highest point, and using all of his 6'5 230 lbs. pound frame to gain separation from DB's. Legarrette Blount is a question mark at RB, his punishing running style was very effective in 2010, however Blount fell apart in 2011, as Blount battled with Raheem Morris. Blount is rumored to have refused to put in effort in pass protection and the receiving game, leading to draft projections of Trent Richardson to the Bucs. Richardson and an effective Blount would challenge for one of the top duos in the NFL.
Defensively, the Bucs have a lot of young talent, yet they lack a tangible leader on the field. Adrian Clayborn, Daquan Bowers, Gerald McCoy, and Brian Price make up a youthful and solid defensive line that is capable of bringing pressure. If all four remain healthy, the Bucs might have a formidable pass rush. Aqib Talib has quite the reputation off the field, but when he's on the field, he is certainly capable of locking down an opposing WR. The Bucs are rumored to be interested into both Morris Claiborne and Luke Kuechly; either would bring improvement to the Bucs right away.
Tying it Together:
The NFC South possesses some very talented QB's, gunslingers capable of leading their team to victory, and shredding a secondary to ribbons. In some cases, (i.e. the Saints) the offense is almost wholly dependent on the QB, sometimes becoming one dimensional. Last season, the NFC South Offenses aired the ball out, Drew Brees and the Saints averaged 334 yards per game (#1 in the NFL), Matt Ryan and the Falcons accrued 262 yards per game (8th in the NFL), and Josh Freeman and his compatriots amassed 228 yards per game (16th in the NFL) (Cam was 12th with 239 yards per game). While the NFC South teams possess quality running backs that allow for the quarterbacks to move the ball down the field. In part, this could be due to a certain lack of consideration paid to the secondaries of the NFC South teams; each team has one great/solid cornerback and a couple of JAG's capable of holding down the nickel and dime spots.
Ultimately, if you can force one of the South teams into a single dimension, you have a much greater chance of victory. Take away the Atlanta running game, and the strain placed on the passing game will be too burdensome to maintain, neutralize the Tampa passing offense, and you can limit the amount of variance available to Josh Freeman. Restrain Drew Brees, and you can funnel the direction of the Saint's offense, or take the deep ball away from the Panthers, and the front seven is able to crowd the line of scrimmage.
With their draft board finalized, the Panthers probably already have a good idea of how they want to approach the draft. It's likely that the Front Office and the Coaching Staff will attempt to select players that will help build a team that can win games in the division. And with the current balance of talent and execution in the NFC South, a few upgrades at select positions could spell an improvement in the division, capable of bolstering the Panthers playoff chances.
The Pass Rush
In the NFC South, as well as the rest of the NFL, teams are passing more and more, placing a greater emphasis on quarterback play, and thus, rushing the passer. An improved pass rush seriously retards an opponents passing game, especially a potent pass rush from the defensive line. Charles Johnson is an extremely competent defensive end, Greg Hardy flashes his abilities, but isn't very consistent, however, with a full offseason, Hardy could see an improvement. Antwan Applewhite, Jyles Tucker, and Thomas Keiser are all rotational DE's/OLB's who can provide a spark off the bench. However, the Panthers only generated 31 sacks last season (25th in the NFL). A respectable pass rush is critical to regulating Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, as well as Josh Freeman, and forcing our division foes into a one dimensional game. An improved pass rush also benefits the secondary, giving our DB's even a few seconds less to cover opposing WR's, also forcing errant throws that could result in turnovers for the defense.
Targeting one of the premier pass rushers available in this draft class would go a long way to improving the defense, both in 2012 and other future campaigns. Quinton Coples and Fletcher Cox would provide instant upgrades at their positions, either substantiating the depth, or starting from day one. Coples possesses impressive measurables, and is adept at using his strength and arm length to separate from tackles and molest opposing quarterbacks. Possessing an already remedial pass rushing repertoire, Coples should be able to step in and contribute immediately next season. Cox is also athletically gifted, and is very skilled at using his hands to disengage opposing lineman. Cox also could provide an inside pass rushing presence that is very difficult for an opposing coordinator to gameplan for.
The Gaping Hole that was our Run Defense
An effective run defense opens up defenders to engage either opposing wide outs, or to blitz the quarterback. Being able to contain opposing backs with the front seven allows for comfortable use of nickel and dime defensive formations, that can help mask deficiencies in coverage. As of now, the Panthers DT's are very youthful and lack experience as well as talent. Andre Neblett, Frank Kearse, and Jason Shirley proved their mettle during the denouement of the 2011 Season, while Sione Fua and Terrell McClain were disappointing before their seasons were cut short by injuries. The return of Ron Edwards should add improvement, and the maturation of our young DT's should coincide with better play. Adding another UT early on would signify a resolve to improve the run defense, and as the maxim goes, "If you throw enough darts at the board, one of them is going to stick."
Fletcher Cox displays proper pad level, and adequate strength that prevented him from being blown off of the line of scrimmage very often in college, and his hand technique and athleticism help him penetrate the backfield and amass tackles for a loss. Jerel Worthy also has fine pad level and exhibits decent hand technique, but is less consistent, dropping his stock into the late first/early second round territory. Quinton Coples is also stout in the run game, containing his assignment and maintaining gap discipline, whilst Chandler Jones and some of the other DE's are very raw in run defense, primarily being tasked with rushing the QB on every down.
It also shouldn't be forgotten the contribution the LB Corps makes in run defense. While the line secures the blockers, it is the linebacker's job to make the tackles, and fill the gaps left by the D-Line. Last season the Panthers LB Corps was decimated by injury, losing two starters in the first two games, as well as multiple would-be replacements. However, with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis back next season, the panthers run defense will improve vastly. The Panthers will more than likely target prospects who can provide depth and spare Beason and Davis from incurring too much wear and tear. Keenan Robinson, Lavonte David, Zach Brown, and Sean Spence would fill the void at Will LB, while Bobby Wagner, Mychal Kendricks and James Michael Johnson would provide depth at Mike LB and Sam LB.
Oddly enough, the Panthers Secondary is one of the least talented units on the team. Chris Gamble is a viable lock down corner, routinely shutting down his opponent. However, after Gamble the talent drops off. Brandon Hogan, Darius Butler, and Captain Munnerlyn, as well as RJ Stanford make up the rest of the CB's. As of right now, it looks as if the Panthers are content with what they have at CB, possibly looking to start Brandon Hogan at #2 CB, while improving the pass rush. It looks as if the Panthers are going to avoid selecting a CB in the first two rounds, unless they have fallen in love with Stephon Gilmore, or Morris Claiborne falls on Thursday night. Ultimately, if you improve the pass rush enough, the CB's will be fine, or at least maintain the appearance.
The Safties were cause for much vitriol last season, with Sherrod Martin and Charles Godfrey having mediocre seasons. As such, the Front Office has brought in Haruki Nakamura and Reggie Smith this offseason, in order to inspire competition, as well as improve the depth on Special Teams and in the Secondary. It looks as if the Panthers won't touch the Safety until the later rounds of the NFL Draft.
The Panthers have a radiant future, and could very well make the playoffs this season. But in order to do so, and in order to take over the reigns in the NFC South, the Panthers have to assert their supremacy inside the Division. Last season, the Panthers were 2-4 in divisional play, with the only victories coming against the lowly Buccaneers. The Panthers must improve their play in the division. And, one way of doing such is the construction of a team that matches up well against divisional foes.