NFC South: 2013 NFL free agency

Here’s the latest on a contract extension for Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

“There is no update,’’ general manager Thomas Dimitroff said during his pre-draft media session Thursday afternoon.

Dimitroff laughed as he said that, but then elaborated a bit. He also continued to sound confident an extension will be worked out sometime this offseason.

“Both parties are in a very comfortable situation,’’ Dimitroff said. “We’re focused on the draft. After the draft, both parties will talk.’’
The fine folks at ESPN Stats & Information never cease to amaze me with the nuggets they pass along.

They recently sent us some pre-draft stuff, and one item really jumped off the page.

It took SMU defensive end Margus Hunt an average of 2.36 seconds to get to the quarterback on his eight sacks last season. That was the best average of any BCS front-seven prospect rated in the top 80 by Scouts Inc.

And here’s another nugget on Hunt. On all eight of his sacks, he was the first player to contact the quarterback. In other words, he wasn’t cleaning up on what other people had started.

I’m mentioning this because I think Hunt could be a possibility for the Atlanta Falcons with the 30th pick in the draft. I know, the Falcons have a more glaring need at cornerback, but I’m not sure a good one will be available at No. 30. If the Falcons were to put Hunt out there with Osi Umenyiora, the pass rush might be good enough to make any cornerback look better.

By the way, Hunt’s potential isn’t even close to being tapped. He didn’t even start playing football until 2009. Here’s a story I did on Hunt a while back that details how he transformed from a track and field performer in Estonia to a potential first-round pick.
Maybe New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton will be able to sleep a little better now.

At the NFL owners meeting last month, Payton said the team’s situation at left tackle was something that kept him up a night. The Saints lost last year's starting left tackle, Jermon Bushrod, via free agency.

The Saints may have found a solution for that Thursday. The team just announced it has signed tackle Jason Smith to a one-year contract.

Smith was the second overall pick in the 2009 draft by the St. Louis Rams. He never quite lived up to his draft status in St. Louis and spent last season with the New York Jets.

But Smith has started 26 of 45 career games and has played both right and left tackle. In New Orleans, Smith probably immediately moves ahead of Charles Brown on the depth chart at left tackle.

Once upon a time, Smith was viewed as a guy that could be a special left tackle. It looks like he’ll have a chance for a fresh start in New Orleans.
There’s a reason why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are sitting around quietly with about $30 million in salary-cap space.

They’re going to use that money -- well, at least most of it -- before all is said and done.

Tampa Bay’s only major offseason move was the signing of safety Dashon Goldson, but the offseason is far from over for the Bucs. As the rest of the league quiets down, the Bucs are poised to make some major noise.

We all know the Bucs have been mentioned as potential trade partners with the New York Jets to get cornerback Darrelle Revis. Those aren’t just rumors. The interest is very real.

The stumbling block so far has been the terms of the compensation the Bucs would give the Jets. At the moment, it appears the sides are starting each other down. But I’ve got a hunch one side or the other will blink between now and the draft, and a trade will get done.

Tampa Bay has a huge need at cornerback. When he’s healthy, Revis might be the best cornerback in the league and, if he is traded, he wants a deal that will make him the league’s highest-paid cornerback. That means somewhere around $15 million per year.

The Bucs can easily afford to fit Revis under the salary cap, and it won’t have to be some back-loaded deal. General manager Mark Dominik has a history of front-loading contracts by not giving out signing bonuses. The Bucs can take a big cap hit on Revis and still have plenty of money left to work with.

They’ll have to use some of that to sign their rookies, but there are other plans in place. Although receiver Mike Williams is under contract through the 2013 season, the Bucs would like to get him signed to a long-term extension. That would be a smart move, because another big season by Williams could drive his price tag very high.

Even if the Bucs get Revis and extend Williams, they still will have a fair amount of cap room left. There will be some decent free agents sitting out there after the draft. A lot of other teams won’t be able to sign those guys because they’ll be out of cap room. But the Bucs are one team that should still be able to sign any free agent they want after the draft, and there could be another round of good players coming available after the draft.
Generally, I try not to read too much into pre-draft visits.

Teams will bring in a bunch of prospects that they won’t end up drafting, simply because they’re doing their homework.

But there’s one visit going on Tuesday that has at least made me curious. The New Orleans Saints reportedly are hosting Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson.

The Saints have a glaring need at left tackle after the departure of Jermon Bushrod in free agency. Johnson would be a great fit, but the potential stumbling block in this scenario is that it’s likely he won’t be available when the Saints pick at No. 15.

In virtually every mock draft I’ve seen, Johnson is gone before No. 15, and he usually is in the top 10.

The fact the Saints have him in for a visit at least makes me wonder if they would consider trading up to get Johnson. It’s possible, but I’d say it’s a long shot.

The Saints might not have the means to make such a move. They’re without their second-round pick (as punishment for their bounty program). Also, the Saints haven’t placed a premium on their tackles in the Sean Payton era. They generally have used later picks (like Bushrod and Zach Strief) at tackle. Plus, there’s the fact that the Saints have some big needs on defense.

But the left tackle is the guy that protects Drew Brees’ blind side. Makes you wonder if the Saints might break from their routine and try to trade up for Johnson.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the top under-the-radar move made by each NFC South team thus far this offseason:

Atlanta Falcons: Most of the attention has gone to the additions of running back Steven Jackson and defensive end Osi Umenyiora. But the re-signing of safety William Moore might have been just as significant. Moore is coming off his first Pro Bowl season and is just hitting his prime. He should only continue to get better. He and free safety Thomas DeCoud have a chance to become one of the best safety tandems in the NFL.

Carolina Panthers: The salary cap has prevented the Panthers from making any significant moves in free agency. But they’ve been active in signing some role players. One addition who should be a nice fit is linebacker Chase Blackburn. New general manager Dave Gettleman knows him well from their time together with the New York Giants. The Panthers are set with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Jon Beason as their starting linebackers. But Blackburn will give them a top-notch backup, which is important because Davis and Beason have had injuries in the past. He also is likely to be a regular on special teams.

New Orleans Saints: Most of the moves this offseason have been focused on the defensive side of the ball. But the Saints quietly made a move that should make a great offense even better when they signed veteran tight end Benjamin Watson. They already have one of the game’s best tight ends in Jimmy Graham. But Watson also is a good pass-catcher. Coach Sean Payton is an innovator, and I have no doubt he’s going to have a lot of sets in which he’ll use both tight ends to create nightmare matchups for opposing defenses.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The signing of safety Dashon Goldson was Tampa Bay’s biggest move of the offseason, but the Bucs have done a nice job of bringing in role players. One of them is running back Brian Leonard. He’s a jack of all trades and should fill the role as the third-down back. Leonard played for Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano at Rutgers. The Bucs are so confident in Leonard that they released D.J. Ware, who was the third-down back last year.
The Atlanta Falcons pulled a bit of a surprise Thursday morning. They’re in the process of releasing starting right tackle Tyson Clabo.

He has started every game since 2008, but this is an economic move. The Falcons are only about $2 million under the salary cap and will need more than that to eventually sign their draft picks.

In the short term, Clabo’s release will clear up only about $900,000 in cap space. But the significant thing here is that Clabo will be designated as a June 1 release. After June 1, Clabo’s release will free up about $4.5 million.

What does this mean on the field?

It could mean the Falcons think Lamar Holmes, a third-round pick last year, is ready to start. As of now, he and Mike Johnson would compete for the starting spot. But the Falcons also could look for a tackle in the upcoming draft.
Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith might be one of the straightest shooters in the NFL. That’s why he just might be the perfect coach for Brian Banks.

If you don’t know Banks’ story already, he’s the linebacker who had it all -- once upon a time -- and lost it. Banks was a top recruit coming out of high school and had committed to the University of Southern California. But Banks never got to play college football.

He was charged with rape and kidnapping, then convicted, and spent more than five years in prison. Eventually, he was exonerated as his accuser recanted her claims.

The Falcons, who worked out Banks last summer and had stayed in touch, signed him to a contract Wednesday morning. But the deal didn’t come with any promises.

“I had a really amazing one-on-one conversation with [Smith] where he congratulated me and said that he was happy for me to be here, but this is just the beginning of a long road to taking that next step and making the 53-man roster," Banks said in a conference call with the Atlanta media. “We both agreed that I don’t expect any handouts or favoritism. I’m here to work like everybody else. The result of my hard work will be whatever they deem necessary. All I can do is do my best."

Banks’ best might be good enough. He’s 27, and the Falcons must have seen some physical talent in a player who spent last year with Las Vegas of the United Football League. Despite Banks’ age, there’s no need for the Falcons to rush him.

If Smith and his staff think Banks shows enough in training camp to play in the NFL, they can groom him slowly as a reserve behind middle linebacker Akeem Dent or on the practice squad. There also is the matter of the attention that comes with Banks because of his past.

In some markets, that might create a distraction. But I think Atlanta is a different situation. Banks is a one-day story, because the Falcons are a veteran team that came 10 yards from the Super Bowl last season. Taking the next step is the big offseason story for the Falcons, and that will keep the attention off Banks.

He’s also coming into a locker room that has strong veteran leadership, and he’ll be coached by a good defensive staff led by coordinator Mike Nolan.

Banks said all he can ask for is a chance.

“That’s why I work so hard now for the dreams I want to succeed in, because there’s one point in my life where I lost everything," Banks said.

With the Falcons, Banks will at least get a fair chance to show whether he can play in the NFL.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers continue to show they’re serious about having competition at just about every position.

The latest example of that came Tuesday. The Bucs have signed veteran kicker Nate Kaeding, according to the Tampa Tribune’s Roy Cummings.

Kaeding spent two games last season with the Miami Dolphins. Prior to that, he had been with the San Diego Chargers since 2004.

Tampa Bay already has one of the best young kickers in the NFL in Connor Barth and it’s likely he’ll keep the job. But a little competition can’t hurt. The Bucs followed the same theory when they signed punter Chas Henry to compete with Michael Koenen and they’re taking a similar approach at other positions.
Almost all of the offseason talk about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has focused on a defense that ranked No. 31 in the NFL last season. But there’s one huge need on the other side of the ball that hasn’t drawn a lot of talk.

The Bucs need a pass-catching tight end. All the other teams in the NFC South have one (Tony Gonzalez in Atlanta and Greg Olsen in Carolina) or two (Jimmy Graham and Benjamin Watson in New Orleans).

But the Bucs, who like to say one of their priorities is to surround quarterback Josh Freeman with talent, have a gaping hole at tight end.

They have not re-signed free agent Dallas Clark. They did add Tom Crabtree, but he never has caught more than eight passes in a season. Crabtree can compete with Luke Stocker, Nate Byham, Drake Dunsmore and Zach Miller for the role as the complementary tight end. But the Bucs need a pass catcher.

The problem is, there aren’t a lot of pass-catching tight ends left in free agency. Take a look at our Free-Agent Tracker. Clark is tied for the highest grade among the unsigned unrestricted free agents. And the guy he’s tied with is Kellen Winslow, who I highly doubt will be returning to Tampa Bay anytime soon.

The Bucs may have to bring back the aging Clark, who was decent last season, but not nearly as prolific as he was in his prime in Indianapolis. Unless some veteran gets released, there aren’t many other proven pass catchers on the market.

The draft features two premier tight ends in Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz. But it’s hard to imagine the Bucs using the 13th overall pick on a tight end when they have such big needs on defense.

Maybe the Bucs will draft a tight end after the first round. Or maybe they’ll find one somewhere else in free agency.

But the Bucs have to find a pass-catching tight end for Freeman somewhere.

Saints grab Falcons' backup QB

April, 1, 2013
It may be April, but the NFC South’s best rivalry is in midseason form.

The New Orleans Saints just announced quarterback Luke McCown has signed with them after spending last season with the Atlanta Falcons. Presumably, the Falcons wanted to keep McCown, who had deep ties to offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, as Matt Ryan’s backup.

Instead, McCown now will be the backup to Drew Brees. The Saints have been in the market for a backup since Chase Daniel signed with Kansas City early in free agency. McCown spent part of the 2012 offseason with the Saints.

Losing McCown isn’t the end of the world for the Falcons. They are high on Dominique Davis, who made the team as an undrafted free agent last season. But the Falcons now may have to go shopping for a veteran backup.

No matter how high they are on Davis, it would be a risky move to have a guy that never has taken an NFL snap as the only thing standing between a Ryan injury and disaster.
The deal defensive end Osi Umenyiora signed with the Atlanta Falcons last week is salary-cap friendly.

I just got a look at the official numbers on the two-year deal that’s worth $8.5 million. Umenyiora will cost the Falcons $3.75 million against this year’s cap.

Umenyiora got a $2.5 million signing bonus and his 2013 base salary will be a guaranteed $1.75 million. He also has a $750,000 roster bonus.

In 2014, Umenyiora’s base salary rises to $2.5 million and he has a $1 million roster bonus. His 2014 cap figure will be $4.75 million, but that could rise if Umenyiora meets an unspecified escalator clause.

Umenyiora was brought in to replace John Abraham, who was released at the start of free agency. Abraham had been scheduled to count more than $5 million against this year’s cap.

Saints sign Victor Butler for two years

March, 28, 2013
The New Orleans Saints announced on Thursday the signing of free-agent linebacker Victor Butler to a two-year contract.

Butler, 25, has spent his entire four-year career with the Dallas Cowboys.

The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Butler played in all 16 games last season with Dallas, recording 25 tackles and three sacks. He has 11 career sacks in 63 games.

Football is a game of yards, but the Atlanta Falcons are making it all about miles this offseason.

With the addition of defensive end Osi Umenyiora, the Falcons continued their trend of trading in high-mile luxury editions for similar models with less mileage.

That’s essentially what the Falcons did with Umenyiora. He will take the place of John Abraham, who was released just before the start of free agency. At the same time the Falcons released Abraham, they also let go of Michael Turner. They quickly replaced Turner with Steven Jackson, a running back who is a little younger and, presumably, has more left in the tank.

That’s the same concept the Falcons followed in bringing in Umenyiora. The former New York Giant is 31. Abraham will turn 35 in May.

Although Abraham still was productive (10 sacks) last season, the Falcons would have been pressing their luck by bringing him back for another season. Pass-rushers are supposed to drop off somewhere around the time they turn 32, and Abraham already was running on borrowed time.

Umenyiora had only six sacks for the Giants last season, but I don’t view that as a sign of him slowing down. In the two seasons prior to that, Umenyiora had a combined 20.5 sacks. He’s had as many as 14.5 sacks in a season (2005) and knows what it takes to win Super Bowls.

Umenyiora still has physical skills and should be energized by coming to the Falcons. He’s joining a team that appears to be on the cusp of a Super Bowl, and he has kept an offseason home in Atlanta.

But the Falcons are hoping the energy flows both ways. If Umenyiora can play like a slightly younger version of Abraham, the Falcons will have upgraded their pass rush and their chances of winning a Super Bowl.
While all indications are that the New Orleans Saints still are pursuing free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, they apparently have a backup plan.

AFC West colleague Bill Williamson reports that the Saints also have expressed interest in Tracy Porter.

That name should sound familiar. Porter spent the first four years of his NFL career with the Saints and intercepted four passes in their Super Bowl season.

Porter signed with Denver last season, but the Broncos don’t appear interested in bringing him back. The Oakland Raiders also reportedly have expressed interest in Porter.