- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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One of the first things first-year law students are told is to look to their left, their right and at themselves. Then, they hear how at least one of the three of them won’t be there the following year. It’s the start of the weeding-out process.
The NFC South is about to go through one of its own. Give me your list of the 15 biggest names in the NFC South. Thanks, I’ve got them and I think we’ve got a pretty good consensus.
Now, I’ll tell you why a third of those names could be gone by the time the league year starts in mid-March. It happens every year in every division and it’s usually due to age, injury and salary-cap situations.
But 2012 could be the year of the facelift in the NFC South. More than usual, the faces and the names that are on the bubble are especially prominent. Let’s take a look at five big NFC South names that could be gone from their teams in the next month:
John Abraham, Falcons. He’ll turn 34 in May, which is ancient for a pass-rusher. There were signs in 2011 that Abraham was slowing down, after putting up an impressive 13 sacks in 2010. The numbers may not look terrible on the surface because Abraham did finish last season with 9.5 sacks.
But let’s put that in perspective and remember that 3.5 of those came in a game against a very bad Jacksonville team. That’s like counting home runs from batting practice. Without the Jacksonville game, Abraham had six sacks. I don’t want to hear the argument that every down year in Abraham’s career has been followed by an up one.
When a defensive end reaches 33 or 34, you generally see him trending in only one direction and that’s down. Abraham’s had a very nice run with the Falcons, but they invested a lot of money in Ray Edwards to play opposite him last year. Edwards didn’t light it up, so the Falcons may have to invest more money or draft picks in defensive ends this year.
Abraham’s also an unrestricted free agent. Could the Falcons bring him back at a reasonable rate for one more year and use him as a pass-rush specialist? Sure, it’s possible. But, with Mike Nolan taking over as Atlanta’s defensive coordinator, it might be a good time to find a new face of the Falcons’ pass rush.
Will Smith, Saints. For a long time, Abraham and Smith have been viewed as the NFC South’s top two pass-rushers. But it’s possible they’ll both be gone. Smith’s situation is slightly different than Abraham’s.
To start with, Smith remains under contract, which is precisely the reason he’s even in this discussion. Smith is scheduled to count $10.15 million against the 2012 salary cap. That’s an issue for a team that’s trying to figure out how to keep free-agent quarterback Drew Brees, guard Carl Nicks and receiver Marques Colston.
Let’s do the math real quick here. The Saints could save a $1 million roster bonus if they cut Smith before the 15th day of the league year. If they did release Smith, the Saints would only be on the hook for $4 million against the salary cap. In other words, they could free up $6.15 million in salary-cap space.
Throw in the fact that Smith will turn 31 in July and produced only 6.5 sacks in 2011 and I think you can see the Saints have to at least consider this possibility. But there also are some things weighing in Smith’s favor. It’s not like the Saints have another dominant pass-rusher (safety Roman Harper led the team with 7.5 sacks last season) and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo likes his pass rush to come almost exclusively from the front four. That could weigh in Smith’s favor. But, if Smith really wants to shift the scales and make sure he stays in New Orleans this year, he might be willing to restructure his contract to make it more cap friendly.
Jonathan Vilma, Saints. I can hear the screams coming from fans already. Vilma’s not Brees, but he’s close to being an icon and he should be because he’s had a great run.
But let’s face the reality. Can anyone honestly say they saw greatness in Vilma this past season? He looked a step slow before and after the knee surgery that forced him to miss five games. Vilma will turn 30 in April. Anytime you’re talking about a linebacker whose game is based largely on speed, knee surgery and 30th birthdays are not good signs.
As I pointed out on Smith, economics are a big deal for the Saints. Vilma is scheduled to count $7.6 million against this year’s cap. If the Saints release him, they instantly free up $5.2 million in cap space.
Thomas Davis, Panthers. We’re purely making educated guesses on Vilma, Smith, Abraham and the final guy on the list. But Davis’ departure from Carolina is more than an educated guess. Sadly, it’s a foregone conclusion.
The Panthers took a shot on Davis last summer when they signed him to a big contract extension after he had come back from two torn ACLs. Then, he went out and suffered the same injury for the third time early last season. That’s why the Panthers basically included an “out clause’’ when they gave Davis the new contract.
His deal calls for an $8 million option bonus on the second day of the league year. That’s not going to happen. The Panthers will release Davis because it’s the only move that makes economic sense. But he is well-liked by ownership, the front office and coaches, so it’s not impossible to see Davis ending up back with the Panthers at a much lower salary if he can’t land a nice deal somewhere else.
Ronde Barber, Buccaneers. You’d like to say that Barber has earned the right to end his career as a Buccaneer whenever and however he wants to. But this isn’t a perfect world. Yes, it is possible Barber could simply decide to retire. It’s also possible he may want to continue playing and new coach Greg Schiano could want to keep him as an elder statesman. In that scenario the Bucs simply could hand Barber another $4 million contract like they did in 2011.
But it’s also possible Barber may want to continue playing and the Bucs don’t feel they need to keep a cornerback who will turn 37 in April. That’s where this one could get sticky.
The Bucs looked terribly cruel when they sent Derrick Brooks packing in 2009. This situation isn’t quite the same because Barber’s no longer under contract and maybe he makes it easy on the Bucs and simply retires.
But Aqib Talib, the other starting cornerback, is facing trial on an assault charge in Texas in March. There’s no guarantee Talib will be with the Bucs next season and it’s not like the team has a ton of other talented cornerbacks.
This might be one situation where the Bucs might be wise to ignore the youth movement they’re following everywhere else and bring back the one guy they know they can count on -- if he wants to keep playing.