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Five NFL defenses that (potentially) improved over the offseason

Seeing as how no teams have played a down yet, it makes it difficult to gauge which defenses will be improved in 2012. But based on the decisions they made in free agency and the draft, these five teams should be improved defensively next season.

Buffalo Bills
Think of the impact that Julius Peppers has had with the Bears the past two seasons – that’s exactly what Mario Williams could do for the Bills in 2012. Buffalo’s defense struggled last season mostly because the pass rush was non-existent. So GM Buddy Nix lured Williams to Buffalo this offseason and made sure he didn’t leave the city without first signing a contract. Nix also signed Mark Anderson, an experienced situational pass rusher that should benefit from playing opposite Williams in the Bills’ “new” 4-3. Adding cornerback Stephon Gillmore should also help Buffalo on the backend while Nigel Bradham and Tank Carder will add depth to the linebacker corps. We’ll have to see how the Dave Wannstedt hire pans out but for now, there’s no question the Bills have upgraded their pass rush in one offseason.

Dallas Cowboys
With the moves they made this offseason, the Cowboys’ defense could transform from a top 15 unit into a top 10. DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer and Sean Lee comprise a solid front seven but Dallas struggled on the back end in 2012. So Jerry Jones invested $50.1 million and a second round pick on his cornerback positions this offseason with the additions of free agent Brandon Carr (the best CB on the market) and first-round pick Morris Claiborne (the best CB in the draft). It’s never guaranteed that a big money free agent or a rookie will make an immediate impact but at least on paper, the Cowboys have definitely improved their secondary. The signing of Dan Connor was also somewhat underrated as well. He struggles at times in coverage and he’s not a pass rusher but he’ll be perfect for what Dallas signed him for: an insider ‘backer that can bolster the run defense.

Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons were productive this offseason in re-signing John Abraham (their best and sometimes only pass rusher last season), safety Thomas DeCoud (who is better than his reputation would suggest), and situational pass rusher Kroy Biermann (who appeared to be distracted last year, although marrying a reality TV star and parenting a newborn will do that to a man). But fans grew aggravated by GM Thomas Dimitroff’s inactivity in free agency and expressed disappointment that the team didn’t go after big money talent like Mario Williams. (Fans were also upset that the team didn’t re-sign MLB Curtis Lofton, who wound up landing with division rival New Orleans.) But the day before the draft Atlanta swung a deal that could only be considered as a steal. Acquiring a three-time Pro Bowler in Asante Samuel for a seventh round pick was a bargain for any team, especially one that struggled getting off the field last season on third downs. Furthermore, the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was a huge coup for the Falcons, who should be more aggressive and better equipped to handle explosive offenses like New Orleans, Green Bay and New York. No, the Falcons weren’t very active in free agency this year. But the re-signing of Abraham, the acquisition of Samuel and the hiring of Nolan should be more than enough to make this an improved Falcons squad.

Philadelphia Eagles
After struggling early in the season, the Eagles wound up being a top 10 defensive unit in 2011. But here’s why they’ll be improved in 2012. Juan Castillo has a full year of experience under his belt and the pressure he faced last year being a first-time defensive coordinator should lessen. Andy Reid also hit a home run in this year’s draft. Fletcher Cox has top 10 talent and the Eagles landed him at No. 12 (after moving up). Mychal Kendricks is undersized for the position but he was extremely productive at Cal, he hits like a Mac truck and he plays at 110mph every down. Vinny Curry is raw but he has potential as a pass rush and the only reason Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin fell to the fourth round was because he broke his leg at the Senior Bowl and was limited in pre-draft workouts. Otherwise, he’s a second-round prospect. Re-signing Derek Landri was also good for depth purposes and acquiring DeMeco Ryans from Houston should help the run defense.

St. Louis Rams
The Rams are a bit of a wildcard but considering they ranked 22nd in yards allowed, 31st in run defense and 26th in points allowed, there’s really nowhere to go but up. There are five moves the Rams made this offseason that should prove to beneficial in 2012. The first was hiring defensive-minded Jeff Fisher as head coach, who brought assistants like Mike Waufle and Chuck Cecil with him to St. Louis. The Rams also added scrappy cornerback Cortland Finnegan and defensive tackle Kendall Langford, who is a freaking house. Drafting run-stuffing DT Michael Brockers to play alongside Langford was also big and former Florida cornerback Janoris Jenkins could prove to be worth the gamble that new GM Les Snead took in the second round. Keep an eye on William Hayes, too. He was limited last year because of a shoulder injury he suffered in Week 1 but he’s someone that could potentially see his playing time increase because he’s he can play the run and provide some pressure. The Rams screwed the pooch by not taking an outside linebacker in the second round, but all in all they had a productive offseason and should be improved next year.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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2012 NFL Draft First Round Recap

Which teams emerged from the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft as winners?

Honestly? Who knows. It’ll be at least three years before we can answer that question.

That said, based on draft strategy, trades, value based on pre-draft projections, here are my thoughts from Thursday’s first round, including moves that I liked and didn’t like.

- The Vikings traded down one spot, collected three extra picks, and still landed the player they wanted at No. 3. While I bought into the rumors that Morris Claiborne was the top player on their board, Matt Kalil made the most sense for a Minnesota team that needs to protect young quarterback Christian Ponder. GM Rick Spielman did a great job not only landing the top left tackle in the draft, but also acquiring three extra picks. (Albeit they were late picks, but extra picks nonetheless.)

- While the Cowboys could stand upgrades at safety and along both lines, they didn’t have any pressing needs coming into this year’s draft. Thus, for them to nab a top 5 prospect when they came into the draft with the No. 14 overall pick was impressive. At the end of the day, giving up a second rounder to pair Morris Claiborne with Brandon Carr was an opportunity that Jerry Jones couldn’t pass up. And say what you want about Jones, he usually lands impact players in the first round.

- Based on his potential alone, Fletcher Cox should have gone in the top 10 and could have gone in the top 6 based on some of the pre-draft reports that emerged about his soaring stock. So for the Eagles to land him at No. 12 was huge, especially considering how porous their run defense was last season. Cox is still raw in some areas but his skill set is a perfect fit for Philadelphia’s aggressive defense.

- Rams fans are no doubt frustrated that their team didn’t land either of the top two receivers in this year’s draft. But once the Jaguars traded up for Justin Blackmon and Les Snead was presented with the option to trade back, he took it. As you would imagine, the 2-14 Rams have a ton of holes to fill so acquiring as many picks as Snead did was impressive. Plus, they land the best run-stuffing defensive tackle in Michael Brockers, who will look great playing alongside Kendall Langford…

- …that said, the Rams had a golden opportunity to land a top 5 prospect had they just stayed at No. 6. Granted, St. Louis did sign Cortland Finnegan in the offseason but this was a team decimated by injuries in their secondary last year. Having a chance to add Claiborne opposite Finnegan would have been an opportunity I would have jumped at, but Snead weighed that option against potentially acquiring one more starter (i.e. that second round pick he acquired from the Cowboys). Time will tell if he should have went with the impact player instead of the opportunity to address another need in the second round.

- Three years ago A.J. Smith whiffed on Larry English in efforts to beef up the Charges’ pass rush. He should have more success with Melvin Ingram, who could be an impact defender if San Diego can get creative with his skill set.

- There’s no doubt that the Titans’ selection of Kendall Wright was a surprise but it’s hard to argue with the pick. Wright is a playmaker with outstanding run-after-the-catch ability and he’s a great add to an up-and-coming offense.

- It’s amazing that one of the safest picks in the draft fell into the Steelers’ laps at No. 24. David DeCastro has the talent to be a top 15 pick but since guards aren’t viewed as impact players he fell into the middle 20s. The Steelers always seem to draft well and this is why – they continue to select players at the top of their position class.

- The Bengals did well to land two players in Dre Kirkpatrick and Kevin Zeitler that not only addressed needs, but could also make impacts in their rookie seasons. Kirkpatrick helps the Bengals get younger and more physical at corner, while Zeitler is a mauler in the running game that helped Wisconsin finish eighth in the league in rushing last season.

- Just like the Eagles and Steelers, the Packers had a very good prospect fall into their laps and they didn’t over think the situation – they just pulled the trigger. Nick Perry should have been off the board well before No. 28 based on his explosiveness and ability to rush the passer as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He’ll look great opposite Clay Matthews in Dom Capers’ defense.

- Bruce Irvin looks like a reach in the first round. He gets swallowed up by offensive lineman because he relies too much on his speed and athleticism to get to the quarterback. He’s also undersized as a 4-3 defensive end and isn’t thick enough to shed blockers as an outside linebacker. With Quinton Coples still on the board at No. 15, I’m surprised the Seahawks went with Irvin.

- With how many trades transpired in the first round this year, I’m surprised that the Bears weren’t able to trade back and still land Shea McClellin. Not to knock the highly productive, high-motor defensive end/outside linebacker out of Boise, but you’re telling me the Bears couldn’t trade back, acquire more picks and pick him in the 20s? I didn’t have the luxury of being in the war room with Phil Emery and Lovie Smith so maybe McClellin was at the top of their board and they just pulled the trigger on their guy. But again, with how many times teams moved back and forth tonight, I’m shocked the Bears stood pat and took McClellin at No. 19.

- Neither Ryan Tannehill nor Brandon Weeden look like first-round prospect in my eyes, but I can understand why the Dolphins and Browns felt the need to take each quarterback where they did. Weeden can make all the throws but he played in a college offense, he doesn’t fare well under pressure and he’s already 28. Tannehill has limited experience, he’s a major work in progress and he wouldn’t have been a top 10 pick in most other drafts. But we’ll see if either quarterback can prove doubters wrong in a couple of years.

- Dont’a Hightower is just a pure football player in every sense of the word. He’s going to make a ton of plays in Bill Belichick’s system and while I don’t know enough about Chandler Jones as Mike Mayock, he’s an intriguing talent on paper. No surprise – the Patriots did well in another draft.

NFL Draft Rumors: Fletcher Cox, Ryan Tannehill, Trent Richardson & More

With just two days before the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, here are a couple of interesting storylines circulating the rumor mill.

Browns to draft the best overall receiver available at No. 22?
Take it for what it’s worth but TFY Draft Insider Tony Pauline hears from league insiders that the Browns will select Trent Richardson with the No. 4 overall pick and the best available wide receiver at No. 22. As Rotoworld.com points out, I’m not sure how these so-called league insiders would be privy to the Browns’ draft plans but this is noteworthy none the less. I’ve had Ohio State offensive tackle Mike Adams slated Cleveland at No. 22 in my first two mocks, but Baylor’s Kendall Wright arguably makes more sense for the receiver-needy Browns.

Bills to take Barron or Gilmore at No. 10?
The consensus among mock drafts is that the Bills will select Iowa OT Riley Reiff with the No. 10 overall pick but WGR 550 in Buffalo says that the team is interested in Alabama safety Mark Barron and South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore. I would be surprised if the Bills took Barron over Reiff but then again I don’t have access to Buffalo’s big board. If they have Barron and Gilmore rated ahead of Reiff, then obviously one of those players will be the pick. That said, with Demetrius Bell gone, my money is still on Reiff landing in Buffalo.

Cox moving into the top 5?
This rumor is surprising but not altogether shocking – NFL Network’s Jason LaCanfora is reporting that some teams are considering trading up to No. 5 to take Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. LaCanfora tweets that teams want to jump up ahead of the Rams, who could take Cox at No. 6. Viewed as one of the more versatile defenders in this year’s draft based on his potential to play either defensive tackle or as a five technique in a 3-4, Cox could definitely go in the top 10. But the top 5? That seems like a reach although hey, the Chiefs did take LSU DE/DT Tyson Jackson with the third overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft and he was slated to go somewhere between No. 10 and No. 15. I’m not ruling out anything at this point.

Tannehill not a first-round pick?
NFL.com is reporting that one high-ranking personnel chief believes that a lot of teams don’t view Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill as a first-round pick. “I can see a situation where he doesn’t go at all in the top 20,” says the unknown source. My response to that is: It doesn’t matter if 31 teams don’t consider him a first-round pick. All it takes is one (*cough* Miami *cough*) and he’ll be a first rounder.

Spielman fanning the trade flames again
Vikings’ GM Rick Spielman has been highly entertaining the past few weeks. He’s now insisting that trade talks for the No. 3 pick have heated up and a deal could potentially get done by Thursday evening. “We’re going to be very open to the trade scenario,” Speilman said. “That front has really heated up over the last 24 hours and I’m sure it’ll continue to heat up as we head into Thursday night.” I don’t doubt that the Vikings will consider Matt Kalil, Justin Blackmon and Morris Claiborne with their selection, nor do I dispute the notion that they could trade out of that spot. But at the end of the day they’re guaranteed to get Kalil and their current left tackle is Charlie Johnson. Unless they receive a sweetheart deal from a team wanting to get ahead of the Browns at No. 4 (who probably want Richardson), I doubt the Vikings will be able to trade out and thus, they’ll wind up with Kalil.

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