NFC South: 2011 training camp

Rivera pauses on naming QB

August, 21, 2011
Carolina coach Ron Rivera did not name his starting quarterback for the regular season Sunday. You don’t even have to read between the lines to figure this one out.

Rivera is pausing a bit before deciding if he wants to take a huge leap of faith and go with rookie Cam Newton over second-year pro Jimmy Clausen. Although Rivera initially said he’d name a starter before the third preseason game, you can’t blame him for waiting a bit.

Newton and Clausen haven’t stepped forward in the first two preseason contests. There’s nothing wrong with waiting to see how Newton and Clausen fare in this week’s preseason game at Cincinnati.

Newton is expected to get his second straight preseason start against the Bengals. Clausen started the preseason opener.

I still think the Panthers would like to have Newton as their starter when they open Sept. 11 at Arizona. But they’re wise to wait and hope they see something out of the rookie this week. The plan is to play Newton with the starters for about three quarters, which is somewhat telling.

Turning back to Clausen remains a possibility, but that’s only going to happen if Newton really stumbles or Clausen comes in and lights it up.

If it’s still a draw after Cincinnati, the Panthers probably will go ahead and take the leap on Newton. The feeling is he might have rough edges, but he has much more upside than Clausen.

Three things: Panthers-Dolphins

August, 19, 2011

Three things to watch for in Carolina’s preseason game against the Miami Dolphins on Friday. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. ET:

1. Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen. The Panthers will use this game as the final stage of the competition between Newton, the rookie, and Clausen, the second-year pro. Clausen got the start in the preseason opener and the Panthers want to give Newton his chance to show what he can with the starters. Bottom line here is, if Newton doesn’t make any major mistakes, the Panthers probably will go ahead and name him the starter for the regular season.

2. The return of Thomas Davis. The outside linebacker hasn’t played in 21 months. He’s gone through two major knee injuries and missed some of camp with a foot injury. He appears healthy, but this will be his first real test. If Davis can get back to be anything close to the player he was before the injuries, he can join with Jon Beason, James Anderson and Dan Connor to give Carolina what potentially could be one of the league’s top linebacker corps.

3. Steve Smith’s preseason debut. He sat out last week with a finger injury and it should be interesting to see what kind of chemistry surfaces between him and Newton. Smith and Clausen had some problems last year, although Smith has said that’s been patched over. Smith’s a competitor who wants the ball and he’s been aching for a quarterback who can consistently deliver it to him for a long time.

Payton: Starters will play more

August, 18, 2011
It sounds like we’ll see a lot more of Drew Brees on Saturday night in Houston than we did in New Orleans’ preseason opener.

Saints coach Sean Payton told the media Thursday night the plan is to give Brees -- and the rest of the starters -- a lot more work this week.

“From a snap count, somewhere between 20 and 25 plays,’’ Payton said. “Hopefully close to 25 plays. That may or may not get us to the half, but somewhere in that range.’’

Brees played only briefly in the first preseason game, completing 1-of-4 for 6 yards. The rest of the starters didn’t play much more than Brees and the first offense didn’t record a first down. They’ll have a lot more opportunities this week.

“You want to see progress week-to-week,’’ Payton said. “I think it is always important. You want to play well. You want to improve from the things you didn’t do well the week before. It will be nothing different than the second week the last four or five years in preseason. I think they are going to have more playing time, number one, and get close to a half of football. Maybe just under that, depending on the snaps.’’
In the last little bit, I’ve received releases from the Panthers, Falcons and Buccaneers about their preseason games this week. The Saints haven’t sent one out yet, but they don’t play until Saturday, so they’re not required to put one out until tomorrow.

Each of the releases contains an unofficial depth chart for the second week of the preseason. I saw no major changes for Carolina, Atlanta or Tampa Bay. But, like I said, the depth charts are unofficial in the preseason and, in some cases, they’re guestimates by the media relations department or conservative lists given out by coaches.

But there’s one situation I’m very curious about. That’s Carolina and the quarterback position. Jimmy Clausen still is listed as No. 1 on the depth chart with Cam Newton at No. 2. But, like I said in this item Sunday, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Panthers go ahead and start Newton this week in Miami.

I’m not saying they’re ready to anoint him the opening-day starter just yet. But he and Clausen are definitely in a competition. When you have that type of situation, it’s not unusual for a coach to give each candidate a start to see how he responds with the first team.

Will Ron Rivera start Newton against the Dolphins? We don’t know yet, but we could find out soon. Rivera and the Panthers just hit the practice field a few minutes ago. Rivera generally meets with the media after practice and I’m sure one of the first questions he’ll be asked is which quarterback will start this week.

Rivera doesn’t have to answer that just yet, but he’s a pretty straight-forward guy and I’m guessing he’s already made a decision. We should find out what that decision is in a couple of hours.

Falcons have competition at OLB

August, 10, 2011
Aside from the competition at nickel back that we talked about earlier, the other best battle in Atlanta’s camp is outside linebacker.

Curtis Lofton is set at middle linebacker and second-year pro Sean Weatherspoon has one outside spot locked up. But coach Mike Smith said the other outside spot is wide open. Veteran Mike Peterson was the starter last season and Stephen Nicholas had been a starter on the outside in 2009, before Weatherspoon came along.

Now, Peterson and Nicholas are competing for a starting job.

“We feel very good on what Stephen has done developmentally,’’ Smith said. “We know that Mike has the ability to play all three positions. That gives us a whole lot of flexibility, not only in our base package, but our sub-package. We want to get as many guys as possible ready. When you have a 53-man roster you hear us talking about that all the time, it’s all about cross training, because from week to week you’re going to have all kinds of adjustments that you’re going to have to make throughout the season.”

I think it also is important to note that the Falcons re-signed Nicholas to a five-year contract that averages $3.5 million a year. That might not qualify as huge money, but it’s bigger than backup money. That tells me the Falcons would like to get Nicholas on the field.

Maybe it comes right at the start of the season or maybe the Falcons open the season with Peterson starting and gradually let Nicholas take over. Peterson’s been willing to play special teams in the past. Even if that becomes his main role, he still gives the Falcons a solid backup and a good leader.

“Mike Peterson is a football player,’’ Smith said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s defense, or special teams; he’s going to do whatever it takes to contribute and help our football team win. If you ask Mike he would tell you he can go over to the offensive side and probably play some positions over there as well. You love to have guys like that. He’s a pro. He just loves to play the game of football.”
METAIRIE, La. -- There’s been speculation that missed offseason workouts and new rules on how much players can practice during training camp might change the complexion of preseason games.

Some have suggested we might not see a lot of veterans playing in the early preseason games. But that apparently won’t be the case when it comes to the New Orleans Saints.

Coach Sean Payton said Tuesday he plans to take a similar approach to what he’s done in past years Friday night when the Saints open their exhibition season at home against San Francisco. Aside from a few injured guys, he plans to play his starters.

“We typically look at snaps, not quarters,’’ Payton said. “Numbers can be pretty deceiving. We try to get somewhere between the 12-17 snap mark. There will be a couple of exceptions regarding certain players. When you get into your second phase, you look for a similar pitch-count, then you finish the game.”

Ray Edwards had knee surgery

August, 10, 2011
Defensive end Ray Edwards, the crown jewel of free agency for the Falcons, will miss the preseason opener Friday, coach Mike Smith told the media Thursday morning.

Smith said Edwards had knee surgery sometime during the lockout and isn’t quite ready to participate in a game. Smith said the procedure was minor and Edwards wasn’t around to elaborate.

Edwards was signed away from Minnesota for a five-year deal worth $27.25 million, and the Falcons view him as an explosive pass-rusher who will team with John Abraham to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Missing a preseason game or two isn’t that big a deal. The important thing here is for the Falcons to have Edwards completely healthy for when they open the regular season in Chicago.

Observations on the Saints

August, 9, 2011
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints just finished a fully-padded practice on what unquestionably has been the hottest day of the 2011 NFC South Training Camp Tour.

How hot was it? Well, let’s skip the weather terms and put a different kind of number on it. Defensive end Alex Brown just tweeted that he was nine pounds lighter after he got back to the locker room. Brown said he weighed in at 243 pounds -- that’s linebacker size.

Speaking of the heat, the Saints are going to get away from it. The Saints are going to play a preseason game at Houston. After that, they’re heading to Oxnard, Calif. They’ll spend a week practicing there before playing the Oakland Raiders.

“I think we’ll benefit for a lot of reasons,’’ coach Sean Payton said. “The weather and the environment is something I’m familiar with. Going out there and playing Oakland, it will be a good week for us to finish up.’’

Payton’s familiar with Oxnard from his days with Dallas because the Cowboys have trained there. Oxnard’s known for its low humidity. Payton also said the trip sort of gives the Saints an extra week of training camp.

A few other observations from Tuesday’s practice.
  • Receivers Marques Colston, Adrian Arrington and Jarred Fayson all missed practice. Payton said he’s not worried about a shortage of receivers for Friday’s preseason opener. Payton said he expects some or all of the injured receivers to return soon.
  • Backup quarterback Chase Daniel had a very nice practice. I saw him throw three touchdown passes in team drills. The high-light was a back-shoulder touchdown to Jimmy Graham.
  • Until Tuesday, I had only seen rookie running back Mark Ingram play on television. In person, he’s even more impressive. I saw him running with power and the best thing I can say is he looked faster than I thought he was. The Saints are bringing just about all their other rookies along slowly, but Ingram’s getting all sorts of work with the starters.
  • The outside linebacker spots are still up for grabs, but Scott Shanle's working with the first team on the weak side and Will Herring's working on the strong side. But Clint Ingram got some first-team reps on the strong side on Tuesday and is very much in the mix. I like the way the Saints are handling the situation at outside linebackers. They've got a whole bunch of candidates and they're going to use the preseason to throw them all out there and see who rises up.
  • One thing that really stood out was the fact that the middle of the defensive line is a lot bigger than last year. That’s largely due to the arrival of Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin.
  • I'll have more on the Saints on Wednesday and their Camp Confidential profile is scheduled for Friday.
The Carolina Panthers just released their first depth chart. They say it’s unofficial and I think that part is accurate.

They’re listing Jimmy Clausen as the starting quarterback ahead of Cam Newton. I don’t think that’s going to be the case when the regular season arrives, as long as Newton plays reasonably well in the preseason. The rookie might not be experienced, but he has way more upside than Clausen.

Let’s take a look at the depth chart, and we’re only going two deep.


Looking at Saints depth chart

August, 8, 2011
METARIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints just put out their first unofficial depth chart. It included a few surprises, highlighted by the fact the Saints aren’t trying to hide anything.

They have veteran Olin Kreutz ahead of Matt Tennant at center. That’s a bit refreshing because that’s the way the Saints intend to go. But, the flip side is they have rookie Mark Ingram as the No. 3 running back behind Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. I will be shocked if Ingram is not the starter, or at least the feature back, by opening day.

[+] EnlargeSaints running back Mark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIRESaints rookie running back Mark Ingram is listed No. 3 on the depth chart.
Nothing shocking on the defense, although I’m not sure veterans Scott Shanle and Danny Clark will hold off challenges at outside linebacker. And I also think rookie defensive end Cameron Jordan on the third team is something that won’t happen. Also, nice job by the Saints p.r. department for not listing Tracy Porter as a starting cornerback. He probably will end up in that role, but he’s recovering from an injury and Patrick Robinson is getting his reps these days.

I'll be out at practice at Tuesday, but in the meantime, let’s take a run through the depth chart the Saints sent out and we’ll only go two deep.

TAMPA, Fla. -- We’re about to begin another leg of the NFC South training camp tour. I’m getting ready to fly to Louis Armstrong International Airport and head over to Metairie, La., where I’ll be getting my first in-person look at the 2011 New Orleans Saints.

I’m particularly interested to see the running backs. With rookie Mark Ingram and veteran Darren Sproles, I think the Saints have a chance to be better in the backfield than they were a year ago. They also have Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, who is out with an injury right now, but should be back for the regular season.

Yes, the Saints let Reggie Bush go. Lots of people said he was a bust, but I disagree with that. Bush wasn’t a superstar for the Saints, but he was someone defenses had to account for every time he was on the field. Of course, part of the problem was that injuries often kept Bush from getting on the field.

Sproles brings a lot of the same abilities Bush did. Ingram should bring a whole lot of different things. Give coach Sean Payton a little time to figure out how to use everybody, but I think the Saints could have a very exciting backfield.

Keep an eye on the headlines section on our main NFL page while I’m traveling. If there’s any breaking news, we’ll have it there. I’ll check in this evening when I get settled into Metairie.

Also, our Camp Confidential segment on the Saints is scheduled to run Friday. The NFC South chat also will resume this Friday at 1 p.m. ET and, by then, I'll have had a look at all four teams and hopefully can give you some insight into who is looking good and who is not.

Matt Ryan: Second to one

August, 8, 2011
Every year, the NFL’s communications department puts out its “Kickoff’’ release, which is filled with all sorts of notes and nuggets. I’ll share some with you in the coming weeks. But let’s start with the first one that really caught my eye.



Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are generally regarded as the best two quarterbacks in the NFL, and Drew Brees is the unquestioned king of the NFC South. I won’t dispute that. But, in a least one very important category, we have another NFC South quarterback near the top.

That’s Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. When it comes to winning percentage in games started by active quarterbacks (10 games minimum), Ryan is a very close second to Brady. In three seasons, Ryan is 33-13 (a .717 winning percentage). Brady is 111-32 (.776).

Ryan is ahead of the likes of Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers, who generally make every list of “elite’’ quarterbacks. By the way, Ryan's 33 victories tie him with Hall of Famer Dan Marino for the most by a quarterback in his first three seasons since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.

Brees is 15th on the list with a .577 winning percentage (79-58). Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman is 13-12 (.520).

Then, there’s Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen, who, amazingly is not last on the list. But he is very close with a 1-9 record (.100). Clausen should be very thankful that Tyler Thigpen is 1-11 (.083) and Brodie Croyle is winless in his 10 NFL starts.
Shortly after being traded to Carolina, tight end Greg Olsen and the Panthers worked out a four-year contract extension.

We’ve got the complete breakdown here. Olsen was in the last year of his contract when he came from Chicago and was to make $900,000 in base salary. In the new deal, the Panthers knocked that figure down to $700,000. They also gave Olsen a $2.5 million signing bonus and added four years to his contract. His cap figure for this year is $1.2 million. The average per year of the new deal is $5.7 million.

In 2012, Olsen’s base salary jumps to $3 million and that’s guaranteed. Olson also has a $2.5 million option bonus in 2012. In 2013, Olsen’s base salary increases to $3.75 million and he has a $250,000 workout bonus for that offseason.

In 2014 and 2015, Olsen is scheduled to make $5.25 million in base salary each season. He also has a $250,000 workout bonus in each of those years.

Prior to the lockout, the Panthers signed Jeremy Shockey to a one-year deal that's worth $3.8 million. Olsen's new deal shows that the Panthers have a lot more money and time invested in him. Shockey will probably be used as a role player this season, but Olsen will be Carolina's main tight end.
We’ve all heard plenty about wide receiver Julio Jones ever since the Falcons made a big trade to jump up and get him in the draft. We already knew plenty about Jones from his college days because he had a fantastic career at Alabama.

But let’s turn now to the man who has seen more of Jones than perhaps anyone in recent weeks. Let’s turn to Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan for his scouting report on his new toy.

“He’s explosive,’’ Ryan said during my recent visit to Flowery Branch. “He’s extremely fast and extremely physical. He has great ball skills and is really good at adjusting to throws on the run. He’s really good with protections, which is something you don’t usually see from a guy coming in for his rookie year. He’s been on top of the hots [hot reads] and side adjusts. If he can continue to do that and be explosive, he’s going to help us out a bunch.’’

Specifically, what does Jones do that will help the Falcons?

“His ability to stretch the field vertically and also his ability to make plays after the catch,’’ Ryan said. “You don’t need to look any further to help create explosive plays. If he can do both of those things, your plays of 20-plus yards are going to increase.’’

Ryan worked with Jones a lot in the offseason. During the lockout, Ryan had Jones over to his house to watch film, and the two already have developed a good chemistry. Ryan said Jones should have no trouble fitting into what the Falcons do immediately and should make everyone better.

“He’s a good complement to what Roddy [White] does,’’ Ryan said. “He’s a good complement to Tony [Gonzalez]. I think he really helps out Harry Douglas as well because we can put Harry in the slot. Harry’s having a great camp. He’s been working really hard. The addition of Julio kind of opens up things for Harry as well as everyone else.’’

Observations on the Buccaneers

August, 6, 2011
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Buccaneers just finished their annual night practice at Raymond James Stadium, which also serves as sort of a fan festival. But there was plenty of football.

Let’s run through some observations.
  • Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who suffered a strained rotator cuff Friday, didn’t take part in the workout. But McCoy gave a fan a big thumbs-up when asked how he was feeling.
  • Cornerback E.J. Biggers made a spectacular leaping interception.
  • Cornerback Aqib Talib, who had some legal problems in the offseason, got a huge ovation when his name was announced to the crowd. Seconds later, he dropped what should have been an interception on a ball intended for Mike Williams that was thrown by Josh Freeman.
  • Former Bucs tight end Jimmie Giles was in the crowd and got a huge round of applause when he was shown on the scoreboard video screens.
  • Freeman looked sharp most of the night, particularly when throwing to tight end Kellen Winslow and Williams. But Freeman didn’t win the quarterback competition that was held at the end of the night. The quarterbacks all took turns throwing at targets on moving golf carts. The competition was won by third-stringer Rudy Carpenter.
  • He’s never been known as a speed back, but fullback Earnest Graham torched rookie linebacker in one-on-one coverage and caught a deep pass from Freeman.
  • I’ve been saying the Bucs need to add a solid veteran running back to play behind LeGarrette Blount. After watching Kregg Lumpkin, I think there’s at least a chance they might already have their backup.
  • Some excellent stuff from general manager Mark Dominik, who was interviewed during practice and the conversation was played on the video screens. Dominik had high praise for rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Then he delivered the line of the night when asked how he feels about his team right now. “It’s a team I want our town to fall back in love with,’’ Dominik said.