New Foes in the South

The Buccaneers signed five new players on Tuesday and have been active throughout the first three weeks of free agency, beginning with the March 13 addition of All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson.  Of course, there were 524 players who became free agents on March 12, and not all of them were going to end up in Tampa, barring some pretty massive changes to roster limits/salary cap rules/reality as we know it.

A few of the more prominent players on that free agency list were bound to end up in the NFC South, signing with either the Falcons, Panthers and Saints.  And while the division hasn’t been ridiculously active on the open market as a whole, each of the Bucs’ three opponents has added a noteworthy player or two.  Let’s take a look at one new face on each of Tampa Bay’s three division foes and what it could mean for the Buccaneers.

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Atlanta: RB Steven Jackson

The Falcons pulled off a swap of well-heeled running backs, cutting the 31-year-old Michael Turner and adding 29-year-old (30 by opening day) Steven Jackson, formerly of the Rams.  And while Jackson has 2,395 career carries on his odometer to Turner’s 1,639, it is Jackson who looked fresher in 2012.  In the last of his nine years with the Rams, Jackson ran for 1,042 yards and 4.1 yards per carry and added 38 receptions.  Turner’s final Falcon season was good for 800 yards, 3.6 per tote and 19 catches.

The Buccaneers had the NFL’s top-ranked rush defense in 2012, and even with some changes (Roy Miller and Michael Bennett are gone but Dashon Goldson has arrived, Adrian Clayborn will be back and the draft may bring more help) should be strong in that category again in 2013.  Tampa Bay held Atlanta to an average of 72 rushing yards in their two meetings last year, but it should be noted that the Falcons were heavily tilted towards the passing attack in 2012.  Ranking eighth overall in offense, Atlanta did most of their damage with the NFL’s fourth-best passing attack, while the running game ranked 29th.

With Jackson added to the likes of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons could have a much more balanced – and frightening – offense.  Jackson is versatile enough, too, to be another asset in that passing attack.  He has seven seasons in which he has caught 40 or more passes; Turner’s 19 last year were actually a career high for him.

Jackson is up there in years for an NFL running back, but he was still effective in 2012.  He has always been a powerful runner, and he can still slam his way through relatively small creases.  He is also considered a better cut-back runner than Turner, which would add another element to the Falcons’ attack, especially against a defense that pursues as aggressively as the Buccaneers do.

Assuming Jackson doesn’t experience the same sort of rapid decline that led to Turner’s departure, the Falcons appear to have improved on offense, and in a way that will allow them to give the Buccaneers’ top defensive strength a greater challenge.

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Carolina: WR/KR Ted Ginn

The Panthers have been the least active NFC South team in free agency, mostly because a tight salary cap situation has made additional spending difficult. They haven’t added any big-name players, but they have made a number of lower-profile moves, such as picking up a trio of defensive backs to try to patch the secondary in S Mike Mitchell and cornerbacks Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore.

Somewhere in the middle is Ted Ginn Jr., the former first-round receiver in Miami who has never quite lived up to his draft status but has turned into one of the NFL’s better return men.  The Panthers are hoping that Ginn can contribute significantly to their passing attack, giving Cam Newton another explosive option besides Steve Smith, but even barring that he could make a big difference for Carolina in 2013.

Ginn averaged 10.2 yards per punt return for San Francisco last year, ranking 11th in the entire NFL in that category.  He didn’t score a touchdown in the return game last year, but he did in both 2010 and 2011 and his average in 2012 was actually below his career mark.  Ginn racked up 13.4 yards per punt return in 2010 and 12.3 in 2011.

The 49ers didn’t use Ginn as frequently on kickoff returns – he had just 11 of them last year, but he has handled that job quite a bit during his career.  His career average in that category is 23.2 per runback, and he has three more touchdowns on kickoff returns.  As a rookie in 2007 he led the entire NFL with 63 kickoff returns; that aspect of the game has been deemphasized in the NFL with the kickoff line moving up to the 35, but what opportunities the Panthers do get may go to their new signee.

The Bucs were not one of the NFL’s stronger teams in covering kicks and punts last year.  They ranked 24th in the NFL in opponent punt return average and 25th in opponent kickoff return average.  Fortunately, punter Michael Koenen’s powerful leg produced the league’s highest rate of touchbacks on kickoffs, so that issue is relatively minimal.  The Bucs will definitely be tested by Ginn in the punting game, however.

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New Orleans: LB Victor Butler

The free agency train has been pulling in and out of New Orleans quite frequently the last three weeks. T Jermon Bushrod and DE Turk McBride both departed for Chicago and LB Jonathan Casillas took off for Tampa.  Backup QB Chase Daniel chose to take on the same role behind St. Louis’ Sam Bradford instead of Drew Brees.  However, the Saints also landed underrated CB Keenan Lewis and several others, including linebacker Victor Butler just last week.

Butler, who played four seasons in Dallas, found a lot of interest in his pass-rushing potential on the free agent market but eventually chose New Orleans, where he presumably be a front-runner to start.  Butler didn’t find a starting job in Dallas, opening just three games over those four years, but he did contribute 11 sacks over that span.  The Saints are now converting to a 3-4 defensive front under new coordinator Rob Ryan – who previously coached Butler in Dallas – and this could be Butler’s chance to take on a much bigger role.

It’s easy to see why the Saints – along with the Steelers, Eagles and Browns – coveted Butler when the free agent market opened.  Playing behind DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer has significantly limited his playing time, but the former defensive end at Oregon made the most of what action he saw.  The Saints don’t have anyone standing in his way, so Butler will get an opportunity to show that he has the acceleration and pass-rushing moves to get to the quarterback.

The Buccaneers protected QB Josh Freeman well in 2012, ranking eighth in fewest sacks allowed per pass play and giving him time to throw for over 4,000 yards.  In the past, 3-4 defensive fronts have given the Bucs’ front more problems than the 4-3, presumably due to a lack of exposure to it.  Creative 3-4 architects can confuse a front line by bringing pass-rushers from all angles; the Saints will have a better chance of getting creative in 2013 with Ryan and Butler on board and working together.

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