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Tuesday, December 15, 2009
How I See It: NFC South Stock Watch

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Falling

1. Josh Freeman, Bucs quarterback: After showing some early promise, the rookie has struggled mightily in his last two games. Not all of it’s on Freeman because he’s got a bad team around him. But Freeman’s recent play is a big concern.

The Bucs have to do more to help him out. But they really can’t do much until the offseason, when they’ll get a chance to add new players (see more talent) around Freeman.

2. Carolina’s trade of a 2010 first-round pick: The Panthers traded their pick to San Francisco to move up in the second round this year to get defensive end Everette Brown. He’s got some potential, but hasn’t made a big impact.

Meanwhile, that pick seems to get bigger with every Carolina loss. It could end up being in the top 10, the place where you have a chance to get a franchise quarterback.

2. Steve Smith, Panthers receiver: Yes, Smith had a long touchdown catch Sunday. But it was one of only two catches for him.

Smith remains one of the most talented receivers in the league. But the Panthers are wasting that because of their problems at quarterback and because they’re not being creative in finding ways to get Smith the ball. He has 51 catches and five touchdowns. Those aren’t the kind of numbers that will get him to the Pro Bowl or, eventually, into the Hall of Fame.

Reggie Bush
Reggie Bush found the end zone twice in Sunday's win over Atlanta.
Rising

1. Reggie Bush, Saints running back: He was back at full health and wasn’t on the field a lot. But when he was, Bush made his presence felt as he scored two touchdowns against the Falcons. Looks like coach Sean Payton has figured out how to use Bush: Don’t put him out there every play, but when you do, put him in spots where he has a chance to make a big play.

Bush is never going to be a guy who can grind out 25 carries a game, and his No. 2 overall draft status created some unreal expectations. But maybe it’s time for the world to accept Bush for what he is. That’s a guy who, at times, can be a difference-maker.

2. Jonathan Vilma, Saints linebacker: Vilma’s been solid ever since joining the Saints last year. But he probably had his best game Sunday, making a key interception and ending Atlanta’s last-gasp drive with a big tackle.

Vilma’s career flamed out with the Jets because he didn’t fit in a 3-4 defense. But Vilma’s found a home in New Orleans. He’s the leader of this defense and he’s showing, as he did in his early years in New York, that he can be one of the best linebackers in the league.

3. Mike Smith, Falcons coach: Without his two best players (quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner) and a whole bunch of others injured, Smith and the Falcons took the undefeated Saints right down to the wire. They did the same thing six weeks earlier in New Orleans when they were a little healthier.

This may be a lost season for the Falcons. But Smith has shown he knows how to coach against the Saints and the gap between these two franchises might not be as wide as it seems right now. Get everyone back to good health, let general manager Thomas Dimitroff find some cornerbacks in the offseason and Smith can make this team very competitive in the NFC South next season.