How does each NFC South team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?
Atlanta Falcons: Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson left via free agency, but the Falcons made up for it in the draft, using their first-round pick on Desmond Trufant and their second-rounder on Robert Alford. Trufant and Alford are fine prospects, but rookie cornerbacks often struggle initially. Atlanta’s pass rush should be just average at best. Trufant is the likely starter opposite Asante Samuel. Samuel offers little against the run, but is still a very good cover man and a true ball hawk at the corner position. Another cornerback here of note is Robert McClain, who got little fanfare for his work last season but performed admirably for the Falcons. Atlanta might now have four quality options at this position. At safety, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore return as the starters. There is little behind these two, but DeCoud and Moore are a fine pairing. Moore in particular stepped up his all-around game last season and is quickly becoming a do-it-all player and a key member of this defense.
Carolina Panthers: By drafting two defensive tackles with their first two picks, the Panthers look as though they have a fantastic front seven. But their secondary still really worries me. Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore were added at cornerback, but that simply isn’t enough to elevate concerns about the back end of Carolina’s defense. Chris Gamble is out of the picture, leaving Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn as the Panthers’ starting corners, although Florence could factor into that equation. Norman had a very up-and-down -- mostly down -- 2012 season, but he does have ability and could be primed to take a step forward in 2013. Munnerlyn, who is best equipped to be a slot cornerback, is probably the Panthers’ best defensive back. Josh Thomas has been underwhelming throughout his career and will provide cornerback depth. Carolina is one of the weakest teams in the league at the safety position. Charles Godfrey will start for sure, and Haruki Nakamura is likely to be the other stating safety. Godfrey is average in coverage and isn’t much of a force in the run game, but he is the best the Panthers have right now. Nakamura should be a backup, but he will most likely be forced to log a lot of snaps. Carolina should be scouring the waiver wire for secondary help, especially at safety.
New Orleans Saints: The Saints made two prominent additions to a secondary that struggled mightily in 2012 by signing cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafting safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round. Lewis and Jabari Greer will be the Saints’ starters, with Patrick Robinson as the nickel corner, which is what suits him best. But overall, this looks like a solid trio of cornerbacks for New Orleans’ new 3-4 defense, which should stress more press man coverage, although Lewis is probably better suited to zone or off coverage. Roman Harper remains on the team right now, but his type of in-the-box safety who is a liability in coverage is starting to become a dinosaur in this league. Replacing him with Vaccaro gives the Saints much more flexibility from the position. Vaccaro is a great-looking prospect with size, range and physicality. Malcolm Jenkins also has some versatility to his game in that he can patrol the deep middle or walk up and play man coverage against a slot receiver or tight end. However, Jenkins has never quite lived up to his first-round status. Jim Leonhard also is on the roster and could provide stability in a part-time role or as a replacement if Vaccaro or Jenkins were to fall to injury. This secondary looks to be much improved from a year ago.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs made one of the biggest moves around the league this offseason by trading for Darrelle Revis. Tampa Bay featured some of the worst starting corners in the league last season. With Revis on board, that certainly will not be the case again -- even if Revis is not quite himself initially after his knee injury. Having Revis allows the Bucs to match up an elite cover man on the opposing No. 1 wide receiver and more or less leave Revis alone against the likes of Marques Colston, Steve Smith and Julio Jones or Roddy White. By doing so, the rest of the secondary obviously can manipulate coverage to better deal with other threatening weapons. That means Revis’ counterpart, most likely the disappointing Eric Wright or second-round pick Johnthan Banks, will often have safety help over the top. I would imagine Tampa Bay is hoping Banks grabs hold of that starting spot and doesn’t let go. Wright has been a liability since signing a big contract with the Buccaneers. Leonard Johnson also should factor in as a physical quality fourth corner, but he is speed-deficient. Tampa Bay also signed Dashon Goldson, giving them an excellent pairing of safeties along with last year’s first-round selection, Mark Barron. Barron is more of the strong safety type -- and Goldson more of a free safety -- but both can operate near the line of scrimmage or deep in coverage. Expect Barron to take a big step forward in his second season, especially in coverage. Barron could develop into the type of modern defender that matches up well against the new breed of athletic NFL tight ends.