NFC South: Eric Weems

Camp Confidential: Atlanta Falcons

August, 2, 2012
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As you first watch and listen to the Atlanta Falcons in training camp, you quickly realize something is different.

They’ve got a bunch of marquee players (Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner, John Abraham and Asante Samuel), but the buzz isn’t about them. Instead, most of the talk is about two new assistant coaches -- offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. That’s understandable, because a lot of people thought the Falcons needed some major changes after they got thumped by the New York Giants in the first round of last season’s playoffs.

With offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey (now head coach in Jacksonville) and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (now defensive coordinator at Auburn) leaving, Koetter and Nolan are big storylines. They might not have star power all by themselves, but watch and listen a little more and you’ll see the two new coaches have plenty of star power behind them.

“Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter have done a fine job of bringing their respective systems to the table and working with (coach) Mike Smith and the rest of the staff and developing a system that is melding well with all of our coaching opinions,’’ general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It’s a collaborative effort. It’s not just one stamp from one coordinator or the other. It’s been really interesting seeing everyone come together on the respective sides of the football to develop this new system.’’

In conversations with Smith and Dimitroff, each repeatedly emphasized that key players (the guys listed above and a few others) have had extensive input into what the Falcons will do on each side of the ball. As soon as league rules allowed coaches and players to get together in the offseason, Ryan and Koetter began meeting regularly and discussing what the playbook should look like.

“There are a lot of things we’ve done well over the last few years, and the first thing Dirk asked me was what I liked and what I felt most comfortable with,’’ Ryan said. “Then, we took the things I said and looked at our production in those situations and some of it was surprising because we didn’t have as much success as I would have thought in some of the things I said I was most comfortable with, and we had some pretty good success with some of the things I didn’t necessarily think I liked.

"We also watched a lot of film of Jacksonville (where Koetter was offensive coordinator last year), and we talked a lot about why they did certain things at certain times. There was a lot of very good give-and-take. He’s extremely open to input, which is great for players, and I know he sat down and did the same thing with some other guys. But he also has his own opinions and is firm on his own opinions, and I like that about him.’’

The Falcons have been very public about some of the ways their offense will change. They said they don’t want Turner having to endure a 300-carry season. They said they want to use the screen pass more, after almost completely ignoring it in recent years. And they’ve made it very clear that they want to improve their downfield passing game.

What the actual playbook looks like is likely to be a combination of what both Koetter and the Falcons have done in the past.

The changes on defense are likely to be similar because Nolan also has consulted extensively with his key players. Nolan has spent 14 years as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, seven of them in the 4-3 defense and seven in the 3-4. The Falcons will continue to use the 4-3 as their base, but there could be some 3-4 looks and principles.

“We just have a lot of different things that we can do,’’ outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “We’re going to be aggressive. We’re not being passive at all. Our mindset is that we want to go out there and dictate. We don’t want to adjust to what an offense is doing. We want to put it on them to make changes.’’

That would be a change from the VanGorder days, when the Falcons had some individual talent and a fair amount of overall success, but never really had an identity as a defense. The Falcons will be different on both sides of the ball.

“When you have new eyes, so to speak, you get a different view,’’ Smith said. “We may have had a view that this guy’s strengths are A, B and C and his weaknesses are D, E and F, and a new guy comes in and, because he’s coming from a different perspective, he sees it differently. I think that’s interesting in terms of evaluating your roster because you have two new sets of eyes.’’

Maybe the eyes will have it. Maybe the new coordinators and new playbooks will be enough to help the Falcons win a playoff game for the first time since Smith, Dimitroff and Ryan arrived in 2008.


Jacquizz Rodgers
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireSecond-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers could play a larger role in the running game this season.
1. The running game with Turner’s limit on carries. Despite all the talk about the downfield passing game, I don’t think the Falcons want to suddenly just abandon the running game. Turner still is powerful and can help open things up for the passing game. The Falcons just don’t want to wear him out. They’ve used Jason Snelling at times to give Turner some rest, and Snelling will be involved again this season. But I don’t think he’s really the guy the Falcons are looking at to pick up a big chunk of Turner’s carries.

I’m almost certain they have big plans for second-year pro Jacquizz Rodgers, and I think those plans might be a lot bigger than people realize. That’s largely because Rodgers is bigger than the Falcons realized when they drafted him last year.

“Jacquizz is not little,’’ Smith said. “He’s short, but he’s thick. People projected him to be a third-down back, a change-of-pace back. I think the guy has the skill set to play on all three downs. One of the things that stood out to me more than anything is his ability to pass protect. A lot of times, your change-of-pace back, you’ve got to get him the ball and not ask him to be a part of the protection. I don’t think that’s the case with Jacquizz. I think Jacquizz is an all-around back that can play on all three downs.’’

Translation: The Falcons aren’t looking for Rodgers to be what Jerious Norwood once was. They want him to be more like what Warrick Dunn once was.

2. Positive reinforcement. I don’t know if they were veiled shots at Mularkey, VanGorder and former middle linebacker and defensive leader Curtis Lofton, but I think it was significant that Smith and Dimitroff repeatedly used the word “positive’’ when they talked about the coaching styles of Koetter and Nolan, and as they talked about the leadership qualities Samuel brings, and what kind of leader they expect Weatherspoon to become.

“Sean is such a positive guy,’’ Smith said. “He is vocal, but he’s never negative in the way he speaks. He’s always very positive.’’

Samuel was described in the same way. So were Nolan and Koetter.

I never sensed a lot of negativity from Mularkey, VanGorder or Lofton, but I also never sensed any of them were rah-rah guys. It sure seems like Smith and Dimitroff feel their team needed more positive reinforcement.

3. The pass rush. For far too long, Atlanta’s pass rush has consisted of Abraham and almost nothing else. Maybe fellow defensive end Ray Edwards steps up after an injury-filled season that limited him to 3.5 sacks. Or maybe reserves Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann produce more. But I get the sense Nolan isn’t looking to have only defensive ends rush the passer.

“The way practice is going right now, we’re really excited about getting the linebackers more involved in rushing the passer,’’ Weatherspoon said. “Even in seven-on-seven, we’re going. That will help those guys out there on the edge because now offenses are going to have to account for us all day. It’ll be better because we’ll be able to keep them on their heels.’’

And it won’t be just the linebackers. Look for the cornerbacks and safeties to also get plenty of opportunities to blitz.


Matt Ryan
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireIs this the season Matt Ryan puts it all together and joins the echelon of elite quarterbacks?
Time to fly. A lot of great young quarterbacks have seemed to hit a wall early in their careers. Even Peyton Manning had a reputation for not being able to win the big one early in his career, and look how that’s worked out. I’m not saying Ryan is going to turn into the second coming of Manning, but I think this is the year in which Ryan finally can earn a firm spot in the category of elite quarterbacks.

The guy has done some very good things in his first four seasons and he’s worked very hard to bulk up this offseason, so that he’s not worn down when the playoffs roll around. Ryan has a good arm, excellent mental skills and a strong work ethic. But, for some reason, he just hasn’t been able to take the next step. Last year, the Falcons brought in Jones to give him another weapon to go with White and Gonzalez. This year, they brought in Koetter, who has obvious instructions to get the most out of Ryan’s skills.

When you keep doing things the right way, sooner or later it’s all bound to click.


The offensive line. This was a big problem spot last year. Ryan frequently didn’t have enough time to throw the deep ball. The Falcons got rid of offensive line coach Paul Boudreau and replaced him with Pat Hill, who has a nice history with offensive lines. They also used their second-round pick on guard Peter Konz.

But were those two moves enough to bring dramatic improvement up front? Should the Falcons really be sticking with Sam Baker at left tackle? And even if they want to give Baker another shot, shouldn’t they at least have brought in a viable alternative in case he struggles?

I know a lot of fans think the Falcons should have done more up front. But the Falcons think they’ve done enough. We’ll find out who is right soon enough.


  • The Falcons lost a steady return man when Eric Weems left as a free agent. They’ve thrown out a lot of names, including some undrafted rookies, as candidates to take Weems’ spot as the punt and kickoff returner. But this is a team with a lot at stake this season, and I don’t see the Falcons handing either job to an untested rookie. I think they play it safe and go with third receiver Harry Douglas as their punt returner. He could also be an option on kickoff returns. If not, reserve cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Christopher Owens, as well as Rodgers, could be possibilities.
  • Ever since he was drafted in 2010, I’ve been expecting to see some flash from wide receiver Kerry Meier. Part of that is because the Atlanta coaches still talk about the former college quarterback as a guy that can play just about any position. Meier missed his rookie season with an injury and didn’t get a lot of playing time last year. But I did see him make a couple of nice catches in camp and also saw him getting work as the backup holder on field goals and extra points. Meier may have a tough time getting much playing time at wide receiver because the Falcons are so deep. But Koetter might be able to throw off some defenses by lining up Meier at H-back, fullback and tight end at various times.
  • I don’t want to raise hopes artificially, but I saw defensive tackle Peria Jerry working with the first-team defense while I was at camp. He seemed to show a little of the burst that made him a first-round pick in 2009. But Jerry tore up his knee early in his rookie season and has been reduced to a role player. He’s getting the first-team work because Corey Peters is temporarily sidelined with an injury. Peters’ starting job will be there when he gets back. But the Falcons would get a tremendous boost if Jerry can give them some production as a backup.
  • Veteran center Todd McClure has been getting all the first-team work early in camp. But I think the Falcons would be wise to take a long look at Joe Hawley and maybe even start him in a preseason game or two. McClure is 35, and there is no question he’s slowing down. I can see a scenario in which McClure wears out or gets hurt as the season goes on, and Hawley gets thrown into the starting lineup. The better long-term approach might be to go with Hawley as the starter and have McClure as a fallback option.
  • I don’t know what the Falcons are going to do about a No. 3 tight end after Gonzalez and Michael Palmer. They have six tight ends in camp. At least while I was there, the one that seemed to stand out was Tommy Gallarda. He looks like he can catch the ball a bit. More importantly, he’s 6-foot-5 and 259 pounds and looks like he can block.
  • A lot of fans are excited about third-round pick Lamar Holmes. They believe he could end up beating out Baker for the starting left tackle job in training camp. That’s not going to happen. The Falcons are going to give Baker every benefit of the doubt. If he’s injured or really struggles, they’ll turn to Will Svitek. Holmes is viewed as a project, and it could be a couple of years before he gets on the field.
  • Since the arrival of Samuel, the common assumption among many fans is that Dunta Robinson will be the nickelback and Samuel will start opposite Brent Grimes. That’s not as automatic as most think. Yes, Robinson will play the nickel position, lining up inside against slot receivers on passing downs. But that doesn’t mean Robinson won’t be starting and playing the outside on running downs. Samuel’s age, 31, is a concern, and the Falcons may not want to overuse him. They may start Robinson and, when they go to the nickel package, insert Samuel on the outside and slide Robinson inside.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Falcons coach Mike Smith termed the release of veteran guard Vince Manuwai as a "football decision.''

The translation there is simple. Manuwai, who sat out last season and spent part of his career with Smith in Jacksonville, wasn’t injured. The Falcons simply decided they like what they’ve seen out of their younger guards early in training camp and they’re going to go in that direction.

Garrett Reynolds, who started seven games at right guard last season, seemed to get most of the first-team work during Saturday afternoon’s practice. But rookie Peter Konz, Joe Hawley, Mike Johnson and Andrew Jackson also are in the mix. Hawley also can play center, while Johnson also can play tackle.

“We’ve got a real competitive situation across the board on the offensive line,’’ Smith said. “I think you’ll notice that we’re rolling the guys. They’re not all going out right now, first team or second team. We’re going to roll them in and out, look at the different combinations and come up with the best combination of seven offensive linemen. That’s important, it’s not just the first five, but seven offensive linemen because you’ve got to have the backups cross-train. We’ve got to have a second snapper, an emergency snapper. We’ve got to have tackles that can play guard and guards that can play center.’’

Left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo might be the only guys who are penciled in as starters right now. The Falcons also are hoping left tackle Sam Baker can bounce back from the injuries that hampered him last season. If not, Will Svitek could be an option. Veteran Todd McClure is the incumbent starter at center. But McClure is 35 and, if he’s showing signs of slowing down, Hawley could be a candidate to start at center.

Some other quick notes out of Saturday’s practice:
  • Brent Grimes, who is carrying the franchise tag, might have another role than just playing cornerback: He has been getting some work as a punt returner. That’s a job that’s wide open after the departure of Eric Weems via free agency. Smith said wide receiver Harry Douglas and cornerback Dominique Franks also have been fielding some punts. Smith said he also may look at some young players on punt returns soon.
  • The play of the day came on a jump ball between two of Atlanta’s best athletes. Grimes had good coverage on a pass that was thrown high for wide receiver Julio Jones. Grimes, whose vertical leap has been measured at more than 40 inches, went up as high as he could. But Jones, who also has some spring in his legs, came down with the ball.
  • The runner-up for play of the day came from a surprising combination. Backup quarterback Chris Redman hooked up with undrafted free agent Kenny Stafford on a touchdown pass of about 45 yards.
  • Speaking of backup quarterbacks and undrafted free agents, I was pretty impressed by the arm strength of Dominique Davis from East Carolina. He can throw the heck out of the ball. But the potential problem I see is that every pass comes at full speed and there’s not a lot of touch.
  • The Falcons are currently carrying six tight ends. Veteran Tony Gonzalez is the starter and Michael Palmer did some good things last season. But the third roster spot at tight end appears to be up for grabs. There’s a lot of camp and four preseason games ahead that will determine a lot. But I did see Tommy Gallarda make one very nice catch in traffic over the middle.
  • I got some one-on-one time with veteran defensive end John Abraham, who touched on a lot of subjects (including his thoughts on new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, his decision to return to Atlanta after testing free agency, his belief that maligned teammate Ray Edwards is ready for a big season and some other things). I’ll share those with you over the coming days. I’ll be back out Sunday and Monday, watching the Falcons practice and doing interviews, and we’ll run their Camp Confidential profile later next week.

NFC South evening update

May, 29, 2012
Let's take a look at some of the day's top headlines from around the NFC South.
  • Some very strong comments from Sean Gilbert, the last franchise player to sit out a season, on the Drew Brees situation. If, for some reason Brees becomes unhappy with his agent, he might want to hire Gilbert. The retired defensive tackle made a very passionate case that Brees should be paid no matter the cost and emphatically mentions how the Saints became an elite team once the quarterback arrived in town. Gilbert also has a message for those fans who say Brees should “take one for the team’’ and give the Saints a hometown discount. Gilbert said Brees has earned the right to set his family up financially for the long term.
  • A Louisiana lawyer has helped set up a trust fund to ensure Brees gets paid. That’s a generous idea, but this situation isn’t about charity. Owner Tom Benson and the Saints have enough money to pay Brees. But the main reason no deal already has been done is because the Saints haven’t been able to figure out a way to work Brees under the salary cap for the long term. That’s highly important. In calculated moves, the Saints let Carl Nicks, Tracy Porter and Robert Meachem leave as free agents this year. If the Brees deal isn’t structured properly, the Saints could lose a lot more key players in future years.
  • Cornerback Asante Samuel, recently acquired in a trade with Philadelphia, had two interceptions in his first on-field practice with the Falcons. I’d call that a good omen.
  • After losing Eric Weems in free agency, the Falcons are looking for a return man. Cornerback Dominique Franks said he wants to earn that job. That’s wise thinking on the part of Franks. With Samuel, Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes ahead of him on the depth chart and some others that might earn playing time at cornerback, Franks’ best chance to stay on the roster come if he wins the return job.
  • Speaking of job security, Tampa Bay tight end Luke Stocker said he’s looking forward to more playing time in his second season. He’ll get that opportunity. The Bucs brought in veteran Dallas Clark as a short-term solution as a pass-catcher, but Stocker should get plenty of playing time as a blocker this year and that could lead to him being an all-around tight end down the road.
  • Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said he was a bad teammate last year. He said he pouted and moped and needs to mature next season. We’ve got a message into San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith seeking comment on Newton’s skills as a teammate.
We’ve heard plenty recently from organized team activities for the Buccaneers, Saints and Panthers. But we haven’t heard from the Atlanta Falcons.

There’s a reason for that. The Falcons haven’t had media access during their organized team activities. But that’s about to change.

The Falcons are on the practice field right now and they’ll be wrapping up about 12:30 p.m. After that, coach Mike Smith and players will do interviews with the media.

As soon as the transcripts start coming out a bit later this afternoon, I’ll provide you with the highlights.

Meantime, take a look at D. Orlando Ledbetter’s list of five things to watch during organized team activities. He touches on all the key points.

There are several things I’m curious to hear about, especially who is lining up where on defense. Will second-year pro Akeem Dent or veteran Lofa Tatupu line up at middle linebacker with the first-team defense? I think Dent is the guy the Falcons want there when the regular season opens. But Dent has to show he’s ready for the job and Tatupu could work with the first team to start with. The other big question is how the Falcons will use their top three cornerbacks: Asante Samuel, Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson. The Falcons have implied they plan to use Robinson in the slot in the nickel package, but we’ll see if that’s how things are shaping up in the early stages.

But the big questions aren’t just on defense. With Eric Weems departing in free agency, the Falcons need someone to return kickoffs and punts. Receiver Harry Douglas and cornerback Dominique Franks have some experience in those roles, but the Falcons may be taking long looks at some of their younger players.

Ledbetter also wonders how much time will be spent working on screen passes. So do I. The Falcons have used the screen less than any team in the league in recent years. That’s expected to change with Dirk Koetter taking over as offensive coordinator and the Falcons wanting to get second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers more involved in the offense. I wouldn’t expect the Falcons to spend Tuesday’s entire practice working just on screens, but it would be nice to hear if they’re devoting at least a little time to them.

Stay tuned. We’ll be back with highlights of whatever emerges out of the Falcons this afternoon.
We’ve been talking a lot about the Buccaneers and Panthers and what they may do in the draft and that’s mainly because they’re the only two NFC South teams with a first-round pick.

The Saints don’t pick until the third round, but now that we’re into April, it’s a good time to start talking about the Falcons and what they might do in the second round (at No. 55 overall).

A lot of people are talking about Atlanta getting a left tackle. But you don’t usually find future All-Pro tackles deep in the second round. The Falcons could take a tackle somewhere in this draft, but coach Mike Smith recently made it sound like the team will give Sam Baker one more chance.

When asked about tackles that might be available in the second round, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ticked off a group (Florida State’s Zebrie Sanders, Cal’s Mitchell Schwartz and Mississippi’s Bobby Massie) that he referred to as "third-tier offensive tackles."

“Bobby Massie would probably be the best available and maybe best case scenario coming out of Mississippi,’’ McShay said in a recent conference call with the national media. “I don't know that he's going to fall all the way there, but if he does it's a possibility. Zebrie Sanders from Florida State, there is a good chance he'll be there. He kind of fits what they want to do. He fits that Florida State zone-blocking scheme, and I think he has the athleticism to play left tackle, but I'm not necessarily convinced of it. It's always hard to plug your left tackle, and it's not going to be easy to do.’’

I’m not sure it makes sense for the Falcons to take a “third-tier offensive tackle’’ with their first draft pick. They were reluctant to play interior linemen Joe Hawley and Mike Johnson right away when they drafted them in the middle rounds in 2010. I don’t see them being more willing to play a rookie right away at left tackle.

McShay brought up another interesting scenario for the Falcons with their second-round pick and this guy should be familiar to Atlanta fans. McShay mentioned Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin as a possibility and he did it enthusiastically.

“He's just so fast,’’ McShay. “Everything he does is fast. I think his instincts need to improve. I know his instincts need to improve. He's late diagnosing some throws. When they put him in the zone, he can get lost a little bit, and that's not really his strength. But he's such a good athlete. He can absolutely fly. His vertical leap is just insane. He's just so physically gifted. You see the suddenness, the explosiveness. To me, maybe he's just a nickel corner, but maybe you get production out of him on the offensive side if you're creative enough. You definitely get production out of him and potentially some big plays in the return game.’’

Hmm, I have a tough time seeing Smith, who usually is viewed as a conservative type, letting someone play offense and defense. But, then again, maybe owner Arthur Blank can get in Smith’s ear about that possibility. Blank has developed a pretty strong relationship with Deion Sanders, who once played a little offense in addition to cornerback. Sanders also was a top-notch return man.

That’s a skill that could make Boykin particularly attractive to the Falcons. They recently let return man Eric Weems leave via free agency.

NFC South free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Atlanta Falcons

Key additions: LB Lofa Tatupu, G Vince Manuwai

Key losses: LB Curtis Lofton, WR/KR Eric Weems

Keeping their own: Much to the chagrin of their fans, the Falcons chose not to pursue defensive end Mario Williams or any other big-name free agent. Instead, they focused hard on keeping their own guys. That started before the season ended with tight end Tony Gonzalez re-signing and continued into free agency as the Falcons made it a point to lock up guys like receiver Harry Douglas, defensive end John Abraham and running back Jason Snelling. They also protected cornerback Brent Grimes with the franchise tag.

The only loss that really hurt was Lofton. The Falcons liked him, but new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan didn’t view him as a three-down player. The Falcons still made an effort to keep Lofton, but weren’t willing to pay big money. They brought in the veteran Tatupu, who could be a short-term answer. But there’s a hope within the organization that second-year pro Akeem Dent can step forward and win the job immediately because he’s the guy that’s going to end up there for the long term.

What’s next: Don’t completely rule out the addition of a minor or mid-level free agent or two, but the Falcons are focusing mainly on the draft. Even with Abraham back, they’re still looking to improve their pass rush and defensive ends could be in play. But the Falcons also could add a defensive tackle because Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry are coming off sub-par seasons. Some depth in the secondary and a kick returner also are possible targets.

Key additions: RB/FB Mike Tolbert, G Mike Pollak

Key losses: G Travelle Wharton

The splash came last year: The Panthers haven’t been very active in free agency. That’s largely because they made their big moves coming out of the lockout last year. They signed defensive end Charles Johnson, running back DeAngelo Williams, linebacker Jon Beason, defensive tackle Ron Edwards and linebacker Thomas Davis to huge deals, and that’s why they had very little salary-cap room to work with this year.

But the Panthers didn’t really reap the rewards of some of those signings because Beason, Davis and Edwards all suffered early injuries. That took a toll on the defense. But all three of those guys are back and healthy and that should improve the defense immediately. Carolina developed an explosive offense last season and a strong defense could turn the Panthers into playoff contenders.

What’s next: The Panthers have very little cap room and don’t figure to make many more moves in free agency. They’re focused in on the draft and there needs have been narrowed. They’re likely to address cornerback and defensive tackle early in the draft. But don’t be surprised if they take a linebacker somewhere in the first three or four rounds, and it’s even possible they could target one in the first or second. Davis is coming off his torn ACL and the Panthers don’t know if he’ll be anything close to what he was before the injuries.

New Orleans Saints

Key additions: LB Curtis Lofton, DT Brodrick Bunkley, G Ben Grubbs

Key losses: G Carl Nicks, CB Tracy Porter

Miracle workers: Faced with an extremely tight salary-cap situation and some bizarre off-field events, it’s somewhat amazing the Saints were able to keep as much as they did. They didn’t want to lose Nicks, who might be the best guard in the league and is in his prime. But that’s the price they had to pay to make sure they kept quarterback Drew Brees and receiver Marques Colston, as well as adding players like Lofton, Grubbs and Bunkley.

The Brees situation remains complicated. He's still carrying the franchise tag. The Saints need to get him signed to a long-term deal quickly. Even more than ever, the Saints need Brees’ leadership abilities. They need him signed and happy before their offseason program starts April 16.

What’s next: With the possibility of multiple defensive players facing possible suspensions as a result of the bounty program, the Saints still could be looking to make significant moves. It will be hard to draft players that will make an instant impact because the Saints are without picks in the first two rounds. That means they might have to pull some more help out of free agency, even with limited cap space. They could use another pass-rusher to complement Will Smith. Even after adding Lofton and Bunkley, the Saints still could use depth at linebacker and defensive tackle.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key additions: WR Vincent Jackson, G Carl Nicks, CB Eric Wright

Key losses: C Jeff Faine

Locking them up: Part of the reason the Bucs didn’t lose much of anything in free agency is because they’ve done a nice job of locking up some core players in recent years. They made it a point to make sure offensive linemen Donald Penn, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah never got close to leaving. Add Nicks to that group and the Bucs have a chance to have one of the league’s better offensive lines. As the season gets going, some other young players will be rewarded with contract extensions as they show they fit in coach Greg Schiano’s system.

What’s next: After making the initial splash, the Bucs said they’re done with free agency and are focused on the draft. That’s largely true, although the team is keeping a close eye on what remains on the market. This is a team that still is building and will still have needs after the draft. The Bucs have a big need at running back, where they have to find at least one player to complement LeGarrette Blount. The cornerback position could be an early target in the draft even after Ronde Barber decided to return for a 16th season. There also is some uncertainty about Aqib Talib's future. Even if he remains with the team, the Bucs need depth at the position. There also is uncertainty at linebacker and a need for depth at safety and tight end.

Around the NFC South

March, 14, 2012
Let’s tie up some loose odds and ends from around the NFC South.

Interesting move by the Panthers in bringing back reserve quarterback Derek Anderson. The team had given some indications Jimmy Clausen could move from No. 3 to become Cam Newton’s backup this year. But the return of Anderson might prevent that. It’s also worth watching what happens with Clausen, who is scheduled to receive a roster bonus of close to $1 million later this month.

The Saint reportedly have tight end Joel Dressen in for a visit.

Forget about the possibility of former Dallas tight end Martellus Bennett joining his brother, defensive end Michael, in Tampa Bay. Martellus Bennett has signed with the New York Giants.

Former Carolina offensive lineman Mackenzy Bernadeau has agreed to terms with the Dallas Cowboys. I don’t think the Panthers had much interest in bringing him back.

It’s still nothing but silence out of the Falcons, but former Atlanta return man/receiver Eric Weems has signed with the Chicago Bears.

Falcons: First look at free agency

January, 31, 2012
Since the NFC South doesn’t have a team in the Super Bowl, let’s start looking ahead to the 2012 offseason.

We’ll start by taking a look at each team and its potential free agents. We’ll start with the Atlanta Falcons. We’ll list all of their potential free agents. Each one listed is a potential unrestricted free agent, unless he’s noted as a restricted or exclusive-rights free agent. After I list the free agents, I’ll summarize what could be the most important moves as teams re-sign players between now and the start of free agency in mid-March.

Here are Atlanta’s potential free agents: Defensive end John Abraham, defensive end Kroy Biermann, offensive lineman Kirk Chambers, safety Thomas DeCoud, receiver Harry Douglas, cornerback Brent Grimes, cornerback Kelvin Hayden, tight end Reggie Kelly, linebacker Curtis Lofton, center Todd McClure, linebacker Mike Peterson, offensive lineman Brett Romberg, safety James Sanders, running back Jason Snelling, receiver Eric Weems, long-snapper Joe Zelenka, tight end Michael Palmer (exclusive rights), running back Antone Smith (exclusive rights) and defensive tackle Vance Walker (restricted).

Lofton and Grimes are the most significant names on that list. They’re key defensive starters, and they’re in their prime. Keeping Lofton, the quarterback of the defense, might be the top priority. There’s little doubt the Falcons want Grimes back. He’s developed into a very good cornerback, despite the fact that he’s undersized. But Grimes could get big money elsewhere. The Falcons already have a lot invested in cornerback Dunta Robinson, and might not be able to pay huge contracts to two cornerbacks.

Abraham, McClure and Peterson are nearing the end of their careers. Any of them could decide to retire. The Falcons also could decide to bring back any of them as a role player. Abraham still was the team’s best pass-rusher in 2011.

It’s likely the Falcons will have some interest in keeping Biermann, DeCoud, Douglas and Snelling. They’re still young, but they could get better offers elsewhere. Hayden and Sanders each are veterans that could test the market, but eventually return to give the Falcons depth.
His 2011 season wasn’t as spectacular as his 2010 rookie campaign, but Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams still was on the field more frequently than any other NFC South wide receiver.

Williams took part in 94.5 percent of Tampa Bay’s offensive snaps. He was on the field for 965 of Tampa Bay’s 1,021 offensive plays.

Carolina’s Steve Smith and Atlanta’s Roddy White each played more snaps, but came up short of the percentage of plays Williams was in for. Williams’ percentage of playing time ranked No. 4 in the NFL.

Smith ranked No. 7 in the NFL, taking part in 91.4 percent of Carolina’s snaps. He was on the field for 956 of Carolina’s 1,046 plays. White was involved in 90.5 percent of Atlanta’s offensive plays. He was on the field for 1,020 of Atlanta’s 1,227 offensive snaps.

Let’s take a look at some other NFC South receivers and the playing time they got in 2011:

NFC South players not signed for 2012

December, 22, 2011
A lot can change between now and the start of free agency and I sure don’t see any way the New Orleans Saints let quarterback/King Drew Brees walk away. I also think there’s a pretty good chance tight end Tony Gonzalez can return to the Atlanta Falcons if he chooses. Same for cornerback Ronde Barber with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and maybe even Jeremy Shockey with the Carolina Panthers.

But all we know about those guys at the moment is they’re not under contract for 2012. We’ll do much more on free agency as it gets closer but I’ve got the complete list of every NFC South player presently not under contract for 2012.

I’ll list them by team here and we’ll only go with the guys who have at least four years of service and can become unrestricted free agents. We’ll deal with restricted and exclusive-rights free agents at another time.

Atlanta Falcons: Tony Gonzalez, tight end; Reggie Kelly, tight end; Todd McClure, center; Mike Peterson, linebacker; John Abraham, defensive end; Joe Zelenka, long-snapper; Chris Redman, quarterback; Kirk Chambers, offensive line; Kelvin Hayden, cornerback; Brett Romberg, offensive line; James Sanders, safety; Jason Snelling, running back; Kroy Biermann, defensive end; Thomas DeCoud, safety; Harry Douglas, receiver; Brent Grimes, cornerback; Curtis Lofton, linebacker; Eric Weems, receiver.

Carolina Panthers: Jeremy Shockey, tight end; Reggie Wells, offensive line; Derek Anderson, quarterback; Geoff Hangartner, center/guard; Omar Gaither, linebacker; Cletis Gordon, cornerback; Legedu Naanee, receiver; Antwan Applewhite, linebacker; Mackenzy Beranadeau, offensive line; Dan Connor, linebacker; J.J. Jansen, long-snapper; Jerome Felton, fullback; Jordan Senn, linebacker.

New Orleans Saints: John Kasay, kicker; Drew Brees, quarterback; Shaun Rogers, defensive tackle; John Gilmore, tight end; Aubrayo Franklin, defensive tackle; Marques Colston, receiver; Pat McQuistan, offensive line; Courtney Roby, receiver; Leigh Torrence, cornerback; Jeff Charleston, defensive end; Turk McBride, defensive end; Robert Meachem, receiver; Jo-Lonn Dunbar, linebacker; Carl Nicks, guard; Tracy Porter, cornerback.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronde Barber, cornerback; Earnest Graham, running back; Sean Jones, safety; Connor Barth, kicker; Geno Hayes, linebacker; Josh Johnson, quarterback; James Lee, offensive line; Corey Lynch, safety; Elbert Mack, cornerback; Frank Okam, defensive tackle; Micheal Spurlock, receiver; Jeremy Zuttah, offensive line.

Checking the injuries that matter most

September, 30, 2011
The Friday injury reports are out for the Falcons, Saints and Panthers. The Buccaneers don’t have to put out statuses yet because they don’t play until Monday night. So let’s take a look at the most significant injuries for Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina.

The Falcons are listing Roddy White (thigh) as questionable. This is one to keep an eye on. If White can’t play against the Seahawks, the Falcons are going to have to juggle Harry Douglas, Kerry Meier and Eric Weems opposite Julio Jones. As expected, the Falcons also declared defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (knee), linebacker Stephen Nicholas (calf) and running back Jason Snelling (concussion) out for Sunday’s game.

The Panthers listed cornerback Chris Gamble (concussion) as doubtful. Coach Ron Rivera said he expects Darius Butler to take Gamble’s place in the starting lineup. Right tackle Jeff Otah (back) is listed as questionable, but has said he expects to play.

The Saints have the NFC South’s longest and most significant injury list. The team said tight end David Thomas, linebacker Will Herring, right tackle Zach Strief, center Olin Kreutz and linebacker Martez Wilson will be out for Sunday’s game with Jacksonville. Charles Brown is expected to start in Strief’s place and Brian De La Puente is expected to start at center. The Saints also are listing linebacker Jonathan Vilma and receiver Marques Colston as questionable.

Checking the injuries that matter most

September, 29, 2011
New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma returned to practice for the first time since injuring his knee more than a week ago. Vilma practiced on a limited basis, but it was an encouraging sign that the Saints may have their defensive leader back for Sunday’s game at Jacksonville. The news wasn't nearly as good on some other key injuries. Right tackle Zach Strief (knee), center Olin Kreutz (knee) and tight end David Thomas (concussion) all did not practice. That means it’s likely Charles Brown will start at right tackle and Brian de la Puente at center.

Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White missed his second straight day of practice with a thigh injury. This one bears watching. White is one of those guys who sometimes get a day off on Wednesdays. But when he sits out practice two days in a row, you know he’s hurt. If he can’t go against Seattle, the Falcons would have to give more playing time to Harry Douglas, Eric Weems and Kerry Meier. Linebacker Stephen Nicholas (calf) and running back Jason Snelling (concussion) also sat out for the second straight day. The only encouraging development was that cornerback Kelvin Hayden (hamstring) returned to practice on a limited basis.

Carolina cornerback Chris Gamble missed another day of practice with a concussion. If he’s not cleared to play, the Panthers likely would start either R.J. Stanford or Darius Butler.

Bucs linebacker Geno Hayes has been cleared to play this week after suffering a concussion last week. Linebacker Quincy Black, who missed last week with an ankle injury, returned to practice.

Atlanta Falcons already banged up

September, 14, 2011
It looks like the Atlanta Falcons are pretty banged up heading into Sunday night’s game with Philadelphia. There already have been reports that defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux will miss three to five weeks with a knee injury. Babineaux didn’t practice Wednesday and he wasn’t the only player sitting out.

Center Todd McClure, who missed the season opener with a knee injury, continued to sit out. Also missing practice were receiver Harry Douglas (concussion), fullback Ovie Mughelli (knee) and cornerback Christopher Owens (knee). If Douglas isn't cleared to play, it could mean more playing time at receiver for Kerry Meier and Eric Weems. If Owens isn't able to play, Kelvin Hayden or Dominique Franks could get more playing time.

On the positive side, defensive tackle Corey Peters, who missed the opener with a knee injury, practiced on a limited basis. That’s encouraging, given the situation with Babineaux. If Peters is ready to play Sunday, he and Peria Jerry likely will be the starting defensive tackles.

Hitting the NFC South links

August, 5, 2011
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – I’ll soon be heading out to watch the Atlanta Falcons practice again. But, first, let’s check in on the headlines around the NFC South.

We told you in Thursday’s Camp Confidential segment that the Panthers were still trying to bring in a veteran wide receiver to go with Steve Smith. They did. They have added free-agent Legedu Naanee. He’s not as big a name and hasn’t been as productive as Santana Moss, who the Panthers pursued unsuccessfully at the start of free agency. But Naanee is coming from San Diego and has ties to offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. The Panthers are still high on second-year pros Brandon LaFell and David Gettis, but they wanted a little more experience at the position. As long as we're forecasting personnel moves by the Panthers, I'll go on record and say they're still going to bring in an experienced cornerback at some point.

Atlanta coach Mike Smith said that return man/receiver Eric Weems had minor knee surgery in the offseason. But the Falcons are proceeding slowly with Weems early in camp.

Second-year pro Matt Tennant said he’s trying to take advantage of an opportunity to be New Orleans’ starting center. But it’s unclear if the Saints are content with sticking with Tennant. There were multiple reports that veteran center Olin Kreutz visited with the team Thursday.

Tampa Bay receiver Arrelious Benn says he’ll be fully healthy by the regular season. Benn suffered a torn ACL late last season, but has been recovering rapidly.

Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis got on the field Thursday night for the first time this camp. As I mentioned Thursday, the linebacker, who is coming off two major knee injuries, was signed to a contract extension that gives the team some protection if he’s not the player he once was.
We’ve talked about potential unrestricted free agents at length and you can see the official list of all of them by clicking here.

But we haven’t done much on restricted free agents. So let’s run through the list of NFC South restricted free agents now. Restricted free agents are players with fewer than four years of service who received qualifying offers before the lockout. Teams have the right of first refusal if a restricted free agent receives an offer from another team. Depending on the tender, they also can receive compensation if a player leaves as a restricted free agent.

Atlanta has two -- cornerback Brent Grimes and receiver Eric Weems. If Grimes leaves, the Falcons get a first-round draft pick. If Weems leaves, they get a second-round choice.

Carolina’s restricted free agents are receiver David Clowney, long-snapper J.J. Jansen and linebacker Jordan Senn. If Clowney leaves, the Panthers would get a fifth-round draft pick. There would be no compensation for Jansen or Senn.

New Orleans has only one restricted free agent. That’s guard Carl Nicks and he would bring a first-round pick as compensation.

Tampa Bay has six restricted free agents. Kicker Connor Barth and tackle James Lee would bring second-round draft picks if they leave. Defensive tackle Frank Okam would bring a fifth-round pick and safety Corey Lynch would bring a sixth-round pick. Cornerback Elbert Mack and receiver Micheal Spurlock come only with the right of first refusal.