- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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The NFC South might be the only division in the NFL with four franchise quarterbacks, assuming Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman can be just a little more consistent.
When Freeman is on his game, he joins Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Carolina’s Cam Newton to give the division four high-octane offenses. In recent years, defense has become something of a lost art in the NFC South. But that may be about to change.
The division-wide theme to the 2013 NFL draft was to load up on defense, even to a point where it looked like teams were overcompensating at what had been problem spots.
Carolina used its first two picks on defensive tackles (Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short). Atlanta used its first two picks on cornerbacks (Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford). Even after trading for cornerback Darrelle Revis, Tampa Bay used its first pick on cornerback Johnthan Banks. And New Orleans, the league’s worst defense last season, used its first pick on safety Kenny Vaccaro.
Will that be enough to shut down Ryan, Brees, Newton and Freeman? Probably not. But all four NFC South defenses suddenly got better over the past few days.
This wasn’t a flashy draft for the division. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Teams focused on the basics, and no team did a better job of that than Carolina.
New general manager Dave Gettleman apparently believes that everything starts up front. His selection of Lotulelei was a stroke of intelligence and a little bit of luck. By all rights, Lotulelei shouldn’t have been available at No. 14. Just a few months ago, people were talking about him as perhaps the No. 1 overall pick.
But a pre-draft medical scare caused Lotulelei’s stock to fall. He checked out fine medically, and I’m sure the Panthers did plenty of homework on his health situation. They ended up getting the best defensive tackle in the draft. Put Lotulelei in a rotation with Short and Dwan Edwards, and defensive tackle suddenly becomes a strength for Carolina. With the infusion of talent in the middle of the line, a Carolina front seven that’s good everywhere else could become a real force.
I’m not knocking the Saints’ selection of Vaccaro. He has a great skill set, and he’s going to make a secondary that needed help much better. But I do have to question the wisdom of taking a safety with their first pick.
New Orleans is in the process of switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme. That means you have to have the right personnel for the 3-4, and I’m not sure the Saints have that. The key to a 3-4 scheme is having an edge pass-rusher. The Saints could have had outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who was a productive rusher in college, at No. 15, but they passed on him and took Vaccaro. That was New Orleans’ one big chance to get a pass-rusher because the Saints have been limited as to what they were able to do in free agency by the salary cap.
Maybe Victor Butler, Martez Wilson and Junior Galette will provide a strong pass rush. But they’re all unknown commodities. If the pass rush doesn’t make an impact, life isn’t going to be easy for Vaccaro and the secondary.
MOST SURPRISING MOVE
Immediately after the season ended, Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano talked about how he wanted to bring in someone to compete with Freeman for the starting job. That caused a bit of a stir in Tampa Bay, but the coach backed away from that statement several times, saying he simply meant he wants to improve the competition at all positions. In other words, Freeman is the starter as he heads into a contract year.
But Schiano, who wasn’t around when Freeman was drafted, opened the way for a quarterback controversy the first time Freeman struggles by drafting NC State quarterback Mike Glennon in the third round. The Bucs had more pressing needs, such as tight end and depth on the defensive line, at that point in the draft.
Yet they took Glennon, who might have stuck around for another round or two. Freeman still is the starter, and maybe everything will work out fine for him. But he suddenly is on a short leash. Schiano now has a quarterback that he drafted and could turn to if Freeman has a few bad games.
FILE IT AWAY
Stanford tight end Levine Toilolo, taken by the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth round, can be a better NFL player than his draft position and college numbers would indicate. Toilolo was overshadowed by Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz.
In 2010, Toilolo beat out both of them for the starting job. That lasted for only one game as Toilolo suffered a knee injury in the first game of the season. He came back but took on a secondary role.
He doesn’t stand out as a receiver or a blocker, but he’s decent in both areas and has lots of upside. Toilolo could be coming into an ideal situation in Atlanta. He’ll get to learn from Tony Gonzalez for a year. After that, Toilolo could become the starter.
I’m not saying he’ll turn into the second coming of Gonzalez. But Atlanta has so many other offensive weapons that Toilolo could end up being a productive tight end.