NFC South: Chauncey Davis

Updated NFC South salary-cap space

September, 5, 2012
Now that we’re into the first week of the regular season, the way salary-cap figures for each team are calculated has changed.

In the offseason, only the top 51 figures count against a team’s cap. Now, every contract counts and that includes practice squad players and guys who are no longer on the roster, but are counting for outstanding pro-rated bonus money.

I just got a look at where each NFC South team stands under the cap, so let’s run through it.

The Falcons are only $1.049 million under the cap. If this team suffers a serious injury and wants to sign a replacement of any significance, it likely will have to restructure a contract or two to free up room. The Falcons are carrying a lot of “dead money,” including some that stretches back to guys who haven’t played for Atlanta since 2010. Jamaal Anderson, Michael Jenkins, Chauncey Davis and Ovie Mughelli are taking up more than $2 million in salary-cap space.

The Carolina Panthers are at $5.1 million and some of that is due to smart accounting. Former guard Travelle Wharton is costing the team $1.9 million, but the hit for this year is spread out equally for next year. The Panthers do have about $550,000 tied up in former punter Jason Baker and kicker Olindo Mare and they also lost an injury grievance to safety Nate Salley, which is costing them $440,000. The Panthers already are projected to be close to the 2013 cap and would like to carry some of this year's room over to next year.

The New Orleans Saints are $8.7 under the cap, but that’s misleading. Defensive end Will Smith's $5.1 million figure is off the books during a four-game suspension, but comes back on as soon as it’s over. Smith also could come back on the books if the NFL Players Association gets a temporary restraining order on his suspension. Jonathan Vilma's $3.3 figure isn’t counting as he serves a season-long suspension. But, like with Smith, the Saints have to keep room open for him in case he is reinstated, even if it’s only temporary.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have $14.9 million in cap space. That figure doesn’t include Wednesday’s re-signing of cornerback Brandon McDonald and the release of offensive lineman Derek Hardman, but those moves likely will have only a minor impact. The Bucs rank third in the league in cap space, but don’t call them cheap. They spent a fortune in free agency and front-loaded the contracts of Carl Nicks, Vincent Jackson and Eric Wright. I wouldn’t anticipate the Bucs using most of their remaining salary-cap space. They want to carry it over to next year because they already are projected to be close to the 2013 salary cap. Carrying over some of this year’s cap space would give the Bucs room to add a few more free agents next year.

Falcons make roster moves

September, 2, 2011
The Atlanta Falcons just announced some roster moves and there are no major surprises.

There is, however, one big name with one big salary. That’s defensive end Chauncey Davis. As expected, his $3.75 million cap figure and the signing of Ray Edwards made Davis expendable. The Falcons will clear up the entire $3.75 million in salary-cap space.

There were a couple of other veterans released -- defensive tackle Trey Lewis and linebacker Coy Wire. The release of Lewis is a sign the Falcons firmly believe the Peria Jerry’s knee is now healthy. If there's anyone in the Bank of America Stadium offices reading this, please go tell Marty Hurney that Lewis has been released. He's better than any defensive tackle the Panthers have at the moment.

Wire’s release is a sign the Falcons are happy with some younger linebackers who can give them more speed on special teams.

The Falcons also waived tight end Marquez Branson, fullback Lucas Cox, center Paul Fenaroli, safety Matt Hansen, wide receiver Brandyn Harvey, running back Gartrell Johnson, defensive end Tom McCarthy, cornerback Kamaal McIlwain, center Ryan McMahon, safety Rafael Priest, defensive end Kiante Tripp, safety Suaesi Tuimaunei and linebacker Bear Woods. The team also reached an injury settlement with wide receiver Andy Strickland.
The Falcons already took a $6.4 million salary-cap hit for Michael Vick in 2009. But there now are reports the team could recoup some of that space.

D. Orlando Ledbetter reports that the situation is under review, according to a league spokesperson, after Vick agreed to a six-year, $100 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.

If the Falcons get some relief, it could come in handy. They currently are less than $1.88 million under the salary cap. That’s the number they were at before signing center Brett Romberg and safety James Sanders. We don't know if the contracts for Romberg and Sanders fall into the top 51 cap figures, which are all that count at the moment. But that's about to change.

Teams are required to get down to 53 players by Saturday afternoon. At that point, all players currently under contract count toward the cap. So do players on injured reserve and any outstanding pro-rated bonus money for players no longer on the roster. Defensive end Chauncey Davis, who has a $3.75 million cap figure, is a candidate to be a salary-cap casualty.

But if the Falcons get some added space from the Vick situation, it would give them additional room to work with if they have injuries and need to sign more players during the season.

Observations on the Atlanta Falcons

August, 27, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s do it now. Here are some of the highlights from Friday’s chat.

CC (Atlanta): Ron Rivera needs to be careful about giving the job to Cam given how bad he has looked. The vets want to win and automatically giving the job to Cam from day 1 given how "not ready" he looks might cause some dissension. Secondly, the last thing you want to have happen is to bench Cam in week 2/3 if he performs poorly. Wouldn't Rivera much rather start out with Clausen and have Cam be the savior (hopefully) once Clausen fails?

Pat Yasinskas: See your points. But how happy do you think Steve Smith would be if they hand Jimmy Clausen the starting job? After Clausen's performance last season, starting him now wouldn't exactly be sending a message that you want to win.

CP (Brooklyn, NY): What are the chances that Chauncey Davis doesn't make the cut in ATL? They signed him to a relatively sizable deal for a backup and with the Ray Edwards coming in, Biermann still around, the rookie Matthews getting some love from the coaches, I think that leaves Sidbury and Davis as the 5th DE, no way ATL keeps 6 DEs...

Pat Yasinskas: Think that's very possible. Chauncey's cap figure is either $3 million or $3.5 million. That's a lot for a backup.

Michael (SC): Have the Falcons said what type of knee injury Edwards had?

Pat Yasinskas: No, only that it was a "minor" procedure. Like a lot of teams, they're very guarded about injury info. Heck, they never have officially said what Peria Jerry's knee injury was exactly.

Dwayne (Who Dat Nation): Hey Pat. Realistically, what are your expectations for Jimmy Graham? Most people in SAINTS circles point to the production of the Brees/Gates combo in SD. Should we expect similar production from Brees/Graham?

Pat Yasinskas: Might want to give him a year or two to grow into something closer to Gates. But Payton knows what he's doing and he cut Shockey to clear the way for Graham.

Mike Trye (myrtle beach): Is Danny Morrison a good Team President (Panthers)? i feel like he hasnt done much.... i could be very wrong.

Pat Yasinskas: Oh, I think he's done a lot more than people realize. He's been a driving force in making them more fan friendly and making the owner and coach more open in the media. Richardson's still involved, don't get me wrong, but Morrison is running the day-to-day business operations and Hurney runs the football side.

FormerlyStShockey (Jakcson, MS): What are the Saints going to do with the scary T position? Bushrod was horrendous against the Texans. One play he didn't even touch his man and face-planted. I'm somewhat concerned at this point.

Pat Yasinskas: I think the concern is justified. But, hey, they've won with Bushrod the last two seasons. Strief is still getting used to things, but they wouldn't have let Stinchcomb go if they didn't believe Strief would be an upgrade over the long haul.

Mike (55129): What is the likelihood Talib gets suspended and if so how long?

Pat Yasinskas: Don't want to speculate on that one. Think we'll hear from the commissioner soon on that one.

Here's the complete transcript of Friday's NFC South chat.

NFC South mailbag

August, 21, 2011
Time for a Sunday plunge into the NFC South mailbag.

Jim in Myrtle Beach, S.C. says Cam Newton should sit for a year or else the Panthers run the risk of destroying him forever.

Pat Yasinskas: You could be right and that’s happened to other quarterbacks who were thrown in too quickly on bad teams. But, despite their 2-14 record last season, the Panthers feel they have good personnel on the offense. They do have a good offensive line, two good running backs, a top-notch receiver in Steve Smith and two good tight ends with Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. We’ll see what coach Ron Rivera decides in the coming days. But the Panthers believe they wouldn’t be throwing Newton into a situation where he would have to carry the team. If he can avoid major mistakes and make a few big plays a game, the belief is that he can grow while he’s getting playing time.

Sharell in Raleigh wrote to ask about how the depth of Atlanta’s defensive line might shape up.

Pat Yasinskas: Atlanta suddenly is very deep on the defensive line and that could make it interesting when it’s time to make cuts. Defensive ends Ray Edwards and John Abraham and tackles Peria Jerry, Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux are all going to get a lot of playing time. The Falcons like to rotate defensive lineman and they have a big cluster of backups that includes Trey Lewis as the fourth tackle. Cliff Matthews has had a nice preseason and put himself in the mix with Kroy Biermann, Chauncey Davis and Lawrence Sidbury for the backup spots at defensive end. Davis has a salary-cap figure over $3 million and that could be a factor. If he’s going to be no better than the fourth defensive end, the Falcons might want to keep someone else who will be less expensive.

Nate in Alaska asks why Tampa Bay keeps drawing games in London.

Pat Yasinskas: I think there are two reasons. First, the Glazer family has ties to the United Kingdom. The Glazers own soccer’s Manchester United and, although they might not be beloved by fans, bringing the Bucs to London might help their public profile. Second, the Bucs have been having trouble selling out Raymond James Stadium. If the game against Chicago was held in Tampa, the stadium might be loaded with Bears’ fans and that can be embarrassing. The game in London is pretty much a guaranteed sellout and the crowd won’t be rooting against the Bucs. I don't think the NFL is forcing these games on the Bucs. I think there is a willingness by the team to go overseas.

Mike in Matthews, N.C. wonders if the Panthers still might be making some roster moves.

Pat Yasinskas: Yes, I think the signing of Ryan Kalil to a long-term contract cleared up a good bit of salary-cap space and could lead to more moves. Kalil was counting for the franchise tender of $10.16 million. I haven’t seen specifics of his new deal, but you can be sure it knocked down his cap figure for this season. That should give the Panthers room to make some more moves. I expect them to make a move to go get a cornerback with some experience. I also think it’s possible they could make a move for a wide receiver.

Kevin in Brooklyn, N.Y. asks what I think about the Saints’ chances of winning the Super Bowl this season.

Pat Yasinskas: I’ll do my best to ignore what I saw in Saturday night’s preseason game with Houston because preseason games really don’t mean a lot. I think the Saints have a chance to get back to being a Super Bowl contender. They improved their situation at running back by adding Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles. They should be better in the middle of the defensive line with the addition of Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers. Any team with Drew Brees at quarterback has a chance to do great things.

Three things: Falcons-Dolphins

August, 12, 2011
Three things to watch for in Atlanta’s preseason opener against visiting Miami on Friday. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. ET.

The competition at nickelback. Christopher Owens and Dominique Franks are the two guys in contention. All indications that they’ve performed equally well in training camp so far. But how they fare in the preseason games could be the deciding factor.

The impact of Julio Jones. I’m not expecting the Falcons to throw the whole playbook out there in the first preseason game and the starters won’t be on the field too long. But don’t be surprised if you see the Falcons take at least one deep shot to their rookie wide receiver. That is, after all, the reason he was drafted.

The pass rush. Free-agent Ray Edwards won’t be playing as he recovers from offseason knee surgery. He’s supposed to be the guy that upgrades Atlanta’s pass rush. But keep an eye on how the rest of the pass rush fares tonight. The Falcons know what they have in veteran John Abraham and believe they have a pretty good idea of what they’ll get from Edwards when he does play. But there’s hope among the coaches that the arrival of Edwards might fire up guys such as Lawrence Sidbury, Kroy Biermann and Chauncey Davis and make them more productive.

NFC South links: Bucs Graham finally healthy

June, 4, 2011
Atlanta Falcons

Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and defensive end Chauncey Davis will hold a one-day free football clinic for kids.

Carolina Panthers

New coach Ron Rivera remains upbeat despite losing valuable time during the lockout.

New Orleans Saints

Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune takes a three-part video tour (1, 2 and 3) of renovations to the Superdome.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Fullback Earnest Graham is versatile, unselfish and he's finally healthy.

Around the NFC South

May, 25, 2011
Time for a quick run through some NFC South headlines.

Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton will join some of his teammates for group workouts in Charlotte. That’s exactly what he should do because he needs to get off on a good foot with the guys around him. His agents are expressing a little concern about the possibility of an injury. Yeah, anything can happen, but I’ve seen some of the workouts the Bucs are doing and these are non-contact events where all the quarterbacks do is throw the ball and do some running for conditioning.

Atlanta rookie receiver Julio Jones hit the field with his teammates Monday. It was the first time Jones has caught passes from quarterback Matt Ryan. Jones is somewhat limited as he recovers from foot surgery, but he was able to do some light running and get a look at the playbook in action.

Atlanta defensive linemen Jonathan Babineaux and Chauncey Davis will be leading a one-day, free football clinic for teenagers.

Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris visited a local school Tuesday. Morris said the uncertainty of the labor situation has him and his staff preparing for every possible scenario to get players back to work whenever the lockout ends.
Adrian Clayborn and Ryan KerriganGetty ImagesIowa's Adrian Clayborn, left, or Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan would be a nice addition to any NFC South team looking to improve its pass rush.
Let’s have a little bit of fun and play a game of NFC South word and name association.

I’ll start it off and say "franchise quarterbacks." This is where you chime in and say what pops into your head. Your venue for that generally is the comments section or the mailbag, but I’ll go ahead and read your minds. I feel safe on this.

Your answer, with only the slightest bit of room for argument, is Drew Brees, Josh Freeman and Matt Ryan. If you want to argue any of that, hold it for now, but I probably won’t listen anyway.

Now, I’ll throw out the words "elite pass-rushers."

I can’t hear you now and I can’t even read your minds. You might be saying John Abraham, Charles Johnson and Will Smith. Or you might not.

Let’s face it: The NFC South is a division with three franchise quarterbacks. Maybe four if the Carolina Panthers take Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert with the No. 1 choice in this draft and actually hit on that pick.

You stop or slow great quarterbacks by putting pressure on them. Amazingly, the NFC South isn’t really set up to do that, but that could change quickly. Although most of the attention on the April draft has centered on the Panthers and their quarterback situation, there’s another huge storyline out there.

When all is said and done, 2011 could be the year of the defensive end both for the NFC South and the draft. There at least is a possibility the Buccaneers, Saints and Falcons each could use first-round picks on defensive ends.

The time might be right because that’s a position of strength in this year’s draft. I’m looking at Mel Kiper’s Big Board and seeing seven defensive ends (when you count college outside linebackers and defensive tackles as guys who may project as NFL defensive ends) among the top 25 players.

The NFC South often is referred to as the NASCAR division, so, gentlemen and general managers, start your pass rush. Please.

It’s overdue. If things don’t change dramatically, and soon, we could be looking at somewhere close to a decade of Brees, Ryan and Freeman having all day to throw. That’s the way it was last season when the NFC South had two big flashes (Johnson in Carolina and Abraham in Atlanta) and not much else in the way of a pass rush.

We’ll leave Abraham’s 13.0 sacks and Johnson’s 11.5 in the mix because last year’s division numbers would be laughable without them. Even with them, things were pretty ugly.

Tampa Bay produced an NFC-worst 26 sacks. Carolina and Atlanta each had 31. New Orleans led the division with 33 sacks, which tied the Saints for 10th in the NFC. The NFC average was 35.9 and the league average 35.3.

If you want to throw out the old lines that “stats are for losers’’ or "sacks don't tell the whole story with defensive ends,'' go ahead. But I’ll throw this back at you: The Pittsburgh Steelers led the league with 48 sacks and the Green Bay Packers tied for second with 47. Those two teams played in the Super Bowl.

The NFC South had both its playoff representatives, Atlanta and New Orleans, bounced the first time they took the field. The Falcons and the Saints are just fine on offense and, for the first time in franchise history, so are the Buccaneers.

But no NFC South team is going to get to the Super Bowl without improving its pass rush, and that’s not going to happen without some help in the draft. This division simply does not have a ... oh, let’s just say, Julius Peppers. This division doesn’t have a sure-fire dominant pass-rusher. (Note: Carolina's Johnson could turn into that guy if he can string together more seasons like the last, and if he ends up staying with the Panthers amid some potential uncertainty about his status as a free agent in a new labor agreement. But this column's more about the need to improve the pass rush in the other three NFC South cities).

Atlanta’s got Abraham, but he’s going to be 33 in May and he’s only one season removed from a disappointing 5.5-sack year. The Falcons can’t count on Abraham to put up big numbers much longer, and guys like Kroy Biermann, Chauncey Davis and Jamaal Anderson don’t scare anybody.

Maybe someone like Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn or Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan could scare someone. But the Falcons are going to have competition within their own division for guys like that. Atlanta has the No. 27 pick. Look at the myriad mock drafts out there and you see those same names frequently tied to Tampa Bay at No. 20 or New Orleans at No. 24.

It all makes sense. The Bucs were starting Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder much of last season. If they didn’t get really good play out of their secondary, things would have been really ugly. Tampa Bay turned a corner by going 10-6 last season, but the Bucs easily could slip back to mediocrity -- or worse -- if they don’t address the pass rush.

They used their first two picks last year on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Both showed a little promise before suffering season-ending injuries. They at least have the potential to generate a surge in the middle, but McCoy and Price aren’t going to really blossom until they have some help on the outside.

In New Orleans, the need also is obvious. The Saints have Smith, but he’s nearing Abraham territory, which means uncertainty. Smith dropped to 5.5 sacks last season after having 13 in the 2009 Super Bowl season. Smith will turn 30 in July. He might be able to bounce back and have a few more good seasons, but that’s not likely to happen if the Saints don’t add a threat on the other side. They got through last season with Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson serving as functional veterans.

But a Gregg Williams defense is supposed to thrive on pressure, and the Saints need more. Kerrigan or Clayborn could fit. Throw in California’s Cameron Jordan or Missouri’s Aldon Smith. Any of them could fit in with the Saints.

Or the Bucs. Or the Falcons.

Rapid Reaction: Saints 17, Falcons 14

December, 27, 2010
ATLANTA -- I’m heading downstairs for interviews and will be back with more in a bit. But first, a quick Rapid Reaction to the Saints' 17-14 victory.

What it means: The Saints have guaranteed that the race for the NFC South title will go down to the final week of the regular season. The victory makes them 11-4, but they still trail Atlanta (12-3) by a game. The division title remains possible if the Saints win their final game and the Falcons lose. Even if that doesn’t happen and Atlanta ends up with the home-field advantage, the Saints already have shown they can win in the Georgia Dome.

Heroes: Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham. The veteran quarterback and the rookie tight end hooked up on a 6-yard touchdown pass with 3:24 remaining to put the Saints ahead to stay.

Play that should be banned from the Saints’ playbook: The shovel pass. Brees threw it twice Monday night. He got away with it once. But defensive lineman Chauncey Davis picked him off and returned it for a touchdown on the second attempt.

What’s next: The Falcons wrap up the regular season at home Sunday against Carolina. The Saints conclude their regular season Sunday against Tampa Bay in the Superdome.

These guys are not bargains

December, 7, 2010
On Monday, we looked at the guys who are the best bargains (salary wise) in the NFC South. We’ll follow that up now with the flip side.

I’m not going to use the word overpaid because that’s one of my pet peeves. In fact, when I hear people categorically say that football players are overpaid, I always argue against that. My reasoning is that you can’t pay these guys enough because of what they’re putting their bodies through and what the long-term implications of that could be.

That said, however, there are some guys around the division whose production this season isn’t quite matching their contracts. Let’s take a look, and the guidelines we’re using are salary-cap numbers, even though there is no cap this year, because they include base salaries and bonuses.

Chris Gamble, cornerback, Panthers, $8.05 million. He’s been a nice player for a long time, but never a true star. This season, he hasn’t even been good. He doesn’t have an interception and, at one point, was benched by coach John Fox.

Jordan Gross, tackle, Panthers, $8.5 million. Another guy whose play this year isn’t close to what it’s been in the past. You can blame most of it on other problems on the offensive line. But Gross hasn’t been as dominant as he once was.

Steve Smith, receiver, Panthers, $8.7 million. Let’s put the blame for this one on the Panthers -- their problems at quarterback and conservative play calling. Smith is a tremendous talent, but the Panthers have just kind of wasted this season for him.

Erik Coleman, safety, Falcons, $2.785 million. With Thomas DeCoud and William Moore stepping up, Coleman has become nothing more than an expensive backup.

Chauncey Davis, defensive end, Falcons, $3.35 million. He’s made one start and hasn’t recorded a sack. He’s an even more expensive backup than Coleman.

Jamaal Anderson, defensive lineman, Falcons, $5.4 million. After a horrible start to his career as a defensive end, the former first-round draft pick finally has showed some value as a situational player. He gets time in the rotation as a defensive tackle and defensive end, and he can play the run. But there are a lot of guys who play the run for a lot less money.

Reggie Bush, running back, Saints, $11.99 million. A lot of people say Bush is overrated and I disagree with that because he can do so many different things. But, mainly because of injuries, his production has been minimal this season.

Jahri Evans, guard, Saints, $9.2 million. The Saints gave him a huge contract because a lot of people say he’s the best guard in the league. He can be that, at times, but he seems to have developed a knack for getting called for holding this year.

Jeff Faine, center, Buccaneers, $5 million. He just went on injured reserve yesterday and he missed significant time with injuries early in the season. Even when he’s healthy, Faine is only pretty close to ordinary.
Some pretty major news out of St. Louis. Atlanta defensive end John Abraham will not be active for today’s game.

Abraham is out with a groin injury. That means Lawrence Sidbury, who has been inactive most of the season, will be on the active list today. Sidbury could be used in a rotation with Chauncey Davis and Jamaal Anderson in Abraham’s spot.
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.
Atlanta coach Mike Smith has talked several times about how he wants to use a seven- or eight-man rotation on his defensive line. He also has said repeatedly he wants to make sure none of his defensive linemen are on the field for more than 35 or 40 plays a game.

Sounds nice in theory, but the Falcons are going to have to make some changes and get bigger contributions from several new guys and players who were injured last year to really make this plan work.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Babineaux
Dale Zanine/US PresswireJonathan Babineaux was on the field for 81.8 percent of the Falcons' defensive plays last season.
I just gathered up the numbers on how much playing time each of Atlanta’s defensive linemen played last season and several things jumped out.

The biggest thing was that defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux averaged 53 plays a game last year. Of Atlanta’s 1,034 defensive snaps, Babineaux was on the field for 846 (81.8 percent of the defensive plays). That’s a huge amount for a defensive tackle.

To put it in perspective, Babineaux ranked behind only Minnesota’s Kevin Williams, who was on the field for 86.1 percent of his team’s defensive plays, among all the defensive tackles in the league. There were only a handful of defensive tackles across the league that even reached the 60 or 70 percent range.

It’s great that Babineaux was able to hold up physically through all that, but the Falcons wound up playing him a lot more than they wanted to. A large reason for that was because they lost rookie defensive tackle Peria Jerry to injury very early in the season. That took away the depth behind Babineaux because guys like Thomas Johnson (41 percent of the plays), Vance Walker (23.5 percent) and Trey Lewis (19.7) had to pick up snaps in Jerry’s spot. The Falcons also rotated defensive end Jamaal Anderson to defensive tackle at times. I don’t have a breakdown on how many snaps Anderson got at each position, but he was on the field for 550 snaps (53.2 percent).

You can bet that Babineaux’s not going to be on the field as much this season. First, he’ll miss the opener against Pittsburgh because he’s suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Even when he comes back, the Falcons aren’t going to ask Babineaux to stay on the field as much as he did last year. Jerry is expected to be fully healthy for the opener and the Falcons are very happy with third-round draft pick Corey Peters, who should be a big part of the rotation. Although Anderson still is getting some work at end, he’s probably going to get more time at tackle because the Falcons have asked him to bulk up for a bigger role in the interior.

That’s actually good news for Babineaux. When a defensive tackle is playing as much as Babineaux did last year, he’s bound to get tired at times. In a rotation, the Falcons will be able to keep Babineaux, who led the team with 6.5 sacks last season, much fresher.

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Falcons may limit John Abraham's playing time to maximize his effectivemess as a pass-rusher.
The other guy that jumped out at me was defensive end John Abraham. He averaged 42.3 snaps a game last year. Now, that might not sound far off of Smith’s goal of 35 to 40 snaps for each defensive lineman. But Abraham’s a little different than the rest because of his age. Abraham was on the field for 676 plays (65.4 percent) last season. I think the Falcons would like to keep Abraham to 35 or fewer snaps a game to maximize his ability as a pass-rusher.

Keep in mind, Abraham’s production dropped last season. He produced only 5.5 sacks. That came after he produced 16.5 in 2008. So I went back and checked on Abraham’s 2008 playing time. In that season, Abraham was on the field for 60 percent of the plays. That might not sound like a huge difference from last year, but it’s significant when you’re talking about a player of Abraham’s age.

I think what the Falcons want to do with Abraham this year is keep him fresh and try to limit his play, as much as possible, to obvious pass-rushing situations.

That might mean using Chauncey Davis, who was on the field for 49 percent of last year’s plays, mostly on running downs and Anderson still will get some work on the outside in those situations. But the two defensive ends who are likely to see their playing time increase are Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury. Biermann was in for 46.9 percent of last year’s snaps. Sidbury was only on the field for 10.3 percent of the defensive plays. Both of those guys are young and the Falcons think they’re emerging as pass-rushers. I think you can count on Biermann and Sidbury being on the field more often this season.