NFC South: Dunta Robinson
When it comes to Rookie of the Year awards, “small markets’’ haven’t stopped NFC South players from receiving big honors.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton won the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year in the 2011 season. Last year, Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly won the defensive award.
Can the trend continue in 2013?
Well, I see at least one potential candidate for each team. But any rookie awards in the NFC South will almost certainly come from the defensive side of the ball because division teams didn’t use early draft picks on offensive skill position players.
Let’s take a look at the guys I think have a chance to win Defensive Rookie of the Year.
All indications are the Falcons plan to start Trufant immediately after releasing Dunta Robinson and letting Brent Grimes leave via free agency. Letting those veterans go wasn’t an accident. The Falcons wanted to get younger at this position and they also used their second-round pick on cornerback Robert Alford.
The hopes also are high for Alford, but it’s Trufant that the Falcons are expecting big early returns from. The plan is to start him opposite veteran Asante Samuel and let Alford compete with Robert McClain for the job at nickel back.
That means Trufant will be targeted early and often because opponents always test rookie cornerbacks. But the Falcons believe Trufant is polished and NFL ready. If he can rise to the challenge, he could put up some big interception numbers and that could make him a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Carolina Panthers. I actually see two candidates here. The Panthers used their first two picks on defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Lotulelei was the first-round choice and his best shot at any postseason honors will come if Carolina’s run defense has a strong season. Lotulelei is known more for his run-stuffing abilities than his pass-rushing skills, so he’ll really need to dominate in the middle to turn heads.
Sacks are the statistic people look to when they’re talking about defensive linemen. That’s why I think Short, a second-round pick, might have a better chance to grab attention than Lotulelei. The scouting report on Short is that he can play the run well, but also is capable of generating a pass rush from the interior.
That could translate into big production. Surrounded by the strong duo of defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, veteran defensive tackle Dwan Edwards produced six sacks last season. If Short can beat out Edwards right from the start, I could see him ending up with even more sacks and that could bring awards.
New Orleans Saints. In recent years, the Saints usually have brought rookies along slowly, often not starting them until their second year. But I get the sense the plan with safety Kenny Vaccaro is different this year.
The Saints blew up their defense after ranking last in the league last season. They brought in coordinator Rob Ryan and Vaccaro was the first player drafted to fit his scheme. That means Vaccaro won’t be sitting on the bench.
If Vaccaro can put up some significant interception and tackle numbers and the New Orleans defense shows strong improvement, the rookie could be in the spotlight.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The big offseason news in Tampa Bay was the trade for cornerback Darrelle Revis and the free-agent signing of safety Dashon Goldson. But there’s another guy who should benefit tremendously from the those two moves.
That’s second-round pick Johnthan Banks. He’ll either start opposite Revis or get a lot of time in nickel situations if the Bucs elect to start Eric Wright.
Either way, Banks could be in a situation where he has a chance to shine. With Revis and Goldson protecting him, Banks could have a chance to come up with a bunch of interceptions.
And keep the Rookie of the Year award in the NFC South.
Let’s take a look at the NFC South assistants, not including coordinators, that could be most important in 2013:
Atlanta Falcons. I’m going with two here because the Falcons list Tim Lewis as their secondary coach and Joe Danna as their defensive backs coach. Both will have their hands full because the Falcons released cornerback Dunta Robinson and cornerback Brent Grimes left via free agency.
Veteran starter Asante Samuel and nickel back Robert McClain remain, but the Falcons suddenly have a lot of youth at cornerback. They used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford and Lewis and Danna will have to get those two up to speed quickly because the Falcons open their season against the pass-happy New Orleans Saints. It’s likely the Falcons will have one of the rookies starting and the other could compete with McClain for playing time.
Carolina Panthers. Aside from offensive coordinator Mike Shula, I think quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey could be the most important member of this staff. Dorsey is new to coaching. He had been working in Carolina’s scouting department the last two years, but was added to the staff when coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach in Cleveland and Shula was promoted.
But Dorsey, who had a journeyman career as an NFL quarterback, should be able to relate well to quarterback Cam Newton. Dorsey worked as an instructor at IMG Academy when Newton was doing his combine preparation there in 2011.
New Orleans Saints. You could make a strong case for any of the defensive assistants as the Saints try to overhaul a unit that ranked No. 32 in the league last year. But I’m going with offensive line coach Brett Ingalls.
After spending the last four years as the running backs coach, Ingalls was moved to offensive line coach after Aaron Kromer left to become the offensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears. Ingalls spent a large chunk of his time as a college assistant working with offensive linemen, so this territory is not foreign to him.
Ingalls has his work cut out for him. A tight salary-cap situation prevented the Saints from re-signing Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod. The Saints will go to camp with Charles Brown, Jason Smith and rookie Terron Armstead competing for the right to protect Drew Brees' blind side. Ingalls should be helped by the fact he has a strong interior line anchored by guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, but he needs to get solid play out of the left tackle spot.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This one is easy because everything in Tampa Bay this season is about quarterback Josh Freeman. He’s headed into the final year of his contract and this season will determine if he has a long-term future with the Bucs.
That’s why I’m going with quarterbacks coach John McNulty. He’s new to the Bucs, but has history with coach Greg Schiano. McNulty worked for Schiano at Rutgers. Schiano tried to hire McNulty to his staff last year, but was refused permission by Arizona, where McNulty was coaching the wide receivers.
McNulty has a reputation for having a bright offensive mind and it will be up to him and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan to help Freeman become more consistent.
They’re coming off a 13-3 season and they have a roster stocked with extraordinary talent from veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez right down to rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant. When the preseason predictions start coming out in another month or so, the Falcons are going to be a trendy Super Bowl pick, and that’s totally logical.
From the inside, I get the sense the Falcons are confident, but not totally comfortable with where they’re sitting. That’s probably because they’ve been here before.
It’s fresh in the minds of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith because it wasn’t that long ago. In 2010, the Falcons went 13-3 and seemed to be just a player or two away from the Super Bowl.
The Falcons certainly thought so. They went out and signed free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards and made a huge trade on draft day to get receiver Julio Jones. But the Falcons quickly learned that if you spend too much time and resources on fixing what was broken in the past, you can take your eye off the present and the future.
That’s what happened in the 2011 season. The Falcons stumbled to a 2-3 start. They finished 10-6, but the New Orleans Saints ran away with the NFC South title. Atlanta got a wild-card berth in the playoffs and got thumped 24-2 by the New York Giants.
Before the dust from that loss settled, coordinators Mike Mularkey and Brian VanGorder were gone. Their replacements, Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan, came in and helped set the stage for a bounce right back to 13-3.
But now comes the next step, and that’s why the Falcons shouldn’t be feeling too comfortable.
I don’t think history will repeat itself, mainly because the Falcons learned from their mistakes of 2011 and they’re taking a different approach this time around.
The most significant quote I heard this offseason was when Smith said the Falcons were 10 yards away from the Super Bowl last year, but they’re starting at 0-0 in 2013. Smith drilled that message into his team during the offseason program.
That type of self-awareness is nothing but a good thing. It’s hard just to win a game in the NFL. The Falcons have to go out and work as hard, or harder, than last year if they expect a similar season. Actually, they need to expect more. They need to expect a Super Bowl championship.
Blowing a 17-point lead to San Francisco at home in the NFC Championship Game wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough for Smith and Dimitroff and it certainly wasn’t good enough for owner Arthur Blank.
I’m not subscribing to the theory of some who believe Smith needs to win a Super Bowl or Blank will clean house. Blank’s too smart for that. He realizes he has an excellent combination in Smith and Dimitroff. But expectations are justifiably high, and it wouldn’t reflect well on Smith or Dimitroff if the Falcons end up taking a step back.
There’s a reason why I don’t think the Falcons will take a step back. It’s because Smith and Dimitroff didn’t resort to the same gold-rush attitude that they did after the 2010 season. Blame a big part of that on Edwards, who ended up being perhaps the biggest free-agent bust in NFC South history. I think Smith and Dimitroff would make the Jones trade all over again, but that’s a once-in-a-career type of deal.
Dimitroff and Smith did go out and fix one major problem area from last year. They let aging running back Michael Turner go and replaced him with a slightly younger Steven Jackson. That alone should give a huge boost to an Atlanta offense that didn’t have even the threat of a running game last year.
But, more than that, I like the fact that Smith and Dimitroff were proactive. They let a still-productive John Abraham go and replaced him with a slightly younger Osi Umenyiora. They let veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson go and went out and drafted Trufant (yes, they traded up for him, but it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the Jones trade) and Robert Alford.
Although adding veteran defensive tackle Richard Seymour still might be a possibility (at the right price), Smith and Dimitroff avoided going for quick fixes and big names this time around. They let veteran right tackle Tyson Clabo go, and center Todd McClure retired.
Sure, it’s a little scary having two new starters on an offensive line. But the Falcons have invested draft picks in the likes of Peter Konz, Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes in recent years. It’s time to get them on the field.
That’s the way you fix things for the long term -- by making deliberate and calculated moves instead of moves that smack of desperation.
That’s how you take a step forward and not a step back.
I’ll do a quick analysis on each of the three (the New Orleans Saints didn’t have a pick in the road). And I’ll be back later with a column on what I think is the division’s best story of the night and quick analysis of what transpires in the third round.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks with the 43rd overall pick. Banks was once viewed as an early first-round pick, but a slow time in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine caused his stock to fall. Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik just talked to the media and they’re not concerned about how fast Banks ran in Indianapolis. They think he can step right in and play with Darrelle Revis and Eric Wright and make a position that was a problem last season a strength.
The Carolina Panthers used the 44th pick on Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short. That might seem like excessive attention on the defensive tackle position after the Panthers used their first-round pick on Star Lotulelei. But, like the Bucs at cornerback, the Panthers are trying to turn a weakness into a strength. Carolina also likes incumbent starter Dwan Edwards, but he’s nearing the end of his career and the Panthers now should be strong at defensive tackle for years to come.
At No. 60, the Atlanta Falcons continued the division-wide trend of loading up on one position by taking Southeast Louisiana cornerback Robert Alford. The Falcons used their first-round pick on cornerback Desmond Trufant. After the departures of Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, the Falcons now are back to full strength at cornerback.
That’s going to open the door for all sorts of speculation. Maybe the Falcons are smitten with a player at another position, but I think their only glaring need is at cornerback.
Brent Grimes left as a free agent and Dunta Robinson was released. Asante Samuel and Robert McClain remain, but the Falcons need to add a starting-caliber cornerback. Atlanta currently has the 30th overall pick, but the Falcons almost certainly would have to move up to get any of the three cornerbacks that most experts say are the best in this draft -- Dee Milliner, Xavier Rhodes and Desmond Trufant.
The Falcons, who have some resources to work with because they currently have 11 draft picks, could probably get Rhodes or Trufant if they moved into the late teens or early 20s.
But Rhodes and Trufant might not be who the Falcons want. On the surface, Atlanta is a team on the cusp of a Super Bowl. The Falcons could view Milliner as the missing link.
They’d have to move into the top 10, maybe even the top five, to get him. The cost would be high (here’s a trade value chart to use as a guideline).
But I’m not ruling the Milliner scenario out. There’s precedent. Back in 2011, the Falcons made a similar leap to get receiver Julio Jones and that deal worked out well.
It’s no secret Atlanta is in a win-now mode and Milliner might give the Falcons the best shot at winning a Super Bowl.
The needs are listed as tight end, defensive end and cornerback.
Getting an eventual successor for tight end Tony Gonzalez might be a priority. Last season, Gonzalez played 1,102 snaps, including the postseason. The rest of Atlanta’s tight ends played 273 snaps. Gonzalez was targeted 138 times and produced 107 receptions and 10 touchdowns. The rest of Atlanta’s tight ends were targeted 11 times and came up with nine catches and one touchdown reception.
Even after signing defensive end Osi Umenyiora, the Falcons might want to add another pass-rusher up front. Over the past three seasons, John Abraham, who was released in March, recorded 28.5 sacks in situations where the Falcons sent four or fewer pass-rushers. In that same time, no other Atlanta defensive end recorded more than eight sacks as part of a four-man rush.
The Falcons allowed an NFL-low five touchdowns on passes outside the painted numbers last season. But Dunta Robinson, who played more snaps than any Atlanta cornerback, and Brent Grimes, who missed most of last season with an injury, have moved on to other teams.
With the departures of Dunta Robinson and Chris Gamble, there just aren’t many highly-paid cornerbacks left in the division.
I just did a quick sampling of NFC South cornerback salaries (including bonuses) for this year and only Atlanta’s Asante Samuel ($4.95 million), New Orleans’ Keenan Lewis ($7 million), Jabari Greer ($4.15 million) and Patrick Robinson ($800,000), Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn ($1.1 million) and Tampa Bay’s Eric Wright ($7.75 million) are scheduled to make more than the minimum salary, which varies depending on the number of accrued seasons a player has. And it’s important to note that Wright is likely to either take a cut in pay or get released before long.
This is all shocking for a division that’s full of high-powered offenses. Right now, there’s no clear-cut best cornerback in the division.
That leads me to believe that all four teams might not be done making moves at cornerback. Carolina doesn’t have a No. 1 corner on its roster. Neither does Atlanta. Greer and Lewis might be all right in New Orleans, but the Saints need some insurance in case Robinson has a repeat of last year. Outside of Wright, Tampa Bay has a bunch of young, no-name corners.
That’s got to change. We’re going to see some corners taken early by NFC South teams in the upcoming draft and that could bump up the pay scale.
Of course, there’s one other scenario hanging out there that could change the cornerback pay scale. If Tampa Bay ever gets around to trading for Darrelle Revis (and I think there still is a decent chance of that), the Bucs will have to work a long-term deal to pay him more than any other cornerback.
The Atlanta Falcons' strategy early in the free-agency process was to keep their own players. But when you have a team that came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl, you have to step outside.
That’s precisely what the Falcons did Thursday afternoon when they agreed to terms with running back Steven Jackson.
Instantly, Atlanta’s running game looks a lot better than it did last season, when Michael Turner clearly was showing signs of wear and tear. Jackson comes with mileage of his own, but at 29 he’s younger than Turner (31) and he still was productive in St. Louis last season.
Jackson averaged 4.1 yards per carry while rushing for 1,042 yards and four touchdowns behind an offensive line that was less than stellar. He has handled as many as 346 carries a season in his career, but I don’t think that’s what the Falcons are seeking.
I think they’re looking for a running back who can handle between 200 and 250 carries and split time with Jacquizz Rodgers. The Falcons also want someone who can be efficient in short-yardage situations, and Jackson has a successful history with that.
Unlike Turner, Jackson also has been a receiving threat out of the backfield. In 2006, he caught a career-high 90 passes. I don’t think the Falcons will ask him to catch that many, but if Jackson can give them 30 to 40 catches, he will make the offense a lot more complete.
The Falcons released Turner last week. They also released defensive end John Abraham and cornerback Dunta Robinson. Those moves put the Falcons even more yards away from the Super Bowl, but adding Jackson means they have bridged some of that gap.
Strategy: Atlanta's philosophy is to keep its core together. Still, the Falcons are usually good for one or two significant moves per offseason. There is a bit of salary-cap room to work with and more could be created with some contract restructures. The Falcons have several areas of need, most notably at defensive end and running back. It would be difficult for Atlanta to get a top-notch pass rusher with the 30th overall pick in the draft. That's why I suspect the Falcons could make a splash move to bring in someone such as a Cliff Avril, Dwight Freeney or Osi Umenyiora.
Cap status: The Panthers had to work like crazy just to get under the salary cap. They're already facing salary-cap nightmares for 2014, so I wouldn't expect a big spending spree.
Strategy: This is Dave Gettleman's first free-agency period as a general manager, so we don't know his tendencies. But the cap situation assures that he won't be making a bunch of huge signings. Still, the Panthers have more needs than they'll be able to fill in the draft, so they may have to dabble a bit in free agency. They might not be able to get a top-notch cornerback in the middle of the first round of the draft. They need a No. 1 cornerback after releasing Chris Gamble, so they may have to look for one in free agency.
Cap status: The Saints spent the past few weeks digging out from a cap mess, so they don't have a lot of room to work with.
Strategy: Even with the cap situation, it has never been the style of general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton to be complacent. They'll be creative and aggressive in free agency. They have to retool a defense that was the worst in the league last year and they're switching to a 3-4 scheme. They need players that can fit that scheme, particularly a pass rusher or two. They also could use some help in the secondary. The Saint also may be in the market for a left tackle if they're unable to prevent Jermon Bushrod from leaving via free agency.
Cap status: The Bucs are the one team in the division that doesn't have to worry much about the cap. They're entering free agency with more than $30 million in cap room.
Strategy: The Bucs have major needs at cornerback, and I'm expecting them to do something dramatic, whether it's trading for Darrelle Revis or signing a significant free agent. The Bucs could even end up trying to get two starting cornerbacks out of free agency. And it won't stop at cornerback. The Bucs also could use help at tight end, slot receiver, outside linebacker and depth on the defensive line.
Former Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson has agreed to terms on a contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, according to Adam Schefter. Robinson recently was released by the Falcons in a salary-cap move. His time in Atlanta wasn’t horrible, but it never quite lived up to the billing that came when the Falcons signed him.
Robinson was free to agree to a deal because he was released and was not technically an unrestricted free agent. Teams now can start talking to agents for such players, but no deals can be made until Tuesday afternoon.
In other news, the Saints have placed the second-round tender on running back Chris Ivory, who is a restricted free agent. And former Atlanta defensive end John Abraham reportedly is visiting San Francisco, but there are indications the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers also may have some interest. Also, Tampa Bay defensive back Ronde Barber said the Bucs want him to return for a 17th season. But Barber said he will take his time before making a decision.
We’ll see if anything else of note pops up in the short term. If not, I’ll be back in the morning with the latest updates.
I’m not buying it.
Sure, Revis would be a nice upgrade for any secondary. But I don’t think he’s in Atlanta’s plans.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff has made it pretty clear he wants to take care of his own guys first. That means cornerback Brent Grimes, safety William Moore and left tackle Sam Baker are tops on the list. Oh, and the Falcons also want to sign quarterback Matt Ryan to a long-term extension sometime this offseason. And tight end Tony Gonzalez might decide to return for one more season.
Yes, the Falcons freed up a bunch of cap room last week when they released Dunta Robinson, Michael Turner and John Abraham. But that wasn’t done to clear the way for Revis.
It was done to clear the way to keep Moore, Grimes and Baker.
Think back to last year when fans were calling for the Falcons to go out and sign Mario Williams. They Falcons didn’t do that. Instead, they re-signed their own free agents.
I’m expecting more of the same. Could Dimitroff make a significant move somewhere along the way? Yeah, he generally is good for one or two big moves a year. But I’m not getting any indication right now that the Falcons are attempting to make a play for Revis.
A year after a record 21 teams used the tag, only eight teams opted to use it this year and none were from the NFC South.
There was a thought that Tampa Bay might franchise defensive end Michael Bennett, but general manager Mark Dominik said at the scouting combine that the team didn’t plan to use the tag and he followed through. The team still has some time to negotiate with Bennett, but he may now want to test the open market.
Atlanta had some potential candidates for franchise tags in left tackle Sam Baker, strong safety William Moore and cornerback Brent Grimes. But the recent releases of Michael Turner, Dunta Robinson and John Abraham leaves the Falcons with enough cap space to re-sign their own free agents.
Carolina and New Orleans didn’t have anyone that quite rose to the level of a franchise tag.
The Panthers would like to keep Munnerlyn and use him as their nickel cornerback But the feeling inside the building is that the Panthers don’t have the cap room to offer Munnerlyn a contract that could keep him.
Ironically, that means there’s a chance Munnerlyn could be headed to a division rival. Atlanta and Tampa Bay both have salary-cap room to work with and both have needs at cornerback.
Tampa Bay’s cornerback problems have been well documented. Munnerlyn, who has split time as a starter and nickelback, instantly would be better than any cornerback on Tampa Bay’s roster. He’s undersized, but is a great competitor and a solid locker room guy.
I could also see Munnerlyn fitting in Atlanta. The Falcons liked to slide Dunta Robinson onto the slot receiver. But Robinson was released last week. Robert McClain showed he could cover slot receivers, but he might be at his best on the outside.
They’re going to replace their top pass-rusher with another guy that can get after the quarterback. Maybe it’s Dwight Freeney. Maybe it’s a younger free agent. Or maybe it’s an early draft pick. Whatever, the Falcons have to do something dramatic from the outside here.
It’s the same with running back Michael Turner, who also was released Friday. Maybe the Falcons bring in Steven Jackson or another free agent. Perhaps they'll draft a running back. This position isn’t as important as it once was because the Falcons have become a pass-first offense and they simply need to pair someone with Jacquizz Rodgers. That running back will have to come from outside because he’s not already on the roster.
But the situation could be different at cornerback, where the Falcons released Dunta Robinson. The Falcons might already have enough in place to get by without Robinson. Of course, that’s going on the assumption they re-sign cornerback Brent Grimes. If they do, they suddenly have a true No. 1 cornerback, something they lacked after Grimes went down in the first game of last year.
They have Asante Samuel as a solid No. 2 cornerback and Robert McClain was very dependable as the No. 3 cornerback. With Grimes, Samuel and McClain, the Falcons can be just fine at cornerback.
Of course, they have to go ahead and re-sign Grimes to make it all work.
Cory in Cardington, Ohio asks what the Falcons will do at running back now that Michael Turner has been released.
Pat Yasinskas: I know there’s been a lot of talk about Steven Jackson. That may be a possibility, but I’m against it. Jackson’s would be a short-term upgrade over Turner. But he’s not much younger than Turner and wouldn’t be a long-term solution. Personally, I think the best route for the Falcons is to draft a running back (someone like Wisconsin’s Montee Ball) and pair him with Jacquizz Rodgers. The Falcons are a pass-first team now. They don’t need a superstar running back. They just need a young set of legs to pair with Rodgers.
Carlito in Newberry, S.C. asks about the possibility of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pursuing cornerback Dunta Robinson.
PY: I think that’s something the Bucs have to at least look at. Robinson’s an experienced cornerback with plenty left in the tank. Fans in Atlanta will tell you he was a bust. While it’s true he never played up to his huge contract, he wasn’t horrible. The Bucs could do a lot worse than Robinson. But, even if they sign Robinson, they need to add at least one other starting-caliber cornerback.
Jeremy in Lafayette, La. asks where the Saints stand in relation to the salary cap.
PY: It’s a very fluid situation, but the Saints are getting close. Not all the reported restructures have been turned yet. But, if the reports are right, my calculations put the Saints somewhere between $2.5 and $3 million over the cap. Of course, there also is the possibility there have been other restructures that we don’t know about yet and the Saints still could release some veterans to create more space. But the bottom line is they’re getting close to the cap and they’ll be under it by March 12.
Justo in Los Angeles asks if any of the young players on Carolina’s roster are capable of stepping into the No. 1 cornerback role if the Panthers release Chris Gamble.
PY: Josh Norman and Josh Thomas are promising young cornerbacks. But, at this point, I don’t see them being ready to be more than No. 2 or No. 3 guys. If Gamble goes, the Panthers have to get a No. 1 cornerback. The draft certainly is a possibility if a good corner makes it to the middle of the first round. If not, the Panthers will have to go the free-agency route. But the problem there is good cornerbacks aren’t cheap and the Panthers aren’t going to have a lot of salary-cap room.