The NFC South. The Saints couldn’t dominate like they had, Atlanta became a ruthlessly efficient machine of a team and Carolina fell victim to the worst quarterback play since the last time I tried to throw a deep out. And then there were those young Buccaneers, who very nearly made it into the playoffs as they grew game by game.
It wasn’t exactly the NFC South we’d expected. Take us here at Pro Football Focus. We talked about the strength of this division being their middle linebackers given how well they all played this year. Now, as we look at guys who regressed for each team, three of the four candidates are those very same inside linebackers. Meanwhile, we were pleasantly surprised by a cornerback we wasn’t sure would get the start, a defensive end who learned to defend the run and a linebacker who went from backup nobody, to playmaking somebody.
Moving On Up: CB Brent Grimes (-3.7 to +9.0)
Narrowly edging out the improving Justin Blalock, Grimes built on the flashes of good play in ’09 with some excellent displays this year. So much so that it earned him a spot on our NFC Pro Bowl team, as the former undrafted free agent outplayed expensive off-season acquisition Dunta Robinson. Grimes got his hands to more balls than any other cornerback this year with 21 (five interceptions and 16 pass breakups). That’s playmaking.
Had a Bad Year: LB Curtis Lofton (+9.7 to -10.0)
In becoming a genuine three-down linebacker, Lofton appeared to have lost some of the intensity that made him one of the best run stuffing middle linebackers in the league. It wasn’t anything that numbers would pick up, with Lofton making and missing a similar number of tackles, but Lofton had particular difficulty with linemen getting to the second level. Once a strength, he looked a shadow of the player we saw in his first two years even if he didn’t look anywhere near as lost in coverage.
Give This Guy More Snaps: DT Peria Jerry (+1.6 in 218 snaps)
There isn’t really a candidate for this category on a Falcons team that got their best players on the field. So Jerry is the obvious guy to go with, as a former first round talent on his way back from an injury that took away nearly all of his rookie year. The former Ole Miss DT had flashes as a situational rusher, but with Atlanta using three-man lines there was rarely a chance for him to build on the 11 QB disruptions he produced.
Moving On Up: LB James Anderson (+1.3 to +14.1)
Anderson was by no means terrible in 2009, but he had the look of a guy who would do a solid job and no more. The type of guy that could come in and not let you down, but not someone you’d expect to make plays. And more plays. And then more plays. But that is what he did as he blitzed, blew up and breezed by blockers on his way to a real coming out year. Led the team in tackles, was second in sacks and graded in the green in all areas. The Panthers know how to make good linebackers.
Had a Bad Year: WR Steve Smith (+6.0 in 2009 to -7.7)
While the quarterback situation this year was terrible, it wasn’t exactly that much better in 2009 — so don’t lay all of Smith’s struggles in 2010 on the pass throwers. Seven more dropped passes and over 400 fewer yards says a lot about the guy who is becoming the “other Steve Smith.”
Give This Guy More Snaps: DT Andre Neblett (+3.9 in 152 snaps)
Carolina went into the year with a shortage of defensive tackles and as the year wore on that meant that Neblett got some playing time. The big rookie had some bad moments (giving up an offside penalty in his first snap versus Atlanta in Week 17) but looked like a run stuffer with some sizeable (pun intended) potential. If you don’t believe us, watch him go one-on-one versus Maurkice Pouncey or Todd McClure, and how many times Neblett he was able to collapse a running lane.
Moving On Up: DE Will Smith (-8.6 to +4.5)
It may seem odd that we have Smith rated stronger a year after he posted seven fewer sacks. But there is a method to the madness. In 2010, with nearly 100 fewer pass rushes, Smith only had four fewer total quarterback disruptions, and in 2009 no player got as much pressure unblocked as Smith did. Chalk it up to Gregg Williams if you will. Furthermore, Smith went from a complete liability in run defense on his way to winning a Super Bowl, to being average as a one and done in the playoffs. That’s progress.
Had a Bad Year: ILB Jonathan Vilma (+6.2 to -17.1)
We know there are legions of Jonathan Vilma fans out there. The guy does make plays. It’s part of the reason why fans have glossed over the fact that Jonathan Vilma isn’t the kind of guy to shed blocks on a regular basis. But this year, the guy I personally dubbed the best coverage middle linebacker in the league last year was anything but that. From allowing zero touchdowns, he gave up four. The amount of completed passes he gave up went up by over 12%. And after intercepting four balls and breaking up six more in 2009, those figures dropped to one of each and none after week four.
Give This Guy More Snaps: LB JoLonn Dunbar (+5.0 in 364 snaps)
It does surprise that year after year the Saint find room for Scott Shanle as an every-down player who appears to struggle in all regards — epecially when they had Danny Clark play so well as a two-down linebacker, and Dunbar do well whenever he was on the field. He added something to their run defense and made a couple of plays in pass coverage. It wasn’t an all world performance, but he’s already a better alternative than what it on the field at present.
Moving On Up: QB Josh Freeman (-2.0 to +42.1)
As a rookie Freeman showed he was an impressive athlete. As a sophomore Freeman showed he was so much more than that. Whether it was the fourth-quarter comebacks or shaking off defenders to turn negative plays into positive ones, Freeman delivered. What’s more, there’s room for improvement and given how he improved as the season went on, I wouldn’t bet it against it.
Had a Bad Year: LB Barrett Ruud (+4.6 to -13.3)
Nobody had concerns about Ruud after the 2009 season. He looked like a decent middle linebacker who could go sideline to sideline and make tackles, a player who wouldn’t let you down. So explain what player we saw this year? Arguably the weak spot on the Bucs defense, he was outplayed by the guys either side of him and had a particularly torturous first half of the season. No wonder Bucs fans have started to look at replacements.
Give This Guy More Snaps: WR Arrelious Benn (+7.6 in 360 snaps)
As if hitting a jackpot with Mike Williams wasn’t enough, Tampa has another guy coming through at the receiver ranks. Benn didn’t just make plays when he was thrown to, if you watched him when they ran you could see an extremely aggressive run blocker. It was peculiar that as a starter he didn’t see the field in nickel situations, but an increased role should see him expand on the 37 targets and 25 receptions he hauled in.