NFC South: Angelo Crowell
New Orleans receiver Lance Moore officially signed his tender as a restricted free agent. There still remains the possibility the Saints could work a long-term deal with him. Moore attended offseason workouts, unlike some of the other New Orleans restricted free agents, and that fact may help his cause.
Tampa Bay co-chairman Bryan Glazer spoke at a Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce gathering Friday. He addressed the possibility of an 18-game season, said local television blackouts could be a reality this season and said the team is committed to building with youth. The Glazers get knocked quite a bit for not talking very often. There’s been a subtle change in philosophies and you’re going to see the Glazers become a bit more visible in the public eye. They’re not going to suddenly turn into Jerry Jones or Dan Snyder, but you’re going to see more of them than you have in the past.
The Bucs released linebacker Angelo Crowell. He’ll go down as one of the worst free-agent signings in franchise history. The Bucs didn’t pay Crowell a ton of money when they first signed him, but they thought he had a chance to start. He had some injuries and contributed absolutely nothing to Tampa Bay.
Atlanta owner Arthur Blank has been chosen to receive the Four Pillar Award.
You can assume it’s not a real big deal because Crowell didn’t live up to the expectations the Bucs had when they signed him as a free agent last year. He couldn’t crack the starting lineup and ended up getting hurt. But Crowell had some potential, once upon a time, and the Bucs are giving him another shot.
In other news, the Bucs announced restricted free agent Mark Bradley has signed his tender offer. Generally, we don’t waste time or space reporting on the signing of tender offers because it’s basically a formality. But, as long as we had the Crowell signing, we’ll slip the Bradley note in there as well.
Potential unrestricted free agents: CB Brian Williams, WR Marty Booker, QB Chris Redman.
Potential restricted free agents: RB Jason Snelling, RB Jerious Norwood, P Michael Koenen, CB Brent Grimes, OL Quinn Ojinnaka, T Tyson Clabo, G Harvey Dahl.
Franchise player: None.
What to expect: General manager Thomas Dimitroff repeatedly has used the phrase “fiscally responsible’’ when talking about the approach to free agency. In other words, the Falcons aren’t going to go on some wild spending spree. This organization prefers to build through the draft. But history has shown the Falcons aren’t afraid to make a strategic strike or two in free agency. They have a huge need at defensive end and that’s a tough spot to get guaranteed production from when you’ve got the No. 19 overall pick in the draft. The Falcons aren’t likely to target elite free-agent DE Julius Peppers, but you could see them make a move for another pass-rusher.
Potential unrestricted free agents: DE Julius Peppers, WR Muhsin Muhammad, QB Josh McCown, QB A.J. Feeley.
Potential restricted free agents: LB Thomas Davis, QB Matt Moore, TE Jeff King, CB Richard Marshall, DT Louis Leonard, LB James Anderson, DT Tank Tyler, CB C.J. Wilson.
Franchise player: None.
What to expect: Owner Jerry Richardson is very concerned about the uncertain labor situation and that may keep him from spending big money in free agency. The Panthers avoided a $20 million hit by not placing the franchise tag on Peppers, but that doesn’t mean all of that money is going to be used in free agency. The Panthers traditionally are a team that builds through the draft and they didn’t sign a single UFA last year. But look for at least a few smaller moves because coach John Fox has to win this year and needs to improve this roster, especially on the defensive line, at wide receiver and perhaps at quarterback.
New Orleans Saints
Potential unrestricted free agents: QB Mark Brunell, S Darren Sharper, TE Dan Campbell, TE Darnell Dinkins, DT Kendrick Clancy, LB Scott Fujita, S Pierson Prioleau, LS Jason Kyle.
Potential restricted free agents: G Jahri Evans, RB Mike Bell, RB Pierre Thomas, WR Lance Moore, TE David Thomas, T Jermon Bushrod, S Roman Harper, S Usama Young, DT Remi Ayodele, DT Anthony Hargrove, T Zach Strief, S Chris Reis, WR Courtney Roby, LB Marvin Mitchell.
Franchise player: None
What to expect: As a final-four team the Saints aren’t allowed to sign any unrestricted free agents unless they lose one of their own at a similar price tag. That’s likely to keep the Saints from being big players in free agency. But the good news is they don’t have a lot of dramatic needs. They will have to keep a protective eye on some of their restricted free agents, who may draw interest from other teams.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Potential unrestricted free agents: WR Antonio Bryant, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, S Will Allen, LB Angelo Crowell, S Jermaine Phillips.
Potential restricted free agents: RB Cadillac Williams, LB Barrett Ruud, T Donald Penn, WR Maurice Stovall, T Jeremy Trueblood.
Franchise player: None.
What to expect: The Bucs haven’t spent a lot of money in free agency in recent years and they’ve been sending out signals this year won’t be much different. They’re focused on the 10 draft picks they hold. But the Bucs could pull a small surprise or two. They’ve got a restless fan base and more needs than those draft picks can handle. A couple of signings in free agency could energize the fan base and help the rebuilding process. The Bucs really need a No. 1 wide receiver and they’re not truly positioned to get that in the draft.
An early look at the free-agent situation in the NFC South.
Note: These projected lists reflect notable unrestricted free agents for each team. The NFL will not issue an official list of free agents until the signing period begins March 5.
Key figures: Look for the Falcons to try to re-sign Williams before he can hit the market. He was playing well before he was injured. Keeping Williams would allow the Falcons to focus on getting a big-time pass-rusher in the draft or free agency. Redman is an experienced backup for Matt Ryan and the Falcons would like to keep him. The list of potential restricted free agents has some big names with Harvey Dahl, Tyson Clabo, Michael Koenen, Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling among the players the Falcons don’t want to lose.
Unrestricted free agents: Defensive end Julius Peppers and wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad.
Key figures: The Panthers face a monumental decision with Peppers. They have yet to place the franchise tag on him and that would cost more than $20 million. Peppers again is saying he wants out of Carolina and the Panthers just may give him his wish and let him walk. Although he was productive, Peppers was inconsistent and never became the leader the team wanted. Muhammad is the only No. 2 receiver the franchise ever had who has been able to coexist peacefully and productively with Steve Smith. Muhammad could return in a backup role, but the team needs to find a younger starter to pair with Smith. Linebacker Thomas Davis will be restricted and the team must keep him because he’s become a core player.
New Orleans Saints
Unrestricted free agents: Safety Darren Sharper and linebacker Scott Fujita
Key figures: The Super Bowl champions face a difficult call on Sharper. The veteran came in and had a fabulous season on a one-year contract. Using the franchise tag on Sharper might not be a bad move because it would guarantee him sticking around for another year. Given Sharper’s age, a long-term contract might not be a wise investment. Fujita also played at a high level last season, but he’s getting older and the Saints have some promising young linebackers. But there is something to be said for continuity when you win a Super Bowl, and the Saints will make some effort to keep their veteran leaders. They also have a slew of restricted free agents, highlighted by guard Jahri Evans, to protect.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Unrestricted free agents: Wide receiver Antonio Bryant and linebacker Angelo Crowell
Key figures: Bryant played for the franchise tag ($10 million) last season and the Bucs hoped he could show consistency and earn a long-term contract. That didn’t happen and Bryant didn’t endear himself to the organization by making some negative comments about the coaching staff and quarterback Josh Freeman. The Bucs may make some sort of offer to Bryant, but it won’t be a big one. Although they desperately need help at receiver, they won’t be crushed if Crowell walks. It’s kind of the same story for Crowell. He never really caught on before getting hurt last year and he doesn’t seem to be a big part of any future plans. The Bucs have a bunch of restricted free agents, such as running back Cadillac Williams, linebacker Barrett Ruud and left tackle Donald Penn. In other years, they would already have been locked up with long-term deals, but the restricted tags have taken away that sense of urgency.
Just build on that, hope the Saints could get knocked off once or twice and there were lots of indications that, when the teams met again in Atlanta in December, the Falcons could win and take the division race right down to the wire.
Well, it’s December now and the Saints come to the Georgia Dome on Sunday and both teams will be carrying flags. The undefeated Saints already have earned an NFC South banner. The Falcons have thrown up a white flag.
“We’re not in the NFC South anymore,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith said in a conference call with the New Orleans media. “We’re in the Wild-Card Division.’’
Yes, the Falcons have pulled out of a union that traditionally had all four teams on the map until late in the season. But this season’s dramatically different.
Tampa Bay really never was in the picture. Carolina was pretty much out after an 0-3 start and any hope the Panthers had after winning their next two games disappeared forever with that pathetic home loss to Buffalo.
So what’s happened to a division that fans were calling the “NFC Stout’’ at the start of the season?
Well, let’s first give the Saints a ton of credit for putting so much distance between themselves and everyone else. But let’s also remember the Saints finished last in the division last season. They got dramatically better.
But let’s not forget the Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers did a pretty fine job of pulling themselves out of a division that now should be called the NFC New Orleans and Nothing Else.
Let’s take a look, team-by-team, at how it came to this:
FALCONS: The Falcons still were in it after that loss in New Orleans. They were 4-3 and they went to 5-3 a week later with a blowout win against Washington. Then, the Falcons self destructed. Ryan struggled and Turner got hurt. Then, Ryan got hurt, Turner got hurt and almost the entire offensive line got hurt. And the defense, which already was shaky at best, got really shaky.
“We haven’t made plays when they’ve been presented to us and you have to make those big plays and those game-changing plays in this league if you’re going to get the outcome you want,’’ Smith said.
The outcome the Falcons wanted for this year was to get back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, make the playoffs again and maybe even win the NFC South championship.
None of that’s going to happen. The Falcons are 6-6 and mathematically still in the playoff hunt. But let’s be realistic. With that defense and with Ryan and Turner looking like they each will miss one more game, there’s no reason why the Saints should lose this one to the Falcons. If Ryan and Turner stay out longer than this game, there’s no reason to believe the Falcons win anything until they’re back and, even then, the defense is capable of keeping any opponent in the game.
I still like Atlanta’s nucleus, but I like it for next year when it’s healthy again and there’s been time to fix that defense. For right now, though, seeing backup quarterback Chris Redman starting is like watching the Falcons wave a surrender flag.
PANTHERS: Call it overconfidence, complacency or a comedy of errors. Whatever you want to call it the Panthers have gone from 12-4 to one of the league’s most disappointing teams, and that’s probably going to cost coach John Fox his job.
He has no one to blame but himself and possibly general manager Marty Hurney, although I think Hurney still could have a job when Fox is gone. Yeah, Hurney’s the one who does the deals, but Fox is the one who told him what deals he wanted done. And the decision to bring back Jake Delhomme, as well as sign him to a contract extension, ranks as one of the biggest gaffes of the past offseason. A lot of coaches would have handed Delhomme his release after his five-interception game against Arizona in last season’s playoffs and a couple of horrible games late last season.
At the very least, it might have been wise to bring in an alternative to Delhomme. As much as the Panthers were proud of the fact that they were returning 21 of 22 starters, the downside to that was they paid a fortune to offensive tackle Jordan Gross and moody defensive end Julius Peppers. That left them with no salary-cap room to sign any depth and it has cost them dearly when injuries happened, and when some of those 21 starters turned out to be less than the coaching staff thought.
Fox brought stability to this franchise, but he might have brought too much for too long. His message no longer carries the same weight in some corners of the locker room, and there’s a feeling among some players that rules aren’t the same for everybody and some guys get, or have demanded and received, star treatment. It might be the quarterback, it might be the coach or it might be both of them plus a whole bunch of others, but someone’s going to have to take the fall for this mess.
BUCCANEERS: Let’s be real honest here. The Bucs took themselves out of this year’s NFC South race in February. That’s when they cut ties with Derrick Brooks, Jeff Garcia, Warrick Dunn, Ike Hilliard, Joey Galloway, Kevin Carter and several other older players who had just enough left to keep them close to making the playoffs last year. There was some logic in all that because the Bucs weren’t going to get any better if they kept the same crew around.
Instead, they got worse. Much of that was to be expected. But if this rebuilding plan had been carried out better, the Bucs would have been respectable early on and should be showing substantial progress by now. They’re not. Rookie quarterback Josh Freeman has brought some hope since taking over at midseason, but free-agent pickups Derrick Ward and Angelo Crowell haven’t brought anything to the table.
Coach Raheem Morris fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski before the season started and took the reins away from defensive coordinator Jim Bates after 10 games. Morris may get another year because ownership knew from the start this was going to be a project. But Morris and general manager Mark Dominik have a lot of work to do in the coming months.
So do Smith and Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Same for Fox and Hurney, if they’re still there, or for a new regime.
Long story short and we’ll borrow from Smith’s first quote: The Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers have a lot of ground to make up just to get back into the NFC South.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
I'm spending much of Monday working on stuff for our upcoming season preview package, but wanted to take a quick break to bring you up to date on some of the headlines of the day around the NFC South.
The Bucs have a contract agreement with a linebacker whose last name is Ruud. But it's not starting middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who is long overdue for a contract extension. It's his younger brother, Bo, who was added to the roster as the Bucs placed Angelo Crowell on the injured-reserve list.
This is when coach John Fox's habit of saying all injured players are "day-to-day'' gets really annoying. The Panthers have two injuries that are potentially big with safety Charles Godfrey having surgery on a broken hand and middle linebacker Jon Beason having something wrong with his knee. But Fox isn't providing any details on either injury. All indications are Beason may miss the rest of the preseason, but the Panthers are hoping he'll be ready for the regular season. Same for Godfrey.
Atlanta cornerback Chris Houston returned to practice Monday. Houston had been out since suffering an injury in the preseason opener.
Sounds like a slow news day in New Orleans, where coach Sean Payton has done some tinkering with the practice schedule.
This just in: The Saints still haven't signed linebacker Derrick Brooks. In other Brooks news, there remains absolutely zero chance of him coming back to the Bucs.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
What does that mean for the Bucs' linebacker corps? Not much, really. Crowell was signed as a free agent and the early expectation was that he would be the starter on the strong side. But even before Saturday night's injury in Jacksonville, that wasn't anywhere close to happening.
Crowell had been bothered by an assortment of injuries ever since joining the Bucs and never made much progress toward claiming a starting job. The Bucs had pretty much decided on Quincy Black as their starter on the strong side even before Crowell's latest injury.
They're also very high on Adam Hayward and project him as the top backup to Black. Geno Hayes also has had a nice preseason and is the top backup to Jermaine Phillips at the moment. Given the fact that safety Tanard Jackson will be suspended for the first four games of the season, the Bucs have said Phillips could get some playing time at safety, the position he previously played before moving to linebacker this offseason. That could give Hayes a shot at significant playing time on the weak side.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- I'm heading out to One Buccaneer Place in just a bit to catch what is scheduled to be the last official practice of training camp for the Bucs.
Obviously, I'll be keeping a close eye on the safety situation now that Tanard Jackson has been suspended for the first four games of the regular season. Veteran Will Allen is one option to slide into Jackson's spot.
But I also think there's a decent chance the Bucs consider moving Jermaine Phillips back to safety. He's spent the whole offseason working on a move to weakside linebacker. But Phillips was a pretty solid safety before the move.
The Bucs don't have much other depth at safety, but they do have some at linebacker with Quincy Black, Adam Hayward and Angelo Crowell. From what I've seen and heard, the Bucs are happy with how Phillips has handled the move to linebacker.
But, with Jackson out for the first four games, Phillips still might be the best safety on the roster and pairing him with Sabby Piscitelli at safety and starting one of those other guys at weakside linebacker might be the best combination the Bucs can come up with.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
They've got veteran Will Allen as their top backup option right now. But Allen's not any sort of long-term solution and he might not even be their best alternative to get through the first four games. The Bucs had moved former safety Jermaine Phillips to weak-side linebacker at the start of the offseason.
Moving Phillips back to safety and pairing him with Sabby Piscitelli could be a more attractive option for the Bucs. They have more depth at linebacker with Quincy Black, Adam Hayward and Angelo Crowell each capable of taking on a starting role.
|J. Meric/Getty Images|
|One of the largest questions Tampa Bay needs to answer is who will be their starting QB from among Luke McCown (12), Byron Leftwich (7) and Josh Freeman (5).|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- Take a look at any preseason magazine or watch any television show. The verdict is unanimous.
Everybody's got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked to finish fourth in the NFC South. If you want to know where they're projected in the whole league, look somewhere between No. 25 and No. 32.
When you've got a new coach, a new general manager, uncertainty at quarterback and part ways with some of the biggest names in franchise history, you're going to be anointed as one of the NFL's worst teams.
"That's not a bad thing," middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said with a laugh. "That's the mindset we have going into this year. There may be no expectations for us from the outside. But, as a group, we think we can be pretty good.''
To understand what Tampa Bay has, you have to understand what the Bucs don't have. They don't have coach Jon Gruden, linebacker Derrick Brooks, receiver Joey Galloway, running back Warrick Dunn and quarterback Jeff Garcia back from the only NFC South team that's had a winning record each of the last two years.
That's been enough to drop expectations from prognosticators and fans to the lowest level since Sam Wyche and company were piling up double-digit losses in the mid 1990s. But maybe -- just maybe -- it doesn't have to be this way.
Maybe the Bucs aren't as bad as everyone thinks. They do have some positives.
|Cliff Welch/Icon SMI|
|Barrett Ruud (right) is one of the Bucs' building blocks on defense.|
"We've got a nice core group of players,'' Ruud said. "We've got a really good offensive line. We've got four or five really good running backs. We've got two quarterbacks that are really hungry and they're battling to be the starter. And we've got a defense that kind of had our pride taken away at the end of last year and we're trying to get back to where a Tampa Bay defense is supposed to be.''
Ruud has some valid points. Forget the quarterback situation for a second. The rest of the offense looks pretty good. The offensive line is solid, Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham are quality running backs and receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton and tight end Kellen Winslow might be able to make whoever is the quarterback look good.
But, more than anything, the Bucs have new coach Raheem Morris. Yes, he's the youngest coach in the league and that's one reason for the low expectations outside the organization. But Morris is the reason the expectations are high within the organization.
"We were 9-3 last year and had a rocky ending because the atmosphere wasn't right,'' Clayton said." But the team we've put together this year is a whole lot better than last year. You know the energy is going to be in the right place because of the atmosphere. Raheem maximizes you. Raheem does a good job of maximizing everybody's effort and we didn't have that last year.''
Who will be the quarterback? Even the Bucs don't know the short-term answer to this one yet. They'll pick a starter after Saturday night's preseason game in Jacksonville. It will be either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich; they have been basically even through camp and one preseason game.
The Bucs will go with the quarterback they think can be more efficient because they believe the rest of their offense is solid. But it's no secret that the quarterback who opens the season is merely a stopgap. It's blatantly clear that Josh Freeman is the quarterback of the future.
Since drafting Freeman, Morris has gushed about the quarterback he coached
at Kansas State. The selection went against the wishes of many fans, who believed the Bucs should have focused on a defensive player. But that's history now because Morris and general manager Mark Dominik are committed to building this team around Freeman.
They want to bring Freeman along slowly and that's why they'll open the season with one of the veterans. But Freeman isn't going to sit forever. If McCown and/or Leftwich struggle, the same fans who booed Freeman's selection will be calling for him to start.
What's the defense going to look like without Brooks? It's going to be completely different and that's not just because the best player in franchise history is gone. Coordinator Monte Kiffin, the man who made the "Tampa Two'' scheme famous also is gone. The Bucs have a new coordinator in Jim Bates and a whole new defense.
There will be more bump coverage, but the emphasis still will be on speed. This isn't a very big defense. Former safety Jermaine Phillips has moved into Brooks' old spot on the weak side. Ruud's the only proven star in his prime and the veteran Barber will try to ease the transition.
What will the offense look like without Gruden? Again, things will be totally different. Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski brings in an offense that's focused on ball control and the Bucs have the parts in place to be a run-first team. Led by center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph, the offensive line might be the team's biggest strength.
One of the first moves Morris and Dominik made was to bring in Ward. He's going to be used in tandem with Earnest Graham. Jagodzinski's first goal is to establish the running game, but he's also got big plans for the passing game.
Gruden relied mostly on a horizontal passing game, but those days are gone. Although the Bucs may not have a true speed receiver, they'll use play action to try to create opportunities for Bryant, Winslow and Clayton down the field.
|Cliff Welch/Icon SMI|
|The Bucs took a risk in trading for Kellen Winslow and signing him to a new, long-term contract.|
Without much depth at wide receiver, camp was a golden opportunity for Dexter Jackson to redeem himself after a horrible rookie season. Jackson's been given a lot of chances, but hasn't been able to take advantage of him. A second-round pick from a year ago, there's a very real chance Jackson won't even make the roster. ...The move of Phillips to weakside linebacker is working out nicely and it comes with another component. Part of the reason the Bucs decided to move Phillips was because they wanted to get Sabby Piscitelli into the starting lineup at strong safety. He's embraced that chance and showed he can make big plays in the preseason opener.
The Bucs have known for months that they might have to go without starting guard Arron Sears, who hasn't reported to camp because of a "private matter." Sears was a very solid player the past two years, but there shouldn't be much drop off. The Bucs already were high on Jeremy Zuttah, who showed some promise as a rookie last year. He's had the entire offseason to work with the first unit. The Bucs would welcome Sears back, but they're not counting on that happening any time soon.
The Bucs knew what they were getting into when they traded for Winslow and turned around and gave him a huge contract. The tight end comes with enormous talent and baggage. Winslow had injury problems and often was the center of controversy in Cleveland. Morris is trying to light a fire under Winslow and already has criticized him. But that's all part of a plan to try to get the most out of Winslow's talents.
The Bucs also took a gamble by drafting wide receiver Sammie Stroughter in the seventh round. Stroughter has had some personal problems in the past. But all indications are he's put those behind him. Stroughter has been one of the stars in camp. At the moment, he's probably the leading candidate to be the No. 3 receiver. He's shown the ability to go across the middle and he also has return skills.
The Bucs had pictured Angelo Crowell as their starting strongside linebacker when they signed him as a free agent. But injuries have held Crowell back and Quincy Black appears to have locked up the starting job. Backup Adam Hayward also has had a strong preseason and can do a lot on special teams. Crowell no longer is a lock to make the roster. ... Defensive tackle was a big concern in the offseason because Chris Hovan is aging and Ryan Sims never has been dominant against the run. The Bucs will use those two as the starters, but they feel a lot better about this position as they prepare to break training camp. Third-round pick Roy Miller has had a strong preseason. So has Dre Moore, who did little as a rookie last year. Moore has kept himself in shape after struggling with weight issues last year. The Bucs plan to use a four-man rotation and play Miller and Moore a lot. Miller could emerge as a starter before long. ... Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson has been a backup throughout his career. But the new coaching staff penciled him in as a
starter from the very beginning and he hasn't disappointed. The coaches believe Wilkerson can play the run and rush the passer. They'll also rotate Stylez White into the lineup, but Wilkerson will get the majority of the snaps.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Time for a quick look at some of the day's top stories in the NFC South:
- The Saints have said since the draft that Malcolm Jenkins would be used at cornerback. He got some work at safety Sunday. Jenkins also got some work at corner in the nickel package. Sounds like the Saints are just exploring all the possibilities they have with the versatile rookie.
- Quarterback Drew Brees has left the Saints to attend memorial services for his mother. Brees is expected to re-join the team Wednesday when the Saints have a joint practice with the Texans in Houston.
- Atlanta rookie cornerback Chris Owens is showing signs he has one of the traits of some of the greats at his position. He's already talking about himself in the third person.
- A thief reportedly stole an autographed Steve Smith jersey from a South Carolina restaurant.
- Although Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman threw an interception in his first preseason game, coach Raheem Morris raved about the rookie's savvy for calling his own play when he couldn't hear the call on the radio in his helmet.
- Morris said center Jeff Faine, receiver Michael Clayton and linebacker Angelo Crowell, who've been sidelined with injuries, are expected to return to practice this week.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Depth charts in the preseason (particularly before a team even plays its first preseason game) are far from being set in stone. Most coaches like to give veterans the benefit of the doubt in positions that are being contested.
McCown's still in a heated battle with Byron Leftwich and I seriously doubt the Bucs paid running back Derrick Ward big money in free agency to sit him behind Graham. As far as Black starting at linebacker, it's possible because Angelo Crowell, who also got a big contract in free agency, doesn't seem to be able to stay healthy.
Time for the linebackers in our series of NFC South position rankings. I've lumped the outside linebackers in with the middle linebackers.
Four of the top five are middle linebackers with Carolina's Thomas Davis as the lone outside linebacker in the top five.
- Jon Beason, Carolina. The best defensive player in the division.
- Jonathan Vilma, New Orleans. Had a solid season last year, but should be much better with an improved defense around him.
- Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay. The only proven building block as the Bucs overhaul their once-great defense.
- Thomas Davis, Carolina. Has emerged as a playmaker after a rocky start to his career.
- Curtis Lofton, Atlanta. Stood out in the middle as a rookie and will be counted on as an every-down player this year.
- Stephen Nicholas, Atlanta. I see this guy as one of the division's breakout players this season.
- Scott Fujita, New Orleans. Nothing fancy about him, but he does what the Saints ask.
- Mike Peterson, Atlanta. Getting up there in age, but has something to prove after last year's clash with Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville.
- Angelo Crowell, Tampa Bay. Bucs went after this guy hard in free agency, so he must be in the plans.
- Na'il Diggs, Carolina. Doesn't stand out in any area, except he rarely makes mistakes and that's why the Panthers keep bringing him back.
|How will NFC South defensive backs fare against the bevy of tight ends including Tony Gozalez, Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Shockey?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
With the NFC South suddenly becoming a hub for tight ends, a very big question rises.
Who's going to cover all these guys?
Presumably, the outside linebackers and safeties. Does the NFC South have enough talent at those positions to keep up with Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Shockey? We'll find out in the fall, but I'm thinking linebackers and safeties could have a lot more value in the NFC South in this weekend's draft.
Think about it a bit.
Let's say you're the Saints and you're sitting there at No. 14. There's been lots of talk about taking running back Chris "Beanie'' Wells, defensive back Malcolm Jenkins or maybe even a defensive tackle. But, after Thursday's trade of Gonzalez to Atlanta, you're suddenly faced with the prospect of facing him and Winslow in four games.
You've got experience at outside linebacker in Dan Morgan, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle, but do any of those guys have the legs to run with Gonzalez or Winslow? If you're the Saints, you suddenly might want to slide Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, the two USC linebackers who could be available when you pick, up a few spots on your draft board.
Same story for the Bucs, who are sitting at No. 19. They've already overhauled their linebacker corps by signing Angelo Crowell and moving safety Jermaine Phillips to weak-side linebacker. But the thought of facing Shockey and Gonzalez on a regular basis might make it difficult to pass on Matthews or Cushing. For that matter, the Bucs would have to think hard about Jenkins, if he's available.
Part of the reason for moving Phillips to linebacker was a desire to get Sabby Piscitelli into the starting lineup at strong safety. But is Piscitelli ready to line up against Shockey and Gonzalez?
The Falcons, who hold the No. 24 pick, have needs at defensive tackle, defensive end and cornerback. But they might have to put more emphasis on their needs at safety because of changing landscape of tight ends in the NFC South. Matthews, Cushing and Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas might have jumped up Atlanta's board in recent days.
Carolina doesn't pick until the second round (No. 59 overall) and the Panthers are in good shape at outside linebacker. They've got some big needs on the defensive line, but they might not be able to sit still at safety in the second or third round. Strong safety Chris Harris isn't known for his coverage skills and second-year pro Charles Godfrey still is trying to grow into the free safety job.
How NFC South defenses try to counter the upgrades at tight end is one story line to follow throughout the draft. Here are four more NFC South story lines to follow.
What happens with Julius Peppers? This situation has been simmering in Carolina for months and it could be ready to boil over. Peppers has said he wants out of Carolina and the Panthers have said they want him back.
But Peppers has strapped Carolina's cap situation with his $17 million franchise tag. If some other team steps forward with a deal that includes a first-round pick, the Panthers almost have to take it. The alternative is to hang on to Peppers at his current price and the Panthers are ready to do that.
In that situation, the common assumption is that Peppers has no choice but to put in another season with the Panthers. But don't assume anything with Peppers. This thing has never been about money and Peppers is a very unique individual. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he would hold out and pass on the $17 million.
Will Sean Payton be able to keep his hands off the offense? That's not going to be easy for the New Orleans coach. Payton's background and passion is on the offensive side, but his future is on the defensive side. As tempting as it may be to draft Wells to give the Saints a power back, Payton may have to go outside his comfort zone.
The defense is the reason the Saints haven't made the playoffs the last two seasons. They've spent the offseason overhauling the defense. Now, it's time to finish the job. Payton has switched defensive coordinators and that pulls away a layer of insulation on his own job security. If defense keeps this team out of the playoffs again, it might be Payton's turn to take the fall.
Are the Bucs really content with their quarterback situation? Kansas State's Josh Freeman is at least a consideration in the first round. But Tampa Bay has so many other needs that it might not make a lot of sense to take a quarterback who might not be ready to play right away.
The Bucs signed Byron Leftwich and he certainly is a candidate to start. But think back to one of the first moves coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik made when they took over. They re-signed Luke McCown and paid him pretty good money. There was a reason for that. Morris and Dominik want McCown to be their starter.
Can Atlanta rebuild its defense in one draft? That's pretty much what the Falcons have to do after parting ways with Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy, Grady Jackson, Domonique Foxworth and Michael Boley. The Gonzalez move means that the Falcons will focus almost their entire draft on defense, except for possibly adding a little depth on the offensive line.
Atlanta's only addition on defense was adding linebacker Mike Peterson. There's some good, young talent in place with defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Chris Houston.
But the Falcons need some more young talent on this defense. They need to walk out of this draft with at least two defensive starters.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Time to start catching up on some of your mailbag questions. There are a lot of them and I'll probably do this again Sunday or Monday, but wanted to at least start into the stack of letters now. Here we go:
ChrisC in Charleston, S.C., writes: I'm in the Air Force, so most of my friends are all huge fans of different teams, making every sunday a lot of fun. We pretend during the offseason to be our favorite teams' owners and throw out possible trade scenarios. Mine was thrown out to a Cincy fan: JP for 85 and a draft pick. I know Smitty doesn't want to compete for the number 1 spot, but Chad has somewhat fallen to a number 2 guy, and they did play high school ball together if I remember correctly. Any feasibility here? And if so, ya mind whispering the thought into Hurney's ear?
Pat Yasinskas: Steve Smith and Chad Ocho Cinco (formerly Johnson) did play together in junior college. Even though that would probably help them co-exist, I don't see this move happening. Marty Hurney and John Fox are no-frills guys and Ocho Cinco comes with a lot of frills.
Ricky in parts unknown writes: Hey Pat, What are the chances Bucs go LB with the 19th pick? After losing Brooks and June...it makes sense right?
Pat Yasinskas: I think linebacker is at least a possibility, but I think there are greater needs at defensive tackle, defensive end and maybe cornerback. The Bucs did sign linebacker Angelo Crowell and are moving safety Jermaine Phillips to linebacker. They've also got some promising young linebackers on their roster. Still, I wouldn't totally rule out the possibility of a linebacker if Brian Cushing or Clay Matthews is sitting there at No. 19.
Rob in Houston writes: I understand this is not necessarily realistic with Fox dedicated to the 4-3, but there are a plethora of good LB on the roster. If Carolina made a switch to a 3-4 scheme, do you think Peppers would be happy to stay so he could reach his "full potential"? Or even in that scenario, do you think Peppers wants to leave because he can't reach his "full potential" with the coaching staff in place?
Pat Yasinskas: I don't think it would make much difference to Julius Peppers if the Panthers changed schemes and I don't see that happening because Fox is a 4-3 coach. The change would be dramatic and the roster was built to play the 4-3. Peppers hasn't been real clear about his reasons for wanting out, but it's pretty obvious if you read between the lines that it's about a lot more than the defensive scheme. For whatever reason, it doesn't seem like he's happy with Fox and wants a change of scenery.
ANTHONY writes: hey, man im a die hard panthers fan but i bet my bottom dollar that if you could even get the fact or idea out of A PEPPERS BOULDIN TRADE OR EVEN GET THE PANTHERS TO SHOW INTREST IN BOLDIN TO HELP TAKE PRESSURE OFF SMITH YOU WOULD GET A GREAT BUZZ? PLEASE COMMENT BACK HOW AND COULD THAT EVEN BE POSSIBLE! ( HMMMMM, ALSO DIDNT THEY PLAY EACH OTHER IN THE PLAYOFFS LAST YEAR LIKE I SAID GREAT BUZZ! JUST A FAN WITH A QUESTION AND IDEA!
Pat Yasinskas: You're not the only one throwing out that idea and there's buzz about it among Carolina fans. But I don't see it happening. The Panthers have very good No. 1 receiver in Smith and they've also got a lot of money tied up in him. If the Panthers are going to trade Peppers at all, I think it will be for draft picks because they've got bigger needs at defensive tackle, defensive end and cornerback.
Richard in Baton Rouge writes: Your colleague Mosley predicts the Saints to go 0-4 against the mighty NFC East. If you and he are both at the Dallas/New Orleans saturday night game, then would you pass along to us the expression on his face when the Saints roll the 'boys? Again.
Pat Yasinskas: I'll be happy to share Matt's reaction with you if the Saints beat the Cowboys. Matt and I had the debate about whether the NFC East or South was the best division last year and I think the final results spoke pretty highly for the South. Also, I usually try to avoid gloating over predictions that come true because predictions don't mean much and they're wrong as often as they're right. But, to all those Cowboys fans who filled up my mailbag with some pretty sick letters when I picked Dallas to finish third in the NFC East and out of the playoffs at the start of last season, you've been silent for months now. I miss you.
Brian in Emerald Isle writes: Just wanted to know about the health of Jerry Richardson?
Pat Yasinskas: Glad you asked because I do have a little update that I haven't gotten around to sharing yet. I was in Charlotte earlier this week and had lunch with a couple of Panthers officials. I asked how owner Jerry Richardson is doing and the update is positive. He continues to make steady progress in his recovery from a heart transplant and is in good spirits. He still has some ground to cover and hasn't set an exact target date for when he plans to resume his regular duties, but that's what he's shooting for.
Brett in Tallahassee writes: Hey Pat! With the 2009 Tampa Bay team beginning to sort coalesce, do you think Anquan Boldin would be a good fit for a deep-threat WR? Thanks, love the column. All the best, Brett
Pat Yasinskas: There's no doubt Anquan Boldin will help any team he plays for and I like the idea of him with the Bucs. However, I think it would be very difficult for the Bucs to pull off a deal like that. After trading their second-round pick for Kellen Winslow, they don't have a lot of ammunition for a trade and I'd hate to see them give up their first-round pick because they have some big needs on defense that really haven't been addressed yet.