Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Schemes and themes.
Atlanta Falcons: There is little doubt what Atlanta’s biggest need is. It clearly is a pass-rusher, specifically a defensive end. The Falcons thrived in 2008 when John Abraham was having a career year and struggled last season as he suddenly got old. Coach Mike Smith wants speed on the outside to help protect his secondary. Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann have some potential as pass-rushers. But the Falcons don’t have anything truly close to an every-down defensive end in their 4-3 scheme. There’s little doubt they’ll try to find one early in this draft.
Carolina Panthers: The defensive line used to be the foundation of a John Fox football team. The Panthers went to a Super Bowl with Mike Rucker, Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner dominating up front. That was a long time ago and, with Peppers about to walk out the door, there’s not a marquee player on the defensive line. Fox likes defensive ends who are quick, even if they’re a bit undersized. He likes defensive tackles who take up a lot of space. The return of Maake Kemoeatu from injury should help, but he’s not getting any younger. The fact the Panthers don’t have a first-round pick is going to make it difficult to get any sure things along the defensive front.
New Orleans Saints: It’s kind of ironic how the secondary has gone from being an area of need to a huge strength in just one year. Even if the Saints let safety Darren Sharper walk in free agency, they don’t need to do much with the secondary. That leaves the front seven as the biggest area of need. Outside linebacker could be an issue with Scott Fujita headed toward free agency and Scott Shanle carrying a big salary. Fujita and Shanle played well last season, but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams prides himself on playing an aggressive style. It might be time to get some younger legs to surround middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Quarterback Josh Freeman has hinted he wouldn’t mind having a burner at wide receiver. That’s something the Bucs desperately need. Freeman has one of the strongest arms in the league and the Bucs would like to take advantage of that. The problem right now is they don’t have a true downfield threat on the roster. They’ve got some decent possession receivers and Sammie Stroughter might be perfect for the slot. But Freeman is the franchise and you’re about to see the Bucs start building around him. On defense, Raheem Morris decided to get back to the Tampa 2 scheme late last season and the results were positive. But cornerback Ronde Barber is near the end of his career and safety Sabby Piscitelli struggled mightily. It’s time to get some younger legs in the secondary.