NFC South: NFL
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears' first-team offense scored points despite limited opportunities, but the No. 1 defense gave up a pair of field goals and a touchdown in three consecutive Jacksonville Jaguars possessions, forcing the home team to rally late to best the Jaguars 20-19 on Senorise Perry's 5-yard run with 51 seconds left to play.
Here are some other thoughts on Chicago's second preseason game:
• Chicago's first-team offense played just two series as Jacksonville dominated time of possession in the first quarter (12:30 to 2:30), but Jay Cutler put together another sharp showing, hitting seven of nine passes for 75 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 138.4.
Credit the offensive line for Cutler's performance. With starting right tackle Jordan Mills out, Michael Ola filled in on an offensive line that routinely gave Cutler plenty of time to drop back, read and fire to the open man.
"The offensive line is playing at a really high level," Cutler said. "We want to get the running game [going] a little bit better than we did early on. We went three-and-out. Then, we kind of had to wait around a long time. We came back, converted some third downs. The offensive line gave me a lot of time."
• The battle for the No. 2 job at quarterback between Jimmy Clausen and Jordan Palmer might go to the wire. The Bears gave Clausen an extended look, yet he didn't capitalize on the extra snaps. Clausen completed 11 of 15 for 94 yards and an interception with no touchdowns and finished with a passer rating of 61.5 after lighting up the Philadelphia Eagles for a rating of 134.6 in the opener with a pair of touchdowns.
• The No. 1 defense stumbled to a slow start, but Jacksonville's dominant time of possession in the first quarter played a role. The defense forced the Jaguars to settle for back-to-back field goals on their first two possessions. After Josh Scobee's second field goal of the opening quarter, Eric Weems fumbled the ensuing kick when he was stripped by Will Blackmon. Jacksonville took over at the Chicago 23 and scored in seven plays on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Chad Henne to Marqise Lee.
Henne and rookie Blake Bortles completed 19 of 27 for 237 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
• Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray continued to take repetitions with the first-team defense.
• Jon Bostic played poorly in the opener but redeemed himself somewhat against the Jaguars. On a third-and-1 from the Chicago 27, Bostic filled hard on a Toby Gerhart run around left end and took out the offensive tackle to drop the running back for a 4-yard loss. The play forced Jacksonville to settle for a 49-yard field goal.
• The Bears want to remain patient with Shea McClellin as he transitions to linebacker, but his play against the Jaguars seemed just about on par with his shoddy showing last week. McClellin did stuff the run once early on but continues to struggle at shedding blocks and making tackles in space.
The wide smile on the rookie's face showed how much he appreciated coach Mike Smith referring to him as an every-down back rather than just a change-of-pace back. Such is why the Falcons believe the fourth-round draft pick from Florida State could be the go-to back of the future, as long as he blocks well.
Catching the ball out of the backfield won't be an issue. Freeman showed that ability as he hauled in pass after pass during Saturday's session.
"I've got tremendous hands, but I feel like I need to work on blocking, running, my reads, being patient,'' Freeman said. "I feel like it's everything I need to work on. But the passing, I know I can catch very well. But I want to work on it."
Here are 10 others observations from the second day of rookie minicamp:
1) Prince Shembo, the outside linebacker from Notre Dame and the team's second fourth-round pick, showed tremendous explosiveness throughout the day. Smith talked about Shembo having the ability to play defensive end, outside linebacker, and inside linebacker in a multiple defense.
2) It appeared as if second-round pick Ra'Shede Hageman, the defensive end from Minnesota, knocked down a pass during one drill. The Falcons hope Hageman makes a habit of batting down balls at the line of scrimmage.
3) Seventh-round pick Tyler Starr, the outside linebacker from South Dakota, showed some speed on his rush during full-team drills.
4) Undrafted quarterback Jeff Mathews again threw some nice balls, but his receivers had a lot of drops throughout the day. Mathews did overthrow a couple.
5) Receiver Julian Jones almost lost an eyeball after making a catch over the middle. A defender scraped him across the face.
6) Cornerback Ricardo Allen, the fifth-round pick from Purdue, was very conscious about working on his backpedal and footwork in between drills.
7) Freeman showed some speed in outracing Allen and fellow cornerback L.J. Jones to the end zone on one play. Jones is a tryout player from Fresno State.
8) Shembo, Starr, and undrafted signee Jacques Smith from Tennessee -- all outside linebackers -- were the last ones off the field as they stayed to get in some extra work. Don't be surprised if all three are contributors this coming season.
9) Speaking of Shembo, he was forced to do some up-downs midway through practice, although it was unclear what the punishment was for. Defensive line coach Bryan Cox also had defensive lineman Ryan Isaac doing the same at the end of practice. Isaac is a tryout player from Purdue.
10) In news unrelated to the rookies, Smith didn't seem too concerned about the status of receiver Julio Jones (foot surgery) and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (knee sprain) coming off injuries as Smith again emphasized taking it slow with those players this offseason. In other words, don't expect to see Jones or Weatherspoon do much activity until training camp.
The NFC South might have had the most dramatic offseason of any division in the NFL.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers loaded up on enticing newcomers, starting with a new coach in Lovie Smith, a new quarterback in Josh McCown and a new pass-rusher in Michael Johnson, leading many analysts to believe they had the best offseason of any team in the league.
Meanwhile, the defending-champion Carolina Panthers lost several core players, including the face of their franchise, Steve Smith, leading many analysts to believe they had one of the worst.
And the New Orleans Saints did a little of both, parting ways with several longtime veterans while making a big splash with the addition of safety Jairus Byrd.
Throw in the Atlanta Falcons, who get star receiver Julio Jones back from injury and just plain get to start over with a clean slate and you can see why all four teams feel as if they have legitimate shots to make a playoff run in 2014.
The four writers who cover the division -- Vaughn McClure in Atlanta, David Newton in Carolina, Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay -- offered their insights on the division shakeup among other topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out whether they saw the issues differently.
Has any team made moves that could alter the balance of power in the NFC South?
Vaughn McClure: The Buccaneers made a significant move by hiring Lovie Smith as their coach. After seeing the Bucs demolish the Falcons at home last season, it was easy to tell they were a talented team that just needed better leadership. Smith is a proven winner who took the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl behind a suffocating defense. One could argue Smith has even better defensive parts to work with in Tampa than in Chicago. If he can assemble a solid offensive attack behind coordinator Jeff Tedford, Smith could have his team in contention for the NFC South title immediately.
Mike Triplett: All of them have, to some degree. But the teams that stood out most were the Buccaneers (for better) and the Panthers (for worse). I loved a lot of the moves Tampa Bay made, starting with a solid coach and quarterback. The Bucs already had a very good defense and run game. I could easily see an eight-win season. There won't be any easy wins in this division. The Saints should be the favorites to overtake Carolina now that their defense is even more stacked with Jairus Byrd. But both teams have new question marks after letting a lot of veterans go. The Panthers, especially, seemed to lose several guys who were key players last season.
Pat Yasinskas: Tampa Bay has been the division's most active team this offseason, and I think that will make the Bucs a lot better than they were a year ago. The Bucs have the ingredients to have an excellent defense, and that should keep them competitive. If the offense can be at least average, this team has a shot at being a playoff contender.
Which newcomer to the NFC South will have the biggest impact?
McClure: The jury is still out because the Falcons and Bucs each have top-10 draft picks and could move up. If the Falcons secure a pass-rusher such as Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack, either player could change the complexion of the defense. And if the Bucs land a receiver such as Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans to join Vincent Jackson, defensive backfields around the division could be in serious trouble. For now, I'll say safety Jairus Byrd from the Saints. A guy making $9 million a year had better make a strong impact. Byrd is a playmaker who showed a knack for intercepting the ball in 2009 as a rookie in Buffalo. He had a pretty good teacher over the years in Buccaneers cornerbacks coach Gill Byrd, his father.
Triplett: Josh McCown. I don't think he'll be the best player of all the newcomers in the division. And I doubt he'll even be as good as he was last year for the Bears. But the quarterback position is so vital -- and it was the one element the Buccaneers were really missing. McCown should provide some stability there. And, as I said, their defense and run game are both excellent. This is suddenly a well-rounded and dangerous team. If Julio Jones counted, I would have picked him instead. His return from injury will be huge for the Falcons.
Yasinskas: I'm not going with a player. I'm going with a coach: Lovie Smith. I view Smith's arrival as the best thing to happen to Tampa Bay in a very long time. Smith is exactly what this franchise needs -- a coach who stays on an even keel and knows how to win. After the Greg Schiano era, Smith should provide a lot of fresh air for the Bucs.
Which departing NFC South player leaves the biggest void?
McClure: Wide receiver Steve Smith, although the Panthers and Cam Newton are sure to feel the loss of tackle Jordan Gross, as well. Smith isn't the same player he used to be, but he's such a tough competitor. Although he's only 5-foot-9, he always does an outstanding job of securing the ball at its highest point. He has seven 1,000-yard seasons to his credit, and two of those came in the past three seasons with Carolina. I remember how Smith used to give Charles Tillman and the Bears fits whenever Chicago matched up with Carolina. The Panthers will realize how much they miss him when they face Smith and the Baltimore Ravens in the regular season.
Triplett: Steve Smith because of everything he has meant to the Panthers. It feels as if they lost part of their identity -- and I don't see an obvious replacement plan in place. Carolina was already thin at receiver before it let him go. I also think the Panthers will miss Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn in their secondary quite a bit. I thought both of those guys were a big part of their defensive surge last year. Darrelle Revis and Darren Sproles are obviously worth noting, but Tampa Bay and New Orleans have good fallback options.
Yasinskas: It would be easy to point to some big names such as Tony Gonzalez, Steve Smith or Darrelle Revis. But I'm going with former Carolina player Jordan Gross. I think his retirement will have a huge impact on the Panthers. For years, Gross was a solid left tackle. Without him, the Panthers are going to have to scramble for a replacement.
@PatYazESPN Steve Smith. Was the heart of that team for a long, long time. Even as an opponent, we'll miss him in Tampa Bay.- Matt Holden (@JaedenStormes) April 21, 2014
Which NFC South non-quarterback would you pick to start your own team?
McClure: Tough question, but I would have to go with Greg Hardy. Teams without a consistent pass rush can appreciate what Hardy brings to the table. He has 26 sacks over the past two seasons and seems impossible to stop at times, particularly when Charles Johnson is getting it done at the other defensive end spot. That's why the Panthers led the league with 60 sacks last season. Carolina rode a strong defense to the NFC South title, then kept Hardy in the fold by slapping the franchise tag on him. He'll get his big payday because he brings plenty of value to the team. For a non-quarterback, he would be a pretty solid cornerstone.
Triplett: This was, by far, the most difficult question for me to answer. The first two names that came to mind were Jimmy Graham and Julio Jones. I think both of them rank among the top 10 playmakers in the NFL. But, man, this division is absolutely stacked with defensive talent, from linemen such as Greg Hardy, Cameron Jordan and Gerald McCoy to linebackers such as Lavonte David, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to defensive backs such as Alterraun Verner, Jairus Byrd and Keenan Lewis.
OK, I'm hemming and hawing now. I'll go with Jones because I figure he'd earn the biggest contract on the open market. But Graham's an awfully nice fit for what the Saints like to do.
Yasinskas: I'm going to go with a guy who hasn't even started to get his due. That's Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. He began his career with two injury-plagued seasons, but has followed that up with two stellar seasons. McCoy should only continue to get better because his position is so crucial in the Bucs' new defensive scheme. McCoy might be on the verge of being the league's best defensive tackle.
Ahmad Brooks did just about everything the NFL can expect from a modern pass-rusher Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. On one of the game's most important plays, Brooks approached Drew Brees with the combination of ferocity and caution that should have allowed him to navigate the league's extensive rules to protect quarterbacks.
Brooks, the San Francisco 49ers linebacker, blew past New Orleans Saints right tackle Zach Strief and aligned his head behind Brees. To initiate contact, Brooks slammed his right shoulder into Brees' right shoulder, and to wrap up, he extended his right arm across Brees' chest.
Brees' upper body snapped back, including his head in a whip-like fashion. In the process, Brooks' arm slid slightly in the direction of Brees' neck.
The ruling from referee Tony Corrente: Personal foul against Brooks, whose slight slip of the arm had violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(c) -- which was amended last spring to specify that a penalty for a hit to the neck of a passer could be called even if the initial contact began below it. The penalty reversed a turnover and gave the Saints 15 yards on the way to a game-tying field goal. Brooks had hit neither Brees' head nor his knees, but he and the 49ers still feel victim to a technicality within the NFL rule labyrinth.
Did the play signify a turning point in the league's efforts to protect quarterbacks? Has it gone too far with its rules in the pocket? Is it unfairly penalizing hits like Brooks' when most quarterback injuries this season have resulted from scrambles or designed runs?
Speaking to reporters later, Brooks said he "basically bear-hugged" Brees and added: "That's just how football is played."
The NFL confirmed that sentiment, fining Brooks $15,575 for the play.
Brees, meanwhile, implied the penalty was justified because it was violent and left him with a bloody mouth.
"I don't think what Ahmad Brooks did was intentional at all," Brees told reporters. "I think he's a heck of a football player and a clean football player. A hard-nosed, clean football player. But you look at the result of that … and again in real-time … You can slow it down all you want and watch it and say, 'Look where the [arm is].' But I can tell you how I felt when I got hit. It felt like I got my head ripped off. And I get up and I've got a mouth full of blood. So there was no doubt in my mind that, 'Hey, it's gonna be a penalty.'"
Brees' reaction enraged earlier generations of NFL players, who saw nothing but a standard football play. ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said on ESPN Radio that the penalty was an example of how "the NFL product sucks" and suggested that "roughhousing" is now illegal in the NFL.
Dilfer called Brees a "dear friend" but added: "You're not preventing Drew Brees from getting a concussion by making that call. You're preventing him from getting a bloody lip.
"I was insulted when he came into the presser and said, 'I expected to get the flag thrown.' I can't tell you how many retired quarterbacks texted me … We played a game where we had to stay in the pocket and get hit in the face. We're not saying we're as good as Drew Brees. We're not saying he's soft. We're not saying the guys he is playing with are soft. But part of the badge of honor of playing quarterback in the NFL was standing in there and taking shots in the face and throwing a 20-yard dig route. That's what separated you from the other guys. Now that's just not part of the game."
Has the NFL gone too far? Has it substantively changed the game even as quarterbacks find new ways to get injured? ESPN's NFL Nation asked quarterbacks and defensive players to address the topic.
-- Detroit Lions DT Ndamukong Suh, as told to ESPN.com Lions reporter Michael Rothstein
-- New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees, as told to ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett
-- Indianapolis Colts LB Robert Mathis, as told to ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells
-- New York Giants QB Eli Manning, as told to ESPN.com Giants reporter Dan Graziano
-- Kansas City Chiefs QB Alex Smith, as told to ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher
-- New York Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul, as told to ESPN.com Giants reporter Dan Graziano
-- Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake as told to ESPN.com Dolphins reporter James Walker
Here’s the list of potential free agents for all four NFC South teams:
Atlanta Falcons. Tony Gonzalez, Brent Grimes, Sam Baker, William Moore, Will Svitek, Mike Cox, Todd McClure, Luke McCown, Christopher Owens, Mike Peterson, Garrett Reynolds, Lawrence Sidbury and Vance Walker all can become unrestricted free agents. Michael Palmer can become a restricted free agent.
Carolina Panthers. The potential unrestricted free agents are Derek Anderson, Antwan Applewhite, Gary Barnidge, Dwan Edwards, Ben Hartsock, Sherrod Martin, Captain Munnerlyn, Louis Murphy and Mike Pollak. Richie Brockel can become an exclusive-rights free agent. Andre Neblett, Nate Ness and Jason Phillips are scheduled to become restricted free agents.
New Orleans Saints. Jermon Bushrod, Jonathan Casillas, Chase Daniel, Sedrick Ellis, Devery Henderson, Ramon Humber, Elbert Mack, Turk McBride, Will Robinson, Courtney Roby and Scott Shanle can become unrestricted free agents. Brian De La Puente, Justin Drescher, Junior Galette and Chris Ivory are scheduled to become restricted free agents. Eric Olsen and Michael Higgins can become exclusive-rights free agents.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ronde Barber, Dallas Clark, Michael Bennett, E.J. Biggers, Andrew Economos, Roy Miller, Roscoe Parrish, Sammie Stroughter and Jeremy Trueblood can become unrestricted free agents. LeGarrette Blount, Jacob Cutrera, Corvey Irvin and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim are scheduled to become restricted free agents.