NFC South: Alex Smith

Lovie SmithKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCoach Lovie Smith and the Bucs expect to compete for championships starting this season.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- There is a very good reason why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been one of the NFL's most active teams in free agency.

"We thought it would be unfair to ask the fans to be patient with us," general manager Jason Licht said at the NFL owners meetings.

Fire those cannons at Raymond James Stadium and start the parade down Dale Mabry Highway. So far, Licht and coach Lovie Smith, both hired in January, are doing and saying all of the right things. They have signed 11 free agents, highlighted by defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner and quarterback Josh McCown.

"We wanted to go out and sign as many good players as we could this year to help our football team and make it competitive this year, and strive to win a championship this year," Licht said. "Not go with, 'Hey, give us a couple years.' We want to do it as soon as we can. The fans deserve it. I found out in a two-month period that these fans are so passionate in Tampa. So we want players that are just as passionate as the fans."

Those fans should be ecstatic to hear Licht's comments. This is a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs since the 2007 season, and hasn't won a postseason game since its Super Bowl victory more than a decade ago. The franchise had good intentions in the interim, but the results weren't pretty.

Plans were put in place at various times from the days when Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen tried to win with veterans, to the time when Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris decided to build through the draft, to the days when it looked like Greg Schiano didn't have a plan.

[+] EnlargeAlterraun Verner
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsLanding cornerback Alterraun Verner was part of an aggressive free-agent push by the Bucs this month.
But you can look at what Licht and Smith are doing and you see a firm plan that has a chance to work -- and work quickly.

"As you saw last year with Kansas City, sometimes a little change is healthy and successful," Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said.

The Chiefs indeed are a good example of a team that turned around its fortunes rapidly. Kansas City was dreadful in 2012, but made the playoffs last season.

For any doubters who say McCown, a career backup, doesn't have what it takes to lead a team to the playoffs, let me remind you that Alex Smith was Kansas City's quarterback last season. I don't see a big difference between Smith and McCown.

Yeah, people can talk all they want about how this is a quarterback-driven league and you need a star at the position to be any good. There is some truth to that. But was Russell Wilson really the best quarterback in the NFL last season?

Of course not. Wilson did some very nice things, but there were bigger reasons why the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl. The defense and the running game had a lot to do with their success.

It's pretty obvious Licht and Lovie Smith are following a plan similar to Seattle's. Smith comes with a defensive background, and he inherited some good talent on that side of the ball. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy already are in place, and you could make an argument that a pass-rusher was the only thing Tampa Bay needed to be a dominant defense. That is why the Bucs signed Johnson, who had 11.5 sacks for Cincinnati in 2012.

On offense, the Bucs have overhauled their line. They parted ways with Donald Penn, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah, and replaced them with Anthony Collins, Oniel Cousins and Evan Dietrich-Smith. The running game should be in good shape, assuming Doug Martin is fully recovered from an injury that cut short last season.

I look at that and I see a team that might be ready to win now. I see a team with a plan that seems to make a lot of sense.

"Jason and Lovie have a plan, and that plan is that they want to win," Glazer said. "That's why we brought them in. We're all in the same boat. We want to win. They have a clear plan to get there, and that's why they were hired. We believe in the plan. We buy into the plan, and we're going to be supportive of the plan."

A few years back, the Glazers were often accused of not spending enough money to bring success. But recently, they have spent big money in free agency. This offseason, the Bucs went on another spending spree.

Licht and Smith frequently are being declared winners in free agency by the national media. They are also winning the news conferences by saying the right things.

Now, if they can go win some games in the fall, their plan could be a masterpiece.

Final Word: 49ers at Falcons

January, 18, 2013
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NFC Championship: 49ers-Falcons AFC Championship: Ravens-Patriots

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons:

[+] EnlargeTony Gonzalez
AP Photo/Perry KnottsWill the 49ers see Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez line up in the slot or as a tight end in the NFC title game?
Staying grounded: San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is not a good matchup for the Atlanta defense. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards against the Packers in the divisional round. The Falcons had problems with mobile quarterbacks in the regular season and against Seattle’s Russell Wilson in the divisional round. Quarterbacks have averaged a league-high 8.9 yards per carry against the Falcons. Including the playoffs, the Falcons have faced 42 read-option plays (second-most in the league), according to ESPN Stats & Information. On those plays, the Falcons have done a good job when the quarterback hands off. Running backs averaged 3.9 yards against Atlanta on the read option. But quarterbacks have averaged more than 20 yards per carry.

Been a long time: The Falcons and 49ers have met just once before in the postseason. That was in the 1998 season in a divisional playoff game, which was the first game back for Atlanta coach Dan Reeves after quadruple-bypass surgery. The Falcons won that game 20-18 and went on to make the only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. The Falcons and 49ers were NFC West rivals until the NFC South was founded in 2002. Since then, the teams have had four regular-season meetings, and the Falcons have won all four.

Comeback kids: The Falcons got the ball with 31 seconds remaining and rallied for a win against Seattle. That marked the third time this season the Falcons started a game-winning drive in the final minute of the fourth quarter. The rest of the league combined for eight such drives. In the past 10 years, the only other teams with multiple game-winning drives that started in the last minute of regulation were the 2010 Jets and 2010 Jaguars, each with two.

Tight end or receiver? Technically, Tony Gonzalez is Atlanta’s tight end and Harry Douglas is the slot receiver. But that’s not always how they line up. Gonzalez has had 55 receptions when lined up in the slot, including three in the divisional playoff.

Red-hot Crabtree: Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has become much more of a factor since Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith as the starting quarterback. When Smith was starting, Crabtree averaged 4.9 receptions and 56.7 receiving yards per game, and had four touchdowns. With Kaepernick, Crabtree has averaged 6.3 receptions and 89.3 yards per game, and has caught seven touchdown passes.

Falcons still thrive on play-action

December, 5, 2012
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Michael Turner’s numbers and playing time have dipped this season, but opposing defenses still are keeping close tabs on the Atlanta running back.

Defenses still are biting on play-action fakes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has completed 71.1 percent (59-of-83) of his play-action passes. That percentage ranks second in the league, behind only San Francisco’s Alex Smith (80.8 percent), who has been benched.

The rest of the NFC South quarterbacks haven’t been nearly as successful as Ryan off play-action.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman, who has the division’s leading rusher in Doug Martin, is No. 21 with a 61.2 percent (60-of-98) completion rate. But Freeman does have nine touchdown passes off play-action, which is only one less than the league leaders.

New Orleans’ Drew Brees is tied with Matt Schaub and Peyton Manning for the league lead in touchdowns off play-action. But Brees also has thrown five interceptions off play-action, which puts him only one behind league leader Mark Sanchez. Brees is No. 22 in play-action completion percentage at 60.6 (63-of-104).

Carolina’s Cam Newton is No. 23 at 60.3 percent (70-of-116), but Newton’s 1,214 yards on play-action passes rank No. 3 in the league.

Around the NFC South

November, 23, 2012
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First off, a reminder that there will be no NFC South chat this week. Now, let’s move onto a quick run through the headlines from around the division.

ATLANTA FALCONS

The injury news was mixed out of Thursday’s practice. Receiver Julio Jones (ankle) returned on a limited basis after sitting out Wednesday’s practice. But the news wasn’t as good on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (ankle). Weatherspoon, who returned to practice Wednesday after missing the past three games, sat out Thursday’s practice and the team said Weatherspoon also had an undisclosed illness. All indications are that Weatherspoon’s ankle has been healing well. If he can shake the illness quickly, I think there’s a good chance he’ll make his return Sunday against Tampa Bay.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith sarcastically referred to Monday night’s game against Philadelphia as a “battle of the bads." Can’t argue with him on that. The Panthers and Eagles both are struggling mightily. I’m trying to figure out which team is more dysfunctional. I think we’ll find out an answer Monday night.

Joseph Person has a fine story on Brenda Anderson. She’s the mother of linebacker James Anderson. Brenda Anderson had brain surgery in September and is making a strong recovery.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

As the 49ers and Saints get ready to play Sunday, let’s keep in mind that Gregg Williams’ infamous speech came on the eve of last season’s playoff game against the 49ers and several San Francisco players were mentioned in unflattering ways. The 49ers aren’t saying much about Williams’ speech -- at least not publicly. But, if you believe that San Francisco won’t be using that episode as motivation, you don’t know how things work in the NFL. Coaches and players are always looking for motivation.

If injured right tackles Zach Strief and Charles Brown aren’t ready to play Sunday, the Saints say they’re comfortable with going with Bryce Harris as the starter. He stepped in during the last game and did a decent job. But that was against Oakland and San Francisco’s pass rush is a lot better than the Raiders’.

Although San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith has been medically cleared to play, Ed Werder reports that Colin Kaepernick will get the start against the Saints. After watching Kaepernick’s strong performance in his first NFL start against the Bears on Monday night, I don’t think this is particularly good news for the Saints.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The local television blackout in the Tampa Bay area won’t be lifted for Sunday’s game with Atlanta. The Bucs came up short of the 85 percent threshold of selling general-admission seats at Thursday’s deadline. The Bucs are on a four-game winning streak and very much in the playoff picture and the Falcons have the NFC’s best record. I’d like to say it’s surprising that not enough tickets were sold to lift the blackout, but I can’t honestly say I’m surprised. This just shows that even when the Bucs are playing well, other issues (the economy, the transient nature of the local population, etc.) make Tampa Bay a very difficult market.

Wide receiver Arrelious Benn was placed on injured reserve Thursday. The Bucs may miss Benn more as a kick than as a receiver because Tiquan Underwood gives them some depth behind starters Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Rookie running back Michael Smith could be a candidate to take Benn’s place in the return game.

Clayton: Brees, Ryan top 10 QBs

August, 23, 2012
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It’s time for one of the highlights of the preseason.

John Clayton has his annual rankings of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks. These usually make for great debates and this year is no exception.

In fact, I’ll at least throw out some (respectfully) dissenting thoughts on where Clayton has each of the four NFC South quarterbacks ranked.

He has New Orleans’ Drew Brees at No. 3. That’s a very lofty ranking, but I think you could at least make the argument that Brees could be No. 1 or No. 2. Clayton has Aaron Rodgers at No. 1 and Tom Brady at No. 2. They’re both great quarterbacks, but are either one of them clearly better than Brees? I’m not so sure.

Clayton has Atlanta’s Matt Ryan at No. 10. I totally agree that Ryan is a top 10 quarterback. In fact, I think you could make the case he could be a spot or two higher. Tony Romo is No. 8 on Clayton’s list and Michael Vick is No. 9. We’re all entitled to our opinions, but I easily would take Ryan over Romo or Vick as my quarterback.

For that matter, I’d also take Carolina’s Cam Newton over Romo and Vick. I’d even rank him (very slightly) ahead of Ryan, which is exactly what I did earlier this summer when I listed my NFC South top 25 players. But Clayton has Newton at No. 15 and that’s my biggest dispute with his ranking of any of the NFC South quarterbacks. I know Newton only has played one season and I’m projecting what he’ll do in 2012, but he’s a top 10 quarterback in my book.

That brings us to the final NFC South quarterback, Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman. Clayton has him at No. 16. I think Freeman’s going to bounce back from last year’s disaster, but I don’t know that you put him right next to Newton at this point. Clayton also seems to be counting on Freeman getting back on track because he’s got him ranked one spot ahead of San Francisco’s Alex Smith, who took his team deep into the playoffs last season.

I’m sure you have your opinions as well. Fire away in the comments section below.
All the talk about Drew Brees' quest for a new contract that will make him the highest-paid player in the NFL got me thinking about quarterback salaries and average per year.

It remains very likely that, sometime between now and Monday afternoon, Brees and the Saints will work out a contract that pays him somewhere around an average of $20 million per season. That would put Brees on top of the list of quarterback pay. He’s earned that honor.

But what about the rest of the NFC South quarterbacks?

First off, let’s be clear that none of them are at the same level as Brees. But two of them are likely to come up for contract extensions sooner rather than later and Brees could help raise the bar.

As it stands right now, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is tied for No. 13 in average per year at $11.25 million. Ryan’s contract currently runs through the 2013 season and there have been some rumblings the Falcons could start looking to extend him. Unless he goes out and wins the Super Bowl this season, I don’t think Ryan falls into the category of elite quarterbacks, but I think it would take an average of somewhere between $14 million and $16 million a season to lock him up.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman ranks No. 22 with a $5.24 million average per year. Freeman’s coming off a tough season, but still has plenty of upside and also has a contract that expires after the 2013 season. If the Bucs really believe he is their franchise quarterback, they might be wise to try to extend him before Freeman gets a chance to get back on the field and really drive his price tag into the upper echelon. Then again, the Bucs might want to wait a bit to see if Freeman can recapture his style of play from the 2010 season before making any big commitment.

Carolina’s Cam Newton is No. 21 with a $5.506 million average salary. Although he was the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, Newton’s first contract was less than a lot of guys drafted in the years just ahead of him because the league put in new rules last year that limit rookie contracts. If Newton continues to play like he did as a rookie, he could be looking at numbers like Brees a few years down the road.

I’ve assembled a list of the top 32 quarterbacks, based on average salary per year. Here it is:

NFC South links: Gauging Weatherspoon

July, 6, 2012
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Atlanta Falcons

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is poised to have Pro Bowl season, writes NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal. "When you combine Weatherspoon's natural ability with his effort and attitude, you have a potential difference-maker. You get a leader," Rosenthal writes. But according to Pro Football Focus, Weatherspoon was the worst linebacker in the league over the past three seasons in tackling efficiency, missing a tackle for every 7.1 he attempted.

Former Howard University head coach Carey Bailey and Mississippi Valley State’s assistant coach Ramon Flanigan will take part in the NFL’s minority coaching fellowship program with the Falcons during training camp, reports the AJC's D. Orlando Ledbetter.

Carolina Panthers

While reiterating his point about the lack of correlation between passing yards and wins on a Thursday conference call with reporters, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith seemed to back off his critical comments of Cam Newton and the Panthers, writes Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. In May, Smith said, "Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games, that's great. You're not winning, though." But on Thursday, Smith said he "got carried away there" by citing Newton's Panthers as an example.

New Orleans Saints

Unlike the other three players suspended in the Saints bounty case, Jonathan Vilma is to begin his suspension right away, reports Profootballtalk's Mike Florio. So Vilma’s lawyer, Peter Ginsberg, is trying to get a temporary restraining order pending a hearing on a preliminary injunction to delay his suspension.

NFLPA spokesman George Atallah speaks out on NFL's appeals process.

Linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are in the top 10 in the league the past three seasons when it comes to total tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Tampa Bay Times' Stephen F. Holder examines the new-look Bucs receiving corps.

Cam Newton needs to be himself

June, 14, 2012
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Cam NewtonAP Photo/Chuck BurtonEntering his second season Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is focused on winning "at all costs."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If you thought the flap over San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith's comments about Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton a few weeks back was the start of a feud that would linger for years, you missed the whole point by a mile.

Although some Carolina teammates got upset when Smith implied that Newton’s record-setting rookie statistics were overblown, Newton didn’t miss the point at all. In fact, without ever mentioning Smith’s name, Newton acknowledged the basic premise was right Tuesday when asked about his goals for the 2012 season. The question begged for a plural answer. Newton chopped it straight down to the singular.

“Winning,’’ Newton said. “That's all we play this game for is to get that W. That's it.’’

There was no mention of following up a 4,000-yard passing season with a 5,000-yard season. There was no mention of breaking his own record for rushing touchdowns in a season (14) by a quarterback. There was no mention of anything statistical at all. All Newton wanted to talk about was winning.

“In my job description, it says win at all costs,’’ Newton said.

See, no matter what the critics said about Newton before the Panthers took him first overall in the 2011 draft, and no matter how angered teammates and fans might have been about Smith’s comments, Newton truly is all about winning. He always has been and always will be.

This is a guy who won a junior college national championship at Blinn College and followed it up with another national title at Auburn. Despite all that, there were critics who said Newton was nothing more than a showman, and he didn’t have the desire to be great on the NFL level.

[+] EnlargeCameron Newton
Jerry Lai/US PresswireThe Panthers drafter Cam Newton with the first overall pick in 2011 despite concerns over his ability to succeed in the NFL.
Although others agreed with that assessment, Carolina general manager Marty Hurney, who was getting ready to make the most important draft decision of his life, began doing his homework. He saw something completely different.

“The first thing that struck me when I first met him was his desire to win and to be the best player and the best quarterback he could be,’’ Hurney said. “He has a great concept of the history of the game and where he wants to fit in. He knows that if he wants to fit where he wants to fit, that he has to win games to do that. He knows that winning defines where he fits.’’

Where does Newton want to fit?

“I think he wants to be the best,’’ Hurney said.

Then, there were all those who raised their eyebrows when Newton threw some sideline fits and showed a lot of frustration as the Panthers went 6-10 last season. They said Newton was immature.

They missed the point of what Newton is about by two miles.

“I’ll tell you this about Cam: Everything about him is real,’’ said Panthers quarterbacks coach Mike Shula. “He’s the same with me, the other coaches, the other players, the media and everyone he interacts with. He’s just real all the time. And part of Cam being real is that he hates to lose as much or more than anyone I’ve ever seen. When he wins, he has a lot of fun. Winning equals fun in his life. That’s what drives him.’’

That’s why last season wasn’t fun for Newton. It also may be why he recently said he wasn’t a good teammate as a rookie.

“I’m still trying to figure out where the heck that came from, because I don’t agree with that at all,’’ Hurney said. “I thought he was a tremendous teammate last year. The fact is, yeah, he got mad after losing. Heck, I like that. What’s wrong with that?’’

Absolutely nothing.

Newton wants to keep his emotions in check in the future. That’s a nice idea, and you have to expect that a 23-year-old naturally will continue to mature. But maybe there’s an easier way to avoid having television cameras record every pout and irritating the media by taking a long time to talk after a loss.

Maybe the best way to avoid all that is to simply stop losing.

“You don’t ever want players to get in the habit of being satisfied with losing and saying, 'I’ll get them next week,'’’ Shula said. “As the leader of this football team, you can lead by example. He does that just by being himself and letting everyone see how serious he is about letting this football team win.’’

Newton may be working to tone things down, but the Panthers aren’t encouraging that. They know what drives Newton, and they don’t want that to disappear.

“I know he won’t ever lose that burning desire to win and that hurt when you lose,’’ Hurney said. “You have to have that hurt-when-you-lose attitude in this league to be able to do the things that it takes to win.’’

Newton doesn’t need to change his demeanor or his attitude at all. He just needs to build on what he did last year. That should be a natural process. After missing all of last offseason because of the lockout, Newton is getting a full offseason with his coaches and his playbook for the first time. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has a famously large playbook.

“You want to come look at my playbook?’’ Newton said. “I'm telling you, man, it ain't on the Atkins diet, I can tell you that.’’

The Panthers didn’t really scale back the playbook for Newton last year. He had to know as many as 115 pass plays. Word around Bank of America Stadium is the playbook has put on a few extra pounds this offseason.

“We’ll continue to build on the things we did well,’’ Shula said. “We want him to expand his world, and he wants to expand his world. Otherwise, people will figure him out and stop him in a hurry.’’

Let the rest of the world try to figure Newton out. The Panthers already know what they have. That’s a quarterback with a burning desire to win. No need to tinker with that.

Let Newton simply be himself and get better play from a revamped defense that was devastated by injuries last year.

Those things alone might add up to a winning record -- and a very happy quarterback.

Film of the NFC South chat

June, 1, 2012
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Time for a look at the highlights of Friday’s NFC South chat.

Joe (ATL): You stirred up some anger within in the Falcon?s community with the 2008 Draft Class article. Seems like you focus a lot on what the Falcons do wrong and not what they do right. 2008 was a great year for us, because we took such a giant step in the right direction following Vick/Petrino (yes I remember fondly as I had season tickets that year). I don?t think there were intentions to be viewed as a one-hit draft year, rather a collection of drafts and FA to become a winning team year after year. But I will agree that this is the year to make a deep post season run and put the doubters in check.

Pat Yasinskas: Yeah, well, the part you agree with was basically the whole point of the column. I wasn't saying it was a bad draft class by any means. Was just saying all of those guys are at a point in their career where they need to take the next step -- kind of the same story for that entire team.

Robert (Ocean Isle, NC): You and Saints fans seem to think Payton being gone for the here won't be more than a speed bump on their way to another winning record. Isn't that odd considering the 4 weeks he was merely off the sidelines the Saints went 2-2 vs. Indy, StL and TB twice (a combined record of 12-52) and now he won't even be in the building all year?

Pat Yasinskas: It's obviously far from ideal. But I believe the Saints are a very talented and experienced team and they can handle it. Not saying they're going to cruise straight to the Super Bowl. It's not going to be easy, but I think they can still have a pretty successful season.

Ken (NY): Pat I don't understand why you agree with Alex Smith. The panthers where rarely down at halftime. Also if it's true that if a team is behind means that the QB will throw for 300 yards a game then where is Alex Smith's 300 yards games in his first six seasons when the 49ers would consistently lose games?

Pat Yasinskas: I don't totally agree with him. He's wrong on his facts. But I do see his point, which is basically that wins are more important than stats. But I think that could be moot after this season because I think Cam will have a good amount of wins, combined with good stats.

Big D (CT): Has there been any update on Aqib Talib, has he been at OTAs or is he preparing for his court date

Pat Yasinskas: He was out there the two days they've had media access so far. His trial isn't until after they finish minicamp and all their offseason workouts, so I suspect he'll stick around for all of that.

Brandon (Arkansas): Just curious why everyone is so adamant that you give Brees a blank check? I'm a diehard fan and love Brees. His contribution to Saint's nation is unquestioned, but there is the salary cap to consider. If we invest over 1/6th of our available funds on one player for the next 5-6 years...what kind of team are you going to be able to surround him with? I want him there as much as anyone, but not at the expense of losing seasons for the next decade!

Pat Yasinskas: Valid point. They have to be very careful how they structure that deal, especially for future years. If they don't do it right, they'll end up losing a lot more than they did this offseason when they let Nicks, Porter and Meachem walk.

Matt (Smyrna): How do you justify Steve Smith as the best receiver in the NFC? In the last two years he has 90 less catches than White, 737 less yards and 9 less touchdowns. Colston paved the way to the Super Bowl, had more touchdowns and receptions than Smith last year. He?s older, has less wins and more fumbles than both White and Colston combined. Come on Pat, you can?t rank WR?s based on what you think they?ll do next year. Remember Alex Smith: stats don?t give you wins.

Pat Yasinskas: I based that on last year and what I expect this year. Wasn't factoring in Colston's Super Bowl or White beyond last year. I thought Smith had a great year last year and should be even better this season as Cam continues to grow. But you are certainly free to disagree with me.

Joseph (Rockland): Do you have any confidence in the Saints defensive ends behind Smith and Jordan? (Galette, McBride, Romeus, and Wilson)

Pat Yasinskas: I think Galette and Romeus have some potential and Spagnuolo could really help them. McBride's decent. Not sure on Wilson as a DE yet. Have to see him play there a little bit first.

John (Tampa FL): Do you think Dallas Clark can return to 2009 form this season with the Bucs? Do you think he is an upgrade in any capacity over K2? He certainly fits the new mold of the "Buccaneer Man", but beyond that?

Pat Yasinskas: Not sure he'll catch 100 passes, but I don't think Bucs are expecting that. I think he'll fit in well in the locker room and may have some leadership skills that Winslow didn't. He might not even put up the kind of numbers Winslow did. But I think Clark is a better fit with the new regime.

JM (Charlotte): Hey Pat, now that it's June 1st, what is the Panthers' cap situation?

Pat Yasinskas: Ah, excellent question. They designated Travelle Wharton as a June 1 cut. Up until June 1, his full cap hit (think it was around $7.5 million) was counting on this year's cap. Now, they can spread that out between this year and 2013. They had been I think around $3.2 million uder cap. So if Wharton's hit is spread out equally, they just freed up half of the $7.5 million.

Tim (Athens): Pat, do you think Mark Dominik has less power as GM now with Schiano than when Morris was here? After Winslow was traded, I started to wonder about that. Thanks.

Pat Yasinskas: Maybe Dominik also wanted to unload Winslow. There could have been some cap implications there as well. Go back and look at post I did on that -- I think it was a day or two after Winslow was traded. They have to start thinking about next year's cap because they're already pretty close to it.

Here’s the complete transcript of the NFC South chat.

NFC South evening update

May, 29, 2012
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Let's take a look at some of the day's top headlines from around the NFC South.
  • Some very strong comments from Sean Gilbert, the last franchise player to sit out a season, on the Drew Brees situation. If, for some reason Brees becomes unhappy with his agent, he might want to hire Gilbert. The retired defensive tackle made a very passionate case that Brees should be paid no matter the cost and emphatically mentions how the Saints became an elite team once the quarterback arrived in town. Gilbert also has a message for those fans who say Brees should “take one for the team’’ and give the Saints a hometown discount. Gilbert said Brees has earned the right to set his family up financially for the long term.
  • A Louisiana lawyer has helped set up a trust fund to ensure Brees gets paid. That’s a generous idea, but this situation isn’t about charity. Owner Tom Benson and the Saints have enough money to pay Brees. But the main reason no deal already has been done is because the Saints haven’t been able to figure out a way to work Brees under the salary cap for the long term. That’s highly important. In calculated moves, the Saints let Carl Nicks, Tracy Porter and Robert Meachem leave as free agents this year. If the Brees deal isn’t structured properly, the Saints could lose a lot more key players in future years.
  • Cornerback Asante Samuel, recently acquired in a trade with Philadelphia, had two interceptions in his first on-field practice with the Falcons. I’d call that a good omen.
  • After losing Eric Weems in free agency, the Falcons are looking for a return man. Cornerback Dominique Franks said he wants to earn that job. That’s wise thinking on the part of Franks. With Samuel, Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes ahead of him on the depth chart and some others that might earn playing time at cornerback, Franks’ best chance to stay on the roster come if he wins the return job.
  • Speaking of job security, Tampa Bay tight end Luke Stocker said he’s looking forward to more playing time in his second season. He’ll get that opportunity. The Bucs brought in veteran Dallas Clark as a short-term solution as a pass-catcher, but Stocker should get plenty of playing time as a blocker this year and that could lead to him being an all-around tight end down the road.
  • Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said he was a bad teammate last year. He said he pouted and moped and needs to mature next season. We’ve got a message into San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith seeking comment on Newton’s skills as a teammate.
The battle of words over San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith’s comments about Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s passing statistics being inflated isn’t over yet.

Beason
Appearing on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Radio on Tuesday, Carolina linebacker Jon Beason, who previously took a shot at Smith via Twitter, had some more words for Smith.

“I think if you look at the body of work -- and we’re going to talk about stats here since (Smith is) about stats -- I think [Cam Newton] is way ahead of Alex was as a former first-round pick," Beason said. “You know, going into a situation where you’re on the worst team in football, or in an offense that finished 32nd in scoring last year, to an offense that finished fifth, I think you should at least take your hat off to him and understand the situation and the type of pressure that Cam Newton was under this year.”

Smith was the first overall pick by San Francisco in the 2005 draft, but didn’t really have much success until leading the 49ers to last season’s NFC Championship Game. Carolina took Newton with the first overall draft pick last year. Newton set all sorts of rookie records and was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year, but the Panthers went 6-10.

“I’m a big fan of stats, I think they tell the truth more than not," Beason said. “I think their defense was unbelievable last year. You know, I think 19 touchdown passes is, you know, not going to get you in a Super Bowl. I think five interceptions is an amazing stat, but it is just like in basketball, if you don’t shoot you can’t score. So based on what they were able to do and the parts around him, the coach, the defense, I think they did a great job. You win 13 games you’re the best in the league. I think that’s the right formula for them but that wouldn’t have been the right formula for us. So do you take your hat off to Alex Smith? Yes. Should he feel good about himself? Yes. Should he get upset about having to answer questions about him finishing 29th in the league in yards per game? That’s a stat. If you don’t like it maybe fix it but, like I said, in the meantime don’t take shots at other people or other players because you are tired of dealing with that question.”

You can hear the audio of the Beason interview here.

Alex Smith was wrong, but right

May, 29, 2012
5/29/12
10:59
AM ET
San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith caused a stir last week when he said that the statistics of Carolina quarterback Cam Newton were overblown in his record-setting rookie season.

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Newton
Newton
"This is the honest truth: I could absolutely care less on yards per game," Smith said. "I think that's a totally overblown stat. Because if you're losing games in the second half, guess what? You're like the Carolina Panthers and you're going no-huddle the entire second half and, yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games, that's great. You're not winning, though."

Upon closer examination, Smith is wrong, but he also is right in some ways.

Let’s start with the wrong part. Newton didn’t throw for “a lot’’ of 300-yard games. In fact, he topped that barrier only three times and each came in his first four games. He threw for 422 yards in the opener against Arizona and followed that a week later with 432 against Green Bay. Newton threw for 374 yards in the fourth game of the season against Chicago. The Panthers lost all three of those games, so the spirit of what Smith was saying had more than a little validity.

Maybe Smith should have kept his mouth shut, but the point he was making was that you don’t need big statistics to win. He and the 49ers made it to the NFC Championship Game. Newton and the Panthers went 6-10.

Winning is what’s most important in the NFL. The Panthers showed signs they knew that late last season, winning four of their last six games. In those four wins, Newton never passed for more than 208 yards and he averaged 183 passing yards in the final four victories.

What Smith said wasn’t factually accurate. It also wasn’t what Carolina fans wanted to hear. But his basic message was that you don’t have to throw for 300 yards a game to win. Turns out, he’s right. But the Panthers already know that.

Around the NFC South

May, 29, 2012
5/29/12
9:43
AM ET
I hope everyone had a great holiday weekend. Let's take a look at the top headlines from around the division.
  • Defensive end Ray Edwards has been a frequent target of criticism after signing as a free agent with the Falcons last year and didn’t have a big season. But defensive line coach Ray Hamilton defended Edwards, saying the defensive end had a knee injury last year and bigger things are expected this season.
  • Even if Edwards doesn’t step up, one writer believes fifth-round pick Jonathan Massaquoi can provide immediate help for Atlanta’s pass rush.
  • D. Orlando Ledbetter has his list of things to watch as the Falcons begin the on-field portion of their organized team activities. Whether Lofa Tatupu or Akeem Dent is working at first-team middle linebacker is one big question, and if Dunta Robinson will be covering the slot receiver when the Falcons go to their nickel package is another.
  • Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano is trying to use the Florida heat to give his team a conditioning advantage. Does that work? Rick Stroud runs through how different coaches in franchise history have approached the heat. Some have tried to work around it and some have practiced through the worst parts of the day. The results have been mixed.
  • Unknown Rennie Curran has been working with the first team at weak-side linebacker so far for Tampa Bay. That’s not going to last. As soon as rookie Lavonte David gets settled in, he’ll be the starter.
  • Haruki Nakamura spent the last four seasons backing up Ed Reed in Baltimore. There are no future Hall of Famers at safety for the Panthers, so Nakamura has a chance to compete for a starting job.
  • San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis became the latest to chime in on quarterback Alex Smith’s claim that wins are more important than statistics. Smith claimed that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton’s stats were inflated because the Panthers often were trailing last season. That prompted Carolina linebacker Jon Beason to jump to Newton’s defense. Willis now has defended Smith, saying wins are more important than passing numbers.

Around the NFC South

May, 25, 2012
5/25/12
9:38
AM ET
Time for a look at some headlines from around the NFC South.
  • After San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith downplayed Cam Newton’s stats, Carolina linebacker Jon Beason defended his quarterback. Beason took to Twitter with a message for Smith. Beason said Smith would have been looking for a job if Peyton Manning had signed with San Francisco.
  • Kellen Winslow, who was traded away by Tampa Bay on Monday night, said he can breathe in Seattle. He said things were getting a little stuffy in Tampa, where he and new coach Greg Schiano had some philosophical differences.
  • New Orleans coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is installing a defense that won’t feature as many all-out blitzes as the Saints used in recent years. But safety Malcolm Jenkins said that doesn’t mean the Saints will be any less aggressive on defense.
  • New Orleans offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said backup quarterback Chase Daniel has been stepping up and taking a leadership role with Drew Brees not participating in organized team activities.
  • The Sporting News ranks the 32 NFL head coaches and there is not an NFC South coach in the top 14. Suspended New Orleans coach Sean Payton isn’t included in the rankings, but his replacement, Joe Vitt, is. New Orleans fans, who have been a bit sensitive lately, aren’t going to be happy when they see where Vitt was ranked.
Ah, here’s a prime example of what’s known in my business as “room service."

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Newton
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I’ll stay out of the way and let San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith do the heavy lifting. He took a shot at Carolina quarterback Cam Newton that speaks for itself.

"This is the honest truth: I could absolutely care less on yards per game," Smith said. "I think that's a totally overblown stat. Because if you're losing games in the second half, guess what? You're like the Carolina Panthers and you're going no-huddle the entire second half and, yeah, Cam Newton threw for a lot of 300-yard games, that's great. You're not winning, though."

Well, the 49ers and Panthers aren’t scheduled to play this year. But Smith’s comments could come back to be a big storyline if Newton has another big year, the defense improves and Carolina and San Francisco end up meeting in the playoffs.

For now though, Smith, who threw for 3,144 yards last season, can say whatever he wants about Newton, who set a rookie passing record with 4,051 yards. The 49ers went to the NFC Championship Game last season and the Panthers went 6-10.

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