NFC South: Cortland Finnegan

The NFL's free-agent market is suddenly being flooded with former Pro Bowl cornerbacks -- which is a great thing for the New Orleans Saints.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free-agent fun by the numbers

March, 13, 2012
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As we get ready for the start of free agency, let’s have some fun with numbers. Let’s turn to ESPN Stats & Information for some interesting nuggets on players that could be joining or leaving the NFC South.
  • Houston defensive end Mario Williams is a player many are speculating could be a target of the Atlanta Falcons. Over the past five seasons, Williams has averaged 0.73 sacks per game. Only Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware (1.0) and Minnesota’s Jared Allen (0.99) have had better averages. Williams, who missed 11 games with an injury last season, has 13.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Ten of those have come when the Texans used four or fewer pass rushers.
  • Williams’ ability to make things happen when a defense isn’t blitzing could fill a big hole in Atlanta. The Falcons likely will let veteran defensive end John Abraham depart as a free agent. Abraham’s been Atlanta’s only consistent pass rusher in recent years. Over the last two seasons, all 22.5 of Abraham’s sacks have come when the Falcons have sent four or fewer pass rushers. Only Allen (26 sacks) and Jason Babin (23.5) are ahead of Abraham in that category.
  • New Orleans receiver Marques Colston can become a free agent. The Saints would like him back, but might not be able to afford him because they have limited salary-cap room. If Colston leaves, the Saints will be losing a lot. Last season, Colston came up with receptions on a league-high 76.9 percent of his targets. Since entering the NFL in 2006, Colston ranks ninth in receptions (449), eighth in receiving yards (6,240) and seventh in touchdowns (48). Colston has had five 1,000 yard seasons in his six years. Only Randy Moss has had 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons.
  • Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who has been mentioned as a possible target for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, played all 1,142 defensive snaps the Titans had last year. Finnegan has started 42 consecutive games, the fourth-longest active streak by a cornerback. His 13 interceptions since 2008 tie him for No. 15 in the league.
  • Oakland running back Michael Bush, who also has brought speculation he could be pursued by the Buccaneers, had career highs in rushes (256) and rushing yards (977) last season. But Bush’s 3.82 yard-per-carry average was the lowest in the NFL among running backs with at least 200 carries. Bush, however, was effective in short-yardage situations. When needing three or fewer yards for a first down, Bush rushed for 34 first downs. Only LeSean McCoy (47) had more.

Around the NFC South

March, 9, 2012
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A look at the Friday morning headlines from around the NFC South.

Jeff Duncan takes a look at the curious relationship between Mike Ornstein and the New Orleans Saints. A convicted felon, Ornstein does not hold any official title with the Saints. But he’s been a fixture around the team and coach Sean Payton devoted a chapter of his book “Home Team’’ to detailing how Ornstein set up logistics for the team in Miami the week of the only Super Bowl win in franchise history. Ornstein’s name also has surfaced in the NFL’s investigation of the Saints’ bounty program.

Although there were early reports the Saints could find out their punishment for the bounty program before the NFL meeting at the end of March, there now appears to be no definitive timetable. The league may proceed slowly as the NFL Players Association begins an investigation of its own.

LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers is making a pre-draft visit to the Panthers. Ordinarily, I'd say don’t read too much into these visits because lots of teams have lots of different players in. But it seems very possible the Saints take a defensive tackle at No. 9 and Brockers certainly appears to be a strong candidate.

Free-agent cornerback Cortand Finnegan reportedly has been lobbying free agent receiver Vincent Jackson to join him in a package deal, perhaps in Tampa Bay. If the Bucs could land those two, it would be a major coup. It at least seems like a possibility because Finnegan and Jackson are likely to be two of the most sought-after free agents on the market and the Bucs have plenty of salary-cap room. Tampa Bay hasn’t been a popular spot with free agents in recent years, but that’s mainly because the Bucs hadn’t been spending much money. They say they’ll open the checkbook this year and that should make Tampa Bay a desirable destination. Throw in warm weather and no state-income tax and the Bucs should be able to land almost any free agent they want, as long as they're serious about spending money.

Georgia’s Orson Charles, who grew up in Tampa and is considered one of the top prospects at tight end in the NFL draft, reportedly has been charged with driving under the influence. There has been speculation Charles could be a second-round target for the Atlanta Falcons.

Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis said he can’t wait to play the Saints next season. Although Davis missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, he said he felt disrespected when the Saints left their starters in until the fourth quarter and ran up 45 points on the Panthers late last season.

NFC South: Free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Atlanta Falcons

Key free agents: CB Brent Grimes (franchise tag), LB Curtis Lofton, DE John Abraham, WR Harry Douglas and C Todd McClure.

Where they stand: The Falcons put the franchise tag on Grimes but would like to sign him to a long-term contract. That would improve a salary-cap situation that’s already decent. Keeping Lofton and Douglas, who have been developed by the current coaching staff, is also likely to be a priority. Although Abraham led the team with 9.5 sacks last season, his age and salary expectations work against the possibility of his return. Unless Abraham’s price tag drops significantly, the Falcons seem likely to let him walk. McClure could opt to retire. But if he wants to play, it’s likely the Falcons would welcome him back.

What to expect: After a quick and embarrassing exit from the postseason, owner Arthur Blank made it very clear that simply making the playoffs isn’t good enough. Blank expects to contend for a Super Bowl title. The Falcons went all in last year when they traded up to draft receiver Julio Jones and paid big money to free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards. Look for them to take a similar approach this year. The Falcons are usually good for at least one major move an offseason, and this year we could see two or three. Don’t be surprised if the Falcons go hard after Houston linebacker Mario Williams because they need a pass-rusher to replace Abraham. Without a first-round pick, the Falcons also probably will use free agency to fill a big need at left tackle. There aren’t a lot of options, but tackle Marcus McNeill could be a target if he is released, as expected, by the Chargers. The Falcons could even make a play for New Orleans guard Carl Nicks. His presence would make life easier for any left tackle, and pulling him away from the Saints also would weaken a division rival.

Carolina Panthers

Key free agents: TE Jeremy Shockey, LB Dan Connor, G Geoff Hangartner, LB/DL Antwan Applewhite and QB Derek Anderson.

Where they stand: The Panthers seem to be uncertain whether Shockey plans to retire or keep playing. If he wants to play, they’d gladly take him back because he’s a nice complement to Greg Olsen. They also are likely to make a strong attempt to keep Hangartner, who did a nice job after Carolina had several guards injured last preseason. It’s similar with Applewhite, who was signed during the season and made nice contributions. But the Panthers seem prepared to let Connor test free agency because they can’t promise him playing time with Jon Beason returning from injury as the starting middle linebacker. Anderson could return, but the Panthers likely will at least explore the possibility of looking for an upgrade as Cam Newton’s backup.

What to expect: Don’t expect a lot. The Panthers had their big splurge coming out of the lockout last summer, and they’re paying the tab for that now. They will have to release players and restructure contracts just to get below the cap before free agency starts. Linebacker Thomas Davis, who is coming off his third torn ACL, is a prime candidate for release or restructure. Although the team clearly wants to improve its defense, don’t look for any major moves in free agency. The team simply doesn’t have the cap room to make any big deals. The team might sign a midlevel free agent or two, but major upgrades will have to come through the draft.

New Orleans Saints

Key free agents: QB Drew Brees (franchise tag), G Carl Nicks, WR Marques Colston, CB Tracy Porter and WR Robert Meachem.

Where they stand: The past three years have been the most peaceful and prosperous in franchise history. But the peaceful part already has ended this offseason. In addition to getting into trouble with the NFL for a bounty program, the Saints are dealing with contract issues that are beyond challenging. They used the franchise tag on Brees and that’s going to cost them around $15 million. Even if they do reach a long-term agreement with Brees, his cap figure for this year could climb above $15 million. Either way, the Saints are going to have major cap issues. They’ve already restructured the contract of defensive end Will Smith and may do the same with linebacker Jonathan Vilma or perhaps even release him and some veterans. The Saints are going to have so much cap space tied up in Brees that they’ll have a hard time keeping their other free agents. Nicks would seem to be the priority with Colston close behind. But keeping even one of them would be a victory for the Saints.

What to expect: General manager Mickey Loomis always has been aggressive and daring, and he might have to be even more creative than usual because of the cap situation. The Saints simply aren’t the type of team to sit still. They had flaws exposed in a playoff loss to San Francisco, and they’re asking new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to fix their defense. The problem there is a lot of the current personnel doesn’t fit all that well in Spagnuolo’s scheme. Loomis needs to find a way to get at least one more pass-rusher up front and needs to add an athletic linebacker or two. He also may have to fill more needs if the Saints lose as many free agents as most expect. This team lacks a first-round pick in the draft, so Loomis will have to make some big moves when it comes to releasing players or restructuring contracts just to give the Saints a shot at being a little bit active in free agency.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key free agents: K Connor Barth (franchise tag), CB Ronde Barber, RB Earnest Graham, LB Geno Hayes, S Sean Jones, DE Michael Bennett (restricted) and RB LeGarrette Blount (exclusive rights).

Where they stand: The Bucs begin coach Greg Schiano’s tenure in a unique situation. They’ve got a ton of cap room and need improvement in lots of areas. But they’ll deal with what they have between now and the start of free agency. A decision on Barber probably will come very soon. Schiano has indicated he’d like the veteran back, but Barber could choose to retire, which also would create a major need at cornerback. That position also could be an issue later in March when starting cornerback Aqib Talib is scheduled for trial on an assault charge. Talib could go to prison or face a suspension from the NFL, but his fate will be unknown at the start of free agency. Hayes didn’t have a great season last year, but he has upside, and the new staff might want to keep him. The Bucs are likely to let Graham walk because of his age. A return by Jones is possible at a reasonable salary, but the Bucs still need to look to upgrade at safety.

What to expect: The exact amount will depend on how many of their free agents are brought back, but the Bucs are likely to have somewhere around $50 million in cap space at the start of free agency and that will put them near the top of the league. After barely dipping into free agency last year, the Bucs were able to carry over extra cap room, and general manager Mark Dominik has publicly said the team plans to be more active in free agency. But fans need to keep that in perspective. The Bucs aren’t going to suddenly return to the days when Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen regularly shelled out money for big-name players in their 30s. The Bucs started a youth movement three years ago, and there are some parts in place. Now, it’s time for them to supplement those parts. They’ll be active in free agency, but they’ll be focusing on players still in their 20s. They’ll also be focusing on improving the supporting cast of quarterback Josh Freeman, who they believe can become great. Look for them to add a speed receiver, perhaps someone like Mario Manningham (Giants) or Eddie Royal (Broncos). The Bucs also want to improve at running back, where Blount is a one-dimensional power runner. They could look for a pass-catching specialist or opt to look for a complete back who could even replace Blount as the starter. On defense, the Bucs probably will try to upgrade at linebacker. If Barber and/or Talib aren’t back, the Bucs will have to make a move or two at cornerback and probably wouldn’t hesitate to pay big money to someone such as Cortland Finnegan (Titans).
As we wait for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to hire assistant coaches, get blocked from interviewing potential assistants or anything else of note to happen during a very quiet time in the NFC South, let’s look at some more playing-time figures from the 2011 season.

We showed you the numbers on linebackers earlier Tuesday and I’ve been trying to roll out one position group a day since last week. But we’re going to go ahead and go with two in a day. We’re going to show you the playing time for the NFC South cornerbacks.

Lots of people like to criticize Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson. That’s understandable to some degree because Robinson signed a huge free-agent contract prior to the 2010 season, but has produced only three interceptions since joining the Falcons.

But I haven’t seen Robinson giving up a lot of big plays. In fact, I think he’s done a nice job overall in coverage. Apparently, Atlanta’s coaching staff agrees.

Robinson was on the field for 967 of Atlanta’s 996 defensive plays (97.1 percent). That percentage ranked Robinson tops in the NFC South and No. 11 in the NFL. Tennessee’s Cortland Finnegan was the NFL’s only cornerback to play 100 percent of his team’s defensive snaps.

New Orleans’ Jabari Greer, who I think is easily the division’s best cornerback, was next on the list. Greer was on the field for 93.3 percent of New Orleans’ defensive plays and ranked No. 19 in the NFL.

The other NFC South cornerback of note high on the list was Tampa Bay’s Ronde Barber. His durability never has been a question. Even at age 36, Barber took part in 92.3 percent of Tampa Bay’s defensive snaps to rank No. 21 in the league.

Carolina’s Chris Gamble (89.3 percent) was the only other NFC South cornerback to play more than 80 percent of his team’s defensive snaps.

Here’s a look at how much playing time some other NFC South cornerbacks had in 2011:

Saluting NFC South's Iron Men

February, 1, 2012
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In recent days, I’ve been sharing some details on 2011 playing time at various positions. We’ll continue to do that going forward and still have to touch on NFC South fullbacks and all the defensive positions.

But this is Iron Man Day, so we’re going to talk about offensive linemen. As a general rule, offensive linemen get a greater percentage of playing time than players at all the other positions. That’s part of the nature of the position -- teams want continuity.

In 2011, 42 NFL players took part in 100 percent of their teams offensive and defensive snaps. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, Cleveland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, St. Louis linebacker James Laurinitis, Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs, Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan all deserve special mention for taking part in 100 percent of their team’s snaps at positions where that’s pretty rare.

Aside from those six players, 36 others took part in all of their team’s offensive plays. All of them were offensive linemen and seven of them were from the NFC South.

Carolina guard Geoff Hangartner, Atlanta guard Justin Blalock, New Orleans guard Carl Nicks, Tampa Bay guard Davin Joseph, Atlanta tackle Tyson Clabo, New Orleans tackle Jermon Bushrod and Tampa Bay tackle Donald Penn each took part in every one of their team’s offensive snaps.

Several other NFC South offensive linemen also came close to achieving that honor. Here’s a look at the other NFC South linemen that played more than 90 percent of their team’s offensive snaps.

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