By Jimmy Espy
The Atlanta Falcons weren’t the only NFC South team making key offseason moves.
The following is a look at what the Birds’ three division opponents did and didn’t accomplish since the end of last season.
The Panthers’ biggest success was getting left tackle Jordan Gross signed to a long contract, which allowed them to franchise star defensive end Julius Peppers, who recently signed a one-year contract.
That was huge for Carolina as Peppers is one of the most talented ends in football and the team’s only proven pass rusher.
The Panthers went after another pass rusher with their top pick in the draft. They took Florida State end Everett Brown. Brown is smallish and may wind up at linebacker, but he has a strong college pedigree.
Not so impressive was the team’s next pick, defensive back Sherrod Martin. He’ll get a look at cornerback and safety. The Panthers added depth with their third-round pick (Georgia defensive tackle Corey Irvin) and their first fourth-rounder, running back Mike Goodson. Neither is expected to start right away, but the team would love to see Irvin step up and be their third tackle.
Carolina’s second fourth-rounder may turn out to be their best pick. Don’t be surprised if fullback Tony Fiammetta quickly moves into a starting role.
For a playoff team, the Panthers went into the offseason with a lot of needs and only some were filled.
They could still use a better weapon at tight end, a talented, young wide receiver to push veteran Mushin Muhammad and as much defensive depth as they can find.
Carolina is built to pound you with the running game and they should be able to do that, but to win big they need more help at the receiving positions.
The biggest offseason question mark for Saints fans was who is going to be the workhorse running back this year. That question has yet to be answered.
Deuce McCallister was released because of injuries and Reggie Bush looks a lot more like a third-down type than a ground pounder. Pierre Thomas looked good in a limited role last year and Mike Bell was brought in from Denver. None of these men look like The Answer, but that didn’t keep New Orleans from ignoring running back in the early rounds of the draft.
Granted, the Saints secondary was a mess too and that’s where New Orleans used its first-rounder. The Saints drafted Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, whose lack of blazing speed might send him to safety.
If Jenkins can play cornerback, his selection makes sense. But if the Saints used a No. 1 pick for a safety while letting several top running backs go by, they’ll suffer.
The Saints had two more picks in the first four rounds. They took safety Chip Vaughn and linebacker Stanley Arnoux. They could have done better than Vaughn, but Arnoux was a good pick. Unfortunately, he is already hurt and out for the year.
The Saints didn’t have enough ammunition in the offseason to address all their problems. They remain in need of outside linebackers, a starting defensive tackle and depth at wide receiver and tight end.
But the big questions remain, who will get the most totes at running back and does Malcolm Jenkins give them a cornerback around whom they can rebuild their secondary?
New coach Raheem Morris wanted a young quarterback to build and selected big Josh Freeman in the first round.
Freeman could start pretty quickly and, if he does, he should benefit from moves made by the Bucs front office.
First, Tampa Bay resigned wide receiver Antonio Bryant and then traded for talented tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. If those two stay mentally and physically fit they provide good firepower.
The Bucs also used free agency well, snatching productive running back Derrick Ward from the Giants. He’ll try to bolster a backfield that includes injury-plagued Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham.
The Bucs also signed a good defensive player. Outside linebacker Angelo Crowell should start if he is sufficiently recovered from a severe injury that knocked him out last season.
The only other player the Bucs got in the first four rounds of the draft was third-rounder Roy Miller, a talented defensive tackle from Texas. He should earn a spot in the rotation.
The Bucs made some interesting acquisitions but rolled the dice somewhat in terms of durability. Crowell and Winslow both missed almost all of 2008. Bryant and the other starting wideout, Michael Clayton, were healthy but neither is known for his season-to-season consistency.
Tampa Bay could also use an heir apparent to aging corner Ronde Barber and at least two more good defensive linemen. Despite signing Crowell, they need more help at outside linebacker, where they are taking about moving veteran safety (and former Georgia standout) Jermaine Phillips.
Look for them to try and pound the ball behind a young, talented line and get better as Freeman develops.
Jimmy Espy is managing editor of The Daily Citizen.