NFC South: Camp Confidential

TAMPA, Fla. -- There’s a perception out there that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can’t wait to let quarterback Josh Freeman walk away after this season.

Trace it to coach Greg Schiano’s hesitance to firmly endorse Freeman at the end of last season or chalk it up to the quarterback’s lack of consistency or look at the fact that the Bucs are letting Freeman go into the last year of his contract without an extension. But nothing could be further from the truth.

“I have a lot of confidence in Josh," general manager Mark Dominik said. “I know Coach has a lot of confidence. That position is the position in the National Football League. Win or lose, regardless of if you get too much blame or not enough kudos when you do win and people take it for granted, the more time you have to evaluate that player at that position, the more of a chance you have to be correct. I think Josh is looking at it with a confidence and saying he believes in himself and there were some parts of last year he wasn’t happy with, but there were good parts last year. We’ve talked to Josh and his agent, and we feel like we’re at a good spot. Everybody feels comfortable with where we’re at."

Even though they used a third-round draft pick on Mike Glennon, the Bucs desperately want Freeman to succeed. If he plays well, that probably means the team will be in the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season. That would give Dominik and Schiano job security.

It also would give Freeman job security, because the Bucs probably would turn around and reward him with a big contract before free agency starts. That would fit the team’s plan of building from within. (If things go as expected, 18 of Tampa Bay’s 22 starters this year will have come through the draft, off the practice squad or through free agency.)

But it will all come down to Freeman’s performance. He needs to avoid slumps like the three-game stretch late last season when he threw 10 interceptions. He needs to play the way he did when the Bucs got off to a 6-4 start.

“He knows it," Dominik said. “We know it. But I think the thing that’s kind of been lost is some of the great things he did last year. Some of the big games where he played really well and showed he can do it. I think what he’s doing in camp right now is playing really smart with the football. You can’t underestimate the second year in a system. Continuity is so important. If you keep it together, that gives you a chance to have more success."

If Freeman plays well the Bucs will wrap him up, and they’ll have continuity at quarterback. If consistency continues to be an issue, the Bucs will have to start from scratch next year and Freeman will be playing for another team.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeDashon Goldson
Mike Carlson/AP PhotoVeteran Dashon Goldson, who was signed as a free agent this offseason, should provide some depth at safety for the Bucs.
1. Secondary matters. The Bucs poured a ton of resources into their secondary in the offseason. They traded for cornerback Darrelle Revis, signed safety Dashon Goldson as a free agent and used a second-round draft pick on cornerback Johnthan Banks. Those are the types of things you have to do when you’re coming off a season in which your pass defense ranked last in the league.

That should be enough to bring about some dramatic changes. All indications are that Revis is healthy and, if he is, he’s the best cornerback in the league. Banks could start immediately and, if he doesn’t, will be the third cornerback. Goldson’s arrival at free safety means strong safety Mark Barron, last year’s top draft pick, should be able to concentrate on playing more in the box -- where he’s at his best.

The Bucs believe in building from within. But they went outside to patch up the team’s biggest weakness.

2. The pass rush. This goes hand in hand with the secondary. If the defensive backfield really is going to shine, it’s going to need some help from the pass rush.

The Bucs let defensive end Michael Bennett, last year’s leading sacker, walk away in free agency. But that was a calculated move. The Bucs believed Bennett already had hit his full upside. But the team thinks third-year pros Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn are ready to blossom to heights that Bennett never approached.

That’s a leap of faith, because Clayborn is coming off a knee injury and Bowers wasn’t a full-time player in his first two seasons. However, if the Bucs are right about Bowers and Clayborn, the pass defense is going to rank a lot better than No. 32 in the league.

3. The tight ends have to come through. The Bucs have done a nice job of surrounding Freeman with plenty of talent at running back, receiver and offensive line. But at tight end, the cupboard looks close to bare. The team didn’t re-sign last year’s starter, Dallas Clark. Luke Stocker, who seemed to have the inside track to the starting job, has missed a lot of camp with a calf injury.

But the Bucs are quietly optimistic about Tom Crabtree, whom they brought in from Green Bay. The Bucs aren’t going to throw to their tight ends as much as Atlanta and New Orleans do, but they need Stocker or Crabtree to be a threat in the passing game to take some coverage away from the wide receivers.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Bucs have done well stockpiling young talent such as running back Doug Martin.
The team has a surprising amount of individual talent. Revis, Goldson, guard Carl Nicks, guard Davin Joseph, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, running back Doug Martin and receiver Vincent Jackson have been to the Pro Bowl. Plus, the Bucs have plenty of other young talent -- guys like Freeman, Barron, linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster, and receiver Mike Williams.

Tampa Bay has been rebuilding ever since coach Jon Gruden was fired following the 2008 season. There’s no such thing as a finished product, because you’re always looking to upgrade your roster. But the Bucs no longer are in rebuilding mode.

They have enough talent to get to the playoffs.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Schiano still is somewhat new to the NFL and to his players. His hard-edged approach drew all sorts of attention last year, and he has said he’s relaxing things a bit now that he has changed the culture of the locker room.

But this team isn’t completely past the culture shock that came with Schiano. That’s why it’s critical for the Bucs to get off to a fast start. If they do, the players will fully embrace Schiano’s ways.

If the Bucs start poorly, players won’t buy into Schiano and things could fall apart in a hurry.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Bucs are ecstatic with what they’ve seen from McCoy this offseason. He earned a Pro Bowl trip last year, and that seems to have taken his motivation to another level. He worked out harder than ever and came to camp about 10 pounds lighter than last season. He’s emerging as a leader of the defense, and the Bucs think he can become one of the league’s most dominant interior linemen.
  • When the Bucs brought in Gabe Carimi, some fans thought he might end up starting ahead of Demar Dotson at right tackle. That’s not going to happen. Carimi is being looked at as an insurance policy behind Dotson and Penn at left tackle. Dotson is having one of the best camps of any Tampa Bay player, and the Bucs believe he’s only starting to scratch the surface of his potential.
  • Martin had a phenomenal rookie season, but I’m expecting him to be even better this year. Martin rushed for 1,454 yards with Joseph missing the entire season and Nicks missing half of it. With the two guards back, Martin should be an even better runner. Martin also caught 49 passes as a rookie, and I can see that number going up because the Bucs have been throwing to him a lot in camp.
  • The Bucs brought in veteran Peyton Hillis as insurance behind Martin. But Hillis, who hasn’t done much the past two seasons, isn’t a lock to make the roster. Veteran Brian Leonard looked good in the preseason opener, and the Bucs believe sixth-round draft pick Mike James has the potential to be an all-around back.
  • Strongside linebacker was expected to be one of the more competitive spots in camp. But veteran Dekoda Watson has taken the mystery out of that battle. He started off ahead of free-agent pickup Jonathan Casillas and has widened the gap with a strong performance in camp.
  • Kevin Ogletree appears to have the lead over Tiquan Underwood and Chris Owusu in the competition for the third receiver spot. But Underwood and Owusu have had strong showings that could earn them some playing time. Without a lot of certainty at tight end, the Bucs could resort to some four-receiver sets.
  • The addition of veteran Spencer Larsen made me wonder if fullback Erik Lorig's job was in jeopardy. But that’s not the case. Lorig is safe as the starter. The Bucs were very impressed with Larsen’s workout and view him as a quality backup and special-teams player.

Hurney tempering Carolina optimism

August, 16, 2012
8/16/12
11:29
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My trips to training camps are over and all four NFC South Camp Confidential profiles have run on the blog. I’ve got lots of leftovers in my notebook and on my tape recorder and I’ll be using some of that for our season previews that run in a few weeks.

But I’m going to start rolling out some bits and pieces of what I’ve collected in the coming days. Let’s start with a conversation I had with Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney in Spartanburg, S.C.

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneMarty Hurney knows expectations are high for the Carolina Panthers this season.
It’s no secret that there’s a lot of optimism among Carolina fans. Nationally, a lot of media members are calling the Panthers a team on the rise and some even give them a chance to finish ahead of the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons.

So what does Hurney think about all this?

Well, let’s preface it with a little background. By nature, Hurney is one of the most superstitious people I’ve ever met. He has an inner confidence, but, on the outside, it always seems like Hurney is fearing the worst.

That brings to mind a story from the 2005 postseason. The Panthers were playing the Giants in the wild-card round. It was late in a game that the Panthers went on to win 23-0. Hurney was sitting directly behind the Carolina media in the Giants Stadium press box when a former co-worker I’ll call “Stan’’ did what a veteran reporter should do in that situation. He picked up the phone and started booking a hotel room in Chicago, where the Panthers would play the Bears the next week.

“Olson, hang up that phone now,’’ a red-faced Hurney started screaming.

A defiant -- perhaps “oblivious’’ is a better description -- sort, “Stan’’ simply continued booking his room. When finished, he turned to Hurney and said, “Relax, Marty, this one’s over." Hurney muttered something about it never being over until it’s over as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

So, as you might expect, the rest of the Carolinas are excited about this season, but Hurney is something closer to cautiously optimistic.

“If we stay healthy, we have a chance to compete,’’ Hurney said. “I think the excitement comes from the offensive production we showed last year. We showed we have the ability to score points and you have to score points to win in the league these days. We have that and we feel like our defense and special teams have improved.’’

The real reason for the excitement among fans might be the presence of quarterback Cam Newton, who probably will go down in history as the best player Hurney ever drafted. That move surprised many because Hurney previously was perceived as being too cautious to take a chance on a quarterback that had many critics as last year’s draft approached. But Hurney did extensive homework on Newton and concluded that there weren’t any problems. It sure looked like Hurney was right as Newton went out and was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

“His competitiveness brings an energy to the whole team,’’ Hurney said. “When that dynamic player plays the quarterback position, that’s going to impact your team more than anywhere else because that’s the guy that has the ball in his hands every play. That confidence has a domino effect through the entire football team.’’

So Hurney is as optimistic as he can be about the offense. Although he made some personnel moves and the Panthers got some injured players back, Hurney’s not ready to say the defense has arrived.

As we wrapped up the interview, I thought about having some fun with Hurney. I thought about pulling out my cell phone and pretending to book a hotel room in New Orleans (site of this season’s Super Bowl) for late January or early February. But I decided against it, mainly because equipment manager Jackie Miles wasn't nearby to give me a set of ear plugs for me to drown out the aftermath.

“We made a step offensively last year,’’ Hurney said. “Now we have to deal with increased expectations and it’s an important year for us.’’

That’s as close to optimism as you’re going to get from Hurney.
TAMPA, Fla. &#151 Since the arrival of coach Greg Schiano, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been guarded with the media. But there’s one burning topic that’s so obvious &#151 and critical to the team’s future &#151 that it can’t be kept secret.

This season is all about Josh Freeman, the quarterback who is too big, even in his slimmed-down body, and too important to fail. If Freeman somehow does fail, it probably means the entire team fails.

"He’s got two years remaining on his contract and we need to find out," general manager Mark Dominik said.

The Bucs firmly believe Freeman has all the mental and physical skills to be their franchise quarterback for years to come. It’s just that they don’t know with any certainty if Freeman is the quarterback who showed so much promise in 2010 or the one who threw 22 interceptions last year in a season in which the Bucs lost their final 10 games.

Before Freeman ever gets close to free agency, the Bucs need to know if they want to sign him to what’s sure to be a huge contract extension. They need to find that out before Freeman gets into the final year of his contract. They need to find out now and that’s why the Bucs have spent the entire offseason and training camp trying to find ways that assure success for Freeman.

"It’s been important for us as an organization to equip Josh Freeman with all the weapons we can give him," Dominik said. "I know Josh wants to play great and have the opportunity to be successful like he was in 2010, but we also want to give him all the weapons we can to let him have a chance to be the quarterback he can be."

The Bucs have done their part. They went on a free-agent spending spree and got Freeman a true No. 1 receiver in Vincent Jackson and solidified the front line by adding Carl Nicks, perhaps the best guard in the NFL. They also brought in veteran tight end Dallas Clark and went out and drafted Doug Martin to give Freeman an all-purpose running back.

And Freeman has done his part. He was a regular throughout the offseason program and, although no one ever hinted he was overweight last season, Freeman dropped 25 to 30 pounds as soon as the season ended.

"He’s a really competitive kid," Dominik said. "I just wanted him to harness and really channel that into being the best he can be and he said that when he decided to show up at the weight that he’s at and start to really get his body in the right shape as a professional athlete and make good choices off the field. That told me he was going to take this the right way and that was before we even hired [Schiano]."

But hiring Schiano and adding the free agents and Martin weren’t the only things the Bucs did in the offseason that were designed to help Freeman. The Bucs went to great extremes to hire coaches who would put Freeman in a strong offensive system. They hired Mike Sullivan as their offensive coordinator, soon after he helped (as the quarterbacks coach) Eli Manning and the New York Giants win a Super Bowl. They also added veteran assistant Ron Turner as the quarterbacks coach.

For perhaps the first time since Freeman was drafted in the first round in 2009, he’s being challenged.

"Yeah, for sure," Freeman said. "It’s constant improvement, constant installations and it keeps us on our toes. [In] a lot of camps, you get done and you want to go straight to bed. But here you kind of have to force yourself to stay up and do some studying."

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
Brad Barr/US PresswireA slimmed-down Josh Freeman says he's ready to guide the Bucs in his fourth year in the NFL.
The weight has been lost, the supporting cast and the coaching staff have been strengthened and the studying is getting done. All the pieces are in place. Now, it’s time for Freeman and the Bucs to find out if he’s their quarterback for the next decade.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The arrival of veteran leadership. That’s something the Bucs were often accused of lacking last season, probably because it was entirely true. Schiano’s orderly style is completely different from the way predecessor Raheem Morris ran things during a time in which the roster was stocked almost entirely with youth. But Dominik and Schiano decided that simply changing coaching staffs wasn’t enough.

They signed guys like Nicks, Clark and Jackson because they’ve been Pro Bowl players. But they also signed them because they’ve played on winning teams and have been leaders. Nicks and Clark each have a Super Bowl ring and the Chargers were always in playoff contention when Jackson was there. These guys don’t know how to lose and that brings a sense of urgency to the rest of the roster to learn to win quickly.

"It’s not a rebuilding year," Nicks said. "We’re trying to win now. We’re trying to shock some teams, sort of like Detroit kind of did after their few years of not doing so good and how San Francisco shocked the world. We’re trying to do something like that. So, bringing in veteran guys, skill guys and Pro Bowlers, it’s going to be fun to see what we do out there."

2. A novel concept. One of Tampa Bay’s biggest problems last season was that the offense was too predictable. If LeGarrette Blount was on the field, it meant the Bucs were going to run. If Kregg Lumpkin was in the game, it meant a pass was coming. Those days are over.

After hearing repeated complaints that he was one-dimensional and getting an early public warning by Schiano about the importance of ball security, Blount has worked hard to bring balance to his game. Like Freeman, Blount has dropped weight because he wants to be more than a power back. He also has worked hard on his receiving skills and paid more attention to detail on his pass-blocking duties.

Some players have resisted Schiano’s disciplined way and that’s why guys like Tanard Jackson and Kellen Winslow are gone. But Blount is an example of a guy who got the message and has worked to improve his flaws. There’s no doubt picking up Martin helped light a fire under Blount, because at draft time, the Bucs repeatedly referred to Martin as "an all-around back." The implication was that Blount wasn’t an all-around back.

As it turns out, the Bucs now may have two all-around backs. That could come in very handy because Schiano has made it clear he expects his offense to run a lot and take some shots downfield in the passing game. Having two running backs who can run, block and catch means the Bucs aren’t going to be one-dimensional in the backfield.

3. Mike Williams’ resurgence. As a rookie in 2010, Mike Williams played like a No. 1 receiver. Last season, his receiving yardage was down and there were times Williams didn’t look like he should be starting anywhere in the NFL.

But, like Blount, Williams is a player who survived the offseason housecleaning, mainly because the new coaching staff believes he still has plenty of potential and he’s embraced the way Schiano operates. With Jackson on board, Williams doesn’t have to be a No. 1 receiver. The Bucs will be quite happy if he’s a solid No. 2. But Williams has bigger goals in mind. He’s not satisfied with simply getting back to the level he played at in 2010.

"I want to be at a higher level," Williams said. "I feel like I’m putting the work in now &#151 watching extra film, knowing what the coverage is, working with Vincent on extra things. I don’t want to get to a level I’ve been at already. I want to exceed that level."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The offensive line. It was a bright spot, at least in some areas, last season and it should be improved this year. Pairing Nicks with Davin Joseph gives the Bucs a pair of Pro Bowl guards and potentially the best guard tandem in the NFL. Donald Penn has been a decent left tackle and the Bucs are handing the center job to Jeremy Zuttah, who played for Schiano at Rutgers.

Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood is a lightning rod for fans. But the coaching staff obviously has high hopes for him or else Trueblood would have been gone. The Bucs are expected to run a lot and they appear to believe the best way to do that is to make the interior of the line as strong as possible.

Zuttah and Trueblood might remain question marks in the minds of some, but the Bucs believe surrounding them with Joseph and Nicks will raise their level of play. Nicks, in particular, seems excited about the prospect of doing a lot of run blocking. He previously played in New Orleans’ pass-happy offense and said he’s happy to focus on what he believes he does best. This group should be able to open holes for Martin and Blount and protect Freeman. Some things still have to click, but this unit has a chance to become one of the league’s better offensive lines.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

[+] EnlargeGerald McCoy
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireThe Bucs will need Gerald McCoy to stay healthy in order to maintain depth on the defensive line.
The defensive line. The Bucs say they’re fine with their depth on the defensive line. But, after watching them get so desperate that they had to go sign Albert Haynesworth last year, I still have concerns about the depth. Yes, defensive tackles Gary Gibson and Amobi Okoye were added in the offseason. And, yes, hopes are high for former first-round draft picks Gerald McCoy on the inside and Adrian Clayborn on the outside.

But this is a team that traded away former second-round pick Brian Price just before camp and defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, a second-round pick last year, tore his Achilles tendon in May. The Bucs still have some hope that Bowers can return for the second half of the season, but there are no guarantees. Aside from the guys already mentioned, the only other players of much consequence up front are defensive tackle Roy Miller and defensive end George Johnson.

That leaves little margin for error or injury, which is especially scary when you consider McCoy’s injury history.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • When the Bucs said at the start of camp that Penn had a calf injury, it didn’t seem like a big deal. But, as of Tuesday, Penn still hadn’t practiced. He’s been seen on the sidelines, working with the trainers a lot. The upside is Penn appears to be in better shape than usual, and I don’t think missing a lot of practice time really sets a left tackle back much in learning a new offense. But, still, it would be nice to be sure that Penn’s healthy &#151 or soon will be. Otherwise, the Bucs and Freeman could be staring down the barrel at Demar Dotson.

  • Speaking of injured players, receiver Arrelious Benn came to camp with a chance to win a starting job. But he got hurt early on and hasn’t returned. His absence has allowed guys like Tiquan Underwood a chance to step up. I don’t think the Bucs are ready to give up on Benn, a second-round draft pick in 2010. But, then again, Schiano has made it obvious nothing is guaranteed.

  • As much as I liked the Bucs selecting safety Mark Barron and Martin in the first round, I think second-round pick Lavonte David has a chance to make just as much of an impact. David is going to be an immediate starter at outside linebacker. He also has more playmaking ability than any linebacker on the roster.

  • The Bucs appear to be set with David, Mason Foster and Quincy Black as their starting linebackers. But I think you may see a little bit more of Dekoda Watson than in his first two seasons with the Bucs. He primarily has been a special-teams player. But I think Watson’s potential as a pass-rusher may have the new coaching staff looking at him as a situational player.

  • Former starting free safety Cody Grimm appeared to be buried on the depth chart early in training camp. But Grimm, who was coming back from an injury, appears to have vaulted back over Larry Asante and Ahmad Black. The plan is to use Ronde Barber as the starting free safety. Barber should thrive in that role, after spending his career at cornerback. But Grimm still could get significant playing time because the Bucs may slide Barber inside to match up with slot receivers in the nickel package. There also is the possibility Barber could move back to cornerback if the Bucs have injuries there.

  • But the Bucs may consider moving Barber back to corner only in a true emergency. They may have more depth there than they first realized because Myron Lewis, who did little in his first two seasons, has come on strong in camp.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In one sentence, Ron Rivera can take the 2011 Carolina Panthers and make them 9-7 instead of 6-10.

“I look at the Minnesota game, I look at the Detroit game and I look at the second Atlanta game," the Carolina coach said after practice on a recent morning.

No need to go back and look up those games. There’s one very common thread -- the Carolina defense crumbled when it mattered most. Despite hitting the jackpot drafting quarterback Cam Newton and suddenly having the most explosive offense in franchise history, the Panthers still finished third in the NFC South.

“It was hard for [defensive coordinator] Sean [McDermott], because he really had to pull back on what he likes to do, and disappointing for me because I wanted more from our defense," Rivera said. “But I think the toughest part of all is when you look back and see certain opportunities where if somebody just stepped up and made a play on the defensive side of the ball, it’s a totally different result to the ballgame."

But Rivera and the Panthers aren’t doing too much reflecting these days. Instead, Rivera’s looking at a fully stocked defense, and that’s reason enough for optimism. Jon Beason, who missed almost all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon, is back. So is defensive tackle Ron Edwards, who suffered a season-ending injury early in training camp. There is even hope that outside linebacker Thomas Davis, who once seemed to be on the verge of becoming a superstar, can fully recover from his third torn ACL and contribute at least as a role player.

The Panthers used their first-round pick on Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who can play inside or outside, chase down running backs and rush the passer. There were other moves here and there for depth, and that’s why veteran left tackle Jordan Gross is looking across the line and seeing a defense that looks nothing like last season’s.

“I don’t think people truly realize how much we lost with the injuries last year," Gross said. “Missing Beas was a big deal as far as football, but it was an even bigger deal in the locker room. He’s the constant on that defense. He’s the guy that’s always chiming in on any team issue and getting on guys or encouraging guys. There really wasn’t a leader out there last year, once he was gone.

“Having Ron Edwards back also is huge, because he’s a big-body guy that we haven’t had in awhile, and that’s going to help the entire defense. Kuechly obviously is a guy that’s going to make some plays, and I think our pass rush has gotten better, just from having experience thrust upon them last year. Just practicing against them in camp, I can tell you that defense is going to be a whole lot better."

If Gross is right, Carolina fans could be very happy. This team hasn’t had a winning season since 2008. That could change with some improvement from the defense, because the world already knows Newton and the offense are going to score. If the defense can make just a few more of those plays Rivera talked about, the Panthers could be in the playoffs.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The No. 2 cornerback spot. The Panthers have made it pretty clear they don’t want Captain Munnerlyn starting at cornerback. He brings athleticism and swagger but lacks the size to be an effective every-down cornerback. Ideally, the Panthers would like to slide Munnerlyn inside and let him line up with slot receivers in the nickel package.

That makes all sorts of sense, but there’s one big catch. At the moment, the Panthers aren’t sure they have anyone who can take Munnerlyn’s place as the starter. They got all excited about rookie Josh Norman in June workouts, and he still might end up in that role, but his fast track to a starting job stalled when he missed some time with an injury early in camp. There also was hope that second-year pro Brandon Hogan could claim the spot. But Hogan’s knee, which he injured in his final year of college, still doesn't allow him to stay on the practice field with anything approaching consistency.

Maybe Norman steps up in what’s left of the preseason. If not, the Panthers might give Darius Butler, who spent two seasons with New England before joining the Panthers last season, the starting job. Or maybe they still start Munnerlyn, but slide him inside in nickel situations and let Butler take his spot on the outside.

[+] EnlargeMike Tolbert
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonThe addition of Mike Tolbert, right, further crowds a backfield that includes DeAngelo Williams, left, and Jonathan Stewart.
2. The workload at running back. You can make a case that the Panthers underused running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart last season. So what did the Panthers do in the offseason? They added Mike Tolbert as a free agent from San Diego. The Panthers say Tolbert will be a fullback but also say he’ll get some time at tailback and will be asked to catch passes out of the backfield.

That sure makes it sound like the number of carries for Williams and Stewart, who each have had 1,000-yard seasons in the past, will be reduced even more. But I think people are missing the point. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was riding the hot hand with Newton last season, and the Panthers frequently played from behind. When the coaching staff reflected on last season, I think it concluded that the running backs weren’t involved enough. Count on a conscious effort to get Williams and Stewart more carries.

It might look like Tolbert just complicates things. But players don’t call Chudzinski “The Mad Scientist" for no reason. They know he has big plans for this backfield. We could end up seeing all sorts of combinations of Williams, Stewart and Tolbert, and there could be all sorts of new plays. It sure beats the heck out of the old days in Carolina when variety in the backfield meant a draw play to Nick Goings.

3. The lineup at linebacker. When the Panthers drafted Kuechly, fans wondered what that meant for Beason. Kuechly played the middle in college, and the natural assumption was that he would do the same in the NFL. Kuechly might end up in the middle someday, but not while Beason is around.

Beason is a natural in the middle, and the Panthers aren’t going to move him. They’ll use Kuechly on the weak side. Davis’ comeback is a great story, but it almost certainly isn’t going to end with his return as a full-time starter. James Anderson will be the other starter. If the Panthers get anything out of Davis, it will be viewed as a bonus. At best, the Panthers plan to use Davis as a situational player in some nickel packages. They could resort to the 3-4 defense a little more often, but the 4-3 is going to remain their base defense.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeRyan Kalil
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneCenter Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer, declaring fans will be rewarded for their support with a "one hundred-percent, sterling silver victory -- the Lombardi Trophy."
One of the biggest signs of optimism I’ve ever seen came a few days before camp when center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer, promising a Super Bowl victory this season. Let’s turn to Kalil for an explanation.

“The idea behind the letter wasn’t to spark anything with the team, but really to let the fans in on how the culture was changing here," Kalil said. “I think in recent years, the culture has been too much of, 'If the Panthers win, great. And, if not, nobody expects much from us.’ I think Ron Rivera came in here and the mindset has just changed. There’s a sense of urgency, and a winning attitude that I haven’t seen since I’ve been here. That was the idea behind the letter -- just to get the fans excited, because we haven’t given them a whole lot to cheer about in recent years, and they’ve been very supportive of us. They deserve a better team, and we’re going to give them years of better things to come."

I’ve gotten to know Kalil pretty well, and he’s not the kind of guy who would pull a stunt like this just for show. Kalil was used to winning at USC and, if he was willing to go out on a limb like this, he must feel pretty confident that what he’s seen in the offseason program is about to translate into something special.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There’s no question the presence of Kuechly and Beason will make the linebackers better, and there’s no doubt Edwards will help the run defense. But, outside of Charles Johnson, where’s the pass rush? There was almost no pass rush outside of Johnson last season, and it’s not like the Panthers made any dramatic moves in that area this offseason.

Maybe this is the year Greg Hardy and Eric Norwood finally reach their potential, but it’s not as if they’ve had major flashes in the past. There’s been a little buzz in camp about Thomas Keiser. I’m not sure he’s ready to be a full-time starter, but he could be a situational player. The Panthers might have to make more active use of the blitz. If they don’t, then a secondary that’s not exceptionally talented could be in for another long season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The special teams were almost as big a problem as the defense last season. That’s why the jobs at punter and kicker are completely wide open. There are no favorites here. The Panthers are simply going to go through the preseason and see whether Olindo Mare or Justin Medlock kicks better. If Medlock emerges, the Panthers will be happy to swallow their pride after giving Mare a big contract last season. They just want consistency. It’s the same at punter, where the Panthers let Jason Baker go after last season. They invested a draft pick in Brad Nortman but went out and signed veteran Nick Harris. They’re not indebted to either.

  • Brandon LaFell pretty much has locked up the No. 2 wide receiver job opposite Steve Smith. But there’s a logjam of receivers after that. David Gettis, Louis Murphy and Seyi Ajirotutu seem to be competing for the No. 3 spot. But they might not all make the team. The Panthers also are high on younger receivers Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams and Armanti Edwards, each of whom can contribute in the return game. Edwards, whom the Panthers drafted as a project in 2010, has shown some promise in camp but probably isn’t going to make the roster ahead of Adams and Pilares.

  • There was a lot of talk about competition at right tackle and left guard entering camp. But those competitions didn’t turn into much. The Panthers already were locked in on Byron Bell as their right tackle after he played so well there last season. They also seem fully prepared to go with rookie Amini Silatolu at left guard. Veterans Mike Pollak and Bruce Campbell were brought in, but the Panthers are viewing them as quality backups.

  • There’s been a buzz around camp about how well third-year quarterback Jimmy Clausen has played. Sad part is, it doesn’t really matter. Newton’s set as the franchise quarterback for at least the next decade, and Chudzinski has strong ties to veteran backup Derek Anderson. Clausen is stuck at No. 3. The Panthers might as well try to showcase him in the preseason games. If he really is playing that well, someone might be willing to trade a draft pick for him.

  • The Panthers brought in Haruki Nakamura as an alternative to Sherrod Martin at safety. The thinking was Nakamura, who was Ed Reed’s backup in Baltimore, could end up beating Martin out. As it turns out, the acquisition seems to have ignited a fire under Martin. He’s having a nice training camp, and it looks like he’ll hold onto the starting job if he can continue playing well through the preseason.
  • The Panthers aren't the slightest bit worried about Newton's running into "the sophomore slump." There is good reason for that. Newton had one of the best statistical seasons ever by a quarterback, and he did that coming out of a lockout during which he wasn't able to spend any offseason time with his coaches. Newton has had an entire offseason this year, and all indications are he spent as much time around the facility as possible. The Panthers fully believe Newton didn't even come close to hitting his full potential last season.

NFC South programming notes

August, 10, 2012
8/10/12
5:48
PM ET
It’s been a very quiet afternoon in the NFC South. I used the time to write my Camp Confidential profile on the Carolina Panthers, which is scheduled to run Sunday.

No real news coming across the wires, but the Panthers did just send out a press release announcing enhanced security screening for this season. Starting with Saturday’s preseason game with Houston, security screening at Bank of America Stadium will include the use of hand-held wands and pat-downs. Fans are asked to allow extra time when coming to games.

Other than that, it’s quiet for now. But the night is still young. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the Miami Dolphins at 7:30 p.m. ET.

I know a lot of people say preseason football isn’t important, but this game is an exception. The winner gets to play whoever emerges from the game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa’s Plant High School for the Florida state championship.

I’ll be monitoring the Bucs and Dolphins and weighing in with observations as soon as it’s over. If you want to talk about the game while it’s going on, hit the comments section below.

Film of the NFC South chat

August, 10, 2012
8/10/12
2:26
PM ET
Unless there is some sort of big news between now and the start of Friday night’s game between Tampa Bay and Miami, I’m going into the bunker for the next few hours to write the Camp Confidential Profile on the Carolina Panthers that is scheduled to run Sunday. Meantime, I’ll let you ponder some of the team-by-team highlights from Friday’s NFC South chat.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS


Curt Dunedin Florida [via mobile]: Why doesn't Josh Freeman get the love Stafford or Sanchez does?

Pat Yasinskas: Umm, maybe because Bucs lost the last 10 games of last year. He was getting plenty of love at this time last year. He can get it back by going out and winning a few games. That would be a start.

Ryan (Baltimore): What do you think of schiano trading/cutting players like briscoe, price, winslow, and jackson but not a player like talib? What exactly is the message hes sending?

Pat Yasinskas: By all accounts, Talib has been a model citizen since Schiano's arrival. He says he knows he can't have any more problems and maybe he won't. If he does, he'll probably join the others very quickly.

JOHN (BIG TEX): Pat, how can anyone really predict or judge the buccs at this point? they have a offensive scheme and new players in key positions. I get hyped reading the material but then come to realize, this is a new team.

Pat Yasinskas: Yeah, but it will be fun to watch tonight, just to start getting an idea what the new offense and defense will look like.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Sean (Vegas): I don't know if Lofton got in better shape or what, but he looks fast and looks like he has the ability to be a 3 down LB. What was ATL thinking? More than happy to have him on the Saints.

Pat Yasinskas: Think Lofton did intentionally drop some weight. Plus, he's on a mission to prove he is a three-down LB. Like I've said before, there's more to that story. Falcons wanted him back, but not for his original asking price. He didn't get anything close to original asking price from Saints and Falcons still had comparable offer on the table. But I think Lofton's pride was so wounded that he felt he couldn't go back to Atlanta.

Robert (Wilmington): Have the Saints decided yet who will be the HC for the first 6 games while Vitt is out or will they just draw straws at kickoff?

Pat Yasinskas: No official word from Saints. Early reports said Aaron Kromer will be the guy, but Saints insist no decision has been made.

Tim (Athens): Pat, do you think Vilma will play this season?

Pat Yasinskas: Even if the suspension is overturned somehow, I'm not sure he's healthy enough to play right away.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

John (Charlotte,NC): How big of an impact do you think Josh Norman will make this season?

Pat Yasinskas: Could be very big. They were extraordinarily high on him at June minicamp. He had a little health issue that kept him out for part of training camp. If he can pick up where he left off, he has a legitimate chance to start.

Stephen (Superman) (Winston Salem): Should Panther fans be worried about Beason's "minor" hamstring injury? We have heard it too many times before... Granted this is RR's team now, not Fox.

Pat Yasinskas: Think you answered that on your own. Rivera says it's minor and Beason will be practicing next week. No reason to doubt him and no reason to put Beason out there for 10 snaps in the first preseason game.

Ben (Atlanta GA): Based on your observations, and given his bad clutch kicking last year, are the odds in favor of Mare getting cut from the CAR roster in favor of Justin Medlock?

Pat Yasinskas: Mare is very much on the hot seat. It's going to come down to how he and Medlock kick in the preseason.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Rick (Kennesaw): Id say the Falcons first team on both sides were everything they had promised. They picked apart the third ranked defense and our defense was rock solid. What was your take Pat?

Pat Yasinskas: Pretty much the same as your take. It was a good outing for the starters. Couldn't ask for a better start. Now, backups were a completely different story, but that's the nature of the preseason.

CB (charleston): should Atlanta be in the market for a backup QB? they looked pretty terrible last night.

Pat Yasinskas: No, I think Redman is decent if you have to use him with the first team. What's out there that's better? There aren't a lot of good backup QBs in the league these days.

Scott (maine): Ever since last nights injury to dent I was wondering who atlanta could bring in if the injury is serious?

Pat Yasinskas: Not sure there's anybody worth it currently available. Might have to wait for other teams to make roster cuts and see who pops free. Or maybe even try to trade for someone. But let's wait to see what Smith has to say about the injury. If it's a fairly standard concussion, then Dent should be ready to go before regular season.

ByHenSr (Kenner, LA.): Hi Pat, love the job you're doing, keep it up. If last night is any indication, I think Julio Jones may well be the best wide receiver in the NFC South. (and no I haven't forgotten about Steve Smith) Agree or disagree?

Pat Yasinskas: Can't put up much of an argument, IF he plays like that all the time. Spread his numbers out over four quarters and he would have had 24 catches for 436 yards and four touchdowns, if my math is correct.

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

NFC South programming notes

August, 8, 2012
8/08/12
11:29
AM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I’m about to begin the trek home to NFC South blog headquarters.

As always, keep an eye on the “headlines’’ section of our main NFL page for any breaking news. I’ll weigh in with analysis on any breaking news as soon as I get home and also will be checking in on anything else of note across the division later in the afternoon.

It’s going to be another busy few days in the NFC South as the preseason gets into full swing. The New Orleans Saints already have played in the Hall of Fame Game and they’re scheduled to play at New England on Thursday night. The Atlanta Falcons also are scheduled to host the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will open their preseason Friday night at Miami and the Carolina Panthers will host the Houston Texans on Saturday. I’ll be posting observations on all of them, shortly after each game ends.

Our NFC South chat remains on its regular schedule for Friday at 1 p.m. ET.

We’ll have the Camp Confidential profile on the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. I’ve already been out to Tampa Bay’s camp a couple times and I’ll make a few more trips there as soon as the Bucs get back from Miami. The Camp Confidential segment on the Bucs is scheduled to run Aug. 15.

NFC South quick hits

August, 6, 2012
8/06/12
3:17
PM ET
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- I’ve been tied up a good bit of the day, meeting with general manager Marty Hurney, coach Ron Rivera, tackle Jordan Gross and center Ryan Kalil as I work on the Camp Confidential for the Carolina Panthers that will be running in a few days.

So let’s turn to the headlines to catch up on the latest from all around the NFC South:
  • An NFL spokesperson has denied a report that New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been given an offer that would reduce his suspension from the full season to eight games in exchange for dropping his defamation suit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The league official said the NFL will continue to respect court proceedings. A federal judge is expected to rule no later than Friday on a request by Vilma for an injunction to stop his suspension. For now, all I can say is, stay tuned.
  • Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman sounds very excited to be working with new offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. Freeman should be excited. Sullivan’s the guy that was brought in to resurrect his career.
  • Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said left tackle Donald Penn is making progress as he works to recover from a calf injury. But Penn still isn’t practicing, so I doubt the Bucs will leave Freeman out there too long in the first preseason game with Demar Dotson protecting his blind side.
  • As part of their press release for their first preseason game, the Falcons included an unofficial depth chart. During the preseason, depth charts usually are assembled by the public relations staff, but sometimes include some input from the coaching staff. In general terms, when there is competition at a position, the depth chart usually errs on the side of caution and favors veterans. That rings true at some positions for the Falcons – Garrett Reynolds is ahead of rookie Peter Konz at right guard and Dunta Robinson is ahead of newly-acquired cornerback Asante Samuel. I think we could see an eventual switch at right guard, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Robinson remains the starter, but simply slides inside when Robinson comes into the lineup in nickel situations. But the depth chart also lists Peria Jerry ahead of Corey Peters at defensive tackle. Peters has been sidelined by an injury. But, assuming Peters gets healthy, I’d be shocked if Jerry remains ahead of him when the regular season begins.
  • Running back Jonathan Stewart reportedly is the most followed Carolina player on Twitter. Yep, he even ranks ahead of quarterback Cam Newton, who easily is the highest-profile athlete to ever play for any Charlotte team. But I’m even more surprised Stewart has a bigger following than equipment manager Jackie Miles, the most social Charlotte citizen ever.

NFC South programming notes

August, 5, 2012
8/05/12
11:23
AM ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- The next stop on the NFC South tour of training camps will be Spartanburg, S.C. and the Carolina Panthers.

I’ll be heading out to catch a flight to Charlotte shortly and then making the drive down to Spartanburg. I’ll be watching the Panthers practice and doing interviews Monday and Tuesday as I gather information for their Camp Confidential profile, which will be running a few days after my visit. But I’ll also provide some live updates from camp.

But, before I get to see the Panthers practice, we’ll all get a chance to see the New Orleans Saints play. They take on the Arizona Cardinals in Sunday night’s Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. Stay tuned shortly after the game because I’ll be sharing my observations on the Saints.

Reflecting on early part of camps

August, 4, 2012
8/04/12
12:45
PM ET
I started my training camp travels on July 25 and have seen the Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers. I’ll see the Panthers on Monday and Tuesday and return home to catch a bit more of the Buccaneers between now and the end of camp.

You can see my Camp Confidential profiles on the Falcons here and the Saints here. I’ll have Camp Confidential profiles on the Panthers and Buccaneers soon enough and I still have some leftover stuff on the Saints and Falcons that I’ll share with you between now and the start of the regular season.

But let’s reflect a bit on what I’ve seen so far and touch on some things that I haven’t used in the Camp Confidential profiles or in other notes.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees, Joe Vitt
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertDrew Brees and Joe Vitt are making sure that things are running smoothly at Saints camp.
New Orleans’ camp was unique in many ways. Due to all that’s happened in the offseason, the media contingent was huge. Weather also forced the Saints to practice indoors on the two days I was there. That allowed the media to get a look at the huge photo of suspended coach Sean Payton that’s hanging in the indoor practice facility with the message, “Do your job." It was a pretty chaotic environment on the periphery. But that kind of stuff doesn’t really matter. What I saw on the field looked like the same old Saints. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt and quarterback Drew Brees, who also could probably carry the assistant head coach title, are going about business as usual.

Arriving at Atlanta’s camp, I saw a completely different environment. The Falcons had a calm offseason (their fans would say it’s too calm), but that’s a good thing. There was no media frenzy because the Falcons have no controversy and didn’t have a lot of turnover in the offseason. I caught the Falcons in their first two days in pads and they looked pretty sharp. Stability and continuity are themes the Falcons like to talk about and those are positive things. But I also left camp with the impression that just about everyone in the organization realizes this is a critical season and the Falcons almost have to win a postseason game. But I also got the impression they’re up for the challenge.

Tampa Bay’s camp is a lot more orderly than it’s been in recent years and that’s because Greg Schiano, not Raheem Morris, is running the show. You can see the Bucs have some young talent and they’re going about things in the right way. They were doing some things really well, but their practices were far from perfect. It’s obvious this team is still a work in progress and the Bucs, who are not a veteran team like the Falcons and Saints, are getting used to a new head coach and new offensive and defensive systems. But there still is a lot of camp and an entire preseason left and, judging by everything I’ve seen from Schiano, I’m sure he’ll use that time to try to get his team up to speed.
METAIRIE, La. -- As he prepares for his third NFL season, it sounds as if New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham has figured out the secret to NFL success.

"I was told to never tug on Superman’s cape," Graham said.

He was talking about quarterback Drew Brees. Graham noted how the quarterback challenged him to a sprint race at the start of training camp and said he let Brees win. Graham was partly joking, but there was some deep wisdom in his words.

More than ever, the Saints are Brees’ team. They’ve been through an offseason unlike one any other team has faced. They’ve been through the painful drama of the bounty scandal and they’ll move forward without coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season, and general manager Mickey Loomis, who is suspended for the first eight games.

Brees, the league's highest-paid player, is coming off a season in which he set a NFL single-season record for most passing yards. No, let other teams try to tug on Brees’ cape. If the Saints really are going to endure all this adversity successfully, they need Brees’ skill and leadership more than ever. They need to ride the coattails of the most positive thing they have at the moment.

Brees knows this high-flying offense as well as anyone, including Payton. The Saints remain loaded at offensive skill positions. There’s little doubt this team still is going to score a lot, and that alone will keep it competitive.

But Brees can’t do everything by himself. Even before the word "bounty" started flying in March, the Saints knew they had to overhaul their defense. That became clear in last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco. That’s why defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired. Predecessor Gregg Williams had a gambling philosophy, going all-out to produce turnovers. The negative side effect was that the Saints gave up too many big plays.

Spagnuolo brings a more balanced philosophy. Sure, he wants turnovers, but he also wants to be able to shut down offenses from time to time. A big theme of this camp is the installation of Spagnuolo’s defense. Even though that’s not his side of the ball, Brees shows a lot of interest in the defense. Even in camp, the Saints are implementing game plans.

“[Spagnuolo] is going to try to find every flaw, just like we are going to do to them,’’ Brees said. “Along the way, I am certainly going to be picking his brain as to what he is seeing with our offense, how we can improve. That is how you help one another. That is a habit that we got into, me talking to the defensive guys, even if it is just the secondary guys, saying, 'You give away that blitz whenever you do this.' We are competing against each other, but in the end we are on the same team. I want them to be able to go out and have as much success as possible, just like they want us, on game day, to have as much success as possible.”

Maybe that’s the best way to improve the New Orleans defense. Practice against Superman every day. After you’ve been through that, everything else should be easy.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Mark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREMark Ingram rushed for 474 yards and five touchdowns during his rookie season with the Saints.
THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Mark Ingram’s playing time. Fan expectations for Ingram might be significantly higher than the team's. That’s somewhat understandable, because the Saints traded back into the first round in 2011 to draft Ingram. He played at a college powerhouse (Alabama) and won a Heisman Trophy. Instant stardom was expected by fans, but it didn’t turn out that way in Ingram’s rookie season.

He finished with 122 carries for 474 yards and five touchdowns. Injuries were part of the reason his numbers weren’t bigger. But even before the injuries, Ingram shared playing time with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory did a nice job joining the rotation after Ingram’s injury problems started. Ingram had a couple of offseason surgeries and said he’s completely healthy.

But that doesn’t mean Ingram suddenly is going to become a 300-carry guy. New Orleans’ offense is based on diversity, and that’s not going to change. The Saints aren’t going to take playing time away from Sproles, who set an NFL record for all-purpose yards last season, and Thomas is going to play because he has earned it with his performance.

Assuming Ingram stays healthy, I expect him to get more carries than last season, but a 200-carry season for about 800 yards is a reasonable expectation.

2. Will the linebackers be better than last season? I think they’ll be markedly better. Many believe the season-long suspension of Jonathan Vilma is going to hurt the Saints. If this were two or three years ago, I’d agree. But Vilma was bothered by knee problems last season, and his age seemed to be catching up to him. I think free-agent addition Curtis Lofton is an upgrade over Vilma in the middle. In fact, I think Lofton is pretty similar to what Vilma was two or three years ago. The Saints will be just fine in the middle.

Plus, the Saints didn’t sit still at outside linebacker. They signed free agents David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. It looks as if Hawthorne is well on his way to winning a starting job. That leaves Chamberlain competing with Scott Shanle, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas for the other starting job. There’s no true favorite here, and Shanle is the fallback option as the safe choice because he’s smart and dependable. But Chamberlain, Herring and Casillas are more athletic and at least come with the possibility of producing big plays. The hope is that one of those three can step forward to win the starting job.

3. Can the offensive line, minus Carl Nicks, be as good as last season? Nicks took the big money and left for Tampa Bay in free agency. Losing a player many scouts consider the best guard in the NFL must take a toll. But the Saints already had Jahri Evans, who might be the closest thing to Nicks. Loomis did a nice job getting Ben Grubbs to replace Nicks. Grubbs isn’t quite on the Nicks/Evans level, but he’s an above-average player and came at a much lower salary than Nicks. The Saints build their offensive line around the interior, and Evans and Grubbs will form a very strong guard tandem.

Brian de la Puente did a nice job taking over at center last year and should be fine with Grubbs and Evans surrounding him. The tackles are more of a question. The Saints are sticking with Jermon Bushrod on the left side and Zach Strief on the right. They’re serviceable, but Bushrod and Strief aren’t all-pros, and the presence of Evans and Grubbs should be enough to keep this offensive line among the better ones in the league.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Spagnuolo’s history. There is legitimate concern about the pass rush, because Spagnuolo likes it to come mostly from his front four. Aside from defensive end Will Smith, who will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, the Saints don’t have a proven pass-rusher. Many fans are worked up about the potential of Junior Galette and converted linebacker Martez Wilson. Those guys could turn into something, but maybe fans aren’t looking in the right direction.

Second-year pro Cameron Jordan might be a big factor. Yeah, I know that sounds like a stretch because Jordan had one sack as a rookie, but he was a first-round pick and still has plenty of untapped potential. There’s more than that, though. Look at Spagnuolo’s past. When he became defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 2007, Justin Tuck had gone through two NFL seasons with one sack. In Spagnuolo’s first season, Tuck had 10. In 2008, Tuck recorded 12.

If Spagnuolo can get anything close to double-digit sacks from Jordan, he may have short- and long-term answers for his pass rush.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

How much adversity can one team take? The Saints will use all that happened to them in the offseason as a rallying cry, providing strong motivation. But it’s tough for any team to ride one emotion (anger, in this case) for an entire season. This franchise has been through a lot, and you have to worry about that taking a toll at some point.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Drew Brees and Tom Benson
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREWith a new contract and instability in the coaching staff, Drew Brees will be asked to be even more of a leader for Tom Benson's Saints.
You also have to worry about the Saints being a target for opponents, especially those who spent the past few months hearing that the bounty program had targeted some of their own players. Then throw in the fact that assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has run the team in Payton’s absence, must serve a six-game suspension at the start of the season. At that point, the Saints are expected to make another of their assistants the acting head coach. Yes, this is a veteran team with outstanding leadership, but it sure looks like a lot of things are stacked against the Saints.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • There was a lot of buzz about cornerback Marquis Johnson in the first few days of camp. He made some nice plays and usually was around the ball. The Saints hope second-year pro Johnny Patrick can be their No. 3 cornerback after starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson. But Johnson has a chance to compete with Patrick and may have one slight advantage. The third-year player spent his first two seasons in St. Louis, where Spagnuolo was the coach. Johnson knows the system, and that might be why he’s off to a fast start in camp. If he can sustain it, he’ll have a chance to move past Patrick. At worst, Johnson has a chance to be the fourth cornerback and a key player on special teams.
  • The Saints have almost an embarrassment of riches at kicker. They have Garrett Hartley back from an injury that kept him out last season and veteran John Kasay, who filled in nicely for Hartley. Hartley and Kasay each have made a lot of big kicks in their careers. Although Kasay is 42, he’s not showing signs of slowing. Hartley has the stronger leg, but Kasay has been a model of consistency throughout his career. The Saints will let this competition play throughout camp. If it ends in a dead heat, it might be the toughest call of all when it’s time to trim the roster. Brought in by Loomis, Hartley has earned a spot in franchise history with some clutch kicks. But Loomis and Kasay go all the way back to the early 1990s, when they were together in Seattle.
  • There’s been a lot of talk about New Orleans’ young wide receivers early in camp. Adrian Arrington, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Andy Tanner and Chris Givens have made spectacular catches. But let’s keep that in perspective. Those catches came before the Saints put pads on and before defenders could hit. The Saints are looking for fourth and fifth receivers, but let’s not anoint any of these guys yet. The preseason games will determine who wins the final roster spots at receiver. Arrington’s entering his third season, and it’s time for him to start showing something. Toon comes in after a solid career at Wisconsin. They probably are the favorites to make the roster at this point. But Morgan, Tanner and Givens might be able to change the pecking order if they can make catches in traffic in preseason games.
  • The Saints thought they might get an eventual starter when they drafted Charles Brown in 2010. There was even hope that he might turn into the long-range solution at left tackle. That hasn’t come close to happening. Bushrod has settled in nicely at left tackle. The Saints hoped Brown at least would be able to start at right tackle. But that hasn’t happened, either. Strief beat out Brown for the starting job last season. When Strief was injured, Brown got playing time, but his play wasn't pretty. (If you don’t believe me, look at the tape of the loss to the Rams.) The Saints still say that Strief and Brown are competing for the starting job this season, but Strief has received all of the first-team work, and I didn't hear any buzz at all about Brown from coaches. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure Brown even will be on the roster when the regular season starts.
  • Speaking of offensive linemen who could be on the bubble, don’t forget Matt Tennant. The Saints drafted Tennant in 2010, thinking he'd be the heir apparent to Jonathan Goodwin at center. It hasn’t worked out that way. When Goodwin left via free agency last year, the Saints took an early look at Tennant and quickly signed Olin Kruetz, the former Bears star. When Kruetz abruptly decided to retire, the Saints didn’t turn back to Tennant. They turned to de la Puente, who now has a strong grip on the starting job. Like Brown, Tennant could be fighting for a roster spot. The Saints used to have a good reputation for finding offensive linemen beyond the first round of the draft (Evans, Nicks and Bushrod), but Brown and Tennant may have eroded that trend.
  • The Saints appear set with Graham and David Thomas at tight end. Graham is a great pass-catcher, and Thomas is a jack of all trades. But keep an eye on Michael Higgins, who spent much of last year on the practice squad before getting promoted to the regular roster late in the season. Higgins already has demonstrated he can block, and showed signs of being a good receiver early in camp. Thomas has had injury problems, and the Saints may not want to overuse him. Higgins could provide another alternative.
  • There has been talk that strong safety Roman Harper might not be a great fit in Spagnuolo’s defense because he isn’t known for great coverage skills. But I believe Spagnuolo will find a way to make this defense work for Harper. There’s really not an alternative behind him. His backup is Jonathon Amaya, whose only claim to fame is that he was part of the Reggie Bush trade.
METAIRIE, La. -- I’m about to fly to Atlanta. Then, I’ll be driving up to the Falcons’ training camp complex in Flowery Branch. (Note to New Orleans fans: We’re not done with the Saints yet. Their Camp Confidential profile is scheduled to run Monday).

I won’t arrive until after Saturday morning’s practice concludes, but I should be able to catch the late-afternoon session, and will be with the Falcons through Monday. Every camp has storylines, and the Falcons are no exception.

Here’s a list of five things I’ll be watching during my visit:

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Bob Donnan/US PresswireAtlanta quarterback Matt Ryan might throw a better deep ball if his protection improved.
Matt Ryan’s arm: There are a ton of critics out there that say Ryan doesn’t have the arm to throw the deep ball. I’ve always disagreed with that. While Ryan’s arm might not be as strong as Cam Newton’s or Josh Freeman’s, I think it’s strong enough. I’d put him on a par with New Orleans’ Drew Brees, who has had plenty of success with long passes. I think the real problem is that Ryan’s offensive line didn’t protect him long enough to give him time to effectively throw the deep ball last season. But I’m going to pay particular attention to Ryan’s arm this camp to make sure my eyes aren’t deceiving me.

The left tackle situation: This is a natural follow-up to the item on Ryan. Left tackle was a big problem last season. Sam Baker, who was taken in the same draft as Ryan to protect the quarterback’s blind side, lost his starting job to Will Svitek last season. The Falcons are giving Baker first crack at the job this season, and the company line is that he was hurt worse than fans realized last season. The Falcons know more about Baker’s medical situation than we do, so we’ll take their word for it -- for now. But the Falcons can’t really turn back to Svitek this season, because he has no upside. Baker needs to go out and show why he was a first-round pick in 2008.

Dirk Koetter’s offense: I was critical of some of the things former coordinator Mike Mularkey did, and so were a lot of Atlanta fans. But we’re about to find out if Mularkey really deserved blame or if it was the personnel he had to work with. I’m pretty sure Koetter has been given instructions to open up the offense. That doesn’t mean simply throwing more deep passes. It means more variety all the way around. Things like screen passes and a running game that features a little bit of speed, not just power.

Jacquizz Rodgers: This is a follow-up to the part I just mentioned about speed in the backfield. I saw Rodgers in camp last season, and it was hard to tell much because he was working with the third team. I saw him in some regular-season games, and it was hard to tell much because his playing time was minimal. But the one thing that jumped out about Rodgers even in those situations is that he’s very fast. The Falcons need to take advantage of that and use him as a runner and a receiver. Michael Turner is going to be the main runner on this team, but the Falcons need some variety in their backfield.

Mike Nolan’s defense: Former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took just as much heat from fans as Mularkey. Nolan’s got a strong background, and everything he’s hinted at suggests he wants to build a more aggressive defense. With guys like Sean Weatherspoon, Corey Peters, John Abraham, Asante Samuel, Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, he’s inheriting plenty of talent. But some of those guys didn’t always play up to their potential in the past. Nolan’s best chance for success might be to light some fires to get this defense properly motivated.

Film of the NFC South chat

July, 27, 2012
7/27/12
2:31
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- We just finished a very active NFC South chat with a lot of good questions from all precincts.

Before heading out to Saints’ camp this afternoon, I’m going to spend some time getting started on my Camp Confidential profile on the Saints, which is to run Monday. Fans in Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Carolina, hold tight, I’ll be hitting your camps, too, and we’ll have Camp Confidential profiles on all four teams over the next couple of weeks. Meantime, here’s something that involves all four teams.

Here are the highlights of Friday’s NFC South chat:

Atlanta Falcons

Carl Carlson (Springfield): Having turned 30 in February, does Michael Turner have one more big year left?

Pat Yasinskas: I think Turner still has something in the tank. That said, I think you'll see them do some different things with their RBs this year. You'll see more of Jacquizz Rodgers and maybe even Jason Snelling. But Turner still will be the main ball carrier.

Dom (Stone Mountain): How good can Nolan make the Falcons D this year if everyone stays healthy from this point out?

Pat Yasinskas: I think they have a lot of talent on defense. Just a matter of Nolan getting everyone on same page and instilling a more aggressive attitude.

Michael (brunswick, ga): any chance that we might see Peria Jerry reach his full potential any time soon?

Pat Yasinskas: Sadly, I'm not sure we'll ever see that. I think the injury was so severe, he may never be more than a role player.

Carolina Panthers

Ken (NY): Who wins the starting receiver job opposite Steve Smith? Murphy, Gettis or Lafell?

Pat Yasinskas: I say LaFell, but what happens in camp and preseason games will determine the winner.

James (Lincolnton): Pat how do you feel about Kalil predicting a championship season?

Pat Yasinskas: Although I'm sure some people in the front office and on the coaching staff cringed because they like to stay under the radar, I don't have a problem with it. In fact, I like what Kalil did. I think it shows he's stepping up as a leader of this team. He's seen some good things this offseason and I think he did it to encourage his teammates to keep doing what they've been doing and take the next step.

James (Fort Mill, SC): Who do you think will win the Panther's RT job now that Otah is going out the door? Byron Bell showed promise last year, is the job his to lose?

Pat Yasinskas: Yep, I think Bell is the leader. But Bruce Campbell and Garry Williams could end up there if Bell doesn't have a great camp and preseason.

New Orleans Saints

John (New Orleans): Between Shanle, Casillas, and Chamberlian who do you think will win the other OLB job at camp?

Pat Yasinskas: I think Shanle is the safe, fall-back option. But I think they're really hoping one of the other two can step up and win the job.

Scott (Northglenn, CO): What do you expect from Jimmy Graham this year? On one hand, he's only played football for like 3 years and has unimaginable upside...on the other hand, there's natural regression from an amazing year and also the ability of defenses to adjust...what do you think?

Pat Yasinskas: With Brees as his QB, I'm not counting on Graham regressing.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Nicolas (Parkland, FL): How does the trade of Brian Price affect the Buccaneers? Do you think that they will use Amobi Okoye or someone younger?

Pat Yasinskas: I think Okoye is the guy they expect to start. But they also think highly of some of the other guys.

Tim (Athens): Penn has never been one to keep himself in tip-top shape and now appears to be sitting out of the first 2 weeks practice. Do you think he is also at risk of being cut or is he too valuable?

Pat Yasinskas: Excellent question. Can't imagine them cutting a left tackle, especially if injury is minor. I'd say it's a real long shot. But, then again, Schiano has made it clear that nobody is sacred.

Kyle (northampton, pa): I was surprised to hear that Blount was always late for meetings, practices, etc. and that behavior was allowed under the old regime. it explains alot when you ask how a team can lose 10 straight. how many other players had similar problems.

Pat Yasinskas: I was not surprised.

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

Things to watch at Saints' camp

July, 26, 2012
7/26/12
8:33
AM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints will be hitting the field for their first practice of training camp late Thursday afternoon.

I’ll be out there gathering information for my Camp Confidential profile on the Saints, which is scheduled to run Monday, as well as stuff for our season preview that will be running late in the preseason. I’ll also be providing some live updates after practice and interviews.

This will be one of the more unique seasons in NFL history, because coach Sean Payton is suspended for the season and other members of the organization will serve suspensions at various times. So let’s run through a quick preview of some of the things I’ll be watching.

[+] EnlargeJoe Vitt
AP Photo/Margaret BowlesJoe Vitt will be the Saints' acting head coach in training camp, but will serve a six-game suspension to start the regular season.
The chemistry of the coaches: Assistant head coach Joe Vitt has been running things during the offseason, and will continue to do so during training camp. But Vitt will have to serve his suspension during the first six games of the regular season. It has been reported that offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will take over for Vitt, but the team hasn’t made any official announcement. Putting Kromer in the top spot makes sense, because it allows coordinators Steve Spagnuolo and Pete Carmichael to focus on the defense and the offense. Vitt has been Payton’s right-hand man since their arrival in New Orleans in 2006, so training camp is likely to look like business as usual for the players. But it’s going to be different for the coaches. After a bizarre offseason, the coaches have to use training camp to prepare for what will be a major change at the start of camp.

Running back Mark Ingram: He didn’t have a huge impact as a rookie because of injuries and a steady rotation in the backfield. But Ingram was a first-round pick, and the expectations are high. We’ll first find out if he’s healthy. If he is, then we’ll start to see how he will fit into a backfield that’s crowded with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory.

Junior Galette: New Orleans fans have had a fascination with this guy since he arrived in 2010. It’s understandable, because the defensive end has a unique combination of size and speed, and has shown flashes of promise in the past two training camps. That didn’t translate into much in Galette’s rookie season, but there were some signs last season, that he could be an impact player. Galette produced 4.5 sacks as a part-time player. With Will Smith expected to serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, the Saints are looking for a pass-rusher. Galette and second-year pro Martez Wilson, who is making the transition from linebacker to defensive end, have the most upside of the younger players in camp. If they continue to develop, they could take on major roles in the regular season.

The young cornerbacks: Patrick Robinson and Johnny Patrick are a lot like Galette and Wilson. They’re young, have a lot of potential, and likely will get a lot more playing time than they have in the past. With Tracy Porter departing as a free agent, the Saints are expecting Robinson to step into the starting role opposite Jabari Greer, and Patrick to become the nickel back. This is all part of a master plan. The Saints were preparing for Porter’s departure when they drafted Robinson and Patrick.

The changes at linebacker: No position received more attention in the offseason. Knowing Jonathan Vilma could face suspension, and realizing that the linebacker play wasn’t great last season, the Saints added Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain as free agents. They still have veterans like Scott Shanle, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas. Other than Lofton in the middle, no one is guaranteed a starting job. The Saints are going to throw all the other linebackers out there in camp, let them compete and see who steps up to earn starting jobs.

NFC South programming notes

July, 23, 2012
7/23/12
9:23
AM ET
All four NFC South teams begin training camp later this week and I’ll be making the rounds, just like the past four preseasons.

I’ll provide some live observations, news and notes from each camp. But our main purpose in these trips is to gather information for our Camp Confidential profiles that will run shortly after each camp visit. Here’s a sample of a Camp Confidential on the Saints and this year’s format will be similar.

Things are always subject to change but here’s the tentative schedule for when each Camp Confidential profile will run. The New Orleans Saints are scheduled for July 30. The Atlanta Falcons are on the slate for Aug. 2.

The Carolina Panthers are scheduled for Aug. 12 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Aug. 15.

I’ll let you know our live chat schedule, but there may be some shuffling from our usual slot on Fridays at 1 p.m. ET because there will be some conflicts with practice schedules. I’ll provide more details as soon as I get them.

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