By: Tony Meale
NFL Free Agency has begun ( check out our Free Agency Tracker here ) and we’re taking a look at which players each team and division needs to pick up to improve in the 2012 season.
Last year, The Falcons made the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. Still, it’s hard to argue that this team didn’t regress in 2011. After an embarrassing postseason home loss to Green Bay the previous year, the Falcons mustered just two points in a Wild Card loss to the Giants.
With all due respect to Matt Ryan, Atlanta should be among the dozen or so teams rumored to have contacted Peyton Manning. Re-signing Harry Douglas would be wise, but Atlanta could use another weapon at wideout – not to mention some more help for Michael Turner, who wore down toward the end of the season. Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers will need to have a bigger impact in 2012.
Defensively, John Abraham has given six good years to the Falcons, but he turns 34 in May. Unless he’s willing to take a pay cut, Abraham may be on the way out. Atlanta, which is without a first-round pick, lacks explosiveness by and large on both sides of the ball. Mario Williams would change that – so, too, would bringing in a wideout to take some pressure off of Roddy White.
Above all, Atlanta needs to learn how to finish – and win on the road, especially in cold weather.
The Panthers started 2-8 last year but went 4-2 in their final six games; this is important not only because Carolina had a rookie quarterback, but also because five of those first eight losses were by one possession.
In short, Cam Newton looks to be a special player. He did what he did last season without a true No. 2 receiver. It didn’t help matters that Carolina had the 28th-ranked defense in the league, finishing toward the bottom of the NFL against the rush and the pass.
While a complement to Steve Smith would be nice, Carolina, which picks ninth in the draft, should look for help on defense, particularly at cornerback. North Alabama’s Janoris Jenkins would be a quality selection, but if the Panthers give the trenches top priority, North Carolina’s Quinton Coples and South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram are the top options.
Of course, if something crazy happens and Justin Blackmon is still available, well, it looks like the Panthers will be in some shootouts next year. Again.
New Orleans (13-3)
So Randy Moss worked out with the Saints. What’s next, Peyton Manning working out with the Packers?
Call me crazy, but something tells me that Drew Brees, who just set an NFL record for most passing yards in a season, doesn’t need another wideout, especially a potential malcontent in the twilight of his career. Now, if New Orleans cannot re-sign Carl Nicks and Marques Colston, maybe there’s a need for a playmaker out wide. But Moss? Come on.
The bounty issues notwithstanding, the Saints’ biggest concern, without question, is defense. The Super Bowl-winning defense from a couple of years ago was more of the ball-hawking variety. In 2011, however, the Saints finished 24th in total defense – including 30th against the pass – and tied for 28th in interceptions (nine) and tied for 26th in fumble recoveries (seven). The game-changing plays just weren’t there.
Bringing in Steve Spagnuolo, whose defensive pedigree is well-documented, will certainly help, but the Saints are without a first-round pick, so any substantial changes will have to come through free agency. And changes are needed at defensive line and linebacker.
Oh, and the NFL is a business. We get it. But there are certain guys you don’t mess around with. Drew Brees is one of those guys. In the words of Teddy KGB, “Pay him. Pay that man his money.”
Tampa Bay (4-12)
Outside of Philadelphia, Tampa Bay was the NFL’s most disappointing team in 2011. Coming off a 10-win season, the Bucs started 4-2 before ending the season on a 10-game losing streak – this despite no key losses in personnel.
In other words, Tampa needs help in a lot of areas. Cornerback Morris Claiborne would inject some youth (here’s looking at you, Ronde Barber) and maturity (here’s looking at you, Aqib Talib) into the secondary and would be a great pick at No. 5.
Offensively, Tampa should go after a free-agent receiver – Mario Manningham, Eddie Royal, etc. – and determine what it wants to do at tailback. Earnest Graham is a free agent, and LeGarrette Blount isn’t built to be an every-down back. He finished with 34 rushing yards or fewer in seven of 14 games last year, including four of his last five.
Beyond the nuts and bolts, the Bucs need maturity and leadership. Last year was proof that this team isn’t ready to deal with success or the expectations that come with it.
Welcome to the NFL, Greg Schiano. Your hands will be full.
Tony Meale is a freelance writer for MLB.com, cincinnati.com and ffjungle.com, among others. His fantasy football work has led to guest appearances on several radio outlets, including ESPN Radio and Sirius Radio. He has a Master’s in Journalism from Ohio University and has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists for outstanding work. A Cincinnati native, he is currently writing a book on one of the great sports stories never told. Follow Tony Meale on Twitter @tonymeale