Atlanta Falcons: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The NFC South too shall pass.
Three of the division's first-round picks in May were wide receivers: Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at No. 7), Brandin Cooks of the New Orleans Saints (No. 20) and Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers (No. 28). And offensive tackle Jake Matthews, drafted sixth overall by the Atlanta Falcons, should give quarterback Matt Ryan more time to throw to his star wideouts.
The Bucs had a void opposite Pro Bowl veteran Vincent Jackson and filled it with Evans, giving the team a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers. The Saints parted with Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, two key components in their pass-happy offense. In steps versatile Cooks, who hauled in 128 receptions for 1,730 yards last season at Oregon State. The Panthers released their No. 1 receiver -- diminutive, 35-year-old Steve Smith -- and replaced him with 6-5 Benjamin.
First-round picks aren't the only NFC South rookies with a chance to make some noise. Keep an eye on Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman and Saints cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
The four writers who cover the division -- Vaughn McClure in Atlanta, David Newton for Carolina, Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Pat Yasinskas for Tampa Bay -- offered their insights on the division's rookies, among other topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out whether they saw the issues differently.
Which NFC South rookie will make the biggest impact this season?
Vaughn McClure: Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans should get plenty of chances to show he was worthy of a top-10 selection. His size (6-5, 230 pounds) is enough to give opponents fits. Having a proven big receiver such as Vincent Jackson on the other side should help Evans make a smooth transition. Josh McCown is a smart quarterback who won't put Evans in bad situations. And Lovie Smith is the right head coach in terms of helping a rookie adjust to new surroundings. Evans has to overcome some of the knocks on him, including that he's too stiff and doesn't have great speed. It still will be hard to match up against him one-on-one, though, because the former basketball player will win the jump balls. And he has already impressed coaches with his range.
David Newton: This is a tough one because I really like the first-round picks for all four division teams. Each will make his team significantly better. But for me, it comes down to New Orleans' Brandin Cooks and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin because both receivers will get plenty of opportunities. I'm going with Cooks because he has quarterback Drew Brees and a veteran unit around him. Rookie receivers often struggle. Cooks will break that trend with 60-plus catches.
Mike Triplett: I'll go with Saints receiver Brandin Cooks because I think he'll have the flashiest season. You could make a great case for all four first-round picks, and Jake Matthews will probably play the most vital role because of the Falcons' need at offensive tackle. But I think Cooks will make the biggest splash -- and even be a strong contender for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Even though New Orleans spreads the ball around so much, I expect Cooks to catch a high volume of passes and hit some home runs with deep balls and a punt return or two.
Pat Yasinskas: That's an easy one. I'm going with Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans. He's going to be an instant starter, and he's going to be active in the passing game. Vincent Jackson remains the top receiver, but Evans will be a nice No. 2 to start his career. Evans someday will be a No. 1 receiver, but for now he'll be a complement to Jackson. Evans and Jackson, both 6-5, will form one of the league's largest starting receiver tandems, and that's going to cause problems for opposing defenses.
@PatYazESPN Jake Matthews. He instantly makes the line bigger and more physical. Matt Ryan may actually have time to get rid of the ball.— James Niemeyer (@jrniemeyer) June 10, 2014
What is your team's top position battle to monitor in training camp?
McClure: Although there will be plenty of competition among Falcons linebackers, I'm turning my attention to the running backs. Steven Jackson is the starter. He turns 31 next month and probably has one good season left in him -- but if he is slowed by nagging injuries, the Falcons will turn to someone else. They drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round with thoughts of grooming him as the three-down back of the future. If he looks as good in pads as he did in shorts, Jackson might have a battle on his hands. Even the battle for the third running back will be interesting with Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith in the mix. The running backs, as a whole, have an improved offensive line to run behind. Let's see whether that helps them.
Newton: Most might say the left tackle battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler. And although finding a replacement for retired Jordan Gross is key, the Carolina competition that intrigues me the most will be between Charles Godfrey and Melvin White at cornerback. Godfrey is making the transition from safety to corner after missing most of last season with an Achilles injury. It's a homecoming of sorts, since Godfrey played cornerback for most of his college career at Iowa before the former Panthers coaching staff moved him to safety in 2008. Although White was adequate last season, Godfrey is a more physical player with the potential to be a shutdown corner. If he can win that battle, it's a huge upgrade for the league's No. 2 defense.
Triplett: The battle at cornerback is by far the most compelling on the Saints' roster. For one thing, it's a vital position in today's NFL. For another thing, the Saints are loaded with fascinating candidates behind No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis. Does surefire Hall of Famer Champ Bailey have enough left in the tank? Can former first-round pick Patrick Robinson bounce back from injury? Can third-year pro Corey White take that next step? Can rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste make an instant impact? Can second-year pro Rod Sweeting or someone else emerge as a dark horse? And did I mention this is an important position?
Yasinskas: The best competition will be at tight end. The fact Austin Seferian-Jenkins was drafted in the second round probably means he'll get the first shot at the starting position, but don't overlook his competition -- theoretically, the Bucs have four guys who could end up as the starter. Free-agent pickup Brandon Myers can catch and block. Tim Wright had 54 catches last season and has worked to improve his blocking. Veteran Luke Stocker is returning from injury; he isn't a huge threat as a receiver, but he could play a big role as a blocker.
@DNewtonespn OG and OT, biggest concern on team IMO is protecting Cam— William Harkness (@NCBillyHarkness) June 6, 2014
Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?
McClure: I like safety William Moore taking on more of a leadership role and sparking the Falcons' defense, and I like receiver Roddy White rebounding from last year's injury-plagued campaign. But the guy I'm going to single out is return man Devin Hester. After his role diminished in Chicago, people forgot he was the greatest return man of all time. All Hester needed was a change of scenery: In watching him during organized team activities, it was evident he still has his quickness. With special-teams mastermind Keith Armstrong drawing up the blocking scheme, Hester could be the X factor in the Falcons' quest to return to playoff contention. Whatever Hester accomplishes on offense would be a bonus.
Newton: It feels strange calling wide receiver Tiquan Underwood a veteran since this is his first season with the Panthers, but the sixth-year player out of Rutgers was the first to come to mind with this question. Underwood was brought in to replace Ted Ginn Jr. as the speed receiver. Ginn went from two catches with San Francisco in 2012 to 36 for five touchdowns with the Panthers last season before moving on to Arizona. Underwood had 24 catches for four touchdowns in Tampa Bay last season. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was high on him when they worked together in Jacksonville. Throw in what wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl will teach Underwood, I could see him doubling his production in 2014.
Triplett: I've been touting Saints defensive end/tackle Akiem Hicks all offseason. He's a third-year guy who's big and really powerful at 6-5, 324 pounds, but athletic for his size. A former third-round pick out of the University of Regina in Canada, he had 4.5 sacks last year in his first stint as a full-time starter. I'm not sure Hicks will post 10-plus sacks as an interior guy, which means he might not crack the Pro Bowl. But that's the level of impact he can have as someone who can both push the pocket and stuff the run. Opposing offensive linemen in the NFC South certainly know who he is.
Yasinskas: Middle linebacker Mason Foster is set up for a big season. Foster has had a decent career to this point, but he's about to get a lot better. Hardy Nickerson and Brian Urlacher excelled as middle linebackers in coach Lovie Smith's defense, and now it might be Foster's turn. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David is the star of this unit, but Foster has a chance to be a nice complementary player. Smith likes to have his middle linebackers call the defensive plays, and that means Foster will be putting on the radio helmet this year.
@vxmcclure23 I think William Moore will start getting Natl recognition after this season and appearance on Hard Knocks.— Tootie Quivers (@TootieQuivers) June 13, 2014
What is your predicted order of finish in the NFC South standings?
McClure: That's a tough one. I see a lot of parity within the division, and the Buccaneers really have a chance to close the gap based on their offseason moves, including the hiring of Smith as coach. But I'm going to go with New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina. As long as the Saints have Drew Brees in the lineup, they have a chance to be contenders. The Falcons bulked up on both sides of the line, which should bode well for them in terms of putting up points on offense and preventing big plays on defense. The Bucs' defense could be devastating. Carolina will sorely miss Jordan Gross and Steve Smith -- and it will show.
Newton: Since nobody has repeated as NFC South champion since the division was formed in 2002, it would seem a bit crazy to pick the Panthers, who edged New Orleans for the title last season. The Saints are considered the favorites by most, and it's hard to argue otherwise with Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham on offense. But I'm a believer that defense wins, and even with changes to the secondary, there's not a better defense in the division than Carolina's. I like what Atlanta has done in free agency and the draft, so I look for the Falcons to finish second with the Saints third and Tampa Bay fourth. Having said that, I could see the division winner going 9-7 or 10-6. It's going to be tight.
Triplett: I'm confident the Saints will finish first with at least 11 wins. Although their offense lost some key pieces, it's still one of the NFL's elite, and their defense is legit. After that it's a virtual three-way tie. I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the others flirt with a playoff run or finish last. I'll go with the Buccaneers second because they're on the rise. They have a great defense and run game and now seem to have a solid coach and quarterback. I'll pick Carolina third because it lost so much in the receiving corps and secondary. As much as I like the Falcons' passing attack, there are questions everywhere else.
Yasinskas: Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers. This was a tough call because all four teams have a chance to be good. I gave the nod to the Saints because they have Brees, the best quarterback in the division. I think Atlanta will have a dramatic turnaround after last season's debacle. Tampa Bay is going to be much more competitive than last year. Carolina might have taken a step back with some of its offseason moves, but I still wouldn't count the Panthers out.
@MikeTriplett 1.Saints-more talent allaround 2.Bucs-sleeper, good coach, talent 3.Falcons-improved, still struggle 4.Panthers-lost too much— Brad Powell (@PowellBrad) June 11, 2014
But these two teams are rivals and that means Sunday's meeting will be about pride.
Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas examine the matchup.
Yasinskas: Vaughn, I was one of those people who picked the Falcons to win the Super Bowl. Obviously, I was way off base. I know injuries have played a big role, but what else has gone wrong for this team?
McClure: Pat, I talked to Tony Gonzalez extensively after the last game and he was adamant about this all being about the injuries. I agree with him to a certain extent because you just can't lose a receiver as dynamic as Julio Jones and expect the offense to click in the same manner. It drastically changes the way defensive coordinators attack and allows them to focus more on shutting down guys such as Gonzalez.
The other injury I thought was significant was linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who is expected back this weekend after being sidelined since Week 2 because of a Lisfranc sprain. The defensive intensity hasn't been there throughout the season, and Weatherspoon would have provided a spark just from his fiery speeches alone. Not saying that he would have totally helped the Falcons avoid giving up 14 plays of 40-plus yards, but they would have been better with a healthy Weatherspoon.
Speaking of injuries, it looks as if both top running backs are out for Tampa Bay. Can Brian Leonard step in and run the ball effectively?
Yasinskas: I agree that getting Weatherspoon back should be a big boost for the Atlanta defense and the first priority whenever you play Tampa Bay is stopping the running game. Even with Doug Martin and Mike James lost to season-ending injuries, the Bucs still will be a run-first team. Leonard is going to be a big part of the offense now. He's a dependable veteran, who can do a little bit of everything. But I think the Bucs will try to use a combination of Leonard and second-year pro Bobby Rainey. The Bucs want to get Rainey a fair amount of touches because he's more of a home-run threat than Leonard.
Speaking of home-run threats, even without Jones, the Falcons still have some playmakers. Are Roddy White and Steven Jackson now healthy enough to make a significant impact?
McClure: Jackson said he was 100 percent now coming off a hamstring injury, and White continues to have his snaps monitored coming off a hamstring pull and high-ankle sprain. I thought Jackson showed signs of his old self with some tough runs against the Carolina Panthers. He then regressed against the Seattle Seahawks, but head coach Mike Smith blamed that on poor blocking. Jackson has a lot of pride and wants to show Falcons fans he was no fluke. But he can only do so much if the holes aren't there for him. He's averaging a mere 3.2 yards per carry.
As for White, he had one catch for 20 yards in his return against the Seahawks. More than anything, he wants to establish a rhythm so he can be back to his old self. The Falcons just need him to be the same type of playmaker when Jones returns next year. Shouldn't the Buccaneers have a new head coach by then?
Yasinskas: It's pretty obvious that Greg Schiano is on the hot seat. He has won only one game this season and two of his past 15 dating to last year. Ownership does like the way Schiano cleaned up the culture of the locker room that was established under predecessor, Raheem Morris. Schiano, who has three more seasons remaining on his contract, might have bought himself a bit more time by benching Josh Freeman and going with rookie quarterback Mike Glennon. But ownership also wants to see some wins. I don't know that there's a magic number, but my guess is Schiano needs to win more than half of his remaining games if he's going to stick around for next season.
I know Smith has had five straight winning seasons since taking over as head coach in Atlanta, but this year hasn't gone as planned. Since expectations were so high, is owner Arthur Blank's patience wearing thin?
McClure: I've watched Blank's reaction after the past two losses and he has been very supportive of Smith. He even embraced Smith like a long-lost son after a road loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Smith has been a winner since taking over in 2008 (58-31 record) and guided his team to the NFC Championship Game last season, although he's 1-4 in postseason games. I talked to general manager Thomas Dimitroff after last Sunday's game and he said Smith's going "nowhere" in reaction to speculation about maybe Jon Gruden being the team's next head coach.
Smith should get a pass on this season because of the injuries alone. But there are bound to be some staff changes in the offseason to correct some of the on-field problems plaguing the team.
At 1-4, the Falcons have little margin for error from now until the end of the regular season. Facing the winless Bucs (0-5) could help the cause, but the Falcons can’t afford to take any opponent lightly, particularly after losing top receiver Julio Jones for the season.
Falcons team reporter Vaughn McClure and Buccaneers team reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss the matchup.
McClure: Pat, I caught a few glimpses of Sunday's game against the Eagles and saw the Buccaneers make quarterback Nick Foles, in his seventh NFL start, look like a seasoned veteran. I was especially surprised to see Darrelle Revis, one of the top cornerbacks in the league, trailing on a few plays. Is the defensive scheme just not suited to Revis’ strengths as a lockdown, one-on-one defender?
Yasinskas: Vaughn, Revis did get beat more than once. But I don't necessarily put the blame on him. I think coach Greg Schiano is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole by sometimes playing Revis in a zone defense. Revis should be on the other team's top receiver in one-on-one coverage all game. The Bucs are wasting his talent by using him in a zone defense. Speaking of top receivers, what do the Falcons have in the passing game now that Julio Jones is out and Roddy White has been banged up all season?
McClure: The natural solution would be to go to tight end Tony Gonzalez more often. He has been outstanding against double coverage and even been mauled by a host of defenders near the goal line. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter made it clear that Gonzalez instantly becomes Matt Ryan’s No. 1 option without Jones in the lineup. But the Falcons also expect more out of slot receiver Harry Douglas.
What the Falcons will miss, if White is sidelined by a hamstring injury, is that vertical threat on the outside. Unproven receivers Kevin Cone and Drew Davis might get a chance to fill in outside, and the Falcons are trying to get newly signed veteran Brian Robiskie -- the son of receivers coach Terry Robiskie -- up to speed quickly as an outside receiver. Speaking of getting up to speed, how is rookie quarterback Mike Glennon coming along?
Yasinskas: Glennon made some obvious progress from his first start to his second. He was fairly accurate and even showed some mobility, a trait he supposedly was lacking. Still, this is all new to Glennon and I think the Bucs are trying to be careful not to put too much on him. They'd like to take the pressure off by running Doug Martin constantly, but opposing defenses have been slowing Martin by playing eight or nine men in the box.
The next step for Glennon is to keep defenses honest with more downfield passing. Rookie tight end Tim Wright came on strong in the Eagles game and Glennon seems to be developing strong chemistry with Vincent Jackson. No. 2 receiver Mike Williams should be back after missing the past game with a hamstring injury. That gives the Bucs a pretty strong receiving corps. I know the Falcons, aside from Asante Samuel, are young at cornerback. Can the young corners hold up against Tampa Bay's receivers?
McClure: Actually, I think first-round pick Desmond Trufant has held his own through the first five games. Naturally, there is always room for improvement with a rookie. But he’s not the primary issue. Neither is second-round pick Robert Alford, a corner now expected to move into the role of primary punt returner. The bigger issue for the Falcons is how the defense has performed as a whole, particularly on third down.
The Falcons have surrendered too many big plays and failed to generate pressure up front in game-winning drives by both the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets. The players believe in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's system, but they have to play the system better. A slew of injuries at linebacker hasn't helped the cause. The defensive woes and offensive red zone struggles have made the Falcons look like an average team. So, Pat, do you regret picking Atlanta to win the Super Bowl?
Yasinskas: It sure looks like I was way off base in picking the Falcons to win the Super Bowl. I picked them because I thought they were loaded on the offensive side of the ball and had enough talent to be pretty good on the defense. But the injuries have taken a toll on both sides and I'm shocked that the Falcons are sitting there at 1-4. I guess it's the curse of winning the NFC South, which the Falcons did last year. No team has ever won the division in back-to-back years and it sure looks like that trend will continue this season. I think we can pencil in the Saints as the division champion.
D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that the Falcons will be watching the waiver wire for help on the offensive line. They should be, because the offensive line hasn’t looked good in the preseason. And it remains to be seen if Lamar Holmes is ready to be the starter at right tackle.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Larry Holder tops off his list of five players to watch in the final preseason game with receiver Preston Parker. He appears to be in competition with Andy Tanner for the final roster spot. But Parker could have the advantage because he also has ability in the return game.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Defensive end Da’Quan Bowers said fans shouldn’t be concerned about the team’s lackluster showing in the preseason. Bowers said the Bucs intentionally have kept things bland and will unveil a lot more flash in the regular season. I think what Bowers said is very true. The Bucs have been very cautious and not shown much in the preseason. They’re saving it up for the regular season.
Well, that trend changed in the exhibition game against Miami on Saturday night. Freeman played 41 snaps (although he was ineffective for most of the game). That means he now has played 62 snaps this preseason. That leaves Freeman tied for 25th among the presumed 32 starting quarterbacks.
Freeman isn’t even the least used NFC South quarterback anymore. That honor now belongs to Drew Brees, who is No. 27 with 60 snaps.
Carolina’s Cam Newton is No. 11 with 80 snaps an Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is tied for ninth at 81.