NEW ORLEANS – Lesson learned this preseason: Write off Luke McCown at your own peril.

It should have been known the veteran New Orleans Saints quarterback wouldn’t be so easy to get rid of. Maybe his 11 years spent bouncing around the NFL with five different teams should have been the first clue. He’s a survivor.

Luke McCown
Rogelio Solis/Associated PressLuke McCown has made his presence felt this preseason for the New Orleans Saints.
And by the way, that runs in the family (see: fellow journeyman Josh McCown, now a starter in Tampa Bay at age 35).

Despite spent most of the summer predicting that second-year pro Ryan Griffin would unseat McCown as the Saints’ backup this year, I’ve changed my mind.

The last clue was McCown’s terrific finish to a solid preseason during Thursday night’s 22-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. McCown started and played just one series -- leading the Saints to a touchdown on their opening drive. He was a perfect 4-for-4 for 29 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown strike to running back Travaris Cadet.

Griffin had a nice preseason, too (despite a so-so performance on Thursday). Griffin likely has a roster spot as the Saints’ No. 3 quarterback and a future as their backup.

But McCown kept dropping clues all summer that he wasn’t going to hand over his spot to the young guy. The 33-year-old has never considered himself a placeholder.

“I play to win, I compete to win, to be the starter,” McCown said. “As I said early in camp, I’m not just competing for a spot on this team, I’m not just competing to be the backup. I want to start. And obviously Drew [Brees] has got that pretty well under hand. But that’s the mentality you have to have.”

McCown’s numbers didn’t jump off the page this preseason. He completed 26 of 43 passes (60.5 percent) for 240 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. But he looked particularly good on the opening drives against Tennessee in Week 2 and Baltimore in Week 4. And he said he thinks his third summer with the Saints was probably his best. He said it’s only natural to get more comfortable, to develop a better understanding of the offense.

McCown said he first heard the classic NFL cliché, “You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse” from former coach Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay. And he took it to heart.

After struggling as a rookie starter with the Cleveland Browns in 2004 -- then getting traded to Tampa Bay after the season -- McCown learned quickly.

“Nobody has to announce, ‘Hey, there’s an open competition for this spot or that spot. You should have the understanding as a player that, ‘If I don’t perform today, they might look to replace me,” McCown said. “You never want to plateau or get to a point where you’re complacent or you’re content or you say, ‘Hey, man, I’ve done enough and I’m good now.”

McCown, who did get cut in favor of Chase Daniel during his first summer with the Saints in 2012, didn’t necessarily need any new inspiration to drive him after a decade spent learning that lesson over and over again.

But he said he was obviously inspired by watching his older brother Josh catch lightning in a bottle last year with the Chicago Bears. Josh thrived as an injury replacement for Jay Cutler before signing a lucrative free-agent deal to become the Buccaneers’ starter.

“Absolutely. How can it not (inspire you)?” McCown said. “I mean, the right situations don’t come along for everybody. And for my brother and myself, they’ve not come along very often for either one of us. But that’s not to knock our abilities or our capabilities of being a leader of a team. That’s just the way the cards have fallen for us. That’s been God’s plan for us.

“With that understanding we’re competitors, and we’ve continued to compete and look for that opportunity. And Josh got a great opportunity in a great situation, surrounded by great people last year. And look what it did for him. And it revitalized his career, if you will. But the point is that he was ready for that. Because he never got down, his mentality was right, he continued to work.

“And that’s not a lesson for me, that’s a lesson for anybody that’s gone through the ups and downs of a NFL career.”
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NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints missed their chance to finish undefeated in the preseason for the first time in franchise history, losing 22-13 to the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Obviously that doesn’t matter a lick, considering quarterback Drew Brees and about a dozen other starters sat out the final exhibition game.

So what did matter? I can’t say that any jobs were obviously won or lost on Thursday night. But here are the clues that stood out most:
  • I still have no idea who’s going to win the kicking job. Derek Dimke got all of the work Thursday, including kickoffs. However, he missed a 54-yard attempt wide right that might have helped him lock down the job. Fortunately, a roughing penalty was called, giving him a second chance at a 49-yard attempt, which he made. … That’s kind of how it has been for both Dimke and veteran Shayne Graham all summer -- mostly good, some bad, nothing definitive.
  • Luke McCown sure looks like the front-runner for the backup quarterback job. He started again (McCown played ahead of Ryan Griffin in all four exhibition games) and led the Saints to a touchdown on the opening drive, going 4-for-4 for 29 yards, including a 3-yard TD strike to Travaris Cadet. Griffin played the rest of the game after that first drive, but he was pretty ordinary, finishing 11-of-21 for 126 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.
  • Receiver Joe Morgan has been getting better every week and might have moved ahead of both Nick Toon and Robert Meachem as the fourth receiver. Morgan started and caught four passes for 33 yards (one of them a great catch down the field). I would say Meachem’s job appears to be in jeopardy, as he has fallen behind those other guys in the playing-time pecking order. But sure enough, Meachem made a fantastic 52-yard catch Thursday to help remind the Saints why they’ve always liked him so much.
  • I’m almost positive Jonathan Goodwin has won the starting center job over Tim Lelito, as Goodwin got the night off, along with many other veteran starters.
  • If anyone could have possibly lost a starting job Thursday, it might be cornerback Patrick Robinson. The Ravens picked on him quite a bit, chipping away with several mid-range gains. Baltimore virtually ignored fellow veteran Champ Bailey on the other side of the field. I think that battle will remain fluid, but it’s possible Bailey could inspire more confidence heading into Week 1.
  • Of the undrafted rookies vying for roster spots, outside linebacker Kasim Edebali continued to look the part. He started in place of Junior Galette and was in on at least three of the starting special-teams units. Edebali didn’t have any dramatic highs or lows, but it’s obvious the Saints are giving him a serious look. … Meanwhile, safety Pierre Warren made two great plays with an open-field run stop and a leaping interception on an overthrown deep ball. But he wasn’t as involved on special teams, so he’s a slightly longer shot to crack the roster. … Cornerback Brian Dixon had a nice pass break-up and tight end Nic Jacobs was in with the starters at times. But they’re also long shots.

Observation Deck: Carolina Panthers

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Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is a go-to receiver regardless of who's throwing to him. Little-known running back Fozzy Whittaker deserves a roster spot. Backup quarterbacks that have barely slept in 24 hours while becoming a first-time father probably should be given the night off even if the starter is hampered by fractured ribs. Kudos to quarterback Derek Anderson for scrambling to the Steel City hours after his wife gave birth to a daughter, Amelia.

Oh, and defense wins games even when your best players are spectators.

These are a few of the things learned Thursday night in the Carolina Panthers' 10-0 victory at Pittsburgh.

Here are some other thoughts on the Panthers’ (2-2) final preseason game:
  • Nice tune-up for Benjamin: With every play it becomes more apparent that teams choosing to single-cover Benjamin on the outside are going to pay on inside slants. At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, he is almost unstoppable. Benjamin finished with four catches for 56 yards in just over a quarter, a sample of the kind of production expected -- and needed -- out of him as Carolina replaces its top four receivers.
  • The Fozz: Whittaker became a workhorse with starters DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart given the night off. He finished the game with 91 yards on 23 carries and ended the preseason as Carolina's leading rusher.
  • Anderson survives: The last thing Carolina wanted to see with starting quarterback Cam Newton (rib) sidelined was Anderson getting hurt, but he left in the second quarter holding his right hand. X-rays were negative. As much as the Panthers like third-stringer Joe Webb, they don't want to go into the opener with him as the backup.
  • Riverboat lives: Coach Ron Rivera set the tone for last season's turnaround with a couple of fourth-down gambles against Minnesota in the fifth game. He showed faith in his rebuilt offensive line in the first series of this one, with fullback Mike Tolbert getting the first down. It wasn't pretty, but this unit needs that kind of confidence.
  • Riverboat in reverse: With NFL defensive player of the year Luke Kuechly and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis given the night off, and with ends Greg Hardy (shoulder) and Charles Johnson (hamstring) sitting out for precautionary reasons, Carolina still managed to stuff Pittsburgh on a first-quarter, fourth-and-1 attempt en route to a shutout. It's that depth that gives Carolina one of the best front sevens in the NFL.
  • Philly in Pittsburgh: The good news is Carolina appears to have settled on Philly Brown, an undrafted rookie wide receiver out of Ohio State, as its kick returner. The bad news is he also dropped a punt -- again. He also caught a nice deep pass -- and fell down before he could score. He's a less refined version of Ted Ginn Jr.
  • What's next? Newton, who already says he'll start in the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay, will be re-evaluated on Saturday during a brief walk-thru. If he's improved the last two days the way he did the first four he should be ready to practice with little to no limitations Monday.
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Every year, it seems like the NFL floats the idea of shortening the preseason. But nothing ever happens.

Next time the topic comes up, we have a new Exhibit A on why four preseason games are about two too many. In Thursday night's 24-10 victory by the Washington Redskins over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, backups started for both teams. And even that first group of backups didn't play long. Much of the game was played by guys who will be released when rosters have to be cut to 53 on Saturday afternoon.

That led to some football that was less than pretty. Especially from the Buccaneers.

The Bucs, who finished the preseason with a 1-3 record, put up a whopping 14 yards of total offense in the first half alone. Things got only slight better in the second half.

But the good news for the Bucs is that the preseason is over. Their starters will be back in action when they open the regular season against Carolina.

Some other observations:
  • Take this for what it's worth, which may not be a lot. The Bucs started Patrick Omameh at right guard and Oniel Cousins at left guard. Newly-acquired Logan Mankins is going to be the starting left guard. The Bucs have to choose between Omameh and Cousins on the right side. I think Omameh has a slight edge.
  • I was surprised quarterback Mike Glennon played only one series. I would have liked to see him have the chance to get some rhythm going. Glennon is one Josh McCown injury away from starting. I doubt Mike Kafka, who replaced Glennon, will even make the team. Then again, maybe the Bucs didn't want to expose Glennon to possible injury behind a shaky offensive line.
  • Linebacker Danny Lansanah seems to have locked up a roster spot. Lansanah had a nice training camp and he continued to impress Thursday night. Lansanah tackled Washington's Evan Royster for a loss in the first quarter.
  • Cornerback Keith Lewis came up with an interception in the second quarter. But it probably was too little too late. The Bucs are pretty well set at cornerback and Lewis isn't likely to get a roster spot.
  • Safety Keith Tandy probably already had clinched a roster spot. But Tandy looked like he was playing for his job. He was all over the field and led the team in tackles.
  • Defensive end Scott Solomon continued his strong preseason. Solomon produced a third-quarter sack. He has a decent chance of making the roster.
  • Solomon Patton, who appears likely to make the team as a return man, also showed he can contribute as a wide receiver. Patton caught a touchdown pass from Kafka in the third quarter.
  • Wide receiver Louis Murphy left the game with a back injury and did not return.
TAMPA, Fla. – He wore a Buccaneers hat and decked his children out in the colors of his new team. But it was pretty obvious Thursday night that Logan Mankins still is processing the trade that brought him from the New England Patriots, the only team he ever has played for.

Mankins was introduced to the Tampa Bay media before the preseason game with Washington. During the 10-minute session, Mankins looked and talked like a man still in shock.

Mankins
“I knew what I had there, but I don’t know what I have here," Mankins said. “Only time will tell."

Mankins sounded like a man whose mind still is in two places. That’s understandable, as the trade happened only two days ago.

“It’s a sad day not to be with those guys," Mankins said. “But I’ve got new teammates here that I’m looking forward to developing relationships with."

A six-time Pro Bowl guard, Mankins is going to have to start developing those relationships quickly. The Bucs open the season in just over a week against the Carolina Panthers. Mankins said it will be a challenge to quickly build chemistry with a new offensive line.

“It’s going to be tough," Mankins said. “We’ve got a week until the first game. I’m going to try to take it in stride. I’ve got the weekend to try to get down some of the mental part of it and then all next week at practice. I’m sure the guys are going to help me as much as possible and I’m going to try my best."

Since the trade, there have been suggestions in the New England media that Mankins, 32, is in steep decline and cite that as a reason why the Patriots were willing to let him go.

“I might be in a little decline," Mankins said. “I don’t know. How many guys that have played 150 games are still on the upswing? I’ve played a lot of games, a lot of snaps. But I feel like I still have something to give this game and give to this team. I’ll try my hardest for them. If it’s not good enough, it’s not. If it is, it is."

Mankins might not have been wanted in New England any longer. But his arrival has been greeted warmly by Tampa Bay fans, who had been worried about the Bucs’ situation at guard. If Mankins is anything close to what he used to be, he should solidify Tampa Bay’s offensive line. And Mankins doesn’t want to let his new team down.

‘When someone invests in you, I don’t want to disappoint them," Mankins said. “I want to be the player they think they’re getting. I hope I can deliver what they expect."
Carolina Panthers Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy faces a six-game suspension by the NFL if his guilty verdict for domestic violence isn't overturned on appeal.

The NFL is immediately implementing a six-game suspension for a first offense on domestic violence and a lifetime ban for a second. A second-time offender may petition for reinstatement after one year, but there is no assurance it will be granted.

Hardy
Hardy
The new measures were announced to league owners in a letter from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN.

As was written here when the NFL began exploring stricter penalties, this could have a major impact on Hardy, who was found guilty by a Mecklenburg County judge of assaulting and threatening ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder during a May 13 incident at Hardy's apartment.

Hardy appealed the July 15 verdict and asked for a jury trial, which has been scheduled for Nov. 17. His attorney expects the case won't be heard until sometime in 2015, after the season.

The NFL and the Panthers appear to have taken the stance of waiting for Hardy's case to be concluded in court before issuing any penalty. Hardy has not heard from the league.

Asked if the new policy changed the league's stance on Hardy's case, a league spokesman told ESPN.com, "Each case will be addressed individually on its merits."

If the league waits for the case to play out in court and it isn't heard until next year, Carolina will get a full season of their 2013 sack leader (15) playing for a new contract. If they don't re-sign him, they might never have to deal with the suspension.

Hardy is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2014 season. Carolina used the franchise tag on him for this season, guaranteeing him $13.1 million.

General manager Dave Gettleman said before the arrest that the goal was to sign Hardy to a long-term deal. He was noncommittal when asked before the start of training camp if that remained the case.

Gettleman's only comments on Hardy's situation were that the allegations were very serious and it was "very concerning and very disappointing."

Hardy hasn't publicly commented on his case other than to say he was disappointed it has been a distraction to the team. Coach Ron Rivera and players have deflected questions about Hardy's legal issues, saying they are focused on the season.

The new standards are a direct response to criticism the league received in giving Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice a two-game suspension for allegedly striking Janay Palmer, who is now his wife.

Goodell made it clear in his letter that the league won't tolerate future offenses. He wrote:

"Domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong. They are illegal. They are never acceptable and have no place in the NFL under any circumstances.

"Our Personal Conduct Policy has long made clear that domestic violence and sexual assault are unacceptable. We clearly must do a better job of addressing these incidents in the NFL. And we will. Earlier today, I sent NFL owners a letter that identified specific actions we will take to improve our response to domestic violence and sexual assault."
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees touched on severak interesting topics with Sports Illustrated’s Peter King earlier in training camp. Here are some highlights from the Q&A, which was published Thursday:
  • Brees
    Asked about his relationship with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being on opposite sides of the CBA negotiations and the Saints' bounty scandal, Brees paused before saying: “I mean, fine. I can’t say that I’ve talked to him in three years.” Brees said, “I’m not one to hold a grudge.” And he said Goodell has done some good things as a commissioner and he believes both of them want to leave the game better than they found it. But Brees said it’s clear that Goodell works for the owners, so players will often be on the other side of league issues.
  • When asked in general if he feels any lingering bitterness over the bounty scandal, Brees said, “No. No. Because I’m so positive and try to turn negative situations into positive ones.” He said he thinks the Saints are a better team and Sean Payton is a better coach after going through that hardship, comparing it to when he was benched by the San Diego Chargers early in his career. However, Brees said, “I will always be disappointed that I feel like I let Sean down [by going 7-9 that year]. We wanted to win so bad for him and the situation. But that’s the only thing that I still feel.”
  • Brees also reflected to his choice to play for the Saints instead of the Miami Dolphins in 2006, when Miami had more concerns about his surgically-repaired shoulder. “Who knows what would have happened in Miami?” Brees said. “[But] I got to play for Sean Payton. He’s been so instrumental in my development as a quarterback. He’s given me so much confidence in myself. He’s built this system around my strengths. Would that have happened in Miami? No, because there wasn’t a Sean Payton there.”
  • Brees talked more about this lofty goal of playing until he’s 45. He mentioned pitcher Nolan Ryan as an example of what he’s envisioning – as long as he stays healthy and keeps playing at a high level. “I don’t wanna just be bumming around this league at age 45.”
  • Brees said breaking all of the NFL passing records is lower on his list of priorities. When asked what he’d like to legacy to be, Brees said, “What I want people to say about me is that I was a great football player, that I cared about my teammates. I want people to say, ‘Man, I would have loved to play with that guy.’”
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's a good thing Carolina Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson won't play much past the first quarter in tonight's exhibition finale at Pittsburgh.

He needs some rest -- literally.

Anderson caught a commercial flight to Pittsburgh mid-morning on Thursday after becoming a first-time father late Wednesday afternoon to Amelia Anderson, 7.6 pounds and 20.5 inches long.

He is scheduled to start for Cam Newton, who made the trip but will not play because of fractured ribs suffered in Friday night's 30-7 loss at New England.

Anderson needed less than 24 hours to learn babies interrupt the sleep pattern of parents. He tweeted this early Thursday morning:

He later tweeted this:

Anderson later admitted to being a bit cranky when tweeting this:

.

Carolina starters aren't expected to play more than a quarter, so perhaps the Panthers can set a cot up for Anderson on the sideline while Joe Webb finishes the game.

W2W4: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-2) host the Washington Redskins (2-1) in the preseason finale for both teams Thursday night.

Three things to watch:

Mike Glennon: The backup quarterback will get most of the action with the starters expected to play very little. Glennon hasn’t looked sharp in his last two games, but that might be due in large part to some poor play from the offensive line. Glennon needs a strong performance to make the team more comfortable with him as the backup for Josh McCown.

Larry English: The former first-round pick by San Diego recorded two sacks in the last preseason game. Although English was a bust with the Chargers, there’s hope he can resurrect his career. Another strong performance by English could put him on the roster ahead of Da’Quan Bowers, who has missed much of the preseason due to an injury.

The backup offensive line: Newly acquired Logan Mankins will not play and it’s likely the other starters will sit or appear only briefly. The backup jobs remain very much up for grabs. Even though they were drafted, rookies Kadeem Edwards and Kevin Pamphile are on the bubble.

W2W4: New Orleans Saints

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Two of the NFL’s four undefeated teams in the preseason will square off Thursday when the New Orleans Saints (3-0) host the Baltimore Ravens (3-0) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It will be the final exhibition game for both teams.

1. Griffin still in play? Honestly, I'm not sure if the Saints’ backup quarterback job is still up for grabs. For most of the offseason, I predicted they’d go with second-year pro Ryan Griffin as long as he could prove trustworthy in the role. But the Saints have played veteran Luke McCown ahead of Griffin in every preseason game so far. So maybe they’ve already made up their minds to go with the more proven veteran. … Either way, Griffin will get one last chance to sway them against Baltimore. He’s expected to play most of the game, though coach Sean Payton hasn’t announced who will start. Payton also hasn’t announced whether or not starting quarterback Drew Brees will play.

2. Jobs on the line? There are a handful of starting jobs still up for grabs, including at kicker (Shayne Graham vs. Derek Dimke), center (Jonathan Goodwin vs. Tim Lelito), cornerback (Patrick Robinson vs. Champ Bailey vs. Corey White) and fullback (Austin Johnson vs. Greg Jones). Of that group, I’d bet the only one that can truly be influenced by Thursday night's performances is the kicker battle. It’s close enough that a bad night could doom either guy. As for the others, I’m guessing we’ll see Goodwin, Robinson and Johnson starting in Week 1, though any extreme highs or lows tonight will certainly be taken into account.

3. Room for undrafteds? My latest 53-man roster projection didn’t include any undrafted rookies – which would be rare for the Saints, who wound up with a total of seven on their roster last year. But as I wrote Wednesday, I think outside linebacker Kasim Edebali has a chance after the Saints cut some experienced linebackers this week. Others on the bubble include safety Pierre Warren, tight end Nic Jacobs and cornerback Brian Dixon. A big night from any of them – especially on special teams – could earn a roster spot.
METAIRIE, La. -- Jairus Byrd isn’t just the proverbial “last guy on the field” after practice.

The New Orleans Saints safety is the last guy on the field, on his knees, catching balls one-handed from the JUGS machine.

That’s how you get to become one of the NFL’s top ball hawks. That, and a quick first step and uncanny ball skills that Byrd’s new coaches and teammates have raved about since he signed a six-year, $54 million contract in free agency in March.

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AP Photo/Chris TilleySaints safety Jairus Byrd works in practice to keep his ball skills sharp.
“I feel I have to be able to catch the ball just as well as a receiver does. When the ball’s in the air, it’s just as much mine as theirs,” Byrd said of his post-practice methods. “That’s the approach. You never know when it’s going to come. I have to have as good hands as they do to catch balls.”

Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowl selection during his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, ranks as the 20th-best defensive player in the NFL according to this year’s ESPN #NFLRank poll of 90 NFL analysts.

Byrd, 27, has 22 career interceptions -- the second most in the NFL in that span behind Asante Samuel, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The 5-foot-10, 203-pound Byrd also has forced 11 turnovers in his career.

That’s the skill set the Saints coveted most when they aggressively went out and signed Byrd within hours of the start of free agency.

The Saints defense was outstanding last year, surging from 32nd in total defense in 2012 to fourth in 2013 under new coordinator Rob Ryan. But the one area where they came up short was takeaways. It seems almost mathematically impossible, but the Saints forced only four turnovers in the last 11 games, including zero in the playoffs.

Enter Byrd, who becomes the Saints' highest-ranked defensive player on the #NFLRank list.

The hope is that Byrd will continue to provide those turnovers -- and that his thievery will spread throughout the defense, as turnovers are known to do.

"Once you get that first one, you just have this energy, almost like a shark," Byrd said. "You feel it. You go for the ball and it gets contagious. Everybody around the whole secondary is looking to get that turnover.”

Byrd’s start with the Saints was delayed when he underwent a summer back surgery to relieve a nagging disk issue, sidelining him for all of OTAs and minicamp.

But once he returned to full-contact drills a week ago, he quickly started living up to his reputation. He had two interceptions during his second full practice -- including a very impressive and deceptive pick against quarterback Drew Brees in 7-on-7 drills.

"Oh man, it was a ridiculous play," Brees said. "No. 1, I didn't feel like he would really reach it, but he did. To actually come down with it was a whole [different] story. Usually that ball just gets tipped and goes out of the back of the end zone, but it was an impressive play."

Saints coach Sean Payton and Ryan have lavished similar praise on Byrd, crediting his anticipation and instincts as well as his athletic skills.

“Typically with a safety like that, it starts with the first step and anticipation. You can have great speed and ball skills, but if your anticipation is a step slow, you find yourself a step away from a play,” Payton said.

Added Ryan: “There comes a time and point where every turnover is made where a guy has to just go make it. And he’s been great all through his career. I mean, he just has unique ball skills. And so did his father [longtime former NFL standout Gill Byrd].”
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There's no question Cam Newton will start in the Carolina Panthers' Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay, but uncertainty lingers over who will protect him.

Royster
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Chandler
Most of Carolina's 22 starters are set, but Thursday night's exhibition finale will have a big impact on who protects the ailing quarterback (fractured ribs) on the right side of the line.

Rookie right guard Trai Turner (groin) is out for the second straight game, and Chris Scott has played well enough to be considered the Week 1 starter.

Scott started eight games last season, all but one at right guard, before a knee injury forced him to miss time. His biggest issue since returning for offseason workouts has been conditioning. He's got that under control and has impressed the coaches.

"Chris has worked himself into position and we'll see how it goes," coach Ron Rivera said.

Nate Chandler began training camp in a heated battle with Byron Bell for the left tackle job. When Bell secured that spot after the Aug. 17 preseason win over Kansas City, Chandler settled in at right tackle.

However, Chandler's lingering knee injury and inconsistency as a pass blocker have opened the door for veteran Garry Williams. Chandler will start against Pittsburgh, but as Rivera reminded this is a big game for him to prove he's earned the job.

Other positions up for grab are strong side linebacker and nickel back. Veteran Chase Blackburn is the returning starter on the strong side, and he missed last week's game with a back injury. He's been pushed by A.J. Klein.

Charles Godfrey entered training camp as the leading candidate to be the nickel back, but rookie Bene' Benwikere has played well enough that both will play there at times until one earns it outright.

"There are three to six positions up for grabs," said Rivera, without being specific.

Rivera said the starters will play through the first quarter against Pittsburgh. Defensive end Charles Johnson (hamstring) will not make the trip, but end Greg Hardy (shoulder) will suit up and be evaluated before game time.

Both are expected to be ready for the opener.
METAIRIE, La. -- Austin Johnson went undrafted out of Tennessee in 2012, when he signed as a linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens.

So needless to say, it’s a bit of a surprise that Johnson now stands as the New Orleans Saints’ likely starting fullback heading into this season. But that is indeed the case after the 6-foot-2, 240-pounder has taken advantage of his opportunity to replace injured starter Erik Lorig during training camp.

[+] EnlargeAustin Johnson
AP Photo/Sam RicheAustin Johnson helped his cause to start for the Saints with a TD in last Saturday's preseason game.
Johnson’s 3-yard touchdown reception last Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts showed off his versatility as an agile pass-catcher and a powerful hitter. Johnson drove through linebacker Erik Walden to reach the goal line.

"I like to show that I can do it all and that I'm not like a stiff, not-able-to-move fullback,” Johnson said. “You know, I can run, I can catch and I can also block. So I try to show that throughout my game."

Johnson played fullback early in his career at Tennessee before switching to linebacker. So teams looked at him in both roles as he came out of college. When he didn’t make the Ravens’ roster, the Saints later signed him the following January with the intention of switching him to fullback. He spent most of last season on New Orleans’ practice squad.

Johnson figured his best chance to crack the Saints’ roster this year would be through special teams. But when Lorig suffered a leg injury a week into practice, he became the No. 1 fullback.

The extent of Lorig’s injury is still unknown, though he hasn’t even appeared on the sidelines during practice yet. And Johnson will still have to fend off 13-year veteran fullback Greg Jones, whom the Saints signed in the wake of Lorig’s injury.

But so far, Johnson has done his best to make the decision easy for the Saints’ coaches.

"I knew nothing was going to be easy. I knew that I was going to have competition, and when they brought in Greg, I just knew I needed to keep playing well. I knew they weren’t just going to give me the starting spot,” Johnson said. “We’re still competing for that spot. And I’m just trying to go out there and show them what I can do and hopefully give them enough confidence that I can play.”

Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees certainly had enough trust in Johnson to target him on that touchdown play Saturday -- which is no small thing, considering it was Brees’ first drive of the preseason, and he was no doubt eager to cap it off with a touchdown.

"He’s done a great job all camp. Obviously Erik Lorig going down was tough, but Austin has stepped in and done a great job whenever called upon in whatever role, whether that be the fullback position or special teams, you name it," Brees said. "He's one of those lunch-pail guys, comes to work, ready to do whatever's asked of him. He’s done that very, very well."
METAIRIE, La. -- Count Champ Bailey among those who believe New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis is too under-appreciated.

When asked where he thinks Lewis fits in with other elite corners in the league, Bailey said, "He's up there. It just takes you guys to start talking about him now."

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
AP Photo/Bill HaberVeteran cornerback Champ Bailey says he has high expectations for the Saints' defense this season.
"I don't understand why he wasn't in the Pro Bowl last year, why he wasn't an All-Pro," Bailey said. "He played like one. Matching up every week (against opponents' top receivers), he was the guy. He is a proven No. 1 corner. I just told him to keep his nose down, keep grinding, and people will start to take notice."

True to form, Lewis' best play of the preseason didn't even get proper credit last week, when he appeared to make a diving interception after tipping a deep ball away from Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton. The pass was ruled incomplete, because coach Sean Payton said he figured it would be ruled inconclusive either way. But it sure looked like a pick from the end-zone camera angle.

When asked if he credited Lewis with an interception after watching the film of last week's game at Indianapolis, Bailey said, "I credited it that night."

"It looked pretty clean to me from where I was," Bailey said. "The ref was five feet away from him and didn't get it. I don't know what happened, but in our room he got a pick."

Bailey, who missed much of training camp with a minor foot injury, hadn't chatted with the media in a while. So the longtime former Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins standout was peppered with questions on a number of topics Tuesday. Here are some of the highlights:

  • On whether his foot injury was related to the plantar fasciitis that kept him sidelined for much of the 2013 season: "Well not to get too specific, it was the same foot but it was a little bit different thing to deal with. It's encouraging, because I didn't want anything lingering from last year. I feel good about where I'm going."
  • On whether the injury has hurt his chances of being an opening-day starter: "I'm not really concerned about it. I haven't lost any sleep over it. The only thing that bothers me is being hurt, period. It has gotten in the way of me playing football. That's what I love to do. Regardless of how much I'm playing, I'm always out there competing like I'm the starter or going to be."
  • On his impressions of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, before he played for him and now: "All I knew was his brother, mostly. I've seen Rob before but never met him, never been around him. He's a character, but at the same time this guy knows football. It's proven; he's one of the best X's and O's guys I know in this league. He's going to make sure we're in the right places to make the right plays."
  • On how many defensive coordinators he's played for now: "Probably 13 maybe. Twelve, 13 something like that. I lost count. I had one of those guys twice in two different systems."
  • On safety Jairus Byrd: "I talked to him at the Pro Bowl a couple of years ago and I told him how much I wanted to play with him. Who would ever think we'd be playing here together? But we are, and I'm just happy to be a part of this team."
  • On cornerback Patrick Robinson: "Great football player. I've seen him do some things that some guys can't do. That guy is fast, quick, and he gets his hands on a lot of balls in practice. It's starting to pay off, all the work he's put in."
  • On whether the Saints are as good as last year's Broncos team: "I'm not sure. It's hard to compare. It's different. The thing is, last year we weren't good enough to win. I feel like we've got some pieces here to win it, we've just got to make sure we don't worry about too far ahead, just worry about what's in front of us. The rest will take care of itself."

Telling stats about each starting QB

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
10:00
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Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and Peyton ManningGetty Images

NFC EAST


Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys: Romo has led 13 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime over the past three seasons, two more than any other quarterback. Romo also ranks fifth in Total QBR in the fourth quarter and overtime since 2011.

Eli Manning, New York Giants: Manning led the NFL with a career-high and franchise-record 27 interceptions last season, five more than any other QB. It was the most interceptions by any QB in a season since Brett Favre in 2005 (29).


Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles: Foles threw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions last season. Foles' touchdown-to-interception ratio of 13.5 was the best by any qualifying QB in a season in NFL history.


Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins: Griffin ranked fifth in the NFL with a Total QBR of 73.2 on the 0-to-100 scale as a rookie in 2012. Last season, his rating plunged to 40.1, 29th in the NFL. Griffin had the league's largest decrease in Total QBR from 2012 to 2013.


NFC WEST


Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals: Palmer led the NFL with 145 passes thrown 15 or more yards downfield last season, but he also led the league with 13 interceptions on such throws while finishing 17th in yards per attempt and 29th in touchdown-to-interception ratio on deep passes.

Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers: Kaepernick has been blitzed on a league-high 38.3 percent of his dropbacks over the past two seasons. But he's also one of the best QBs against the blitz, with the third-highest QBR since the start of 2012 (75.2).

Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: Including playoffs, Wilson is 28-9 as a starter over the past two seasons. That's the most wins by a starting QB in his first two seasons in NFL history and tied with Peyton Manning for the most wins in the NFL since 2012.

Shaun Hill, St. Louis Rams: Shaun Hill is 13-13 with a 50.1 Total QBR (50 is average) in his career as a starting quarterback. Sam Bradford is 18-30 in 48 career starts and has never posted a Total QBR over 50.3 in a season.


NFC NORTH


Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears: During his first four seasons in Chicago, Cutler was sacked on 7.6 percent of his dropbacks, the highest rate among qualifying QBs. In his first season under Marc Trestman in 2013, Cutler was sacked on just 5.0 percent of his dropbacks (sixth-lowest rate in NFL).

Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions: Stafford threw 16 touchdown passes and six interceptions in his first eight games last season. In his last eight games, he threw 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, tied with Joe Flacco for the most interceptions in the NFL over that span.

Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: Over the past three seasons, Rodgers ranks first in the NFL in yards per attempt (8.5) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (5.1), second in Total QBR (78.9) and third in completion percentage (67.5).


Matt Cassel, Minnesota Vikings: Cassel completed 73 percent of his passes and averaged 8.9 yards per attempt last season when targeting Greg Jennings. When targeting all other players, he completed 59 percent of his passes for 6.9 yards per attempt.


NFC SOUTH


Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons: Ryan was pressured on 203 dropbacks last season, 20 more than any other quarterback. From 2009 to 2012, he was pressured an average of just 113 times per season.


Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers: In his three NFL seasons, Newton has been sacked, hit while throwing or hit while carrying the ball 467 times. That's more than double the total for any other quarterback. Next closest is Ryan Fitzpatrick, at 230.


Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: Brees has thrown for 5,000 yards in four seasons, including each of the past three. Every other player in league history has combined for four seasons with 5,000 or more passing yards.


Josh McCown, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: McCown had the league's third-highest completion percentage (51.2) on passes 15 or more yards downfield last season. Seventeen of his 21 completions on such throws were to Alshon Jeffery or Brandon Marshall.


AFC EAST


EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills: Manuel was among the NFL's least effective QBs on third down last season. Manuel ranked last in the NFL in yards per attempt (5.2) on third down and second to last in completion percentage (47.5).


Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins: Tannehill was sacked 58 times last season, the most in a season since Jon Kitna for the Lions in 2006 (63). Tannehill has been sacked 93 times in his career, the most by any player in his first two NFL seasons since Jake Plummer in 1997-98 (101).

Tom Brady, New England Patriots: In 2013, Brady had his lowest completion percentage (60.5) in a full season since 2003, his fewest yards per attempt (6.9) since 2006 and his fewest TD passes (25) since 2006. However, Brady also threw a league-high 163 passes to rookies last season.

Geno Smith, New York Jets: Over the first 13 weeks of 2013, Smith was the NFL's lowest-rated QB with a Total QBR of 21.6. Over the last four weeks of 2013, Smith was the league's second-highest rated QB with a QBR of 78.9, trailing only Peyton Manning.


AFC WEST


Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos: Last year, Manning became the fourth player in NFL history to set the single-season record for passing yards and passing TDs in the same season. He joined Dan Marino (1984), Sid Luckman (1943) and Cecil Isbell (1942).

Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs: Over the past three seasons, only 17 of Smith's 1,171 passes have been intercepted, giving Smith the lowest interception percentage (1.45) of any QB since the start of 2011. Smith also ranks fourth in win percentage over that span, trailing only Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

Matt Schaub, Oakland Raiders: Schaub ranked last in the NFL with a Total QBR of 13.4 on play-action passes last season. Over the previous five seasons (2008-12), Schaub was the third-highest rated QB on play-action passes (86.0 Total QBR), behind only Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning.

Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers: After entering 2013 with a career completion percentage of 63.6, Rivers led the league with a 69.5 completion percentage last season. Rivers also had just 13 turnovers in 2013 after turning it over 47 times from 2011-12 (tied for second most in NFL).


AFC NORTH


Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens: Flacco has started 96 of a possible 96 games since his rookie season in 2008. According to Elias Sports Bureau, that's the second-longest starts streak by a QB to begin his career since the merger. Flacco trails Peyton Manning (208).

Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals: Dalton is 30-18 with 80 touchdown passes and 49 interceptions in 48 regular-season starts. In three postseason starts, he's 0-3 with one touchdown and six interceptions. Cincinnati has scored 33 total points in Dalton's three playoff starts.

Brian Hoyer, Cleveland Browns: Hoyer was 3-0 and completed 59.4 percent of his passes with a 47.5 Total QBR last season. All other Browns QBs were 1-12 and completed 55.0 percent of their passes with a 31.7 Total QBR.


Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers: Over the past three seasons, Roethlisberger has the league's highest completion percentage (51.8), most passing yards (1,837), most TD passes (18) and second-highest Total QBR (60.5) when he's under duress or hit while throwing. The average QBR on such plays in that span is 26.9.


AFC SOUTH


Ryan Fitzpatrick, Houston Texans: Fitzpatrick is 27-49-1 in 77 career regular-season starts. The only active QB with more regular-season starts who has never started a playoff game is Jason Campbell (79).


Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts: Luck has thrown for 8,196 yards since entering the league in 2012, the most ever by a QB in his first two seasons. Only seven quarterbacks have thrown for more yards than Luck since the start of his rookie year.

Chad Henne, Jacksonville Jaguars: Henne's average pass was just 6.5 yards downfield last season, giving him the shortest average pass attempt in the NFL. Fifty-five percent of Henne's attempts were within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.


Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans: After backing up Matt Hasselbeck as a rookie in 2011, Locker has missed 14 games with injuries over the past two seasons. Of the 20 quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 since 2000, only Rivers and Matt Leinart threw fewer passes in their first three seasons than Locker's 563.

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