NFC South: 2014 NFL Camp Confidential

Camp Confidential: Atlanta Falcons

August, 13, 2014
8/13/14
11:00
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FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. -- There is no doubt the Atlanta Falcons have gotten tougher this season just based on the bigger bodies along the offensive and defensive lines and the nastier attitudes players have brought to training camp.

But will that translate to a return trip to the postseason in 2014?

The Falcons still have some questions to answer, some wrinkles to iron out after last season's 4-12 finish. If all goes as planned, Matt Ryan will play like one of the top-tier quarterbacks in the league because he won't have to throw under such duress and he'll have his top threat back in Julio Jones. If all goes as planned, the running backs, led by Steven Jackson and rookie Devonta Freeman, will help give the Falcons much-needed offensive balance.

If all goes as planned, newly added defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson will help shut down the run, forcing opponents to be one-dimensional and allowing defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to find creative ways to get pressure on quarterbacks and create turnovers.

And if all goes as planned, Devin Hester will prove he's still the greatest return man in the game and will help the Falcons win a few games simply on his own dynamic talent.

We'll see how it all unfolds.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellJulio Jones is fully healthy,which is bad news for the rest of the NFC South.
1. Jones' return: You can't overstate how much Jones means to this offense. The Falcons sorely missed his big-play ability last season as opposing defenses had it easy. With Jones back and looking fully healthy coming off a second foot surgery, the Falcons have their explosion back. Jones put on 10 pounds of muscle and still has his breakaway speed. Where he really might thrive more than ever is the red zone, given that Ryan no longer has Tony Gonzalez as his security blanket. Also expect Jones to draw his share of defensive holding penalties against outmatched cornerbacks.

2. Jake Matthews' arrival: The rookie first-round pick brings more stability to what was a pathetic offensive line last season. Throughout training camp, the right tackle has been like a brick wall in pass protection and has been equally impressive as a run blocker. There are still questions about how the line will fare as a whole. But there's no doubt Matthews has perennial Pro Bowler written all over him. With veteran right guard Jon Asamoah next to Matthews, the right side of the line should be the least of the Falcons' concerns.

3. No-nonsense coaches: Offensive line coach Mike Tice and defensive line coach Bryan Cox are new to the staff -- and they don't take crap from anyone. Some players need a kick in the butt rather than positive reinforcement, and Tice and Cox have no issue raising their voices. The players seem to respect them both. The offensive linemen have taken well to Tice tweaking their techniques. Maybe the defensive linemen aren't so enthused about Cox making them do up-downs after mistakes, but it's only going to make them more mentally focused.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Although no one should doubt Nolan's unique ability to be creative with his packages, the simple fact is the Falcons don't have a dominant pass-rusher. Sure, Jonathan Massaquoi has a lot of promise and veteran Osi Umenyiora slimmed down and seems to have a good year left in his body, but there's not a guy who strikes fear in opposing offensive tackles. With Drew Brees and Cam Newton in the division and Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco also on the schedule, pressure will be imperative.

2. There continues to be a concern at inside linebacker. Paul Worrilow should be fine and will have a place in the lineup for a lot of years to come. But Joplo Bartu, currently alongside Worrilow in the 3-4 setup and in the nickel defense, has some strides to make. Bartu has had a good training camp and can cover tight ends with no issues. But he's still learning on the fly, coming from outside linebacker last year. The Falcons have a lot of faith in rookie Prince Shembo, but he's also transitioning from outside to inside and will have a learning curve. There's a lack of depth at the position, too, with Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles) and rookie Marquis Spruill (ACL) out for the season.

3. Injuries took a toll on the Falcons last season with players such as Jones, Jackson, Weatherspoon, Roddy White and Kroy Biermann all either being shelved for the season or at least missing games. The injury bug has again bit the Falcons in training camp with three players (safety Dwight Lowery, linebacker Pat Angerer and offensive tackle Terren Jones) suffering concussions, two players (Gabe Carimi and Tim Dobbins) suffering ankle injuries, and one player (Spruill) tearing an ACL. The Falcons can't have a rash of major injuries this season. If they do, at least they'll have better depth than a year ago.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Although 6-foot-3-inch, 302-pound center Joe Hawley was pushed around a little bit in the preseason opener against Miami, the Falcons can live with that for a couple of plays a game because Hawley brings so much toughness and is so quick and athletic when it comes to pulling.

  • Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford continue to evolve as a duo and should be one of the most feared cornerback tandems in the league for years to come. Expect them to be much more physical this year.
    [+] EnlargeDesmond Trufant
    AP Photo/Joe RobbinsDesmond Trufant teams with Robert Alford to give the Falcons a top-notch CB tandem.

  • Some folks wondered about White's health because he seems a little hobbled and continues to wear a light brace on his left knee. But White showed no ill-effects against the Dolphins and looked like the Roddy White of old.

  • Robert McClain appears to be ahead in the battle for the third cornerback right now, with Javier Arenas maybe a tad ahead of Josh Wilson at this point. Wilson has to start making more plays.

  • No one is panicking over Hester fumbling the ball in his first exhibition. The defender got a good hit on him. Hester, historically, has been secure with the ball on returns.

  • Safety Kemal Ishmael continues to impress the Falcons, specifically with his tackling. If Lowery's concussion issues resurface, Ishmael should be more than capable to handle a starting role next to strong safety William Moore.

  • Explosive running back Antone Smith deserves more touches. Enough said.
TAMPA, Fla. – On a day near the middle of training camp, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith walked into his post-practice news conference and delivered a message.

"There's nothing really I can give you today," Smith said.

Smith wasn't being condescending or rude to the media. He simply was being truthful. Tampa Bay's camp hasn't had any major news or controversies. It has been downright boring at times -- but it beats the alternative.

We saw the other side of things last year, and it wasn't pretty. There was plenty of news and a ton of distractions. Former coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman were in the early stages of a feud that would end in divorce one month into the season. And it wasn't just Freeman who was having issues with Schiano's style. Numerous players had problems with Schiano's rigid ways and never fully bought into the coach.

That quickly caught up to Schiano, who was fired after two lackluster seasons. Enter Smith, who is the anti-Schiano in just about every way. Smith is calm and treats his players like adults, and you already can see the results of that. There have been no controversies.

Amid the tranquility, players are singing the praises of Smith. The coach brings back memories of Tony Dungy, who guided the Bucs to their first era of sustained success. That's no coincidence. Smith was the linebackers coach in Dungy's early years in Tampa Bay and has an approach similar to Dungy's.

People already are comparing defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to Warren Sapp and linebacker Lavonte David to Derrick Brooks. Smith's hiring has brought enthusiasm to a fan base that hasn't had much to be excited about in recent years. But that fan base has pleasant memories of what things were like in the Bucs' glory days.

On several occasions, Smith has said that one of his goals is to make the Bucs relevant again. If things go according to Smith's plans, the Bucs might be boring, but they'll be good.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Smith is known for being a defensive coach, and he has some good ingredients to start with. McCoy and David were All-Pros last year, and they play two of the most important positions in the Tampa 2 defense Smith is bringing back to the Bucs. McCoy and David give Tampa Bay a nice start, but some other players are going to have to come through. The coaching staff believes strong safety Mark Barron is ready to be a star. If some role players come through, this could be a very good defense.

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDoug Martin is back from a shoulder injury, but he shouldn't have to shoulder all of the load in a deep backfield.
2. Doug Martin is back from a shoulder injury that kept him out for about half of last season. That should provide a huge lift for the offense. Martin rushed for more than 1,400 yards as a rookie in 2012, and he has looked sharp in training camp. Under Schiano, the Bucs often overused Martin. That’s not going to be the case with Smith. The Bucs have made it clear that Martin will remain as the feature back but that they’ll rotate in some other backs to keep him fresh. Rookie Charles Sims, Bobby Rainey and Mike James could be in the mix for playing time.

3. After using their first two draft picks on wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the Bucs have one of the biggest receiving corps in the league. Williams, Seferian-Jenkins and Vincent Jackson each are at least 6-foot-5. They're going to present coverage challenges for defensive backs.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The offensive line hasn't looked very good in the preseason, and that's a huge cause for concern. The Bucs are especially thin at guard. All-Pro Carl Nicks left the team after not being able to recover from a toe injury. That leaves four guys without a lot of experience vying for two starting spots. Oniel Cousins, Jace Daniels, Patrick Omameh and rookie Kadeem Edwards have been rotating at the guard spots, and two of them will emerge as starters, unless the Bucs bring in some help from the outside.

2. Smith went out on a limb when he signed quarterback Josh McCown as a free agent and immediately named him the starter. McCown, 35, has been a backup most of his career, but he did play well in Chicago last year when Jay Cutler went out with an injury. McCown threw 13 touchdowns with just one interception. It's too much to expect him to keep up that kind of pace, especially with an unsteady offensive line. Smith, who coached McCown in Chicago, believes he can be successful over the course of a full season. But that's something McCown has never done.

3. Smith's philosophy is to play great defense and be efficient on offense. That worked well enough to get Smith to a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears. But that philosophy might be antiquated. The league has become quarterback-driven. The Bucs are in the same division as New Orleans' Drew Brees, Carolina's Cam Newton and Atlanta's Matt Ryan. McCown and this offense might not have enough firepower to stay competitive in the division.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • McCoy has had an outstanding training camp. He consistently has gotten into the backfield as a pass-rusher and has been stuffing running plays. But it remains to be seen whether McCoy's excellent play is simply the byproduct of the weakness at the guard spots.
    [+] EnlargeVincent Jackson
    AP Photo/Bill KostrounVincent Jackson, in his third season with the Bucs, will have a third starting QB throwing to him.

  • The chemistry between McCown and Jackson has been noticeable. In addition to the offseason program, the two spent a lot of time in the spring and summer working out at a local high school.

  • The Bucs have gotten almost nothing out of defensive end Da'Quan Bowers since taking him in the second round in 2011. But they are trying something new with Bowers this year. They're going to use him inside at defensive tackle in obvious passing situations.

  • The Bucs have high hopes for sixth-round draft pick Robert Herron. But don't look for the receiver/return man to get a lot of playing time early on. Herron has had ball-security issues in camp. He needs to hold on to the ball if he's going to earn playing time.

  • Herron will make the 53-man roster. So will Jackson, Evans and Chris Owusu. Eric Page also probably will stick thanks to his return skills. That probably leaves one spot to be filled from a group of receivers who have shown promise in training camp. Tommy Streeter, Louis Murphy, Lavelle Hawkins and Solomon Patton all have shown flashes, but at least a couple of them won't make the roster.

  • Hamstring injuries have kept cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Mike Jenkins out for a big chunk of training camp. But there's a flip side to that, and it's positive. Second-year pro Johnthan Banks has gotten a ton of work with the first team and has looked good. Banks didn't have a great rookie year. But his performance in camp probably will keep him in the starting lineup.

Camp Confidential: Carolina Panthers

August, 13, 2014
8/13/14
11:00
AM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It wasn't a long message, but it spoke volumes about where the Carolina Panthers are mentally.

"Don't sleep on the Panthers," Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert said.

The Panthers nationally have been dubbed the NFL team most likely to take a big fall. After Carolina lost its top four wide receivers, its starting left tackle and three-fourths of its secondary, many predict four to five fewer wins than its 12-4 2013 season.

Throw in offseason ankle surgery for quarterback Cam Newton and legal issues involving Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy and one easily could argue that the Panthers have had the worst offseason of any team in the league.

That they've never put together consecutive winning seasons since coming into the league 20 years ago doesn't help.

Coach Ron Rivera uses this as motivation. His players use it as a lack of respect.

They're playing the underdog role to the hilt.

"We put a lot of work in last year and a lot of people didn't give us a chance," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. "So this offseason [there have been] a lot of questions about what we're doing next and it's sort of the same thing. We're just starting over refocusing. That's something that is going to be incredible for us."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Even Rivera admitted he was concerned when Carolina failed to sign wide receivers Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon after releasing all-time leading receiver Steve Smith. He went as far as to say the team didn't need a true No. 1. That seems like a distant memory. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin has emerged as a legitimate No. 1. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant have brought in the leadership and consistency. This group is closer than last year's that averaged slightly less than 10 catches a game. With more talent at tight end, it will open up the entire offense.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneKelvin Benjamin has the makings of being a true No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
2. General manager Dave Gettleman likes what he calls "hog mollies" -- big players on both sides of the line. He has put together a group on the defensive front that is deeper than some of the best units he had while with the New York Giants. Carolina has eight or nine players who could play for most teams. Having the luxury to rotate big, fast bodies in without suffering a significant drop-off should help the league's No. 2 defense -- No. 1 in sacks -- in 2013 maintain its elite status.

3. Led by Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, Carolina has a solid core on both sides of the ball. Newton is more confident and poised than ever as he enters his fourth season. The left ankle that was surgically repaired in March should be stronger, making him more dangerous as a runner. Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has been compared to some of the all-time greats, such as Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis. He is a tackling machine who lives and breathes football. He makes everybody around him better. So does Newton.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Kalil laughed when I asked him about all the questions surrounding the restructured offensive line, saying the line has been a question mark since he arrived eight years ago. The difference is Carolina had Jordan Gross at left tackle all those years. The Panthers don't now. Regardless of how the battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler shakes out to replace Gross, Carolina will have two undrafted players starting at the tackle positions because the other will start on the right side. No other team probably can -- or wants to -- say that.

2. The Panthers haven't had consecutive winning seasons since they began playing in 1995. Their average win total the season after their previous four winning seasons is 7.5. That there's never been a repeat winner in the NFC South doesn't bode well, either. That Atlanta and Tampa Bay should be stronger, and New Orleans should be solid once again, will make repeating last year's 5-1 division record tough. The overall schedule should be tougher, as well, particularly an Oct. 12-30 stretch of at Cincinnati, at Green Bay, Seattle and New Orleans.

[+] EnlargeJordan Gross
AP Photo/Mike McCarnReplacing retired Jordan Gross remains a priority for the Panthers.
3. Back to the offensive line: It's a fragile situation. Although the starters could surprise, the depth outside of Garry Williams (T/G) and Chris Scott (G) is suspect. This team can't afford to lose three guards, as it did early last season, and still succeed. It especially can't afford a loss at tackle. Plus, it is depending on rookie Trai Turner out of LSU as the starting right guard. As consistent as he has looked in camp, he's still a rookie.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Benjamin and Newton have formed a bond off the field that obviously has helped their chemistry on it. It's a relationship Newton never had with Smith.
  • Benjamin has made more spectacular catches in his first few weeks of camp than arguably any receiver in Carolina history.
  • Despite being found guilty on domestic violence charges, which he is appealing, Hardy has remained popular among fans seeking autographs.
  • The addition of free agent Ed Dickson and the emergence of Brandon Williams to go opposite Greg Olsen makes the Panthers deep at tight end. They'll go with a lot of two-TE sets that will force teams to put eight in the box and open up the entire offense.
  • Replacing Ginn (Arizona) as a kick returner remains a challenge.
  • The Panthers love the leadership of Charles Godfrey, but if he doesn't show improvement in his transition from safety to the nickel corner, they'll love somebody else. Maybe rookie Bené Benwikere.
  • Running back Jonathan Stewart has spent so much time on the stationary bike rehabbing injuries the past three training camps that some are wondering whether he's training for the Tour de France.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees' strained oblique must have been one of those balance-in-the-universe things.

Although the New Orleans Saints quarterback is expected to be healed in plenty of time for the start of the regular season, the injury that has kept him sidelined for the past two weeks feels like one of those yin-and-yang type of deals. Like something had to go wrong to keep the Saints' training camp from going too smoothly.

Because aside from a handful of injury issues that have crept up this summer, the Saints' camp has been as idyllic as the cool mountain air in their new West Virginia training camp site.

Breakout young talents such as rookie receiver Brandin Cooks and second-year left tackle Terron Armstead have injected some new life into an offense that needed a boost in those two position groups. Meanwhile, the Saints' defense appears to be in better shape than ever during the Sean Payton-Brees era, with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan heading into his second season with even more talent at his disposal.

No, the image of Brees throwing passes to prized free-agent safety Jairus Byrd in street clothes before the start of the preseason opener wasn't exactly an awe-inspiring sight. But if they're both back to 100 percent by the start of the real opener, this team indeed has the feel of a bona fide Super Bowl contender.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Cooks has been everything that was advertised and then some. The first-round draft pick from Oregon State has repeatedly flashed his dynamic speed in practices, in the scrimmage and in the preseason opener, when he embarrassed two St. Louis Rams defensive backs with a wicked stop-and-go move. Cooks has also caught almost every pass thrown his way, including some trickier back-shoulder throws and some balls he had to go up and get behind safeties and corners. And he has remained humble and hardworking, demonstrating that the hype isn't going to his head. Although you never want to put too much on any rookie's plate, Cooks really looks like a guy who will help fill that big-play void that started to show up for the Saints last season.

[+] EnlargeCooks
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesIn the preseason opener, Saints rookie Brandin Cooks had five receptions for 55 yards and a TD.
2. The Saints' run game looks as if it could be a legitimate strength -- or at least a decent complement to the passing game. The blockers and runners alike have hit the ground running this summer after finishing strong last season. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson thrived in the preseason opener -- and that was without Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs in the lineup because of undisclosed injuries. Armstead is emerging as a tremendous young asset. And more than anything, you can tell there is a confidence among all the players and coaches after they figured out what worked (and what didn't) last season when they transitioned to more of a zone-blocking scheme under new line coach Bret Ingalls.

3. The simple law of averages says the Saints have to force more turnovers than in 2013, when they had only four takeaways over their last 11 games, including zero in the playoffs. But they're not just counting on a change in fortune. It's been a huge point of emphasis this offseason, starting with the Byrd signing. You constantly hear players and coaches cheering turnovers on the field or chattering about the opportunities they missed. One of the highlight moments in camp came early, when the entire secondary wildly celebrated after a great team effort by Champ Bailey and Rafael Bush to force, save and recover a fumble.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Brees' injury isn't expected to linger into the start of the regular season. And, in his 14th NFL season, he of all people should be able to handle missing preseason games. But it's obviously not ideal for him to be thrown off his routine. And it's a sobering reminder of how fragile the Saints' title chances are if anything happens to their future Hall of Fame quarterback.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Chris TilleyThe Saints' offense is in good hands -- as long as QB Drew Brees is healthy and ready to lead the charge.
2. Another future Hall of Famer, cornerback Bailey, has been dealing with an undisclosed injury that leaves his future -- and the Saints' No. 2 cornerback job -- in limbo. The good news is the Saints have some other decent options, including former starters Patrick Robinson and Corey White. And Robinson, especially, has looked good in his return from a 2013 knee injury. But in general, that No. 2 cornerback job remains as big of a question mark as it was to start the offseason.

3. Let's go with injuries one more time. It was unsettling to see both Evans and Grubbs out of the lineup for much of the past two weeks. Ideally, neither of their ailments will affect the regular season. But it's another reminder the Saints are getting older across the line -- and this coming on the heels of an inconsistent performance across the board in 2013, in part because of Evans' injuries. I still consider the Saints' line a strength. But they are counting on a healthy line since they don't have much proven depth to fall back on beyond their five starters.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Jimmy Graham remains the Saints' most potent playmaker, even though he missed all of the organized team activities and minicamp in a contract dispute. Graham had the fastest time of any player in the team's conditioning test at the start of camp. And safety Kenny Vaccaro said he thinks Graham looks faster and stronger on the field. Don't forget, Graham is now healthier after dealing with a painful foot injury for the second half of last season. Another monster season could be on the way.
  • The Saints have a lot of young defensive stars still on the rise who could be talked about in similar terms to Graham (end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis, outside linebacker Junior Galette, Vaccaro and end Akiem Hicks among them). Lewis and Galette seem to be off to the hottest starts so far among that group. But I wouldn't be surprised to see any one of them in the Pro Bowl.
  • None of the Saints' other draft picks has stood out yet. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, linebackers Khairi Fortt and Ronald Powell, and safety Vinnie Sunseri have all had their moments in practice and have shown some flashes of long-term potential. But they're also still in that "thinking too much to play at full speed" mode. If I had to pick a first-year player to make an early impact other than Cooks, I might go with Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball, a safety/special-teams asset.
  • The center battle between Jonathan Goodwin and second-year pro Tim Lelito is still too close to call. But both players have looked good, for the most part, so the winner should be worthy. This doesn't feel like a significant area of concern.
  • The Saints were hoping the kicker battle wouldn't be a tough call. But veteran Shayne Graham hasn't locked down the job yet in his battle with younger hopeful Derek Dimke, thanks in part to a missed 33-yard extra point in the preseason opener.
  • Second-year quarterback Ryan Griffin has looked great so far, giving him the early edge over veteran Luke McCown in the battle to become Brees' backup. Ideally, neither one of them will see the field this season. But either should be capable of keeping the Saints' loaded offense competitive if needed in a pinch.

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