by John Huffstetler
Tampa Bay Bucs
Key Free Agents: RB LeGarrette Blount (Exclusive Rights), WR Preston Parker (Exclusive Rights), DE Michael Bennett (Restricted), RB Earnest Graham, G Jeremy Zuttah, LB Geno Hayes, CB Ronde Barber, CB Elbert Mack, S Sean Jones
The Bucs DT's were so ineffective following the injury to Gerald McCoy that they brought in the useless Albert Haynesworth (pictured to the right) and started him his first week with the team. Their gaping holes at this position contributed heavily to their lack of success in run defense, allowing 156.1 yards per game on the ground (32nd in the league). Even with McCoy returning next season, they could use another talented young player here to stabilize the position. Picking 5th in the draft, there may not be a player worth taking at DT, so they may have to wait until later in the draft or free agency.
Another CB Opposite Aqib Talib
Ronde Barber is now 36 years old and his best days are behind him. EJ Biggers is the most logical starting replacement on the roster, but he seems more suited for the nickel corner role. Taking a top line corner with the 5th pick in the draft makes sense because LSU CB Morris Claiborne should be available when they draft there. Since Talib is widely considered to be a "shut down" corner, solidifying the 2nd corner position would greatly strengthen the Bucs pass defense.
Depth at Linebacker
Continuing with the defensive theme, the Bucs could use at least two more warm bodies at linebacker. Geno Hayes is a free agent, and Quincy Black might be more effective in a reserve role. They could also use a backup for impressive rookie Mason Foster at MLB. Their offense is far from spectacular, but the Bucs and new coach Greg Schiano need to devote a large majority of their resources this offseason to the defensive side of the ball.
Key Free Agents: LB Dan Connor, WR Legedu Naanee, TE Jeremy Shockey, G Geoff Hangartner, DE Antwan Applewhite
Major injuries to key defensive starters at LB to Thomas Davis (3rd ACL tear- Career most likely over) and Jon Beason caused the Panthers struggles early in the season to stop anyone on the ground, but the defensive tackles did not help their cause by allowing opposing RB's to easily reach the second level. With no one stepping up to solidify the position, Head Coach Ron Rivera mainly platooned players attempting to keep fresh options on the field. The Panthers invested two 3rd rd picks last year on Defensive Tackles (Fua and McClain), but neither player showed the ability this year to be elite run stoppers at this level (although they still could be). Many draft experts are suggesting that the Panthers will take a DT with their first pick; however, Carolina might be better served using that pick at another position and acquired a veteran through free agency. Chargers' free agent NT Antonio Garay (pictured to the left) played for Ron Rivera for two season and that familiarity could benefit both Garay and the Panthers. Either way, the issue must be addressed this offseason.
Another Weapon at WR for Newton
For Cam Newton to develop more as a passer, the Panthers will need to surround him with stronger weapons at WR. The offensive line is widely considered one of the stronger units in the league (even with injuries to Jeff Otah), and Cam Newton can obviously extend the play with his legs when pressure does break down. With Steve Smith approaching the end of his illustrious career and Brandon LaFell proving to be just a marginal NFL starter, securing a potential big play wide receiver through the draft or free agency would be a logical move for the franchise. The Panthers should use one their first two selections to secure one of the top receivers on the board. Alshon Jeffrey would be a logical, local selection in the first round. He has great size and the potential to be a Calvin Johnson type of player who can stretch the field and also catch jump balls in the red zone. If Michael Floyd, Kendall Wright, or Mohamed Sanu slip to their pick in the second round, any one of those players would be terrific options as well.
The injuries mentioned earlier to Beason (shown to the right) and Thomas Davis certainly effected the Panthers season from a win/loss standpoint. OLB James Anderson performed admirably in their absence, but MLB Dan Conner and OLB Jordan Senn were forced into starting roles that they weren't equipped to handle. With Beason returning next year at MLB, that only leaves Thomas Davis' vacated OLB position to fill this offseason. If they could lure Erin Henderson away from Minnesota or draft someone like Lavonte David out of Nebraska with their second round pick, the team could dramatically progress in their efforts to overcome the heartbreaking nature of Thomas Davis' absence from the team.
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