Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.
Perhaps the biggest positive to come out of a 13-3 season that ended with a disappointing playoff loss to Green Bay is that it made Atlanta’s offseason needs so clear. Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have said, in no uncertain terms, the Falcons need to become more explosive on both sides of the ball, and they have established a track record of working together to get what they want.
It’s no secret that Atlanta’s biggest need is to improve the pass rush. Veteran John Abraham stepped up with 13.5 sacks last season, but there’s no guarantee that will continue. Even if Abraham produces another big season, the Falcons need another defensive end to help provide a more consistent pass rush. Although the team used its first-round pick on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon last year, another athletic outside linebacker is a possibility, because Mike Peterson is getting older and Stephen Nicholas might leave via free agency. Speed and athleticism also will be targets on offense. The Falcons have a good power running game with Michael Turner and Jason Snelling, but need a speed back to make some big plays. Roddy White is one of the game’s best receivers, but the Falcons would like to add a speedster to stretch the field.
Offensive line also is a possibility, because the Falcons have several possible free agents and it remains to be seen if the team is really sold on left tackle Sam Baker.
New coach Ron Rivera takes over a roster that’s not as depleted as last year’s 2-14 record might suggest. There are some areas of strength -- defensive end, running back and linebacker. Some consistent play at quarterback would go a long way toward making the Panthers competitive quickly. It remains to be seen if the Panthers will take a leap on Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert in the draft, or try to get a veteran through free agency or via trade.
Whatever the Panthers decide at quarterback, there are some other big needs that will have to be addressed in the draft. The middle of the defensive line has been a problem spot the past two seasons, and Auburn’s Nick Fairley is a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick. The wild card in all this could be LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. Some say he’s the best player in the draft, and there is uncertainty about the futures of cornerbacks Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble. The rule of thumb is that you don’t take a cornerback with the top pick of the draft. But Peterson might be the most complete player in the draft, so the Panthers have to at least consider breaking the rules.
Assuming the restricted free agent tags hold up with a new labor agreement, the Saints should be able to keep a pretty strong roster intact. That said, there are some obvious areas of need. On defense, the Saints could use another pass-rusher to team with Will Smith. Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson were adequate last season, but not dynamic. The basis of a Gregg Williams defense is to create turnovers, and that starts with a pass rush up front. An athletic outside linebacker also is high on the list. The Saints thought they had enough young guys last year to let Scott Fujita walk in free agency. But several of those young linebackers were injured, and that spot became a problem.
Offensively, the Saints are pretty well set at the skill positions, but it’s possible they could at least look to add another running back at some point. Reggie Bush's future remains uncertain and the Saints were hampered by injuries at running back last season. Although the Saints drafted Charles Brown last year, offensive tackle could be addressed again. Brown might get a shot to start ahead of Jermon Bushrod at left tackle, but the Saints might like to add one more person to that competition.
Despite a surprising 10-6 record last season, the rebuilding job is far from done in Tampa Bay. The Bucs still need to upgrade the talent level at several positions, and defensive end appears to be first on the list. Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder ended up as the starters last season and weren’t able to generate much of a pass rush. After using the first two picks of last year’s draft on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, the Bucs would like to surround them with young talent on the outside.
The Bucs could be looking for a middle linebacker if Barrett Ruud leaves via free agency, and more depth at outside linebacker also is a possibility. The uncertain future of suspended safety Tanard Jackson means the Bucs might have to look for depth at that position. The offensive needs aren’t as big, but the Bucs could use a running back to help share the load with LeGarrette Blount.