NFC South: Charles Grant

Unless the NFL Players Association has some sort of Hail-Mary pass hidden deep in its playbook, it’s starting to look like New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma will have to serve his season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith will have to sit out the first four games.

A second arbitrator has ruled against a grievance by the NFLPA on behalf of Vilma, Smith and former Saints Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita. In the latest ruling, arbitrator Shyan Das ruled in favor of the NFL. The grievance said that the collective bargaining agreement signed last summer, prohibits commissioner Roger Goodell from punishing players for contact before the agreement was signed. But Das said Goodell had that authority.

That leaves only a few more ways for Smith and Vilma to avoid their suspensions, or have them reduced. Their appeals directly to Goodell are scheduled to be heard later in June. But, since Goodell is the one who issue the punishment, I doubt he’ll reverse himself. He upheld his rulings when Saints coaches and administrators appealed suspensions against the team.

The other wild card in this is Vilma’s defamation lawsuit against Goodell. Some legal experts have said they expect that case to be dismissed before ever reaching trial. But Vilma’s lawyer was involved in the StarCaps litigation that hung up suspensions for Smith and former New Orleans player Charles Grant and several former Minnesota players. The players eventually were suspended last season, but their case, which began in 2008, was stalled in the legal system for a long time as the NFL waited for final resolution.
Here’s another reason the New Orleans Saints could target a defensive end with the No. 24 overall pick in tonight’s draft.

A court ruling in Minnesota on Thursday could clear the way for New Orleans defensive end Will Smith to serve a four-game suspension for reportedly using a banned dietary substance. The reports on that first surfaced when the Saints were in London for a game during the 2008 season. Former New Orleans defensive end Charles Grant also was reportedly facing a suspension for the same reason and so were two members of the Minnesota Vikings.

The Minnesota players challenged the ruling in court and the league has held off on any suspensions from this episode until it’s legally resolved. But this latest move might prompt the league to go ahead with the suspensions.

Draft needs: New Orleans Saints

February, 23, 2011
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The New Orleans Saints are up as we continue our series of team-by-team draft needs.
  1. Defensive end. The Saints let Charles Grant go last season and Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson were adequate. But neither of them give the Saints anything special. The Saints need another pass rusher to go with Will Smith. The Gregg Williams defense is at its best when it can force other teams into turnovers.
  2. Outside linebacker. The Saints let Scott Fujita go in free agency last year and it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. But several guys who were in contention to take over for Fujita got hurt and the position never really got filled. The Saints could use a speedy playmaker to put next to middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
  3. Running back. A lot of New Orleans fans don’t seem willing to believe it, but Pierre Thomas almost certainly will be allowed to walk as a free agent. He fell into the doghouse when his ankle injury was slow to heal last season. Chris Ivory did a nice job filling in when Thomas and Reggie Bush were out. But the Saints need consistency at this position and that means adding a running back who can handle a good chunk of carries to go with Bush and Ivory.
  4. Defensive tackle. Sedrick Ellis has developed into a solid player, but the Saints don’t have much in the middle beside him. It’s time to upgrade the talent level here.
  5. Offensive tackle. I know the Saints drafted Charles Brown last year. But, if he's not ready to start, I'm not sure this offense can endure another year of Jermon Bushrod at left tackle.

For a look at New Orleans’ needs through another set of eyes, check out our friends at HoopDat.
The StarCaps saga that’s been playing out for more than two years finally could end up with New Orleans defensive end Will Smith serving a four-game suspension.

Smith was one of five players to reportedly test positive for a banned diuretic back in 2008. Retired running back Deuce McAllister and defensive end Charles Grant, who was released after the 2009 season, also were initially supposed to be suspended. But Minnesota’s Kevin and Pat Williams also were among the players involved.

Legal action by the Minnesota players put the suspensions on hold as the case went through the court system. The latest development came Tuesday when the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled against the players. The court affirmed a lower-court ruling that the NFL didn’t violate state law by trying to discipline the players.

An appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court still could come, but it’s unclear if that will be pursued.

This likely means the Saints will at least have to prepare for being without Smith at some point this season. Adding help at defensive end already was a possibility because Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson weren’t all that productive last season.

The Saints hold the 24th overall pick in the April draft.

Saints regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow denoting whether team is trending up or down.

Final Power Ranking: 5
Preseason Power Ranking: 2

[+] EnlargeChris Ivory
Frank Victores/US PresswireSaints rookie running back Chris Ivory stepped into a prominent role during the regular season.
Biggest surprise: Chris Ivory. The undrafted rookie running back saved the Saints from a potentially catastrophic situation. With a preseason injury to Lynell Hamilton and early-season injuries to Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, the Saints were desperate for help at running back. They brought in veterans Julius Jones and Ladell Betts, but neither did much. Instead, it was Ivory who stepped up and gave the Saints enough of a threat in the running game to keep opposing defenses from loading up on the passing game. Ivory probably has secured a spot in the running back rotation for the foreseeable future, though he will miss the playoffs with a foot injury.

Biggest disappointment: Thomas. He emerged as New Orleans’ most steady running back in last year’s Super Bowl season and turned down a contract offer to play for the restricted free-agent tender this year. Thomas injured his ankle early in the season, and it initially was thought he’d miss only a few weeks. But the injury lingered and Ivory continued to emerge. Thomas came back and contributed a bit late in the season, but the coaching staff and front office might have come to the conclusion that he’s expendable because of the presence of Ivory and the expected return of Hamilton. Those two can work with Bush in tandem in the backfield.

Biggest need: A pass-rusher to play opposite Will Smith. The Saints brought in veterans Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson after letting Charles Grant go. Neither has had much impact as a pass-rusher, and other teams have loaded up their blocking to tie up Smith. The Saints still have generated plenty of pressure because defensive coordinator Gregg Williams isn’t shy about bringing the blitz. But the Saints could be even more dangerous defensively if they had a pass-rusher to complement Smith.

Team MVP: Drew Brees. This season was not nearly close to the perfect season Brees had while leading the Saints to last season's Super Bowl victory. Brees threw a career-high 22 interceptions, double the amount he threw last year. But Brees still put up big numbers, with 33 touchdowns and 4,620 passing yards, and he carried this team through periods when other parts of the team were struggling. Brees’ leadership also was a big part of the reason why the Saints never really had problems with the “Super Bowl hangover’’ that has prevented so many Super Bowl teams from returning to the playoffs the following season.

Changing of the safeties: If there was a true breakout player in the NFC South this season, it was safety Malcolm Jenkins. With Darren Sharper out for almost the first half of the season while recovering from knee surgery, the Saints moved Jenkins to free safety after he spent his rookie year at cornerback. Jenkins stepped right up, and there was no drop-off at safety. When cornerbacks Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter and Randall Gay were injured, Jenkins briefly shifted back to cornerback. Later in the season, the Saints shifted him to nickelback in passing situations and inserted Sharper at free safety. It didn’t matter where Jenkins lined up. He made big plays all season.

Around the NFC South

October, 5, 2010
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Tuesdays generally are off days for players and coaches around the league. But there's still a fair amount of happenings in the NFC South today. Let's take a look at some headlines.

Trent Dilfer said the New Orleans Saints still are the best team in the NFL. He says the mark of a great team is being able to win with your “C’’ stuff and that the Saints will continue to improve as the season goes on. I agree with Dilfer, but I also put the Atlanta Falcons right there with the Saints.

With the Buccaneers talking about getting more work for running backs LeGarrette Blount and Kareem Huggins, Cadillac Williams acknowledges that his days as a feature back could be coming to an end. But I wouldn’t go writing Williams off completely just yet. He might be more productive playing in some sort of rotation.

The Chicago Bears have signed former New Orleans defensive end Charles Grant. Kind of ironic that Grant’s replacement is Alex Brown, who came from the Bears as a free agent in the offseason.

Mike Ornstein, a marketing agent with a frequent presence at New Orleans Saints’ practices and games and the man Sean Payton talked about handling the team’s accommodations in Miami during the Super Bowl, reportedly has entered a guilty plea for conspiring to scalp Super Bowl tickets. Ornstein also was the former marketing agent for New Orleans running back Reggie Bush.

With the arrest of Dwayne Jarrett for reportedly driving while intoxicated, Joseph Person writes that it’s time to get rookie Armanti Edwards some playing time in Carolina. I couldn’t agree more. Yeah, Edwards might be a project, but the entire Carolina team is a project right now. Might as well let Edwards get involved with the rebuilding while its on the ground floor.

New Orleans safety Darren Sharper says he’ll be ready to come off the physically unable to perform list and play in a few weeks. With all the injuries the Saints have at safety, Sharper’s return could be very timely.

With one quarter of the season over, Atlanta coach Mike Smith offers a progress report to D. Orlando Ledbetter on the Falcons.

Saints a dynasty waiting to happen?

September, 9, 2010
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BreesSteve Mitchell/US PresswireWith Drew Brees at the top of his game, the Saints have a chance to make another Super Bowl run.
NEW ORLEANS -- I’m not sure what really qualifies an NFL team as a dynasty anymore. Back-to-back Super Bowl wins? Perhaps. But what’s the real time frame for a team to be considered a dynasty? Just for the sake of argument, let’s make it five years. In that scenario, I say a team has to go to the playoffs at least four times and win two Super Bowls. We’ll use those parameters to throw out three reasons why the New Orleans Saints can be a dynasty -- and three reasons why they may not be one.

Three reasons why the Saints can be a dynasty.

  1. Drew Brees is 31 and in his absolute prime. That alone is a huge start. Brees is now in the Peyton Manning and Tom Brady stratosphere. He’s the heart and soul of this team and he’s the perfect fit with coach Sean Payton in an offense that really has no limits. History has indicated quarterbacks can play at a high level into their mid-to-late 30s and we’re not even including Brett Favre. The Saints have made some noise about signing Brees to a long-term contract, but it hasn’t happened yet. It will, though. Brees is too important to this team to even let him get close to the end of his current contract, which still has two years remaining.
  2. The rest of the Saints are in their prime. We’re not even talking about Darren Sharper here because who knows if he’ll even play again? That doesn’t really matter. The rest of the core of this team is very good and relatively young. Players such as Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Marques Colston and Reggie Bush are in their prime years. More important, guys such as Jahri Evans, Carl Nicks, Sedrick Ellis, Tracy Porter and Malcolm Jenkins already are very good, but they probably haven’t even entered their prime years yet.
  3. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis are a dynamic duo. The two get along very well and there’s no reason to think they won’t be together for the long haul. They share a vision of what they want their team to look like and they’ve done a tremendous job of putting a strong nucleus in place. You can’t sit still and the Saints haven’t done that. Even after winning the Super Bowl, they let older players such as Scott Fujita and Charles Grant go and they’ll continue to work early draft picks such as Jenkins and Patrick Robinson into the mix.
Why the Saints might not end up being a dynasty

  1. There’s a storm brewing in Atlanta. As good as the Saints are, you can look in the NFC South and see a legitimate challenger. The Falcons have put together back-to-back winning seasons, and with a healthy roster and quarterback Matt Ryan entering his third year, Atlanta might be ready for the next step. No NFC South team ever has repeated as the division champion. The Saints certainly seem poised to do that. But the slightest slip could be costly because the Falcons appear to be nearly on the same level with the Saints.
  2. You have to know how to handle success. The Saints spent much of the offseason celebrating and that was great. But has the party really stopped? Just judging by the local media and what’s going on with all the fanfare in New Orleans today, it seems to be almost expected that the Saints will just continue winning almost all the time. With that kind of climate, a loss or two is going to put all sorts of pressure on this team. The Saints handled adversity well last season, but they really didn’t have much of it. The mark of a truly great team is being able to handle adversity on a consistent basis.
  3. Is Payton as good as we think? Right now, it’s hard not to put Payton very close to the top of any list of coaches. He seemed to really grow last year, and hiring Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator was the move that put this team over the top. Payton’s always been daring, and the onside kick in the Super Bowl only added to that reputation. But think back to the two seasons before that when the Saints were mediocre. Payton took big gambles in those days and didn’t always come away viewed as a genius. Being bold and daring can be good. But you can’t get too caught up in living up to those labels. You’re not going to be right on every gamble.
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Repeating as Super Bowl champions has become one of the hardest things to do in the modern NFL. Of the 15 Super Bowl champions before the New Orleans Saints, only two were repeat customers.

In fact, it's not uncommon for Super Bowl champions to stumble the next season and not even make the playoffs. Are the Saints, who had one of the greatest feel-good stories in Super Bowl history, the next team to take a fall?

Or can the Saints break the trend and repeat?

In the final installment of our Great Debate series, ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas take two very different stances on whether the Saints can repeat.

[+] EnlargeBrees
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireDrew Brees and the Saints know they'll need to be on their game each week to have a shot at repeating as champions.
Pat Yasinskas: John, you and I have talked about this many times throughout the offseason and I totally respect your reasons for saying the Saints aren't going to repeat. You very well may end up being right. But I've already gone out and predicted the Saints will win back-to-back Super Bowls and I'm not backing off that one.

The main reason I believe this can happen is because the Saints aren't like a lot of recent Super Bowl champions. I think the uncertainty over the labor situation helped them greatly. Super Bowl teams traditionally get ripped apart in free agency. A few marginal or role players usually end up getting big contracts elsewhere just because other teams overrate them and want someone with a Super Bowl ring on their roster. A lot of times, Super Bowl coaching staffs get raided with coordinators moving to head coaching jobs elsewhere.

None of that really happened with the Saints. All they really lost was linebacker Scott Fujita, who got a big contract from Cleveland. Even though the Saints have had some recent injuries at linebacker, Fujita is replaceable. The Saints also cut defensive end Charles Grant and I think that was addition by subtraction.

They replaced Grant with veterans Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson. Neither is going to put up 15 sacks, but both play the run solidly and are consistent, which is something Grant never was. The Saints basically have kept their team and coaching staff intact. Throw in the draft class and a few other minor additions and I'll say the Saints, on paper, are better than they were a year ago. I know you disagree, so go ahead and start shredding that paper.

John Clayton: The Saints' story in 2009 was a great one, but for the Saints to repeat, now you are talking the beginning of a dynasty. I don't see that. Sure, the Saints will make the playoffs. They have Drew Brees, who now ranks with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as one of the league's three best quarterbacks. You're probably going to call me hypocritical when I say the Colts are my team to repeat as the AFC champion. The reason I did that is I couldn't get behind any other team in the AFC that has a great chance of getting to the Super Bowl.

That's not the case in the NFC. I think the Cowboys have the most talent. I also believe -- and we've talked about this many times -- the Falcons are ready to jump to the top of the division. Matt Ryan is ready. The offense is ready to explode. Mike Smith is getting his defense where he would like it to be. Plus, the schedule is more favorable to the Falcons this year than the Saints. You know from your travels last year you were always going to New Orleans because usually the best games in your division were there. This year, the best home games involving your division teams are in Atlanta. The Falcons play their toughest opponents at home. The Saints play their toughest teams on the road. That's why I don't think the Saints will repeat.

PY: All good points, and I agree the Falcons are a very real threat to New Orleans. Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have assembled a very good roster and I think Ryan is on the verge of taking the next step. The Saints aren't going to coast through their division as they did last year and basically have it wrapped up by November. And they probably aren't going to start 13-0 as they did last season. I think you also have to at least include Carolina in the talk about the NFC South, because it's always a physical football team and the Saints will have to be at their best just to get through the division.

However, there's one big difference between Brees, Payton and the Saints compared to Smith, Ryan and the Falcons. The Saints have won a Super Bowl. They know what it takes.

There's been talk about a Super Bowl hangover, and there's no doubt the Saints spent a big chunk of their offseason celebrating. It might have taken some sort of a toll, but I think that's all gone now. When the Saints came out very sluggish in their preseason opener at New England, Payton ripped into his team and the message was basically, "Last year showed you what hard work and focus can get you." It was only a preseason game, but I think that was a wake-up call the Saints needed to get back into the same frame of mind they had last year.

JC: The Super Bowl hangover theme is giving me a headache because I've heard it so much. It also concerns me when a coach as good as Sean Payton has to rip into his team this year. Ripping into a team is like a chip at a poker game. There are only so many chips you can use during a season. When you bring that up, now you're making me wonder if they are going to make the playoffs. I stay with them making it as a wild card. But don't you see the holes on this team?

So much of their success last season was Darren Sharper intercepting passes off inexperienced quarterbacks. They don't face inexperienced quarterbacks this year, and Sharper is out for at least six games and who knows how much longer because of microfracture surgery. I hate to tell you this, but I intercepted a call in which they were going to ask you to play one of the outside linebacker spots. Scott Fujita is gone. Jonathan Casillas is out for the season. What happens if the team loses one or two defensive tackles to injury? DeMario Pressley and Al Woods -- two draft choices in the past couple of years -- already have been cut.

[+] EnlargeJenkins
Howard Smith/US PresswireThe Saints are counting on Malcolm Jenkins to step in for Darren Sharper at free safety.
Are you 100 percent sure Malcolm Jenkins can be as good as Sharper at free safety? Mickey Loomis, the general manager, said it best last week. The Saints will have to play better just to come close to the regular season they had last season. I figure they will get off to a good start, but can they finish as well? The odds are against them.

PY: John, good thing you intercepted that call. As you know, my body type might help the Saints against the pass, but I'd be a liability against the run and I'd also be the tallest linebacker the Saints have had since Fujita. But, yeah, I'll give you the fact that the Casillas injury really hurts the linebacker corps.

As for Jenkins taking over for Sharper, nothing's a given. But Sharper got off to a great start early last year, but was pretty much shot by the end of the season. Jenkins is a great physical talent, and having Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter at cornerback will help make him look good. I'm projecting here, but I think Jenkins is going to be better than Sharper was at the end of last season.

Other than that, I'll fall back on my contention that the Saints are largely intact. Yes, they were lucky at times last season, but they were also very good. I think they're better in a lot of ways this year, and if they can just catch a little bit of luck, I think they can repeat. If I'm wrong, then maybe this time I'll be taking up residence in Atlanta instead of New Orleans in December and January. Better yet, from a selfish standpoint, maybe the Bucs will do the old worst-to-first trick that's been so common in the NFC South and I might actually get to spend a few weekends at home this year.

JC: If the Bucs can pull off a worst-to-first in the NFC South, the Saints, Falcons and Panthers would have to pull a USC and go on probation and be ruled bowl ineligible. Let's look at reality here. The Saints and Falcons are going to be building up a great rivalry over the next few years.

The league needs it. So much of the NFC is settled into the NFC East with those four teams pounding on each other. The AFC East is bubbling over with the Jets and Rex Ryan taking on the Patriots and Dolphins. I don't mention the Bills because I know you would earn a roster spot on that team.

There is a lot that could be good about a Saints-Falcons rivalry over the next few years. Payton has the go-for-broke mentality with his play calling, and Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator, has a lot of Rex Ryan in him. He'll not only want to tell his players to hit opponents hard, but he'll talk a good game too. The Falcons are the quiet monsters. Mike Smith is a gentlemen on the sideline, but he can gear up his team for good hits, and you know how that offensive line, starting with guard Harvey Dahl, irritates opponents with the way they block. But for a rivalry to happen, you have to have drama. The Saints dominating and repeating would be a great story, but it would take away from the rivalry factor.

By the way, Pat, if you are going to sign with the Bills, hold out for good money.
We’re going to resume our series of NFC South position rankings with the defensive ends.

This is not exactly a position of strength entering the season, but I think that could change as time goes on. There are a lot of young defensive ends around the division and some of them are bound to rise up as the season goes on. For the moment, though, there aren’t a lot of sure things.

Once again, I’m basing my rankings on talks with coaches, scouts, front-office folks and players. Here we go.

  1. [+] EnlargeWill Smith
    AP Photo/Jeff RobersonWill Smith is the most dominant defensive end in the division. He had 13 sacks for the Saints last season.
    Will Smith, Saints. This is the easiest decision in this bunch because Smith really is the only sure thing among the defensive ends in this division. He’s coming off a big season and still is in his prime. At the moment, it’s safe to say he’s the only pass rusher in this division that really scares people.
  2. John Abraham, Falcons. Let’s make it clear the decision to go with Abraham, who is coming off a disappointing season and not getting any younger, is not a lifetime achievement award. Atlanta coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff could have attempted to get an elite pass rusher if they thought Abraham was through. They chose not to. Abraham’s looked great in camp and there are other folks around the NFC South that think he’s going to bounce back this season and produce double-digit sacks.
  3. Charles Johnson, Panthers. I’m projecting here, but somebody has to step up on Carolina’s defensive line now that Julius Peppers is gone. You’ve heard some preseason hype about some young Carolina pass rushers and we’ll get to them. But Johnson is the guy the Panthers believe is ready to be their most complete defensive end.
  4. Alex Brown, Saints. This guy’s not going to come up and suddenly put up huge numbers, but he’s going to be a nice upgrade over the inconsistent Charles Grant. Look back at Brown’s time with Chicago. His numbers were very steady. He’ll put some heat on the passer from time to time. His sack numbers never have been spectacular, but he disrupts a lot of passes. He’s always going to play the run well.
  5. Kroy Biermann, Falcons. This guy’s getting a lot of hype because he’s had a sack in each of the first three preseason games and Dimitroff and Smith are convinced Biermann’s ready for a breakout season. There are some other talent evaluators around the league that think Biermann doesn’t have all that much upside. But I’m going to take the word of Smith and Dimitroff and trust what I saw out of Biermann in camp and the preseason and give him a high ranking.
  6. Greg Hardy, Panthers. This guy’s been getting tons of preseason hype and some fans are comparing him to Peppers. That’s a stretch. But I’ve been told by the Panthers and people who’ve been watching Hardy from a distance that this guy’s for real -- as long as he can keep focused on football.
  7. Tyler Brayton, Panthers. We’ll twist a common phrase from coach John Fox and say Brayton is what he is. That’s a pretty solid all-around defensive end. In a lot of ways, he’s a lot like New Orleans’ Brown.
  8. [+] EnlargeLawrence Sidbury
    AP Photo/Steve NesiusLawrence Sidbury has potential, but he recorded just five tackles -- including one sack -- during his rookie season.
    Lawrence Sidbury, Falcons. We’ll jump back to projecting here. Sidbury didn’t do much as a rookie, but there are people around the league who think he has a lot more upside than Biermann.
  9. Jimmy Wilkerson, Saints. He’s pretty much in the same category as Brown and Brayton. In fact, Wilkerson probably would be higher on this list if he wasn’t coming off a major knee injury.
  10. Everette Brown, Panthers. Carolina drafted Brown last year thinking he might be the eventual replacement for Peppers and that still could happen. The Panthers believe Brown has lots of upside, but his development has not been rapid.
  11. Chauncey Davis, Falcons. One talent evaluator thinks Davis is enormously underrated. In Atlanta’s defensive-line rotation, where it doesn’t really matter who starts, Davis is going to get a lot of playing time. He’s good against the run and isn’t a bad pass rusher, although his lack of height sometimes keeps him from really disrupting passes.
  12. Stylez G. White, Buccaneers. He’s the best Tampa Bay has right now. The Bucs have tried to light a fire under him in the preseason by publicly questioning his practice efforts. They’re also disappointed he hasn’t stepped forward at all as a leader of a very young defensive line. But White’s never been a great practice player and has been reasonably productive in the regular season.
  13. Jamaal Anderson, Falcons. No doubt this guy has been a huge bust as a defensive end and maybe you can’t even call him a defensive end anymore. He started rotating inside last year and could get even more work at tackle this year. This guy’s not going to give you any pass rush from the outside, but he can play the run.
  14. Kyle Moore, Buccaneers. He seems to have landed the starting spot opposite White. Part of that is because Moore’s been decent, but part of it is because the Bucs have no one else who is ready.
  15. Bobby McCray, Saints. New Orleans let him go after last season and brought him back at a reduced salary. There’s no guarantee he’ll make the regular-season roster. McCray’s a guy that’s supposed to be a pass-rush specialist in a rotation. He ended up starting a lot in place of Grant last year and produced 1.5 sacks. Maybe, in the right situation, McCray can be a pass-rush specialist, but he’s never really lived up to that reputation.
  16. Michael Bennett, Buccaneers. This guy’s unknown and undersized, but he’s had some flashes as a pass rusher in the preseason. He could be used in a rotation as a situational pass rusher. But, keep an eye on how White’s season goes. If White struggles, Bennett could end up starting later in the season as Tampa Bay continues its youth movement.

Scouts Inc.: Saints' defensive ends

August, 25, 2010
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Now that Charles Grant is gone, how will the Saints' defensive ends fare in 2010?

Will Smith remains a fixture at right defensive end. There is no reason to expect anything but another tremendous season from Smith. He is one of the better 4-3 ends in the league and is in the prime of his career.

At one point, Grant was considered to be nearly in Smith’s class. That has not been the case lately, though, and Grant is now in Miami playing in their three-man front. This illustrates how his value has fallen off as an edge rusher.

The Saints were wise to acquire Alex Brown to fill Grant’s shoes. Why the Bears let Brown go is beyond me. He would be an excellent No. 2 defensive end opposite Julius Peppers, but Chicago’s loss is New Orleans’ gain. Now Brown will fill that role opposite Smith. Durable and reliable, Brown will also be playing in better weather and overall conditions conducive to rushing the quarterback. Expect his production to increase in the Big Easy, and he should approach double-digit sacks. Brown is a clear upgrade over the level of play that Grant displayed in 2009, both as a pass-rusher and against the run.

Bobby McCray, Jimmy Wilkerson and Jeff Charleston are the other ends who should factor into the equation. Defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove has the position versatility to play end, where he would enhance the run defense, but do little to help the pass rush.

You could do a lot worse than McCray as a third option who rotates in. He is a long, linear player who keeps pass-protectors away from his body. He did record double-digit sacks in 2006 while playing for Jacksonville. Wilkerson is a serviceable depth player, but is far from a dynamic difference-maker. To his credit, he did get to the quarterback six times last year for the Bucs. He is coming off a knee injury though. Charleston isn’t real fluid and is a well below average pass-rusher. He is just a bottom-of-the-roster player, in my opinion, and isn’t a guarantee to make the team.

With the Saints' excellent and deep secondary, Gregg Williams will of course dial up plenty of blitzes, which enhances the overall ability to get to opposing quarterbacks. There are not many areas where I think that New Orleans improved from a year ago, but defensive end is one area where it did.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

Camp Confidential: Saints

July, 31, 2010
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 2

METAIRIE, La. -- As the New Orleans Saints finished their first camp practice Friday morning, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a man known for holding back nothing on or off the field, unloaded. He wanted to get something off his chest. Heck, out of his body, out of his mouth and out into the open.

Without ever really being asked anything that would prompt the issue, Williams started talking about why the Saints can repeat as Super Bowl champions. He’s tired of hearing the reasons they can’t and the repeated reminders that the follow-up season hasn’t been good to many Super Bowl teams in recent history.

“I keep on hearing you guys talk about this Super Bowl hangover and it’s starting to chafe me a little bit,’’ Williams said. “It really is and I’m being real honest. The reason being is, if you could see behind the scenes of our offseason program from April 19 and to see every single practice we’ve had, I don’t have any qualms about the way our defense is because all they did was show up with more hunger, more fire, wanted me to be a bigger jerk and get on their (butt) more. They begged for me to get on their (butt) more. So far, I’ve seen nothing that would indicate that we can’t make another run at this.’’

Williams may be one of the organization’s more vocal figures, but you quickly get the feeling he’s not alone on this idea. Sure, the Saints spent a good portion of the offseason celebrating the first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Sure, recent history is stacked against them. No team has repeated since the 2004 Patriots.

Confidence -- some even have suggested arrogance -- was a big part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season. That hasn’t changed. Unlike a lot of recent Super Bowl teams, the Saints really didn’t lose much in free agency and they didn’t have their coaching staff picked apart. There really hasn’t been much turnover of faces or attitude.

“There was a really good locker room here before I got here,’’ Williams said. “There’s a better locker room now. The guys that we brought in this year, they fit into that locker room because Jon Vilma and Drew Brees aren’t going to let the wrong kind of people be in that locker room. They’re just not going to do that.’’

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJabari Greer
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesA healthy Jabari Greer could help the defense be more consistent.
1. Can a defense that was opportunistic but far from dominant become more consistent? Sure, there is some bravado that comes with Williams. That’s part of his nature and it’s part of what makes him a good coach. But what he’s saying isn’t just bluster.

The Saints really should be much better on defense this season. All they really lost was linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive end Charles Grant. They showed Grant the door and probably upgraded the position by signing veterans Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson. They’ll line up on the other side from Will Smith. Brown and Wilkerson aren’t dominant pass-rushers, but they’re consistent in that area and play the run very well. Fujita was a key contributor, but the Saints believe they have a group of promising linebackers (Troy Evans, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Stanley Arnoux) and believe one of them will rise up.

Plug in a healthy Sedrick Ellis in the middle of the defensive line and the Saints should have a solid front seven. But the defensive backfield is where the Saints really could be outstanding. They’ve assembled one of the best collections of secondary talent in the league. Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter might be the best cornerbacks no one outside of New Orleans has heard of. When healthy, they both can be shut-down guys. Both were banged up last season, and that’s one of the reasons the Saints drafted cornerback Patrick Robinson. That move also has allowed them to move last year’s first-round pick, Malcolm Jenkins, to free safety, where he might get the chance to beat out Darren Sharper. If you can put Sharper, a possible future Hall of Famer on the bench, that’s a pretty big statement. People talk about New Orleans’ offense being explosive, but the defense has a chance to be every bit as dynamic.

2. Can the offense live up to last year’s standards? Brees remains the quarterback and, as long as that’s the case, this offense is going to be great. Brees clearly is in his prime and his pairing with head coach/offensive genius Sean Payton makes magic possible on every play.

This is an offense that can hit you from every angle -- Brees throwing short or long, Pierre Thomas running inside and Reggie Bush outside and an offensive line filled with Pro Bowlers. Keep in mind that the Saints had some injuries at the skill positions last year, but they still were phenomenal on offense. If they can keep Bush, Thomas, Marques Colston, Heath Evans and Jeremy Shockey healthy, last year’s production could be eclipsed.

[+] EnlargeJahri Evans
Larry French/Getty ImagesJahri Evans is part of a dominant offensive line that makes up for any weakness at left tackle.
3. Is left tackle really that important? The Saints used to have a Pro Bowl left tackle. His name was Jammal Brown and they traded him to Washington in the offseason. That happened after Brown missed all last season with an injury and the Saints got by with Jermon Bushrod quite nicely.

The Saints aren’t touting Bushrod as a franchise left tackle, although he’s the favorite to be the starter. They also drafted Charles Brown, and Zach Strief, who filled in when Bushrod slumped a bit last season, also is in the mix. The Saints gave Bushrod plenty of help last season and they’re prepared to do it again for him -- or for Brown or Streif. But the lesson that came out of last year is, in this offense, it’s not a necessity to have a dominant left tackle.

But that’s partly because the Saints have the league’s best guard tandem (Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks), a Pro Bowl right tackle (Jonathan Stinchcomb) and an excellent center (Jonathan Goodwin). Throw anyone out there at left tackle and the rest of the line and Brees will make him look good.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Jimmy Graham. The Saints took what seemed like a bit of a leap when they drafted the tight end in the third round. He played basketball at the University of Miami before deciding to switch to football in his final year. The conventional wisdom was that Graham would be a bit of a project and would take a year or two to really have an impact. But there already is a buzz among the coaching staff and other offensive players about Graham. Everyone knew he had great athletic ability coming in, but he’s picked up things faster than anyone expected and he got some first-team work with Brees in June workouts. He might play a bigger role faster than anyone expected.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Clint Ingram. When the Saints signed Ingram, a lot of fans instantly thought he would be the automatic replacement for Fujita. Ingram had been a starter in Jacksonville, so the logic was solid. But Ingram was injured when the Saints signed him and he still hasn’t been on the practice field, except while riding a stationary bike. That has allowed Troy Evans, Dunbar and Arnoux time to make a good impression. Unless Ingram gets healthy very soon and makes a huge impression on the field, he might not even get a roster spot.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Darren Sharper
    James Lang/US PresswireDarren Sharper wore down toward the end of last season and had offseason microfracture surgery.
    I know this might sound like blasphemy to Saints fans because Sharper is very popular and had a huge impact last year. But the fact is he’s 34 and coming off micro-fracture knee surgery. I’ve suggested before I think there’s a good chance Jenkins takes his place in the starting lineup. But I’ll take it one step further here and say -- I’m not promising this will happen -- I can see a scenario where Sharper doesn’t even stay on the active roster. The Saints are high on Jenkins. They also like Usama Young and are hopeful about Chip Vaughn, who missed his rookie year with an injury. Ideally, the Saints would like to keep Sharper around for his leadership. But if his knee doesn’t come along, he could spend part of the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, the injured-reserve list or maybe even be released or retired. Even with all his credentials, Sharper can’t contribute if his knee isn’t right. The Saints have a lot of other safeties with young legs.
  • The Saints used a three-headed backfield with Bush, Thomas and Mike Bell last season. Bell is gone, but the playing time division should be pretty similar this year. Just plug Lynell Hamilton into Bell’s place. The Saints wouldn’t have let Bell go if they didn’t think Hamilton was ready. I don’t want to tease you and say this is the year Bush shows he can run between the tackles. But remember how well he ran in the playoffs and how he was more physical than at any time in his career? That was because he was completely healthy. That seems to still be the case, so don’t be surprised if you see Bush’s numbers go up a bit. This guy can do a little bit of everything.
  • Shockey’s always been an easy target and there’s no doubt he’s brought some of that on himself. But he appears to be in very good physical shape. Shockey hasn’t really been a distraction in New Orleans like many thought he was when he was with the Giants. He’s just been banged up for much of his time with the Saints. Maybe –- and I’m just saying maybe -- Shockey might have matured and might be taking better care of himself in an effort to stay on the field.
  • It really didn’t get much attention, but the best move the Saints made in the offseason might have been signing Patrick Ramsey to serve as Brees’ backup. Veteran Mark Brunell was a good fit in that role for a couple of years, but the Saints needed to get a little younger. The Saints hope and pray nothing ever happens to Brees. But, if he were to miss some time, the New Orleans offense might not suddenly fall apart. Ramsey’s a guy who has bounced around the league. He got messed up by Steve Spurrier early in his career in Washington, but he still has some talent. This is a quarterback-friendly offense with all sorts of weapons and Ramsey could win games for the Saints -- if that ever becomes necessary.
  • For a couple years, special teams were a bit of a question. That has changed. Kicker Garrett Hartley and punter Thomas Morstead were heroes in the Super Bowl. They’re still young and should only continue to get better.
  • It’s very early in camp, but one player who has intrigued the coaching staff is defensive end Junior Galette. He’s an undrafted rookie and very undersized at 258 pounds. But this guy is showing great speed and there’s a chance he could land a job as a pass-rush specialist. Yeah, Bobby McCray also is supposed to fit that description. But McCray had 1.5 sacks last season and actually was cut because of a high salary before he basically begged his way back (at a reduced salary). If the Saints cut McCray once, there’s no reason why they couldn’t do it again.
METAIRIE, La. – Time for some observations from the New Orleans Saints’ first practice of camp.
  • Rookie cornerback Patrick Robinson got his contract signed, passed his physical and got on the field for a good chunk of practice. I’m not going to anoint him after one practice, but he looked good out there. Extremely athletic, and I can see him immediately being the third corner behind Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. By the way, Robinson doesn’t seem to have the same problem with hazing as Dallas rookie Dez Bryant. Robinson walked off the field carrying the shoulder pads and helmets of some veteran members of the secondary.
  • Jon Gruden was out at practice, and I think this is a repeat of last year. That’s when Gruden spent a few days with his old buddy Sean Payton and sat in on the meetings with the quarterbacks. Coaches are often superstitious, and Payton might view Gruden as a good-luck charm.
  • From what I saw, Troy Evans was getting most of the work at Scott Fujita’s old linebacker spot. But I think this one will be a battle throughout camp and the preseason. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and some other young linebackers are in the mix.
  • It appeared Alex Brown got the first-team work at Charles Grants’ old defensive end spot. He looked pretty good. With Jimmy Wilkerson and Bobby McCray as backups, I think the Saints are in better shape at that spot than they were a year ago.
  • With Robert Meachem and Marques Colston not practicing because of injuries, Lance Moore was shining at wide receiver. I saw him make multiple big plays.
  • Perhaps the most eye-turning play of the morning session came when rookie quarterback Sean Canfield hooked up with Larry Beavers on a deep route down the left sideline.
  • I listed long-snapper Jason Kyle as a veteran, who possibly could be on the bubble, the other day. So much for that. The Saints created Robinson’s roster spot by releasing Clint Gresham, the guy who was supposed to challenge Kyle.
  • Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams brought up the so-called “Super Bowl hangover’’ that the media has touched upon. Williams got pretty emotional and said he resents those implications. He backed up his reasoning extensively and said this season’s team can be better than last season’s. I’ll share all that with you Saturday when we feature the Saints in our Camp Confidential segment.
  • Another reminder to any fans that were planning on coming out for Friday's afternoon practice: Don't do it. Because of the extreme heat, the Saints will practice indoors. That will be closed to the public. The same plan is in place for Saturday afternoon's session. I'll be out at this afternoon's practice and will share some more observations with you tonight.

Saints bring back Bobby McCray

July, 22, 2010
7/22/10
3:02
PM ET
There have been some early reports out there about the New Orleans Saints making some moves. The team just made it official, announcing they have re-signed defensive end Bobby McCray to a one-year contract and signed fifth-round draft choice Matt Tennant.

The Saints also waived linebackers Harry Coleman and Sam Maxwell, defensive end Brandon Sharpe and cornerback Marcell Young.

McCray wound up starting late last season after Charles Grant was injured. Known as a pass rusher, McCray didn’t have great production last season and a contract that included a big bonus made him expendable in the offseason. His new contract is for one year and it’s believed to be for a lot less than his old deal.

The Saints added defensive ends Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson in the offseason. With Will Smith as the other starter, McCray is likely to be used in some sort of rotation with Brown and Wilkerson, who are known as solid run defenders, but not prolific pass rushers. It may come to a situation where Brown or Wilkerson play in run situations and McCray comes in on passing downs.

Tennant is expected to provide depth behind center Jonathan Goodwin and also could get some work as a backup guard. Still nothing official on the Saints signing quarterback Patrick Ramsey to serve as the backup to Drew Brees, but all indications are that will happen sometime in the next few days.

Saints release Bobby McCray

June, 21, 2010
6/21/10
3:59
PM ET
Here’s a move that’s a bit of a surprise. The New Orleans Saints just announced they have released defensive end Bobby McCray.

A starter much of last season after Charles Grant was injured, McCray seemed to have a secure roster spot. But the Saints brought in Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson as free agents after releasing Grant. But, apparently, the Saints decided McCray was too much of a luxury. He’s a one-dimensional player -- mainly a pass rusher and he hasn’t produced a lot of sacks.

Brown and Wilkerson are better against the run and both are decent pass rushers. The Saints also have Anthony Hargrove who can play defensive end or defensive tackle. Will Smith is set as the other starting defensive end, but the Saints are likely to let Brown, Wilkerson and Hargrove compete for Grant’s former job.

The Saints also waived cornerback Glenn Sharp.
The offseason programs essentially are over and during the next few weeks, players, coaches and front-office officials will disappear for a little down time.

They’ll return in late July for training camp, but the vacations don’t mean that every NFC South team has reached solutions on all issues. They’ve gotten some ideas of what they got in the offseason workouts, but they’re nothing more than ideas.

The real answers will come in August, when players wear pads, hit and move at real-game speed. With that in mind, here are five questions that still need to be answered across the NFC South.

[+] EnlargeMatt Moore
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonMatt Moore might have a short leash considering the Panthers have Jimmy Clausen waiting in the wings.
1. Is Carolina’s Matt Moore really a starting quarterback? The Panthers hope and think so, but there really is no way to tell for sure until Moore gets into the real thing. He looked good at the end of last season as Jake Delhomme was playing his way out of a job. Moore has shown some leadership skills this spring and some signs he’s got more of an arm than anyone ever thought he had.

It has all been positive and Moore seems to have gained plenty of respect in the locker room. But the fact is he doesn’t have a ton of experience. He needs to rely on Carolina’s strong running game and make his plays in spots. If he can do that, Moore will be just fine. If not, the Panthers have second-round draft pick Jimmy Clausen waiting in the wings. Coach John Fox is in the final year of his contract and needs to win -- or at least show some promise. If Moore doesn’t get the job done early, the Panthers won’t hesitate to turn things over to Clausen because Fox needs to generate hope for the present and the future.

2. How much better will Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman be? He wasn’t bad over the second half of last season and it must be noted that was with a very bad team around him. The Bucs still are a work in progress, but, on paper at least, they should be better in a lot of ways than they were last year.

Freeman
Freeman
Tampa Bay’s coaches and front office are extremely aware Freeman is the franchise and he had very little to work with last year. That’s why they drafted Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. There are no guarantees with rookie wide receivers. But Benn and Williams have more talent than what the Bucs have had at this position in the past.

They can get downfield and there’s no doubt Freeman has the arm to throw downfield. He just might get the chance to show it this year.

3. Is Atlanta’s defense really that much better? You can make a case that Atlanta’s defense was what held the Falcons out of the playoffs last year and that’s probably not wrong. The Falcons had no pass rush and a weak secondary, which is not a great formula for any defense.

[+] EnlargePeria Jerry
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Falcons are counting on 2009 first-rounder Peria Jerry to bolster their pass rush.
Atlanta spent much of its offseason working on that secondary. The Falcons signed Dunta Robinson to be the No. 1 cornerback and re-signed Brian Williams to at least fill a gap until some other young players have time to be groomed for bigger things. The Falcons also hope William Moore, who missed much of his rookie season, with injury is ready to step in right away and be a starting safety.

But touching up the secondary is really the only tangible move the Falcons have made to fix their pass rush. They believe, a split second or two extra of coverage will make their pass rush better. It may look like a risky move because the Falcons have done little to address a front four that was anemic last year.

They’re betting veteran John Abraham will bounce back and young players Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann will step up. They also think the return of defensive tackle Peria Jerry from injury will create a surge in the middle and make the entire defensive front better. Sounds nice in theory, but we’ll find out if it’s reality soon enough. A strong pass rush could be the only thing keeping the Falcons from being a true challenger in the NFC.

4. Can the Saints reverse recent history? We all know the following season hasn’t been kind to Super Bowl champions. They’re going to be wearing the bulls-eye that every Super Bowl champion does. But they just might be able to reverse history.

The Saints have kept their team pretty much intact and you can argue they’ve had addition by subtraction in releasing defensive end Charles Grant and replacing him with Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson. They also lost linebacker Scott Fujita, but have plenty of young legs to take his place. Other than that, the Saints haven’t lost much.

They still have quarterback Drew Brees and that means they’re going to have an offense that’s one of the best in the business. If they can play a little defense, they should be just fine.

Peppers
Peppers
5. Can the Panthers survive without Julius Peppers? Carolina and its defensive end had a nasty parting. There’s no denying Peppers was a rare athletic talent and that’s not easily replaced. But I’m thinking the Panthers might be better off with Peppers, who had not been happy in Carolina for several years.

That whole scenario meant there were times Peppers played hard and times he didn’t. That wasn’t good for the defense as a whole. Young defensive ends Everette Brown and Charles Johnson probably will never come close to showing Peppers’ overall athleticism.

But they’re going to show up and give their best effort every game. That actually might be an improvement.

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