1. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is 35 and running on fumes. Undrafted free agent Michael Palmer and 34 year-old blocking TE Reggie Kelly are obviously not long-term answers. In just four seasons with the Falcons, GM Thomas Dimitroff has assembled an enviable roster through bold free agency and draft moves, so expect him to aggressively address perhaps the only weakness in the lineup with a potential free agent like John Carlson or a second-round prospect like Missouri’s Michael Egnew.
2. Defensive end LDE Ray Edwards isn’t going anywhere for a while, but RDE John Abraham is 33 and in his contract year. Atlanta will likely extend Abraham, but with Kroy Biermann also in a contract year and guys like Chauncey Davis and Lawrence Sidbury proven to be nothing more than backups, the Falcons may want to invest their second-round pick in a potential heir to Abraham like Clemson’s rangy Andre Branch, who could be ready to emerge from DaQuan Bowers’ shadow with a splashy Senior year.
3. Defensive tackle The Falcons’ run defense was regularly gashed last season. Relatively undersized guys like Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Vance Walker give you an honest day’s work, but none of them is special. This will be the last season for former first-rounder Peria Jerry to prove that a devastating knee injury hasn’t ruined his career. Atlanta could look to get more stout up the middle with a potential 2012 free agent like Antonio Garay (320 lbs.) or Paul Soliai (355 lbs.). Washington’s Alameda Ta’amu (330 lbs.) could be a tempting second-round option in the 2012 NFL Draft if he’s available.
4. Running back The Falcons may have a tough decision to make at this position come 2012. Do they stick with Pro Bowler Michael Turner, who hits the fabled 30 years-old milestone in February and whose heavy workload over the last three seasons could catch up to him at any time, or do they hand the baton to backup Jason Snelling, who’s in his prime at 27, has plenty of tread left on the tires and has given every indication that he could be a versatile, high-level starter if given the chance (much like Turner when he was with San Diego)? Snelling should be in fairly high demand after he plays out his one-year contract this season, so it’s doubtful that Atlanta can afford to keep both guys around in 2012, especially since exciting rookie third-down back “Jazz” Rodgers has been turning heads since arriving on the scene and may be in line to earn more cabbage in the near future. Mike Mularkey likes to wear down defenses with a deep stable of runners, so look for the Falcons to invest a late-round pick in an intriguing prospect like Illinois’ Jason Ford, USC’s Marc Tyler or UCLA’s Derrick Coleman to serve as the potential third RB should Turner or Snelling move on.
1. Cornerback Many would identify defensive tackle or wide receiver as the Panthers’ weakest position, but I have to go with cornerback. Ron Rivera’s aggressive defensive scheme demands a surplus of high-end corners (remember first-rounders Jammer, Cromartie and Cason in San Diego?). Right now, the starters are Captain Munnerlyn (great name, but better suited as a nickel at 5-8) and Chris Gamble, who was last seen licking his wounds after being tortured by rookie A.J. Green in a preseason match-up against the Bengals. Gamble was awful in 2010 and it looks like it will be more of the same in ’11. His performance simply doesn’t match his $ 6.5 million price tag and he should be gone by next season. When you’re in a division with three legit franchise QBs and targets like Roddy White, Julio Jones, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore, Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, cornerback must be a high-priority position. It’s a safe bet that Carolina will be selecting near the top of the 2012 NFL Draft, so stud corners Dre Kirkpatrick and Stephon Gilmore will be given strong consideration.
2. Wide receiver The Panthers are a conservative organization that took a risk in appointing Cam Newton, a prospect with more than a few red flags, the face of the franchise. Jerry Richardson and Marty Hurney simply can’t afford for Newton to be a bust, so surrounding him with multiple, high-level weapons to increase his chances of success will be a top priority. Adding young TE Greg Olsen to provide the rookie QB with a reliable safety valve and red-zone target was a nice move, but more firepower is needed for the passing attack. Steve Smith’s career is winding down and Brandon LaFell appears to be no better than a #2 or #3 option on the outside, so South Carolina’s monsterous Alshon Jeffery could prove too enticing to pass up if he’s on the board when the Panthers make their first-round selection next April. Looking ahead to the 2012 NFL Draft, I’d be surprised if the Panthers’ first-round pick was any player other than Jeffery, Kirkpatrick or Gilmore.
3. Defensive tackle The Panthers’ DTs were awful last season and the position is definitely a weakness going into the 2011 season, but the young trio of Corvey Irvin, Terrell McClain and Sione Fua represents some light at the end of the tunnel. Sure, there will be some growing pains this year, but if the kids show signs of fulfilling the potential that prompted Carolina to invest three recent third-round picks in them, I don’t expect DT to be a high-priority position in the 2012 NFL Draft. For now, this is a wait-and-see need.
4. Defensive end Base end Charles Johnson is the Panthers’ most effective lineman and locked up long-term, but RDE Everette Brown has been a major disappointment since Carolina invested a first-rounder in him two years ago. Greg Hardy, a sixth-round pick in 2010, recently moved ahead of Brown on the depth chart. That doesn’t bode well for Brown’s future in Carolina beyond 2011. Despite his humble NFL beginnings, Hardy has flashed big-time talent and could ultimately prove to be a Draft Day steal, so I’ll give it a season before labeling RDE as a priority need.
New Orleans Saints
1. Offensive line The Saints should field a solid unit this season, but there are some questions. Jermon Bushrod is shaky at LT and new C Olin Kreutz is 34. Second-year guys Charles Brown and Matt Tennant were drafted with the hopes that they’d contend for starting jobs at those positions as early as this season, but both have been slow to develop. Former backup OT Zach Strief has been handed the starting gig at RT with the release of Jon Stinchcomb, depleting valuable depth. Drew Brees is 6-0/209 and his escapability has been compromised by age and injury, so it’s essential to the Saints’ Super Bowl aspirations that his protection be air-tight. New Orleans should be proactive in addressing any potential cracks in the foundation of the O-line during the 2012 offseason, so don’t be surprised to see them use their first pick in the Draft (a second-rounder) on a potential starter like Ohio State’s Mike Adams or Florida State’s Andrew Datko. A late-round pick or two could be invested in even more young depth.
2. Weakside linebacker Scott Shanle is a reliable, versatile vet, but he’s approaching his 10th season. His relative lack of athleticism leaves him little margin for error, so losing a half-step to age could mean a drastic drop-off in effectiveness. The Saints would like to see speedy Jonathan Casillas establish himself at WLB, but he can’t stay healthy. Oklahoma’s Travis Lewis and Miami’s Sean Spence are athletic weakside-types who could conceivably slip to the mid-to-late second round of the 2012 NFL Draft due to injury and character concerns.
3. Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis is a beastly interior pass-rusher at RDT, but Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin are short-term solutions at LDT. Clemson’s Brandon Thompson is a versatile, 4-3 run-plugger who could be available in the second or third round and would fit this scheme.
4. Wide receiver With Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore and Robert Meachem in the fold, WR is currently a team strength, but 2012 free agency could potentially change all of that with Colston and Meachem set to hit the open market. I doubt that the Saints will keep both, especially considering the contract recently given to Moore. There could be a few teams willing to invest in Meachem’s upside and pay him like a #1 WR, in which case the Saints would be unlikely to match. Colston is more likely to stay put, but if he doesn’t get a contract extension during the season and avoids the Franchise tag (very possible with OG Carl Nicks and CB Tracy Porter also due to be free agents), who knows?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1. Offensive line Donald Penn and Davin Joseph are keepers at LT and RG, respectively, but the Bucs may look for upgrades at the other three O-
line positions to keep the smashmouth running game humming and franchise QB Josh Freeman upright. Ted Larson was surprisingly solid at LG after being waived by the Patriots, so he gets a pass for now, but C Jeff Faine and RT Jeremy Trueblood are on very shaky ground. Faine is aging, expensive and injury-prone, and Trueblood just doesn’t cut it in a division that features top-notch LDEs Charles Johnson, Ray Edwards and (potentially) Cameron Jordan. Tampa Bay could pull the trigger on a mid-to-late first round prospect like C Mike Brewster or OT Riley Reiff in the 2012 NFL Draft.
2. Tight end Kellen Winslow’s old-man knees are becoming a huge concern in Tampa Bay. He’s still only 28 and as talented as they come, but I’m not sure if his hefty contract jives with the injury risk or his 2010 production. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bucs try to dump him off on a team searching for a TE after this season. (Receptionist: “May I help you?” GM Mark Dominik: “Hi. I’d like to speak to Al Davis, please.”) Rookie fourth-rounder Luke Stocker has all of the physical tools, but was unproductive at Tennessee. The Bucs could sniff around a prospect like Oregon’s David Paulson, Stanford’s Coby Fleener or Louisiana-Lafayette’s Ladarius Green next April.
3. Free safety Veteran thumper Sean Jones was decent at SS last season, but he’s heading into his ninth year and free agency in 2012, so the Bucs could be inclined to move current FS Cody Grimm closer to the line, where he could serve as a poor-man’s John Lynch in the Tampa-2 scheme. Looking at Tampa Bay’s depth chart, there really isn’t a true centerfielder at safety. A rangy ball-magnet like Alabama’s Robert Lester would be a nice fit if the Bucs choose to address the position in the first round of the ’12 NFL Draft. Otherwise, Virginia Tech’s Eddie Whitley and Wisconsin’s Aaron Henry (a big-play artist and Florida native) could be options down the line.
4. Dynamic, third-down runner/receiver/returner The Bucs have no problem bullying defenses with 247 lb. battering-ram LeGarrette Blount toting the rock or the big, physical duo of Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn out wide, but the addition of an explosive, Dexter Mccluster-type to create mismatches in space and keep defenses off balance would add some diversity to Greg Olson’s somewhat vanilla attack. Oregon’s LaMichael James could reprise the “thunder and lightning” act with former teammate Blount in Tampa Bay should the electrifying runner declare for the 2012 NFL Draft. Florida speedster Jeff Demps is another guy who can break some ankles in the open field and could be available in the third-to-fourth round.