NFC South: Brian Westbrook

Prior to the arrival of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter last year, we used to spend a lot of time busting on the Atlanta Falcons for almost never using screen passes.

There might have been a reason why predecessor Mike Mularkey was so hesitant to throw to his running backs. Michael Turner simply wasn’t a receiving threat. In five seasons with the Falcons, Turner caught 59 passes.

Koetter got the running backs more involved in the passing game last season, mainly by throwing to Jacquizz Rodgers a fair amount. But I suspect we could see that trend escalate tremendously in 2013.

A lot of people are viewing the arrival of Steven Jackson as Turner’s replacement as evidence that Atlanta’s running game will improve. I have no doubt that will happen.

But I think a lot of people are only looking at half of what Jackson brings to the table. Jackson is one of the best pass-catching running backs in recent history.

In fact, I just dialed up the database at ESPN Stats & Information and came up with something interesting. Since his arrival in the league in 2004, Jackson’s 407 receptions are the most by any running back in that period.

For the sake of comparison, the only other running backs with more than 300 catches during that same span are Brian Westbrook (396), LaDainian Tomlinson (386), Reggie Bush (372), Frank Gore (315), Ray Rice (311) and Darren Sproles (307).

I’m pretty sure we can expect to see some new wrinkles from Koetter because Jackson can do more than catch screen passes. He can run a lot of different routes. Rodgers can do the same.

That’s going to create all sorts of headaches for defenses that already have their hands full with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.

Even coach Mike Smith, who usually goes out of his way to not give away anything close to strategy is raving about Jackson's ability as a receiver.

“He’s a big strong running back that catches the ball extremely well,'' Smith told the media Wednesday. "He creates issues for defenses. He’s just another weapon that we have in our offensive arsenal. He’s a guy who had close to 100 catches in a season, so he’s a guy that we can use in the passing game. He’s not just a running back, he’s a receiving back as well.”
We already have talked quite a bit about players from the NFC South who are expected to become unrestricted free agents. We’re going on the assumption that players not under contract who have at least four accrued seasons can become unrestricted free agents.

With that in mind, and with some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look at some of the more prominent potential free agents from the rest of the league.

QUARTERBACKS: Marc Bulger, Kerry Collins, Rex Grossman, Matt Hasselbeck, Patrick Ramsey, Alex Smith, Billy Volek, Kellen Clemens, Brodie Croyle, Trent Edwards, Bruce Gradkowski, Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Leinart, Troy Smith and Tyler Thigpen.

RUNNING BACKS: Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown, Kevin Faulk, Mewelde Moore, Sammy Morris, Clinton Portis, Dominic Rhodes, Tony Richardson, Kevin Smith, Darren Sproles, Fred Taylor, Brian Westbrook, Ricky Williams, Joseph Addai, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jerome Harrison, Brandon Jackson, Laurence Maroney and LeRon McClain.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Mark Clayton, Braylon Edwards, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Randy Moss, Santana Moss, Terrell Owens, Donte’ Stallworth, Steve Breaston, Malcom Floyd, Santonio Holmes, James Jones, Sidney Rice, Mike Sims-Walker, Brad Smith and Steve Smith (of the New York Giants, not the Steve Smith of Carolina).

TIGHT ENDS: Desmond Clark, Donald Lee, Randy McMichael, Bo Scaife, Kevin Boss, Owen Daniels, Daniel Fells, Zach Miller, Ben Patrick and Matt Spaeth.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: David Baas, Jammal Brown, Robert Gallery, Adam Goldberg, Kyle Kosier, Olin Kreutz, Matt Light, Sean Locklear, Casey Rabach, Chris Spencer, Langston Walker, Casey Wiegmann, Floyd Womack, Damien Woody, Chris Chester, Jeromey Clary, Daryn Colledge, Willie Colon, Doug Free, Jared Gaither, Charlie Johnson, Deuce Lutui, Samson Satele, Lyle Sendlein and Marshal Yanda.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES: Aubrayo Franklin, Tommie Harris, Chris Hoke, Chris Hovan, Kris Jenkins, Bryan Robinson, Gerard Warren, Jamal Williams, Pat Williams, Alan Branch, Barry Cofield, John McCargo and Brandon Mebane.

DEFENSIVE ENDS: Jason Babin, Dave Ball, Raheem Brock, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Cullen Jenkins, Travis LaBoy, Trevor Pryce, Marcus Spears, Ray Edwards and Mathias Kiwanuka.

LINEBACKERS: Akin Ayodele, Keith Bulluck, Kevin Burnett, Dhani Jones, Kirk Morrison, Julian Peterson, Matt Roth, Takeo Spikes, Jason Taylor, Mike Vrabel, Stewart Bradley, Bobby Carpenter, Manny Lawson, Paul Posluszny, Ernie Sims and Stephen Tulloch.

CORNERBACKS: Nnamdi Asomugha, Phillip Buchanon, Chris Carr, Drayton Florence, Ellis Hobbs, Carlos Rogers, Lito Sheppard, Ike Taylor, Fabian Washington, Drew Coleman, Antonio Cromartie, Chris Houston, Johnathan Joseph, Dimitri Patterson, Josh Wilson and Eric Wright.

SAFETIES: Aaron Francisco, Ken Hamlin, Michael Lewis, Brandon McGowan, Quintin Mikell, Lawyer Milloy, Brodney Pool, Gerald Sensabaugh, Roy Williams, Gibril Wilson, Atari Bigby, Melvin Bullitt, Abram Elam, Dashon Goldson, Michael Huff, Dawan Landry, Danieal Manning, Bernard Pollard, Eric Weddle and Donte Whitner.

NFC South, Ricky Williams, Gibril Wilson, Gerald Sensabaugh, T.J.Houshmandzadeh, Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes, Terrell Owens, Steve Smith, Lawyer Milloy, Ronnie Brown, Phillip Buchanon, Jammal Brown, Billy Volek, Jason Taylor, unrestricted free agents, Mark Clayton, Chris Hovan, Rex Grossman, Tyler Thigpen, Randy Moss, Kris Jenkins, ESPN Stats & Information, Chris Houston, Alex Smith, Brandon McGowan, Danieal Manning, Bruce Gradkowski, Michael Lewis, Fred Taylor, Steve Breaston, Roy Williams, Nnamdi Asomugha, Trevor Pryce, Santana Moss, Tavaris Jackson, Pat Williams, Kellen Clemens, Julian Peterson, Donte Stallworth, Kerry Collins, Brodie Croyle, Cedric Benson, Clinton Portis, Zach Miller, Brian Westbrook, Damien Woody, Troy Smith, Marc Bulger, Kevin Faulk, Ray Edwards, Sidney Rice, Antonio Cromartie, Jamal Williams, Mathias Kiwanuka, Patrick Ramsey, Aaron Francisco, Joseph Addai, Darren Sproles, Matt Leinart, Tony Richardson, Ike Taylor, Josh Wilson, Matt Hasselbeck, Atari Bigby, Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin, Marcus Spears, Jonathan Joseph, Paul Posluszny, Matt Light, Trent Edwards, Mewelde Moore, Sammy Morris, Dominic Rhodes, Kevin Smith, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jerom Harrison, Brandon Jackson, Laurence Maroney, LeRon McClain, Malcolm Floyd, James Jones, Mike Sims-Walker, Brad Smith, Desmond Clark, Donald Lee, Randy McMichael, Kevin Boss, Owen Daniels, Daniel Fells, Ben Patrick, Matt Spaeth, David Baas, Robert Gallery, Adam Goldberg, Kyle Kosier, Olin Kreutz, Sean Locklear, Casey Rabach, Chris Spencer, Langston Walker, Casey Wiegmann, Floyd Womack, Chris Chester, Jeromey Clary, Daryn Colledge, Willie Colon, Jared Gaither, Charlie Johnson, Deuce Lutui, Samson Satele, Lyle Sendlein, Marshal Yanda, Aubrayo Franklin, Tommis Harris, Chris Hoke, Bryan Robinson, Gerard Warren, Alan Branch, Barry Cofield, John McCargo, Brandon Mebane, Raheem Brock, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Travis LaBoy, Akin Ayodele, Keith Bulluck, Kevin Burnett, Dhani Jones, Kirk Morrison, Takeo Spikes, Mike Vrabel, Stewart Bradley, Bobby Carpenter, Manny Lawson, Ernie Sims, Stephen Tulloch, Chris Carr, Drayton Florence, Ellis Hobbs, Carlos Rogers, Lito Sheppard, Fabian Washington, Drew Coleman, Demitri Patterson, Eric Wright, Ken Hamlin, Quintin Mikell, Brodney Pool, Melvin Bullitt, Abram Elam, Dashon Goldson, Michael Huff, Dawan Landry, Bernard Pollard, Eric Weedle, Donte Whitner

NFC South mailbag

August, 14, 2010
I didn’t have much time to look at the mailbag while I was making my rounds through the NFC South training camps. But I’m jumping in there this morning and seeing lots of great and timely questions. That’s why I’m going to really let it fly and make this a pretty lengthy post. Here we go.

Jim in Bonita Springs, Fla., writes: Thanks for all the good work you did this week about Double Nickel (Derrick Brooks). As a long-time season-ticket holder, I am glad our NFC South blogger didn't forget the greatest Buc of all time!

Pat Yasinskas: Thank you. There’s no way I could ever forget Derrick Brooks. He’s not only the greatest Buccaneer in history, he’s the best player in the history of the NFC South (Saints fans, let’s give it a little more time before we start bringing Drew Brees into the argument) and, at least in my eyes, Brooks is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Allow me to get a misty-eyed here, because Derrick is someone I covered closely. I was covering the Bucs for The Tampa Tribune back when Sam Wyche drafted him, and I was fortunate enough to be able to observe something magical. The Bucs might have been the worst franchise in the league when Brooks arrived and they’d been bad for a long time. Guys like Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Hardy Nickerson, Paul Gruber, Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott all played big roles in making the Bucs respectable. But the two key figures in really turning the Bucs around were Brooks and coach Tony Dungy. Derrick’s play on the field speaks for itself. So does his life off it. I view myself as lucky to have had the chance to cover Brooks.

Greg in Tampa writes: Besides Mark Royals and Ronde Barber, were any of Brooks' teammates at his retirement announcement?

Pat Yasinskas: Mike Alstott also was in the room, standing with his sons along the side of the auditorium. He, Royals and Barber were all I saw of the “old’’ Bucs. There were a bunch of current Bucs in the room, and some of them played at least briefly with Brooks. But I wouldn’t go reading too much into who wasn’t there. This event was put together on very short notice. A lot of Brooks’ former teammates are working in broadcasting and coaching now, and I’m sure that prevented most of them from traveling. The Bucs provided quotes from a lot of former teammates like Nickerson, Sapp and Lynch. Brooks made references to those three, Barber and Alstott in his speech. There’s never been a more respected figure than Brooks in the Tampa Bay locker room.

Dan in Hurley, Miss., writes: I was reading over the whole Brian Westbrook situation. Why don't the Saints look into signing him to a one-year deal? Now that Lynell Hamilton has torn his ACL, doesn't it make sense that Brian might fit in perfect in this offense.

Pat Yasinskas: A lot of New Orleans fans are asking about Westbrook. Honestly, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. Brian Westbrook was a great running back, no doubt. But I don’t see him as the kind of running back that fits what the Saints need after the loss of Hamilton. They need a big, power back. Westbrook never was anything close to that. He was a speed guy, who could run outside and catch passes out of the backfield. The Saints already have a healthy, younger version of that with Reggie Bush. I think you’ll see them combing the waiver wire as other teams trim rosters, and I think you’ll see them sign a big back to fill their need.

Reed in Atlanta writes: How worried should fans be about Dunta Robinson's lack of participation in this training camp?

Pat Yasinskas: Not at all. Robinson is very close to being healthy. He was lobbying the Atlanta coaching staff to get out on the field last week. But, after admitting he let Michael Turner talk him into returning too quickly last season, Mike Smith isn’t going to make the same mistake twice. He was overly cautious with Robinson, the team’s biggest free-agent signing of the offseason. There was no sense in risking getting Robinson hurt in the workouts with the Jaguars or the preseason opener. I think you’ll see Robinson return before long. But the goal for the Falcons is to make sure he’s healthy for the start of the regular season.

Will in New Orleans writes: With the Saints in need of a power runner to replace Lynell Hamilton, is there any way they could talk Glenn Coffee out of retirement and snatch him up? He'd probably be an upgrade over Hamilton anyway.

Pat Yasinskas: No. We don’t know all the details of why Coffee retired. But, even if he decided to come back, he’d be San Francisco’s property. Like I said, keep an eye on the waiver wire. I think that’s where your big back will come from.

Bob in Tampa writes: Your piece on Josh Freeman and Antonio Bryant was spot on, good job.

Pat Yasinskas: Thanks. I think readers need to realize what really went on behind the scenes with Bryant and the Buccaneers last season. I know there are some who said the Bucs were being cheap by not re-signing Bryant. It wasn’t even about money. The Bucs didn’t even make an offer to keep Bryant. By the middle of last season, they already had decided he was not a guy they wanted in their locker room going forward.

Dominic in Old Forge, Pa., writes: It's your buddy from the Scranton area! This might be an odd comment/question, but I think it bears mentioning. I have watched practically all of the preseason games thus far. I have noticed something very strange. It seems to me that players' helmets are popping off their heads at an alarming rate. I mean, I have probably seen over a dozen players lose their hats already. Have you noticed this? Do you think the league will look into this at all?

Pat Yasinskas: Yes, I’ve noticed a fair amount of this, but hadn’t really thought about it until I saw your note. I’ll keep an eye on this going forward and talk to some people about it and see if there are any league-wide concerns and what can be done to make this situation safer for players. Say hi to all my friends and family in the Scranton area. Good luck to the Old Forge Blue Devils this season, but you already know I’ll be rooting for the Lackawanna Trail Lions.

NFC South mailbag

February, 25, 2010
Robbie in Murphy, N.C., writes: You made a smart remark about David Carr being available in Free Agency when discussing Carolina's QB situation. I can recall several NFL analysts who loved the signing of Carr and thought that he would eventually be Delhomme's replacement. I don't think that John Fox and Hurney could have ever envisioned him being as bad as he really is. Many believed that his problems were a direct result of the Texans.

Pat Yasinskas: Robbie, I was one of those analysts that thought signing Carr was a great move when the Panthers did it. I thought there was a chance he could even become the long-term starter. Truth is, he still was shell-shocked from his days with Houston and an injury to Jake Delhomme forced the Panthers to play him sooner than they wanted. That turned into a disaster. I was only having a little fun with John Fox and Marty Hurney. They’re two men I’ve covered for a long time and I respect them both. But, like any other, coach or general manager in the league, it’s my job to point out their successes and their failures. The Carr signing was not a success for the Panthers.

Tony in Lakeland, Fla., writes: My question is now that Dunta Robinson is set to hit the market as an unrestricted free agent, do you think Tampa will make a run at him? I think this guy could excel in a Tampa Two defense where there isn’t so much pressure on him.

Pat Yasinskas: With any free agent, we can only speculate until we find out what teams are doing when free agency starts in March. But I like your thoughts on Robinson. I think he could succeed in Raheem Morris’ defense. The Bucs need another corner to go with Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber, who isn’t getting any younger. Robinson makes some sense. We’ll see if the Bucs agree and if they’re interested in the price tag that comes with him.

Brett in Dallas writes: I wanted to get your opinion on the possibility of the Falcons signing either Brian Westbrook or Aaron Kampman. Westbrook could work out for the Falcons in the role that Jerious Norwood couldn’t and it might be good to give him a one year contract to see. Also Aaron Kampman belongs in a 4-3 and fits the character mold and work ethic that the Falcons look for.

Pat Yasinskas: I thought Brian Westbrook was a heck of a player in Philadelphia. But I think he now is either at or near the end of his career. The Falcons likely will keep Jason Snelling and Norwood as restricted free agents and the backups for Michael Turner. Atlanta’s not a team looking for patchwork. If they do anything at running back, I think the Falcons will go with someone younger. As far as Kampman, I won't totally rule that one out. Yeah, I just said the Falcons aren't looking for patchwork, but defensive end is one position where I could see them making an exception. They need help in the pass rush right away and it sometimes takes time for a rookie pass rusher to develop.

Shannon in Baton Rouge writes: Any chance the Saints go after LaDainian Tomlinson? He and Drew Brees are friends and it seems like it would work.

Pat Yasinskas: This is kind of like the Westbrook question above. Tomlinson isn’t the player he once was. Would the current Tomlinson really add much to the Saints, a team that’s not going to go crazy running the ball? I don’t think so. I’d stick with the combination of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush. But, hey, Brees has a lot of power in New Orleans. If he really wants to play with his old buddy, he might get some people to listen.

NFC South: Final Word

September, 18, 2009

Posted by’s Pat Yasinskas

Five nuggets of knowledge about this weekend’s games:
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Jake Delhomme needs to have a solid game against Atlanta in Week 2.
Carolina’s season truly is on the line in Week 2. That may seem like an over-the-top statement this early, but it fits. Teams that start 0-2 rarely make the playoffs and Carolina has tough games with Dallas and Washington following this one. If they lose to Atlanta, the Panthers could get out of control in a hurry. Jake Delhomme has had two horrendous games in a row and another one probably would leave the Panthers no choice but to pull the plug on the guy who’s been their quarterback since 2003. Delhomme doesn’t need Drew Brees-type numbers to keep his job. He just needs to come out and manage the game the way he used to. If he can do that, he can save Carolina’s season.

Kroy Biermann is the best NFC South player you’ve never heard of. The second-year defensive end already has two sacks. That’s two more than starter Jamaal Anderson. Biermann is undersized at 260 pounds, which is up about 15 pounds from last year. You’re going to hear a lot about Biermann before too long. He’s been underrated so far, mostly because of his size and the fact he didn’t exactly come from a football powerhouse at the University of Montana. Heck, Biermann’s high school wasn’t even a football powerhouse. Hardin High is known as a basketball school, so much so that legendary Crow Indian player Jonathan Takes Enemy was featured in a Sports Illustrated story by Gary Smith that, for my money, is the best sports story ever written.

Don’t sit Michael Turner in your fantasy league. Yeah, the Atlanta running back was bottled up a bit by Miami last week. But the Falcons aren’t going to stop handing him the ball, especially when they’re going up against a Carolina defensive line that doesn’t have a true run stuffer. Atlanta is going to be the kind of offense where you pick your poison. With Matt Ryan throwing to Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, defenses aren’t going to be able to put all the attention on Turner. His numbers will bounce back.

We’re going to find out Sunday if New Orleans’ defense is for real. Yeah, it’s looking like the Saints will face a quarterback making his first NFL start for the second straight week. It appears there’s a good possibility Philadelphia’s Kevin Kolb will start in place of the injured Donovan McNabb. But this still will be a much bigger challenge than Matthew Stafford and Detroit last week because the rest of Philadelphia’s offense is good. The Saints have shown some good things and created some turnovers. But the true test of a defense is if it can stop a good running game. Here comes Brian Westbrook.

Sammie Stroughter is going to make the most noise of Tampa Bay’s rookie class this year. He was a seventh-round draft pick and dealt with some personal issues in college. But this guy already put that behind him when he claimed the No. 3 receiver job in the preseason. With Antonio Bryant’s knee acting up, Stroughter might be the closest thing Tampa Bay has to a downfield threat and the one thing Byron Leftwich does best is throw the deep ball.