NFC South: Akeem Ayers

Your call: NFC South top picks

April, 28, 2011
4/28/11
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Let’s take a quick look back at our Call It polls for the Falcons, Saints, Buccaneers and Panthers a few days ago. Using the ESPN.com blog network mock draft as a guide for who would be available, I gave you four choices for each team.

Each group of choices included the guy I picked in the mock draft and three alternatives. Looks like we’re all in some sort of agreement. Let’s run through what voters had to say for each of the four NFC South teams.

We’ll start with the Falcons because this is the closest race. As of a little earlier this afternoon, voters had receiver Jonathan Baldwin and linebacker Akeem Ayers tied at 29 percent. Receiver Torrey Smith was right behind them at 27 percent and offensive tackle Nate Solder had 15 percent. Remember, defensive end is still a possibility here, but that would probably require someone falling who did not fall in our mock.

Those who voted on the Saints’ pick were the only ones who strongly disagreed with what I did in the mock draft. I took defensive end Adrian Clayborn at No. 24. He’s second in the voting at 25 percent. But fans are calling for running back Mark Ingram, who has 42 percent of the vote. I wouldn’t rule that one out.

In our mock draft, I took defensive end Justin Houston at No. 20 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Voters seem to agree because Houston leads the vote with 34 percent, although Clayborn is right on his heels. Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers wasn’t available in the mock draft, but it’s sounding more and more like it’s possible he’ll be there for the Buccaneers. Not sure if they’ll take him because there is a reason he seems to be falling (concerns about his knee), but he’s a talented player who might be worth the risk.

Speaking of talented players who might be worth the risk, that brings us to the voting from Carolina fans. They’ve got quarterback Cam Newton leading with 38 percent of the vote. He’s the guy I picked in our mock and, barring a last-minute surprise, I’m pretty sure Newton will be the guy the Panthers pick tonight. Cornerback Patrick Peterson is second with 24 percent and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus has 23 percent.

By the way, the polls are technically still open right up until each team makes it pick. If you haven't voted, feel free to go back and do so. Not sure it will have any impact on what your team does, but at least you'll have the chance to voice your opinion.

Around the NFC South

April, 28, 2011
4/28/11
10:57
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Time for a quick trip through the NFC South headlines.

Although there has been all sorts of speculation about Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers tumbling in the draft, he says his knee is just fine. He says reports about having arthritis or needing microfracture surgery are not accurate. Bowers says the surgery was simply to repair a torn meniscus. Still, he’s been falling in a lot of mock drafts, and if those are correct, Bowers could be available at No. 20 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Would they take the risk? I think they might. The last time a defensive lineman, who many initially thought would be the No. 1 overall pick was tumbling this fast, the Bucs took him. It was Warren Sapp. The reasons for Sapp’s fall were much different, but I think there’s a point where you have to take a shot on Bowers and No. 20 could be that point.

D. Orlando Ledbetter scratches defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Adrian Clayborn off Atlanta’s board and suggests five names the Falcons could be targeting at No. 27. I agree with all five names, but I’d also add Pittsburgh receiver Jonathan Baldwin. If the Falcons don’t trade up and still decide to go with a wide receiver at No. 27, it will be either Baldwin or Maryland’s Torrey Smith.

Michael Irvin says the Carolina Panthers need to surround Cam Newton with better players, if they do make the quarterback the No. 1 pick tonight, as is widely expected. I think there’s a misconception here that’s tied directly to Carolina’s 2-14 record last season. Coach John Fox and his feud with ownership and management had a lot to do with that record. This isn’t the typical roster of a 2-14 team. At least at the moment, Steve Smith is still on it. So are guys like DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Jeremy Shockey, a good offensive line and the Panthers like young receivers Brandon LaFell and David Gettis.

Mike Triplett lists the likely targets for the Saints. I agree totally with Muhammad Wilkerson, Cameron Heyward, Adrian Clayborn, Phil Taylor, Mark Ingram and Gabe Carimi. But I’d scratch UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers off the list. I’ve gotten some indications one thing the Saints won’t do is take an outside linebacker in the first round. Yes, they have a need. But that’s a spot they think they can address later in the draft or via free agency.

Now, let’s skip to two very positive items that aren’t related to the draft.

Tampa Bay offensive lineman Ted Larsen reportedly rescued three teens from dangerous waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

This one’s personal because Tom McEwen is the man who gave me my first job in this business. Tom’s the legendary former columnist and sports editor for The Tampa Tribune. He will be presented an honorary degree from Saint Leo University during graduation ceremonies Saturday. I’ve got a degree from Saint Leo that I’ve always been proud of. But I think the value of that degree gets multiplied by 100 once the man who largely built the sports world in Tampa Bay also has one. Congrats, Dr. McEwen. Wish I could be there to see it, but obviously the draft will have me occupied on Saturday.

Around the NFC South

April, 26, 2011
4/26/11
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Let’s take a run through some headlines around the NFC South.

A judge has lifted the lockout, but things remain in limbo as the NFL appeals the decision. But this has cleared the way for at least some players to show up at team facilities. It happened in Charlotte, where kicker John Kasay stopped by Bank of America Stadium. He only stayed for about 10 minutes, but nobody stopped Kasay from entering the building. That’s a good thing. How would you like to be the security guard who has to tell the only remaining member of the 1995 expansion team he can’t go through the door? Kasay’s revered in Charlotte, and I’m pretty much convinced there already is a statue of him somewhere that will be rolled out the moment he decides to retire and placed next to the statue of Sam Mills outside the stadium.

In Tampa, things seem quiet at One Buccaneer Place.

D. Orlando Ledbetter takes a look at UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers. Keep an eye on Ayers; he could be available when the Falcons pick at No. 27 and he has the potential to bring some explosiveness to the defense.

Jeff Duncan continues the countdown of the best and worst draft picks in Saints history. At No. 2 on the worst list is defensive end Shawn Knight who was taken at No. 11 in 1987. Makes me want to check back tomorrow to see who was worse than Knight.

Draft analyst Mike Mayock continues to question Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. This time, Mayock questioned Newton’s attitude, saying he doesn’t know if the quarterback cares enough to be great.

The beat writer who covered Newton in college says he’s the most dynamic talent from the SEC since Bo Jackson.

Mel Kiper and Todd McShay debate whether the Panthers at No. 1 or the Bengals at No. 4 are in a tougher spot in this draft.

Call It: Falcons pick

April, 25, 2011
4/25/11
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As the ESPN Blog Network mock draft unfolded, I kept hoping there would be some tumbling defensive ends. That’s largely because I was picking for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, and my opinion is that’s the biggest position of need for all three teams.

I didn’t get my wish as Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan and Clemson’s Da'Quan Bowers were gone by the time we even began the run for the three NFC teams who aren’t picking No. 1 overall. In my eyes, Georgia’s Justin Houston was the best pass-rusher available when I made Tampa Bay’s pick at No. 20 and I put him there. When New Orleans came up at No. 24, I went with Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn because I viewed him as the most complete defensive end remaining.

When it came time for Atlanta’s pick at No. 27, I looked at the board and really didn’t see a defensive end I liked. Although a loyal reader has been trying to sell me on the merits of Arizona’s Brooks Reed as a pure pass-rusher, I just don’t see him as a first-round pick, so I went in another direction.

I chose Pittsburgh wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin. I’ve heard his name and Maryland receiver Torrey Smith tied to the Falcons in recent days, and I keep thinking back to a conversation with an important person in Atlanta who mentioned need for a "big receiver." I may be reaching here, but I saw nothing else I really liked.

I also considered Smith, but went with Baldwin because he’s bigger. I gave a little consideration to offensive tackle Nate Solder because I’m not convinced Sam Baker is the answer at left tackle, and this offensive line could be going through some other changes. I also gave a little thought to UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers because Mike Peterson’s getting older and I suspect Stephen Nicholas will probably land elsewhere as a free agent.

In a perfect world, I would have traded down. But we didn’t have that luxury in our mock draft.

You’re welcome to put yourself into my shoes and the shoes GM Thomas Dimitroff could be in Thursday night. Take a look at the Call It poll to the right. You can cast your vote for Baldwin or go in another direction.

Look who is coming to the draft

April, 25, 2011
4/25/11
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Although there had been some rumblings early on about players not attending the draft due to the labor situation, the NFL announced Monday that 25 expected draft picks are planning to be at Radio City Music Hall. The league said that’s an all-time record.

Although players won’t be able to work out with their teams or sign contracts until the lockout is over, the league has said it’s all right for top picks to go to their new cities to meet with the media the day or two after the draft. The Panthers have the first overall pick. The Buccaneers are at No. 20, the Saints at No. 24 and the Falcons at No. 27, so it’s at least possible all four of the first-round picks for the NFC South could be in New York on Thursday night.

Here’s the list (in alphabetical order) of the players the league said will be at the draft:

Draft Watch: NFC South

April, 21, 2011
4/21/11
12:00
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Dream scenario/Plan B.

Atlanta Falcons

Dream scenario: It’s no secret the Falcons are looking for a pass-rusher because John Abraham is getting older and the team has no other defenders who can consistently pressure quarterbacks. This is a draft deep in defensive ends, but there probably will be a run on them from the mid-teens into the mid-20s. If someone like Georgia’s Justin Houston or Clemson’s Da'Quan Bowers somehow fell to No. 27, the Falcons would be elated.

Plan B: Atlanta might have a better shot at getting a pass-rusher in free agency, and the Falcons showed last season with cornerback Dunta Robinson that they aren’t afraid to target a need and spend a pile of money. If the pass-rusher isn’t there, the Falcons could switch gears and go with a receiver such as Pittsburgh’s Jonathan Baldwin or Maryland’s Torrey Smith. Also, don’t completely rule out an offensive tackle. This franchise is built around quarterback Matt Ryan, and Sam Baker still hasn’t shown he’s the answer at left tackle.

Carolina Panthers

Dream scenario: All indications are the Panthers are going to shoot for the moon and draft Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the top overall pick. Although they are aware of the downside, the Panthers realize Newton’s upside could make him the type of quarterback that comes along once a decade or so. When you’re coming off a 2-14 season and trying to catch up to the rest of the NFC South by actually installing a passing game into your offense, you need to have a quarterback.

Plan B: There haven’t been any phone calls from other teams offering trades. But you never know what might happen in the days and hours leading into the draft. The chances of getting a willing trading partner are slim with the uncertainty of the lockout, but general manager Marty Hurney probably would listen to any offers. He's without a second-round pick because he traded it last season to draft Armanti Edwards. If someone were willing to help Hurney add some extra picks, he might be willing to drop down a few spots and Georgia receiver A.J. Green probably would be the alternative target. But that still would leave the Panthers with a hole at quarterback and they’d have to go out and get one in a trade or free agency as soon as the lockout ends.

New Orleans Saints

Dream scenario: If one of the defensive ends, perhaps Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan, Bowers, California’s Cameron Jordan or Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, is sitting there, the Saints would be able to fill what appears to be their biggest need. Will Smith is solid on one side, but he’s getting up in years and the Saints don’t have another strong pass-rusher. Might be time to go ahead and get one.

Plan B: Defensive tackle and outside linebacker also seem to be possibilities and UCLA’s Akeem Ayers could fit nicely with Jonathan Vilma and Scott Shanle in the linebacker corps. But the Saints aren’t a team that fixates on filling immediate needs in the draft because they often do that in free agency. If Alabama running back Mark Ingram is available, the Saints could view him as a carbon copy of a young Deuce McAllister.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Dream scenario: They’d have their pick of pass-rushers, including Bowers, Houston and Kerrigan. Any of them would fit very nicely and it would be another big building block in a defensive line foundation that was started last year when the team used its first two draft picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Although the Bucs use the 4-3 as their base defense, that doesn’t mean they’re locked in on guys who fit the prototype of 4-3 defensive ends. Raheem Morris is a defense-minded coach and he is flexible. If there’s a strong pass-rusher available, the Bucs almost certainly will grab him.

Plan B: If a pass-rushing defensive end isn’t there, the Bucs might have to get creative. They didn’t have a playmaker in their front seven last season and that put undue pressure on the secondary. Geno Hayes and Quincy Black didn’t fully emerge as explosive outside linebackers last season and the Bucs could look at someone like Ayers to help improve the front seven.
The polls just closed (at 5 p.m. ET) on our Call It votes for the draft needs of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. Time for a look at and an analysis of what you had to say.

Let’s start with the Buccaneers because they had the most lopsided vote.

Defensive end was the overwhelming choice with 72 percent of the voters saying that’s Tampa Bay’s biggest need. No argument here, but the big question will be if there’s actually a true pass-rushing tight end available when the Bucs choose at No. 20. Guys like Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan, Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers and Georgia’s Justin Houston may or may not be on the board.

If they’re not, linebacker seems to be a possibility. The Bucs have had several linebackers, including UCLA’s Akeem Ayers, in for visits and 12 percent of voters said this was the top need for the Bucs. Offensive line drew nine percent of the vote and running back got seven percent.

Defensive end also was the big winner in the Atlanta precincts with 54 percent of the voters saying that’s the biggest position of need for the Falcons. I have no argument with that vote because John Abraham isn’t getting any younger and the Falcons don’t have another true pass rusher.

But there’s no guarantee the Falcons are going to see a defensive end they like at No. 27. The second choice among voters was wide receiver with that position drawing 27 percent of the vote. I could see the Falcons going with a receiver like Jerrel Jernigan in the first round. Fans also can see the possibility of Atlanta going with an offensive lineman or outside linebacker. Offensive line drew 11 percent of the vote and outside linebacker got eight percent.

The Saints had, by far, the closest race in this contest. With over 2,100 votes cast, defensive end (41 percent) nudged outside linebacker (39 percent). I can see the Saints going either way. But this is a team that doesn’t always draft its biggest need. That’s why running back (18 percent) also remains a decent possibility. The Saints are a veteran team without a lot of different needs and I put wide receiver as the fourth – and final – choice on the ballot. Doesn’t sound like New Orleans fans think Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and company need much help. Wide receiver only earned two percent of the vote.
Conventional wisdom has the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking a defensive end with the No. 20 overall pick in the draft.

But there are signs the Bucs could be willing to go in a different direction. In recent days, there have been reports of Alabama running back Mark Ingram and UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers visiting with the Buccaneers.

Or maybe those are just smokescreens and the Bucs are really hoping a defensive end like Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn or Justin Houston is available at No. 20.

General manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris will make the call on draft night. But here’s your chance to voice your opinion on what the Buccaneers need most.

NFC South mocking with McShay

April, 13, 2011
4/13/11
3:00
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Todd McShay has his latest Insider mock draft and it includes some very interesting picks for the three NFC South teams that don’t have the No. 1 overall pick.

Like just about everyone else, McShay has the Carolina Panthers taking Auburn quarterback Cam Newton at No. 1. But let’s skip right past that because his picks for the other three NFC South teams are very unique.

McShay has Tampa Bay taking UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers at No. 20. That’s a break from conventional wisdom that the Bucs will go with a defensive end. I don’t think this one’s out of the question. The Bucs need a playmaker somewhere in the front seven, and taking a linebacker makes some sense if they’re not sold on the defensive ends. Ayers isn’t like Georgia’s Justin Houston, a guy who has experience at linebacker and defensive end. Ayers usually plays in the 250-pound range. He could be used as a pass-rusher from the linebacker spot, but he doesn’t have the size to move to defensive end and be an every-down player.

McShay has New Orleans taking Temple defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson at No. 24. Some people view him as a defensive end and some see him as a defensive tackle in the NFL. The Saints could use help at either spot and they don’t have to make an immediate decision on what position he’ll play for the long term. This is sort of like 2009, when the Saints used their first-round pick on Malcolm Jenkins. They used him as a cornerback as a rookie and moved him to free safety, where he blossomed last year.

At No. 27, McShay has the Atlanta Falcons going in a different direction than a lot of people are expecting. Most mock drafts have the Falcons taking a defensive end. But McShay has them taking Boston College offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo. Interesting. Left tackle Sam Baker, who was taken in the first round in 2008 to protect Matt Ryan’s blind side has struggled at times. There also is uncertainty elsewhere on the offensive line because the Falcons have some potential free agents. This pick might go against the norm, but it makes some sense.

NFC South links: Williams wants better QBs

April, 11, 2011
4/11/11
10:26
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Atlanta Falcons

UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers will have a private workout with the Falcons. Nevada tight end Virgil Green is slated to visit the Falcons this week, too.

Will Michael Jenkins be the No. 2 receiver again this upcoming season? Jay Adams of AtlantaFalcons.com weighs in.

Carolina Panthers

USA Today's Jim Corbett looks at the most likely candidates for the Panthers' first-round pick.

Free-agent running back DeAngelo Williams told a Miami radio station that he needs to know the Panthers' quarterback situation is vastly improved if he is to stay with the team.

New Orleans Saints

With three outside linebackers set to be unrestricted free agents, the Saints could look to address the position in the draft.

Steve Bennett of Canal Street Chronicles recounts his first-ever trip to watch a Saints game in the Superdome.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Miami linebacker Colin McCarthy will work out for the Buccaneers on Monday.

Rick Stroud of the St. Petersburg Times looks at the possibility of the 49ers acquiring Bucs backup quarterback Josh Johnson, who has ties to new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.

The Tampa Tribune looks at 12 emerging stars with dynamic futures, including Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman.

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