NFC South needs to find pass rush in draft

Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, left, or Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan would be a nice addition to any NFC South team looking to improve its pass rush. Getty Images

Let’s have a little bit of fun and play a game of NFC South word and name association.

I’ll start it off and say "franchise quarterbacks." This is where you chime in and say what pops into your head. Your venue for that generally is the comments section or the mailbag, but I’ll go ahead and read your minds. I feel safe on this.

Your answer, with only the slightest bit of room for argument, is Drew Brees, Josh Freeman and Matt Ryan. If you want to argue any of that, hold it for now, but I probably won’t listen anyway.

Now, I’ll throw out the words "elite pass-rushers."

I can’t hear you now and I can’t even read your minds. You might be saying John Abraham, Charles Johnson and Will Smith. Or you might not.

Let’s face it: The NFC South is a division with three franchise quarterbacks. Maybe four if the Carolina Panthers take Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert with the No. 1 choice in this draft and actually hit on that pick.

You stop or slow great quarterbacks by putting pressure on them. Amazingly, the NFC South isn’t really set up to do that, but that could change quickly. Although most of the attention on the April draft has centered on the Panthers and their quarterback situation, there’s another huge storyline out there.

When all is said and done, 2011 could be the year of the defensive end both for the NFC South and the draft. There at least is a possibility the Buccaneers, Saints and Falcons each could use first-round picks on defensive ends.

The time might be right because that’s a position of strength in this year’s draft. I’m looking at Mel Kiper’s Big Board and seeing seven defensive ends (when you count college outside linebackers and defensive tackles as guys who may project as NFL defensive ends) among the top 25 players.

The NFC South often is referred to as the NASCAR division, so, gentlemen and general managers, start your pass rush. Please.

It’s overdue. If things don’t change dramatically, and soon, we could be looking at somewhere close to a decade of Brees, Ryan and Freeman having all day to throw. That’s the way it was last season when the NFC South had two big flashes (Johnson in Carolina and Abraham in Atlanta) and not much else in the way of a pass rush.

We’ll leave Abraham’s 13.0 sacks and Johnson’s 11.5 in the mix because last year’s division numbers would be laughable without them. Even with them, things were pretty ugly.

Tampa Bay produced an NFC-worst 26 sacks. Carolina and Atlanta each had 31. New Orleans led the division with 33 sacks, which tied the Saints for 10th in the NFC. The NFC average was 35.9 and the league average 35.3.

If you want to throw out the old lines that “stats are for losers’’ or "sacks don't tell the whole story with defensive ends,'' go ahead. But I’ll throw this back at you: The Pittsburgh Steelers led the league with 48 sacks and the Green Bay Packers tied for second with 47. Those two teams played in the Super Bowl.

The NFC South had both its playoff representatives, Atlanta and New Orleans, bounced the first time they took the field. The Falcons and the Saints are just fine on offense and, for the first time in franchise history, so are the Buccaneers.

But no NFC South team is going to get to the Super Bowl without improving its pass rush, and that’s not going to happen without some help in the draft. This division simply does not have a ... oh, let’s just say, Julius Peppers. This division doesn’t have a sure-fire dominant pass-rusher. (Note: Carolina's Johnson could turn into that guy if he can string together more seasons like the last, and if he ends up staying with the Panthers amid some potential uncertainty about his status as a free agent in a new labor agreement. But this column's more about the need to improve the pass rush in the other three NFC South cities).

Atlanta’s got Abraham, but he’s going to be 33 in May and he’s only one season removed from a disappointing 5.5-sack year. The Falcons can’t count on Abraham to put up big numbers much longer, and guys like Kroy Biermann, Chauncey Davis and Jamaal Anderson don’t scare anybody.

Maybe someone like Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn or Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan could scare someone. But the Falcons are going to have competition within their own division for guys like that. Atlanta has the No. 27 pick. Look at the myriad mock drafts out there and you see those same names frequently tied to Tampa Bay at No. 20 or New Orleans at No. 24.

It all makes sense. The Bucs were starting Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder much of last season. If they didn’t get really good play out of their secondary, things would have been really ugly. Tampa Bay turned a corner by going 10-6 last season, but the Bucs easily could slip back to mediocrity -- or worse -- if they don’t address the pass rush.

They used their first two picks last year on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Both showed a little promise before suffering season-ending injuries. They at least have the potential to generate a surge in the middle, but McCoy and Price aren’t going to really blossom until they have some help on the outside.

In New Orleans, the need also is obvious. The Saints have Smith, but he’s nearing Abraham territory, which means uncertainty. Smith dropped to 5.5 sacks last season after having 13 in the 2009 Super Bowl season. Smith will turn 30 in July. He might be able to bounce back and have a few more good seasons, but that’s not likely to happen if the Saints don’t add a threat on the other side. They got through last season with Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson serving as functional veterans.

But a Gregg Williams defense is supposed to thrive on pressure, and the Saints need more. Kerrigan or Clayborn could fit. Throw in California’s Cameron Jordan or Missouri’s Aldon Smith. Any of them could fit in with the Saints.

Or the Bucs. Or the Falcons.