NFC South: Dallas Clark

In case you missed the season preview on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on our main NFL page, I’ll share some of it with you here.

The consensus among our five-person panel (including myself) was that the Bucs will finish third in the NFC South. For the record, I have them going 9-7. But John Clayton and Ashley Fox have them finishing fourth in the division.

And below is my Intelligence report on the Bucs:

1. It's all on Freeman: The Bucs have a strong offensive line, a good running back (Doug Martin) and solid receivers (Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams). That means there no longer are any valid excuses if quarterback Josh Freeman doesn't get the job done. Freeman is in a contract year that will determine if he is the Bucs' long-term answer. The talent is there, but Freeman needs to play with more consistency.

2. No sophomore slump: Martin rushed for more than 1,400 yards as a rookie, and that came with guard Davin Joseph missing the entire season with an injury and guard Carl Nicks missing half the season. If the offensive line can stay healthy, I see Martin's numbers improving.

3. The pass rush has to come through: By design, the Bucs have gone out on a limb when it comes to their pass rush. They willingly let last year's sack leader, Michael Bennett, walk away as a free agent. That's because the Bucs have such high expectations for Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. But there still are questions about both of those players. Clayborn missed most of last year with an injury after turning in a strong rookie season. Bowers has been nothing more than a part-time player so far. The Bucs need Bowers and Clayborn to come through in a big way.

4. Fixing a problem: Tampa Bay's defense ranked last in the league in passing yards allowed last season. That's why the Bucs completely overhauled their secondary. They made a huge trade to get cornerback Darrelle Revis. They paid big money to safety Dashon Goldson in free agency. They used their second-round draft pick on cornerback Johnthan Banks. That's a significant upgrade in talent, and the Bucs should be much better against the pass this year.

5. Filling the void: Tight end Luke Stocker had 16 catches for the Bucs last year, and Tom Crabtree had eight receptions for the Packers. Those numbers are far from spectacular. But the Bucs let veteran Dallas Clark leave as a free agent because they think their young tight ends can be more productive.
TAMPA, Fla. -- There’s a perception out there that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can’t wait to let quarterback Josh Freeman walk away after this season.

Trace it to coach Greg Schiano’s hesitance to firmly endorse Freeman at the end of last season or chalk it up to the quarterback’s lack of consistency or look at the fact that the Bucs are letting Freeman go into the last year of his contract without an extension. But nothing could be further from the truth.

“I have a lot of confidence in Josh," general manager Mark Dominik said. “I know Coach has a lot of confidence. That position is the position in the National Football League. Win or lose, regardless of if you get too much blame or not enough kudos when you do win and people take it for granted, the more time you have to evaluate that player at that position, the more of a chance you have to be correct. I think Josh is looking at it with a confidence and saying he believes in himself and there were some parts of last year he wasn’t happy with, but there were good parts last year. We’ve talked to Josh and his agent, and we feel like we’re at a good spot. Everybody feels comfortable with where we’re at."

Even though they used a third-round draft pick on Mike Glennon, the Bucs desperately want Freeman to succeed. If he plays well, that probably means the team will be in the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season. That would give Dominik and Schiano job security.

It also would give Freeman job security, because the Bucs probably would turn around and reward him with a big contract before free agency starts. That would fit the team’s plan of building from within. (If things go as expected, 18 of Tampa Bay’s 22 starters this year will have come through the draft, off the practice squad or through free agency.)

But it will all come down to Freeman’s performance. He needs to avoid slumps like the three-game stretch late last season when he threw 10 interceptions. He needs to play the way he did when the Bucs got off to a 6-4 start.

“He knows it," Dominik said. “We know it. But I think the thing that’s kind of been lost is some of the great things he did last year. Some of the big games where he played really well and showed he can do it. I think what he’s doing in camp right now is playing really smart with the football. You can’t underestimate the second year in a system. Continuity is so important. If you keep it together, that gives you a chance to have more success."

If Freeman plays well the Bucs will wrap him up, and they’ll have continuity at quarterback. If consistency continues to be an issue, the Bucs will have to start from scratch next year and Freeman will be playing for another team.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeDashon Goldson
Mike Carlson/AP PhotoVeteran Dashon Goldson, who was signed as a free agent this offseason, should provide some depth at safety for the Bucs.
1. Secondary matters. The Bucs poured a ton of resources into their secondary in the offseason. They traded for cornerback Darrelle Revis, signed safety Dashon Goldson as a free agent and used a second-round draft pick on cornerback Johnthan Banks. Those are the types of things you have to do when you’re coming off a season in which your pass defense ranked last in the league.

That should be enough to bring about some dramatic changes. All indications are that Revis is healthy and, if he is, he’s the best cornerback in the league. Banks could start immediately and, if he doesn’t, will be the third cornerback. Goldson’s arrival at free safety means strong safety Mark Barron, last year’s top draft pick, should be able to concentrate on playing more in the box -- where he’s at his best.

The Bucs believe in building from within. But they went outside to patch up the team’s biggest weakness.

2. The pass rush. This goes hand in hand with the secondary. If the defensive backfield really is going to shine, it’s going to need some help from the pass rush.

The Bucs let defensive end Michael Bennett, last year’s leading sacker, walk away in free agency. But that was a calculated move. The Bucs believed Bennett already had hit his full upside. But the team thinks third-year pros Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn are ready to blossom to heights that Bennett never approached.

That’s a leap of faith, because Clayborn is coming off a knee injury and Bowers wasn’t a full-time player in his first two seasons. However, if the Bucs are right about Bowers and Clayborn, the pass defense is going to rank a lot better than No. 32 in the league.

3. The tight ends have to come through. The Bucs have done a nice job of surrounding Freeman with plenty of talent at running back, receiver and offensive line. But at tight end, the cupboard looks close to bare. The team didn’t re-sign last year’s starter, Dallas Clark. Luke Stocker, who seemed to have the inside track to the starting job, has missed a lot of camp with a calf injury.

But the Bucs are quietly optimistic about Tom Crabtree, whom they brought in from Green Bay. The Bucs aren’t going to throw to their tight ends as much as Atlanta and New Orleans do, but they need Stocker or Crabtree to be a threat in the passing game to take some coverage away from the wide receivers.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Bucs have done well stockpiling young talent such as running back Doug Martin.
The team has a surprising amount of individual talent. Revis, Goldson, guard Carl Nicks, guard Davin Joseph, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, running back Doug Martin and receiver Vincent Jackson have been to the Pro Bowl. Plus, the Bucs have plenty of other young talent -- guys like Freeman, Barron, linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster, and receiver Mike Williams.

Tampa Bay has been rebuilding ever since coach Jon Gruden was fired following the 2008 season. There’s no such thing as a finished product, because you’re always looking to upgrade your roster. But the Bucs no longer are in rebuilding mode.

They have enough talent to get to the playoffs.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Schiano still is somewhat new to the NFL and to his players. His hard-edged approach drew all sorts of attention last year, and he has said he’s relaxing things a bit now that he has changed the culture of the locker room.

But this team isn’t completely past the culture shock that came with Schiano. That’s why it’s critical for the Bucs to get off to a fast start. If they do, the players will fully embrace Schiano’s ways.

If the Bucs start poorly, players won’t buy into Schiano and things could fall apart in a hurry.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Bucs are ecstatic with what they’ve seen from McCoy this offseason. He earned a Pro Bowl trip last year, and that seems to have taken his motivation to another level. He worked out harder than ever and came to camp about 10 pounds lighter than last season. He’s emerging as a leader of the defense, and the Bucs think he can become one of the league’s most dominant interior linemen.
  • When the Bucs brought in Gabe Carimi, some fans thought he might end up starting ahead of Demar Dotson at right tackle. That’s not going to happen. Carimi is being looked at as an insurance policy behind Dotson and Penn at left tackle. Dotson is having one of the best camps of any Tampa Bay player, and the Bucs believe he’s only starting to scratch the surface of his potential.
  • Martin had a phenomenal rookie season, but I’m expecting him to be even better this year. Martin rushed for 1,454 yards with Joseph missing the entire season and Nicks missing half of it. With the two guards back, Martin should be an even better runner. Martin also caught 49 passes as a rookie, and I can see that number going up because the Bucs have been throwing to him a lot in camp.
  • The Bucs brought in veteran Peyton Hillis as insurance behind Martin. But Hillis, who hasn’t done much the past two seasons, isn’t a lock to make the roster. Veteran Brian Leonard looked good in the preseason opener, and the Bucs believe sixth-round draft pick Mike James has the potential to be an all-around back.
  • Strongside linebacker was expected to be one of the more competitive spots in camp. But veteran Dekoda Watson has taken the mystery out of that battle. He started off ahead of free-agent pickup Jonathan Casillas and has widened the gap with a strong performance in camp.
  • Kevin Ogletree appears to have the lead over Tiquan Underwood and Chris Owusu in the competition for the third receiver spot. But Underwood and Owusu have had strong showings that could earn them some playing time. Without a lot of certainty at tight end, the Bucs could resort to some four-receiver sets.
  • The addition of veteran Spencer Larsen made me wonder if fullback Erik Lorig's job was in jeopardy. But that’s not the case. Lorig is safe as the starter. The Bucs were very impressed with Larsen’s workout and view him as a quality backup and special-teams player.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each NFC South team as training camps get underway.

Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons are pretty well set at the offensive skill positions, but one guy to keep an eye on in training camp and the preseason is running back Jacquizz Rodgers. With the arrival of Steven Jackson, will Rodgers have a role as the third-down back? Jackson has a strong history of catching passes out of the backfield, but the coaching staff likes Rodgers and believes he has home run potential every time he touches the ball.

Carolina Panthers. From a fantasy standpoint, the issue is whether DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart will be the primary ball carrier. If both are healthy, they’ll split carries to some degree. But Stewart’s health remains a big question. He’s coming off surgery on both ankles and has had an assortment of injuries throughout his career. Williams had a strong finish last season and that may put him in the good graces of the coaching staff.

New Orleans Saints. The departure of Devery Henderson leaves the Saints looking for a third receiver after Marques Colston and Lance Moore. This position is critical because the Saints use so many three-receiver sets. Joe Morgan and Nick Toon appear to be the leading candidates for this job. Morgan seemed to have the advantage in minicamp, but the competition likely will go through camp and the preseason. Morgan is a long strider who has shown an ability to make some big plays. Toon, who missed his rookie year with an injury, is more of a possession receiver.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Veteran tight end Dallas Clark wasn’t re-signed and that means there will be a preseason battle for playing time at tight end. Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree appear to be the front-runners, but neither has produced much yet. The Bucs believe Stocker can do a little bit of everything and could blossom. But they also think that Crabtree, who was brought in from Green Bay, can be a productive pass catcher. Still, from a fantasy standpoint, drafting a Tampa Bay tight end probably isn’t a great idea.
I've been wondering if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers really were content with their situation at tight end.

It now appears they might still be looking for answers. Veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe will work out for the Bucs today, according to National Football Post.

The Bucs did not re-sign last year’s starter, Dallas Clark, and it had been looking like they would go to camp with Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree as the top two tight ends. But Shiancoe -- who has played for the Giants, Vikings and Patriots -- could bring some experience to the position.

National Football Post also reports that the Bucs will work out veteran running back Peyton Hillis. That makes a lot of sense because the Bucs could use some more depth behind Doug Martin.
We conclude our series on the NFC South’s weakest links with a look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their situation at tight end.

At the moment, the tight ends on Tampa Bay’s roster are Nate Byham, Tom Crabtree, Evan Landi, Zach Miller, Danny Noble and Luke Stocker. If that list doesn’t impress you, you’re not alone.

Last year’s top pass-catching tight end, Dallas Clark, remains a free agent and it’s unclear if the Bucs have any interest in bringing him back. Aside from Clark, there isn’t much in the way of tight ends in free agency.

Although it might not excite anyone, I think there’s a chance the Bucs might stick with what they have at tight end. The team still has hope that Stocker can develop into a solid all-around tight end.

There’s also a belief in the front office and on the coaching staff that Crabtree can be a more productive pass-catcher if he is given more opportunities than he had in his Green Bay days.

The Bucs have no flash at tight end. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is a clear pecking order in Tampa Bay’s passing game. Starting receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, whoever ends up as the third receiver and running back Doug Martin are going to catch the bulk of the passes.

The tight ends are going to be used as blockers and, occasionally, as safety valves in the passing game.

Ranking the needs: Tight ends

April, 22, 2013
4/22/13
9:45
AM ET
With the NFL draft approaching, I’m going to kick off a series in which I rank the team needs at each position group. We’ll start with the tight ends.

The earlier the ranking, the greater the need.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: If the season started today, they’d be in big trouble at tight end. Dallas Clark, last year’s starter, remains an unsigned free agent. Luke Stocker isn’t suddenly going to turn into a stud. I think there’s a very good chance Tampa Bay tries to get a tight end fairly early in the draft. If that doesn’t happen, the Bucs might have to bring back Clark or find some other veteran.

Atlanta Falcons: Tony Gonzalez is back for one more year (at least). There’s a school of thought that the Falcons should draft a tight end early and use this year to groom him. That might not be a bad idea. But I think the Falcons have more pressing needs. They’re in a win-now mode and they’ll probably be in a similar situation next season. It’s not an absolute necessity for them to get a tight end now.

Carolina Panthers: There’s no need for the Panthers to consider drafting a tight end early because Greg Olsen is firmly entrenched as the starter. Carolina could look for some depth to go with Ben Hartsock and Richie Brockel later in the draft.

New Orleans Saints: I can’t see the Saints drafting a tight end because it’s one of their strongest positions with Jimmy Graham and Benjamin Watson in place.
ESPN Stats & Information is listing cornerback, defensive end and tight end as the three top draft needs for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Bucs could trade for New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis before the draft. But, no matter where the help comes from, Tampa Bay needs improved play from its cornerbacks. The Bucs simply couldn’t match up with wide receivers last season. On passes thrown to wide receivers, Tampa Bay’s defense ranked last in yards per game (203.7), 31st in yards after the catch per game (72.5), tied for 30th in yards per attempt (9.2), and 28th in completion percentage (62.8).

Although the Bucs clearly have big hopes for defensive end Da'Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn is coming back from injury, it wouldn’t hurt to add another pass-rusher. Last season, the Bucs sacked or put opposing quarterbacks under duress on 17.4 percent of their dropbacks. That rate was the worst in the NFL.

The Bucs have a glaring hole at tight end. Dallas Clark, last year’s starter, remains a free agent. While a Clark return remains at least a possibility, the Bucs need to add an all-around tight end. Last season, Clark played only 586 snaps -- 32 tight ends around the league played more than Clark.
With free agency slowing to a trickle, here’s how I see the projected starting lineup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers heading into the NFL draft:

OFFENSE

WR Vincent Jackson

LT Donald Penn

LG Carl Nicks

C Jeremy Zuttah

G Davin Joseph

T Demar Dotson

TE Luke Stocker

WR Mike Williams

QB Josh Freeman

RB Doug Martin

FB Erik Lorig

DEFENSE

DE Adrian Clayborn

DT Derek Landri

DT Gerald McCoy

DE Da'Quan Bowers

OLB Lavonte David

MLB Mason Foster

OLB Adam Hayward

CB Eric Wright

CB Leonard Johnson

SS Mark Barron

FS Dashon Goldson

Notes: There’s a good chance the Bucs could bring a pass-catching tight end or re-sign Dallas Clark. By the time training camp rolls around, Hayward could have a challenger in place for the starting job. The situation at cornerback is very tentative. It’s unclear if Wright will remain with the team, and the Bucs could trade for Darrelle Revis.
Almost all of the offseason talk about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has focused on a defense that ranked No. 31 in the NFL last season. But there’s one huge need on the other side of the ball that hasn’t drawn a lot of talk.

The Bucs need a pass-catching tight end. All the other teams in the NFC South have one (Tony Gonzalez in Atlanta and Greg Olsen in Carolina) or two (Jimmy Graham and Benjamin Watson in New Orleans).

But the Bucs, who like to say one of their priorities is to surround quarterback Josh Freeman with talent, have a gaping hole at tight end.

They have not re-signed free agent Dallas Clark. They did add Tom Crabtree, but he never has caught more than eight passes in a season. Crabtree can compete with Luke Stocker, Nate Byham, Drake Dunsmore and Zach Miller for the role as the complementary tight end. But the Bucs need a pass catcher.

The problem is, there aren’t a lot of pass-catching tight ends left in free agency. Take a look at our Free-Agent Tracker. Clark is tied for the highest grade among the unsigned unrestricted free agents. And the guy he’s tied with is Kellen Winslow, who I highly doubt will be returning to Tampa Bay anytime soon.

The Bucs may have to bring back the aging Clark, who was decent last season, but not nearly as prolific as he was in his prime in Indianapolis. Unless some veteran gets released, there aren’t many other proven pass catchers on the market.

The draft features two premier tight ends in Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz. But it’s hard to imagine the Bucs using the 13th overall pick on a tight end when they have such big needs on defense.

Maybe the Bucs will draft a tight end after the first round. Or maybe they’ll find one somewhere else in free agency.

But the Bucs have to find a pass-catching tight end for Freeman somewhere.

Around the NFC South

March, 16, 2013
3/16/13
9:58
AM ET
Time for a look at some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Running back Steve Jackson said he considered retiring before signing with the Falcons. Jackson said the opportunity to play for a team with a shot at a Super Bowl is what attracted him. But let’s be careful not to call Jackson “the missing piece.’’ The last guy to have that tag in Atlanta was Ray Edwards, and that clearly didn’t work out. But I think Jackson has a much better chance at being successful than Edwards did.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The team had offensive lineman Chris Williams in for a visit. Williams was a first-round pick in 2008, but never has lived up to his hype. Still, he’s worth a look, because the Panthers are short on depth on the offensive line.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Free-agent linebacker Victor Butler left a visit to Pittsburgh without signing a contract. That means New Orleans now becomes a possibility. Butler spent two seasons playing for New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, and could help speed up the transition to the 3-4 defense.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The Bucs reportedly have signed tight end Tom Crabtree from Green Bay. He doesn’t have a big history as a pass-catcher, but he gives the Bucs some depth at tight end. That is important because Dallas Clark, last season’s starter, might not be coming back.

Free agency needs by the numbers

March, 12, 2013
3/12/13
9:51
AM ET
To celebrate the start of free agency, the good people at ESPN Stats & Information sent out some numbers that might show what each NFC South team needs to work on this offseason.

Let’s take a team-by-team look:

ATLANTA FALCONS
  • If Tony Gonzalez decides to retire, the Falcons will have a huge void. Including the postseason, Gonzalez was responsible for 107 of Atlanta’s 116 tight-end receptions last season.
  • The Falcons are expecting to make a move at running back after releasing Michael Turner. It became obvious last season that the Falcons needed to improve their running game. They averaged 3.8 yards per rush between the tackles, which tied for the fifth-lowest rate in the league. The Falcons also ranked last in the league with just 18 rushing first downs when facing less than 4 yards to go for a first down.
  • The Falcons also have a void at defensive end after releasing John Abraham. Over the last three seasons, Abraham had 28.5 sacks when the Falcons sent four or fewer pass-rushers. In that same span, no other Atlanta defensive end had more than eight sacks.
CAROLINA PANTHERS
  • It’s no secret the Panthers need help at defensive tackle. Last season, they had only nine tackles for loss from their defensive line. Only Dallas (seven) had fewer.
  • Carolina also needs help in the secondary after allowing opponents to complete 47.2 percent of passes of more than 20 yards downfield last season. That number was the worst in the league.
  • Carolina also might want to look for some offensive line help. Quarterback Cam Newton was sacked or put under duress on 26.7 percent of his drop backs last season, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
  • As they switch to a 3-4 defense, the Saints need to find an interior run-stuffer. They allowed a league-worst 5.3 yards per carry on runs between the tackles last year.
  • They also need to improve the pass rush. The Saints averaged a sack once in every 21.6 drop backs last season, the fourth-worst rate in the NFL.
  • The Saints might also look for some secondary help. Last season, they allowed a league-high 8.3 yards per attempt on throws outside the numbers.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
  • It’s no secret the Bucs need help at cornerback. They allowed an NFL-high 17 plays of 30 or more yards outside the numbers last season.
  • The Bucs appear ready to let leading sacker Michael Bennett walk in free agency and let Da’Quan Bowers take his spot in the starting lineup. Still, the Bucs might want to add a pass-rush specialist. Last season, the Bucs sacked or put quarterbacks under duress on 17.4 percent of their drop backs. That was the worst rate in the NFL.
  • Tight end also could be a priority. Starter Dallas Clark is a free agent. Last season, he participated in 586 snaps. Thirty-two tight ends played more snaps than Clark.

Reviewing NFC South free agents

March, 7, 2013
3/07/13
10:42
AM ET
We’ve shown you the lists of potential NFC South free agents before. But let’s do it again because there have been some minor moves and the free-agency period is getting ready to start Tuesday.

Here’s the list of potential free agents for all four NFC South teams:

Atlanta Falcons. Tony Gonzalez, Brent Grimes, Sam Baker, William Moore, Will Svitek, Mike Cox, Todd McClure, Luke McCown, Christopher Owens, Mike Peterson, Garrett Reynolds, Lawrence Sidbury and Vance Walker all can become unrestricted free agents. Michael Palmer can become a restricted free agent.

Carolina Panthers. The potential unrestricted free agents are Derek Anderson, Antwan Applewhite, Gary Barnidge, Dwan Edwards, Ben Hartsock, Sherrod Martin, Captain Munnerlyn, Louis Murphy and Mike Pollak. Richie Brockel can become an exclusive-rights free agent. Andre Neblett, Nate Ness and Jason Phillips are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

New Orleans Saints. Jermon Bushrod, Jonathan Casillas, Chase Daniel, Sedrick Ellis, Devery Henderson, Ramon Humber, Elbert Mack, Turk McBride, Will Robinson, Courtney Roby and Scott Shanle can become unrestricted free agents. Brian De La Puente, Justin Drescher, Junior Galette and Chris Ivory are scheduled to become restricted free agents. Eric Olsen and Michael Higgins can become exclusive-rights free agents.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ronde Barber, Dallas Clark, Michael Bennett, E.J. Biggers, Andrew Economos, Roy Miller, Roscoe Parrish, Sammie Stroughter and Jeremy Trueblood can become unrestricted free agents. LeGarrette Blount, Jacob Cutrera, Corvey Irvin and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

Today in NFC South history

February, 18, 2013
2/18/13
10:02
AM ET
On this date one year ago we first pondered the possibility of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers parting ways with tight end Kellen Winslow.

A couple of months later, the Bucs said goodbye to Winslow after he missed the start of team workouts. It was also part of Greg Schiano’s message to his team that things were going to be a lot different than they were under predecessor Raheem Morris.

Winslow later surfaced in Seattle, where he made fun of Schiano’s “toes on the line’’ slogan. But Winslow wasn’t laughing for long. The Seahawks released him before the season started.

Winslow then landed in New England, but that didn’t work out well either. He appeared in one game and had one catch before the Patriots released him and no other team picked him up. As of this moment, Winslow is a man without a team.

The Bucs didn’t seem to miss him much. The signed veteran Dallas Clark, who turned in a decent 2012 season.

Freeney and Woodson in the NFC South?

February, 16, 2013
2/16/13
10:51
AM ET
It’s that time of year again. Big name veterans are getting released around the league and that’s leading to the usual questions of if the new guys on the street could end up in the NFC South.

Freeney
Woodson
Indianapolis released defensive end Dwight Freeney and Green Bay parted ways with defensive back Charles Woodson on Friday. Let’s take a look and see if there are any potential fits in the NFC South.

Atlanta Falcons. This team has been trying for years to add another quality pass-rusher besides John Abraham and nothing has worked out well. That’s why I could see Freeney as a possibility. He is 32, so he’s not a long-term answer. But the Falcons haven’t been shy about bringing in veterans in the past. Still, I don’t think the Falcons will try to pounce on Freeney immediately. They’d be wise to wait a bit and see what else might come available. I don’t see Woodson landing in Atlanta. The Falcons might be in the market for a cornerback, depending on what happens with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, but Woodson’s not a cornerback anymore. He moved to safety last season. Assuming the Falcons can keep William Moore from leaving as a free agent, they’re set at safety.

Carolina Panthers. We really don’t know yet if new general manager Dave Gettleman is willing to bring in veterans or if he wants to put his stamp on this team with youth. But, even if Gettleman is open to bringing in older players, his hands are tied due to the team’s salary-cap situation.

New Orleans Saints. The Saints also are tight against the salary cap, but they have more wiggle room than Carolina. The Saints have shown a past willingness to bring in veterans, but they’ll have to come at the right price this season. Adding Woodson would be a lot like what the Saints did in 2009 when they brought in Darren Sharper. I don’t know that Freeney would be a great fit in the 3-4 scheme the Saints are switching to. He may be too small to play defensive end in that system and I’m not sure he could make the switch to outside linebacker at this point in his career.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs like to talk about building through the draft. But they’ve been known to make some isolated exceptions (see last year’s signing of tight end Dallas Clark). But I don’t expect the Bucs to jump into immediate pursuit of Freeney or Woodson. If they can re-sign defensive end Michael Bennett, they’re pretty well set at defensive end. The Bucs are still waiting to hear if safety Ronde Barber is going to retire or play another year. If he retires, Woodson could become a possibility, but my guess is the Bucs would want to go with someone younger.

NFC South evening update

February, 14, 2013
2/14/13
6:18
PM ET
Time to take a run through some odds and ends from around the division:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Pete Prisco tops his list of under-the-radar free agents with Arizona cornerback Greg Toler. In a year when there aren’t a lot of big-name cornerbacks available (and those that are come with question), Toler is a guy worth keeping an eye on. The Bucs have a desperate need at cornerback. They need to add several and they aren’t all going to come through the draft.

There has been some previous talk about a reunion of the Bennett brothers before and this will fuel it more. Martellus Bennett, the tight end for the Giants, tweeted that he would like to stay in New York. But he added that his next choice would be to play with his brother Michael, who has been with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but can also become an unrestricted free agent. The Bucs are likely to make a strong attempt to keep Michael Bennett. They also could be in the market for a tight end if they don’t re-sign Dallas Clark, and Martellus Bennett could be a nice fit.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The Saints have re-signed safety Rafael Bush, tight end Michael Higgins and guard Eric Olsen. This was a mere formality. All three were exclusive-rights free agents and didn’t have any alternative. But this shows the Saints’ front office is hard at work and that means some moves to free up more than $20 million in salary-cap space will be coming soon.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Bryan Strickland writes that the recent signing of Colin Cole doesn’t mean the Panthers will ignore defensive tackle in the draft. Cole hasn’t played in the NFL since 2010. If he gives the Panthers anything at all, it’s a bonus. Defensive tackle still remains one of this team’s biggest needs and the Panthers better address it in the draft.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Owner Arthur Blank will serve as honorary chairman Saturday when the Black College Football Hall of Fame holds its annual enshrinement.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider