NFC South: charles tillman

TAMPA, Fla. -- It's more than a little ironic that Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown is finally feeling like he did last year.

That's because he's about to visit Chicago to face the team he played for last season. McCown played the best football of his career for the Bears: Filling in for an injured Jay Cutler, he threw for 13 touchdowns with just one interception. That performance was enough to get McCown a two-year, $10 million contract and a starting job in Tampa Bay.

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJosh McCown parlayed a strong 2013 in Chicago into a two-year, $10 million deal with the Bucs.
McCown said his momentum from last year went away at the beginning of this season. He has said he was pressing too hard in the first three weeks, throwing two touchdown passes and four interceptions before suffering a thumb injury that kept him on the sideline for five games. But since returning to the lineup two games ago, McCown said he feels like he did during his run as Chicago's starter.

That was especially evident on Sunday in Washington. McCown completed 15 of 23 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns as the Bucs (2-8) snapped a five-game skid.

"I don't know that I felt that way the first few games," McCown said. "That's how I envisioned it. That's how I felt when I was playing last year. I felt more calm, and [quarterbacks coach] Marcus [Arroyo] and I are on the same page with the plan and just where he's at as a playcaller. That brought me a lot of peace. That's more what everybody envisioned."

Sunday's performance was exactly what the Bucs envisioned when they signed McCown.

"If you look at what he did last year and his body of work when he was given a chance, he was very impressive," Arroyo said. "I think he's capable of doing that game, and that was a great game last weekend. We've got to try to find a way to do it again and again."

McCown said the arrival of coach Marc Trestman in Chicago last year helped elevate his game.

"Just from the standpoint of having someone on the offensive side of the ball bring his kind of expertise," McCown said. "You get different things from different people in your career, and I've had tons of coordinators, some really good ones. But every now and then, you click with somebody that sees it the way you see it. As a player, the way they call a game or the way they see the game, it kind of hits your brain the same way. For me, I think that's what allowed me to play at the level I played at for Marc."

Bonding with a coach wasn't the only positive McCown took from his three seasons in Chicago, which included two years playing for current Bucs coach Lovie Smith.

"Especially when I first got there in 2011, I liked how that locker room was," McCown said. [Linebacker Brian] Urlacher was still there. You could just feel the closeness of that group of guys. It's very rare that you get to be in those kind of locker rooms when you have groups that have been together like they have. I mean, you're talking about Lance Briggs and Peanut Tillman have been teammates for 10 years plus. That's unheard of. It just doesn't happen very much in this league.

"When you get in a locker room like that where you have guys that have been teammates that long and observe their relationships and how much they appreciate each other and their friendship and watch how it plays out on the field, I think that's what I look back on my time there the most -- how important those relationships are in that locker room."
Now that the fumes from the jet that took wide receiver Steve Smith to Baltimore and beyond have dissipated, what's next for the Carolina Panthers?

They still need help at wide receiver with none of their top four from 2013 under contract since Smith was released on Thursday. They still need help at cornerback and safety.

And they still need help at offensive tackle, although most of those in free agency that could help are long gone.

But there is still talent out there to be had as we get past the first wave of free agency. Here are a few players who might be a good fit:

Wide receivers
  • Nicks
    Hakeem Nicks: The former member of the New York Giants remains a priority for Carolina. He was in Indianapolis on Friday, but he also has expressed an interest in Carolina and San Diego. San Francisco reportedly is interested as well. This might take some time to sort, and the Panthers appear willing to wait to see what the market sets for the former Independence (Charlotte) High standout. That he already has a relationship with general manager Dave Gettleman, who spent most of his career with the Giants before last season, doesn't hurt.
  • James Jones: He had a modest 59 catches for 817 yards and three touchdowns for the Green Bay Packers last season, but the year before he had 64 catches for an amazing 14 touchdowns. Don't think for a second the Panthers don't have their eye on him.
  • Emmanuel Sanders: He had 67 catches for 740 yards and six touchdowns at Pittsburgh last season. In his fourth year out of Southern Mississippi, this 5-foot-11, 186-pounder also could be a bargain. He was with the Chiefs on Friday, and he reportedly has visited Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. Has the speed to replace Ted Ginn Jr.
Cornerbacks
  • Tillman
    Charles "Peanut" Tillman: Chicago wants him back, and he got out of Tampa Bay without a deal. He's 33, but word has it Panthers coach Ron Rivera loves him. Rivera coached Tillman as the defensive coordinator with the Bears from 2004-2006. At 6-2, 198, there has even been speculation he could move to safety. Carolina secondary coach Steve Wilks also coached Tillman in Chicago from 2006-2008.
  • Asante Samuel: Before spending the past two seasons with Atlanta, he played four seasons at Philadelphia, where Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott overlapped as the secondary coach and then defensive coordinator. And remember, both Samuel and Tillman are the same age as Drayton Florence, who was a key contributor last season for Carolina.
  • Antoine Cason: This could be a darkhorse to keep an eye on. He didn't do much at Arizona last season, but prior to that he played five seasons for the San Diego Chargers, where Rivera and Wilks coached him. A first-round pick in 2008, he has 14 career interceptions.
Safeties
  • Roman Harper: The Panthers already have brought in the former New Orleans Saints strong safety. He's 31, but he's a two-time Pro Bowler who would bring experience as Quintin Mikell did last season. Mikell, also 33, remains available as well.
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: LB Adam Hayward, FB Erik Lorig, LB Jonathan Casillas and WR Tiquan Underwood.

Where they stand: The Buccaneers don't have any huge names among their own free agents, but they'd like to keep some of them as role players. Hayward is a key special-teams player and Lorig is important as the lead blocker for Doug Martin in the running game. If Casillas returns, he's a candidate to start at strongside linebacker. The major need on defense is for a pass-rusher. On offense, the team may look to overhaul its offensive line. Tight end and depth at wide receiver also are big needs.

What to expect: The Bucs were 4-12 last season and they have a new coaching staff and general manager. That means there will be significant changes. The Bucs have $18 million in cap room, so they’re going to be active in free agency, even though they've stated their goal is to build through the draft. Look for connections to the new regime to play into free-agent signings. Return man Devin Hester and cornerback Charles Tillman played for coach Lovie Smith in Chicago and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier worked with defensive end Jared Allen in Minnesota. All of those players could be prime targets. A veteran quarterback also could be added to the mix, with Josh McCown and Michael Vick as possibilities.
The NFL's free-agent market is suddenly being flooded with former Pro Bowl cornerbacks -- which is a great thing for the New Orleans Saints.

I think the cornerback position should rank as New Orleans' No. 1 priority in free agency -- even more than the draft, because I think they could use an experienced veteran capable of stepping right into their starting lineup along with Keenan Lewis now that Jabari Greer has been released. I still like third-year pro Corey White's potential, but think he’d be an even better fit as a nickel back.

Whether the Saints have interest in guys such as Champ Bailey, Cortland Finnegan or Brandon Browner, they should still benefit from the fact that there are more options available in a free-agent class that was already pretty deep to begin with.

[+] EnlargeTarell Brown
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezThe 49ers' Tarell Brown is considered one of the top free-agent cornerbacks available this offseason.
The Saints won’t be huge spenders in free agency because they're pretty snug against the salary cap. But I think they'll still be aggressive with one or two acquisitions -- like when they signed Lewis to a five-year, $26.3 million contract last year (after first flirting with pricier outside linebacker Paul Kruger).

Here is a glimpse of who is available in free agency, with some insight from ESPN Scouting Insider Matt Williamson:

TOP TIER: I don’t expect the Saints to be in the market for the New England Patriots' Aqib Talib or the Tennessee Titans’ Alterraun Verner. Those guys could be closer to the $8 million range, similar to what the Miami Dolphins just paid to re-sign Brent Grimes (four years, $32 million). The Indianapolis Colts’ Vontae Davis probably will be too pricey as well.

It's possible the Saints could flirt with the Green Bay Packers' Sam Shields or the Denver Broncos' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, especially if those players don’t find big offers quickly. But chances are, the Saints will be shopping in the next tier down.

SECOND TIER: This is the range I’d most expect the Saints in -- experienced starters who won’t necessarily break the bank. I like the possibility of the San Francisco 49ers' Tarell Brown (29 years old, 5-foot-10, 193 pounds, a starter for the past three years). ESPN analyst KC Joyner recently tabbed him as a good fit for the Saints Insider. And ESPN’s Free-Agent Tracker Insider, which used input from former general manager Bill Polian and analysts Williamson, Gary Horton and Field Yates, ranks Brown among the top options overall.

"[Brown’s] a good one," Williamson said. "I think he starts for just about every team out there, though it didn’t hurt that he benefited from a great supporting cast."

Or maybe the Saints should consider stealing Captain Munnerlyn from the rival Carolina Panthers after the 25-year-old just had his best year to date in 2013. Munnerlyn is just 5-8, 195 pounds, but he plays physical. And he has an uncanny knack for turning interceptions into touchdowns (all four of his picks over the past two seasons and five out of seven in his career).

"I would think maybe that’s the position you would splurge on a little bit," Williamson said. "I really like Captain Munnerlyn, and you’d steal him from a rival. He’s a slot guy who could be a starter. ... He’s really feisty, a little undersized but a slot guy, tough. He played his best football this last year; he’s peaking at the right time."

Williamson said he also likes Seattle Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond (age 26, 5-11, 190) after his best year to date as a part-time starter in 2013. But Williamson wonders if Thurmond will get overpaid after being part of that Super Bowl-winning defense.

Bailey, Finnegan, Browner and Chicago Bears standout Charles Tillman probably all fit in this same class now, too, but they all come with some question marks.

Bailey, who is being released by the Denver Broncos, is a 12-time Pro Bowler and an all-time great who might have another strong year left in him. But he's 35 years old and missed most of last season with a foot injury.

Likewise, Tillman is 33 and missed most of last season with a torn triceps.

Finnegan, 30, also landed on injured reserve last season with a fractured orbital bone. And his two years with the St. Louis Rams were disappointing after he signed a blockbuster contract there in 2012. Still, the 5-10, 179-pounder is still young enough to have a bounce-back year.

Browner, 29, is facing a four-game suspension to start the season after repeated violations of the league's substance abuse policy. But the 6-4, 221-pounder who helped define the Seahawks' physical style of pass defense should still be coveted.

THIRD TIER: I don’t think the Saints are likely to bring back Tracy Porter, but I found it interesting that he earned one of the highest grades of any corner on ESPN’s Free-Agent Tracker after a nice season with the Oakland Raiders. Health wasn't an issue for Porter last season after it was his biggest issue during his time with the Saints from 2008-2011.

Another wild-card possibility is Derek Cox (age 27, 6-1, 195). Cox was released by the San Diego Chargers after one very disappointing 2013 season (after he signed a four-year deal worth up to $19.8 million). The Saints had lined up a visit with Cox last year before signing Lewis. Maybe they’ll be glad they dodged a bullet -- or maybe they will consider taking a chance again now that he’ll come cheap.

Williamson also suggested Will Blackmon (age 29), Drayton Florence (33), and Rashean Mathis (33) as guys who have had up-and-down careers but played well last year and might be good "under-the-radar" signings on short-term deals.

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