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Monday, December 29, 2008
NFC South team evaluations


Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

New Orleans Saints (8-8)
The Saints gambled that this was the year they could challenge for the Super Bowl. They turned out to be very wrong. Trading for linebacker Jonathan Vilma and tight end Jeremy Shockey wasn't enough to put them over the top and they still have to pay the price for missing on draft picks. Too bad, because they'll need them to overhaul their defense for the second straight year. Although Vilma helped and rookie defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis had some bright moments, the defense wasn't much different than last year. Injuries on defense, poor play in the secondary, inconsistency in running the ball and a brutal schedule all took a toll on the Saints. Even with a huge year from quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints weren't able to get to the playoffs. Grade: D+

Biggest surprise: Lance Moore emerged as the team's No. 1 receiver out of desperation. A former undrafted free agent, Moore became Brees' favorite target after injuries left the Saints with few other options on offense. The speedy Moore was the only consistent receiver the Saints had.

Biggest disappointment: Marques Colston. It wasn't all his fault because an early thumb injury cost Colston significant time. But, even after he returned, Colston wasn't the same receiver he was the previous two seasons.

Biggest need: Once again, it's defense -- just about everywhere on defense. The Saints couldn't defend the pass, couldn't rush the quarterback and didn't stop the running game. Other than that, they were flawless on defense. Vilma, Ellis and strong safety Roman Harper are the only defensive players whose jobs should be safe. A free safety and cover corner are the biggest priorities, but speed at linebacker and another pass rusher to challenge the underachieving Charles Grant and Will Smith would help.

Tip to Sean Payton: Go get a real running back. Let Deuce McAllister go because he's not in your plans and admit that Reggie Bush is not a true feature back. Use Bush as a combination of a receiver and runner, but don't count on him to play every down. This year showed you can go out and throw for around 5,000 yards, but it won't get you anywhere if you don't have a running game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
Somehow, the Bucs got off to a 9-3 start. But it turned out to be nothing but smoke, mirrors and Antonio Bryant. Once the rest of the league figured out the Bucs were old on defense and had nothing but Bryant on offense, the Bucs collapsed and squandered what appeared to be a certain playoff berth. That's a bitter way to head into an offseason that's not looking like a lot of fun. The Bucs are losing defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and that's just the start. Because of age and the way this season disintegrated, this roster is going to be blown up. The Bucs may have had a winning record, but part of that was luck and part of it was coaching. The reality check at the end of the year means the Bucs will be starting from scratch in a lot of places. Grade: D+

Biggest surprise: Bryant. The wide receiver spent all of 2007 out of the league and some thought his career was over. The Bucs took a shot on him and gave him a one-year contract worth just more than minimum and it paid off. Adding Bryant was the best move the Bucs made as he became the go-to receiver and the only bright spot on offense. Now, they've got to make sure they re-sign him to a much bigger deal before he can get to the free-agent market.

Biggest disappointment: Joey Galloway. Bryant's rise came because Galloway couldn't get on the field during training camp. Galloway got so buried in coach Jon Gruden's doghouse that he wasn't even a factor after he got healthy. Losing playing time to Bryant wasn't that sad, but not being able to get ahead of Michael Clayton and Ike Hilliard in the rotation showed that Galloway's time in Tampa Bay is over.

Biggest need: Stability at quarterback. The Bucs haven't had that in forever and the team might as well just let Jeff Garcia walk. He did some good things in his Tampa Bay tenure, but he's old and it's obvious coach Jon Gruden never was sold on Garcia. Brian Griese, Luke McCown and Josh Johnson aren't the answer.

Tip to Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen: You messed up in one huge way this season. If you were going to enter the Brett Favre sweepstakes (and we know you did), you HAD to get him. You didn't and it ruined Garcia and, ultimately, your season. Decide early on if Donovan McNabb or Matt Cassel is your flavor of the month. Then go out and make certain you get him.

Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
The Falcons are in the playoffs and that's one of the biggest miracles of this season. Scary part is, they have a real chance to do some damage in the postseason because they're carrying momentum and have shown an ability to get better each week. All this seemed inconceivable back at the start of the season when the Falcons had a roster that looked bare and a new coach (Mike Smith) that almost nobody had ever heard of. But every move Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff made seemed to be a home run. They drafted quarterback Matt Ryan and signed free agent running back Michael Turner and those two moves alone might have been the best any team made before this year. Grade: A-

Biggest surprise: Ryan. Yeah, it's tough to call a guy who was drafted third overall a surprise. But nobody could have pictured Ryan being this good this fast. The quarterback had to take on the job of being the face of a franchise and playing right away and he did it flawlessly. The Falcons didn't have to dumb-down their playbook. In fact, they opened it all the way and kept adding to it. None of that slowed down Ryan, who became the best rookie quarterback since Dan Marino.

Biggest disappointment: Jamaal Anderson. The second-year defensive end wasn't able to generate a pass rush even as opposing offensive lines devoted all their resources to trying to slow down John Abraham. Anderson still has great physical tools and the Falcons aren't quite ready to give up on him. But they'll bring in another pass rusher and, if Anderson doesn't show something by the start of next season, he could be on his way out.

Biggest need: Without a name player, other than veteran safety Lawyer Milloy, the Atlanta secondary had a shockingly good year after unloading cornerback DeAngelo Hall. But that's more a tribute to coaching and Abraham's pass rush than the personnel. The Falcons need to upgrade here because Milloy is near the end of his career. Cornerback Chris Houston came on nicely and Domonique Foxworth showed he can be a solid third corner. But the Falcons can use another starter at cornerback and a play-making safety.

Tip to Mike Smith: You ran the heck out of Turner this year and got fantastic results. But you can't run any running back nearly 400 times a season and expect him to hold up for long. Sure, Turner's the centerpiece of your offense, but you need to go a little easier on his workload next year. Either give Jerious Norwood some more carries or add another running back.

Carolina Panthers (12-4)
Coach John Fox entered the season on the hot seat. Now, he's as safe as any coach in the league. The Panthers are in the playoffs and they did that by getting back to Fox's basic style of running the ball consistently on offense and stopping the run on defense (aside from in the loss to New York). Carolina's as solid as any team in the NFL and could go a long way in the playoffs. Fox and general manager Marty Hurney took some big chances by not bringing in a proven alternative to quarterback Jake Delhomme, who was coming off major elbow surgery, and by trading back into the first round to draft right tackle Jeff Otah. Their moves worked out solidly and that's why they're off the hot seat. Grade: A-

Biggest surprise: There was a school of thought that the Panthers would immediately hand the starting running back job to top draft pick Jonathan Stewart and forget about DeAngelo Williams. They didn't. They made Williams, who hadn't done a lot in his first two seasons, the starter and he produced huge numbers.

Biggest disappointment: Carolina fans got all excited when the Panthers signed receiver D.J. Hackett. As it turned out, they could have just kept Keary Colbert and Drew Carter around because they got virtually nothing out of Hackett, who fell behind veteran Muhsin Muhammad and second-year pro Dwayne Jarrett.

Biggest need: Despite a solid season from Muhammad, the Panthers will continue their annual search for a complement to No. 1 receiver Steve Smith. Muhammad's getting older and can't do it forever and there's no guarantee Jarrett is ready for a larger role.

Tip to John Fox: Don't change. You've taken heat for being stubborn. But that's why you stuck with Delhomme and gave Williams the first crack at the running back job.