-The Panthers went back to what made them so successful a couple seasons ago, and that was the power running game. With the drafting of Jonathan Stewart and Jeff Otah in the first round, as well as the emergence of former first round pick, DeAngelo Williams, John Fox and the Panthers were able to execute this strategy. The Panthers defense played somewhat respectably as well, but it was not in the top ten in any major defensive category. Jake Delhomme also contributed to their bounce back year, as he looked as good as ever, after coming off Tommy John surgery. The Panthers face a tough offseason, though, and must deal with two of their top players entering free agency. They also will be without a first round pick this April, after moving up to select Jeff Otah.
-OT Jordan Gross: is one of the premier offensive lineman free agents this spring, with his ability to play both tackle positions, but Panthers may elect to franchise him so he won’t hit the open market.
-DE Julius Peppers: another premier free agent, but on the defensive side of the ball. Peppers reverted back to his normal double-digit sack numbers, and will be looking for a big pay day. Panthers will likely do everything they can to keep him.
Needs: OL, WR, CB, DT
-If the Panthers do in fact lose Jordan Gross, they will be left with a huge hole at one of their offensive tackle positions. Jeff Otah is capable of filling in for Gross on the left side, but that then creates a hole at RT. Even if the Panthers do bring back Gross, my guess is it will be through the franchise tag, because Peppers is more of a priority, so they should bring in some depth in case he holds out, or leaves the following year.
The inside of the line was great this season, but it could benefit from some added depth, as they are a little thin there. Also, with Mushin Muhammed only having a couple more effective years left, and D.J. Hackett possibly getting cut, the Panthers may look to add another receiver. They still aren’t exactly sure what they have yet in Dwayne Jarrett, but he has been inconsistent, and maybe a position battle would fire him up.
-The Panthers were smart to lock up Chris Gamble, but they still need someone who can play on the opposite side of him. Ken Lucas looks like he may be done with the team, and he wasn’t that impressive this season to begin with, so look for this to be an area of concern this offseason. Another need for this team is at the defensive tackle position. The Panthers were torched on the ground in their battle against the Giants for home field throughout the postseason earlier this season, although they were missing run stuffer Maake Kemouateau. Still, this is an area that is concerning, and they may even look to add a pass rushing DT to help Peppers and co. in pressuring the QB.
-What a season it was for the Atlanta Falcons, after so much controversy and disappointment in their last few seasons. First year head coach, Mike Smith, was named coach of the year, and rookie QB, Matt Ryan, took home rookie of the year honors. Not to mention, they made the playoffs, posting an impressive 11-5 mark. They also struck gold with their free agent signing, Michael Turner who was one of the top running backs in the NFL this season, and made the Pro Bowl.
They now have a solid core on which to build upon going into the future, and the good thing about having so many young players, is that they are only going to get better. The playoff berth should also help in the maturity of their young players, and being there so early in some of the players careers, should really help them if they are to return in future years. The Falcons have a very bright future, and should be a team to lookout for going forward.
-OG Harvey Dahl: not really starting material, and may be let go if he wants too much money; may sign him for depth though.
-LB Michael Boley: has been a solid starter for the Falcons, and it has surprised me that they haven’t offered him an extension yet. He is young too, so this tells me that either they aren’t that impressed with him, or he wants to see what he could get on the open market. He would be a big loss, considering that they will most likely let Keith Brooking go as well.
-SS Lawyer Milloy: has been a solid veteran presence and leader for this defense, but he just doesn’t have it anymore. Falcons will look to get younger and faster at this position.
Needs: TE, OL, SS, OLB, DT
-With all respect to Justin Peele, he is not much of a receiving threat and is not a very good blocker either. A receiving tight end would make the offense even more special than it already is, and I think would greatly aid Matt Ryan. The offensive line got pushed around in Arizona, and I think they need to find some more physical guys inside. Their tackles are very good, but Weiner is old, so they could use some depth, same as at center.
-As mentioned earlier, the Falcons will be looking for a new starting SS this offseason, as they don’t really have anyone on the roster who can start there. Keith Brooking showed the whole league that he is over the hill in their playoff loss to the Cardinals. He is as good as gone, and it looks as though Michael Boley might not return either. OLB will definitely be an area that the Falcons will look to address, either through the draft or free agency. Finally, Grady Jackson is a massive presence inside, but he has lost a step, and isn’t as effective as he used to be. Look for the Falcons to maybe part ways with him, and try to find another mammoth nose tackle for their line, to stuff the run.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
-The Bucs suffered a late season collapse, and the defense especially, played horribly down the stretch. It has already been speculated that the poor defensive play was a direct result of defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffen, announcing that he would be joining his son at the University of Tennessee next season.
Who knows if this is the truth, but all I know is that the Bucs missed the postseason, and must do something to get back on track for next year. Losing Kiffen will be a huge blow, but there are people on his staff that know the defense, and shouldn’t have any problem taking over for him. There is also the question of who is going to play quarterback for them next season. Jeff Garcia is an unrestricted free agent, and I can’t see him coming back after the reported problems he and head coach Jon Gruden had this season. Tampa Bay is a veteran team, so it will be interesting to see which older players will stay, and which ones they will try to replace.
-QB Jeff Garcia: I can’t see him coming back, but he will more than likely be offered an opportunity to start somewhere else. Could possibly retire, but I still think he has a lot left in the tank.
-WR Antonio Bryant: had a fantastic season, and was in the mix for comeback player of the year. He will be locked up to a long term deal, as he says that he feels at home in Tampa.
-WR Michael Clayton: still has yet to reproduce the success he had in his rookie season. His time as a Buccaneer might be coming to a close.
-DL Kevin Carter: may retire, might still play, but I am quite confident that his days in Tampa are over.
-CB Philip Buchanon: rookie Aqib Talib was impressive in his first season, and will most likely have Buchanon’s job as the starter next season. He could stay on as a nickel if his pride can handle it.
-SS Jermaine Phillips: may be brought back on a short term deal to prove that he can string two solid years together. He would draw a lot of suitors if he does hit free agency.
Needs: TE, WR, QB, DL, LB
-A good receiving tight end would be welcomed in Jon Gruden’s west coast offense, as they just haven’t received enough production from Alex Smith. Antonio Bryant had an excellent season, but besides him they don’t really have too many options. Clayton is most likely gone, and that leaves the older Joey Galloway, who had serious injury concerns this year, and unproven second rounder Dexter Jackson, as well as Ike Hilliard, who is also old. Jon Gruden seems to always be developing his next QB prodigy, and that looks to be Josh Johnson as of now. When he will be ready to play is anyone’s guess, but they might need to find a starter for next season, or go back to Brian Griese.
-Besides Gaines Adams, the defensive line is old, and they haven’t really done much to decrease the average age of the unit, other than the aforementioned Adams. With Kevin Carter probably gone, they could use another player with his kind of versatility along the line. As well, another defensive tackle would help this unit a lot. The LB corps has always been a strength of the Bucs, but it was awful in the closing weeks of the season, although you could contribute that to a number of positions on the defense. Derrick Brooks isn’t getting any younger, though, so they need to find his successor sooner rather than later.
New Orleans Saints:
-Although the Saints were last in their division, they did finish a respectable 8-8, but that isn’t going to cut it after such high expectations entering this year. Sean Payton is definitely going to be feeling the heat this offseason, and next season as well, for that matter. Even with Drew Brees passing for over 5,000 yards and having an outstanding season, the Saints couldn’t make a run at the postseason. Their defense should be the main focus of this offseason, and once again, the secondary will come into question, as well as the linebackers. This should not be a .500 team, and their fan base will certainly expect better next season.
-WR Devery Henderson: made some big plays down the field, but will most likely not be brought back. The Saints already have Marques Colston inked to a big deal, and will most likely be re signing Lance Moore. With the young Robert Meachem on the roster as well, that doesn’t leave any room for Henderson.
-OT Jon Stinchcomb: has done a nice job in pass protection, as well as opening holes for Pierre Thomas when he had his big games down the stretch. The Saints might believe that Carl Nicks is the future at that position, though.
-LB Jonathan Vilma: you have to believe that the Saints will do everything they can to bring Vilma back. He led the team in tackles and was a difference maker for that defense.
Needs: RB, LB, SS, CB, DL
-I am unsure of what Sean Payton has planned for the running game next season, but it looks more and more like Deuce McCallister will not be back. Reggie Bush had some very good games, and has shown excellent return abilities, but was banged up for a long period. Pierre Thomas really took advantage of his opportunities, and had some big games down the stretch. The Saints have to figure out how to divide the carries next season, but one thing is for sure, and that is that Thomas is a more complete back than Bush is. With McCallister out of the picture, though, the Saints may look to bring in a power back to fill the role that McCallister once had.
-There are some good players on this defense, but they get in shootouts to often, and seem to give up the big play too often. If this unit could start getting stops, it wouldn’t put so much pressure on Brees to score as many points as possible. OLB might be the biggest need on this unit, as Vilma is the only really good tackler out of this group, and they need some guys who can make more plays sideline to sideline. In the secondary, SS is definitely a concern, and the Saints should be actively looking for someone to replace Roman Harper.
Cornerback still seems to be an issue in New Orleans, and they are still looking for someone who can shut down an opponent’s best receiver. Sedrick Ellis was a nice pick up for them in the draft, and Bobby McCray was a surprise, while Will Smith had a nice season. However, Charles Grant has been a huge disappointment since he signed that big contract extension, and they could still use another defensive tackle.