NFC South: Chris Gamble
With right tackle Mike Johnson suffering serious injury to his ankle and leg, the Falcons might have to bring in a veteran in case second-year pro Lamar Holmes isn’t ready to move into the starting lineup. But the market of available veterans is thin right now. The Falcons might be better off waiting to see who comes available when teams start making roster cuts.
Captain Munnerlyn said fellow cornerback Drayton Florence reminds him of former Carolina cornerback Chris Gamble. If Florence can play anywhere near the way Gamble used to, the Panthers will be very happy with this free-agent pickup.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Jeff Duncan writes that outside linebacker Junior Galette is the team’s most important player outside of quarterback Drew Brees. That sounds like a bold statement, but I think Duncan is right. Galette needs to be a force as a pass-rusher for Rob Ryan’s defense to have a chance to succeed.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Tight end Luke Stocker said he has to be more consistent if he’s going to end up as the starter. Stocker missed most of the first two weeks of camp with a calf injury and is easing his way back into practices. But Stocker still has a chance to win the starting job, because the Bucs don’t have a lot of other options at the position.
Is it Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints or Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons? Heck, you can even look at all the offensive talent Carolina and Tampa Bay have and throw the Panthers and Buccaneers into the conversation.
But trendy and fun will only get you so far. Even in this day and age, you still must play defense once in a while. Especially if you’re a team in the NFC South. The division teams must face each other twice, as well as Seattle’s Russell Wilson, New England’s Tom Brady and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick this season.
Maybe the more practical and important debate is: Which team has the best defense in the NFC South? No defense in the division was great last season. To win the division -- or do much of anything else -- this season, some NFC South defense must at least be halfway decent.
So which defense is the best?
I’m not going to even venture a guess right now because there are too many variables that must play out. I can see reasons why any of the four defenses could be the division’s best. I also can see reasons why each couldn’t.
Let’s take a look at the ceiling and the floor for each of the NFC South defenses:
Nolan might get a little more creative and use some more 3-4 looks. He also might be able to get more aggressive because he has fresh legs at cornerback after the Falcons drafted Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are emerging as one of the league’s best safety tandems. There’s enough talent for this defense to be very good.
Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: The Falcons were No. 24 in total defense (No. 21 against the run and No. 23 against the pass) last season. Umenyiora is on the downside of his career, too, and it’s not as if the Falcons have a lot of other proven pass-rushers.
The young cornerbacks could take some lumps early on. Problems covering the tight end were exposed in the playoffs last season, and the rest of the league got to watch.
Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: In terms of pure talent, I think Carolina has the best front seven in the division. The arrival of rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei could put the Panthers over the top. Lotulelei is the kind of wide body who’s going to make everyone around him better.
Lotulelei is going to keep blockers off linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. He also is going to take blocking away from defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, who already were pretty good at getting after the quarterback.
Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: As much as I can see the front seven being very good, I can see the secondary being very bad. Veteran cornerback Chris Gamble is gone, and I don’t see anything close to a true No. 1 cornerback on this roster. The picture isn’t much brighter at safety.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: New coordinator Rob Ryan is going to bring swagger and an aggressive attitude. That can only help a unit that ranked No. 32 in total defense last year.
More importantly, Ryan is going to bring a 3-4 scheme. That’s the defensive system that seems to be having leaguewide success these days. The Saints have some good individual talent on defense with players such as end Cameron Jordan and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro should make an immediate impact.
Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: The defense was a mess under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo last season, and I’m not sure simply changing schemes will solve everything. Outside of Vaccaro and cornerback Keenan Lewis, it’s not as if the Saints have added a lot of big-time talent this offseason.
It could take more than one season for Ryan’s defense to really turn the corner.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: On paper, I think Tampa Bay might have more talent than any other defense in the division. After ranking No. 32 against the pass last season, the Bucs went out and got cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Johnthan Banks and safety Dashon Goldson. Linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy already are very good.
If young defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers can step up, this could be a solid defense in all areas.
Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: It seems as if the Bucs are pinning a lot of their hopes on Clayborn and Bowers. Both have already dealt with injuries and are not that experienced.
If the pass rush isn’t effective, all those upgrades in the secondary might not matter very much.
I just got a look at how much all NFL teams have committed toward the 2014 salary cap and the picture isn’t pretty for the Saints. They already have $139 million committed to next year’s cap. That’s the second-highest total in the league (Dallas leads at $146 million).
Next year’s cap is expected to remain less than $125 million and the Saints’ commitment will only grow once they sign this year’s draft picks.
The Carolina Panthers, who once had nearly $140 million committed to the 2014 cap, gradually have been shaving cap space for the future. After releasing cornerback Chris Gamble and making some other moves, the Panthers currently have $125 million committed toward next year’s cap. That number will drop by $5.9 million next spring when the contract for offensive tackle Jordan Gross voids.
The other two NFC South teams are in decent cap shape for 2014. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are at $98.5 million. They’re expected to use some of that room to sign receiver Mike Williams to a contract extension this offseason, but they still will have plenty of room to sign Josh Freeman to a long-term extension if the quarterback has a solid 2013 season.
Speaking of quarterbacks and long-term extensions, the Atlanta Falcons are well positioned to absorb the long-term contract they want to get done with Matt Ryan this offseason. The Falcons currently have $98 million committed toward the 2014 cap.
With the departures of Dunta Robinson and Chris Gamble, there just aren’t many highly-paid cornerbacks left in the division.
I just did a quick sampling of NFC South cornerback salaries (including bonuses) for this year and only Atlanta’s Asante Samuel ($4.95 million), New Orleans’ Keenan Lewis ($7 million), Jabari Greer ($4.15 million) and Patrick Robinson ($800,000), Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn ($1.1 million) and Tampa Bay’s Eric Wright ($7.75 million) are scheduled to make more than the minimum salary, which varies depending on the number of accrued seasons a player has. And it’s important to note that Wright is likely to either take a cut in pay or get released before long.
This is all shocking for a division that’s full of high-powered offenses. Right now, there’s no clear-cut best cornerback in the division.
That leads me to believe that all four teams might not be done making moves at cornerback. Carolina doesn’t have a No. 1 corner on its roster. Neither does Atlanta. Greer and Lewis might be all right in New Orleans, but the Saints need some insurance in case Robinson has a repeat of last year. Outside of Wright, Tampa Bay has a bunch of young, no-name corners.
That’s got to change. We’re going to see some corners taken early by NFC South teams in the upcoming draft and that could bump up the pay scale.
Of course, there’s one other scenario hanging out there that could change the cornerback pay scale. If Tampa Bay ever gets around to trading for Darrelle Revis (and I think there still is a decent chance of that), the Bucs will have to work a long-term deal to pay him more than any other cornerback.
Chris Gamble and their free-agency signings so far have been mostly limited to middle-of-the road defensive backs.
I think the Falcons, who added running back Steven Jackson and retained left tackle Sam Baker and cornerback William Moore, have been the division’s biggest winners so far this offseason. And the Falcons can only enhance that if they finally get around to signing defensive end Osi Umenyiora.
New Orleans’ biggest move so far was the signing of Keenan Lewis, who will upgrade the secondary. But the Saints did lose left tackle Jermon Bushrod via free agency.
I liked Tampa Bay’s signing of safety Dashon Goldson at the start of free agency, but I’m a little surprised that the Bucs, who still have $27 million in salary-cap space, haven’t done more.
Now, it’s your turn to hear your thoughts on which NFC South team is having the best offseason so far. Cast your vote in the attached SportsNation poll and share your logic in the comments section below.
A look at whether each NFC South team has been a winner or a loser in free agency:
Atlanta Falcons: The process is far from over, but the Falcons are winners so far. They made a significant upgrade to their running game by signing Steven Jackson to replace Michael Turner. That alone made the offense instantly better than it was last season. I also like the way the Falcons have kept their own, re-signing potential free agents Sam Baker and William Moore, and coaxing tight end Tony Gonzalez back for another season. If the Falcons can re-sign cornerback Brent Grimes at a reasonable price and add a pass-rusher, this would look like a team without any holes.
Carolina Panthers: You have to call the Panthers losers in free agency so far, unless you want to give them credit for leading the league in signing mediocre defensive backs (Mike Mitchell, Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore and re-signing Captain Munnerlyn). I didn’t expect the Panthers to be big players in free agency, because their salary-cap situation prohibits that. The Panthers had to let go of No. 1 cornerback Chris Gamble because of the salary cap. That was inevitable, but replacing him with a slew of No. 3 cornerbacks doesn’t generate much hope or excitement.
New Orleans Saints: Despite a tight salary-cap situation, the Saints have been winners so far. Yes, they have a major hole to fill after losing left tackle Jermon Bushrod via free agency. But the Saints have pulled rabbits out of hats on their offensive line in the past, and they can do it again. The upside is that the Saints made themselves a lot better at cornerback by adding Keenan Lewis, and at tight end with the addition of Benjamin Watson. Lewis is a player with lots of upside, who should provide much-needed help for the secondary. The Watson signing probably hasn’t received as much praise as it deserves because people assume he’ll be nothing more than a backup to Jimmy Graham. But coach Sean Payton is crafty, and I expect Watson to play an important role in the passing game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: You have to call the Bucs winners because they got Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson right out of the gate. That was a great start, but the Bucs have been quiet since then. Can they afford to let every quality free-agent cornerback go elsewhere as they wait to see if the New York Jets blink in their talks about a trade for Darrelle Revis? It’s also somewhat bizarre that the Bucs were so willing to let defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Roy Miller leave as free agents even though they didn’t get big money. The Bucs will tell you that Bennett and Miller were “just guys" and they might have a point. But Bennett and Miller must have been doing something right, because the Bucs ranked first in the league in run defense last season.
But Moore, who played nickel back for Chicago last season, has been signed by the Carolina Panthers.
Along with Josh Thomas and Josh Norman, the Panthers should have some good young talent at cornerback. Moore can be the nickel back or maybe even contend for a starting job. He also should be a fan favorite because he went to high school in Spartanburg, S.C., where the Panthers hold training camp.
Moore’s signing may be an indication the Panthers aren’t expecting to re-sign Captain Munnerlyn, who has similar size and skills. The Panthers also previously signed veteran Drayton Florence, who can compete to be the second or third cornerback.
The Panthers now have some depth at cornerback and the competition among Moore, Florence, Thomas and Norman could prompt one or more of them to step up. But the Panthers, who previously released veteran Chris Gamble, don’t have a true No. 1 cornerback.
More and more, I’m thinking Carolina will use its first-round draft pick on a cornerback.
They’ve signed veteran cornerback Drayton Florence and re-signed backup quarterback Derek Anderson.
Although Florence is 32 and started only three games with Detroit last season, he at least gives the Panthers some instant experience at cornerback. The Panthers recently released veteran Chris Gamble. Florence likely will compete with youngsters Josh Norman and Josh Thomas for the No. 2 and 3 cornerback spots. But it still is likely the Panthers will look for a true No. 1 cornerback in the draft or later in free agency.
In re-signing Anderson to a one-year deal, the Panthers kept continuity in their quarterback situation. Cam Newton clearly is the franchise quarterback, but Anderson has been his backup the past two seasons. Anderson’s return probably means Jimmy Clausen is headed for his third straight year as the No. 3 quarterback after starting much of his rookie year.
Strategy: Atlanta's philosophy is to keep its core together. Still, the Falcons are usually good for one or two significant moves per offseason. There is a bit of salary-cap room to work with and more could be created with some contract restructures. The Falcons have several areas of need, most notably at defensive end and running back. It would be difficult for Atlanta to get a top-notch pass rusher with the 30th overall pick in the draft. That's why I suspect the Falcons could make a splash move to bring in someone such as a Cliff Avril, Dwight Freeney or Osi Umenyiora.
Cap status: The Panthers had to work like crazy just to get under the salary cap. They're already facing salary-cap nightmares for 2014, so I wouldn't expect a big spending spree.
Strategy: This is Dave Gettleman's first free-agency period as a general manager, so we don't know his tendencies. But the cap situation assures that he won't be making a bunch of huge signings. Still, the Panthers have more needs than they'll be able to fill in the draft, so they may have to dabble a bit in free agency. They might not be able to get a top-notch cornerback in the middle of the first round of the draft. They need a No. 1 cornerback after releasing Chris Gamble, so they may have to look for one in free agency.
Cap status: The Saints spent the past few weeks digging out from a cap mess, so they don't have a lot of room to work with.
Strategy: Even with the cap situation, it has never been the style of general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton to be complacent. They'll be creative and aggressive in free agency. They have to retool a defense that was the worst in the league last year and they're switching to a 3-4 scheme. They need players that can fit that scheme, particularly a pass rusher or two. They also could use some help in the secondary. The Saint also may be in the market for a left tackle if they're unable to prevent Jermon Bushrod from leaving via free agency.
Cap status: The Bucs are the one team in the division that doesn't have to worry much about the cap. They're entering free agency with more than $30 million in cap room.
Strategy: The Bucs have major needs at cornerback, and I'm expecting them to do something dramatic, whether it's trading for Darrelle Revis or signing a significant free agent. The Bucs could even end up trying to get two starting cornerbacks out of free agency. And it won't stop at cornerback. The Bucs also could use help at tight end, slot receiver, outside linebacker and depth on the defensive line.
- Although he’s being allowed to walk into free agency, defensive end Michael Bennett said he’ll give the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the chance to match any offer he’s considering accepting. That shows the relationship between the Bucs and Bennett isn’t fractured and I think there’s a chance he could remain with Tampa Bay if he doesn’t get an outrageous offer elsewhere.
- Larry Holder cites a source as saying it would be a long shot for former Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison to end up with the Saints. Harrison’s agent has made some noise about that possibility, but the Saints aren’t going to have the cap room to sign many big-name veterans.
They released veteran Chris Gamble. The move was necessary to get the Panthers under the salary cap. Gamble had been scheduled to count $10.9 million against this year’s cap. The move frees up $7.9 million and puts the Panthers about $3.7 million under the limit.
“I appreciate the contributions of Chris during my first two years as head coach and to the organization for many years,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He always handled things the right way and we wish him the best.”
The move is no surprise from a team that had to do some serious scrambling to get under the salary cap before the start of the league year Tuesday. But, at the moment, it leaves the Panthers very thin at cornerback. Captain Munnerlyn is scheduled to become a free agent. Young cornerbacks Josh Morgan and Josh Thomas each have some potential, but neither is ready to be a No. 1 cornerback.
That means the Panthers will have to find a cornerback in free agency or early in the draft.
They suggest the Panthers go out and sign free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib.
On the surface, that may sound like a big stretch. The Panthers don’t have much salary-cap room and Talib’s checkered past usually isn’t the kind of thing owner Jerry Richardson likes.
But this one is intriguing because it could fill a very big need. Veteran cornerback Chris Gamble is expected to be a salary-cap casualty. That would leave the Panthers very thin at cornerback and there’s no guarantee they can land an impact cornerback in the middle of the first round of the draft.
Despite his off-field issues, there’s no denying Talib is a talent. He might be an instant upgrade over Gamble and he’s way better than any other cornerback the Panthers have. The cap is an issue. But the Panthers should be able to restructure some contracts to create cap room for Talib -- if they really want him.
Cory in Cardington, Ohio asks what the Falcons will do at running back now that Michael Turner has been released.
Pat Yasinskas: I know there’s been a lot of talk about Steven Jackson. That may be a possibility, but I’m against it. Jackson’s would be a short-term upgrade over Turner. But he’s not much younger than Turner and wouldn’t be a long-term solution. Personally, I think the best route for the Falcons is to draft a running back (someone like Wisconsin’s Montee Ball) and pair him with Jacquizz Rodgers. The Falcons are a pass-first team now. They don’t need a superstar running back. They just need a young set of legs to pair with Rodgers.
Carlito in Newberry, S.C. asks about the possibility of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pursuing cornerback Dunta Robinson.
PY: I think that’s something the Bucs have to at least look at. Robinson’s an experienced cornerback with plenty left in the tank. Fans in Atlanta will tell you he was a bust. While it’s true he never played up to his huge contract, he wasn’t horrible. The Bucs could do a lot worse than Robinson. But, even if they sign Robinson, they need to add at least one other starting-caliber cornerback.
Jeremy in Lafayette, La. asks where the Saints stand in relation to the salary cap.
PY: It’s a very fluid situation, but the Saints are getting close. Not all the reported restructures have been turned yet. But, if the reports are right, my calculations put the Saints somewhere between $2.5 and $3 million over the cap. Of course, there also is the possibility there have been other restructures that we don’t know about yet and the Saints still could release some veterans to create more space. But the bottom line is they’re getting close to the cap and they’ll be under it by March 12.
Justo in Los Angeles asks if any of the young players on Carolina’s roster are capable of stepping into the No. 1 cornerback role if the Panthers release Chris Gamble.
PY: Josh Norman and Josh Thomas are promising young cornerbacks. But, at this point, I don’t see them being ready to be more than No. 2 or No. 3 guys. If Gamble goes, the Panthers have to get a No. 1 cornerback. The draft certainly is a possibility if a good corner makes it to the middle of the first round. If not, the Panthers will have to go the free-agency route. But the problem there is good cornerbacks aren’t cheap and the Panthers aren’t going to have a lot of salary-cap room.
They have restructured the contract of safety Haruki Nakamura to free up about $500,000. They also reportedly have restructured the contract of tight end Greg Olsen to free up about $2 million.
The Panthers dropped Nakamura’s cap figure from $1.633 million to $1.115 million. That was accomplished by dropping Nakamura’s base salary from $1.3 million to $715,000. But Nakamura got a $65,000 signing bonus and the Panthers also added a workout bonus of $35,000 to his contract. The new deal also allows Nakamura to earn up to $300,000 more if he meets unspecified playing-time standards. Nakamura had been under contract through 2014, but, under the new deal, he becomes a free agent after the 2013 season.
The Panthers dropped Olsen’s base salary from $3.75 million to $750,000, but gave him a $3 million bonus.
It’s still unclear how much more the Panthers have to trim to get under the cap. But there are more moves coming. Carolina likely will restructure more contracts and cornerback Chris Gamble and defensive tackle Ron Edwards are likely to be released to free up cap room.
They’re in the process of getting below the salary cap before the start of the league year (March 12) and still have to trim about $10 million. The Panthers are likely to release some veterans and restructure some contracts.
But, as of the moment, here’s the list of all the Carolina players who will count $5 million or more against the salary cap.
- Charles Johnson, Panthers, $13 million
- Jordan Gross, Panthers, $11.7 million
- Chris Gamble, Panthers $10.9 million
- Jon Beason, Panthers, $9.5 million
- DeAngelo Williams, Panthers, $8.2 million
- Thomas Davis, Panthers, $6.8 million
- Ryan Kalil, Panthers, $6.4 million
- Cam Newton, Panthers, $6 million
- Steve Smith, Panthers, $5.7 million
- Greg Olsen, Panthers, $5.7 million