Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: schemes and themes.
It took general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith the better part of their first three offseasons to get the personnel they wanted to fit their offense and defense. In last year’s 13-3 season, it became obvious the Falcons are very well designed for their schemes. But the next step is to get this team deep into the postseason, and some more parts could come in this draft.
The buzz words coming out of Smith and Dimitroff are “explosiveness’’ and guys who “play with a sense of urgency." In other words, the Falcons have the all the basics and now they need to add some dynamics. They’re looking for guys who can step up, make big plays and change games. That means they’ll be looking for a strong pass-rusher, a little more speed at outside linebacker, a deep threat at wide receiver and a speedy running back to combine with the powerful Michael Turner.
It’s coach Ron Rivera’s first draft, and you would think that last year’s 2-14 record would be a sign the Panthers simply need to add talent everywhere. But that’s not really the case. The talent on defense isn’t bad, and the scheme isn’t going to be all that different from what former coach John Fox ran.
Even on an offense that was dismal last year, there aren’t widespread needs. The thing that really has held this team back the last couple of years has been horrible quarterback play. Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney have come to realize a franchise quarterback is the one thing that separates this team from the rest of the NFC South. But is Hurney, who teamed with Fox in a confederacy of conservatism the last nine seasons, ready to step outside the box? All indications are that Hurney is seriously considering taking the plunge and drafting either Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert with the first overall pick.
There was a really fine line between the 2009 Super Bowl team and the one that went 11-5 and lost in the first round of the playoffs last year. There hasn’t been a lot of roster turnover, and last year made it pretty obvious what the Saints need to cross back over that line.
Coach Sean Payton has been pretty blunt about improving the pass rush, and that could come with a defensive end or an outside linebacker -- or both -- early in the draft. Gregg Williams’ defense relies on creating turnovers, and the Saints have to create more pressure for the system to really work. Even with the re-signing of Pierre Thomas and the expected return of Reggie Bush, a lack of consistency in the running game last season means it’s very possible the Saints will look for another running back. Remember, Payton is an offensive coach and the rest of his offense is in pretty good shape.
It would be easy to point to the pass rush and say all the Buccaneers have to do is take a defensive end at No. 20 and this team automatically will be in the playoffs next season. The Bucs went 10-6 with virtually no pass rush last season, and defensive end is a glaring need.
But it’s not the only need, and the Bucs need to realize that they might have overachieved with the league’s youngest team last season. Some young players may have played way over their heads last season, and the Bucs need to continue to upgrade their overall talent level. The offense clicked last year because Josh Freeman carried it. But the defense hasn’t really hit the level coach Raheem Morris wants just yet. Besides help at defensive end, the Bucs could use more speed and athleticism at linebacker. This is a defense that needs to be much better in the front seven.