NFC South: Antonio Brown

Mitchell/CotcheryUSA TODAY SportsThe swap of safety Mike Mitchell to the Steelers and receiver Jerricho Cotchery to the Panthers bring a veteran presence to each locker room.

It wasn’t a trade but two of the biggest free-agent signings by the Steelers and Panthers amounted to two players switching teams. The Steelers signed former Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell on March 11, luring him away from Carolina with a five-year, $25 million contract. The Panthers finally added a wide receiver when they signed Jerricho Cotchery last Thursday to a two-year contract. ESPN.com Steelers writer Scott Brown and ESPN.com Panthers writer David Newton take a closer look at this de facto swap.

Scott Brown: David, you reported that Cotchery’s contract is worth as much as $5 million. I’m happy for Cotchery, a good player and an even better person, but I am a little surprised that the Panthers gave that much money to a complementary wide receiver who turns 32 in June. Is it a sign that the Panthers were desperate at wide receiver or do they really like Cotchery because he is still productive and gives them a veteran presence?

David Newton: Maybe a little bit of both. After losing out on Hakeem Nicks and with other free agent receivers signing elsewhere, the market was pretty bare. Cotchery was one of the few veterans left, and the Panthers couldn't go into training camp without somebody to help bring along what likely will be the youngest receiving corps in the NFL -- the 31-year-old Cotchery aside. His value comes from his experience and the leadership. That he's played in a system similar to what offensive coordinator Mike Shula ran for five of his 11 seasons is a plus. That he can play all three receiver spots even though he has been labeled as a slot receiver also worked in his favor. Is he as good as Steve Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver, who was released? I don't think so, even though Smith soon will be 35. But everything else Cotchery brings seems to be a plus.

Having said that, Mitchell brought an aggressive attitude to Carolina's defense last season. Was that something the Steelers were looking for when they signed him?

Brown: They really needed to get younger and faster in the secondary and the Steelers accomplished both by signing Mitchell. Adding another thumper to the back end of their defense is a bonus and it looks like Mitchell has the range to cover a lot of ground. He will need to do that playing with Troy Polamalu. The eight-time Pro Bowler moves around the field, sometimes leaving the Steelers with a single safety as the last line of defense.

I really like this signing for the Steelers as Mitchell is only 27 and seems to be on the upswing of his career. He talked about his work ethic during his introductory news conference in Pittsburgh and seems to have the desire to be great. If he gives the Steelers a badly needed playmaker for their defense they will be very happy with this signing.

Since you covered Mitchell during the season in which he really blossomed what can you tell Steelers fans about one of the newest additions to the team?

Newton: He's one of the best quotes on the locker room, mainly because he's brutally honest. It's refreshing. He's also one of the more fined players in the league, which he doesn't hesitate to remind commissioner Roger Goodell of. Beyond all that, he's a solid player in coverage and with the occasional pass rush. His numbers this past season were good enough to make the Pro Bowl. Just not a lot of people knew much about him. But the thing I liked the most, and the reason the Panthers wanted him back, was he brought an aggressive attitude to the secondary -- heck, the defense.

Having said that, was aggressiveness something the Steelers were looking for or needed when they signed him?

Brown: They need the mindset because it lends itself to making game-changing plays and the Steelers could more of that from their defensive backs. They intercepted just 10 passes last season, ranking near the bottom of the league, and they were minus-four in turnover differential. If Mitchell builds on a season in which he intercepted four passes -- four fewer than the Steelers’ defensive backs combined -- he will make for a good pairing with Polamalu.

The Mitchell signing got the Steelers off to a good start in free agency but they have since lost two of their top three wide receivers. I think losing Cotchery was bigger than Emmanuel Sanders -- even though the latter was a starter -- because it seemed so likely that he would re-sign with the Steelers. But the Panthers made Cotchery and offer he couldn’t refuse, leaving the Steelers with little experience at wide receiver behind Pro Bowler Antonio Brown before they signed Lance Moore.

David, what was the reaction from Panthers’ fans to the Cotchery signing? Relief more than anything that they finally brought in an established wide receiver?

Newton: More astonishment that they let 34-year-old Steve Smith go and signed a 31-year-old that hasn't accomplished nearly what Smith has. I think a few were won over when Cotchery said out of respect he would not wear Smith's No. 89, the number he wore at Pittsburgh. He seems like a classy guy and people will appreciate that. There's still concern that he's not a No. 1 or maybe not even a No. 2 receiver. Many are calling for Carolina to trade for Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, even though the price tag for Jackson would be prohibitive for a team in need of a true No. 1.

How do you see Cotchery fitting in on a team that is looking to take the next step in the playoffs after a 12-4 season? Does he have enough in the tank to be a No. 2 at least?

Brown: Cotchery is class personified, and he is a consummate professional -- in his preparation, dealings with the media and mentoring younger players. Steelers rookie Markus Wheaton became Cotchery’s shadow last year because he wanted to learn from such a respected veteran. Does that translate into Cotchery giving the Panthers the kind of production he enjoyed last season when he rejuvenated his career? I’m not sure that is the case if the Panthers are counting on him starting.

I think Cotchery would best serve Carolina as a No. 3 wide receiver, one who uses his smarts and experience to get open more than his speed. I can tell you this: Ben Roethlisberger trusted Cotchery more than any wide receiver on the roster last season and I think Cam Newton will also find that Cotchery is always where he is supposed to be and just as reliable with his hands. What Carolina has to though is keep adding reinforcements at wide receiver so they don’t have to rely too heavily on Cotchery.

Observations on the Atlanta Falcons

August, 27, 2011
8/27/11
10:48
PM ET

There’s a perception that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan doesn’t have a very strong arm.

If you saw Saturday night’s 34-16 preseason loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers, you now know that’s a total myth. In the second quarter, Ryan threw one of the prettiest deep passes you’ll ever see. With the ball at his own 48-yard line, Ryan took a deep drop and heaved a perfect pass a few yards into the end zone.

Julio Jones, who was brought into bring explosive plays and allow Ryan to showcase his arm, slightly beat his man and dove for a pass that couldn’t have been put in a better location.

One slight problem -- Jones dropped the pass. But, hey, it’s a preseason game and the fact he dropped it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is Ryan -- who completed 22 of 42 passes for 220 yards with one touchdown and one interception while playing only the first half -- showed himself, his teammates, his coaches and his critics that he’s got a big enough arm to do some deep damage.

The Falcons have made it pretty clear they’re going to throw down field more often this season. Now, they should have the confidence to do it frequently and maybe Jones will hold onto the ball.

Some other observations on the Falcons:
  • The Atlanta defense made Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown look like an All-Pro. He caught two touchdown passes, including a long one where safety Thomas DeCoud completely mistimed a leap to try to intercept the ball.
  • It might be cliché to say a guy is in midseason form. But it’s accurate when you talk about Atlanta receiver Roddy White. How many receivers have 100-yard games in the preseason, unless one of the catches is for 60 or 70 yards? While playing only the first half, White had eight catches for 101 yards and his longest play went for 22 yards.
  • I can’t help but wonder what Atlanta’s defensive line is going to look like after rosters get cut down to 53 players. Defensive ends Ray Edwards, John Abraham and Kroy Biermann are probably locks to make the team. So are defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry. Vance Walker, who had a sack Saturday night, is probably battling Trey Lewis for the final spot. Or the Falcons could carry five defensive tackles. But things get interesting at defensive end after the first three. The Falcons like young ends Lawrence Sidbury and Cliff Matthews. They also have veteran Chauncey Davis. But the interesting thing is Davis has a $3.75 million salary-cap figure. That’s way too high a number for a fourth defensive end. I’m guessing the Falcons go with Sidbury or Matthews because they can free up $3 million in cap space for this year by releasing Davis.

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