NFC South: Mathias Kiwanuka

The Carolina Panthers, who’ve been kicked around the NFC South the past couple seasons, started kicking back Tuesday. Not only did the Panthers help themselves by re-signing defensive end Charles Johnson, they also hit the Atlanta Falcons where it hurts most.

The Panthers took some potential kick out of the Atlanta pass rush. By all indications, the Falcons were very much in the mix for Johnson (so were the Denver Broncos, but they’re not in the NFC South). We’ve known for months the Falcons would almost certainly pursue a pass-rusher as soon as free agency opened.

They did and it didn’t work out. Where does Atlanta go from here?

Well, let’s not completely rule out Minnesota free agent Ray Edwards. His name was creating as much buzz in Atlanta as Johnson’s in recent months. Although there have been some reports the Falcons really aren’t interested in Edwards, I’m not buying that.

But the Panthers could end up costing Atlanta a shot at Edwards as well as Johnson. The deal the Panthers gave Johnson (six years, $76 million with $32 million guaranteed) is probably something Edwards and his agent will point to. Is Edwards, who has never had more than 8.5 sacks in a season, really worth that kind of money?

I’m not so sure. I’d let the market sort itself out and if the Falcons can get Edwards to sign a deal cheaper than Johnson’s, go for it. If not, it’s time to look elsewhere, but where is that?

There’s not a lot else out there. Tennessee’s Jason Babin is available and he had 12.5 sacks last season. But Babin never had more than five sacks in any previous season. More importantly, he’s 31 and could end up beating John Abraham to retirement.

I’m looking at the other alternatives and not seeing anything overwhelming. Yeah, Green Bay’s Cullen Jenkins is out there, but he’s as much defensive tackle as defensive end and doesn’t bring much of a threat off the edge.

There’s one intriguing possibility out there that might not cost all that much, but it comes with some risk. That’s Mathias Kiwanuka. He’s spent a star-crossed career with the New York Giants. He’s coming off a neck injury last season and had a major leg injury in 2007.

But, when healthy, Kiwanuka’s been a pretty decent player, even though the Giants shuffled him between defensive end and linebacker. I think back to Kiwanuka coming out of college. He was athletic, quick and smart and looked like he could be a big-time pass rusher.

He’s never had more than eight sacks in a season, but I think there’s still potential in him. I’m not sure about the medical stuff, but the Falcons have team doctors. I’d have them take a look at Kiwanuka (or at least his medical records, since time is of the essence) and see what they say. If they think Kiwanuka’s healthy, I say the Falcons should take a chance.

Atlanta can probably get Kiwanuka with a one- or two-year deal at a reasonable rate. If he doesn’t work out, not much harm will be done. If he does work out, the Falcons could end up with the pass-rusher they were looking for at a much lower price.
Check out this Insider article by KC Joyner on the Atlanta defense.

KC is also known as “the football scientist’’ and he’s great at throwing out all sorts of metrics. Sometimes Joyner’s science shoots down conventional wisdom. In this case, it only helps make a stronger case for what most of us are pretty sure is coming.

Whenever free agency opens, the Falcons are going to go out and sign a top-notch pass-rusher. The names you hear most often are Ray Edwards and Charles Johnson and I think both are possibilities. Joyner also includes Cullen Jenkins, Mathias Kiwanuka and Jason Babin on his list.

His point is simple: It’s not all that important which one of those guys the Falcons get. They just need to improve their pass rush and their defense can become elite. Yeah, it would help if they improve in a few other areas, like tackling by the safeties, but a pass-rusher to go with John Abraham could put this team over the top.

The other thing I really like about Joyner’s article is that it points out the Falcons are just fine at cornerback. Yeah, they need one of their young players to step up as the nickelback, but Joyner’s got numeric proof that Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes are quality starters.

I know there are some fans out there saying the Falcons should sign Nnamdi Asomugha. I don’t get that. Yeah, he’s an outstanding cornerback, but the Falcons spent a ton of money on Robinson last year. At some point, they want to lock up Grimes to a long-term contract. That’s going to be a lot of money invested in one position. If you threw Asomugha into the mix, the Falcons probably would have more money invested in cornerbacks than any team in the league.

Another cornerback isn’t what the Falcons need. What they need is a guy who can rush the quarterback.
We already have talked quite a bit about players from the NFC South who are expected to become unrestricted free agents. We’re going on the assumption that players not under contract who have at least four accrued seasons can become unrestricted free agents.

With that in mind, and with some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look at some of the more prominent potential free agents from the rest of the league.

QUARTERBACKS: Marc Bulger, Kerry Collins, Rex Grossman, Matt Hasselbeck, Patrick Ramsey, Alex Smith, Billy Volek, Kellen Clemens, Brodie Croyle, Trent Edwards, Bruce Gradkowski, Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Leinart, Troy Smith and Tyler Thigpen.

RUNNING BACKS: Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown, Kevin Faulk, Mewelde Moore, Sammy Morris, Clinton Portis, Dominic Rhodes, Tony Richardson, Kevin Smith, Darren Sproles, Fred Taylor, Brian Westbrook, Ricky Williams, Joseph Addai, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jerome Harrison, Brandon Jackson, Laurence Maroney and LeRon McClain.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Mark Clayton, Braylon Edwards, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Randy Moss, Santana Moss, Terrell Owens, Donte’ Stallworth, Steve Breaston, Malcom Floyd, Santonio Holmes, James Jones, Sidney Rice, Mike Sims-Walker, Brad Smith and Steve Smith (of the New York Giants, not the Steve Smith of Carolina).

TIGHT ENDS: Desmond Clark, Donald Lee, Randy McMichael, Bo Scaife, Kevin Boss, Owen Daniels, Daniel Fells, Zach Miller, Ben Patrick and Matt Spaeth.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: David Baas, Jammal Brown, Robert Gallery, Adam Goldberg, Kyle Kosier, Olin Kreutz, Matt Light, Sean Locklear, Casey Rabach, Chris Spencer, Langston Walker, Casey Wiegmann, Floyd Womack, Damien Woody, Chris Chester, Jeromey Clary, Daryn Colledge, Willie Colon, Doug Free, Jared Gaither, Charlie Johnson, Deuce Lutui, Samson Satele, Lyle Sendlein and Marshal Yanda.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES: Aubrayo Franklin, Tommie Harris, Chris Hoke, Chris Hovan, Kris Jenkins, Bryan Robinson, Gerard Warren, Jamal Williams, Pat Williams, Alan Branch, Barry Cofield, John McCargo and Brandon Mebane.

DEFENSIVE ENDS: Jason Babin, Dave Ball, Raheem Brock, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Cullen Jenkins, Travis LaBoy, Trevor Pryce, Marcus Spears, Ray Edwards and Mathias Kiwanuka.

LINEBACKERS: Akin Ayodele, Keith Bulluck, Kevin Burnett, Dhani Jones, Kirk Morrison, Julian Peterson, Matt Roth, Takeo Spikes, Jason Taylor, Mike Vrabel, Stewart Bradley, Bobby Carpenter, Manny Lawson, Paul Posluszny, Ernie Sims and Stephen Tulloch.

CORNERBACKS: Nnamdi Asomugha, Phillip Buchanon, Chris Carr, Drayton Florence, Ellis Hobbs, Carlos Rogers, Lito Sheppard, Ike Taylor, Fabian Washington, Drew Coleman, Antonio Cromartie, Chris Houston, Johnathan Joseph, Dimitri Patterson, Josh Wilson and Eric Wright.

SAFETIES: Aaron Francisco, Ken Hamlin, Michael Lewis, Brandon McGowan, Quintin Mikell, Lawyer Milloy, Brodney Pool, Gerald Sensabaugh, Roy Williams, Gibril Wilson, Atari Bigby, Melvin Bullitt, Abram Elam, Dashon Goldson, Michael Huff, Dawan Landry, Danieal Manning, Bernard Pollard, Eric Weddle and Donte Whitner.

NFC South, Ricky Williams, Gibril Wilson, Gerald Sensabaugh, T.J.Houshmandzadeh, Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes, Terrell Owens, Steve Smith, Lawyer Milloy, Ronnie Brown, Phillip Buchanon, Jammal Brown, Billy Volek, Jason Taylor, unrestricted free agents, Mark Clayton, Chris Hovan, Rex Grossman, Tyler Thigpen, Randy Moss, Kris Jenkins, ESPN Stats & Information, Chris Houston, Alex Smith, Brandon McGowan, Danieal Manning, Bruce Gradkowski, Michael Lewis, Fred Taylor, Steve Breaston, Roy Williams, Nnamdi Asomugha, Trevor Pryce, Santana Moss, Tavaris Jackson, Pat Williams, Kellen Clemens, Julian Peterson, Donte Stallworth, Kerry Collins, Brodie Croyle, Cedric Benson, Clinton Portis, Zach Miller, Brian Westbrook, Damien Woody, Troy Smith, Marc Bulger, Kevin Faulk, Ray Edwards, Sidney Rice, Antonio Cromartie, Jamal Williams, Mathias Kiwanuka, Patrick Ramsey, Aaron Francisco, Joseph Addai, Darren Sproles, Matt Leinart, Tony Richardson, Ike Taylor, Josh Wilson, Matt Hasselbeck, Atari Bigby, Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin, Marcus Spears, Jonathan Joseph, Paul Posluszny, Matt Light, Trent Edwards, Mewelde Moore, Sammy Morris, Dominic Rhodes, Kevin Smith, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jerom Harrison, Brandon Jackson, Laurence Maroney, LeRon McClain, Malcolm Floyd, James Jones, Mike Sims-Walker, Brad Smith, Desmond Clark, Donald Lee, Randy McMichael, Kevin Boss, Owen Daniels, Daniel Fells, Ben Patrick, Matt Spaeth, David Baas, Robert Gallery, Adam Goldberg, Kyle Kosier, Olin Kreutz, Sean Locklear, Casey Rabach, Chris Spencer, Langston Walker, Casey Wiegmann, Floyd Womack, Chris Chester, Jeromey Clary, Daryn Colledge, Willie Colon, Jared Gaither, Charlie Johnson, Deuce Lutui, Samson Satele, Lyle Sendlein, Marshal Yanda, Aubrayo Franklin, Tommis Harris, Chris Hoke, Bryan Robinson, Gerard Warren, Alan Branch, Barry Cofield, John McCargo, Brandon Mebane, Raheem Brock, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Travis LaBoy, Akin Ayodele, Keith Bulluck, Kevin Burnett, Dhani Jones, Kirk Morrison, Takeo Spikes, Mike Vrabel, Stewart Bradley, Bobby Carpenter, Manny Lawson, Ernie Sims, Stephen Tulloch, Chris Carr, Drayton Florence, Ellis Hobbs, Carlos Rogers, Lito Sheppard, Fabian Washington, Drew Coleman, Demitri Patterson, Eric Wright, Ken Hamlin, Quintin Mikell, Brodney Pool, Melvin Bullitt, Abram Elam, Dashon Goldson, Michael Huff, Dawan Landry, Bernard Pollard, Eric Weedle, Donte Whitner

Draft Watch: NFC South

March, 31, 2010
NFC History: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: History in that spot.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

They’re sitting at No. 3 and recent history indicates they’ll get a big name, but not necessarily a guaranteed star. The jury is still very much out on defensive end Tyson Jackson, who went to Kansas City in this spot last year. Jackson didn’t record a sack in his rookie year. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan went No. 3 overall in 2008 and is off to a very good start, and the same can be said for 2007 No. 3 pick Joe Thomas. The Cleveland offensive tackle already has been picked for three Pro Bowls. But 2006 third pick Vince Young and 2005 No. 3 Braylon Edwards have both had very uneven careers thus far.

Atlanta Falcons

They hold the No. 19 pick and the recent history in that spot has been solid. Philadelphia receiver Jeremy Maclin and Carolina offensive tackle Jeff Otah are off to strong starts. Tennessee safety Michael Griffin, who went in this spot in 2007, has been a very solid player and 2005 pick Alex Barron has been a regular starter at offensive tackle for the Rams. The biggest question mark at this spot in recent history is Antonio Cromartie. He had a few very productive years in San Diego, but slumped last season, prompting his move to the New York Jets.

New Orleans Saints

They hold the No. 32 pick, the final one in the first round because they won the Super Bowl. There are no guarantees of instant success when you’re picking this late. Ziggy Hood went in this spot to Pittsburgh last year and the Steelers are bringing him along very slowly. Safety Kenny Phillips went No. 32 to the Giants in 2008. He was primarily a backup as a rookie and got hurt early last year. It’s a similar story for 2007 pick Anthony Gonzalez of the Colts. He showed promise in his first two seasons as a backup, but an injury derailed him last year. The Giants have had mixed results with defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, whom they took in this spot in 2006. He hasn’t been spectacular, but he has been somewhat productive. The real gem in this spot has been 2005 pick Logan Mankins. The New England guard has been to two Pro Bowls.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers traded this year’s first-round pick to San Francisco last year. As a result, their top pick is in the second round and it’s No. 48 overall. History has shown you still can get a productive player at this spot. Cornerback Darcel McBath got off to a good start with Denver last year before being sidelined with an injury late in the season. Tight end Fred Davis had a quiet rookie season with the Redskins in 2008, but started to emerge last year. Jacksonville linebacker Justin Durant was a part-time-starter as a rookie in 2007, but has been a full-time starter the past two seasons. Cornerback Cedric Griffin has developed into a solid starter in Minnesota after being selected by the Vikings in 2006. Then, there’s the sad story of linebacker Odell Thurman, whom the Bengals took at No. 48 in 2005. He played only two seasons before suspensions and off-field problems derailed his career.