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NFC South teams wise to focus on defense early

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

When it comes to next week's NFL draft, the NFC South should take a lesson from Carolina's DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

While the rest of the world was debating the real "Smash and Dash" last season, the Carolina backfield went in a different direction and dubbed itself "Double Trouble."

That's what the NFC South should do in the draft -- let flash go the same route as "Smash and Dash." What the NFC South -- and we're talking all four teams -- needs to do is forget all the hype fans and other teams are caught up in about offensive skill positions. Heck, just forget offense altogether (at least until later in the draft).

With its first draft pick, each NFC South team should go with a defensive player.

Here's why:

Let's start with the New Orleans Saints, who hold the division's earliest pick at No. 14 overall. What do the Saints really need on offense, besides a pitching machine for practice to keep Drew Brees' arm from wearing out? Not much, really. Yeah, they could use a power running back to go with Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas and a lot of fans are making a case for using the first-round pick on Ohio State's Chris "Beanie" Wells.

But let's think back to last season for a moment. The Saints had plenty of offense. They didn't make the playoffs because they couldn't play defense. They fired defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs and spent a fortune to replace him with Gregg Williams. They've spent their offseason overhauling the defensive personnel by bringing in the likes of Jabari Greer, Darren Sharper, Paul Spicer and getting Dan Morgan back from retirement.

That's all good, but it's time to finish the job for a change. About this time last year, we all thought the Saints had fixed their defense when they drafted Sedrick Ellis and signed Jonathan Vilma. It wasn't enough as injuries ended up tearing the defense down. This year's moves aren't enough, either.

The Saints need one more strong defensive player with their first pick. I say take Ohio State safety Malcolm Jenkins. If he's gone, take defensive back Vontae Davis or defensive tackle Peria Jerry or linebacker Brian Cushing or linebacker Clay Matthews.

Just take defense.

Same for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 19. Forget all the Josh Freeman talk. The Bucs aren't taking a quarterback in the first round. They've got too many other needs and Raheem Morris isn't going to have much of a honeymoon period. He needs to win games and he can do that with Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich and an offense that's pretty good everywhere else.

But Morris can't win without defense. Remember how badly teams ran over the Bucs in that four-game slide that ended last season? Hope for defensive tackle B.J. Raji to fall or try to make Jerry fit, even if he might look a little undersized for coordinator Jim Bates' scheme. Or take a reach on Boston College's Ron Brace, who has better size, although No. 19 might be a bit early for him.

Or take a shot on Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson if Florida State's Everette Brown is gone. Yeah, I know the knock on Johnson is he takes some plays off, but didn't it look like Gaines Adams might have been on more than a few coffee breaks last season?

Before you start arguing for a receiver like Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey, consider one other thing. Morris came up as a defensive backs coach. He's got Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber as his starting cornerbacks right now. Not a bad combination because Talib's a rising star and I think Barber's going to answer some critics this year. But how much longer can Barber play at a high level.

If Jenkins or Davis is sitting there at No. 19, the Bucs should pounce.

Straight up Interstate 75 from the world's most glamorized pirate ship, the Falcons are in the same boat. Forget all that talk about Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew. The Falcons don't need him. If Mike Smith and Mike Mularkey really wanted a pass-catching tight end, they wouldn't have shown Alge Crumpler the door last season. Sure, they can get a tight end who can catch a few balls -- in the third or fourth round.

They need defense. Let's face the facts: Atlanta's defense played way over its head last year. This unit needs some young talent and Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff know that.

It's hard to know who's going to be available at No. 24, but the Falcons have needs at de
fensive tackle, outside linebacker, safety and maybe cornerback and defensive end. Smith got this defense to win last season when he was starting Grady Jackson, Keith Brooking and Lawyer Milloy, who had a combined 39 years of experience as well as wear and tear, last season. Imagine what he could do with the young legs that Jerry, linebackers Cushing, Matthews or James Laurinaitis or safety Louis Delmas could bring?

I'm thinking Smith is imagining nothing but defense in the first round.

John Fox went offense twice in the first round last year when Carolina took Stewart and traded back into the first round to get tackle Jeff Otah. You can't argue either of those moves even if the Otah deal left the Panthers without a pick until the second round (No. 59 overall).

But Fox is a defensive coach at heart and, at least in his eyes, the Panthers don't have any huge needs on offense. They already have a few on defense (depth at defensive tackle and cornerback) and could have more if they trade franchise defensive end Julius Peppers before -- or during -- the draft. Then again, the Panthers probably only will part with Peppers if it means they can get into the first round, which is not impossible. If they do, I say they're going to grab the best pass-rusher available to replace Peppers. If they stay put, they still might grab the best pass-rusher available because Peppers is a unique individual and there's no guarantee he won't hold out for an entire season.

Speaking of guarantees, there never are any when it comes to the draft. But the closest thing to a guarantee for success this year is for all four NFC South teams to use their first pick on defense.