WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- It's still unclear whether or not safety Jairus Byrd will be back on the field for the New Orleans Saints' first training camp practice on Friday. But coach Sean Payton said he expects the three-time Pro Bowler back "sooner than later."

"Much like we expected," Payton said of Byrd, who underwent a minor back surgery this summer to alleviate a nagging disc issue.

Byrd
The Saints' original projection was for Byrd to be healthy enough to participate in training camp -- and back to full speed in plenty of time for the regular season. And a league source confirmed earlier this week that Byrd's recovery has been going as expected this summer.

Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis declined to make any official announcements about whether any veterans will be placed on the physically unable to perform list after they underwent their physicals and conditioning tests on Thursday.

But Payton compared Byrd's situation to that of second-year defensive tackle John Jenkins, who was placed on the PUP list earlier this week when the younger players reported to camp early for their conditioning tests in Metairie. Jenkins underwent minor pectoral surgery this summer and is also expected back soon.

Payton did, however, specify that receiver Joe Morgan is "a go" after Morgan missed all of organized team activities and minicamp this summer while still recovering from last year's knee surgery. Payton said Morgan has healed enough now to do everything, but it will just be a matter of the Saints deciding how quickly to bring him back up to speed.

Payton also addressed the injury that landed rookie offensive tackle Tavon Rooks on the non-football-injury list earlier this week. Payton said it was a minor back issue that he doesn't believe is significant and shouldn't keep Rooks off the field for long.

"Fortunately for us, that's not a big list right now," Payton said of the injuries. "And hopefully it can remain small."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are taking the cautious approach regarding Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who was found guilty July 15 on domestic violence charges.

Instead of disciplining Hardy after a Mecklenburg County judge ruled him guilty of assaulting and communicating threats against his ex-girlfriend, the team jumped in line with the NFL and will await until the appeal is heard before deciding on potential discipline.

The hearing won't be heard until after the season.

In other words, the Panthers will get 16 games of Hardy playing for his next contract with the chance of never having to discipline him if he signs with another team in 2015.

That doesn't mean the Panthers aren't taking Hardy's situation seriously. General manager Dave Gettleman began a Thursday news conference as players reported to training camp by saying Hardy's situation was "very concerning and disappointing.”

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Greg Hardy
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsThe Carolina Panthers have no immediate plans to punish Greg Hardy after his offseason domestic violence arrest.
He referred to the accusations made by Nicole Holder in reference to the May incident that led to Hardy's arrest as "very serious accusations.”

"At the same time we respect the fact that Greg has appealed the decision and is entitled to a jury trial,” Gettleman said. "We have been in touch with the league and we're in the position where they have the personal conduct policy, which we are a part of. At the same time, we have to respect the legal process. Really, that's basically where we're at.”

And according to Gettleman, referring to reports that Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice will be given a two-game suspension by the NFL for a similar offense, the league doesn't plan to do anything until Hardy's jury trial has been completed.

"What I can say is, and you can see it with the Ray Rice decision, it appears the league is going to let the entire process play out,” Gettleman said.

An NFL spokesman told ESPN.com on Thursday that the "matter remains under review” and that "any discipline will result from a violation of the league's Personal Conduct Policy.”

But if the Panthers wanted to take a hard line, they could have. They could have suspended or fined Hardy for actions detrimental to the team, just as the Miami Dophins suspended Richie Incognito for accusations made during the investigation into his harassment of teammate Jonathan Martin.

Hardy and his representatives likely would have filed a grievance, but the message would have been sent.

The league also could have taken action against Hardy. Under the NFL's code of conduct policy, a player can be suspended if he isn't charged or convicted of a crime.

Still, a grievance likely would have been filed.

In Rice's case, the Pro Bowl running back pleaded guilty to a third-degree charge of aggravated assault involving an altercation that reportedly left his then-fiancée unconscious. He avoided a trial by being accepted into a pretrial intervention program.

The league, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter on Thursday, opted to suspended Rice for the first two games of the season and fine him $58,000, as well as ask him to take counseling.

There is no finality to Hardy's situation. Hardy was sentenced to 18 months probation with a 60-day jail sentence suspended. The probation sentence was placed on hold until after the jury trial.

But the accusations made by Holder that Hardy threatened to kill her and threw her on a futon covered in guns could be viewed as detrimental to the team. It's certainly not the image the Panthers want associated with the player that led them in sacks (15.5) last season and earned the franchise tag that guarantees him $13.1 million in 2014.

As Gettleman said, "we constantly talk to our players about putting themselves in a position to succeed, both on the field and even more importantly in life.”

Granted, this is a tough spot for Gettleman and the Panthers. Because of the appeal, it is an issue that will hang over the team all season, even though players repeatedly said it won't be a distraction.

"It's something the team and [Hardy's] group will handle,” said tight end Greg Olsen, echoing the thoughts of other players brought in for interviews. "That's really the end of it as far as the players are concerned. I've seen him already today. He seems excited to be here. I'm sure he's ready to kind of move into the season, and as teammates, that's the nature of the game.

"It's completely separate from what we're doing here, and that's the approach we take.”

Gettleman did allow that Hardy's off-the-field troubles didn't have an effect on his contract, as the team didn't sign him to a long-term deal by the July 15 deadline for franchised players. In other words, the Panthers were happy to have Hardy for $13.1 million and playing for another deal.

Gettleman wouldn't speculate on whether Hardy's situation will have an impact on signing the former Ole Miss star to a long-term deal after the season. At this point, it's hard to imagine Hardy being at Carolina after this season.

Gettleman, not making light of the situation, actually laughed when asked to speculate that far ahead.

His repeated comment was: "We have to let the process play out.”

"Obviously, everybody has to deal with this,” Gettleman said. "It's not an easy situation. But it's in the courts and we have to respect that process. Just have to."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons moved one step closer to Friday's opening day of training camp as the veterans reported Thursday.

Many players had yet to report during the hour made available to the media. But at least center Joe Hawley pulled into the lot, fulfilling his promise when team mascot Freddie Falcon asked who was coming to camp this year.

The Falcons' media relations department said all the veterans reported, while all the rookies reported Tuesday. Here's a quick wrap-up of the few players that stopped to talk to the media.
  • Defensive tackle Corey Peters, who begins camp on the physically unable to perform list following last year's Achilles' tear, continues to target the season opener against New Orleans (Sept. 7) for his return. Peters isn't expected to do much in the preseason, even when cleared to practice. But he hopes not to start the regular season on the PUP list, which would sideline him for the first six weeks of the season. "I'm excited about it. I'm very optimistic about everything," Peters said. "Hopefully as the days move forward, we'll be closer to getting back on the field." Peters suffered the injury in a Dec. 23 loss at San Francisco last year. He did some light jogging toward the end of minicamp.
  • Wide receiver Drew Davis, also on the training camp PUP list after undergoing foot surgery, doesn't look like he'll be ready to start the season. His left foot was in a walking boot as he scooted his way into the training camp quarters. Davis was placed on the PUP list July 5 after having the procedure following some discomfort. Coach Mike Smith initially called it as six-week injury, which would have put Davis back on the field for at least the last two preseason games. But there is a concern about Davis' availability to start the season. He was not available to talk to reporters Thursday.
  • Defensive tackle Peria Jerry is entering a critical stretch. The former first-round pick hasn't played up to expectations and appears to be on the roster bubble, with players such as Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson, and rookie Ra'Shede Hageman now in fold. Jerry suffered another setback last season with a knee sprain, but he seems to be beyond that injury. "I feel real good, real confident with myself," Jerry said. "You've got to go out each and every year and try to prove yourself. You know, we're just going to see what happens."
  • Newcomer Josh Wilson is ready to compete for the nickelback position against Robert McClain and Javier Arenas. "I think that every time we have a chance, everything is competitive out here," Wilson said. During minicamp, Wilson did a lot of playful jawing with receiver Harry Douglas, so we'll see if that continues with the cameras from HBO's "Hard Knocks" rolling throughout camp.
  • Running back/special-teamer Josh Vaughan and safety Kemal Ishmael were among the other veterans spotted on report day. ... Pass-rusher Stansly Maponga also was hanging around inside the building. ... Roddy White eventually showed up to sign his four-year contract extension. ... Rookie right tackle Jake Matthews made a cameo appearance on his way to sign autographs.

Lovie Smith aiming high

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
2:01
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TAMPA, Fla. – It’s the start of training camp around the NFL, and no team has lost a game yet. Hopes are high everywhere, even from teams that struggled last season.

That’s true in Tampa Bay, where coach Lovie Smith said Thursday the goal for the Buccaneers is to go to the Super Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, and win it.

Smith
“Goal wise, it’s the same goal we’re always going to have," Smith said after his players reported to camp. “From 4-12, the goal is to go to Phoenix. It’s destination Phoenix. We want to win the Super Bowl. That’s our plan. Goal-wise, we’re going to talk about winning all of our games at Raymond James (Stadium). We want to win the NFC South division and then see where we can go from there. What record it takes to do that, I don’t know."

It’s natural for any coach to aim high. But Smith knows there’s a lot of work to be done to come anywhere near his goals.

“We are a 4-12 team now," Smith said. “The first thing we have to acknowledge is this is where we’re starting, which we have. That should give us a little more motivation. The ceiling for the team, I don’t know. All I’m going to talk to them about is just daily improvement and let’s see how good we can become, how soon we can become a really good football team. It’s just about the daily effort to me."

Reaching any or all of those goals is not unfathomable despite Tampa Bay’s record last season. The Bucs were extremely aggressive in free agency and Smith and general manager Jason Licht both have said they believed it was unfair to ask their fans to be patient. They want to win now and they think they have the roster to accomplish that.

“You have to come in with high expectations," Smith said. “As I talk about what our ultimate goal is, winning the Super Bowl, it’s all a process. For our players, we have to set that ceiling high right away. We’re starting off as a 4-12 team. Judge us from there and see the improvement and let’s just kind of see where we go."
TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers reported to training camp Thursday, but guard Carl Nicks didn’t show.

Nicks was excused for personal reasons, according to coach Lovie Smith. Nicks was excused only for the day, Smith said. Apparently, the personal reasons have nothing to do with the toe injury Nicks is attempting to come back from.

“It doesn’t concern me,’’ Smith said. “It’s part of training camp. It’s part of life.’’

Whenever Nicks does report, his health still will be a question mark. Nicks has been cleared for football activities, but the Bucs have indicated they might bring him along slowly. Nicks missed all but two games last season due to the toe injury and a MRSA infection. Nicks also missed the entire offseason program.

Nicks was the only player not to report as the Bucs get ready for their first practice Friday. Safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson, who both missed the offseason program with injuries, have been cleared and are expected to take part in Friday’s practice.
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With the crew of HBO's "Hard Knocks" set to dissect the Atlanta Falcons' every move during training camp, the team avoided adding unnecessary drama to the equation.

In signing veteran wide receiver Roddy White to a four-year extension that includes $10 million guaranteed, the Falcons kept themselves out of a potentially messy situation.

Although White said Thursday, "I don't think I would have held out" and missed the start of training camp on Friday, the Falcons certainly didn't want the extension to be any type of distraction. The Falcons need White to be a happy camper, and need everyone to be on the same page going into such a critical season. They are trying to make last season's 4-12 implosion a distant memory, and the last thing the team needed was for one of its most respected players to feel disrespected.

White
White
"Where our football team is now, if we all stay healthy, we can win football games. That's the most important thing," White told ESPN.com on Thursday.

White, a four-time Pro Bowl receiver, expected all along to be a Falcon for life, particularly after the team expressed its desire to keep him in the fold. He simply wanted the organization to keep its word and follow through with what he anticipated would happen after the draft.

Extension talks hadn't even started until this week. The initial process was put on hold as White mourned the loss of his younger brother, who was shot to death in South Carolina in May. The team gave White his space as he grieved.

Negotiations heated up Tuesday, but there was some concern that a deal wouldn't get done. Then White's agents flew in to meet with the team Wednesday night, and the sides obviously worked diligently to get matters resolved before reporting time.

White brings levity to the locker room, along with a swagger. His vibe rubs off on the younger players. And, by the way, White can play a little bit, too. Although he turns 33 in November, his production toward the end of last season showed he has plenty left.

If White remains injury-free -- he was hampered by ankle and hamstring problems last season -- he should be ready for a productive season with tag-team partner Julio Jones (foot surgery) back in the fold.

"As long as I can stay healthy, I'll be a successful football player in this league," White said. "I don't feel like I'm down a step or I can't go out there and play. I've watched guys like Reggie Wayne before his knee injury, and he'd go out there every year and have 1,000-yard seasons. That's how I see myself, as that type of player.

"If I don’t get hurt, I feel like I can always be an elite wide receiver in this league -- especially for the next two or three years."

Things are looking up for the Falcons. Let's see how the rest of the drama unfolds.
The Carolina Panthers open training camp today with a slight twist.

Instead of reporting to Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, as they have since the team was formed in 1995, the Panthers will report to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The schedule was adjusted because Liverpool FC will play AC Milan at Carolina's newly-renovated stadium on August 2 as part of the Guinness International Champions Cup.

So instead of holding Fan Fest at the stadium on the second Saturday of camp as has been tradition, the Panthers moved that event to Friday night.

Players will hold a two-hour practice from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., followed by a question-and-answer session, a performance by the group Voltage Brothers, and fireworks.

The teams will make the 90-minute trek to Spartanburg on Saturday morning and hold their first practice at Wofford at 6:30 p.m. as part of a back-to-football celebration.

Aside from individual work with receivers over the past month, Friday will be the first time quarterback Cam Newton has been a full participant in practice since undergoing offseason surgery on his left ankle.

Here's a complete look at the training camp schedule:
  • July 25 -- 6:30-8:30 p.m. FanFest at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
  • July 26 -- 4:30 o.m. Back to Football Party at Wofford College in Spartanburg. First camp practice 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wofford's Gibbs Stadium.
  • July 27 -- 3:10-5:30 p.m.
  • July 28 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • July 29 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • July 30 -- No practice.
  • July 31 -- 3:10 p.m.-5:30 p.m.
  • Aug. 1 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • Aug. 2 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • Aug. 3 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • Aug. 4 -- No practice.
  • Aug. 5 -- 3:10 p.m.-5:20 p.m.
  • Aug. 6 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • Aug. 7 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • Aug. 8 -- 7:30 p.m. preseason opener against Buffalo at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
  • Aug. 9 -- No practice.
  • Aug. 10 -- 6:10 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
  • Aug. 11 -- 3:15 p.m.-5:20 p.m.
  • Aug. 12 -- 3:10 p.m.-5:20 p.m.
Bernard ReedyAP Photo/David Goldman"It's a crime that the kid didn't get drafted," one Toledo coach said of Bernard Reedy.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Atlanta Falcons rookie Bernard Reedy is still waiting for his NFL career to take off, but his acting career has launched -- sort of.

Before minicamp concluded in mid-June, the diminutive, undrafted receiver from Toledo was summoned by "the skinny white guy who always wears sunglasses" -- better known as football communications coordinator Matt Haley -- for a video session with the crew from HBO's "Hard Knocks."

"I think they said they're going to have me 'mic'd' like two times a week," Reedy said of the Falcons' upcoming training camp documentary. "They had me go in there and do a little commercial thing with the previews and spray the water all over your face. It was some sticky stuff where they made you close your eyes, and [then] you've got to look up at the camera like you're mad.

"That was my first time trying to act. It took like, 10, 15 minutes. I think they said your head turns into a football or something, so you've got to turn this way and then turn that way. And they put this green screen behind you. It was fun."

The 5-foot-8, 175-pound Reedy made the offseason much more entertaining, even without props. His explosive cuts and nifty deep-ball catches impressed Falcons coaches and left some teammates in awe. His 4.39 speed in the 40 was clearly evident.

[+] EnlargeBernard Reedy
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsReedy ranked sixth in the nation in all-purpose yards per game during his junior season at Toledo.
Reedy, however, has an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster. Julio Jones and Roddy White will lead an established receiving corps into Friday's opening day of camp.

"It's a crime that the kid didn't get drafted," Toledo offensive coordinator Jason Candle said of Reedy. "Obviously, folks have their specs in what they want, size-wise and speed-wise. ... But this kid has an unbreakable mindset about him. He's always risen to the occasion. The moment is never too big for him."

If "Hard Knocks" decides to make Reedy one of the featured characters, he'll have a compelling story to tell.

Ask him about what motivated him to excel as a football player while growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Reedy will tell you about the friendly competition with his older sister.

Innekia Reedy was the flag football co-athlete of the year for Pinellas County in 2007. She averaged 100 rushing yards and three sacks per game during her senior year at Lakewood High School.

"I think she was the best flag football player in the nation," Reedy boasted. "She played running back, quarterback -- you know, put the athlete anywhere. She's fast."

Reedy also attended Lakewood and was the county player of the year as a running back in 2009. He rushed for 1,211 yards and scored 36 touchdowns. But his sister, who briefly played small-school college basketball, has never shied away from claiming bragging rights.

"She was [always] claiming that she was better than me, faster than me," Reedy said.

Ask Reedy about his other sibling and he'll tell you his half-brother, Dominique Flowers, has been in and out of prison for a majority of his adult life.

"He's a street dude," Reedy said. "He's been slinging [drugs]. He's out now. Is he still drug-dealing? I don't know."

"He's not allowed to drive because he has no license," Reedy said of his brother. "So I'll go pick him up and then we'll go do something. He went jet-skiing with me this summer. He was just amazed. I was like, 'This is what it looks like when you get out of the house.'"

Reedy grew up in an undesirable neighborhood on the south side of St. Petersburg. He elected to meet at a restaurant in a "nicer" area of town to be interviewed for this story, to avert any violence near his home.

"Ever since I've been growing up, the crime rate has been crazy," he said.

Reedy had a few run-ins with the law as a teen. St. Petersburg police confirmed he had been stopped in the past for illegally riding his dirt bike on the street.

"I didn't think it was no harm," Reedy said. "I knew [it was wrong], but it's not like I was running any red lights."

Sports gave Reedy the green light to do something more with his life and possibly achieve an NFL dream. Ask him why he didn't get drafted and he’ll shrug his shoulders. He has grown accustomed to being overlooked: Despite gaudy numbers in high school, his only two college choices were Toledo and Western Kentucky.

As a junior at Toledo, Reedy ranked sixth in the nation in all-purpose yards per game (174.7). He didn't have the type of senior season he had hoped for, but he thought he was good enough to be drafted.

Reedy figured he was on his way after a strong showing in East-West Shrine game practices and scoring a touchdown in the annual all-star game, played in St. Petersburg. Then he started generating interest from two NFL teams in particular, Houston and Oakland.

"The Raiders talked to me for like two hours," Reedy said. "And they were just saying how important the [East-West Shrine] practices were. And [later] I was like, 'If they were that important, I should have went the first round.'

"I thought I was going to the Texans, especially after my pro day. They had me working outside, inside and catching punts. And then they called Coach Candle about me."

Regardless, Reedy didn't get drafted. Thirty-three receivers did.

"I'm thinking all these receivers that they're taking, I just played with these guys," Reedy said. "One of the guys who got drafted, he broke his finger in the East-West practices and didn't even practice. I mean, I don't knock anybody, but I've seen talent before."

Some of that talent came from St. Petersburg. Former Lakewood standout Louis Murphy, now a receiver with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, mentored Reedy and helped him during the lead-up to the draft.

"I wasn't trusting none of the agents at first, so Murph paid for me to train," Reedy said. "And he paid for my housing. He used to come to my little league games and my high school games. Of course I look up to him."

Murphy had no problem lending a hand.

"I wanted to look out for him," he said. "I just feel like it's my duty, as a guy who made it out of St. Petersburg, to give advice or always be accessible."

Perhaps Murphy and Reedy will meet again when the Falcons and Buccaneers battle Sept. 18 at the Georgia Dome.

Reedy realizes he has to make quite an impression during training camp to stick. But his opening act this offseason was nothing short of spectacular.
New Orleans Saints safety Jairus Byrd's recovery from back surgery has gone as expected this summer, according to a league source. Byrd is expected to be healthy enough to participate in training camp, though it’s unknown if he will be limited when the Saints begin practicing Friday at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

Obviously there’s a good chance the Saints will take a cautious approach with their prized free-agent acquisition. But all along, they expected Byrd to recover in plenty of time to participate in training camp and be fully healthy for the regular season.

Byrd
Byrd missed all of OTAs and minicamp during the summer after he and the team decided he should have a minor surgery to alleviate a nagging disc issue in late May.

At the time, Saints coach Sean Payton described the surgery as “something that didn’t need to be done” and said it wouldn’t have been done if it were the regular season. But Payton said all parties, including doctors, felt it would be the best approach for Byrd’s long-term health.

Byrd, 27, was a three-time Pro Bowl selection during his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills. The Saints signed him to a six-year, $54 million contract, in large part because of his ball-hawking history. Byrd’s 22 interceptions over the past five years rank second in the NFL during that span. He also forced 11 fumbles.

As for other injuries, it remains unclear if defensive tackle John Jenkins (pectoral) and receiver Joe Morgan (knee) will remain sidelined or be limited at the start of training camp. Both players were also held out of OTAs and minicamp, but both are also expected to participate in training camp.
The Atlanta Falcons are set to begin training camp on Friday, and the process begins with the rookies scheduled to report Tuesday.

First-round draft pick Jake Matthews should have no problem making the adjustment. Here are five questions for some of the other rookies as they head into their first training camp:

[+] EnlargePrince Shembo
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith Sean Weatherspoon lost for the season, Prince Shembo has a chance to earn a starting spot as a rookie.
1) Will Prince Shembo take full advantage of his golden opportunity? The former Notre Dame Fighting Irish standout could earn a starting role at inside linebacker following a season-ending injury to Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles). Coach Mike Smith said Shembo will get every opportunity during camp and said the coaching staff is excited about his potential. Now, it's up to Shembo to continue his transition from outside linebacker to inside. Physically, it shouldn't be a problem. But he has to be on top of his game, mentally, to bump Joplo Bartu aside.

2) Can Devonta Freeman truly push Steven Jackson for carries? Freeman has to worry about holding off Jacquizz Rodgers first as the No. 2 guy behind Jackson. Freeman looked more than capable in shorts, but let's see how he fares with the pads on. One thing you immediately respect about Freeman is his willingness to work and learn. If he can prove himself to be an adequate blocker in terms of picking up blitzes, then he'll get on the field sooner rather than later.

3) Will Dez Southward put some heat on veteran Dwight Lowery at free safety? Southward didn't really stand out this offseason despite the coaches raving about his potential. The most impressive thing about him from first glance is his attention to detail and tendency to ask questions. Now he has to show the ability to make plays. He lined up at both free and strong but, again, his best chance is to challenge Lowery at free because William Moore is the defensive leader at strong.

4) Can Tyler Starr turn heads again like he did during rookie minicamp? The outside linebacker showed a burst upon arriving from South Dakota. But once Starr lined up against the veterans, he didn't have as much success. Regardless, you can't help but like his energy. And he should be a standout on special teams no matter what. But the Falcons need capable pass-rushers to emerge, so Starr has a shot to make an impact.

5) Will undrafted receiver Bernard Reedy make it hard on the Falcons to cut him? If Reedy shows the speed and deep-threat ability he displayed this offseason, he just might. The 5-foot-7 dynamo gave Matt Ryan all the credit, but Reedy was the one who kept blowing through the defense and catching long balls. Of course, that's going to be Julio Jones' main job once the regular season arrives, but it wouldn't be so bad for the Falcons to have another deep threat at their disposal.
Brandin CooksStacy Revere/Getty ImagesBrandin Cooks should benefit from having one of the NFL's elite players as his quarterback.
New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson was trying to be a voice of reason when describing the potential of rookie receiver Brandin Cooks.

Watson said there are too many variables when it comes to making any kind of NFL Rookie of the Year predictions -- things such as injuries, grasping the offense and adjusting to NFL defenses.

But like everyone else on the practice field when Cooks first showed up this summer, Watson couldn't help but be taken aback by what he saw from the 5-foot-10, 189-pound speedster out of Oregon State.

"When you see a guy catch a pass and you see his first two steps look like he's about to run a 40-yard dash, you know that the guy is quick and fast. And when you get the ball to him and he learns what to do, there might be problems [for opposing defenses]," Watson said. "And that's what we all saw from the first pass he caught.

"Everybody looked at each other like, 'Wow, this kid is definitely at a different speed.'"

Cornerback Keenan Lewis nicknamed his new teammate "Lightning" after Cooks torched him down the field on an end-around, even pausing to playfully let Lewis try to catch up for a moment.

Outside linebacker Junior Galette added, "I haven't seen that kind of speed in a while," which is saying an awful lot since Galette has played across the field from Darren Sproles, Reggie Bush, Joe Morgan, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson while in New Orleans.

"I didn't even see when he got the ball on that handoff," Galette said. "Just moving around, he can get into that last gear quick. His speed is obviously top tier in the league."

Like Watson, I usually consider myself a voice of reason when it comes to predicting the level of impact any rookie can have in the NFL.

But even my practical, sensible side believes Cooks can become the Saints' first offensive rookie of the year in nearly three decades, joining Rueben Mayes (1986) and George Rogers (1981).

Cooks was the 20th pick in the draft, and no other offensive weapon landed in a better place to immediately showcase his skill set. Even if Cooks is only the third or fourth option in New Orleans' versatile offense, you know coach Sean Payton will find a way to create mismatches for him and quarterback Drew Brees will find a way to exploit them.

Cooks boasts a stunning combination of athleticism and actual college production. Last year, he led the nation and set Pac-12 records with 128 catches for 1,730 receiving yards. He set a school record with 16 touchdown catches. Then he went out and ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any receiver at this season's NFL scouting combine (4.33 seconds) and the fastest 20- and 60-yard shuttles of the past decade (3.81 and 10.72 seconds).

Just moving around, he can get into that last gear quick. His speed is obviously top tier in the league.

-- Saints LB Junior Galette discussing his first impressions of rookie Brandin Cooks
Watch highlights of Cooks tearing up the Pac-12 and you see glimpses of both Sproles and Lance Moore, two of the longtime playmakers that the Saints released this offseason. You also see a lot of Payton-level creativity in former NFL coach Mike Riley's offense at Oregon State. Cooks burned defenses on reverses, screen passes, passes over the top, passes in traffic and punt returns.

Former NFL general manager Phil Savage -- who scouts college talent as the Senior Bowl's executive director and analyzes the game for ESPN, among other outlets -- said Cooks' exposure to a pro-style offense should help him make the transition to the NFL. Savage also believes the "perfect marriage" with the Saints' offense could give Cooks a better chance to thrive quickly than even the top receiver taken in this year's draft, Sammy Watkins of the Buffalo Bills.

"If he's in the slot, Drew Brees literally can raise up, flip him the ball and let him go," Savage said of Cooks. "They can do that in Buffalo with Watkins, and I'm sure they will. But I feel certain that the Saints can guarantee getting the ball to Brandin Cooks, and I'm not 100 percent certain and convinced the Bills will be able to consistently get the ball to Sammy Watkins.

"I could see Watkins having some of those one-catch, 15-yards kind of games, just because EJ Manuel didn't play well or they double up Watkins and he's gotta go other places with the ball. Whereas with Cooks, I think there's gonna be probably three or four automatic completions in every game plan."

The Saints' history under Payton and Brees indicates they won't have any trouble trusting Cooks. Last year, rookie Kenny Stills caught 32 passes for 641 yards and five touchdowns, leading the NFL with 20.0 yards per catch. And he was just a fifth-round pick. As rookies in 2006, Marques Colston caught 70 passes for 1,038 yards and the versatile Bush caught 88 passes for 742 yards.

Payton and Brees also were adept at getting running backs Bush and Sproles in open space on screen passes or tosses -- a role Cooks could help fill even though Payton insisted he's a wide receiver, first and foremost.

"You hope that whenever you add speed to the field, it stretches the defense both in the passing game and the running game," Payton said. "It will just be finding that balance and fitting it into what we are doing."

Cooks has drawn favorable comparisons to versatile players such as Sproles, Percy Harvin and the player Cooks said he likes to model his game after, Steve Smith.

Another comparison I particularly like came from NFL analyst Matt Bowen: Az-Zahir Hakim, who thrived in a similar role in an offense with a similar attitude, the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf."

"That guy is Az Hakim, Part 2. You don't want to cover him in the slot," said Bowen, a former NFL safety who now analyzes the league for Bleacher Report among other outlets. "With his change-of-direction skill set, plus electric talent in the open field, Cooks has the opportunity to produce big numbers with Drew Brees in Payton's scheme."

Added Savage: "You're basically gonna have in one slot Jimmy Graham, and in the other you're gonna have Brandin Cooks. In and of itself, that's gonna create problems. Because how do you match up with a 6-foot-7, 255-pound tight end and a 5-foot-10, 185-pound quick-as-a-cat speed merchant?"

I'm not necessarily predicting blockbuster numbers for Cooks, since the Saints spread the ball around so much. But even if he catches something like 70 passes for 800 yards, he'll be doing it for a Super Bowl contender. And he's likely to hit a lot of "home runs" on a variety of screens, reverses, deep balls and punt returns.

The kind of highlight-reel stuff that will attract the attention of voters.
Examining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ roster:

McCown
QUARTERBACKS (2)

McCown is the present and Glennon the future. The third quarterback can be on the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS (6)

Arguably the deepest position on the roster. James, Rainey and Sims will compete to be the top backup to Martin. Demps is a project, but he has value as a return man.

Jackson
RECEIVERS (5)

Owusu and Murphy likely will compete for the third receiver spot. But the team is hoping Herron can develop quickly and be the slot receiver.

TIGHT ENDS (4)

A position with lots of depth. Seferian-Jenkins is the future at this position, but Myers and Wright might be the present.

Collins
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

There is concern about Nicks’ health. If he’s unable to return, this becomes a real problem area. The depth isn’t great, and the team may have to look to the outside for help.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

The starting four of McCoy, McDonald, Johnson and Clayborn is solid. But spots in the rotation after them are very much up for grabs. Bowers needs a good training camp to secure a roster spot.

David
LINEBACKERS (6)

The last two spots are up for grabs and could end up being filled from the outside.

CORNERBACKS (5)

Banks and Jenkins will compete for the No. 2 job. The loser likely will end up as the nickelback.

Goldson
SAFETIES (4)

There’s good depth here because Wright was a former starter for coach Lovie Smith in Chicago.

SPECIALISTS (3)

This won’t change unless there’s an injury.
Examining the New Orleans Saints' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)
It’s not easy to cut veteran Luke McCown from this roster. He has been a great fit in the Saints locker room. But if the Saints can trust the younger Griffin in that backup role, they don’t need to keep three quarterbacks.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

I’m going out on a limb and predicting that this is the year an undrafted rookie running back doesn't make the roster (though Timothy Flanders will probably shine in the preseason). All five names on this list are virtual locks, with backup fullback Austin Johnson also a dark horse.

RECEIVERS (6)

I actually think it will be tough for all six of these guys to make the roster. But they have all shown enough in the past to earn the benefit of doubt for now. Morgan is the big wild card. His uncertain health and the addition of fellow speedster Cooks places him firmly on the bubble. But if Morgan shines in camp, he could pass up Meachem or Toon. ... The Saints have some talented undrafted rookie receivers, but the practice squad seems more likely for them.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

This is a spot where I could definitely see an undrafted rookie such as Je'Ron Hamm or Nic Jacobs cracking the roster. But the Saints went with only three tight ends last season, so I'll stick with that for now.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)

The top seven seem pretty safe. After that, it's wide-open for one or two more backup spots. I'll go with the rookie Rooks for now because the Saints invested a sixth-round pick in him and like his growth potential. But former draft pick Marcel Jones and undrafted rookie Matthew Armstrong are among several other possibilities.

DEFENSIVE LINE (7)

The top six are about as safe as it gets. Johnson’s future is uncertain, but the second-year pro has great athleticism and potential. And now he’s being cross-trained as a defensive lineman, which adds versatility for the pass-rusher. Veteran Brandon Deaderick is a more experienced possibility for depth.

LINEBACKERS (9)

My most difficult cut on the defense was veteran outside linebacker Keyunta Dawson, whom the Saints really liked last season and re-signed this offseason. I also like pass-rusher Kyle Knox as a dark horse. But this is suddenly such a crowded group with the arrival of enticing rookies Fortt and Powell.

CORNERBACKS (6)

This position is even deeper. Six cornerbacks is a lot, but it’s hard to cut any one of these guys at this point. And I still had to leave off some talented candidates such as Trevin Wade, Terrence Frederick and Derrius Brooks.

SAFETIES (4)

These four seem like a pretty safe bet. But this is another spot where an undrafted rookie such as Pierre Warren or Ty Zimmerman could earn his way into the mix, especially if he shines on special teams.

SPECIALISTS (3)

The only competition is at kicker, where Graham will have to fend off young contender Derek Dimke.
Examining the Carolina Panthers' roster:

Quarterbacks (2)
Joe Webb was signed to simulate the things Newton did while the franchise quarterback recovered from offseason ankle surgery. Newton is healthy and general manager Dave Gettleman has the philosophy of keeping only two quarterbacks, so Webb likely will fall to the practice squad or off the team completely.

Running backs (5)

The top three are a given and Barner is the leading candidate to return kicks in addition to his running back duties. Gaffney isn't safe, but the Panthers drafted him in the sixth round because they are high on his ability to block. He is part of the future.

Receivers (5)

I'm still not convinced Underwood is safe. While the Panthers love his speed, he has a tendency to drop passes. King also isn't a shoo-in. Don't be surprised if Brenton Bersin, Kealoha Pilares or Marvin McNutt are a part of the final picture.

Tight ends (5)

Normally I would say four players here, but the Panthers plan to run a lot of two-tight-end sets and Brockel also doubles as a fullback. Williams is the wild card. He's shown flashes and if he continues to impress in training camp he could be almost like an extra wide receiver.

Offensive linemen (9)

The key here is flexibility. Williams and Chandler can play tackle or guard. Turner can play guard and backup center. While the Panthers may like to keep a 10th player here, using that spot for a fifth tight end makes more sense.

Defensive line (10)

I'd be nervous if I were Alexander. He's been suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and the Panthers drafted end Ealy in the second round. Keeping 10 defensive linemen may be a reach, and there is solid depth at end.

Linebackers (5)

Again, flexibility is key and why I went with five linebackers instead of six. Blackburn can step in and replace Kuechly if he ever had to come off the field. If the Panthers decide to go with six here, look for Ben Jacobs or D.J. Smith to figure into the mix.

Cornerbacks (5)

The wild card here is Godfrey as he returns from an Achilles injury and moves from safety to corner. The Panthers restructured his contract to keep him on the roster and really love his leadership. If he is good to go, there will be some tough cuts with Norman and James Dockery. Going back to the defensive line, Carolina could keep one more here and go with nine there.

Safeties (4)

The good thing about having Godfrey at cornerback is he could move back to safety if healthy and an injury occurs here. The decision will come in whether to keep fourth-round pick Tre Boston and go with five safeties over an additional defensive lineman.

Specialists (3)

These positions are set barring an injury.
Examining the Atlanta Falcons' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)
The Falcons are counting on Ryan to play like an elite quarterback with a full complement of receivers and better protection. They feel like they upgraded the backup quarterback position by trading for Yates, the former Houston Texan who has a playoff win under his belt. If the Falcons indeed go with just two quarterbacks, as expected, look for undrafted rookie Jeff Matthews to be on the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

Jackson, who turns 31 on July 22, still has a good year left in him if he remains healthy. He showed signs of his old self last season after enduring an early season hamstring injury. Freeman, a rookie fourth-round pick, will get a chance to push for touches. Rodgers still should have a role, somewhere, while Smith is valuable on special teams.

RECEIVERS (5)

The Falcons are counting on Jones and White to be healthy. If Davis (foot surgery) is the same after starting training camp on the physically unable to perform list, he should be a nice backup. Bernard Reedy, the undrafted rookie from Toledo, might make it hard not to keep a sixth receiver if he continues to impress like he did this offseason.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

No one is expecting another Tony Gonzalez out of this group, but the Falcons do expect Toilolo to make significant strides this season. Pascoe will be kept for his blocking but don't discount the possibility of Shuler.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (10)

The Falcons believe they have a solid starting five after signing the veteran Asamoah to play right guard and drafting the rookie Matthews in the first round to play right tackle. Uncertainty remains about Baker at left tackle coming off a major knee injury. If he can't finish the whole season, then Matthews would have to move over to left tackle. Yes, I left Lamar Holmes off the roster. Undrafted rookie center James Stone could stick on the practice squad.

DEFENSIVE LINE (7)

As long as Soliai and Jackson do their jobs up front in the 3-4, in terms of stuffing the run and freeing up the linebackers to make plays, they'll be well worth the combined $25 million guaranteed despite not playing all the snaps. Hageman, the second-round draft pick from Minnesota, is an intriguing prospect. Peters could be the wild card depending on his health coming off an Achilles tear. I think Umenyiora still has a place as a designated pass-rusher, but we'll see.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (4)

The Falcons are counting on Massaquoi to be a consistent pass-rusher. He definitely has developed a little more nastiness. Just ask Sam Baker. Biermann looks healthy coming off an Achilles tear. Starr, a seventh-round draft pick, showed good signs during rookie minicamp but has to do the same against the big boys in training camp.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (5)

The group will sorely miss Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles), who was lost for the season. Worrilow showed the ability to tackle last season as an undrafted rookie but still has strides to make. The coaches are really counting on the fourth-round draft pick Shembo to step in and have an immediate impact.

CORNERBACKS (6)

Trufant and Alford could make up one of the best cornerback tandems in the league in the future if Alford continues to mature. Trufant is there already. The high-powered, multi-receiver offenses around the league only increased the need for solid cornerbacks, and the Falcons have a battle for the third corner with McClain, Wilson and Arenas. All three should stick.

SAFETIES (4)

Moore has to take on more of a leadership role with his buddy Weatherspoon done for the season. Newcomer Lowery could be an upgrade over Thomas DeCoud at free safety provided the offseason was indicative of Lowery's ability. There is no guarantee Zeke Motta (neck surgery) will play this season, so he's off the list.

SPECIALISTS (3)

Bosher is one of the best in the league, and Bryant is consistent. They just need to keep it going.

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