There has been some major turnover in this division during the off-season, between Tampa Bay going spend-crazy in free agency and the Saints dealing with ‘Bountygate’. Atlanta and Carolina will be looking to feature strongly during the season and let their play do the talking.
This could be an interesting division to watch during the 2012 season, and it has some interesting battles we’re going to focus on for training camp.
The Players: Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson
The Battle: Brent Grimes has become the stud in the Atlanta secondary. Grimes is an excellent cover corner who is extremely tough to pass against, while holding his own in the run game even if he is no star in that regard. Dunta Robinson was the big free agent acquisition a few seasons ago but he has never really regained the form he had before injuries hit while in Houston. Though Grimes was able to end the year with a +16.0 grade, Robinson was left languishing with a grade of -11.6, and that number is actually helped by his play against the run. In coverage terms alone he was even worse than that figure suggests. The Falcons have been trying to give Robinson the chance to regain his pre-injury form, but they couldn’t turn down the opportunity to get Asante Samuel when presented with it this offseason.
While Robinson was beaten for 17.1 yards per completion last season, Grimes was surrendering just 10.3 per catch, and Samuel eclipsed both players with a 10.2 yards per catch mark and better coverage numbers across the board. Samuel has always been an elite coverage corner, and a ball hawk that can change games with his break on the ball. Unfortunately, he has also always been more of a liability as a tackler, especially in the run game. That said, with stopping the pass becoming more and more crucial to winning in the NFL, he made sense for the Falcons
The Verdict: There’s no doubting that Robinson has talent, but the question becomes whether he can ever recover the lost form he had before getting hurt. At this stage the bad habits he developed when recovering may be too far ingrained to change, and in Samuel he faces a legitimate threat to his job. In the end Samuel is far too good a player to be kept off the field by Robinson, who will have to drop to the nickel package and ply his trade from the slot for this season, where his hard-hitting style might be best suited.
The Players: Captain Munnerlyn and Brandon Hogan
The Battle: Chris Gamble may be one of the better corners in the NFL but the Panthers have been unable to get a serious complement to him on the other side of the field, and the player that has had that duty as of late, Captain Munnerlyn, is in danger of losing his job this offseason to Brandon Hogan.
The contrast in numbers between Gamble and Munnerlyn are stark. While Gamble allowed just 45% of targets to be completed last season, Munnerlyn was allowing 73.8%, for twice as many touchdowns and almost twice as many yards. Similarly, Gamble picked off three passes and got his hands to another seven to break them up, while Munnerlyn was blanked in the pick column and could get his hands to break up only four passes. Quarterbacks throwing at Gamble had a rating of just 53.3, while on just one more target they had a rating of 126.9 when throwing at Munnerlyn instead.
Essentially Munnerlyn opened himself up to competition with his play and that competition comes in the form of Brandon Hogan, who saw just 57 snaps last season as a rookie. The West Virginia product figures to be given a shot to supplant Munnerlyn in camp and win the starting job.
The Verdict: Munnerlyn has the edge in experience but unfortunately for him much of that experience is negative. Hogan figures to be given a shot to prove he can be the guy to start, but if he can’t step up and take it Munnerlyn will likely win the job by default. I think Hogan will emerge as the starter.
Position: Outside Linebacker
The Players: Scott Shanle and Chris Chamberlain
The Battle: It’s fair to say that Gregg Williams’ defensive schemes have never really helped out his linebackers. In addition to whatever bounty-related mess he has got them into, his hyper-aggressive calls always led to linebackers being asked to do things they never had a prayer of successfully achieving. That being said, I’m not sure Scott Shanle would have come out of the past few seasons in any scheme looking good. His -14.0 grade from 2011 represented the fourth consecutive time he scored in negative double-digits for the season. Furthermore, he managed just a single sack and eight pressures despite being sent on the blitz a massive 198 times by Williams last year.
The Saints went on a major linebacker shopping spree this offseason, bringing in three of them during free agency. Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne figure to slot straight in as starters, but the third, Chris Chamberlain has a battle on his hands to topple Shanle from his spot on the depth chart. In truth, Chamberlain looks made for the two-down role in that defense. He scored well (+4.7) last season against the run, but struggled in coverage the 34 times he was targetted. Lofton and Hawthorne are both capable of playing on all three downs, so Chamberlain would be a logical upgrade against the run who would be pulled from the field when the Saints go to nickel packages.
The Verdict: For some reason the Saints don’t seem to be willing or able to sit Shanle down. Maybe he’s a great team guy, and a fantastic presence in practice and meeting rooms, but he just doesn’t play well enough to keep his job. Chamberlain earned a spot with his play last season and if this comes down to merit on the field and nothing else, the job should be his to lose.
Position: Running back
The Players: Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount
The Battle: I’m a big fan of LeGarrette Blount as a runner. His problem is a similar one to the issue Adrian Peterson had for a while with the Vikings, in that he is something of a third wheel when it comes to the pass game. The Bucs didn’t trust Blount enough last season to have him pass-protecting when they were throwing the ball, and he didn’t bring enough as a receiver to warrant a spot out in routes either. This limited him to him just 401 snaps on the season, not many more than Kregg Lumpkin.
This time Blount finds himself in a competition with Doug Martin, the Bucs’ first-round pick of the draft. The traits that Martin brings to the table speak volumes for the prospects of Blount, and suggest the attitude of the new coaching staff will be much like the old one in this regard. Martin was seen as one of the most complete running backs in the draft, with a skill set that brings value to all facets of the game. He is a player that should be capable of playing on all three downs, something Blount has yet to demonstrate. The good news for Bloutn is that new coach Greg Schiano loves to run the ball, and has made it clear that Tampa Bay will be doing lots of if this season. In an age where running is done by committee, Blount should still see plenty of action, even if he is no longer the starter.
The Verdict: Though Blount may still view himself as the starter, if he has any serious designs on that spot he needs to work on his skills in the pass game like crazy before camp opens, because that is what is going to determine whether he gets the job. There are few players that can do the damage Blount can with the ball in his hands, but Martin brings a more complete package and gives the Buccaneers more flexibility on an every-down basis. Martin figures to start, with Blount getting carries during the year spelling him and maybe in short yardage and goal line situations.