NFC South: Chip Vaughn

Marty Hurney and Rich McKay, a couple of general managers I covered back in my newspaper days, used to always say "You don’t judge a draft for at least a couple of years."

I agree with that, even if it means those grades we in the media all do on draft day or the day after are meaningless. You don’t really know what you’ve got for a couple of years. In that spirit, let’s take a look at the 2009 NFC draft classes, rank them and grade them.

Tampa Bay. If you draft a franchise quarterback, you’ve hit it out of the park. A lot of people didn’t think Josh Freeman was a franchise quarterback when the Bucs drafted him. Coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik believed in Freeman and it turns out they were right. That’s why they turned their franchise around. By the way, defensive tackle Roy Miller (third round) and Sammie Stroughter (seventh round) also have turned out to be solid picks. Grade: A+

New Orleans. The Saints only had four picks in this draft and two of them, linebacker Stanley Arnoux (fourth round) and safety Chip Vaughn (fourth round) haven’t been factors due to injuries. But the Saints got it right on their other top picks. First-rounder Malcolm Jenkins showed big-time skills in his first season as a starting safety. Thomas Morstead (fifth round) quickly has become one of the league’s best punters. Grade: B+

Carolina. Second-round pick Everette Brown, who was drafted to be the next Julius Peppers, has produced 6.5 sacks in two years and hasn’t had a big impact. But defensive backs Sherrod Martin (second round) and Captain Munnerlyn (seventh round) have made impacts. Running back Mike Goodson (fourth round) played better than anyone thought he could after injuries to Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams last season and fullback Tony Fiammetta (fourth round) is a starter. Grade: C+

Atlanta. William Moore, who has become a solid starter at safety, saves this class from getting a really bad grade. First-round pick Peria Jerry had a knee injury as a rookie and didn’t have much impact last season. There’s still hope Jerry will come on next year, but he hasn’t done much yet. Neither have cornerback Christopher Owens (third round) or defensive end Lawrence Sidbury (fourth round). Grade: C-

Hitting the NFC South links

August, 30, 2010
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James Varney takes a look at how the Saints 53-man roster could shape up. One of the bigger questions is if the Saints will keep both Chase Daniel and Patrick Ramsey as reserves behind Drew Brees.

Scott Fowler writes about how “awful’’ Carolina’s offense has been during the preseason. No argument about that. But it’s time for yet another reminder: It’s the preseason. Carolina’s defense has looked spectacular in three exhibitions. Carolina fans shouldn’t be freaking about the offense or celebrating the defense until we see both units in the regular season.

Bradley Handwerger writes about how Chip Vaughn is making a case for a roster spot at safety. The case could get a lot stronger if injured veteran Darren Sharper is placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list, is cut or retires.

D. Orlando Ledbetter’s got his breakdown on how Atlanta’s roster might shape up. It looks like the Falcons are going to have to cut a pretty decent defensive tackle with Thomas Johnson and Vance Walker on the bubble. Just a thought here, but if I’m a personnel guy in Carolina, I’m watching the waiver wire closely because either of these guys could be an upgrade over what the Panthers have.

All indications continue to be that Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman should be good to go in time for the regular-season opener.

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.

The Class of 2009.5

May, 11, 2010
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We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the 2010 draft picks in recent weeks.

But those guys aren’t going to be the only “rookies’’ in the NFC South this season. As I watched Atlanta’s minicamp over the weekend and saw Peria Jerry and William Moore doing some work on the side, it reminded me of a trend that spread through the NFC South last year. A lot of 2009 draft picks missed all or most of last season because of injuries.

[+] EnlargePeria Jerry
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Falcons are counting on 2009 first-rounder Peria Jerry to bolster their pass rush.
Look through the division and you can almost make a case that Atlanta and New Orleans and, to a lesser degree, Tampa Bay, each will have something of an extra draft class this year. Let’s start with the Falcons because Jerry and Moore were their first two picks last year and both were injured before really getting a chance to do much.

Jerry instantly claimed a spot as a starter at defensive tackle before suffering an early-season knee injury. Judging by how folks in Atlanta were talking, Jerry still faces a long recovery. But he’ll be back in the starting lineup as soon as he’s ready. Moore’s almost ready and the Falcons are hoping he can win a starting safety job.

New Orleans had only four draft picks in 2009 and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and punter Thomas Morstead were the only ones to make an impact as rookies. Linebacker Stanley Arnoux and safety Chip Vaughn were hurt before the season even started. Both are expected to be healthy this year. I don’t see either one stepping into a starting role, but the Saints are looking for Arnoux and Vaughn to be key players on special teams.

Tampa Bay saw some promise out of cornerback E.J. Biggers before the seventh-round draft pick got hurt. He’s not going to solve the search as an heir apparent to veteran Ronde Barber, but Biggers has a chance at a roster spot and some duty on special teams. You can almost throw defensive end Kyle Moore, a fourth-round pick last year, into this category. Moore appeared in eight games, but didn’t do much. He was set back by some knee problems. The Bucs believe Moore has matured mentally and physically and could be a factor this year.

NFC South mailbag

May, 5, 2010
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JM in Charlotte writes: So, let's say that Carolina carries three QBs on their regular season roster. We can expect that Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen (in whatever order) will be first and second string...who do you think would be the third string?

Pat Yasinskas: That’s going to be an interesting battle in training camp between draft pick Tony Pike and Hunter Cantwell, who spent much of last season on the practice squad. I watched both in minicamp over the weekend and Pike and Cantwell throw pretty well. My guess is the Panthers would like to keep one of them on the roster and put the other on the practice squad. Training camp will decide who has the upper hand, but it might be easier to cut Cantwell and bring him back to the practice squad. Pike’s a draft pick and there are some other teams out there that liked him and they could grab him if he is released.


Patrick in Atlanta writes: Are you going to Falcons minicamp?

Pat Yasinskas: Yes, I am. In fact, I’m multitasking right now -- working on my laundry and this mailbag. Looking forward to heading up to Flowery Branch and seeing the Falcons. Actually driving up this time just to put a little variety in my life. Sometimes, I get a little tired of getting on planes and this should be a nice time of the year to see Georgia and Northern Florida.


Bill in Laplace, La., writes: My question to you is, how can anybody take the ex security director for the Saints seriously? He tries to get money from the Saints to not file a suit, then, when rebuffed, files a civil suit. Seems to me, he would have a lot more credibility if he would have reported this immediately to the proper authorities without wanting money. Your thoughts?

Pat Yasinskas: I’m staying in the middle of the road on this one right now and don’t have any real opinion yet. Quite simply, I don’t feel like I know enough, based on the limited information that’s come out on this so far. I’m going to wait and see if there are more details coming through the legal system or from law enforcement before forming any real opinion.


Kyle in Bossier City, La., writes: Darren Sharper’s signing has answered one question. The next question that comes to my mind is how many of these DBs, or "embarrassment of riches" as you have so adequately described them, will the Saints realistically be able to keep do to regular season roster restrictions?

Pat Yasinskas: The Saints are as loaded at defensive back as any team I’ve ever seen. With Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter, Malcolm Jenkins, Patrick Robinson and Randall Gay, I see five cornerbacks who are capable of starting. Jenkins could switch over to free safety and compete with Sharper, who is coming off knee surgery and Roman Harper’s a solid strong safety. The Saints also have Usama Young, who is a quality backup, Chip Vaughn is coming back after missing his rookie season with an injury and there are a few other young defensive backs with promise. The Saints probably will carry 10 defensive backs in the regular season. There will be some tough calls to make, but this is a nice problem to have. The little “slump’’ the Saints had last season was when Porter, Greer and Sharper were banged-up. The Saints weathered that storm and they’ve positioned themselves to weather just about any injury in the defensive backfield.


Ben in Tampa writes: What happened to USF receiver Carlton Mitchell? You said in a previous post that his pro day went so well you had him as a possible 2nd round draft pick. He didn't even get drafted, what happened?

Pat Yasinskas: Actually, he did get drafted. But it wasn’t until the sixth round by Cleveland. That surprised me because I thought Mitchell would go much earlier. He’s a guy with good size and speed and he looked very good in his workouts. I think the apprehension came because Mitchell came out of school early and might not be real polished. But I think he’s someone who could develop into a solid receiver.


Jonathan in Fort Mill, S.C., writes: The rumors coming out of the mini-camp is that Armanti Edwards electrified the coaches with his abilities. After Marty Hurney took so much heat for trading next year's 2nd round pick, (I know it’s early) but is Armanti Edwards the real deal?

Pat Yasinskas: “Rumors’’ might not be accurate. I think it’s fair to say Edwards was, in fact, electrifying in his first minicamp. The coaches saw and I saw it (along with the other media) on the sideline. It was a very promising start. But let’s keep it in perspective for now. This was only one minicamp. Also, I think it’s key that John Fox abandons his conservative nature and lets offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson be creative with Edwards.

Saints now loaded with DBs

May, 3, 2010
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In the end, the New Orleans Saints and Darren Sharper got things to work out exactly the way both sides wanted. It just took a long time.

Sharper
Sharper
The past few months for the Saints and the veteran safety have been nothing but posturing. Despite a flurry of recent talk about the 34-year-old free agent landing in Jacksonville or somewhere else, the Saints announced Monday that Sharper will return to New Orleans.

“We have said since the end of the season that we would love to have Darren back in a Saints uniform for 2010 and I’m glad we’ve been able to make that happen,” general manager Mickey Loomis said. “Darren was an integral part of our Super Bowl-winning team and we look forward to having him back.”

Sharper had nine interceptions last season and solidified a secondary that went from terrible to very good. But, this time around, Sharper’s signing isn’t the kind of act that should be viewed as solving everything. In most areas of the secondary, the Saints really have nothing that needs solving. This is insurance, almost an embarrassment of riches.

With starters Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter firmly entrenched at cornerback and Roman Harper at strong safety, Sharper’s return leaves a slight question about his role. While Sharper was hanging out in free agency, the Saints viewed moving cornerback Malcolm Jenkins to free safety as one alternative and letting veteran Usama Young step into a starting role as the other.

Those still could be options, but the Saints now have all sorts of flexibility in their secondary. They just drafted cornerback Patrick Robinson in the first round and they’ve got safety Chip Vaughn coming back from an injury that cost him his rookie season.

They’ve still got a quality veteran backup cornerback in Randall Gay. That leaves all sorts of possibilities for Jenkins, who I think is the most interesting guy in this whole mix. The Saints’ first-round pick last season, Jenkins spent his rookie year as a backup cornerback. He did some good things there, but he also has the tools to move to free safety.

But, with Sharper’s return, the Saints don’t have to make an immediate decision on Jenkins’ future. They can let things play out naturally in a secondary with loads of talent.

NFC South mailbag

March, 31, 2010
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Abe in Hartford, Conn., writes: I just saw that Jason Elam signed a one day contract with Denver so he can retire as a Bronco. One thing I've always wondered about these one day contracts is does any money change hands? If so, is it some prorated share of the league minimum?

Pat Yasinskas: No, purely a ceremonial gesture. In the case of Elam, it’s very fitting. Yes, he finished up with the Falcons, but spent the vast majority of his career with Denver.


Chris in Harrisburg, Pa., writes: What did you think of WR Carlton Mitchell and how did he perform at UFS’s pro day? Do you think the Bucs might be looking at him to fill their WR role?

Pat Yasinskas: As I reported yesterday, Mitchell appeared to do very well. Several people who actually have some draft input with their teams said they liked what they saw of Mitchell. This guy already was rising and I think he made sure Tuesday that the trend will continue. I asked one of Mitchell’s agents before the workout which teams seemed to be showing the most interest. Keep in mind it’s an agent’s job to promote his client and the answer went something like: “Any team that wants a receiver with good size, speed and character that can catch the ball should be interested in Carlton.’’ That said, after watching Mitchell’s workout, talking to him and talking to some scouts about him, I tend to agree with the agent’s answer. I think Mitchell might have pushed himself into the second round. I could see the Bucs or the Panthers taking a shot on this kid.


Jeff in Charleston, SC writes: Does Thomas Dimitroff have anyone (besides Jamaal Anderson) on the trade block? Also, is he eyeing any players around the NFL to trade for, or does he just want to stick strictly to the draft now? I would think Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling have pretty good trade value, right?

Pat Yasinskas: First off, I’m not certain Anderson is actually on the trade block, but that wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Norwood and Snelling are restricted free agents and, so far, there’s been no indication they’re drawing serious interest from other teams, and we’re two weeks away from the end of restricted free agency. Never say never to anything and I’m sure Dimitroff is monitoring everything going on around the league. But he told me last week during the owners meeting that the Falcons now are focusing primarily on the draft.


Richie in New Orleans writes: Big fan of the blog. What are your thoughts on previously injured Saints' draft picks like Stanley Arnoux, Chip Vaughn, and Adrian Arrington? During the drafts, these guys seemed to have a lot of potential, but disappeared after their injuries.

Pat Yasinskas: Glad you brought those guys up because a lot of people have forgotten about them. I’m not saying any of those guys are going to come in and be immediate stars. But the Saints liked all of them when they first brought them in. They view them almost like extra draft picks this year. At very least, Arnoux and Vaughn have a chance to be regulars on special teams this year. Arrington has some nice potential, but the Saints have a deep receiving corps. Still, he’s got a chance to stick on the roster.


Chris in Charlotte writes: Do you think Jacoby Ford will make it to the 2nd Round for the Panthers selection? If not who else you think Carolina could pick up?

Pat Yasinskas: Just sampled some random projections on Ford and I’d guess the odds are pretty good he’ll be available when the Panthers pick in the second round. Seems like a lot of people are projecting him as a third-round guy. Ford is a fast but small receiver. He’d be perfect in the slot. But I think the Panthers might be looking for a bigger receiver (perhaps someone like Mitchell) to take Muhsin Muhammad’s starting place.

Saints have weathered injuries

January, 11, 2010
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One of the things the New Orleans Saints did best this season was overcome injuries. That’s a huge improvement from 2008, when injuries were largely responsible for keeping the Saints out of the playoffs.

This season, they ended with 15 players on injured reserve, and some of those guys were significant players.

Here’s the complete list of Saints on injured reserve with comments about the more significant ones.

  • FB Heath Evans: This actually might have been the most significant injury the Saints suffered. Evans was a jack-of-all-trades and a perfect fit in this offense. Without him, the Saints have had to scramble because they did not have another proven fullback. They’ve had to throw some guys in there as well as line their tight ends up in the backfield at times.
  • TE Dan Campbell and TE Billy Miller: These guys also could have helped the fullback situation. They were both good blockers to go along with Jeremy Shockey, who is used mostly as a pass catcher. The Saints did pick up David Thomas and he’s done a nice role filling in.
  • DE Charles Grant: He didn’t get hurt until the end of the regular season, so we won’t know the full impact until the Saints hit the field again. Backup Bobby McCray might get some time at end on passing downs. McCray is at least as good a pass rusher as Grant and Anthony Hargrove, who also plays inside.
  • LT Jammal Brown: It’s pretty amazing the Saints won 13 games when they didn’t have their Pro Bowl left tackle for any of them. Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief have alternated at the position. They’ve had some ups and downs, but the coaching staff has done an excellent job of putting help near them.
  • DT Kendrick Clancy: This veteran was kind of an unsung hero. Losing him hurt, but players like Hargrove have done a nice job filling in.
  • FB Marcus Mailei
  • WR Rod Harper
  • WR D’Juan Woods
  • LB Mark Simoneau
  • LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar
  • LB Stanley Arnoux
  • CB Leigh Torrence
  • CB Reggie Jones
  • S Chip Vaughn

Freeman, Jenkins lead Class of '09

December, 4, 2009
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At a draft-day party in Raymond James Stadium, fans booed when the Bucs selected quarterback Josh Freeman. A day later, there weren’t any large gatherings as the draft wound down, but you still could hear some groans in the streets of New Orleans as the Saints traded up to get a punter.

Funny, but no one’s complaining now about the two most controversial draft picks in the NFC South. Four starts into his career, Freeman’s shown enough promise to bring hope to a franchise that spent the first half of the season without any. In New Orleans, Thomas Morstead has gone from being the punter nobody aside from Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton wanted to one of the best picks in the entire draft.

We’re only 11 games into the season and you never can fully judge a draft until two or three years out. But this year’s draft class is forming an early identity and it’s time for a look at the Class of 2009.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS. For all that’s gone wrong with the Bucs this year, it’s important to remember that one thing has gone right. Tampa Bay appears to have found the franchise quarterback it’s been looking for since Doug Williams left. Don’t undersell the importance of that. If Freeman really is that franchise quarterback, this rebuilding process is no longer so daunting.
[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
J. Meric/Getty Images Rookie Josh Freeman is giving the Bucs a reason to believe they have found their franchise quarterback.

Want some more hope for the Buccaneers? Consider these numbers. In Freeman’s four starts, he has thrown more touchdown passes (seven) than Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez did in their first four starts. Freeman also has a 77.0 passer rating, which is significantly better than what the quartet just mentioned did in their first four starts.

He also is 1-3 as a starter, but easily could be 3-1 if the Bucs had just played a little bit of defense. Not bad for a kid who came out of Kansas State with questions about his ability to make decisions. It’s looking more and more like the Bucs made the right call in locking in on Freeman, who coach Raheem Morris knew from his one-year stint as an assistant at Kansas State, even if they telegraphed their intentions so strongly that they had to trade up a spot to No. 18 to make sure they got their quarterback.

The next step is to surround Freeman with talent. You can bet that’s going to be the focus of the 2010 draft as the Bucs quietly stockpiled 10 picks. But the Bucs already have landed a key piece for Freeman. That’s wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, who came in the seventh round. Stroughter had some personal issues in college, but the Bucs did their homework and thought he was worth a gamble late in the draft.

Stroughter has turned out better than anyone could have expected. He’s already a solid slot receiver, which is almost like a starter in the modern NFL. The Bucs also got another soon-to-be starter in the third round with defensive tackle Roy Miller. He’s played in a rotation with Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims this season, but it’s not much of a stretch to say Miller is the only member of that trio that will be around next year.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS. Pound for pound, the Saints probably have gotten the most out of their draft class so far. They only had four rookies to begin with and defensive back Chip Vaughn and Stanley Arnoux both went down with injuries in the preseason.

That leaves only Morstead and first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins, but that’s a pretty strong combination. Morstead, who also handles kickoffs, has helped solidify a kicking game that struggled last season. With Jenkins, the Saints had a rare luxury. They were able to bring the rookie along slowly because starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter were playing so well.

That allowed Jenkins to go through the learning process on the practice field and the sideline. Injuries have piled up the last couple of weeks and Jenkins has been pushed into a starting role. He’s shown he’s ready for it.

CAROLINA PANTHERS. Much like the Saints with Morstead and the Bucs with Freeman, the Panthers raised some eyebrows when they moved up in the second round (by trading away their 2010 first-round pick) to get defensive end Everette Brown. Unlike the moves by the Bucs and Saints, there remains room to question this one.

The Panthers drafted Brown at a time when there still was uncertainty about the future of defensive end Julius Peppers. But Peppers wound up staying as the franchise player and Brown hasn’t really been a contributor. He has 1.5 sacks and, no doubt, has plenty of potential.

But Brown is a project. At the moment, he’s undersized and nothing more than a situational pass rusher. But at least the Panthers are getting some production out of this draft.

They definitely hit on seventh-round pick Captain Munnerlyn, who’s been a contributor as a defensive back and on special teams. They also seem to have found a starter in safety Sherrod Martin, the second of their two second-round picks.

ATLANTA FALCONS. A year ago, everyone was talking about how general manager Thomas Dimitroff had put together such a brilliant draft class. That’s not happening this year because the Falcons have gotten very little from their rookie class.

It should be noted it’s a lot easier to get impact players when you’re drafting in the top five in every round instead of in the 20s. It’s also important to note that it wouldn’t be fair to label Dimitroff’s second class as anything close to a bust right now.

You could see right away the Falcons had a player in first-round pick Peria Jerry. But the defensive tackle went out for the season in Week Two. Pretty much the same story for second-round pick William Moore. Third-round pick Christopher Owens and fourth-round pick Lawrence Sidbury haven’t been big factors.

Maybe there’s a lesson in this draft for the Falcons. Maybe Atlanta fans shouldn’t expect every Dimitroff pick to be Matt Ryan or Curtis Lofton and produce huge and immediate results. Maybe they should look at this year’s draft class and remember the story of Thomas DeCoud. He’s probably the only member of the spectacular 2008 class that didn’t really produce as a rookie.

In his second season, DeCoud is starting at safety and playing well. Sometimes, it takes a little time.

Saints make roster cuts

September, 5, 2009
9/05/09
6:11
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


The Saints just announced they are down to 53 players. They took several different routes to get there.

Tight end Billy Miller, fullback Olaniyi Sobomehin and safety Chip Vaughn were placed on the injured-reserve list. Receiver Adrian Arrington, guard Nate Bennett, tackle Michael Brown, center Digger Bujnoch, running back Herb Donaldson, guard Tim Duckworth, cornerback Danny Gorrer, receiver Skyler Green, defensive tackle Earl Heyman, running back P.J. Hill, tight end Martrez Milner, tackle Jeremy Parnell, defensive tackle DeMario Pressley, receiver Courtney Roby, receiver Matt Simon and linebacker Anthony Waters.

The following veterans had their contracts terminated: offensive lineman Anthony Davis, quarterback Joey Harrington and defensive end Paul Spicer.

Around the NFC South

July, 30, 2009
7/30/09
9:35
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

A quick look at the headlines from around the NFC South.

  • The Saints reportedly have reached deals with fourth-round pick Chip Vaughn and fifth-round choice Thomas Morstead. But top pick Malcolm Jenkins remains unsigned.
  • The Wall Street Journal takes a look at what Michael Vick's future might hold. This story's a little different than the usual speculation about which teams, if any, might be interested in the former Atlanta quarterback. Instead, it focuses on whether Vick's future is at quarterback or another position.
  • Jeff Duncan writes that the Saints will go as far as Gregg Williams' defense will take them.
  • Joe Henderson makes the point that rebuilding, even if the Bucs don't like that term, isn't necessarily a bad thing. He says it was long overdue.
  • Rick Stroud takes a look at five Bucs who could be primed for breakthrough seasons.
  • D. Orlando Ledbetter reports that talks about a contract extension for Atlanta receiver Roddy White haven't yielded much and White's agent wouldn't comment when asked whether a training camp holdout was a possibility.
  • Charles Chandler points out the Panthers have very little depth at defensive tackle behind starters Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu.

Status check on rookie contracts

July, 29, 2009
7/29/09
12:35
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

As of early Wednesday afternoon, here's the signing status for NFC South rookies. We're approaching the proverbial "wire'', so keep in mind that this could change at any time. Contract terms are based on reports by various media outlets.

ATLANTA FALCONS
Rd. 1: Peria Jerry, DT, unsigned
Rd. 2: William Moore, S, four years, terms not available
Rd. 3: Christopher Owens, CB, four years, $2.4 million
Rd. 4: Lawrence Sidbury, DE, four years, $2.2 million
Rd. 5: William Middleton, CB, signed, terms not available
Rd. 5: Garrett Reynolds, OT, four-year deal, $1.75 million
Rd. 6: Spencer Adkins, LB, four-year deal, terms not available
Rd. 7: Vance Walker, DT, signed, terms not available

CAROLINA PANTHERS
Rd. 2: Everette Brown, DE, four-year deal, $4.3 million
Rd. 3: Sherrod Martin, DB, unsigned
Rd. 3: Corvey Irvin, DL, four-year deal, terms not available
Rd. 4: Mike Goodson, RB, four-year deal, terms not available
Rd. 4: Tony Fiammetta, FB, four-year deal, terms not available
Rd. 5: Duke Robinson, G, four-year deal, $1.92 million
Rd. 7: Captain Munnerlyn, DB, four-year deal, $1.75 million

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Rd. 1: Malcolm Jenkins, CB unsigned
Rd. 4: Chip Vaughn, S, unsigned
Rd. 4: Stanley Arnoux, LB, unsigned *
Rd. 5: Thomas Morstead, P, unsigned

* Arnoux suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon and is expected to be out for the season. The Saints still are expected to sign him to a contract at some point.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Rd. 1: Josh Freeman, QB, unsigned
Rd. 3: Roy Miller, DT, four-year deal, $2.5 million
Rd. 4: Kyle Moore, DE, four-year deal, terms unavailable
Rd. 5: Xavier Fulton, OT, four-year deal, $1.75 million
Rd. 7: E.J. Biggers, CB, four-year deal, terms not available
Rd. 7: Sammie Stroughter, WR, four-year deal, terms not available

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

We gave you an update on how each team in the NFC South was progressing on signing its draft picks last week. But there have been a few new deals since then, so it's time for another update.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Rd. 1: Peria Jerry, DT, unsigned
Rd. 2: William Moore, S, four years, terms not available
Rd. 3: Christopher Owens, CB, four years, $2.4 million
Rd. 4: Lawrence Sidbury, DE, four years, $2.2 million
Rd. 5: William Middleton, CB, signed, terms not available
Rd. 5: Garrett Reynolds, OT, four-year deal, $1.75 million
Rd. 6: Spencer Adkins, LB, four-year deal, terms not available
Rd. 7: Vance Walker, DT, signed, terms not available

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Rd. 2: Everette Brown, DE, four-year deal, $4.3 million
Rd. 3: Sherrod Martin, DB, unsigned
Rd. 3: Corvey Irvin, DL, unsigned
Rd. 4: Mike Goodson, RB, four-year deal, terms not available
Rd. 4: Tony Fiammetta, FB, four-year deal, terms not available
Rd. 5: Duke Robinson, G, four-year deal, $1.92 million
Rd. 7: Captain Munnerlyn, DB, four-year deal, $1.75 million

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Rd. 1: Malcolm Jenkins, CB unsigned
Rd. 4: Chip Vaughn, S, unsigned
Rd. 4: Stanley Arnoux, LB, unsigned
Rd. 5: Thomas Morstead, P, unsigned

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Rd. 1: Josh Freeman, QB, unsigned
Rd. 3: Roy Miller, DT, four-year deal, $2.5 million
Rd. 4: Kyle Moore, DE, four-year deal, terms unavailable
Rd. 5: Xavier Fulton, OT, four-year deal, $1.75 million
Rd. 7: E.J. Biggers, CB, four-year deal, terms not available
Rd. 7: Sammie Stroughter, WR, four-year deal, terms not available

Rookie status check: Saints

July, 21, 2009
7/21/09
3:40
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

The New Orleans Saints haven't done much as far as getting their draft picks signed yet. But the good news is they've got the smallest draft class in the NFC South, so there still is plenty of time for general manager Mickey Loomis to get his rookies signed before camp starts. Here's the status on New Orleans' draft picks.

Rd. 1: Malcolm Jenkins, CB unsigned
Rd. 4: Chip Vaughn, S, unsigned
Rd. 4: Stanley Arnoux, LB, unsigned
Rd. 5: Thomas Morstead, P, unsigned

Wrapping up the fourth round

April, 26, 2009
4/26/09
1:51
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

The NFC South stayed focused mostly on defense in the fourth round, the first round in which all four teams have made a pick.

Six players were selected and only two of them were offensive players. Both of those were chosen by Carolina as the Panthers took Texas A&M running back Mike Goodson and Syracuse fullback Tony Fiammetta. That makes sense because the Panthers need to replace versatile veteran Nick Goings, who was released after last season.

The Saints also had two picks and they followed the defensive path that was started when they took defensive back Malcolm Jenkins in the first round. They went into Carolina's backyard to take two Wake Forest players, linebacker Stanley Arnoux and safety Chip Vaughn. Arnoux brings some fresh legs to a veteran group of linebackers and Vaughn gives the Saints some flexibility in the secondary as they decide if Jenkins is a cornerback or safety.

Tampa Bay took Southern California defensive end Kyle Moore, who started to show some pass-rush skills last season. However, I think there's still a decent chance the Bucs will bring back veteran defensive end Kevin Carter, who remains a free agent.

But Atlanta's pick might be my favorite of the fourth round. The Falcons chose Richmond defensive end Lawrence Sidbury. Yes, this small-school guy might be a project, but I think Mike Smith can coach him into being a big contributor.

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