Analysis  

 

NFC South holes to fill: Are there enough weapons in Carolina?

Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Coming off a resurgent 2011 campaign, Steve Smith signed an extension with the Panthers in the offseason.

With the 2012 NFL Draft and the bulk of free agency in the rearview mirror, NFL.com analyst Elliot Harrison is examining each team's offseason activity and identifying remaining holes to fill.

Atlanta Falcons

Draft Grades & Team Holes
NFL.com analysts Bucky Brooks and Chad Reuter graded the draft classes for each team from the 2012 NFL Draft, and analyst Elliot Harrison addressed what holes remain.

NFC East: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
AFC East: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
NFC North: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
AFC North: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
NFC South: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
AFC South: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
NFC West: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes
AFC West: 2012 Draft Grades | Remaining Holes

Free agency: The Falcons were for the most part dormant in free agency (they did sign Lofa Tatupu), but got themselves a pretty good cover corner in Asante Samuel via a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles. The price -- a seventh-round draft choice -- was right, too.

Draft: Peter Konz should start immediately at guard, although his leadership has been questioned. Third-round pick Lamar Holmes was taken to further strengthen the front five. What a boon it would be if sixth-rounder Charles Mitchell could bring something to the table at safety right off the bat, considering the secondary did not perform well in 2011.

Holes to fill: The back seven on defense was a problem last year, and received a break with the addition of Samuel (albeit at a high cost in dollars). The linebacking corps is still devoid of impact players, and Curtis Lofton now resides in New Orleans. Further complicating matters for coach Mike Smith is the advancing age of his best pass rusher. John Abraham, who turns 34 on May 6, led the team with 9.5 sacks last season, but didn't get a lot of help up front. For all the talk about fellow DE Ray Edwards at this time last year, the former Viking was not effective, registering just 3.5 sacks. In a 4-3 set, the pressure has to come from the ends. Guys like Abraham and Edwards would get a lot more rest if the running game were effective. The ground game struggled late last year, and Michael Turner just turned 30. Grooming his replacement is a top order of business now.

Carolina Panthers

Free agency: The Panthers added another running back to the mix in Mike Tolbert. The club further bolstered the offense by signing free agent OG Mike Pollak, while trading for OT Bruce Campbell. Pollak should start immediately. Carolina also acquired Haruki Nakamura and Reggie Smith to provide depth at safety.

Draft: Carolina selected LB Luke Kuechly ninth overall, gaining an immediate starter at middle linebacker for the next several years. In the second round, the club found another potential starter in G Amini Silatolu. WR Joe Adams joins a receiving corps that has been strictly average outside of Steve Smith. Fellow fourth-rounder Frank Alexander won't start, but gives coach Ron Rivera another defensive end in his pass rush rotation.

Holes to fill: Despite all of analysts who felt Carolina should get a defensive tackle, the reality is that Rivera and company are going to roll with youngsters Sione Fua and Terrell McClain. Unfortunately, the run defense gave up more than 2,000 yards rushing and 4.6 yards per carry last year. If Kuechly struggles early, this team is going to get annihilated on the ground again. A lot of Panthers fans wanted to see the team get another weapon for Cam Newton, as well as provide Steve Smith with someone to take a bit of the load off in the passing game. That didn't happen, so Brandon LaFell and/or David Gettis must take the next step in their development.

New Orleans Saints

Free agency: The biggest landing in New Orleans this offseason was Ben Grubbs, whom the Saints acquired to fill the void left by the departure of Pro Bowler Carl Nicks. Defensively, several players were brought in, including DT Brodrick Bunkley and LBs Chris Chamberlain, David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton. Expect Lofton to fill in for the suspended Jonathan Vilma.

Draft: The Saints didn't even pick until 88 prospects' names had been called. Their first pick (in the third round) was Akiem Hicks, a player they hope can either beat out Bunkley or provide solid depth behind Sedrick Ellis. Fifth-rounder Corey White might be asked to play more than one would think with all of the track meets New Orleans gets into, while WR Nick Toon could see time after the departure of Robert Meachem.

Holes to fill: Because of the suspensions, there are several voids (starting at head coach) at least for pockets of time. Of course, linebacker Jonathan Vilma is out for a year. Lofton can play, but Vilma is the leader on the Saints defense, unquestionably. Pass rusher Will Smith is out four games, including one against Carolina (Cam Newton) and one versus Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers). No one will be able to replace Smith who is currently on the roster. The back four did not get enough production in 2011. When the Saints won it all in 2009, they gave up big plays, but also created them -- intercepting 26 passes and scoring five touchdowns. Last season, they picked off a paltry nine balls, while returning one for a score. With Tracy Porter in Denver, former first-round pick Patrick Robinson must step up. He's stunk so far, so that's encouraging.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Free agency: The Bucs excited their fan base in free agency, signing big-play receiver Vincent Jackson, OG Carl Nicks, DT Amobi Okoye and CB Eric Wright. All should contribute immediately, even if Okoye and Wright do so off the bench. Tampa Bay also inked a new backup QB in Dan Orlovsky.

Draft: Tampa Bay was one of the teams that traded down, passing on the opportunity to take Morris Claiborne at corner and instead finding an immediate starter at safety (Mark Barron). Running back Doug Martin was taken later in the first round and could win the starting job in camp. Second-rounder Lavonte David and Day 3 pick Najee Goode were selected in a effort to strengthen what was a weak LB group in 2011.

Holes to fill: New coach Greg Schiano must find a way to stop the run, or the Bucs aren't climbing out of the cellar in 2012. It really is that cut and dried. If you had a fantasy running back going against the Bucs last season, you were starting him. The two young DTs, Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, have to stay healthy or this team is done. The defensive ends are even more inexperienced -- Da'Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn are both second-year players. Josh Freeman's game regressed without playmakers on the outside. (And no running game didn't help, either.) GM Mark Dominik did well to get Jackson and Martin, but tight end Kellen Winslow is slowing down and the team got little out of Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams last season. The Bucs are relying on young players to fill the void at the other receiver positions (just like D-line, safety and running back). Honestly, Tampa bay's biggest hole is experience.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL

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