NFC South: 2012 NFL Training Camp

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In one sentence, Ron Rivera can take the 2011 Carolina Panthers and make them 9-7 instead of 6-10.

“I look at the Minnesota game, I look at the Detroit game and I look at the second Atlanta game," the Carolina coach said after practice on a recent morning.

No need to go back and look up those games. There’s one very common thread -- the Carolina defense crumbled when it mattered most. Despite hitting the jackpot drafting quarterback Cam Newton and suddenly having the most explosive offense in franchise history, the Panthers still finished third in the NFC South.

“It was hard for [defensive coordinator] Sean [McDermott], because he really had to pull back on what he likes to do, and disappointing for me because I wanted more from our defense," Rivera said. “But I think the toughest part of all is when you look back and see certain opportunities where if somebody just stepped up and made a play on the defensive side of the ball, it’s a totally different result to the ballgame."

But Rivera and the Panthers aren’t doing too much reflecting these days. Instead, Rivera’s looking at a fully stocked defense, and that’s reason enough for optimism. Jon Beason, who missed almost all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon, is back. So is defensive tackle Ron Edwards, who suffered a season-ending injury early in training camp. There is even hope that outside linebacker Thomas Davis, who once seemed to be on the verge of becoming a superstar, can fully recover from his third torn ACL and contribute at least as a role player.

The Panthers used their first-round pick on Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who can play inside or outside, chase down running backs and rush the passer. There were other moves here and there for depth, and that’s why veteran left tackle Jordan Gross is looking across the line and seeing a defense that looks nothing like last season’s.

“I don’t think people truly realize how much we lost with the injuries last year," Gross said. “Missing Beas was a big deal as far as football, but it was an even bigger deal in the locker room. He’s the constant on that defense. He’s the guy that’s always chiming in on any team issue and getting on guys or encouraging guys. There really wasn’t a leader out there last year, once he was gone.

“Having Ron Edwards back also is huge, because he’s a big-body guy that we haven’t had in awhile, and that’s going to help the entire defense. Kuechly obviously is a guy that’s going to make some plays, and I think our pass rush has gotten better, just from having experience thrust upon them last year. Just practicing against them in camp, I can tell you that defense is going to be a whole lot better."

If Gross is right, Carolina fans could be very happy. This team hasn’t had a winning season since 2008. That could change with some improvement from the defense, because the world already knows Newton and the offense are going to score. If the defense can make just a few more of those plays Rivera talked about, the Panthers could be in the playoffs.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The No. 2 cornerback spot. The Panthers have made it pretty clear they don’t want Captain Munnerlyn starting at cornerback. He brings athleticism and swagger but lacks the size to be an effective every-down cornerback. Ideally, the Panthers would like to slide Munnerlyn inside and let him line up with slot receivers in the nickel package.

That makes all sorts of sense, but there’s one big catch. At the moment, the Panthers aren’t sure they have anyone who can take Munnerlyn’s place as the starter. They got all excited about rookie Josh Norman in June workouts, and he still might end up in that role, but his fast track to a starting job stalled when he missed some time with an injury early in camp. There also was hope that second-year pro Brandon Hogan could claim the spot. But Hogan’s knee, which he injured in his final year of college, still doesn't allow him to stay on the practice field with anything approaching consistency.

Maybe Norman steps up in what’s left of the preseason. If not, the Panthers might give Darius Butler, who spent two seasons with New England before joining the Panthers last season, the starting job. Or maybe they still start Munnerlyn, but slide him inside in nickel situations and let Butler take his spot on the outside.

[+] EnlargeMike Tolbert
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonThe addition of Mike Tolbert, right, further crowds a backfield that includes DeAngelo Williams, left, and Jonathan Stewart.
2. The workload at running back. You can make a case that the Panthers underused running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart last season. So what did the Panthers do in the offseason? They added Mike Tolbert as a free agent from San Diego. The Panthers say Tolbert will be a fullback but also say he’ll get some time at tailback and will be asked to catch passes out of the backfield.

That sure makes it sound like the number of carries for Williams and Stewart, who each have had 1,000-yard seasons in the past, will be reduced even more. But I think people are missing the point. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was riding the hot hand with Newton last season, and the Panthers frequently played from behind. When the coaching staff reflected on last season, I think it concluded that the running backs weren’t involved enough. Count on a conscious effort to get Williams and Stewart more carries.

It might look like Tolbert just complicates things. But players don’t call Chudzinski “The Mad Scientist" for no reason. They know he has big plans for this backfield. We could end up seeing all sorts of combinations of Williams, Stewart and Tolbert, and there could be all sorts of new plays. It sure beats the heck out of the old days in Carolina when variety in the backfield meant a draw play to Nick Goings.

3. The lineup at linebacker. When the Panthers drafted Kuechly, fans wondered what that meant for Beason. Kuechly played the middle in college, and the natural assumption was that he would do the same in the NFL. Kuechly might end up in the middle someday, but not while Beason is around.

Beason is a natural in the middle, and the Panthers aren’t going to move him. They’ll use Kuechly on the weak side. Davis’ comeback is a great story, but it almost certainly isn’t going to end with his return as a full-time starter. James Anderson will be the other starter. If the Panthers get anything out of Davis, it will be viewed as a bonus. At best, the Panthers plan to use Davis as a situational player in some nickel packages. They could resort to the 3-4 defense a little more often, but the 4-3 is going to remain their base defense.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeRyan Kalil
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneCenter Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer, declaring fans will be rewarded for their support with a "one hundred-percent, sterling silver victory -- the Lombardi Trophy."
One of the biggest signs of optimism I’ve ever seen came a few days before camp when center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer, promising a Super Bowl victory this season. Let’s turn to Kalil for an explanation.

“The idea behind the letter wasn’t to spark anything with the team, but really to let the fans in on how the culture was changing here," Kalil said. “I think in recent years, the culture has been too much of, 'If the Panthers win, great. And, if not, nobody expects much from us.’ I think Ron Rivera came in here and the mindset has just changed. There’s a sense of urgency, and a winning attitude that I haven’t seen since I’ve been here. That was the idea behind the letter -- just to get the fans excited, because we haven’t given them a whole lot to cheer about in recent years, and they’ve been very supportive of us. They deserve a better team, and we’re going to give them years of better things to come."

I’ve gotten to know Kalil pretty well, and he’s not the kind of guy who would pull a stunt like this just for show. Kalil was used to winning at USC and, if he was willing to go out on a limb like this, he must feel pretty confident that what he’s seen in the offseason program is about to translate into something special.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There’s no question the presence of Kuechly and Beason will make the linebackers better, and there’s no doubt Edwards will help the run defense. But, outside of Charles Johnson, where’s the pass rush? There was almost no pass rush outside of Johnson last season, and it’s not like the Panthers made any dramatic moves in that area this offseason.

Maybe this is the year Greg Hardy and Eric Norwood finally reach their potential, but it’s not as if they’ve had major flashes in the past. There’s been a little buzz in camp about Thomas Keiser. I’m not sure he’s ready to be a full-time starter, but he could be a situational player. The Panthers might have to make more active use of the blitz. If they don’t, then a secondary that’s not exceptionally talented could be in for another long season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The special teams were almost as big a problem as the defense last season. That’s why the jobs at punter and kicker are completely wide open. There are no favorites here. The Panthers are simply going to go through the preseason and see whether Olindo Mare or Justin Medlock kicks better. If Medlock emerges, the Panthers will be happy to swallow their pride after giving Mare a big contract last season. They just want consistency. It’s the same at punter, where the Panthers let Jason Baker go after last season. They invested a draft pick in Brad Nortman but went out and signed veteran Nick Harris. They’re not indebted to either.

  • Brandon LaFell pretty much has locked up the No. 2 wide receiver job opposite Steve Smith. But there’s a logjam of receivers after that. David Gettis, Louis Murphy and Seyi Ajirotutu seem to be competing for the No. 3 spot. But they might not all make the team. The Panthers also are high on younger receivers Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams and Armanti Edwards, each of whom can contribute in the return game. Edwards, whom the Panthers drafted as a project in 2010, has shown some promise in camp but probably isn’t going to make the roster ahead of Adams and Pilares.

  • There was a lot of talk about competition at right tackle and left guard entering camp. But those competitions didn’t turn into much. The Panthers already were locked in on Byron Bell as their right tackle after he played so well there last season. They also seem fully prepared to go with rookie Amini Silatolu at left guard. Veterans Mike Pollak and Bruce Campbell were brought in, but the Panthers are viewing them as quality backups.

  • There’s been a buzz around camp about how well third-year quarterback Jimmy Clausen has played. Sad part is, it doesn’t really matter. Newton’s set as the franchise quarterback for at least the next decade, and Chudzinski has strong ties to veteran backup Derek Anderson. Clausen is stuck at No. 3. The Panthers might as well try to showcase him in the preseason games. If he really is playing that well, someone might be willing to trade a draft pick for him.

  • The Panthers brought in Haruki Nakamura as an alternative to Sherrod Martin at safety. The thinking was Nakamura, who was Ed Reed’s backup in Baltimore, could end up beating Martin out. As it turns out, the acquisition seems to have ignited a fire under Martin. He’s having a nice training camp, and it looks like he’ll hold onto the starting job if he can continue playing well through the preseason.
  • The Panthers aren't the slightest bit worried about Newton's running into "the sophomore slump." There is good reason for that. Newton had one of the best statistical seasons ever by a quarterback, and he did that coming out of a lockout during which he wasn't able to spend any offseason time with his coaches. Newton has had an entire offseason this year, and all indications are he spent as much time around the facility as possible. The Panthers fully believe Newton didn't even come close to hitting his full potential last season.
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All those who assumed that running back Jonathan Stewart would be leaving the Carolina Panthers after his contract expired at the end of this season, think again.

The Panthers just announced they have signed Stewart to a five-year contract extension. The deal is worth $36.5 million and could reach a maximum of $42.5 million. It includes $22.5 million guaranteed.

“We are thrilled to be able to extend Jonathan for five additional years," general manager Marty Hurney said. “He is a perfect fit for our organization. He is a playmaker who can make the difference in games, and we have seen the impact he and DeAngelo Williams have had on our team.”

It looked like the Panthers were overloaded in the backfield with Stewart, Williams and fullback/tailback Mike Tolbert, who was signed as a free agent this offseason. The speculation was that Tolbert was signed to ease the eventual departure of Stewart.

But that never was the reality. The Panthers have wanted to keep Stewart all along, and now they’ve made it happen.

Yes, the backfield still is crowded. But offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is putting some new wrinkles in the playbook that should keep all the running backs happy. I think the Panthers realize they have a ton of talent in the backfield and want to get back to running on a more consistent basis after relying so heavily on Cam Newton and the passing game.

Oh, also, a lot of people were speculating the Panthers would try to trade Stewart before this season started. Obviously, that's not going to happen now.

Blogger Blitz: Carolina's No. 2 wide receiver

August, 8, 2012
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NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas talks about the training camp battle for the Panthers' No. 2 wide receiver spot.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The Carolina Panthers put out their first depth chart Tuesday afternoon. Let me emphasize this is an unofficial depth chart, but there are several things that jump out at me.

Let’s start with one thing that’s very atypical for the Panthers, who generally are the most conservative team in the NFC South when it comes to such matters. The Panthers are listing rookie Amini Silatolu as the No. 1 left guard. That probably will be the case come opening day, but the Panthers generally don’t list rookies as starters on their first preseason depth chart. Instead, they give veterans every benefit of the doubt. But I think this is a pretty good sign that the Panthers aren’t really counting on veterans like Mike Pollak or Bruce Campbell to start. I’d say an injury is about the only thing that would prevent Silatolu from being the starter when the regular season opens.

But the flip side of this is that the Panthers are listing first-round draft choice Luke Kuechly as the No. 2 weak-side linebacker behind veteran Thomas Davis. Kuechly has been working with the first team throughout training camp. This one purely is a courtesy to Davis, who is trying to come back from his third torn ACL. Kuechly is pretty much guaranteed a starting job in the regular season.

Another item worth noting is that Derek Anderson is listed as the No. 2 quarterback behind Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen is No. 3. Coach Ron Rivera was asked after Tuesday’s practice if Anderson was the backup and the coach didn’t hesitate to affirm that. It looks like Clausen, who started as a rookie in 2010, is looking at another season of being the third quarterback.

The Panthers are listing Sherrod Martin as their starting free safety and that could end up being the case in the regular season. But all indications out of Carolina’s camp are that Martin is very much in competition with free-agent addition Haruki Nakamura for the starting job.

I’ve also been told that the Panthers view the punter and kicker jobs as serious competitions. They’re listing veteran Olindo Mare No. 1 and Justin Medlock No. 2 at kicker and Nick Harris as the No. 1 punter with rookie Brad Nortman as No. 2. But the order at both spots could change, depending on what happens in the preseason games.

Luke Kuechly making a splash

August, 7, 2012
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- It doesn’t take long to spot Luke Kuechly on the Carolina Panthers’ practice field. That’s because he’s the guy making big plays.

It happened Tuesday morning when quarterback Cam Newton slightly overthrew tight end Gary Barnidge and Kuechly was there to make the interception. It happened in Saturday’s Fan Fest, when Kuechly picked off another pass.

Kuechly
Kuechly
And it’s been happening in virtually every practice since the start of camp, according to coaches and players. Sure there have been a few moments where Kuechly has looked like a rookie. But, more often than not, Kuechly has been showing why the Panthers pounced on him with the No. 9 overall pick in the draft. He played middle linebacker at Boston College, and there’s still a chance Kuechly could end up back there some day. But Jon Beason is in the middle right now, and Kuechly is working on the outside with the first team and making strong impressions.

Offensive tackle Jordan Gross has seen a lot of linebackers come and go through the years, but he said it’s obvious Kuechly is going to have an instant impact. Kuechly can drop in pass coverage, chase down running backs, and he’s even showing some strong skills as a pass-rusher.

“He’s been as advertised,’’ Gross said. “He’s got a nose for the ball and he throws his body around, and that’s what you want out of a linebacker. One thing that stands out is that when he blitzes, he rushes the passer, he doesn’t just blitz and stop if a lineman picks him up. He’s got moves, and his effort is good. If you get your hands on him, he wants to get off there and make a play. He doesn’t really act like a rookie at all.’’

The rookie moments have faded and that’s expected to continue. The Panthers already are set on Kuechly and Beason as starting linebackers. The third spot is up for grabs between Thomas Davis, who is returning from a knee injury, and James Anderson, who led the team in tackles last season.
There was a significant overnight development in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program story that could be the first thing close to a compromise between the team and the National Football League.

There reportedly is an offer on the table for New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma to have his season-long suspension reduced to eight games. The deal is contingent upon Vilma dropping his defamation lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

I think Vilma should grab this deal and run with it, because it would be somewhat of a victory for him and it could help lead to reductions in the shorter suspensions for New Orleans defensive end Will Smith, Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita and Green Bay defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove. It also would end a legal battle and a war of words that has dragged on far too long.

Vilma
Vilma could salvage half a season, and that’s significant when you’re a player who is coming off a knee injury and is nearing the end of his career. It also would mean he could collect his salary for half a season, which would be a lot better than not getting paid for an entire season.

Would a reduced suspension be vindication for Vilma? Not totally. He’d still be out for a substantial period of time. But his name is going to be associated with this saga forever no matter what.

Vilma’s been fighting to clear his name, and taking the NFL’s compromise wouldn’t accomplish that. But it still might be the best possible outcome for Vilma.

Numerous legal experts have said there’s very little chance Vilma will win his defamation suit. Goodell hasn’t been willing to back off of anything else in this whole matter, but he’s showing flexibility now.

Vilma should grab the offer, because it’s probably his best-case scenario.
Here’s a move that shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Carolina Panthers just announced the official release of offensive tackle Jeff Otah.

Otah
That’s been expected ever since Otah’s trade to the New York Jets was voided because he couldn’t pass a physical. Otah’s rights returned briefly to the Panthers, but it was obvious he had no future with the team.

A first-round draft pick in 2008, Otah had two good years before knee injuries started to become chronic. Otah appeared in only four games over the past two seasons.

In his absence last season, the Panthers discovered they had a capable replacement in Byron Bell and he’s expected to be the starter this season with Bruce Campbell and Garry Williams as his backups.

The Panthers will have to absorb a $218,750 salary-cap hit for Otah, but they still free up about $800,000 with the release. The Panthers now have about $9 million in cap space.

The Panthers filled Otah’s roster spot by signing cornerback Nate Ness. Ness previously has spent time with the Dolphins, Seahawks, Giants and Rams.

Saints shuffling cornerbacks

August, 2, 2012
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There’s some news out of New Orleans that is less than ideal, but it might not be disastrous if the time frame works out as expected.

Assistant head coach Joe Vitt said that cornerback Jabari Greer is having sports hernia surgery in Philadelphia. Vitt said he expects Greer to be ready for the start of the regular season.

If that ends up being the case, the Saints are fine. Greer is a proven veteran who can pop right back in after missing most of camp and the entire preseason. But, if the time table runs longer on Greer’s recovery and he’s not ready for the start of the regular season, then the Saints face a potential problem.

Greer is New Orleans’ best cornerback and I say he’s the best corner in the NFC South. Fellow starting cornerback Patrick Robinson has also missed some camp time with a minor injury. That’s given guys like Johnny Patrick, Marquis Johnson and Elbert Mack an opportunity to get more practice time in camp and that’s a silver lining. Patrick is a second-year guy who the Saints would like to use as their nickelback and this will give the coaching staff a good chance to really gauge his progress. All indications are Patrick is having a good camp.

But I don’t think he’s reached a point in his career where the Saints would be very comfortable if he has to open the season as a starter.

NFC South evening update

July, 31, 2012
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Time to take a look at the day’s headlines from around the NFC South.
  • Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said he plans to meet with offensive tackle Jeff Otah on Wednesday. The Panthers previously traded Otah to the New York Jets, but that deal was rescinded after Otah couldn’t pass a physical. The Panthers already were prepared to move on without Otah, and I don’t see them hanging onto him now. It will be tough to find another trade partner now because the fact Otah couldn’t pass a physical was made very public. I think Carolina’s only choice is to release Otah. But we’ll see if Hurney has something up his sleeve.
  • Undrafted rookie quarterback Dominique Davis drew some praise from coach Mike Smith. The coach talked about Davis’ strong arm. I can verify that. When I was at Atlanta’s camp, it clearly was evident Davis has a strong arm. But the thing that caused me a little concern was that he seemed to have only one speed -- fast. It didn’t matter if it was a screen pass or a shot over the middle to a receiver or a tight end, Davis was throwing the ball very hard, and didn’t seem to have a lot of touch.
  • Tampa Bay middle linebacker Mason Foster said he knows there are no guarantees as to how the linebacker group will be utilized in the regular season. But it’s pretty obvious the Bucs want Foster starting in the middle, with Quincy Black and rookie Lavonte David on the outside. Unless they really struggle in the preseason, I don’t think you’ll see any changes.
  • The Buccaneers got their first day off from training camp Tuesday. That’s probably a good thing. This team is off to a rough start when it comes to injuries, and a little rest can’t hurt.
The Carolina Panthers just announced their trade of offensive tackle Jeff Otah to the New York Jets has been voided.

The Panthers made the trade in exchange for a conditional draft pick last week, but Otah failed his initial physical with the Jets. He had a week to pass another physical, but wasn’t able to do that, so his rights revert to the Panthers.

But it’s unclear if Otah has any future with the team that used a first-round draft pick on him in 2008. Otah’s knee issues limited his playing time the past two seasons. Rookie Byron Bell took over his starting job at right tackle last season and performed well. The Panthers are planning on using Bell as their starter this year and they have solid depth behind him with Bruce Campbell and Garry Williams.

The Panthers may try to reach an injury settlement with Otah and release him.
If I had to pick just one player who has stood out most during my training camp tour so far, Atlanta’s Julio Jones would be the easy choice.

In each of the practices, I saw the second-year receiver make several spectacular plays. Let’s keep in mind that he was going up against some big-name cornerbacks in Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel. On at least two plays, I saw Jones use athleticism to beat Grimes, who many Falcons will point to when you ask them to name their most athletic player.

[+] EnlargeElbert Mack
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesAtlanta receiver Julio Jones has shown flashes of star potential this offseason.
This shouldn’t come as a total surprise from Jones, who caught 54 passes for 959 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie, despite sitting out three full games and missing parts of others.

“In my mind, he missed five and a half games,’’ coach Mike Smith said. “If you extrapolate his numbers out, it’s a monster year. We know he’s going to impact the game.’’

But not everyone thought Jones had a great rookie season. There was a notable exception.

“I did all right,’’ Jones said. “I could have done so much better. I was coming off the foot surgery and I couldn’t really work out in the offseason. My whole core was weak, and coming out here and running full speed and my hamstring kind of gave way.’’

Like all rookies last season, Jones was at a disadvantage because the lockout eliminated offseason programs. Even in the players-only workouts, Jones’ foot limited the time he could spend working with quarterback Matt Ryan.

Jones had a full offseason this time around, and wide receiver is a position where there often is strong improvement from the first year to the second. Throw in the fact that Jones didn’t have any injuries to deal with during the offseason, and we might have the reasons why he’s playing so well in camp.

“I’m out here and stronger than ever,’’ Jones said. “It’s so much easier when you’re not tired. You can come out here and really focus. Everything has just been so much easier this time around.’’

But Jones’ fast start to training camp might not be simply because he’s healthy and a player’s second training camp always is easier than what he goes through as a rookie. Ryan said there’s another important factor at work.

“I think it’s a lot of myself understanding exactly how good he is and having a better feel for his gait, for his speed and for his ability to go up and make some plays when the ball is in the air,’’ Ryan said.

Yep, Ryan said even he didn’t realize last year just how talented Jones is. The quarterback is just grasping that now, which begs the question -- how good can Jones be?

“I think he can be one of the very best in the league, for sure,’’ Ryan said. "His talent is off the charts. His speed and burst and power is as good as anybody’s. I think his understanding of defenses is continuing to improve. I think that, as he gets better with that, there’s no telling how good he can be.’’

I felt like I took a little bit of a leap when I ranked Jones No. 11 in my projections for the top 25 NFC South players in 2012 a few weeks ago, especially when I put him ahead of guys like teammate Roddy White, Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson and New Orleans’ Marques Colston. All three of those guys have been around for a while and have put up bigger numbers than Jones did as a rookie.

Again, I was projecting when I did the top 25. After what I saw out of Jones in camp and what I heard from his coaches and teammates, I no longer slightly question if Jones’ ranking was too high. In fact, I’m wondering if I should have placed him in the top 10.

NFC South afternoon update

July, 30, 2012
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- I’m wrapping up my time here at Falcons’ camp, but we’ll have more on Atlanta in the coming days. The Camp Confidential profile on the Falcons is scheduled to run Thursday.

Meantime, let’s take a look at what else is going on around the division.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

All coaches have quirks, and we’ve been finding out a lot about Greg Schiano ever since he arrived in Tampa Bay. But here’s a new tidbit on Schiano. In this radio interview, he revealed he asks all of his quarterbacks to wear a protective brace on their left leg (all his quarterbacks throw with their right arm). This makes plenty of sense, because that’s the leg that’s most exposed to injury.

We already knew Schiano had a penchant for guys who played for him at Rutgers. One of them, receiver Tiquan Underwood, has been making a positive impression early in camp.

With starter Donald Penn out with an injury, Demar Dotson has been getting the first-team work at left tackle. If Penn’s not ready for the start of the preseason, I don’t think we’ll see quarterback Josh Freeman being left on the field too long.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Coach Ron Rivera has had some success bringing in guys from San Diego, where he was an assistant. There was some hope that defensive end/linebacker Jyles Tucker could join that club, but that’s not going to happen. Tucker left camp to deal with a personal issue, and the Panthers released him.

Quarterback Cam Newton said the rest of the Panthers are doing their best to back up Ryan Kalil after the center purchased a newspaper ad promising a Super Bowl championship. What would you expect Newton and his teammates to say? That Kalil is out of his mind and they don’t want to win a Super Bowl?

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Although he’ll be going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in a few days, former New Orleans offensive tackle Willie Roaf told the media he’s not the best player in Saints’ history. He said that honor belongs to current quarterback Drew Brees. No argument here. Roaf was a wonderful player, but he split his career between New Orleans and Kansas City. Besides, he was an offensive lineman. Those guys are important, but not as important as quarterbacks. Besides, the Saints won a Super Bowl title with Brees. The Saints were only a mediocre team during much of Roaf’s tenure.

Jeff Duncan makes a good point as he runs through the history of undrafted free agents that have made the Saints’ roster in recent seasons. At least one undrafted rookie has made the roster each year since 2006. The list includes guys like Lance Moore and Pierre Thomas.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- On the surface, it may look like the Atlanta Falcons have a huge problem at middle linebacker.

Dent
They lost Curtis Lofton, the starter the past four years, to New Orleans in free agency. Then, veteran Lofa Tatupu, the guy who was supposed to replace Lofton, at least on a short-term basis, suffered a pectoral injury just before the start of training camp and was released.

That’s why Akeem Dent, who has made zero NFL starts and has 13 career tackles, has been working as the first-team middle linebacker since the start of camp. There’s no doubt the Falcons wish Tatupu hadn’t been injured, but they're not looking at his loss as the end of the world. That’s because they started planning for a scenario like this more than a year ago.

“Curtis was a fine football player and we knew there was a legitimate chance he would not be with us this year when we drafted Akeem last year,’’ general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “We knew that Akeem was a potential Mike linebacker for us. ... Akeem is a very competitive, strong individual with a strong passion for the game. Unfortunately for us, we lost Lofa. Lofa was brought in here for a number of reasons. One as a leader and two to compete with Akeem Dent for the starting Mike backer position. It was going to be a very strong competition. Unfortunately, Lofa’s moved on from our organization. It’s up to Akeem to continue to work and grow into that position.’’

Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith aren’t ready to firmly say that Dent is the starter and long-term answer at middle linebacker. But I get the sense that they’re not out there actively looking to bring in another veteran.

“Thomas and his staff are not like a coach who looks from Sunday to Sunday,’’ Smith said. “They’re looking a year or a couple years down the road. We drafted Akeem Dent last year in the third round with the intent that at some point in time he would be our starting Mike linebacker. He played behind Curtis Lofton in Year 1 and played on special teams. Now, he’s going to get his opportunity to do it. I think Akeem is going to be a learning mode.

"But I think he has the pieces around him to help him. We have Mike Peterson back on our roster and he’s played all three linebacker positions. He’s going to be a great resource for Akeem. I think [outside linebacker] Sean Weatherspoon is going to have a big impact on Akeem as well because he’s only one year removed from what Akeem is going through right now. I think Akeem will use those resources along with his coaches and we’ll get him ready. He just needs to experience the game. We feel like he has the skill set to play Mike linebacker for us.’’
METAIRIE, La. -- As he prepares for his third NFL season, it sounds as if New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham has figured out the secret to NFL success.

"I was told to never tug on Superman’s cape," Graham said.

He was talking about quarterback Drew Brees. Graham noted how the quarterback challenged him to a sprint race at the start of training camp and said he let Brees win. Graham was partly joking, but there was some deep wisdom in his words.

More than ever, the Saints are Brees’ team. They’ve been through an offseason unlike one any other team has faced. They’ve been through the painful drama of the bounty scandal and they’ll move forward without coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season, and general manager Mickey Loomis, who is suspended for the first eight games.

Brees, the league's highest-paid player, is coming off a season in which he set a NFL single-season record for most passing yards. No, let other teams try to tug on Brees’ cape. If the Saints really are going to endure all this adversity successfully, they need Brees’ skill and leadership more than ever. They need to ride the coattails of the most positive thing they have at the moment.

Brees knows this high-flying offense as well as anyone, including Payton. The Saints remain loaded at offensive skill positions. There’s little doubt this team still is going to score a lot, and that alone will keep it competitive.

But Brees can’t do everything by himself. Even before the word "bounty" started flying in March, the Saints knew they had to overhaul their defense. That became clear in last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco. That’s why defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired. Predecessor Gregg Williams had a gambling philosophy, going all-out to produce turnovers. The negative side effect was that the Saints gave up too many big plays.

Spagnuolo brings a more balanced philosophy. Sure, he wants turnovers, but he also wants to be able to shut down offenses from time to time. A big theme of this camp is the installation of Spagnuolo’s defense. Even though that’s not his side of the ball, Brees shows a lot of interest in the defense. Even in camp, the Saints are implementing game plans.

“[Spagnuolo] is going to try to find every flaw, just like we are going to do to them,’’ Brees said. “Along the way, I am certainly going to be picking his brain as to what he is seeing with our offense, how we can improve. That is how you help one another. That is a habit that we got into, me talking to the defensive guys, even if it is just the secondary guys, saying, 'You give away that blitz whenever you do this.' We are competing against each other, but in the end we are on the same team. I want them to be able to go out and have as much success as possible, just like they want us, on game day, to have as much success as possible.”

Maybe that’s the best way to improve the New Orleans defense. Practice against Superman every day. After you’ve been through that, everything else should be easy.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Mark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREMark Ingram rushed for 474 yards and five touchdowns during his rookie season with the Saints.
THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Mark Ingram’s playing time. Fan expectations for Ingram might be significantly higher than the team's. That’s somewhat understandable, because the Saints traded back into the first round in 2011 to draft Ingram. He played at a college powerhouse (Alabama) and won a Heisman Trophy. Instant stardom was expected by fans, but it didn’t turn out that way in Ingram’s rookie season.

He finished with 122 carries for 474 yards and five touchdowns. Injuries were part of the reason his numbers weren’t bigger. But even before the injuries, Ingram shared playing time with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory did a nice job joining the rotation after Ingram’s injury problems started. Ingram had a couple of offseason surgeries and said he’s completely healthy.

But that doesn’t mean Ingram suddenly is going to become a 300-carry guy. New Orleans’ offense is based on diversity, and that’s not going to change. The Saints aren’t going to take playing time away from Sproles, who set an NFL record for all-purpose yards last season, and Thomas is going to play because he has earned it with his performance.

Assuming Ingram stays healthy, I expect him to get more carries than last season, but a 200-carry season for about 800 yards is a reasonable expectation.

2. Will the linebackers be better than last season? I think they’ll be markedly better. Many believe the season-long suspension of Jonathan Vilma is going to hurt the Saints. If this were two or three years ago, I’d agree. But Vilma was bothered by knee problems last season, and his age seemed to be catching up to him. I think free-agent addition Curtis Lofton is an upgrade over Vilma in the middle. In fact, I think Lofton is pretty similar to what Vilma was two or three years ago. The Saints will be just fine in the middle.

Plus, the Saints didn’t sit still at outside linebacker. They signed free agents David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. It looks as if Hawthorne is well on his way to winning a starting job. That leaves Chamberlain competing with Scott Shanle, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas for the other starting job. There’s no true favorite here, and Shanle is the fallback option as the safe choice because he’s smart and dependable. But Chamberlain, Herring and Casillas are more athletic and at least come with the possibility of producing big plays. The hope is that one of those three can step forward to win the starting job.

3. Can the offensive line, minus Carl Nicks, be as good as last season? Nicks took the big money and left for Tampa Bay in free agency. Losing a player many scouts consider the best guard in the NFL must take a toll. But the Saints already had Jahri Evans, who might be the closest thing to Nicks. Loomis did a nice job getting Ben Grubbs to replace Nicks. Grubbs isn’t quite on the Nicks/Evans level, but he’s an above-average player and came at a much lower salary than Nicks. The Saints build their offensive line around the interior, and Evans and Grubbs will form a very strong guard tandem.

Brian de la Puente did a nice job taking over at center last year and should be fine with Grubbs and Evans surrounding him. The tackles are more of a question. The Saints are sticking with Jermon Bushrod on the left side and Zach Strief on the right. They’re serviceable, but Bushrod and Strief aren’t all-pros, and the presence of Evans and Grubbs should be enough to keep this offensive line among the better ones in the league.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Spagnuolo’s history. There is legitimate concern about the pass rush, because Spagnuolo likes it to come mostly from his front four. Aside from defensive end Will Smith, who will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, the Saints don’t have a proven pass-rusher. Many fans are worked up about the potential of Junior Galette and converted linebacker Martez Wilson. Those guys could turn into something, but maybe fans aren’t looking in the right direction.

Second-year pro Cameron Jordan might be a big factor. Yeah, I know that sounds like a stretch because Jordan had one sack as a rookie, but he was a first-round pick and still has plenty of untapped potential. There’s more than that, though. Look at Spagnuolo’s past. When he became defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 2007, Justin Tuck had gone through two NFL seasons with one sack. In Spagnuolo’s first season, Tuck had 10. In 2008, Tuck recorded 12.

If Spagnuolo can get anything close to double-digit sacks from Jordan, he may have short- and long-term answers for his pass rush.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

How much adversity can one team take? The Saints will use all that happened to them in the offseason as a rallying cry, providing strong motivation. But it’s tough for any team to ride one emotion (anger, in this case) for an entire season. This franchise has been through a lot, and you have to worry about that taking a toll at some point.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Drew Brees and Tom Benson
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREWith a new contract and instability in the coaching staff, Drew Brees will be asked to be even more of a leader for Tom Benson's Saints.
You also have to worry about the Saints being a target for opponents, especially those who spent the past few months hearing that the bounty program had targeted some of their own players. Then throw in the fact that assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has run the team in Payton’s absence, must serve a six-game suspension at the start of the season. At that point, the Saints are expected to make another of their assistants the acting head coach. Yes, this is a veteran team with outstanding leadership, but it sure looks like a lot of things are stacked against the Saints.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • There was a lot of buzz about cornerback Marquis Johnson in the first few days of camp. He made some nice plays and usually was around the ball. The Saints hope second-year pro Johnny Patrick can be their No. 3 cornerback after starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson. But Johnson has a chance to compete with Patrick and may have one slight advantage. The third-year player spent his first two seasons in St. Louis, where Spagnuolo was the coach. Johnson knows the system, and that might be why he’s off to a fast start in camp. If he can sustain it, he’ll have a chance to move past Patrick. At worst, Johnson has a chance to be the fourth cornerback and a key player on special teams.
  • The Saints have almost an embarrassment of riches at kicker. They have Garrett Hartley back from an injury that kept him out last season and veteran John Kasay, who filled in nicely for Hartley. Hartley and Kasay each have made a lot of big kicks in their careers. Although Kasay is 42, he’s not showing signs of slowing. Hartley has the stronger leg, but Kasay has been a model of consistency throughout his career. The Saints will let this competition play throughout camp. If it ends in a dead heat, it might be the toughest call of all when it’s time to trim the roster. Brought in by Loomis, Hartley has earned a spot in franchise history with some clutch kicks. But Loomis and Kasay go all the way back to the early 1990s, when they were together in Seattle.
  • There’s been a lot of talk about New Orleans’ young wide receivers early in camp. Adrian Arrington, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Andy Tanner and Chris Givens have made spectacular catches. But let’s keep that in perspective. Those catches came before the Saints put pads on and before defenders could hit. The Saints are looking for fourth and fifth receivers, but let’s not anoint any of these guys yet. The preseason games will determine who wins the final roster spots at receiver. Arrington’s entering his third season, and it’s time for him to start showing something. Toon comes in after a solid career at Wisconsin. They probably are the favorites to make the roster at this point. But Morgan, Tanner and Givens might be able to change the pecking order if they can make catches in traffic in preseason games.
  • The Saints thought they might get an eventual starter when they drafted Charles Brown in 2010. There was even hope that he might turn into the long-range solution at left tackle. That hasn’t come close to happening. Bushrod has settled in nicely at left tackle. The Saints hoped Brown at least would be able to start at right tackle. But that hasn’t happened, either. Strief beat out Brown for the starting job last season. When Strief was injured, Brown got playing time, but his play wasn't pretty. (If you don’t believe me, look at the tape of the loss to the Rams.) The Saints still say that Strief and Brown are competing for the starting job this season, but Strief has received all of the first-team work, and I didn't hear any buzz at all about Brown from coaches. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure Brown even will be on the roster when the regular season starts.
  • Speaking of offensive linemen who could be on the bubble, don’t forget Matt Tennant. The Saints drafted Tennant in 2010, thinking he'd be the heir apparent to Jonathan Goodwin at center. It hasn’t worked out that way. When Goodwin left via free agency last year, the Saints took an early look at Tennant and quickly signed Olin Kruetz, the former Bears star. When Kruetz abruptly decided to retire, the Saints didn’t turn back to Tennant. They turned to de la Puente, who now has a strong grip on the starting job. Like Brown, Tennant could be fighting for a roster spot. The Saints used to have a good reputation for finding offensive linemen beyond the first round of the draft (Evans, Nicks and Bushrod), but Brown and Tennant may have eroded that trend.
  • The Saints appear set with Graham and David Thomas at tight end. Graham is a great pass-catcher, and Thomas is a jack of all trades. But keep an eye on Michael Higgins, who spent much of last year on the practice squad before getting promoted to the regular roster late in the season. Higgins already has demonstrated he can block, and showed signs of being a good receiver early in camp. Thomas has had injury problems, and the Saints may not want to overuse him. Higgins could provide another alternative.
  • There has been talk that strong safety Roman Harper might not be a great fit in Spagnuolo’s defense because he isn’t known for great coverage skills. But I believe Spagnuolo will find a way to make this defense work for Harper. There’s really not an alternative behind him. His backup is Jonathon Amaya, whose only claim to fame is that he was part of the Reggie Bush trade.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- There was a bit of a stir recently when a Philadelphia writer made a passing reference that suggested Eagles’ coach Andy Reid viewed cornerback Asante Samuel as a player in "steep decline."

The Eagles traded Samuel, 31, to the Atlanta Falcons in the spring. I’ve watched Samuel practice the past two days and he looks just fine to the untrained eye. That’s why I turned to a couple sets of eyes with a pretty good track record at judging players. I asked Atlanta coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff if they see a player who is in steep decline. They both said they’re happy with what they’ve been seeing.

“I’m very excited about adding Asante Samuel to our defense,’’ Smith said. “I’ve said it many times, it’s all about spacing and the game is becoming a game in which you have to match receivers. And you have to be able to play in space. Asante has a very good understanding of the spacing part of the game. One of the things I’ve been most impressed in watching him through the years is, he has a great understanding. Now that we’ve had an opportunity to spend time with him, he’s a very smart football player. He studies the things that defensive backs need to study to get that extra step or get that jump on the ball.’’

“Our personal feeling as an organization is that Asante has one of the best sets of anticipatory skills in this league and we believe that he can still make plays on balls,’’ Dimitroff said. “He’s a feisty, very confident corner. One that can not only make an impact on the field, but also make an impact on our locker room and help our element of confidence and swagger within the secondary. He’s made a nice impact so far being on this team. He’s going to be a nice addition to our secondary and it’s not that we put an amazing amount of pressure on Asante to turn things around here. We expect him to come in, and, again, contribute on the field and also help school some of our younger players.’’

Keep in mind Smith, Dimitroff and the pro personnel people in Atlanta are very thorough in their evaluations. I’m sure they spent a lot of time watching film of Samuel with Philadelphia last season. Yeah, Samuel might be a little older and might not be the same player he was when he had 10 interceptions with the New England Patriots in 2006. But I doubt Smith and Dimitroff would have traded for a guy that has nothing left. They view him as a guy that still has a lot to offer -- on the field and in the locker room.

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