As many questions as there are on the offensive side of the ball, it’s the defense that has everybody talking. Going from a base 3-4 to a base 4-3 requires changes that start with the defensive line. Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus at the starting defensive tackle spots are excellent. Both players are impact guys from that position, both players can move around and are stylistically versatile, both are intelligent, both are disruptive and both should excel as they feed off one another. Depth is the huge issue here.
Behind Williams and Dareus we have Spencer Johnson and the two big boys in Troup and Heard. Johnson is a rotational guy best suited in gaps and he neither hurts nor makes an impact. He is a guy that could be part of the regular rotation, but he is also a guy I feel that we should seriously look to upgrade. Troup and Heard are huge and would be used when more beef is required, but neither has proven much of anything at this point and neither can be counted on as a solid rotational option.
Jasper was drafted last year as a 400 pound defensive tackle and then moved to the offensive line and spent most of the year on the practice squad. Jason Gilbert saw some action, but was largely unnoticed.
The defensive end positions are wide open.
Kelsay was asked to lose weight in order to transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker. He will have to put the weight back on in order to switch back to his natural 4-3 defensive end spot. Kelsay is a guy who people love to hate because he was overpaid, but the truth is that he is a nice player who does a lot of the little things well, and there was a noticeable difference when he was not on the field. What Kelsay is not, is an impact 4-3 pass rusher. If he struggles to get back up to weight he won’t be the solid left end he once was either.
This brings me to my next point: the right defensive end. The team does not have one. Dwan Edwards is a classic 3-4 DE who just not fit this new system. Edwards makes decent money and I believe he will be released before the season begins. Carrington is a bit of a wild card. He currently looks like a 3-4 DE and bulked up a bit to play as such last year, but he seems to be a more natural 280 than he does the 305 he was listed at last season. His athleticism should allow him to stay with the team and actually be somewhat productive in rotation on both sides.
Some feel that Merriman should be moved to defensive end. I do not. Merriman is still a natural 3-4 OLB and will not be a full-time DE. We are left with a huge need for a starting defensive end. There are some quality veterans out there on the free agent market, but most have seen their best days and should not be brought in to be the savior of the defensive line. A little extra leadership and teaching couldn’t hurt either.
Plan of Attack: Bring in the top 4-3 pass rushers April’s draft for a workout and target one in the first two rounds. Look to free agency for possible veteran plug.
The linebacker position scares me quite a bit because there is just so much uncertainty. I do believe that Sheppard will be able to man the middle with success. A year ago I would have believed otherwise. Sheppard’s tendencies of over pursuing and getting lost at times offset his natural speed and motor. Sheppard actually got the hang of it last season once he got some time and I was pleasantly surprised with how fast he did it.
Nick Barnett will move to the weak side in our new 4-3 and he should do so with relative ease. He is over 30 and will not be part of the long term plans, but for now he still has the speed and savvy to remain a quality player. The strong side is empty. Merriman is most likely a situational pass rusher at this point and he does not have the athletic ability to move around the open field more.
Kirk Morrison, if around, will back up inside and I do not believe Andra Davis will be on the team. That leaves us with Arthur Moats, Chris White and Danny Batton to duke it out. None of them have proven they can consistently take on blockers in run support which the strong side backer has to do in this defense.
All three are young and there is still a lot to see, but none have proven they can be the starter at this point. There are a handful of decent, but not sexy, names out there in free agency and we need to look long and hard at all of them.
Plan of Attack: Detect who the best fits are in free agency. None are big names, but quality exists. Evaluate whether one of our young current player can fill the void and what quality mid-late rounders are in this April’s draft.
This is an interesting group. At one point they were considered our strength. Last year they disappointed us big time. I think there is a nice mix of talent and age at the safety positions. Byrd was very inconsistent in 2011 after showing so much promise early on. I expect Byrd to be put back into a position that will showcase his strengths in 2012. Bryan Scott, George Wilson and Da’Norris Searcy all have different skill sets and could be serviceable. I would still look to upgrade a bit, but safety is not a position that puts me in panic mode.
The corners are bit more unknown. McGee has aged and has had inuries. He was never an elite cover guy and he seems to have lost a step. I expect the team to consider bringing in a younger veteran to fill his role. Drayton Florence is very inconsistent, but due to necessity he was forced to man the outside. Florence is a quality physical corner who would be best served playing in the slot.
On to Leodis McKelvin. He was literally a phenomenon that I have never before seen. The man has freakish athleticism and great speed. He was consistently in great position through his coverage. In fact, more often than not, McKelvin was literally right on the receivers hip all the way down field. So what happened? How was he out-manned so many times even though he was in much better position?
McKelvin has a horrible time tracking the ball. As well as he is able to stick with his man, it is all for nothing once the QB releases the ball. He just seems to flat-out lose it in the air. I do not know if this can be fixed at this point. The best option for McKelvin, and Byrd for that matter, would be to put them in more zone situations. This is where their strengths lie.
Last year’s rookie corners, Aaron Williams and Justin Rogers, certainly showed some promise, but both also showed some struggles. This is to be expected from young corners and I am not overly concerned with them. Williams needs to take that next step this year to solidify his place. Rogers was a late round small school guy who was drafted for his excellent special teams play in college. If anything, I felt Rogers was somewhat of a pleasant surprise last season. Still, this is an area I would entertain in most rounds simply because it’s so uncertain.
Plan of Attack: Seek out veteran free agents to replace McGee and possibly Florence. Look to this April’s draft to fill competition needs and find the best players for the scheme.
The bottom line is that this team is set at halfback, but not necessarily anywhere else. The scouting department must put in extra time this year and figure out what draftees, veteran free agents, and rookie free agents could step into our systems and showcase their strengths. There are too many holes to fill and we will need nights and weekends to do all the research. It’s time to get to work.