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Thursday, January 30, 2014

What Does Rivera Money Buy?

Ron Rivera's already the 11th most tenured coach in the league - nutty,
when you think of the guys that had been out there for years, and how
many of the coaches that preceded Rivera that aren't there.

But, for now, he has security. A three year extension came to Rivera
this week, about what you'd expect. I'll assume a modest raise, but at
$2.8 million a year prior to the extension, he wasn't doing badly

So what do you buy for what could be $3.5-4.5 million a year?

To start with, you get consistency and continuity. Young guys (had
there been much from the '11 draft of worth) are starting to develop in
the system. The defense, obviously, is where they want it to be,
within reason. It's interesting that Rivera's defenses in Chicago and
San Diego responded by year 2 but flourished greatest in year three, and
yet Rivera's not had a year 4 for either. Now's when that success
should really pay off, in theory. You might not have to put quite as
much effort into it.

Certainly, from a personnel perspective, having young DTs Star
Lotulelei and Kawann Short in front of Luke Kuechly suggests some
repeatability. Regardless of what happens with Thomas Davis aging or
Greg Hardy's contract, you have Charles Johnson on the outside. And
from coaching, they have a strong trio of assistants under Sean
McDermott, including obviously Steve Wilks as the next-man-up if
McDermott goes. I don't believe there's any fall-off there.

On the other end, there's the offense. While the '13 offense gets
maligned, and Mike Shula along with it, you can ably say they did a lot
of things well. Being 18th in scoring isn't great, and you're not going
to get tons of yards doing things the way they do it, but it's a
strategy. That same 18th in points did nothing for the '12 defense, and
leading the league in time of posession absolutely helps the defense.

There were plenty of times where the Carolina O could just run over bad
defenses, and against good ones they generally played not to lose. I
think it's good, to a point, to have a throttle on Cam Newton. But at
some point you have to throw that throttle open a little more.

As well, while they're bringing him along for things like audibles, and
he does plenty of reading in the passing game and the options/packaged
plays, they've gotta get him comfortable in pace for the 2 minute drill.
There's no urgency.

Philosophically, I don't know what's right for Cam Newton. I like him
in this basic offense, and with a healthy Steve Smith and Greg Olsen to
back him, I think that's a start. At minimum, Shula has to be more open
on offense, push a little more vertically at times, and Newton has to
execute better. He's not going to get 5-7 deep shots a game on 2nd and
long the way he did with Rob Chudzinski, so he's not going to have the
excuse of burning the first few throws too high.

So, I think they do what's best for the team more than what's best for
him specifically, but this is a newer NFL. Shula didn't throw in as
many tricks, but it wasn't as cute. The problem is, he has to back a
safety up now and again. You have to have a defense respect your
longball in this offense, or else it's a generic WCO lookalike. You
can't run Coryell without some deep game.

Rivera's more aggressive style has a small sample size. There's no
doubt that going for it occasionally couldn't have hurt the '11-'12
teams, a pair of teams that were more aggressive from scrimmage (deep
shots, trick plays, blitzing on defense) than on 4th down. It's clear
to me which of the two strategies works better - taking the calculated
risk on 4th is better than taking the heaving risk of throwing a deep
ball into double coverage. But there's gotta be a balance, too.

It's hard to predict the long term success. It's a tough division, and
that's a major obstacle. Rivera's a good coach, and I've always
believed in his schemes. It feels like everything's coming together,
and keeping that together has value. That's what you're buying,

Monday, January 27, 2014

Panthers Have Come A Long Way

Regardless of what happened against San Francisco, it was a successful
year for Carolina. And they had to dig to get to it.

Yesterday, with Panthers coaches in the Pro Bowl and seven players
participating, it was a far cry from the end of their first month.

They'd had a few good moments - a good draft, for instance - and some
good bargain shopping on one year deals to get around a $16 million
deficit. But to that point, success wasn't there. 1-3, and rumors
swirled that Dave Gettleman was already vetting future coaches.

11-2 including the playoff loss since (a statistic that remains high
following the release of Armanti Edwards as well), with a fairly
successful season since. The team has grown some high powered players,
though mostly on defense.

The team has tons of work to do, mostly in keeping a few of those
players and hanging onto a few that are still under contract; it has to
up its passing game on both sides of the ball with minimal resources.
But, going from potential full-on rebuild and new coaches to potential
extensions is, hopefully, a good trend.

It never gets easier in the NFL. Every world champion, including the
one to be crowned a week from now, gets only so much time to enjoy it,
having to patch coaching staff and try to hold onto their guys while
improving. It's a tough league for the best team in the game and it's
only tougher for everyone below them. But Carolina, hopefully, has
turned a corner at least.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Pro Bowl: Distraction?

I think it's fun that a number of Panther players are in Hawaii, and with them, the Panthers' coaches.

But, I kinda wish they were coaching the Senior Bowl instead.

Mobile, Alabama is absolutely not Honolulu (both have a battleship, I guess), and rest and relaxation is a good reward for the staff.  But Mobile is where coaches get their best look at the senior prospects for the NFL draft.  Sure, most of these guys will be at the combine, and pro days, but this is where you get to actually interact with them, watch them be coached (or, more rarely, coach them, Carolina's done that once - 2000).

In total, there are around 100 senior prospects there. Add in the 90+ junior/redshirt sophomore prospects that have declared, and that's a lot of the draft.  Some of them will go undrafted, but you talk to those guys, too.  There's a lot of difference between having 8 scouts, plus GM Dave Gettleman, out there versus that 9 plus up to 16 coaches (I don't know if the third-tier guys go, and certainly I wouldn't expect the strength guys).  That's 25 guys, certainly enough to fully discuss what's going on, compare notes, hash out feelings on a guy.

It's also a prime meeting place for prospective coaches looking to join teams, though Carolina hasn't much need for that right now.

On the back end, it's a good selling point for potential free agents to see how Carolina runs its ship (Chuck Pagano certainly seemed impressed with the way that Luke Kuechly's been handling himself), and while they won't be affording any Pro Bowlers this year, it can't hurt to show you have your program well-run.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Hardy Issue

Greg Hardy finished the year strong - 46% of his sacks coming in the
last two regular season games.

The week before, he was talking hometown discount and staying. After,
those seven sacks and a Pro Bowl bid may have inflated him past the
point of reasonability. I'm sure Leigh Steinberg (who may as well be on
Panthers' payroll after the 2011 spending sprees) isn't going to go easy
on anyone after that two week span legitimized Hardy's dream contract.

But, does that price Carolina out?

Carolina seems destined toward using the franchise tag on the moody
Hardy. I doubt a quick deal will get done, and that's the next step.

Carolina could let him walk, of course. They get nothing in return.
They also don't have to spend almost $12 million in cap on a guy with no
long term security.

Holding him in the cap hell of the franchise tag could be harmful in
other ways. If he's not eventually on the team, it's impossible to be
compensated for holding all that money that could've otherwise been
spent on replacements. Which, to get to a point, is the issue at hand.
Can Carolina afford to make this deal? After a certain price point, it
will be tough to simply squeeze Hardy and Cam Newton contracts into the
$17 million that's available and have room for other things (like the
tons of other free agents or the seven 2013 starters that are free

And while holding off the Cam decision is possible, it's nothing I'd
want. They can, before the draft, choose to extend Newton's contract by
the one year deal written in, which is essentially a franchise tag.
That buys them 2014 and 2015 to do a new deal, which comes with one
major benefit.

He doesn't cost anything extra this year.

But that comes at potential long term security issues there - and at
best, if you get a deal done, it's had an extra year or two to get
higher. I know that QB deals have escalated significantly in the last
two years, and that's not going to get better suddenly. At least DE
deals have been reasonable in some form, where guys like Cliff Avril and
Michael Bennett took one year deals but remained productive.

Which, that's another situation. If Bennett is a similar player, and
cost under $5 million last year, the dropoff is minimal (8.5 sacks, not
much older, and he's a good all around defender like Hardy is). If a
long term deal is $8 million, which is what Carolina tried to get Hardy
to sign in the preseason, the difference between the two becomes Captain

So which is better? Hard to say. I think, if you can reasonably
deal with Hardy, make it happen and move on. He's a key piece. If not,
get someone less expensive and keep moving.

2014 OL - Continuity, or Flux?

Carolina's 2013 offensive line didn't let itself down too often, but
when it did, it really did.

The upside is that potential is high - young players with massive
potential, and enough open spots that they can make real change if they

The downside? There's a lot of work to do. First, a quick thought on
the players that started, and their status:


*Jordan Gross, LT -
Gross was arguably the team's best lineman. He's in Hawaii now, a
replacement Pro Bowler. He's's top rated free
agent lineman, but he's also said he'll play only for Carolina.

*Byron Bell, RT -
Bell can be the team's most crushing blocker at times. He also takes
weirdly deep drops on his pass sets, and he gets abused for it at times.
He's the team's least reliable fulltime starter, but he can be good
enough at times, too. It's a matter of keeping his base under him and
playing with better technique, which makes the difference between
numerous clean games he had and the one that gave Mario Williams 5
sacks. He has one year left on his rookie deal.

*Nate Chandler (RG) -
I'm putting Chandler here at tackle. This is where he was intended to
develop. He got good experience at guard. He seemed to not have many
problems picking it up. He could have more power at guard, but at
tackle his run blocking likely improves (smaller guys, and you can use
contain against them). It's hard to see Chandler at guard next year by
design since there are so many of them below.


*Ryan Kalil -
Can't ask for any more out of Kalil. He's a Pro Bowler again. He has
three years left on his deal, he's still young (28), and the team
doesn't have any reason to worry about anyone else. He may be
restructured yet again next year to lessen his $4.5 million salary. He's
the team's only guaranteed continuity on the OL. Everyone else is in

*Jeff Byers -
Played a couple of snaps at RG before getting hurt, in a summary of how
the team's luck was at RG. He's young, cheap, and a good center, so it
makes sense to have him as the backup.

*Bryan Folkerts -
A surprise camp find, Folkerts was with the team all year and seems an
able center, just hard to say if the team wants to keep 3 guys.


*Travelle Wharton, LG -
He struggled against Justin Smith in the playoff game, but up to then,
he'd provided significantly strong performances, especially against the
pass rush and in his pull blocking. He struggled more in the run game
in 2011 and it makes sense that he was less powerful there in 2013, but
he was steady and works very well in this spot. He's a free agent.

*Amini Silatolu, LG -
Silatolu's definitely what they intended of him at LG, but he showed in
'13 to start out as a question mark after finishing '12 strong.
Silatolu's development has been hampered by two season ending injuries
in a row, which makes his depth critical.

*Garry Williams, RG -
Williams actually looked good when he was thrust into the RG role, to
my surprise. He then immediately got hurt, which was the start of the
RG spot being a black hole of disappointment. Williams is a free agent.
He's been around since 2009, and made over $1 million last year, so I
don't know if they'll go back to him.

*Ed Kugbila, RG -
It's hard to say what's going on with this small school kid. You could
rumor that he's not working hard, he's had a couple different injuries
on the year he's been in and he's hardly practiced. I think they wanted
to push him into RG and let it fly - if you combined his story with Nate
Chandler's, you'd say you have RG covered. Like Silatolu, he's a raw,
young guard with tackle experience who made a habit of knocking over
guys who don't play football for a living.

*Geoff Hangartner -
His most notable achievements came as the goal TE, but he was good
insurance. He didn't make the team and was a camp cut because they
wanted to work other guys in (mission accomplished! seven other guys
played), but eventually returned to be good depth. A free agent.

*Chris Scott -
He's a big thumper. The team plugged him in at RG, and he had up and
down moments, more than Chandler's. He's a free agent, so it's hard to
say what they do there. He's a guy who has that combination of injury
and being out of shape that makes him look better in dire need than when
you have time to plan, so I don't know if he returns.

In my opinion, you have to retain Gross, at least another year. Bell
is a cheap starter. Chandler should be OK depth.

If you can afford it, I'd bring back Wharton, too. Not unlike Gross,
he's the top FA. At 33, he's a guy who probably would rather stay and
he cost only $1.1 million to bring back. You throw Silatolu in at RG,
Kugbila and maybe pickup a random veteran level backup or return
Williams cheaply to compete.

I can see that, if the cost went up on Wharton, it might not be worth
it. It also might be a gamble to throw Silatolu at RG. You have your
three centers, more than enough depth.

So, with the above, I'd be setting the team up to take a tackle in
round 1 or 2. I think that's pretty necessary, and if you spend the
meager amount of free agent dollars on retaining your aging LT/LG for
another year or two, you get the continuity you need and hopefully a
break on the cost.

That lets you address pushing Bell. If you start over at LT with a
first rounder, you can compete there, but you also risk being unable to
address RT.

So with that in mind, I like these guys as late first rounders
(obviously values will change over time; I'm assuming that Jake
Matthews, Taylor Lewan, Greg Robinson all go ahead of the 28 pick):

*Cyrus Kounadijo - this is a projection. I watched Kouandijo last year
and he looked good with the various starters at Alabama that were first
round picks. This year focusing on him more I didn't like how he
looked, but that was in comparison to him as a top 5 type pick. As a
28, if he can show he can play RT, he makes a lot of sense.

*Tiny Richardson - you can't mess with a 6'6, 330 lb guy from Tennessee
named Tiny.

*Morgan Moses, Virginia - Big guy who I think would play at RT but some
feel he can flip back over. He gets to the second level, seems to
understand the angles and seems to play smart.

Second Round:

*Zack Martin, Notre Dame
50+ game starter. He doesn't look the part, he's not 6'6 and 320 lbs
(6'3.75, 300) and his arms are considered short. But he gets it done.
He's not a blue chipper, and as a matter of fact his style looks ugly,
but he reminds me of Gross, and he'll be a guy you can never afford to
get rid of.

*JaWaun James, Tennessee - Richardson's counterpart, more of a LT. Not
really any worse, and on need I bet he goes higher than Richardson.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Clean Slate - 2014 Receivers, TEs

Carolina's last quarter, and their playoff game, showed some
deficiencies at WR. This was exascerbated by Steve Smith's PCL injury.
There's no doubting that Smith is the top guy, or that Greg Olsen (team
leader in

While Carolina had more depth at WR than it had in years, without Smith
there was no real power, no one to create much. The way that other
teams treated a Panthers team without Smith only tightened up coverage
more on an offense that already gave minimal reason to respect the deep
threat, a far cry from 2011.

Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr, and Domenik Hixon are all pending free
agents. Neither of the latter could unseat the former for a starting
role, but none of them performed at an exceptionally high level.
Concerning in the mix is that LaFell, on his rookie contract, and
Ginn/Hixon on one year deals, didn't count for that much on the cap.

To start with the backups, Ginn was better than expected. His 36
catches for 556 (15.4 avg) were good, but his 5 TDs were well above what
the team had gotten of Louis Murphy (25/336/1) in 2012. It's not that
impressive compared to 2011, which slung the ball all over the place
(with more balls to Smith, 4 guys caught over 40 balls and LaFell and
Jeremy Shockey pitched in over 35 as well, and that's with the anonymous
Legedu Naanee starting). Ginn exceeded expectations

Ginn added the best return job the team had seen in a while, pitching
in an extra 2 per return on punts from the committee of '12 (which was
bolstered by a 69 yarder for a full 25% of its yardage) and 7 over 2011
(kicks were actually down a couple of yards, though Ginn's were about
equal to expected totals of 23.8).

Hixon was perplexing. Did Ginn earn his job, and Hixon was just hurt
at the time? Possibly. Of course, often hurt and 29 already, that's
not an exceptional sign. But Hixon, before that, was a very good
receiver. I don't have a good explanation for it, though obviously I'm
glad he was here to make the play in Smith's absence.

LaFell was on his way to a top notch year before Smith got hurt. He
had started all games, first in his career, and was easily on his way to
career highs While he did reach that for each receptions, yards, and
TDs, he was all but missing in the games that Smith was out, pulling
down only 1 reception in the NO game in which Smith got hurt, and 0 in
the following game against bottomfeeder Atlanta. He'd averaged 3.5 rec,
42 yards and .4 TD in the prior five games, which isn't incredible, but
was respectable. .5 receptions for 6.5 yards per game in the final two
was poor. 4 receptions for 34 in the playoff loss wasn't exactly awe
inspiring, either.

So, what I see in LaFell is an OK #2 guy. And that role is open. You
know who he is. He's not fast or explosive enough to completely take
over a game, and despite his blocking prowess, he's never going to be
big enough (or play big enough) to be that true posession guy. He's a
tweener, a guy who's able to make some big plays with the coverage
rolled to the other side but not a guy who beats the jam well or can
beat extra attention. He's just a guy.

So what looked at midseason like a legitimate problem (how do we keep
LaFell and Ginn?) looks as much opportunity. Even with the FA group
being a little lacking, I don't think Carolina will put that much into
LaFell. Ginn becomes a matter of this - do you want to spend another
$1.2 million this year on him being the returner, and insurance against
young receivers (i.e., he might have to start if your first rounder is
slow out of the gate)? If not, you go get a short term starter, and

There's always the Hakeem Nicks, one year, "show me" deal, I guess.
That's definitely a solution to things- a free agent. Nicks was
woefully underproductive, so it's a good time to go get him cheap, but
he also brings considerable worry. There are reasons to not do that, of
course, that are apparent. It looks like him being a UNC guy, and being
with the Giants while Dave Gettleman was there, that makes this a tidy
package. But I don't know if he's the guy you think you're getting.

In free agents, as far as last year's quality/production:

*Anquan Boldin isn't likely to move around, and I'll guess the same for
Eric Decker.
*Seattle's Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate are very interesting. Seattle
can't pay both, and they have investments on Percy Harvin and Sidney
Rice, so they might pay neither. But, these two were their leading
receivers. Tate is essentially Steve Smith in a younger package, and
Baldwin is a sneakily big play slot type guy. But, both will come at a
cost. Baldwin might be the most interesting, as a Stanford grad he
played in essentially this offense.
*Jerrico Cotchery is interesting, and at 32, he might come cheap and
adds some size.
*James Jones/Packers is interesting, but I'll guess he stays.
*Dexter McCluster is an interesting guy if you're looking for a hybrid
role. The former RB can play that Percy Harvin type role and played
mostly WR the last few years, and is a good returner if you're trying to
ably replace Ginn.
*Mario Manningham is a guy who fits the O, might come cheap, and has
experience with Dave Gettleman (though he was allowed to leave in
Gettleman's time as well).
*Robert Meacham is the size guy on the list to a point, and at 29, he
might be a little less expensive than the slew of 25, 26 year old guys
coming off rookie deals. Meacham made less than Hixon or Ginn last
year, and hasn't caught more than 20 passes the last two years, but had
three 40+ rec seasons before that (cumulative 20 TD in that span).
*Josh Morgan might be interesting, if Washington's QB issues devalue
him enough to have him make much less than he did last year. He has size
at 6'1, 220.

I threw TEs in the discussion because Olsen is such an integral part of
the equation, and because Ben Hartsock is a free agent. While Hartsock
is essentially a lineman, he's also excellent at his job. The question
becomes, does the team fill that 2nd role with Hartsock, essentially
only a blocker, or do they throw it at a big, young draftee that can
contribute in both phases? My assumption is they do both - bring back
Hartsock, and attempt to push the 3rd job from the chiseled Brandon
Williams to potentially a later draft pick like Asante Cleveland, a 6'5,
260 lb Miami product.

I'll just outright assume that another free agent would be unexpected
at TE. If they wanted another receiving guy, Dante Rosario could return
inexpensively and graded out well by PFF (he was their 3rd rated TE,
behind Jimmy Graham and Hartsock, though keep in mind Hartsock's is 100%
blocking), and behind that, Giant Bear Pascoe (6'5, 280) is interesting.

They could go blue-chip, and grab a TE like Austin Serafian-Jenkins
(6'5, 275, Washington), but that seems unlikely. The team will put
minimal value into their backups, and by filling with a blocker like
Hartsock and a 3rd guy with receiving skill like Williams or similar,
it's an OK contingency plan.

Value of QBs Coach

It's always been interesting, in my mind, the idea of the Quarterbacks
Coach and how the teams value the position. This is an organizational
thought that has little to do with Carolina specifically, so sorry in

For some teams, and I believe in the West Coast Offense to have taken
on the critical nature of the position, it's as critical a position as
coordinator, and a key focal point in the offense. To others, it's a
glorified third tier assistant role that has little power.

The league's position on the role is still in flux. Only a few teams
failed to have one, and notably Cleveland was without one in part
because it was waiting for Carolina's staff to potentially fold (in my
opinion). I don't think it's too big a secret that Rob Chudzinski
wanted Ken Dorsey, who Carolina 'promoted' from the scouting staff.
Chudzinski coached Dorsey in both college and pros, and the pair took a
college championship together. They won an insane 38 games together in
college, share an alma mater, a lot of history. I do believe that
Cleveland kept the job open, in part, to wait to see if Dorsey would
come available a year later, ironically Cleveland's staff has disbanded
before Carolina's.

But, some teams still have QBs coaches that are somewhat less versed in
the art of fine tuning quarterbacks, and more as a tape monkey/assistant
to the OC role. In my mind, you have to have both roles, and not by the
same guy.

Consequently, that also means not having a coordinator that does both.
While an OC will always have latitude over a QB as a part of his
offense, why not have a point man for the quarterbacks? You'd never
have a defensive coordinator in the pros also coach defensive backs by
title. You're a coordinator, you're going to coach everybody. That's

I think that becomes problematic in a few of the new hires, where the
young Jay Gruden and his even younger coordinator, Sean McVay, will both
take on additional responsibility. Gruden takes McVay's play calling,
and McVay is coaching QBs in addition to coordinating. It leaves a very
minor window for error and collaboration, and leaves no room for
experience in any form. The third guy in the equation is a third-tier
coach, an intern, not someone with any experience.

Carolina's done that in the past, too. The first two years of the Joe
Pendry years had no QBs coach. The final two, after there was actually a
groundswell of support in the community for one, Pendry promoted John
Shoop, at the time having only experience with QBs as a volunteer
assistant, than grad assistant, in college. Shoop grew to be a
coordinator in the pros and then college, but at the time he just didn't
have enough experience. It was in name only.

Contrast that to the WCO model, one actually employed here in 1999 (and
ended up helping lead it to failure in the years after). Gil Haskell
was the OC, and he ran the offense. Bill Musgrave was the QBs coach,
and he had a significant hand in the gameplanning, and the two worked
together on the end result. When that success bit Carolina was when
they determined they didn't need both - suddenly Haskell was the OC in
Seattle, Musgrave was both QBs coach and coordinator, and they picked up
another intern (Mike McCoy) because he knew the offense somewhat. A
first time coordinator being pulled in too many directions, Musgrave
quit and now the team was down three coaches (OC,QB because of Musgrave,
and WRs because of Richard Williamson replacing him) while employing a
fourth that had been a college player the year before (McCoy).

It ended up working out for McCoy, who went from a nobody QB out of
college to having won a pro playoff game this year as a head coach 14
years later. But the Panther QBs were well under coached at the time,
too. Carolina could've very easily, if they thought well of McCoy, had
him as the third tier assistant and then also had a guy with experience
who 'fit' as the QBs coach.

McCoy also went through that process with Dan Henning, who should've
hired a QBs coach (and as a former QBs coach, should know the value).
McCoy was an offensive "assistant" for two years before he was elevated
to the title of QBs coach (again). Again, it worked out for McCoy in
the end to pay his dues, but gave no real latitude for the QBs to deal
with a guy younger than them who has no experience coaching.

Back to that WCO model, consider that Eagles staff. Mike Holmgren, who
had been an OC and QBs coach working up the ladder, had Sherm Lewis as
OC, but Holmgren called plays. Since so many of those offensive minded
guys followed the Bill Walsh model and called plays (IMO, often not a
great idea for a head coach), you had a more collaborative model of what
was going on. The OC was in charge of the offense, but he wasn't the
only one who had input on playcalling, or

You had room for a Jon Gruden (a receivers coach in GB) to have input.
Steve Mariucci (QBs) had input. Andy Reid (at the time, OL) had input.
You had room for guys to grow, learn, and they flourished into
legitimate greatness (at times) because there was room for more than one
guy to have say. Was that a byproduct of one guy having more say than
he needed (a head coach calling plays)? Possibly.

That said, I'm glad Carolina picked up Dorsey. I had worries that
Shula, elevating from the position, wouldn't hire a replacement QBs
coach. You could want for more experience pushing the passing game
(both Dorsey and Ricky Proehl were top notch guys, but both are very
young in their careers), leaving minimal counterpoint from passing game
roles for Shula. They have a combined three seasons' experience,
compared to the OL and RBs coaches, John Matsko and Jim Skipper, who
have 20 and 30 years each in just the pros.

Nonetheless, I don't see the value in skimping on a full time QBs
coach. I can't imagine the value in short-changing the coaching staff in
general of another eye on things, another experienced coach to help out.
It goes against the team concept.

Secondary An X-factor

You'd hope that Carolina's defense will sustain success - and with all
respect due to Jon Beason, it's been near stellar in most games since
Luke Kuechly was thrown at MLB.

So, then, you'd hope that Carolina can focus on its offense, and
re-finding the identity there. The defense won't need much work, right?

Well, no. Nothing's ever that easy.

Set aside Greg Hardy's contract situation (to a point). Carolina
returns only one potential starter in the secondary, Charles Godfrey,
who's cuttable this offseason* and popped his Achilles, and has five
free agents there. Essentially everyone who was involved in Carolina's
success back there is gone except for two undrafted rookies. Those two
could play a part, but both looked overmatched at times.

*Godfrey costs $5 million this year in salary. His 2014 bonuses
already count against the cap no matter what; he's a $2.1 million
savings if cut early, $3.1 million if you designate him a June cut,
i.e., the other part of the proration goes to next year's cap, in this
case $1 million.

So, where to start?

First off, absolutely, I think you have to cut Godfrey. There's no
real guarantee that he'll give you what he did, and what he did give you
didn't seem to be enough. Is it fair that most of his career he labored
without the protection of this year's rush? Absolutely. If he showed
to be full strength, and was willing to re-structure to a 'prove-it'
type deal, then maybe, but the end result is that Achilles injuries are
rarely not a problem for guys who have to play that position. It's
probably best to move on.

Now for those rookies, and what's left.
We'll throw Josh Norman in there, a 5th round guy going into his third
year. Two years straight it's been tough getting Norman to play within
the system, which is problematic. He's big, and physical. He's
somewhat what Carolina needs, but I think anything he gives is extra.
His Buffalo game is a tough one, a very limited slice of context. But
it's when he most contributed, and he gave up the game winning TD by not
hearing or heeding the call to switch men on coverage.

Robert Lester is what you'd want at SS. He can thump, he's had his
days in coverage. He ends on a sour note, finishing the SF game when
Quintin Mikell got hurt. He missed a tackle on a long gain, and he gave
up the long play to Anquan Boldin that more or less sealed it. But
prior, and with his growing pains along the way, Lester wasn't bad. I
don't know that you intend to start him immediately, but my feeling is,
he could start if needed.

Melvin White, however, was a better surprise. Did he get picked on?
Absolutely, at times he did. Pats game on he was a guy who started
creeping back a bit more, and therefore became a guy who'd give up an
easier play in front of him. Some of that's just being a guy in zone.
White could grow to become a younger Drayton Florence, and the team
somewhat needs that type of guy. White should improve going into year
2, as a small-school guy doing the pro workout process. Only problem
is, outside of the team programs during workouts, with all of the free
agents he won't have anyone to train with, show him the ropes.

Now the FAs:
Captain Munnerlyn, of the group, is the most valuable. I think you
lock him into a 3 year deal (the team did try last year, but I think now
you have to punch in more value). An expert nickel, an overall very
good cover corner, and a good tackler, Munnerlyn fits exactly what you
want in a corner. His only real problem is height. You resolve that
elsewhere. Munnerlyn's a guy that, within reason, you have to bring
back. He's their heart and soul back there. It's a good problem to
have that this guy's your best corner, but to go with him, the team must
improve on that other guy.

Drayton Florence is more interesting. He's a one year deal guy, not
expensive by any means. Started the year as first string, cut in camp,
brought back after the Buffalo debacle. He was "the vet" of the
corners, the most experienced by far with only Munnerlyn being in that
race. You know what you're getting with him, and you know what you're
not. He's not going to be that quick if he's beaten. You know he's
going to give you a good chuck at the line if you want that. Ideally,
he'd be in a cover 2 scheme.

Josh Thomas was the defacto starter when Florence was cut, and his good
Buffalo tackle (and subsequent concussion) kicked off the various
injuries that game, including Godfrey's. I don't see him returning, he
was a good base football player but at best he's duplicative of what
Florence brings. He's not as good in coverage.

SS Quintin Mikell brought what you figured he could. I felt like his
position on the team was to usurp Mike Mitchell and bring a more steady,
less stupid play at SS, a more rangy guy who would make fewer mistakes.
We never completely saw that, since Godfrey got hurt early enough that
we never really saw those results. Mikell's not what he used to be in
coverage overall, but he's definitely a good player in the box who
defends that space well. He's a guy who, assuming he'd be at a similar
price, is worth returning for another year.

Mitchell was the full-on surprise of the year. A meathead at SS
racking up a stupid penalty a week, Mitchell was another guy who made it
out of camp less solid than he'd started. Godfrey going down and
Mitchell at FS sounded like an outright disaster. He made it work,
co-leading with 4 picks and generally not being a liability while
seemingly calling a fine game every week.

So was that an abberation? Mitchell's surprise of last year can go
either way. Was it an outlier? Does Carolina get good value in
expecting it again, and paying to it? That's where negotiation gets
tricky. At a low price, obviously you'd love to have him. But do you
pay him a starting, $3-4 million longer term contract? I don't think
so. I think you have to hit lower than that, and that might not work
for him.

So that's what it is. Your progressions go - Munnerlyn, Mitchell, deal
with Godfrey, and then the rest, in importance. I believe, if you get
both of those in, the others are less important. If you don't spend on
either, you're starting totally from scratch.

Ideally, at corner, you pick Munnerlyn up, you maybe bring back
Florence or similar, and you draft a tall kid earlier in the draft than
the last two years (5th, and UDFA). Give Steve Wilks (I'll save the
gushing about his coaching job) something of quality to work with, a
lanky and instinctive cover guy who can surpass Munnerlyn in overall
quality while letting Munnerlyn continue his current role.
Florence/similar vet plus White can factor into nickel/dime, when
Munnerlyn moves inside.

To that end, so far Rivera has seemed to lean toward the taller,
lankier corners and guys who'll support the run. Those guys have played
a lot more (Josh Thomas the first few games, White and Florence later),
so that kicks out the potential pickup of guys like Asante Samuel, a 33
year old that could probably prop you up for a year and play good
corner, but who just doesn't play the run well. You have to find guys
who can do both well, to play exceptional defense (especially against
the spread).

At safety, I don't see ways that Godfrey would stay. With that, if you
can get Mitchell in for the money you save cutting him (a $2.1 million
first year hit), do it. Past that, I think you'd have to structure a
deal that has so much on the back end it might not be advantageous to
either party. In my opinion, an ideal situation might be to throw
Mikell on the pile one more year, where he does add a stabilizing force
to what's going on back there, and team that up with Lester (and,
potentially, a later round backup FS type).

With that process, the team can start avoiding the year-to-year nature
of the secondary, while hopefully upgrading a bit. They have to be able
to hold some consistency, at a low cap charge, while not taking up more
money than necessary to do their business with Hardy or Cam Newton, or
dealing with improvements at WR/OL.

I'll cover WR and OL soon, as able.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Coaching, Scouting Staff Staying Intact

Despite my want for GM Dave Gettleman* to alter or bolster the front
office, it appears it's not in the cards. Gettleman's first offseason
press conference made reference, just as he was hired, that he was
keeping things intact.

There's nothing "wrong" with that, it makes his job feel somewhat more
temporary than you might want, though I don't have a reason to feel that
way. Even without letting anyone go, and there's no reason to feel like
the staff is subpar, I would want expansion.

I'll save the long diatribe about how the team spends around $5 million
to scout for an annual roster of $130 million. But there's room to
grow. Specifically, I believe in more pro scouting. It's something
most teams under-value because there are scouts that do nothing but
present game tape (quality control guys), and essentially every coach
and most players should be studying opponents.

But from a free agency perspective, I believe in as much knowledge as
possible. And from a regular season perspective, I believe in even
more. I believe in having a scout assigned to each division opponent,
as half of their regular season duty including a rotation of the
upcoming games.

I'd be in favor of using a former coach as a schematic analyst, not
unlike the way Brad Childress is Andy Reid's "Spread Game Analyst".
That'd be a heck of a job - interface occasionally with the college
game's top spread guys (Gus Malzahn, Dana Holgorsen as the innovators,
and guys like Kevin Sumlin as the successful, standardizing guys), deal
occasionally with a consultant like Chris Ault of pistol fame. Study
other teams to get a full understanding of why they do what they do,
somewhat covertly.

And again, I believe in advanced statistics, and while Rob Rodgers as
an in-staff option makes some sense, I'd bolster that guy with a group
of analysts, maybe including a guy or two from outside the game of

So while the coaching staff (yes, Chudzinski, I'll keep beating that
drum) won't see anything new or extra, and the scouting staff won't
either, I do believe in that. I do wish we'd do that. More information
is always better.

*I'd call it officially time to stop saying "new GM Dave Gettleman"

Chudzinski - Still Out There

All head coaching jobs seem filled excluding the Browns, barring
something more nutty like a Dallas or Oakland change.

And, likewise, there are only a few jobs open for OC. The Ravens
haven't hired an OC, and their outgoing OC Jim Caldwell hasn't hired in
Detroit. I wouldn't expect Chudzinski in either role, and I wouldn't
expect anything amazing out of either hire (it seems that Caldwell is
looking to hire Jim Tressel, which won't make him especially popular in
Michigan, and Baltimore might pull Jim Zorn which is really uninspired).

There wouldn't seem to be much space for Chudzinski in Norv Turner's
offensive staff in Minnesota, either. There's no link between Mike
Zimmer and Chud, and I'd be willing to bet most of Chud's Browns staff
on offense goes with Turner. Nothing's been announced but I can't see
a way that his kid, Scott, doesn't become WRs coach at the least,

For the moment, it appears that Chudzinski's mad scientist offensive
work will go on the shelf for a year.

For what it's worth, I could think of worse things to do than be paid a
handsome fee to not coach. Of course, he gets paid whether he stays in
the game or not, and I believe he'll want to be doing something -

I don't know if the door is open to him helping out in any form in
Carolina, but I'd be open to it if he were. I wouldn't expect it, there
aren't any jobs open in Carolina and Chudzinski wasn't exactly the most
popular guy from a leadership standpoint.

They'd have to find some special role for Chudzinski, on a staff that
doesn't have a job to offer. Chudzinski's only ever coached TEs, and I
like what Pete Hoener's brought.

Carolina won't fire Mike Shula, and they shouldn't. Shula's very
conservative, and the team finished 18th in points last year - not good
enough. They also finished 18th in points with 2012's high flying
offense under Chudzinski. And I do credit Shula as much as Chud for the
growth of Cam Newton. But, it'd be nice if it did work out that way,
somehow. Having both guys, especially having the cagy Chud as advisor
to the more stable Shula, might be the best possible formula.

Again, don't expect it. It looks like Chud's on the couch for the
year. But it couldn't hurt to ask.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Coaching Nonsense

So, now there are a few more guys out there in new jobs since I last
checked in on coaching.

No one wants to coach the Browns, and I can understand why. It's
funny, this time last year they were putting together an impressive
staff, and their only major impediment was their QB situation and it
looked like they would build a good team.

I'm sure Peyton Manning's word is helpful, but I don't know if I'd take
a current player's word for it if I'm a competing owner or GM. Manning
made that call for new Lions coach Jim Caldwell, but I don't know if
that's the way to go for either guy. I'm sure Caldwell is thankful to
have a job, but I don't know if the Lions upgraded or if they did
anything other than hire another guy. The system stays the same, sure.
I don't know that Caldwell has a lot to draw from, to fill out a staff
either. His hire of Ravens' assistant Teryl Austin as DC is uninspired.

Ken Whisenhunt turned down the Lions to take the Titans job.
Whisenhunt runs a solid offensive philosophy but he doesn't have a good
quarterback. He's let his defensive staff go (Jerry Gray, the modestly
evil Gregg Williams) and the principal guys on offense (Dowell Logains,
Dave Ragone). No hires are imminent as of yet.
Ray Horton as most likely DC would be a good hire, though I don't know
that the Titans have 3-4 personnel. Horton's the best available DC at
this point.

The Lions aren't really a 'better' choice, but Whisenhunt probably
would've gone further with that franchise overall; they have the QB and
the WR, and Whisenhunt succeeded with ideal options in those spots. He
didn't when he had less at QB. Titans have the 11 pick and Jake Locker,
neither of which could be Matthew Stafford. Caldwell will be good
enough with that situation, but I don't know that he's the coach
necessary to fix the rest.

I don't know what to make of Jay Gruden. I guess that's the move that
the Redskins needed to make, and it's not a terrible hire. But, Gruden
doesn't have a lot of roots, and Jim Haslett is one, so he'll probably
stay. Which isn't ideal - that defense needs to change as much as
anything. 27 year old Sean McVay is interesting, and has associations
with both Gruden and Haslett, but has to get really experienced, really
quickly. Expect growing pains.

I think Mike Zimmer is a very interesting hire for Minnesota. He was a
guy on my short list, and he should be able to retain something of a
hard-nosed air in MN. Adding Norv Turner as OC is smart, and Turner
has first pick of Browns' offensive assistants to fill out a job. I
think that Adrian Peterson/Toby Gerhart, Kyle Rudolph, Matt Kalil,
Cordarelle Patterson are a great place to start off for Turner, but
he'll need a QB. I think, so far, the Vikings have done what I'd most
want to have happen of the available coaches barring a potential college

Which, I know that some of the top candidates (David Shaw, Kevin
Sumlin) have outright told teams no, but there are still some offensive
guys in college that I'd love to have (Gus Malzahn is definitely
interesting, for instance).

No one wants that Browns job, or the Browns are holding out hope for
someone between the 49ers and Seahawks.

Ben McAdoo goes to NY Giants as OC - that should be interesting.
McAdoo is a WCO guy and Manning is a deep ball guy, but I think the way
that McAdoo will help Manning is in packaged plays. I do think that
Kevin Gilbride had to go - I don't know that TEs coach Mike Pope needed
to, and I think Pope is a top flight assistant. I don't know if Adam
Gase is a guy who is ready for a head coaching job (or deserves one),
but Pope's a guy who will probably end up in Denver in some form as a
top assistant, and was at one point John Fox's candidate for OC in

Bill O'Brien still wouldn't have been my Texans choice. He's chosen to
drop all assistants, but Romeo Crennel at least makes some sense as DC.

I like Frank Reich as the new Chargers' OC. I like the former
Bill/Panthers QB and hope he's taking the next big step in a long,
fruitful career, and I hope one day I'm talking about him as a potential
head coach. If not, he can always be a Scott Bakula impersonator.

No idea what to make of the Bill Lazor hire in Miami, or whether he'll
be doing Philly type stuff with them; chances are, he won't, but it's
interesting. Mike Sherman didn't produce, and it's amazing that he's
gone from being a Packers coach with GM type power and playoff teams, to
being unable to succeed as an OC or a college coach.

Need-Based Analysis

Just throwing out a quick idea of where I believe Carolina stands on

*QB - status quo
Cam Newton is enough. Right or wrong, and I believe it's the correct
call, Newton will probably take this team forward for the forseeable
future. I'm more than OK with Derek Anderson as a change of pace backup
for as long as he's interested. I don't, however, see the need being
circulated that a backup be cultivated with a similar skillset. For
one, needs are just too great elsewhere to go get a talented QB with
running ability, and two, this offense is more than running the football
from the QB position.

*RB - minor adjustment
I don't know what to do with this one. Deangelo Williams has already
thrown his contract into damage-control mode. Jonathan Stewart just
re-signed two years ago, so it's hard to say that will happen there.
But it might need to. Mike Tolbert is the team's best back, and they
have Kenjon Barner. SO it'll probably be the status quo, and they'll
probably have to rely on the OL to cause some improvement.

11th in rushing as a team is OK, but really, things should be better.
The team puts effort into it, and it has to improve. I just don't see
the team letting any of the above go, and I don't know if a healthy
Stewart is something you can expect or if that will create a massive

*TE - no change
The team doesn't have Ben Hartsock for next year, yet, but you may as
well assume it to be so. The third guy won't matter much, and might
end up playing behind sometimes-fullback Richie Brockel; they kinda like
Brandon Williams and just picked up DJ Jefferson to compete with him. I
don't know that the team has much need if Hartsock returns, and I assume
he will at a low price.

*WR - wide open (which is rare)
Only Steve Smith and 5th/6th guys Marvin McNutt/Tavarres King are under
contract. Brandon LaFell, a four year starter, and backups Ted
Ginn/Domenik Hixon are free agents. They might keep some of them, or
none. It's a thin free agent class (sadly enough, Carolina offers some
of the more interesting names). Hakeem Nicks is an outside option, but
he's also been hurt and spent last year tremendously unproductive.
Draft holds plenty of opportunity.

Either way, they'll look to have a tandem of a big-bodied possession
guy and a guy with some speed, and they'll need it.

*OL - Aging
Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton are guys I'd have to keep another
year. Ryan Kalil is definitely written in pen. They have an RFA year on
Byron Bell if they want it, and there's no reason to not keep him on
roster, but I don't know if he doesn't deserve to fight a rookie. If
you don't return Gross, you're looking at spending that resource on a
rookie LT now, and Bell becomes the guy who doesn't fight for a job.

With Wharton, you can pit the remaining 7 starting guards of the year
against each other. Without, you can survive, but you're not as good.

*DL - Don't Know
90% of this relies on whether the team keeps Greg Hardy. They can
survive with Charles Johnson and able backups Mario Addison, Frank
Alexander, and Wes Horton. They like the backups, but they're
physically not what Hardy is. You could do the Seahawks thing and
replace him with a bigger runstopper and a smaller rush guy, I guess.
It's hard to say what happens with Hardy himself who has addressed his
contract for each of the last six weeks, turned down an offer in
preseason, and finished the year strong.

Colin Cole ended up starting a lot, but he played about 30% of total
snaps, and he was the least effective of the quartet. It depends on
whether he'd be exceptionally cheap as to whether he stays; could also
find someone else that's young to fit with the rookies. There's also
that small chance that Dwan Edwards' $1.3 million finds him cuttable -
hurt for 5 games, Edwards was intended to start and only started 3 games
and, like Cole, ended up playing about 30% of snaps compared to the
rookies' 50-60% apiece. So either vet could conceivably go, though on a
non-cap strapped team, I don't know if either would deserve it.

*LB - Status quo
I can't see anything happening here. The team has a big quartet of
starters for three positions, and the cost is low enough. The special
teamers are all guys who can stay at a low rate. There's always whether
the team would want Dan Connor to return as a backup MLB, where the team
might feel deficient if they want both Chase Blackburn and AJ Klein
outside. Could also pickup a late guy since either guy can move inside.

*CB - Change

Who isn't FA? Josh Norman, Melvin White. White should compete for a
job next year but he's best suited to play occasionally. Norman still
has to show he can play within the system.
This more or less hinges on Captain Munnerlyn, who the team needs to
have return - he's a scrappy leader whose only real deficiency is
height. They could bring back Drayton Florence for minimal money, but
that'd be the only way. The team should look at young players who are
physical but spend more than the 5th rounder they put into Norman. A
2-3 year deal at a modest price for Munnerlyn and a draft pick would
definitely provide a little room to upgrade, having Florence or other
veteran would be a nice luxury, too.

They could always pull down a cut-list prospect like Asante Samuel,

*S - Maybe Less Change
Only guys under contract for next year are Robert Lester, Charles
Godfrey, and special teamer Colin Jones.

It'd be nice to keep Mike Mitchell and Quintin Mikell. Mitchell's
overblown stats might escalate his cost, though. Mikell would depend on
Godfrey being released ($2.1 million savings, or $3.1 if he's a June
cut), and whether they feel like Lester is ready (he was a good starter
in limited time, and a regular sub-in, though his last San Francisco
game left some things to be desired). If I had to guess, they'll cut
the catastrophically injured Godfrey, return Mitchell, and throw the job
to Lester and a very inexpensively bought veteran SS.

*Special Teams - No Clue
I'd like to think they'll return Graham Gano, who's been very good. No
idea, though, and I don't know if they have a lot of room to reward
kickers. Gano's performance has been fantastic, however.
They also have to come up with a returner, if Ginn's gone. Maybe that
job can be held by Barner.

The offense has needs that could pull in a position or two that might
not be expected - they need some playmaking, and they need some
toughness. So you never completely know what that'll mean.

As well, let's rank the pending FAs:
1. Greg Hardy - could define the course of the defense in this one
2. Captain Munnerlyn - not irreplaceable, but he's the one legitimately
good DB on the team.
3. Jordan Gross - his voidable contract determines how the team will
fix what's wrong with the OL (which isn't Gross)
4. Brandon LaFell - starting player at a position that's dying for an
upgrade, but it's hard to say what resources will be available
5. Mike Mitchell - well exceeded expectations, going from a guy who
looked too aggressive to start at SS to being a steady FS, but again at
a spot that still needs improvement. Is he Mike Minter or Marlon
6. Ben Hartsock - potentially the team's most important non-starter,
Hartsock is a fantastic sub-in player for run blocking.
7. Ted Ginn Jr - important to special teams and was a decent 3rd guy,
but at a position that's probably in flux
8. Quintin Mikell - important as a safety net if Mitchell is overpriced
9. Travelle Wharton - I don't think he has a high value in the market,
but guy was the difference between the OL being trash or being
10. I don't honestly find any player important after this

And then by need:
1. DB
2. OL
3. WR
4. DL (pending Hardy)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The 28 Pick

Carolina has the 28th pick in the upcoming 2014 NFL draft. Here's
what you might expect with the pick.

Need is hard to say - given the massive needs the team will have, and
hopefully address, before the late April draft. But, it's safe to say
that OT, DB, WR are most likely, QB, RB, and DT are least likely. That
part of the picture will take a while to fully develop.

But, we know plenty - the money, the history - and so we'll start
there. For one, and this is nice, Carolina isn't missing any top draft
picks; they lose a 7th rounder for a 2011 trade to get Colin Jones, a
top special teamer, and they appear to get a 7th back for the Jon Beason
trade, last year. So, the remaining draft picks are in place and 7ths
tend to be more inconsequential anyway.

28 – Sylvester Williams DT Broncos
60 – Robert Alford CB Falcons

Williams was the 8th DL and 4th DT taken. He provided 2 sacks, 4
starts, with 19 tackles total. His contract was $7.6 million over
four years. First year cap hit was 1.378 million.
Picked directly after was Cordarelle Patterson, a lanky WR with top
speed who excelled as a returner and has started to blossom as a WR;
Matt Elam is a starting S for the Ravens, Zach Ertz has been a good TE;
Johnathan Banks provided a good sized corner to Tampa; Carolina's own
Kawann Short would be starting at DT on most teams.

Alford has been a good corner at 60 for Atlanta. Eddie Lacy, picked
right after, has been good as well; a favorite of mine, Larry Warford
has been incredible at G. Behind that, Tyrann Mathieu and TJ McDonald
have been good CBs, and Keenan Allen has been a top rookie WR (though he
never deserved to fall that far).

28 – OLB Nick Perry Packers
60 – Kelichi Osemele G Ravens
Perry, a big USC rusher, followed up a Redshirt Junior campaign of 8.5
sacks with a pro career of 11 starts and 6 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and
appears to be coming into his own. Perry's contract was 4 years, 7.5

Behind him, AJ Jenkins and Brian Quick have been more miss than hit at
WR. Alshon Jeffery was picked mid-round 2 but would certainly go higher
now (he was picked behind Stephen Hill, who hasn't put it together yet).
Coby Fleenor has been a top TE. Carolina grabbed Amini Silatolu right
between solid OT starters Mitchell Schwartz and Cordy Glenn (I'd gladly
take either type guy at 28). Janoris Jenkins has been the only DB of
note in the area, your mileage may vary on that one.

at 60, Osemele has been an asset, though he's also dealt with ongoing
back problems. Casey Heyward is a top young CB but there's not a lot to
die for around this pick. Jacksonville picked a punter ahead of Russell
Wilson - think about that one for a second.

28 – Mark Ingram RB Saints
60 – Shane Vereen RB Patriots

Ingram's contract was 4 years, $7.42 million. He's a tough one to
read because of the rotation, and New Orleans uses the more versatile
players more.
Gabe Carimi, picked right after by the Bears, was the next OL picked -
and he's now a guard for the Bucs, so they didn't exactly kill that
pick; Ras-I Dowling can't stay healthy at CB, though Aaron Williams has
been a good starter after moving to S. Two starting playoff QBs in this
area, Orlando Franklin was a solid starter at OT when healthy.

Vereen's been a good starter, as has been DeMarco Murray; Carolina
busted Terrell McClain a few picks later. Marcus Gilbert's been a start
at OT.
Not a lot I have to have in this draft in this area. Carolina
certainly got nothing of it, picking three defenders in the next 40
picks and having none of them. Jordan Cameron would be neat to ahve
right now, and he's a guy I was interested in, I guess, along with Sam
Acho (11 sacks in 3 years).

Value Summary -
Obviously, the big thing is picking correctly. You have to get the
best player, and you'll tend to find better lineman value at both 28 and
60, but mostly because they're safer (and you play five, so it's not
tough to get one on a field). WR is pretty hit or miss, as you might
expect in years 1-3 anyway. Some guys take a while, some come out right
at the start. DB is tougher to read outside 28. Tight end seems to
provide plenty enough value, in general.

Contract – it's reasonable to assume that extrapolating the past
contracts out, that each goes up by roughly $100k a year. The
difference between '11's Ingram and '13's Perry, which is the full span
of the new CBA, changes that first year cap hit by under $100k/year.
So, it's safe to assume that the 28th pick will be a 4 year, $7.7
million deal.

The Broncos' combo of Williams, RB Montee Ball ($629k cap hit 2013),
Kayvon Webster ($539k), Quanterus Smith ($336k), Tavarres King (now a
Panther, but either way - $405k), Zac Dysert ($417k) gives a somewhat
accurate estimate of what the draft class will cost - $3.7-3.8 million
for six picks to make the roster.

So, there's room to make something happen here, to grab a starter or
two. Carolina, obviously, has seen the value of a top draft (2013
really bolstered the defense), and the concern of blowing a draft (they
have essentially nothing to show for 2009-10-11 except a few starters at
positions they redundantly overdrafted for).

So, The Offseason, Then?

The wound of the 9ers' loss still festers, and it will. I don't think
I'll find peace in this game ever. I feel kinda wronged. I hope the
team trains all offseason with that bad taste in their mouths.

But, now we look at the next steps.

Dave Gettleman starts out with $17 million in cap space, which sounds
great. Problem is, I can't see a way the team does anything with it,
outside of re-signing Greg Hardy and Cam Newton. I have mock contracts
assumed for both guys (I'm assuming Hardy gets $11 million, Cam $17
million, per year) and they take up so much space that there isn't much
left (and then you have to have about $3 million for draft picks to come
up with, as a quick estimate).

In my opinion, you have to return Travelle Wharton and Jordan Gross -
you can find tons of press right now talking about Gross' good year and
need to have him back, but Wharton was a big part of it, too. I believe
you have to bring back Hardy, and get Cam's contract done sooner rather
than later. I believe you have to bring back Captain Munnerlyn, but
after that I'm flexible in the defensive secondary.

I'll throw other stuff out there in the very near future on this stuff
- with a lot more detail on potential contracts, draft picks, free
agents - so stick around.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Season, Spoiled

Carolina choked on success, finally, after what felt like a number of
successful midseason attempts at passing through.

The 49ers had their way with Carolina all over the field, doing nothing
impressive but simply playing better. They converted when Carolina
couldn't. They could get away with their jawing when Carolina couldn't.
They made a few things happen Carolina couldn't.

It didn't help that Carolina left at least 11 points on the board in
the red zone. It absolutely didn't help that the refs seemed to call
Carolina a lot more than San Francisco on one silly penalty after
another. One of the more egregious penalties came with the TD for San
Francisco, which wasn't initially ruled a TD - and then Jim Harbaugh was
flagged for being on the field. Photographic evidence showed he was on
the field DURING the play, which would negate the TD, as it should've.
A dead ball foul is no deterrent whatsoever.

Earlier that play, the 49ers had 12 men in the huddle, and that wasn't
called either - so you'd have had 1st and goal at the 6. All of that
was setup by a Drayton Florence pass interference on a 3rd down play
that, I guess I'd have a harder time arguing about (only argument
would've been uncatchable, I guess, and it would've been a solid
argument there). All of that encompassed a last-second touchdown that
put San Francisco up for good.

That, and a Captain Munnerlyn busted coverage in the third quarter that
put the ball at the Carolina 2, threw the game out of control.

It was a disastrous home-crowd playoff loss, their second consecutive.
The 2008 Cardinals game was a bigger implosion, but this one doesn't
hurt much less. Not a lot to say otherwise - it felt like Cam was a
little spacy, a little like he had a concussion, with five minutes to go
being slow about how he ran his two minute type drill down by 13 before
throwing the pick. That doesn't excuse anything - and I don't know if
he had a concussion, but he acted very bizarre. Not that a comeback
was likely anyway.

Most of the community has taken to worrying about the upcoming
offseason - tempting, I know. I'll let the body of this season cool a
bit before I worry about assigning too much blame to players in the form
of letting them go, but I see the catharsis in doing it. Maybe later.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

In one quick week, San Francisco suddenly became a media darling for barely winning on the road against a team with a worse record than theirs.  Three road teams won (the lone home winner took a four score comeback), more commentary on how broken it is to seed division winners higher than wildcards regardless of record.  

 Suddenly, with that win, San Francisco's the hottest team in the league, though Carolina's record over time is better (and includes a win at San Francisco).  Bring that up and you hear about how much better San Francisco is since then.  But this isn't as remarkably different a team as you might think. 

Michael Crabtree is a legitimate addition.   Is he a tremendous matchup risk?  He's 6'1 210, playing against physical DBs. He's good - last year he topped out at 85 receptions at 13/reception, and 9 scores. That's a slight uptick from normal for him last year, and of course he's been hurt, so this year's lower. He put up 100 against Atlanta, half that with a score against TB.  Arizona shut him down for 3 for 29; against an awful Green Bay team without its top corner for a lot of the game, sure, 8/125.  So he does well against terrible defenses, and allright against good defenses that stop him.  Will they work him in?  Absolutely.  He, Anquan Boldin, and Vernon Davis make for a good trio. It's not amazing, but it's there.  They do well what they are best suited to do. 

Davis, of course, came out of the Carolina game, unlucky for the 49ers (except that he was hurt on a play that clearly should've been a fumble, which would've been recovered by Carolina).  Davis' 13 TDs are an outlier, suggesting that he will struggle to have success like that often (take his '09, also 13 TD, which he hasn't matched until now).  That outlier suggests he's already exceeded statistical expectation.  He's powerful, but he's not Jimmy Graham. 

Crabtree got the bulk of the targets against Green Bay, so he'll probably get a little more attention.   But you'll probably see a fair bit of cover 1 this game if Carolina DB show they can press well.  Green Bay didn't seem to try; Carolina can.  

This is a somewhat similar process to playing the Saints, cover well by redirecting and getting WRs off their timing.  It's a counter to the longer routes and double moves that both teams provide.  Not only does the receiver look covered, he's not where he should be.    Cover1 without a lot of blitzing (and Carolina shouldn't) gives you a lot of options.  Cover1 robber means a high zone and a low zone.  Otherwise, you can still double whoever - you can have 'sun' calls that can push a LB into the flat.  You can play a blitz read - it's man-free and if you're a LB, you're given a guy to cover (if he doesn't cover, blitz).   That might not work as well with Davis, though if the SS has Davis, you can push a LB to bracket and you can still read the two backs.   

The reads are good for the backs, to a point, where the 9ers spend a lot of time in playaction with both backs blocking; they run more 22 personnel than anyone in the league, and combine that with 12 and 21 a significant amount, too.  Your base defense plays a significant amount in this one. They run more college type plays than most - not only pistol or zone read, they run bootlegs, and a lot of screens.  

The key factor is Colin Kaepernick, who has struggled all year with good defenses. Carolina had him for a 42 QBR, Seattle 67.5 and 20.1, and only one of those three games did he rush for more than 35 yards.  

Carolina must stop the run.  It's somewhat inside-out - yes, they have to contain Frank Gore, though that happened last week with 20 for 66.  What you absolutely can't do is drop 100 with Kaepernick.  A lot of that's in better pass defense - playing good contain - and Gore's a guy who can make you pay but you execute and tackle?  You have him covered. 

On the other end, absolutely, Aldon Smith is more at high speed.  Don't forget that Dan Skuta had a good day that day rushing, and that Ahmad Brooks was still out there (Brooks had 2 sacks).  It's not as if San Francisco's rush game was totally neutered, or that Carolina had a massive game offensively to win.   

That San Fran defense isn't tops in its class anymore.  Carolina outperformed it most of the way, with a star performance against, well, these same 49ers.  Seattle actually ended up narrowly knocking them off for #1 in points and yards, and I don't know if Carolina's so happy about that either.   But back to the 9ers - still in the conversation as 3rd in the league in points, 5th in yards.   But their time of posession and field position type offense will help you a little.  Didn't hurt Carolina, either.  But San Fran drops to 9th in yards per attempt for both run and pass.  They can be run on, and they can be passed on.   You have to be very careful doing it, but it's doable. 

I'd love to see some new packaged plays.  I see the team using the bunch concepts this game a good bit, which works into what I'd prefer to do to San Fran's LBs - get a few of them off the field.  

That starts with 3 WR sets, which pulls a guy off the field.  If that's a DL and then the two OLB are in tighter, it's easier to run.   As well, 3 WR looks from base personnel or 21 personnel (Hartsock stays in, Olsen splits).  You have to be able to run on the 9ers and you have to set it up so they have fewer LBs on the field.  You achieve both, to a point, with 3 WR sets.  With a little more spread, if necessary, pull LaFell to crack a LB with that zip motion Moose always ran (and turn it into a few drags when it's pass).  

Carolina went to slants and dosed up the corner routes more with Smith gone, and I don't know if that would or should keep up (it suits the WRs but not Cam, especially if he's tense).  I'd work in a fair bit of Olsen in 2 TE sets, having everyone else set him up in the traditional F-post, I'd have him get a couple shots down the field, but otherwise I'd have him work the middle at 15 yards behind the clearouts.   Alternately, with the base defense being pretty strong, I'd play the 9ers' game and go 22 personnel against it a bit.  If needed, pull Hangartner in the game.  Big on big, so to speak.  They're a good pursuit team but if you can find a seam on the outside zone after making them account for 8-9 gaps, you're going to bust one. 

Carlos Rogers is out for the game, which can't hurt.  They have plenty of decent CB out there, and Rogers got overhyped (and then overpaid), but he's still their best guy.  This helps Carolina.  They also have the aggressiveness of Donte Whitner, and that can be exploited.

Absolutely, a full-speed Smith, Crabtree, Davis help SF. Carolina gets guys back, too. Carolina also directly caused the two big SF injuries (Davis, Eric Reed).  Did they intend to?  No.  Were they physical? Absolutely.  It's not 100% luck that Carolina got a boost from injury. 

Yes, Carolina got some bounces (recovering their fumbles and SF's). SF got theirs in some good calls that bailed them out at home and a non-fumble call that meant points.   

They still have to show up, but at the least it's an insult to be an underdog at home.  They're still a remarkably physical team that can make you pay.    It's not that I'm not remarkably nervous about this one.   It's that Carolina's playing itself in this one.  They're the same team - same roots, same offensive playbook, same third year quarterbacks.   I love the makeup of both, and that's what scares me.  It comes down to which version of the same exact thing works better.   

I think Carolina can win it, and if they can get the breaks in the defensive secondary that Seattle tends to get, they're golden.  If they start calling things like the first NO game, they're screwed.   Anything in the median and it's all up to Newton to bring it home instead.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

BCS Bowl Game – Super Geeking About Football

I watch enough college game to look at prospects I want to see, so I
can be knowledgeable enough to have some clue of the draft, and I try
not to get too wrapped up in prospects that do well in bowl games or on
dynasties (looking at you, overhyped Alabama players).

So, watching the title game last night, I tried enhancing with twitter
a bit, saw that there was more than the one telecast. Which on its own
is awesome, but they had one tailored more toward me.

I've drowned out a bit on this site in scheme, coaching, and so on.
It's what I like as much as anything, it's what gives a team identity,
it's the blueprint. So when I saw there was a broadcast version called
Film Room, that was the best possible way to watch the ballgame.
Nothing but coaches (and Matt Millen shoehorned in there so there'd be a
little less dead air), and not chump coaches either. Kevin Sumlin and
Paul Chryst, two of my favorite college coaches, along with BC's Steve
Addazio. I'm more or less ambivanent about Chris Spielman in there, and
wasn't familiar with Tom Luginbill, but still - there was so much more

It was a little harder to see the action, but I'd get used to it.
There were numerous calls of what to look for, what to expect,
highlighted by the three coaches calling the fake punt coming before it
happened. Fantastic.

I earnestly hope that the Megacast is the way of the future. I would
absolutely pay the NFL some nominal fee to have access to my game, but
without having to hear the same tired announcers. I'd gladly hear what
coaches had to say around other coaches instead of playing to the camera
- a la Jon Gruden. It's amazing how much more quality comes out of
Gruden's mouth when he has time to talk about football than when he's
just heaping praise on whoever just did something nominal on the field.

Doesn't have to be the top coaches or current NFL coaches. It could
be personable coordinators at times - a great role for Dan Henning, for
instance, or guys like Al Saunders when they eventually retire. Mike
Martz and Brian Billick are two guys who are making money on TV and
being completely wasted in their roles as mediocre color commentators.
It'd be a better use of the sagging, monstrous roster of 'talent' that
ESPN and the networks continually shove in our faces, except there'd be
some merit to it.

Now, I'd no rather hear Keyshawn Johnson talk about coverages than
anything else, it's not a name recognition thing. It's not a star power
thing, or a scream over top of each other thing like ESPN talk shows.
It's about the game. There are the traditional option, for those that
like it the old way. There's the party atmosphere of whatever the
middle option was, if you're dying to see Johnny Manziel or Tim Tebow
show up and say words. Either way, I'd listen to coaches talk about
actual football in real time for about 9 hours a day before I'd get
tired of it.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Saints Win

New Orleans knocked off the Eagles (cue pundits suggesting that "what Chip Kelly does, just doesn't work in the NFL") by two points at the last second, so Carolina plays at home next Sunday against the winner of 49ers/Packers.

Both are 3-4 teams (though the quality varies).  Do you want to worry more about the opponent's defense?  You want the 9ers to win. The Packers are definitely weaker there.   Their offense on the other hand will hurt you.

It ends up being this - do you want to beat a team very similar to you, or unlike you?  Do you want to beat the team you've played, or the team you haven't?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Rivera Discusses Lovie Smith

I'm going to go on interpretation in the Ron Rivera/Lovie Smith
situation, as Rivera discussed it yesterday.

I take Rivera at face value on the ideal of there being no hard
feelings. What would be good to know, of course, is how Rivera feels
about the average coaching relationship in general.

Nonetheless, the end result is that Smith erred in letting Rivera go.
Did he want Rod Marinelli when he first put together his staff?
Absolutely. And he didn't get him at the time. Rivera was highly
recommended, and he worked out. You can't ask for much better than two
top 3 defenses and a Super Bowl run. But, philosophically, Rivera
didn't fit as well.

You can see in what Ron Rivera defense do, at least when they're
working well, that sitting in cover 2 and being passive isn't what he's
used to. Not in Philly, not in San Diego, and not here. Some of my
memories of the worst defenses in 2011-12 were late game prevent
defenses (including some horrors against Atlanta and Chicago).

He made it work in Chicago, and he didn't deserve to be let go - it's
not that he was fired, he just wasn't offered a new contract, but all of
that's from your viewpoint. When a team chooses not to have you work
there anymore, I don't imagine that's a great feeling. Rivera bounced
back, as you might imagine he would, and built things his way.

Bob Babich did fit, and he replaced Rivera, but those were the worst
defenses of the Smith era. They bounced back a bit with big spending
(Julius Peppers, for instance) and Marinelli, who took Detroit to 0-16
just prior, righted the ship somewhat. Not as good as Rivera. Babich,
per the Chicago Tribune, was Rivera's first choice at LB coach (or, at
least, he tried to hire him), so there's no hard feelings there, either.
His son, Bobby, got his start here as a defensive assistant (though you
never saw him on the coaching roster), and was assistant DBs coach in
Cleveland last year. I'd be willing to suggest he'd join this staff in
a similar role if he doesn't catch on anywhere else.

I guess you could say that Rivera's inability to say no to potential
opportunity (at the time, 8 interviews, many of them apparently Rooney
Rule interviews) was a distraction. Rivera probably didn't do himself
favors accepting every single request. It's difficult territory,
however, to say you know a team's intentions or to not want to succeed
at any opportunity. Still it becomes about you in a negative (they
didn't hire him) instead of positive (every team theoretically wanted me
as their coach enough to talk to me) way, and perception can be reality.

Just ask Dave Gettleman, who can relate. He was passed over, but
hopefully this was the right opportunity for him, and for Carolina.

And ask Steve Wilks, a guy who stands to have a strong future in the
league, who was fired by Smith a couple of years later. Immediately
snapped up by Rivera in San Diego, Wilks' secondary was the difference
in the #1 defense there. It was the only coaching move he had a say in
(Rivera took over for Ted Cottrell, who was more or less forced on Norv
Turner, so he had no say in his other coaches). Wilks, not
coincidentally, has been the most critical position coach on a Panthers
secondary that lacks talent but has been a big part of this year's #2
defense. He was around for the Bears' Super Bowl run. He'd be our
next defensive coordinator, and was apparently Rivera's first choice.

So it seems a matter of circumstance as much as anything. Rivera was
in the right place at the right time, and then he wasn't. In the end,
it worked out for him.

Hardy DPOW; Nortman STPOW

Greg Hardy, as you might expect after four sacks, is NFC Defensive
Player of the Week. It's his second, and the defense's fifth. Hardy
earned his first for a 3 sack performance against the Giants. Luke
Kuechly was for weeks 10 and 16 (so, the team brought in consecutive
weeks), and Thomas Davis landed week 6. Davis was also player of the
month for November

Novorro Bowman was player of the month, I guess since the 8 sacks for
Hardy and 68 tackles/INT for Kuechly in the month canceled each other
out. It's not like they weren't both impressive.

It's nice to see Brad Nortman finally get respect, though. The 2nd
year punter, whose struggles last year were fairly well documented, has
been doing an excellent job out there this year, and received NFC
Special Teams Player of the Month. Nortman's consistency has been a
major benefit this year. His massive leg has always been there, it's
just being put to better use. It's what you want to see of any team
with a good defense, and absolutely what you'd want to see when you burn
a draft pick on a punter.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Hardy Changed The Conversation

Ron Rivera referring to Greg Hardy as The Kraken took a long road.

The no-nonsense coach likely turned a couple heads with the mention,
but the credit goes to Hardy.

For one, nothing happens without exceptional play, and Hardy has
brought that. He's cleaned up his 2011 run issues, playing smarter.
His 2012 bulk did, as I hoped and suggested, foreshadow a good '12 and a
breakout '13. It didn't hurt that he had 7 sacks, more than most
players have in a year, in the final two critical games. Hardy is
peaking at the right time.

That said, he had to overcome a bit. Attitude, for one. Battling
through injury after an impressive junior year, Hardy went from surefire
first rounder to hardcore unknown as a senior, eventually going in the
sixth round when he scared a lot of scouts with his bizarre attitude and
odd focus.

Meanwhile, once he landed here in Carolina, behind guys like Charles
Johnson and Tyler Brayton (starters) and heir apparent Everette Brown,
there wasn't a ton of opportunity - not like he was ready for it - so
the rookie started getting known for his athleticism. Baby Pep was the
nickname, and not of his design. His measurables and moodiness
apparently reminded players of Julius Peppers, and it started to be hard
to shake.

It didn't hurt that Hardy was able to play special teams gunner at 280
lbs, often beating DBs downfield.

Sometimes when you don't like what's being said, you can change the
conversation. Despite the nutty distractions off the field, Hardy has
done his greatest talking on the gridiron.

Quick Thoughts On Playoff Visitors

Of course, it would be exhausting to fully detail all three opponents
(or, even moreso, all five) since statistically, at most the team will
face is one (and then the ability to face another with a win).

But, I want to rough out what's going on with the three wild card teams
Carolina could play on the 10th. Of course, since Carolina is the 2
seed, they will play the highest ranked remaining team from the wild
card - so the Eagles being the higher ranked division winner, they would
play here if they won; if the Saints win, they go to Seattle and
Carolina plays the winner of San Francisco/Green Bay.

Chip Kelly's Eagles are the most intriguing team of the trio. Starting
1-3 (with the one win beating up on the awful defense of the Redskins),
they've only lost 3 of their last 12, finishing 7-1. They're
legitimately hot.

They've done well when they have a real quarterback, and Nick Foles is
an efficient guy, rarely turning the ball over. But their wild mix of
fast play, zone read, and packaged play concepts take the path of least
resistance. Teams worry about the deep pass, so they give up a lot to
LeSean McCoy, this year's rushing champion. They're 2nd in overall
offense, 1st in run. Their OL has started to shape up better as well.

Where they suffer is on defense. While they play with big leads, and
the running game provides just enough time of possession to keep things
manageable, it's still a defense that isn't deep and doesn't get rest.
They finish 32nd, and only gets a boost to 22nd for yards/attempt (in
that they get passed on the most, so pure yards may not fully show where
they are).

The teams that have handled them have tended to have excellent DE play
and, in some cases, great fundamentals (with Dallas being an anomaly in
so many ways). Carolina, before they showed what they could do
defensively and before it looked like they had even one serviceable
defensive back, only gave up 14 points to the Eagles in preseason (but
only scored 9). Now, both teams have evolved a bit.

You would hope that a loud home crowd would aid Carolina, though the
Eagles don't make a lot of changes at the line. Packaged plays are
choices the QB makes, and often the rest of the offense doesn't know
until it's happened. On the upside, Carolina is quick off the ball and
the Eagles' OL wouldn't have an advantage.

*San Francisco - they're the same team that Carolina beat 10-9. Above
average defense (plus Aldon Smith at full ability now, compared to where
they were) and good offense (with, assumedly, more Vernon Davis than
last time). They're still a fairly conservative team passing that
relies on the intermediate to Anquan Boldin and intermediate to deep
with Davis, while pounding the football. They rate statistically very
similar to where they have the last two years, do the same things
overall. This, of the three, is the devil you know, so to speak.
They've played, and beaten, the 9ers on an away field, and they're the
one good defense of the group.

They're the least banged up, too (though Mike Tolbert and Mike Mitchell
did as much damage as anyone). One minor weakness in comparison is that,
with Bruce Miller injured and the team using more 22 personnel (2 TE/2
RB) than anyone else in the league by far, they're lacking a bit there.
Carolina seemed to match up well enough with the 22 last time.

*Green Bay - everyone knows they sqeaked into the field. Worst
division winner, and a very bizarre 3-2-1 in their last six. Of course,
that was without Aaron Rodgers for the most part, and that's what starts
to make things dangerous. Rodgers can be a game changer, and the
packaged plays just work much better with him. He adds that dangerous
component of athleticism, not often used but often dangerous. Eddy Lacy
has stepped up a good bit in the last month with 350 yards rushing, as
well. They remain a top ten offense despite the struggles over the last
two months.

But, their defense is in the mid-20s for essentially every category,
and they're without leading rusher Clay Matthews this week. If that
continued, it would be an even worse defense overall. They don't do
anything well except being fair at blitzing.

So, speaking in base generalities, you would want to work on,
-zone reads, contain and running QBs
-packaged plays
-run/pass awareness
-gap integrity issues that have haunted the team a bit the last couple
of weeks

Offensively, you'd want to work on
-base packages against the 3-4, including playaction and how to
manipulate them out of the 3-4. All three teams are 3-4 based (as is
New Orleans; Seattle's 4-3 over runs a significant amount of 3-4 type
-your own third down packages, obviously

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Lovie Smith Hired In Tampa

Lovie Smith is the next head coach of the Buccaneers.

There's also the strong possibility, as I'd posted before, about Jeff Tedford, but nothing's announced.  Depending on the source, Leslie Frazier is the DC, or Rod Marinelli is the DC.  So, either way, Smith is doggedly tied to the Tampa 2.

Which, be my guest.  Run the Tampa 2.  You have Darelle Revis, a man corner who has more limited value in zone, and a box safety in Mark Barron that isn't useful outside the box; also, Dashon Goldson underwhelming you behind it.  Again, be my guest.  I'm not scared of that.

I do hope Smith can't land both Frazier and Marinelli, as Frazier as a position coach would be a 'get' for Smith.  Both Smith and Frazier have ties to Ron Rivera, so that would remain interesting between them.

Smith, who has a .538 record as a head coach, would bring solid defense and good fundamentals.  But even if it were a top scheme still, the Tampa 2 doesn't fit his defense.  His offenses have traditionally underwhelmed, playing conservatively and playing to the defense's strengths, not their own.

And his record against winning teams is 19-38.

Smith will, I assume, build a strong enough staff, and contend.  He'll probably make the playoffs there now and again.  But while that makes games against them tough from here on, I don't know if I'd worry they're contenders year in and year out like the Saints (until Drew Brees is finally too old - he's currently 34 but I'm willing to bet we see four more years of him) or Falcons (who will remain flawed but fix enough to get back to contention next year).

It'll be a tough division.  It has been a tough division.  Ron Rivera does well against teams where he has a personal stake, so hopefully that helps here.