NFC South: Domonique Foxworth
The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl, and the 2003 Carolina Panthers, who lost it, didn’t even make the playoffs the following year. Since the division came into existence in 2002, there has been no such thing as a dynasty in the NFC South. No team has won the division crown in back-to-back seasons.
The Saints, who already have re-written history, will have to do it again if they want to stay on top. But the Atlanta Falcons might not be far behind, the Panthers have enough talent to be dangerous and the Buccaneers almost have to be better than last season.
We’ll find out soon enough if anyone can challenge the Saints. The test begins next week when all four NFC South teams report to training camp.
FOUR BIG QUESTIONS
Falcons: What does John Abraham have left?
His sack total dipped from 16.5 in 2008 to 5.5 last season. The obvious question is if Abraham is on the last legs of his career. Despite the statistical evidence, the Falcons believe there’s something left. After closely watching film of Abraham from last season, the coaches firmly believe Abraham can get back to double-digit sacks. Part of their thinking is he’ll benefit from improved play from the interior of the defensive line and that Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury are ready to generate pressure from the other side. Recent history has shown the Falcons are willing to make deals late in the preseason (trading for cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Tye Hill) if they feel they have a weakness. But they’re hoping Abraham shows enough in camp to convince them the pass rush will be adequate.
Panthers: What must Matt Moore do to win the starting quarterback job?
A lot of people believe this training camp will be highlighted by a battle between Moore and rookie Jimmy Clausen. That’s not really the case -- or at least not how Carolina’s brass views the situation. The truth is the Panthers are going to camp with every intention of Moore being the starter. He earned that much by playing well at the end of last season.
Coach John Fox isn’t about to open the season with a rookie starting at quarterback. He could turn to Clausen later in the season if things aren’t going well. But the immediate starting job is Moore’s, and the only way he can lose it is to have a disastrous training camp and preseason.
Saints: Are the Saints ready for a return to the “real’’ world?
Rightfully so, the Saints spent a lot of time this offseason celebrating their first Super Bowl title. Great for them and great for their fans. But all that’s about to end. Coach Sean Payton runs what I think is easily the toughest camp in the NFC South, and I don’t anticipate that changing. If anything, camp might be tougher this year.
Payton is an excellent motivator and he’s well aware the Saints now are the jewel on the schedule of every opposing team. The track record of Super Bowl champions in the following season hasn’t been all that impressive in recent years. Payton knows that, and you can bet that message is going to be conveyed to his team. A big part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season is because they had such a tough and productive camp.
Buccaneers: Who are the starting wide receivers?
The Bucs truly don’t know the answer to that question right now and that’s not a bad thing. The plan is to throw all the receivers out there in camp, let them compete and see who rises up. A lot of fans were frustrated and puzzled when the Bucs let Antonio Bryant walk in free agency, leaving the team without a clear-cut No. 1 receiver. But the Bucs believe they’re better off without Bryant, who wasn’t all that productive last season and didn’t endear himself to the front office or coaching staff when he made public comments about the coaches and quarterback Josh Freeman that were far from flattering.
The Bucs used early draft picks on Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. It’s likely at least one of them will start right away. Veterans Reggie Brown, Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall will compete for the other job. If both rookies look good in camp, it’s possible they could be the starters because there isn’t much upside with Brown, Clayton or Stovall. Second-year pro Sammie Stroughter also is in the mix. But, ideally, the Bucs would like to use him as the slot receiver.
Falcons: Brian VanGorder. The defensive coordinator has done a nice job of working with the talent he’s had the past two seasons. The Falcons haven’t always had the talent to play the kind of defense coach Mike Smith and Van Gorder want and they’ve gotten by with patchwork. But those days are over. Last year’s top picks, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, return after missing almost all their rookie seasons with injuries and the Falcons used their top two picks this year on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters. They also spent a fortune signing cornerback Dunta Robinson. Although questions remain about the pass rush, the Falcons have the talent to play their scheme. That means the defense must take a big step forward.
Panthers: Dwayne Jarrett. A former second-round pick, Jarrett has not had much of an impact. With Muhsin Muhammad retired and Steve Smith expected to miss most of training camp with a broken arm, Jarrett is going to get a very long look in training camp. In a best-case scenario, Jarrett finally reaches his potential and earns the starting wide receiver job across from Smith. For that to happen, Jarrett must show an attention to detail and consistency; both have been lacking from his game. The Panthers drafted Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards early because they’re not sure if Jarrett ever will blossom.
Buccaneers: Ryan Sims. He was a starter with Chris Hovan at defensive tackle the past few years. The Bucs got rid of Hovan as soon as they could after last season. With the team using its top two picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, Sims can’t be feeling too secure. With Roy Miller also in the mix and the Bucs in a full-blown youth movement, Sims needs a strong camp just to secure a roster spot.
Under-the-radar player to keep an eye out for in camp: Clifton Smith, return man/running back, Buccaneers. It may seem like a stretch to call a guy who has been to a Pro Bowl an under-the-radar player, but Smith fits the profile. After missing most of the second half of last season with concussion problems, Smith has sort of been forgotten. That might be a mistake. Smith established himself as a top-notch return man when he made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season two years ago and helped ease the colossal mistake in which the Bucs drafted Dexter Jackson in the second round. When the new coaching staff took over last season, there was some talk about getting Smith more involved on offense. That got derailed by his injuries, but the plan could get back on track this year. Cadillac Williams is the main running back in Tampa Bay, but you could start to see Smith get some action as a situational player. With his speed, he could be an explosive receiver out of the backfield and also might be able to handle a few carries a game.
BEST POSITION BATTLE
It’s not an offensive skill position, so it won’t be flashy. But the best position battle in the NFC South will be sorted out in Spartanburg, S.C., as the Carolina Panthers try to figure what to do with their linebackers. This was supposed to be a spot with enormous strength, but an offseason knee injury to Thomas Davis has turned this into a huge question. Davis probably will miss the entire season, throwing the linebacker corps into a state of uncertainty.
The only thing that’s certain is that Jon Beason remains one of the best linebackers in the league and the unquestioned leader of this defense. But the Panthers aren’t even sure where Beason will line up. He has been fantastic in the middle, but he may move to Davis’ spot on the weak side. In what essentially amounts to a game of musical chairs, the Panthers are looking at four linebackers and trying to figure out the strongest starting trio. One reason they’re considering moving Beason is because they believe Dan Connor can be solid in the middle. He’ll get a chance to prove that in camp.
But the Panthers also will be keeping a close eye on outside linebackers Jamar Williams and James Anderson. If they both rise up, Beason could remain in the middle. If Connor rises up and the Panthers aren’t comfortable with Williams and Anderson as their starters on the outside, they won’t hesitate to move Beason.
Pat Yasinskas: The media hype has been focused on rookies Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. But I can assure you that Tampa Bay’s coaching staff has been very happy with Brown. He’s going to camp with a chance to compete for a starting job.
Jeremy in Boston writes: Over the past two years, the Falcons have traded for another player during training camp/preseason i.e. Domonique Foxworth, Tye Hill. One need that still seems glaring is the pass rush. If the Falcons do not see much improvement in the D-Line position, do you see them trading w/the Bengals for Antwan Odom or for another D-linemen during the preseason?
Pat Yasinskas: I like the way you noticed that trend. Yes, the Falcons felt vulnerable at a position late in each of the past two preseasons. They went out and did something about it. Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith are creatures of habit. If they get into training camp and a few preseason games and don’t feel good about their defensive line, I think they could look to add someone in a trade. I don’t know that Odom would be a specific target because you never know who else might be available.
Jim in Vancouver writes: Do you think the fates of Raheem Morris and Mark Dominick are still tied together? When they were both promoted everyone talked like they would both be fired if the Bucs failed. Now that they've both been on the job for a while and I feel that, while I'm still not sold on Morris, Dominick has shown himself to be a competent GM (at least on draft day). Last year he got Josh Freeman, Roy Miller and Sammie Stroughter (plus Kellen Winslow via trade) and this year he was praised for the Bucs' top picks. If the Bucs struggle this year, but the young players show promise, could Dominick stay while Morris goes?
Pat Yasinskas: Well, we’re looking down the road here. But, in your scenario, yes, I think it’s possible Dominik could outlast Morris. Dominik is well regarded by ownership and he could survive a tough season in which the young players show some promise even if Morris doesn’t. They may not be a total package deal. But, keep in mind, the Bucs still believe this duo can work out. I think steady progress in the youth movement is the goal expected by ownership this year.
Dan in New Orleans writes: I realize that Bobby McCray is one-dimensional (a pass-rusher) and isn't even necessarily the greatest in that one dimension. But what I don't understand is the timing of his release from the Saints. Why cut him between OTAs and training camp? You get to bring so many guys to camp, why not just take him and see what happens? Or why didn't they just cut him before OTAs? I can't imagine they saw something in shorts and helmets at OTAs that constituted his release.
Pat Yasinskas: Quite simply, it came down to money. McCray was scheduled to receive a big roster bonus. After seeing what they’ve got in Alex Brown and speculating on Jimmy Wilkerson coming off his injury, the Saints felt McCray would be nothing more than a backup and didn’t feel his was worth big money.
You can see the complete transcript of the chat here. But here’s one quick highlight per team.
Skyrock (Burbank,Ca )I love the everything the Falcons are doing. The new regime makes me all giddy inside but I am a little concern with the DE position. If JA goes down, what's there to keep the train moving?? I like Bierman, Sidberry is up and coming, but do they have enough strong back ups from what you've seen or heard?? Is there some unknown that is waiting in the wings??
Pat Yasinskas: Not predicting anything, but keep in mind Falcons made moves late in last two preseasons to get Domonique Foxworth and Tye Hill. Possible we could see something like that with a DE this year.
Greg (Tampa)Who was the most impressive player at the bucs Mini Camp?
Pat Yasinskas: Hard to say when you've got 80 guys out there running around. But I thought (Josh) Freeman looked a lot better than last year. Liked what I saw out of Mike Williams.
Jeff (McLean VA) Pat, who takes Carolina's #1 WR reps with Steve Smith out?
Pat Yasinskas: We'll find out in camp. My guess is they'll open camp with Kenny Moore as a starter and let the rookies try to work their way up.
Lloyd (Baton Rouge, LA): Hey PY, any idea why I'm seeing A LOT of people picking the Falcons over the Saints as the division winner? I've never seen a defending champion get disrespected more than what I'm seeing towards the Saints.
Pat Yasinskas: People like to be trendy. I'm not picking against(Drew) Brees and that offense.
With that in mind, we turn to AdamJT13. He’s the best I’ve seen at predicting compensatory picks.
According to him, the Falcons will be the big NFC South winners in this department. He has them getting a third-round pick for the loss of Domonique Foxworth and a fifth-round choice for the loss of Michael Boley.
He also projects Carolina will add two sixth-round picks for losing Frank Omiyale and Geoff Hangartner.
|AP Photo/Lynne Sladky|
|Drew Brees and the Saints will look to exploit Atlanta’s struggling secondary.|
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
On paper, it might be the biggest mismatch of the NFL season.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees and his army of receivers, which just might be the deepest stable in the league, vs. Atlanta’s much-maligned secondary.
You could say this one is Goliath going against David again. But that one doesn’t quite fit because David also had a bit of a pass rush to compensate for his lack of size.
The Falcons simply don’t have a lot going for them in the secondary right now, and that could end up costing them any shot at the NFC South title. At 4-2, they’re already on the verge of playing only for a wild-card spot as they head into the Superdome to play the undefeated Saints on "Monday Night Football."
The Saints have Brees, Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey and a whole bunch of other guys who can catch the ball all over the field. They’ve also got the tape of last week’s Atlanta loss to Dallas -- a game in which the shortcomings of the Falcons’ secondary were exposed repeatedly.
“They got hit in a couple of pressures when they weren’t able to get to the quarterback so they had receivers with a lot of time to work downfield and the Cowboys did a good job of taking advantage of some of those,’’ Brees said.
That’s just Brees being politically correct, as he always is. But, you have to figure that Brees and coach Sean Payton have spent the week watching the Atlanta-Dallas film and getting more than a little excited about the possibilities. If Tony Romo and Miles Austin can batter the Atlanta secondary, Brees, Colston and company could absolutely shred it.
The Falcons don’t have anything close to a shutdown corner, and two of their top three cornerbacks wouldn’t be among top three cornerbacks on any other team. Although Atlanta coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have done a great job since taking over a franchise in total disarray, cornerback might be the one spot they’re not better off than they were when they took charge in 2008.
|Tim Heitman/US Presswire|
|Dallas’ Miles Austin torched the Falcons for 171 yards and two touchdowns.|
Part of it is bad luck. The Falcons lost veteran cornerback Brian Williams to a season-ending injury. But part of it is that the Falcons largely have ignored this position. That’s been showing up recently and it could be completely exploited by the Saints. If that happens, Dimitroff and Smith have no one to blame but themselves.
They didn’t have a strong stable of cornerbacks last year, but they were able to hide that. They had an entire offseason to get better and they didn’t. They let Domonique Foxworth go in free agency and decided to stick with Chris Houston, Chevis Jackson and Brent Grimes -- and that’s a little scary.
Houston’s the best of the bunch, but he’s a decent No. 2 cornerback being asked to be a shutdown guy. Grimes is athletic, but woefully undersized. Jackson showed some big promise as a rookie, but hasn’t been able to cover anyone this year.
The problems became apparent in the preseason and training camp and that’s why the Falcons went out and signed Williams and traded for Tye Hill at the last minute. Williams was decent before his injury, but Hill hasn’t shown anything to convince the coaching staff to let him on the field.
The Falcons also have rookie Christopher Owens and there are hopes that he could be an impact player down the road. Don’t be surprised if Owens gets some playing time against the Saints because his size might allow him to match up better than Grimes against the New Orleans receivers, but Owens isn’t going to fix all of the problems in one game.
If there is any hope for the Atlanta cornerbacks to at least slow down Brees and the passing game, they’ll have to have help -- lots of it -- and there haven’t been many signs that anyone is ready to come to the rescue.
The Falcons were able to hide their deficiencies in coverage last year mainly by putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That came almost entirely from veteran pass-rush specialist John Abraham, but he’s been relatively quiet this season.
At times in the Dallas game, Abraham was seen dropping into pass coverage, which makes about as much sense as putting Brees in the Wildcat formation. You have to let your best players do what they do best and the Falcons need to let Abraham focus solely on getting to Brees. They also need some help from their other starting defensive end, Kroy Biermann, who started the season fast, but has cooled off recently.
Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder tried to give the pass rush some help against Dallas by blitzing frequently, but that didn’t really work out. The blitzers seldom got close to Romo and he was able to find the weak spots in the secondary.
“You live by the pressure and you die by the pressure,’’ Brees said. “You might make a few plays when you pressure, but you’re leaving yourself open to giving up some big plays. That’s the pros and cons on a pressure defense.’’
Those are the pros and cons facing Smith and VanGorder. They have to generate a pass rush to keep their cornerbacks from being stuck in coverage too long. But Brees and the Saints are pretty good at handling pressure. Brees gets rid of the ball quickly and doesn’t take many sacks.
“I figure, with these guys, they’ve shown to pressure a lot at times and do some things that they haven’t done in the past,’’ Brees said.
Maybe that’s the key for the Falcons. Maybe they need to do something they haven’t done in the past -- like have their cornerbacks actually cover some receivers.
|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
|Tony Gonzalez needed to be on a contending team and the Falcons needed another weapon for Matt Ryan. Atlanta is counting on the partnership to lead to a title.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
"I don't know why people always talk about 'it,'" Gonzalez said. "I think you can break it down and actually put your finger on it. First of all, he's got great talent and he's willing to work hard. Harder than anybody else. On our first day off of camp last week, he was in here working out at 3:30 on a Sunday. He's always watching film.
"I feel like I'm the same way. That's what makes great players. There's no substitute for it. That is the 'it' factor, you're willing to not just do what everybody else is doing. You're willing to go above and beyond.''
Ten minutes earlier and 30 yards away, Ryan sat in a chair and said basically the same thing about Gonzalez.
"There's no mystery why that kind of stuff happens,'' Ryan said. "It's not just a fluke or anything like that. He works so hard. He puts in the time, works hard in the weight room and on the practice field and takes care of his body. It's been impressive for me to see what it takes to be at that level at your position in this league and being one of the best players in the league.''
Yes, greatness realized and greatness on the verge are colliding in Atlanta this summer. It's no accident. Matchmakers Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff have put Ryan and Gonzalez together in an attempt to give each of them perhaps the only thing they were lacking. Quite simply, Ryan and Gonzalez needed one another.
Ryan needed a tight end to go with running back Michael Turner and receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins as he attempts to follow up on an astounding rookie season. In the post-Michael Vick reconstruction of Atlanta, the Falcons give Ryan whatever he wants and needs.
That's why they went out and got the most productive tight end ever. Not thrilled with the prospect of another rebuilding year in Kansas City, Gonzalez said he was contemplating retirement. That all changed when Dimitroff and Smith started talking to the Chiefs about a trade. Atlanta sent its second-round pick in 2010 to Kansas City in exchange for Gonzalez because the future is now for the Falcons, who stunned the world by going 11-5 and making the playoffs last season.
Gonzalez needed a reason to keep playing and, most importantly, he needed a quarterback. You can see the chemistry coming together on the field. You can see it off the field, as the quarterback and tight end have been training-camp roommates and fast friends.
"We have the potential to be the best football team I've ever played on,'' Gonzalez said. "Offensively, we can be better than any team I've played on and that's saying a lot with the teams I played on with Dick Vermeil, Priest Holmes and Eddie Kennison. I loved (quarterback) Trent Green, but Matt's one of those Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman kind of guys. He's got the potential to be one of the best players ever.''
Now, Ryan is throwing to one of the best players ever.
1. Can Atlanta's defense, with five new starters, be as good as the offense?
Yes. Smith got his defense to overachieve in his first season as a head coach and that came without him truly having time to stock his roster with his type of personnel. The Falcons made the playoffs with linebacker Keith Brooking, safety Lawyer Milloy and defensive tackle Grady Jackson serving as stopgaps near the end of their careers.
Those three are gone and so are linebacker Michael Boley and cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who was the only one of the five the Falcons had any interest in keeping. The Falcons drafted defensive tackle Peria Jerry and believe they had some replacements that fit their scheme in linebacker Stephen Nicholas, safety Th
omas DeCoud and cornerback Brent Grimes.
They also signed free-agent linebacker Mike Peterson to take Brooking's place. Peterson, 33, doesn't make the defense any younger, but he spent the best years of his career in Jacksonville, where Smith was his defensive coordinator. Smith likes to talk about the "process'' and the defensive overhaul is the next step. The Falcons put last year's emphasis on building the offense. This year, they're trying to assemble a defense to match it.
|AP Photo/John Bazemore|
|The Falcons need Matt Ryan to continue to improve in his second year.|
2. Are the cornerbacks good enough to stop the top passing games?
A lot of fans seem concerned about a cornerback group that has Chris Houston and Grimes as the starters with rookie Chris Owens and second year pro Chevis Jackson as the top backups.
None of them fit the profile of a true shut-down corner, but Smith and Dimitroff seem to have a lot more faith in this group than their fans do. Houston's not the most physical cornerback around and Grimes' size (5-foot-9, which might be generous) could cause some matchup problems. But the Falcons didn't seem worried enough about either of those things to go out and splurge for a free agent.
That's because Smith and his staff believe they can coach Houston to be more aggressive and they believe Grimes is so athletic that he would have been a first-round pick instead of an undrafted free agent if he were a couple inches taller. The belief is that Grimes can make up for his lack of height with his rare leaping ability (he has a 42-inch vertical jump). Of course, it would only help the corners if John Abraham can produce another year of double-digit sacks and Jamaal Anderson can start showing why he was a top 10 pick in 2007.
3. Will there be a sophomore slump for Ryan?
That's usually a legitimate question when a guy has a remarkable rookie season. But this guy is different than any quarterback to come along in recent years.
Ryan's got an offensive line that showed it could protect him last year. He's got a top-notch runner in Turner, a Pro Bowl receiver in White and a solid possession guy in Jenkins. Add Gonzalez to that and Ryan's only going to get better.
Quietly, the coaching staff is raving about what Nicholas has shown in camp so far. They say he's a completely different player and person than he was last year when he was flying back and forth to Boston to be with his infant son, who was awaiting a heart transplant. Stephen Nicholas Jr. got a new heart in mid-October and is completely healthy now. His father is able to focus completely on football now and the coaches firmly believe he's ready for a breakout season.
It's obvious this is a make-or-break year for Anderson at defensive end. He's got to show something and show it quickly because the Falcons aren't going to be patient much longer. They've got Chauncey Davis, who's ready to play immediately, and rookie Lawrence Sidbury, who has lots of potential, waiting to take over.
The Falcons must be very confident that left tackle Sam Baker is fully recovered from the back surgery that interrupted his rookie season. Atlanta didn't go out and get any other strong alternative and that's significant because Baker is the guy responsible for protecting Ryan's blind side.
It's early yet, but the Falcons believe they might have hit on something when they signed veteran Robert Ferguson after Harry Douglas went down with a season-ending injury early in camp. Ferguson looks like a guy intent on redeeming a career that seemed to be stalled. There's no doubt the Falcons will miss Douglas because they wanted him to stretch the field. But Ferguson and veteran Brian Finneran might give them some quality depth.
The Falcons had planned to let Owens focus solely on playing cornerback as a rookie. But the injury to Douglas leaves the team with a big question mark at punt returner. Owens has return abilities and the Falcons are going to use the preseason to take a look at him in that role.
The Falcons went with Chris Redman as Ryan's backup last season and had D.J. Shockley as their third quarterback. But there's a chance Shockley and Redman could flip roles. Shockley's had a strong camp and has lots of upside. ... The annual speculation that running back Jerious Norwood should get more carries is rolling again. There might be some truth to that because the Falcons don't want Turner handling 376 carries again. But Norwood's still going to be a situational player and his carries aren't going to increase dramatically. ... White's contract holdout didn't seem to set him back. He looks like he's in the best shape of his career. ... Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was a force as a rookie last year, but the Falcons are going to ask even more from him this year. They want him to be an every-down linebacker. ... A lot of people like to bash the right side of Atlanta's offensive line. It's true that guard Harvey Dahl and tackle Tyson Clabo might not be the most talented guys. But offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and line coach Paul Boudreau do a good job of playing to their strengths. Dahl and Claybo are aggressive as run blockers and Mularkey and Boudreau do a good job of covering up their deficiencies as pass blockers by giving them help and not having Ryan take many deep drops.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Training camp site: Flowery Branch, Ga.
Campfires: The offense is pretty much set with last year's starters virtually intact and the addition of tight end Tony Gonzalez. That's going to put the focus of camp on a defense that overachieved last year and will have five new starters.
The hottest battles will be in the secondary, where the Falcons have to replace safety Lawyer Milloy and cornerback Domonique Foxworth. Atlanta's coaching staff is hoping second-round pick William Moore can step in and start at safety, but second-year pro Thomas DeCoud provides a decent fallback option if Moore's not ready. DeCoud had a strong showing throughout the offseason and isn't going to give up the job without a fight.
Cornerback might be the most intriguing spot to watch in camp. The Falcons are set with Chris Houston on one side, but it's a wide-open competition for the other starting spot and the nickelback job. The plan is to throw Brent Grimes, Von Hutchins, Chevis Jackson and rookies Christopher Owens and William Middleton out there and see who rises up. Keep an eye on Jackson, who came on strong in the second half of his rookie season last year.
Camp will be a downer if ... there are any injuries on the offensive line. The Falcons have a starting five that probably played over its head last year and very little depth. Veteran Todd Weiner retired after last season and the Falcons tried to replace the flexibility he gave them by signing veteran Jeremy Newberry. But Newberry retired earlier this week because of knee problems.
|Paul Abell/Getty Images|
|Tony Gonzalez gives quarterback Matt Ryan another target in the Falcons' passing game.|
Coach Mike Smith is very good at mixing up the tempo of his practices, but he may have to be more cautious with his offensive line. Left tackle Sam Baker had back problems last year and center Todd McClure has wear and tear on his 32-year-old body. If some young linemen don't step up -- and there aren't many likely candidates -- the Falcons may have to keep an eye on the waiver wire for some depth.
Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Matt Ryan masters the offense he looked so good in as a rookie. That's a strong possibility. Although he already was very good, Ryan looked noticeably better in minicamp practices in the spring.
The Falcons didn't hold back much of the playbook from Ryan last season, but they're going to expand it significantly this year. The addition of Gonzalez suddenly gives the Falcons the pass-catching tight end they lacked last year. That should only help receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, who blossomed with Ryan last year. And don't forget second-year receiver Harry Douglas. He showed some promise last year, but looked ready to take on a bigger role in offseason workouts.
The Norwood factor: One player to keep an eye on in camp and preseason games is running back Jerious Norwood. The Falcons realize they put a very heavy load on starter Michael Turner last season and they don't want him approaching 375 carries again. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has to find a way to give Norwood some of Turner's carries. That's not as simple as just swapping them out. Turner is a
power runner and Norwood is a speed guy. The Falcons need to put in some wrinkles to take advantage of Norwood's skills.
Training camp site: Spartanburg, S.C.
Campfires: The Panthers are returning 21 of 22 starters from a team that went 12-4. But the disastrous playoff loss to Arizona means that Carolina can't be complacent. Coach John Fox never has been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons and he needs to if he wants to stay off the proverbial "hot seat."
|Paul Spinelli/Getty Images|
|Jake Delhomme and the Panthers need to put last season's playoff loss to Arizona behind them.|
Fox needs to revitalize a defense that collapsed down the stretch last season and much of that responsibility will fall to new coordinator Ron Meeks. Barring injury or upset, the only new starter will be cornerback Richard Marshall, who will replace Ken Lucas. A lot of fans are wondering if Marshall is ready to be a starter. The coaching staff wouldn't have let Lucas go if Marshall wasn't ready. He's been a very good nickelback the past couple of years and should do fine opposite Chris Gamble.
The bigger question might be who's going to replace Marshall at nickelback? The Panthers seem to have rookie Sherrod Martin ticketed for that spot. That may seem a little risky, but Fox has a pretty good track record when it comes to playing rookie cornerbacks quickly. Marshall and Ricky Manning Jr. were able to step in and contribute as rookies.
Camp will be a downer if ... Steve Smith pulls a repeat of last year. Early in camp, Smith punched out Lucas, who was kneeling on the sideline. That led to a two-game suspension for Smith. The incident may have helped pull the team together in some ways, but the Panthers can't endure something like that again.
Things tend to get hot in Spartanburg, but Fox and his staff need to keep the ultra-competitive Smith cool. Smith's nasty streak is a big part of what makes him such a great receiver. But he needs to save that for the regular season and let the team get through camp peacefully.
Camp will be a success if ... the Panthers can put the Arizona playoff loss behind them. Losing badly at home was a terrible end to what had been a very nice season, and Fox has to eliminate any hangover from that. One of Fox's strengths is his ability to motivate and he's got to convince this team it can win big games when it matters most.
Fox has been adamant about sticking with quarterback Jake Delhomme, who had a disastrous outing against Arizona. That's a strong show of confidence from the coach. But Fox may have to spend part of camp convincing the rest of the team that the move is a result of confidence and not stubbornness.
It starts up front: Early in Fox's tenure, his defensive line was dominant and the team was built around the front four. That hasn't been the case in recent years. The back seven is very good, but it can become great with more production up front.
Although end Julius Peppers is the only big name on the line, the Panthers have the ingredients to be good up front. They didn't draft Everette Brown to spend his rookie season on the bench. He'll join in a rotation with Peppers, Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton. If Peppers can play at a level close to his $17 million franchise tag, there could be a lot of sack opportunities for Brown, Johnson and Brayton.
New Orleans Saints
Training camp site: Metairie, La.
Campfires: As far as pure numbers, the Saints have the most legitimate position battles in the NFC South. That competition should be a good thing for a team that underachieved, particularly on defense, last season.
General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton did a nice job of creating competition with a bunch of offseason moves geared at making the defense better. Last year's biggest problem area was in the secondary and that's where the best camp battles will be. The Saints paid free-agent cornerback Jabari Greer big money and that probably makes him a starter.
|Crystal LoGiudice/US Presswire|
|Rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins will battle for one of the starting cornerback spots.|
But the battle for the other starting cornerback spot should be intense. The Saints used their first-round pick on Malcolm Jenkins, who probably has the most physical talent of any rookie on the roster. But Jenkins truly will have to earn the starting job because the Saints think very highly of Tracy Porter, who got off to a strong start before suffering an injury in his rookie season. Porter brings a high level of confidence and he's not going to give up a starting spot very easily. If the Saints open the season with Jenkins as their nickelback, they'll have far more depth than they've had in recent years.
Camp will be a downer if ... it's anything like last season. A rash of injuries started in last year's training camp and the plague continued through the regular season. That was a major reason why the Saints missed the playoffs. Even with added depth, they can't endure another season like last year. Payton ran the NFC South's most-intense camp last season and he may have learned from it.
The Saints have moved their camp back to their practice facility and a look at their schedule shows a large amount of afternoon practices in the indoor facility. There also are a fair amount of days where the Saints will practice only once. That should help keep the team fresh and cut down on the injuries. That's hugely important for a team that will open the season without s
tarting defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant, who are suspended for the first four games.
Camp will be a success if ... Gregg Williams' defensive system takes hold quickly. Coordinator Gary Gibbs took the fall for last season's defensive failures and the Saints went out and spent big money to bring in Williams. Once viewed as one of the league's top defensive minds, Williams is looking for redemption after recent struggles in Jacksonville and Washington.
There will be some changes in the defensive scheme. But, more importantly, he'll be trying to install a mindset. Williams is known for having high-motor, aggressive defenses. The Saints haven't had anything that resembled that throughout Payton's tenure. There is plenty of talent in place and the defense showed signs it was developing an aggressive attitude in minicamp. If that continues, the Saints could have the one thing that's separated them from the playoffs the past two seasons.
Who will run the ball? That remains a huge question for a team whose passing game is pretty close to perfect. Payton's not going to take the ball out of the hands of quarterback Drew Brees, but the coach has made it clear he wants to develop a running game that's more consistent than last season.
With Deuce McAllister gone, the Saints have made it clear they plan to go with the tandem of Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. Payton will use camp and the preseason games to experiment with their roles and try to put Bush and Thomas in spots that play to their strengths.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Training camp site: Tampa, Fla.
Campfires: Fans are going to need rosters for this training camp. Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway, Jeff Garcia and Warrick Dunn are gone. Tampa Bay's youth movement, which starts with new coach Raheem Morris, is in full swing as the Bucs truly look for a new identity.
Starting jobs are open all over the place, particularly on defense. The Bucs have moved safety Jermaine Phillips to Brooks' old spot at weakside linebacker and are putting Sabby Piscitelli in Phillips' old spot. If either of those moves fail, the Bucs could always move Phillips back to safety, but the team is planning on this switch working out. It better because the Bucs have plenty of other questions elsewhere. Is veteran cornerback Ronde Barber still capable of playing at a high level? Is defensive end Gaines Adams finally ready to play up to his potential?
|J. Meric/Getty Images|
|Play him or sit him? That's the decision the Bucs face regarding rookie quarterback Josh Freeman.|
But the biggest question of all -- and the one most fans will be watching -- is at quarterback. Tampa Bay used its first-round pick on Josh Freeman and Morris already has dubbed him as the franchise quarterback. The Bucs initially threw out all sorts of hints that Freeman, who left college a year early, would sit as a rookie. But he came on faster than expected in minicamp and that could change the thinking. The Bucs probably will enter the preseason looking to start either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich. But it's not out of the question that Freeman could outshine both veterans. If that happens, the Bucs would have to speed up their plan.
Camp will be a downer if ... none of the quarterbacks steps forward. The rest of the offense is pretty solid, but this team won't go anywhere without a quarterback who can make the passing game work. There are reasons why McCown has never been a true starter and why Leftwich has gone from being a franchise quarterback in Jacksonville to being just a guy.
McCown has enough athleticism to make you believe there's upside, and Leftwich still throws the ball very nicely at times. But nothing is certain with either of these guys. If Freeman plays like a rookie in camp, the Bucs may have to settle on a quarterback by attrition. That's not a great situation because if McCown or Leftwich starts slowly, fans will be screaming for Freeman before he's ready.
Camp will be a success if ... the new schemes catch on. The Bucs aren't going to look anything like Jon Gruden's Bucs. New offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski is installing a power running game and a vertical passing game. New defensive coordinator Jim Bates is going away from the famed Tampa 2 defense and going with a system that relies heavily on pressure from up front.
Whatever happened to Michael Clayton? After a brilliant rookie year, the wide receiver spent the past few seasons buried in Gruden's doghouse. A lot of people were stunned when the new regime handed Clayton a big contract, instead of letting him walk as a free agent. There's a reason for that.
The new regime believes Clayton can be a productive starter. Forget all the talk about what a good blocker Clayton is in the running game. Sure, that will help. But Clayton isn't getting big money just to block. He got paid because Morris, general manager Mark Dominik and Jagodzinski think he can be a solid No. 2 receiver.
Trey Wingo, Cris Carter and Marcellus Wiley preview the NFC South.
|Dale Zanine/US PRESSWIRE, Paul Abell/Getty Images, David Stluka/Getty Images|
|Peria Jerry, William Moore and Stephen Nicholas are among the young defenders Atlanta coach Mike Smith will be counting on this season.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Take just about any team that was in the playoffs last season and remove five starters from the defense. In theory, that team's probably not going back to the playoffs.
Now, take the Atlanta Falcons.
They got rid of almost half their defensive starters and expect to be better on defense. Wishful thinking? Not really.
Think about all the wonderful things that went right for the Falcons in a stunning 11-5 season. The defense wasn't really one of them. This fact kind of got lost in the hysteria of quarterback Matt Ryan having a great rookie season and Michael Turner running wild.
The simple reality is that Atlanta's defense wasn't very good. The Falcons ranked 25th in rush defense, allowing 2,046 yards on the ground. Against the pass, the Falcons allowed 3,526 yards. That's only 21 yards less than New Orleans allowed and the Saints were widely considered one of the league's worst defenses.
|Greg Trott/Getty Images|
|John Abraham collected 16.5 sacks and forced four fumbles last season.|
Sure, Atlanta's defense played well enough to help the Falcons win 11 games, but it was done with smoke, mirrors, John Abraham and a whole lot of luck.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith were painfully aware the defense wasn't going to get any better by standing still and that's why they didn't. Linebacker Keith Brooking, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, cornerback Domonique Foxworth and linebacker Michael Boley were allowed to walk in free agency and safety Lawyer Milloy was released.
The truth is Foxworth was the only one of the bunch the Falcons wanted to keep, but only if they could do it at a reasonable price and that didn't happen. Brooking, Jackson and Milloy were great players -- a few years ago. But last season, they were old guys and liabilities. Boley fell out of favor with the coaching staff and wasn't even starting at the end of last year.
The names of the guys who are going to replace those five aren't going to excite anyone, but maybe they should. Atlanta's defense is going to be better in the long run because of the housecleaning. But it also might be better right away.
"I came into the meeting (on the first day of last week's minicamp) and I saw Abe and a couple old guys," safety Erik Coleman said. "But for the most part, it was first- and second-year guys. I think it's a good thing. We've got a lot of youth on our team and a lot of guys that are hungry to show they can play."
|Falcons head coach Mike Smith talks about sustaining the success of last year's team.|
We won't know for sure if all the young guys can play for a few more months. But they might have a better chance than last year's defense. They at least fit the profile.
When Smith and Dimitroff came in last year, they focused most of their efforts on offense, signing Turner to a big free-agent contract and using the third overall draft pick on Ryan. Smith, who came with a defensive background, didn't truly have the kind of players he wanted on defense, so he had to make do.
But that's no longer an issue. Atlanta's offseason was all about defense and players who fit Smith's scheme. The Falcons are younger and the upgraded speed of the defense was obvious in minicamp.
They used their first-round pick on defensive tackle Peria Jerry and their second-round choice on safety William Moore. They're the likely replacements for Jackson and Milloy. They firmly believe that third-year pro Stephen Nicholas is ready to blossom and take over Boley's old spot on the strong side. They're not sure exactly who will start in Foxworth's spot, but they're going to throw Brent Grimes, Von Hutchins, Chevis Jackson and Chris Owens out there and see who rises up.
The Falcons didn't necessarily get younger at weakside linebacker where free-agent Mike Peterson is only a year younger than Brooking. But Peterson spent much of his career under Smith in Jacksonville and he wouldn't have been brought in if he didn't fit the system.
|Sam Greenwood/Getty Images|
|Mike Peterson could provide some of the veteran leadership that the Falcons lost this offseason.|
The one potential downside to the yout
h movement is that the Falcons lost a lot of experience and leadership in Brooking, Milloy and Jackson and nobody is denying that's a concern.
Smith doesn't believe in randomly anointing leaders and he's given a lot of thought to where his defensive leadership will come from.
"When you're a good player and you have success on the field, it leads to leadership," Smith said. "They become leaders."
At the moment, the Falcons don't have as many defensive leaders as a year ago. But Smith thinks that will change quickly.
Abraham's already a leader. Coleman was close to being one last year and should have room to spread his wings with Milloy gone. Peterson's a natural leader and already is getting comfortable with his new team. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was thrust into a leadership role as a rookie by the nature of his position and Smith expects his development in that role will accelerate this year.
"Instead of having one or two leaders, you've got to have eight or nine leaders throughout the entire team," Smith said. "There has to be a balance there."
Balance really is what the Falcons are aiming for on defense. They've got veterans in Abraham, Coleman and Peterson, young guys in the rookies and second-year players and some guys in between like defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and cornerback Chris Houston.
"We've got enough veteran leadership that can work out with the younger players to be a great blend," defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. "With young players, it's always a process. Right now, it's crucial that we work hard to allow them to get comfortable so they can attach themselves to the leadership and let it shine through."
|How will NFC South defensive backs fare against the bevy of tight ends including Tony Gozalez, Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Shockey?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
With the NFC South suddenly becoming a hub for tight ends, a very big question rises.
Who's going to cover all these guys?
Presumably, the outside linebackers and safeties. Does the NFC South have enough talent at those positions to keep up with Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Shockey? We'll find out in the fall, but I'm thinking linebackers and safeties could have a lot more value in the NFC South in this weekend's draft.
Think about it a bit.
Let's say you're the Saints and you're sitting there at No. 14. There's been lots of talk about taking running back Chris "Beanie'' Wells, defensive back Malcolm Jenkins or maybe even a defensive tackle. But, after Thursday's trade of Gonzalez to Atlanta, you're suddenly faced with the prospect of facing him and Winslow in four games.
You've got experience at outside linebacker in Dan Morgan, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle, but do any of those guys have the legs to run with Gonzalez or Winslow? If you're the Saints, you suddenly might want to slide Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, the two USC linebackers who could be available when you pick, up a few spots on your draft board.
Same story for the Bucs, who are sitting at No. 19. They've already overhauled their linebacker corps by signing Angelo Crowell and moving safety Jermaine Phillips to weak-side linebacker. But the thought of facing Shockey and Gonzalez on a regular basis might make it difficult to pass on Matthews or Cushing. For that matter, the Bucs would have to think hard about Jenkins, if he's available.
Part of the reason for moving Phillips to linebacker was a desire to get Sabby Piscitelli into the starting lineup at strong safety. But is Piscitelli ready to line up against Shockey and Gonzalez?
The Falcons, who hold the No. 24 pick, have needs at defensive tackle, defensive end and cornerback. But they might have to put more emphasis on their needs at safety because of changing landscape of tight ends in the NFC South. Matthews, Cushing and Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas might have jumped up Atlanta's board in recent days.
Carolina doesn't pick until the second round (No. 59 overall) and the Panthers are in good shape at outside linebacker. They've got some big needs on the defensive line, but they might not be able to sit still at safety in the second or third round. Strong safety Chris Harris isn't known for his coverage skills and second-year pro Charles Godfrey still is trying to grow into the free safety job.
How NFC South defenses try to counter the upgrades at tight end is one story line to follow throughout the draft. Here are four more NFC South story lines to follow.
What happens with Julius Peppers? This situation has been simmering in Carolina for months and it could be ready to boil over. Peppers has said he wants out of Carolina and the Panthers have said they want him back.
But Peppers has strapped Carolina's cap situation with his $17 million franchise tag. If some other team steps forward with a deal that includes a first-round pick, the Panthers almost have to take it. The alternative is to hang on to Peppers at his current price and the Panthers are ready to do that.
In that situation, the common assumption is that Peppers has no choice but to put in another season with the Panthers. But don't assume anything with Peppers. This thing has never been about money and Peppers is a very unique individual. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he would hold out and pass on the $17 million.
Will Sean Payton be able to keep his hands off the offense? That's not going to be easy for the New Orleans coach. Payton's background and passion is on the offensive side, but his future is on the defensive side. As tempting as it may be to draft Wells to give the Saints a power back, Payton may have to go outside his comfort zone.
The defense is the reason the Saints haven't made the playoffs the last two seasons. They've spent the offseason overhauling the defense. Now, it's time to finish the job. Payton has switched defensive coordinators and that pulls away a layer of insulation on his own job security. If defense keeps this team out of the playoffs again, it might be Payton's turn to take the fall.
Are the Bucs really content with their quarterback situation? Kansas State's Josh Freeman is at least a consideration in the first round. But Tampa Bay has so many other needs that it might not make a lot of sense to take a quarterback who might not be ready to play right away.
The Bucs signed Byron Leftwich and he certainly is a candidate to start. But think back to one of the first moves coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik made when they took over. They re-signed Luke McCown and paid him pretty good money. There was a reason for that. Morris and Dominik want McCown to be their starter.
Can Atlanta rebuild its defense in one draft? That's pretty much what the Falcons have to do after parting ways with Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy, Grady Jackson, Domonique Foxworth and Michael Boley. The Gonzalez move means that the Falcons will focus almost their entire draft on defense, except for possibly adding a little depth on the offensive line.
Atlanta's only addition on defense was adding linebacker Mike Peterson. There's some good, young talent in place with defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Chris Houston.
But the Falcons need some more young talent on this defense. They need to walk out of this draft with at least two defensive starters.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Relax Tampa Bay fans. We'll have a Bucs mailbag with lots of Cutler talk up in a bit.
Mark in Houston writes: Hey Pat, love reading the blog. My brother and I are a little worried with the Falcons' lack of offseason moves. I, personally, am unsure of the Mike Peterson move, both because he is getting older and had issues with Jack Del Rio last season. But other than the Mike Peterson signing, I haven't heard of them talking to any FAs or any trade rumors including the Falcons. I trust that Thomas Dimitroff has a plan, but it's still a little concerning for me to not hear anything. Have you heard of them talking to any free agents, or talking with any teams about a trade? And am I silly for being worried, or do you think this could be a real issue?
Pat Yasinskas: No doubt the Falcons have been very quiet in free agency. But Thomas Dimitroff has said all along that was the plan. I think that's a smart approach because Dimitroff and Mike Smith are building for the long term and not looking for one player to "put them over the top" as so many teams do. The Falcons have a good, young core in place. Yes, there are still some holes to be filled, but free agency's not over yet. The Falcons will get more involved with some remaining free agents a bit later on. The Peterson move might not seem like a big deal and it's not going to solve every problem, but it at least gives Atlanta some options at linebacker.
Jon in Huntington writes: What direction do you think the the Falcons will take in this years draft? I know we could use an effective pass rusher outside of John Abraham but it seems like we have a lot of holes on defense.
Pat Yasinskas: Teams always like to talk about taking the best-available player in the draft. But let's be honest, teams usually draft for need and Atlanta's needs are on defense. The only thing they really need on offense is a tight end and they're not going to use an early pick on a tight end because that position's not that big a deal in their offense. Realistically, I think the Falcons have to focus on defensive tackle, defensive end, outside linebacker, safety and cornerback early in the draft. They can take the best-available player as long as it's at one of those positions.
Wes in Clearwater writes: Hey Pat, First off I want to say I think you've been doing a great job covering the NFC South, but I have to address something I've seen in a few of your columns lately regarding the Falcons and Dominique Foxworth. As a life-long Falcons fan, I was a little disappointed in Foxworth's departure. But from everything I had seen regarding the deal, Atlanta had offered a larger contract than the Ravens. The deciding factor was Foxworth's desire to be closer to family, so he took less money. I could be wrong, but that's the impression I got. Keep up the good work.
Pat Yasinskas: I could be wrong, too. But everything I've heard about the Domonique Foxworth situation is that the Falcons had a limit of how much they would pay to keep him and the Ravens greatly exceeded that. Whatever the case, there's no doubt Foxworth's roots in Maryland played some role in his decision.
Jonny in Qunicy writes: I'm a huge falcons fan...do you think that we will have any success with our young secondary, or what? do you think it would be chris houston and chevis jackson starting....because i think jackson could be a great corner and houston is going to get better...do you think our defense is going to be good???
Pat Yasinskas: The fact the Falcons haven't made any moves at cornerback (other than letting Foxworth go) makes me wonder if the coaching staff has a higher opinion of the corners than the rest of us. Chris Houston developed nicely last season and Chevis Jackson came on well at the end of his rookie year. I know the coaches are high on those two guys. The Falcons also have Brent Grimes and Von Hutchins, who each missed some significant time with injuries, coming back. Could the Falcons still add a corner in free agency or the draft? Sure, it's entirely possible. But I'm also starting to think it wouldn't be a total disaster if they stick with what they've got.
|Getty Images/AP Photo|
|Aqib Talib, Jabari Greer and Richard Marshall are part of the changing of the guard at the cornerback position in the NFC South.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
In an otherwise-quiet offseason, the NFC South has turned the corners.
If there's one common theme in the division, it's that there will be lots of change and plenty of youth at cornerback. For better or worse, each team is going to have at least one new starter at cornerback and many familiar faces are gone.
Yes, Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber and New Orleans' Mike McKenzie are still around, but that may be more for show and sentiment than anything. The days of big-name cornerbacks in this division are over -- at least until some of these new guys make names for themselves and they're going to get every chance.
Somebody has to step up and guard the likes of Steve Smith, Roddy White, Marques Colston and Antonio Bryant. That may seem like a big task for a bunch of young and unproven cornerbacks, but that's what it's going to come down to.
Every team in the division suddenly needs major production from young or new cornerbacks.
|Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images|
|The Saints get a healthy Tracy Porter back after injury cut short his promising rookie campaign.|
Start with the Saints because they could have the most change of all. The entire secondary has been a mess the last couple of years, but the problems have been particularly bad at cornerback. McKenzie's gone down with major injuries in each of the last two seasons and the Saints have been forced to go with the likes of the undersized Jason David and the antiquated Aaron Glenn playing big roles.
It hasn't really mattered how many yards Drew Brees has thrown for the last two seasons because the New Orleans defense has given up just as many. But the plan is for that to stop. Although McKenzie, David and Randall Gay remain on the roster, there's a chance the Saints could end up with Greer and Porter as their starters.
New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams wants to bring an aggressive approach and Greer has been the highlight of New Orleans' free-agency class. He was signed away from Buffalo, where he was a starter the last two years. The four-year, $23 million deal the Saints gave Greer likely means they're counting on him being the No. 1 cornerback.
But don't rule out the possibility of Porter being just as good before all is said and done. A second-round pick last year, Porter got off to a strong start as a rookie. He showed all the physical skills and tremendous confidence before going down with an injury just before midseason.
Tampa Bay also could have two new starters as new coach Raheem Morris takes over. You can pretty much assume that Aqib Talib, last year's first-round pick, will move into a starting role. Starter Phillip Buchanon departed through free agency and Talib showed promise as the nickelback last year. He may have to become Tampa Bay's No. 1 cornerback because nobody knows what the future holds for Barber, who is nearing the end of his career.
The Bucs pursued Greer and several other free-agent cornerbacks. They likely aren't done making moves at this position and that could be a sign that they're considering moving Barber to the nickel role.
Only a year ago, a lot of people thought Carolina had the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL. But that trio is now just a duo. Chris Gamble remains as probably the division's best cornerback, but he's going to have a new starter beside him.
The Panthers whacked veteran Ken Lucas in a salary-cap move this week. Lucas' play declined late last season. There are a lot of people who believe Richard Marshall, the nickelback the last couple of years, is ready to step in and provide an upgrade over Lucas.
That may turn out to be true, but Marshall's elevation raises another question that doesn't have an obvious answer: Who's going to be the nickelback? All the Panthers have at the moment is C.J. Wilson, who barely has played and veteran Dante Wesley, who may not be much more than a special-teams player. That means there's a good chance the Panthers, who have almost no salary-cap room, will have to draft a cornerback.
|AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin|
|Chevis Jackson, a third-round pick in 2008, should have a larger role in 2009.|
That's a route the Falcons may also follow because they have the division's least-defined cornerback situation at the moment. This team unloaded the talented, but troubled DeAngelo Hall before last season and made it to the playoffs with smoke, mirrors
and luck at cornerback last season. But some of that luck already is gone.
Domonique Foxworth, who emerged as a pleasant surprise last season, went to Baltimore after getting a massive deal in free agency. But the Falcons don't seem too worried. They could have made a stronger attempt to keep Foxworth, but didn't.
That makes you wonder whether coach Mike Smith has a higher opinion of his cornerbacks than the rest of us do. Chris Houston returns as a starter, but he hasn't yet shown he can be a true No. 1 cornerback. Smith must be thinking Houston can grow into that role because there aren't any other options on the roster.
In fact, it's far from clear who the other starter will be. Von Hutchins will be back after missing last season with an injury and Brent Grimes, who was a part-time starter last year, also remains a possibility.
But keep an eye on Jackson, a third-round pick last year, who started to show some big-play capability at the end of last season. The Falcons may be looking for Jackson to start or, at very least, be the nickelback.
If Jackson can do that, he'll fill a big void. He'll also be one of the faces of change at cornerback in the NFC South.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
The Atlanta Falcons are the final stop for today's team-by-team mailbags.
Greg in CT writes: Those who have questioned the Falcons tepid off season are told to relax that Dimitroff has never been wrong before. How can one (admittedly very successful) draft exempt him from scrutiny? The Falcons were VERY lucky in 2008, especially on defense, and nothing has been done to address defensive deficiencies. I would think after 40 years, Falcon fans have earned the right to be pessimistic. And until Dimitroff has a clear PATTERN of success, it's premature to start comparing the Falcons to the Patriots.
Pat Yasinskas: That's a very valid point. As of the moment, the Falcons haven't done much with their defense. In fact, they've gotten rid of players like Keith Brooking, Grady Jackson, Lawyer Milloy, Domonique Foxworth and Michael Boley. But that was mostly by design. Foxworth was the only one of that bunch the Falcons truly wanted to keep, but he got a big offer from Baltimore that the Falcons couldn't compete with. Brooking, Jackson and Milloy all were near the end of their careers and the Falcons want to get younger at those positions. They haven't done much in free agency so far, but that's mainly because they don't have a lot of salary-cap room. But the wave of big money in free agency is over and I think you'll see the Falcons start making some moves. Thomas Dimitroff had an excellent draft last year, but he can't fill all the defensive holes through the draft. In essence, the Falcons lost five starters on defense and you're not going to get five starters in the draft. The Falcons need to sign two or three free agents who can start for them.
Atljbo in Atlanta writes: Will the Atlanta Falcons go after Leigh Bodden ? I think he would fit in Falcons scheme nicely.
Pat Yasinskas: Oops. In the short time between when I first answered this question and now, Leigh Bodden has signed with the Patriots. So scratch him off the list. I agree he would have been a nice fit in Atlanta, but I'm not sure the Falcons thought he was worth the money and I don't think they were very involved in this one. Von Hutchins, Chris Houston, Brent Grimes and Chevis Jackson are all young cornerbacks with upside. But I'd like to see the Falcons add one experienced cornerback to the mix and I think they'll continue to look for one at a reasonable price.
Pabst in Vegas writes: Falcons signed Mike Peterson, what are your thoughts on this? Back-up? Starter? Improvement over Brooking? Or is this just loyalty from Mike Smith? Thanks, I read the column everyday. Keep up the good work, and go Falcons!
Pat Yasinskas: I'm having a tough time getting excited about the Mike Peterson move. He's only a year younger than Keith Brooking and most of his experience is in the middle. The Falcons are set with Curtis Lofton in the middle, so it's a pretty fair assumption they're planning on using Peterson on the outside. And they're paying him starter money -- a two-year deal that could be worth up to $6.6 million. Mike Smith has history with Peterson and knows his abilities. I'm hoping Smith sees something that's not very apparent to me right now.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
The Atlanta Falcons are the final stop in our tour of team-by-team mailbags.
Cameron in parts unknown writes: What's up with the Falcons? Are they just doing a much better job of keeping things quieter than everyone else? Or, are they really not pursuing anyone?
Pat Yasinskas: The Falcons have been very quiet in free agency so far. I can assure you they're doing their work and have been in contact with a lot of agents. But this early silence was part of the strategic plan and general manager Thomas Dimitroff has made it clear they won't be doing any major deals in free agency. That's true. But I do expect some moves by the Falcons once the first wave of free agency is over and I think that day is coming pretty soon. The Falcons have some needs to fill and they can't fill them all through the draft. It may not be the big names you were hoping for, but Atlanta will be active in free agency before too long.
Greg in CT writes: Are the Falcons really going to go into 2009 with Houston and Hutchins as their CBs? There isn't a #2 CB there, much less a #1. And given that they seemed keyed in on DLine in the draft, they don't seem able to upgrade the secondary with the 24th pick. I know Dimitroff has a plan, but does that plan include trailing the league in passing yards allowed?Pat Yasinskas: Hey, don't forget Brent Grimes and Chevis Jackson. But your point is well taken. Von Hutchins missed all of last season with an injury. I saw some bright spots from Chris Houston last year and Grimes and Jackson aren't bad. Still, I'm with you. I'd like to see the Falcons go out and get one cornerback with some experience. Heck, I'd like to see them get a safety, too. Like I said, I think it's still early.
Jeff in Atlanta writes: Hey Pat, First thanks so much for your coverage and great work. I am a HUGE Falcons fan and must say, I know that it is still early in Free Agency and the draft is still 2 months away, but I am confused on some of the moves we have made or NOT made. After last year with the Falcons, I have total trust in Dimitroff and Smith, but what is your preliminary reaction to the Falcons moves? Letting Milloy go, understandable... letting our best CB in Foxworth just walk, I'm having a hard time understanding that one. He played his heart out for us last year. I know we have Von Hutchins who was hurt all last year, is he probable/talented fit to replace Foxworth?Pat Yasinskas: The Falcons did try to keep Domonique Foxworth, but this was a business decision. I liked the way Foxworth played last year, too, and he's also one of the better quotes in the league -- which makes my job easier. But the Falcons placed a value on Foxworth and they weren't going to exceed that. He got a better deal in Baltimore, which is close to where he grew up. Dimitroff found Foxworth on the scrap heap last year and something like that can happen again.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Best match: LB Angelo Crowell
While letting linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley and cornerback Domonique Foxworth walk, the Falcons have been the NFC South's quietest team in free agency. General manager Thomas Dimitroff cautioned that the Falcons won't be big players.
But Atlanta can't sit still forever. The big moves likely will come through the draft, but there are some guys out there who the Falcons could move on to start patching some holes. There are some fans calling out for Derrick Brooks. But that doesn't make a lot of sense in the plan of Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith. They just let a veteran linebacker (Brooking) go. It would make more sense to add a younger linebacker like Crowell.
Best match: WR Ike Hilliard
The saga of disgruntled franchise player Julius Peppers is the big story for Carolina, but it's likely to drag on. Peppers' $17 million franchise tender has the Panthers strapped for cap room. If Peppers gets traded, the Panthers probably will seek his replacement with the first-round pick they'd like to get in return.
But there is some other business the Panthers can take care of in free agency. They could use a little depth at wide receiver. They've got one of the best in Steve Smith, but Muhsin Muhammad is aging and Dwayne Jarrett remains an uncertainty. Again, the Panthers don't have a lot to spend, but a veteran receiver like Hilliard won't cost a lot. The Panthers had a great deal of success when they brought in Ricky Proehl a few years back. Hilliard is very similar to Proehl and could solidify the receiving corps nicely.
Best match: S Darren Sharper
Re-signing linebacker Jonathan Vilma was the first key move of free agency. But even though the Saints don't have a lot of cap room to work with, they're not sitting still. They know they still have big needs in the secondary and they're working hard in that area.
They've got an offer in to cornerback Ron Bartell and are courting Sharper and Gerald Sensabaugh, a pair of safeties. Something should play out with those players in the very near future and that could be a huge boost to a defense that's rebuilding with new coordinator Gregg Williams. Add Bartell and either of those safeties to the current roster and -- at least on paper -- the defense suddenly looks a lot better.
Best match: RB Derrick Ward
The free-agent frenzy so many expected hasn't materialized -- yet. The Bucs made a strong run at Albert Haynesworth before he landed with the Redskins and made an attempt to trade for quarterback Jay Cutler. They still may be in the market for Cutler or another quarterback.
But there are other big needs to be filled in the meantime. After trading for tight end Kellen Winslow and placing the franchise tag on receiver Antonio Bryant, the Bucs still are looking to load up at the skill positions and it appears running back is the next target. The Bucs don't have much besides Earnest Graham and they know it. They've got Ward scheduled for a visit Tuesday and also are considering Kevin Jones. Look for the Bucs to make a big play for Ward. They've been cautious with the purse strings so far, but they have lots of cap room to work with. They can't afford to keep finishing second for prized free agents.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Cornerback Domonique Foxworth has been at the Ravens' facility all day and he's been a prime target on Baltimore's radar. The Falcons wanted to keep Foxworth, but didn't want to pay him like a starter. It looks like the Ravens will pay him like a starter.