Top needs for each NFC team in free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft

Using PFN’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM), in conjunction with NFL Next Gen Stats, we’ll take a look at each NFC team’s most pressing needs as they prepare for free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons – Inside linebacker

The Atlanta run defense was the worst in the league per OSM. The only way they were able to contain opposing running backs was to place eight men in the box more than 25% of the time. Running back efficiency worsened by nearly 40%, which resulted in yards per carry dropping from an average of 7.5 to 4.0. That’s still not great, considering the league average was 4.3, but it’s an improvement. The Falcons need help all over the interior but should start at the linebacker position.

Carolina Panthers – Defensive tackle

Similar to the Falcons, the Panthers struggled against the run, 30th in the league per OSM. Opposing running backs’ average efficiency was fourth-most against the Panthers. When running back efficiency was 3.0 or less, opposing backs averaged nearly 7.0 yards per carry. When running back efficiency was more than 4.0, they averaged less than 3.0 yards per carry. The trend points out the obvious concerns in the middle of the field, especially within the NFC South, so look for the Panthers to address the interior of their defensive line, as that is the team’s greatest need in 2020.

New Orleans Saints – Defensive end

While the Saints’ tight ends had the largest variance to the league average, they were underutilized in the Saints’ offense, only qualifying for OSM in six games (four with Drew Brees as quarterback). The greatest variance after that is against opposing quarterbacks. Per OSM, the Saints pass defense ranked 24th in the league. Most of that was due to a lack of pressure. They allowed 2.87 seconds of time to opposing quarterbacks. Of the thirty-nine quarterbacks that qualified for OSM, only nine had more time to throw than that. This led to above-average intended air yards and completed air yards as well. The Saints should look to improve their pass rush, starting with an edge defender.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Tight End

Depending on what happens at the quarterback position, tight end may end up being the greatest need per PFN’s Offensive Share Metric. Tampa Bay utilizes their tight ends in the passing game a lot. However, neither O.J. Howard or Cameron Brate were able to get much separation this year, ranking as the fourth- and fifth-worst in the league in that category. While they combined for over one hundred targets on the season and had a respectable average catch rate of 65%, their inability to separate contributed to poor yards after catch, primarily for Cameron Brate who ranked last in the league in 2019.

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals – Cornerback

Outside of the wide receiver position, the Cardinals struggled across the board, both offensively and defensively. The biggest concern is at the cornerback position. The Cardinals placed eight men in the box the seventh most times in 2019, over 35% of the time. Limiting safety help in the backfield put more pressure on the cornerbacks. Unfortunately, they gave up the third-highest OSM to opposing quarterbacks, third-highest to opposing wide receivers and second-highest to opposing tight ends. Quarterbacks had little trouble finding an open receiver, the majority of which had higher than average separation, contributing to the worst completion rate allowed in the NFL.

Los Angeles Rams – Safety

The Rams defense was decent when they controlled the run with just seven in the box or when quarterbacks were at or below average with their intended air yards. However, safety help in the box barely impacted running back efficiency or average yards per carry and quarterbacks often had success when targeting further downfield. When intended air yards were more than nine, on average, completion rate increased by nearly 5% for quarterbacks.

San Francisco 49ers – Cornerback

The only negative OSM variance for the 49ers for 2019 related to defending wide receivers. Although it’s partially due to defensive scheme, the 49ers gave up the most separation to receivers of any team last year. When they allowed less than three yards of separation, receiver catch rate decreased from 66% on average to 54%. Finding a speedy, shutdown corner may give them another shot at the Lombardi.

Seattle Seahawks – Defensive lineman

It looks like every NFC West team needs to focus on the defensive side of the ball first in 2020. The Seahawks were least effective defending the run per OSM. However, similar to the 49ers, a lot of that was defensive scheme. They placed eight men in the box fifth-most in the league. While running back efficiency remained pretty constant, the average yards per carry increased by 0.5 when there were eight men in the box more than 20% of the time. More pressure at the point of attack may reduce efficiency and allow the speed of Seattle’s defense to limit those yards per carry.

Whether each NFC team focuses on free agency or the NFL draft to fill their needs, general managers and coaches will work in unison over the next few months to balance their rosters. OSM is a great indicator of how players succeed (or fail) during the play, which can be more insightful than box score stats, especially during the off-season.

If you’re interested in both the NFC and AFC, check out last week’s article which focused on AFC team needs heading into free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft. As always, for more NFL news and analysis – including mock drafts for 2020 and 2021 – as well as coverage of the XFL, be sure to follow Pro Football Network on Facebook and on Twitter @pfn365.

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