NFC South: Hakeem Nicks

Mitchell/CotcheryUSA TODAY SportsThe swap of safety Mike Mitchell to the Steelers and receiver Jerricho Cotchery to the Panthers bring a veteran presence to each locker room.

It wasn’t a trade but two of the biggest free-agent signings by the Steelers and Panthers amounted to two players switching teams. The Steelers signed former Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell on March 11, luring him away from Carolina with a five-year, $25 million contract. The Panthers finally added a wide receiver when they signed Jerricho Cotchery last Thursday to a two-year contract. ESPN.com Steelers writer Scott Brown and ESPN.com Panthers writer David Newton take a closer look at this de facto swap.

Scott Brown: David, you reported that Cotchery’s contract is worth as much as $5 million. I’m happy for Cotchery, a good player and an even better person, but I am a little surprised that the Panthers gave that much money to a complementary wide receiver who turns 32 in June. Is it a sign that the Panthers were desperate at wide receiver or do they really like Cotchery because he is still productive and gives them a veteran presence?

David Newton: Maybe a little bit of both. After losing out on Hakeem Nicks and with other free agent receivers signing elsewhere, the market was pretty bare. Cotchery was one of the few veterans left, and the Panthers couldn't go into training camp without somebody to help bring along what likely will be the youngest receiving corps in the NFL -- the 31-year-old Cotchery aside. His value comes from his experience and the leadership. That he's played in a system similar to what offensive coordinator Mike Shula ran for five of his 11 seasons is a plus. That he can play all three receiver spots even though he has been labeled as a slot receiver also worked in his favor. Is he as good as Steve Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver, who was released? I don't think so, even though Smith soon will be 35. But everything else Cotchery brings seems to be a plus.

Having said that, Mitchell brought an aggressive attitude to Carolina's defense last season. Was that something the Steelers were looking for when they signed him?

Brown: They really needed to get younger and faster in the secondary and the Steelers accomplished both by signing Mitchell. Adding another thumper to the back end of their defense is a bonus and it looks like Mitchell has the range to cover a lot of ground. He will need to do that playing with Troy Polamalu. The eight-time Pro Bowler moves around the field, sometimes leaving the Steelers with a single safety as the last line of defense.

I really like this signing for the Steelers as Mitchell is only 27 and seems to be on the upswing of his career. He talked about his work ethic during his introductory news conference in Pittsburgh and seems to have the desire to be great. If he gives the Steelers a badly needed playmaker for their defense they will be very happy with this signing.

Since you covered Mitchell during the season in which he really blossomed what can you tell Steelers fans about one of the newest additions to the team?

Newton: He's one of the best quotes on the locker room, mainly because he's brutally honest. It's refreshing. He's also one of the more fined players in the league, which he doesn't hesitate to remind commissioner Roger Goodell of. Beyond all that, he's a solid player in coverage and with the occasional pass rush. His numbers this past season were good enough to make the Pro Bowl. Just not a lot of people knew much about him. But the thing I liked the most, and the reason the Panthers wanted him back, was he brought an aggressive attitude to the secondary -- heck, the defense.

Having said that, was aggressiveness something the Steelers were looking for or needed when they signed him?

Brown: They need the mindset because it lends itself to making game-changing plays and the Steelers could more of that from their defensive backs. They intercepted just 10 passes last season, ranking near the bottom of the league, and they were minus-four in turnover differential. If Mitchell builds on a season in which he intercepted four passes -- four fewer than the Steelers’ defensive backs combined -- he will make for a good pairing with Polamalu.

The Mitchell signing got the Steelers off to a good start in free agency but they have since lost two of their top three wide receivers. I think losing Cotchery was bigger than Emmanuel Sanders -- even though the latter was a starter -- because it seemed so likely that he would re-sign with the Steelers. But the Panthers made Cotchery and offer he couldn’t refuse, leaving the Steelers with little experience at wide receiver behind Pro Bowler Antonio Brown before they signed Lance Moore.

David, what was the reaction from Panthers’ fans to the Cotchery signing? Relief more than anything that they finally brought in an established wide receiver?

Newton: More astonishment that they let 34-year-old Steve Smith go and signed a 31-year-old that hasn't accomplished nearly what Smith has. I think a few were won over when Cotchery said out of respect he would not wear Smith's No. 89, the number he wore at Pittsburgh. He seems like a classy guy and people will appreciate that. There's still concern that he's not a No. 1 or maybe not even a No. 2 receiver. Many are calling for Carolina to trade for Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, even though the price tag for Jackson would be prohibitive for a team in need of a true No. 1.

How do you see Cotchery fitting in on a team that is looking to take the next step in the playoffs after a 12-4 season? Does he have enough in the tank to be a No. 2 at least?

Brown: Cotchery is class personified, and he is a consummate professional -- in his preparation, dealings with the media and mentoring younger players. Steelers rookie Markus Wheaton became Cotchery’s shadow last year because he wanted to learn from such a respected veteran. Does that translate into Cotchery giving the Panthers the kind of production he enjoyed last season when he rejuvenated his career? I’m not sure that is the case if the Panthers are counting on him starting.

I think Cotchery would best serve Carolina as a No. 3 wide receiver, one who uses his smarts and experience to get open more than his speed. I can tell you this: Ben Roethlisberger trusted Cotchery more than any wide receiver on the roster last season and I think Cam Newton will also find that Cotchery is always where he is supposed to be and just as reliable with his hands. What Carolina has to though is keep adding reinforcements at wide receiver so they don’t have to rely too heavily on Cotchery.
The Carolina Panthers made an offer to Hakeem Nicks thinking they had a legitimate shot to sign the former New York Giants receiver.

That was until the Indianapolis Colts stepped in and not only offered Nicks a one-year contract worth up to $5.5 million, but also an opportunity to be on the receiving end of passes from quarterback Andrew Luck and be a part of a team that could be one of the best in the AFC next season.

ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton and Colts reporter Mike Wells talk about Nicks' decision to sign with Indianapolis

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
Al Bello/Getty ImagesHakeem Nicks chose the Indianapolis Colts over the Carolina Panthers.
Wells: David, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton proved last season that he's one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. But Luck has proven in just two years -- with 22 victories -- that he has the complete package: arm, foot speed and mental toughness. So it seems Nicks made the right decision to sign with the Colts. What are your thoughts?

Newton: Totally agree. When Nicks picked Indy over Carolina I mentioned one of the reasons may have been Luck was the more proven quarterback. It didn't sit well with Carolina fans. My argument was simple. Two trips to the playoffs to one. But the bigger reason is Nicks will be surrounded by proven receivers in Indy. Maybe that would have happened at Carolina, but at the time of the decision the Panthers didn't have a receiver on its roster with an NFL catch. When Brandon LaFell signed with New England on Saturday that guaranteed Newton won't have any of his top four wide receivers from last season. At Carolina, Nicks risked the possibility of being double-teamed because there wasn't anybody proven to take coverage away. He would have been the clear-cut No. 1, and I'm not sure he's a No. 1. Luck also has a more established offensive line. So when I said Luck was more proven there were other factors around that.

Having said that, if you were starting a team from scratch would you pick Luck or Newton?

Wells: I like how Newton played last season, but I've still got to give Luck the edge over him and players such as Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick. Luck's résumé speaks for itself. He led the Colts to an 11-5 record during a rookie season when his coach, Chuck Pagano, missed 12 games while battling cancer. He repeated that record last season while losing five offensive starters by Week 7. Luck has led the Colts on 11 fourth quarter or overtime game-winning drives in his young NFL career. Should I continue? It also helps that Luck's Colts have already beaten the Seahawks and 49ers. Maybe you and I can corner Rob Chudzinski somewhere after the season and ask him his thoughts because he obviously coached Newton in Carolina and he's about to coach Luck with the Colts next season.

It seems like the Panthers don't seem to know which direction they're headed with players like receiver Steve Smith being released. Am I wrong to think that could sway a free agent's decision?

Newton: It would have to cast doubt. It certainly casts doubt in my mind. It'll all come down to how convincing general manager Dave Gettleman is on selling his plan. And yes, there's a plan. Jerricho Cotchery is coming in for a visit on Monday and James Jones says he'd like to play for Carolina. If the Panthers can get a couple of solid veterans -- even if they aren't bona fide No. 1s, and select a dynamic receiver with either their first- or second-round pick, the receiving corps potentially could be better than last season. Even Smith admitted he's not a No. 1 anymore. So for all the grief I've given Gettleman for making a mistake in dumping Smith, in the long run it could work out. I mean, the beef on LaFell last season was he wasn't a bona fide No. 2. Ted Ginn Jr. had a nice season, but he had only two catches the year before. Domenik Hixon had only one catch that impacted a game. So big picture, they didn't really lose a lot.

So how do you expect Nicks to fit in at Indianapolis? Can he help put Indy over the top?

Wells: Colts fans are a little leery because there was high hope last year when Darrius Heyward-Bey, the No. 7 pick in the 2009 draft, signed a one-year contract the same way Nicks did. Heyward-Bey, to put it as nice as possible, was brutal last season. So brutal that he ended up being demoted to special teams where he actually did a great job downing punts inside the 20-yard line. I think Nicks will fit in nicely because he doesn't have the pressure of being the No. 1 receiver. He simply has to just fit in alongside of fellow receivers Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are also receiving options for Luck. The fact that Nicks had almost 900 yards receiving last season and that was considered a down year for him is a good thing for the Colts. Luck will find him as long as he can get open.

Newton needs somebody to throw the ball to. What are the Panthers going to do since Smith is gone and Nicks decided playing with the Colts was a better option?

Newton: As I mentioned above, Cotchery is coming in for a visit and I still believe they'll get Jones. The plan is to find a few bargains and blend them in with a draft pick. Smith would have made a nice No. 2 receiver in this package in my opinion. But from everything I gather Newton won't be heartbroken to see his top receiver gone. Smith has gotten in Newton's face more than a few times the past few years. As much as that may have been needed, there is a belief on the team that Smith might have been a distraction to Newton as the central leader of the offense. It will be interesting to hear how Newton spins it when we finally hear from him.

Now that the Colts have Nicks, what's the rest of their free-agency plans?

Wells: General manager Ryan Grigson has put an emphasis on defense so far. They still need to find a safety to replace Antoine Bethea, who signed with San Francisco last week. The interior part of the offensive line could use some help, too. They signed former Dallas center Phil Costa last week. The Colts haven't completely shut the door on Cleveland center Alex Mack even though it is a longshot that they'll be to get him because the Browns used the transition tag on him. Adding another guard wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
Now we know Hakeem Nicks' hometown Carolina Panthers are one of three teams the soon-to-be-former New York Giants wide receiver would be interested in playing for in 2014.

He said so Sunday in an interview with ESPN's Josina Anderson, listing Carolina, Indianapolis and San Diego as possible destinations in free agency, which begins Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
Al Bello/Getty ImagesHakeem Nicks caught 56 passes for 896 yards this past season.
"Ideally, this is what I want," Nicks told Anderson. "I want to go to a team where I'm the missing link. There are a number of teams now that I have my eye on once I hit the market. I know if I went to a place like Indianapolis I would be dangerous with a quarterback like Andrew Luck. I can see myself catching passes from Cam Newton or even Philip Rivers."

Nicks, contrary to a report on Saturday, also said he wants a long-term deal.

What he didn't say is how he could make a deal work with the salary-cap-strapped Panthers, assuming they want Nicks.

You would have to assume there is interest, considering general manager Dave Gettleman was with the Giants prior to last season and he's made it clear upgrading wide receiver is a priority.

Here are four things that could help:

  • Hometown discount: If Nicks really wants to return to Charlotte, where he starred at Independence High, one option would be to bite the bullet on a large number in his first year or two. That would be the "hometown discount" that defensive end Greg Hardy kept talking about before being hit with the franchise tag. With only about $7 million left under the cap, Carolina can't sign Nicks and shore up the secondary and offensive line.
  • Smith factor: The Panthers still haven't said whether or how 34-year-old receiver Steve Smith fits into their future. If they decide Smith can play nice and accept the role of No. 2 receiver, the best way Smith can show his good faith would be to restructure his contract that will count $7 million against the cap this season. If they decide Smith can't play nice, then trading or cutting him would be an option, even though it makes little sense financially. Cutting Smith would save only about $2 million, and the Panthers still would have to pay him $5 million. Regardless of what happens with Smith, the Panthers will draft a receiver in the first or second round. Putting a young star with Nicks and/or Smith would be a huge upgrade.
  • Other restructures: Defensive end Charles Johnson still has a high cap number of $16.4 million, as does free safety Charles Godfrey at $7.1 million. Restructuring one or both of those could clear room to sign Nicks. This needs to happen regardless for the Panthers to improve the overall team.
  • Cam factor: If Newton wants new toys -- and he definitely needs them to take his game to the next level -- then he has to be patient on a long-term deal. The Panthers still have until May to use the fifth-year option that would guarantee Newton is on the roster through 2015. They can use the extra time to negotiate a long-term deal. It just probably can't happen this year with so many holes to fill and so little money to do it.

The good news for Carolina is Nicks isn't coming off 1,000-yard receiving seasons such as he had in 2010 and 2011. He had 56 catches for 896 yards and no touchdowns last season and 53 catches for 692 yards and three touchdowns the year before. Smith can put up those numbers in his sleep. He had 64 catches for 745 yards and four touchdowns last season despite missing the regular-season finale with a knee injury.

Although reportedly good to go, past knee and ankle injuries also could keep Nicks' salary down. Perhaps he would be willing to take a low number for the first year loaded with incentives based on performance.

We don't really know. All we know is that Carolina is one of the teams Nicks would like to join, and the Panthers desperately need help at wide receiver.
A few observations that could impact the Carolina Panthers as teams began talking to representatives of free agents from other NFL teams on Saturday:
  • Nicks
    New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks is willing to consider a one-year deal to prove he's better than his statistics have shown the past two seasons, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen. Nicks still probably will cost more than the Panthers are willing to pay with only about $7 million left under the cap. But what better place to start over than in the city where you were born.

    Nicks attended Charlotte's (N.C.) Independence High School. At 26, he still has a lot of good years ahead of him. And don't forget Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman has a history with him as the former director of pro personnel for the Giants.

    That Nicks is expected to have several options with Denver and Baltimore among teams that could be interested will only drive up the price.
  • Wide receiver Sidney Rice, recently released by the Seattle Seahawks, was back in the Carolinas judging from this Saturday tweet: "Back home for 15 hours and I've seen 1 thousand Gamecock fans. Lovin it! #gamecocknation."

    Rice is from Gaffney, S.C., about an hour from Charlotte. He played at the University of South Carolina, about 90 miles from Charlotte.

    Like Nicks, he's looking for a fresh start. He missed most of last season with an ACL injury, but according to several reports he should be fully recovered to begin training with his new team in April.

    At 6-foot-4 and 202 pounds, the 27-year-old still can be dynamic when healthy. The Panthers need dynamic. The problem is he has trouble staying healthy, which could make him a bargain.
  • The Panthers remain interested in re-signing free safety Mike Mitchell and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., two of their 18 remaining unrestricted free agents.

    Both are drawing interest from other teams, Mitchell in particular.

    Don't be surprised if Carolina takes the same approach with them that it did with cornerback Captain Munnerlyn a year ago in letting him test the market to set the price.

    Munnerlyn, who turned down a three-year deal worth $5 million to test the market, eventually settled on a one-year deal to return to Carolina.

    Gettleman appears willing to play that game again. Keeping Mitchell, judging from early interest, could be difficult.
Monday’s news that Victor Cruz is finalizing a five-year, $43 million contract extension with the New York Giants could have implications for Mike Williams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Factoring in Cruz’s $2.879 million restricted tender for this year, the deal is worth $45.879 million over six years and includes $15.6 million in guaranteed money.

That sets some parameters for the Bucs and Williams because he and Cruz are somewhat similar. They both are young No. 2 receivers. Williams plays opposite Vincent Jackson, and Cruz is New York’s No. 2 receiver after Hakeem Nicks (when Nicks is healthy).

Cruz has had slightly better numbers than Williams the past two years. But the Bucs have made it clear they want to keep Williams, who is headed into the final year of his contract, for the long term.

To make that happen, they likely will have to give him a deal similar to the one Cruz got.

Final Word: NFC South

December, 14, 2012
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Week 15 games:

Good news/bad news: Coming off a loss to the Carolina Panthers, the Atlanta Falcons can take solace in the fact they’ve won their previous 11 games immediately after a loss. The Falcons have not lost back-to-back games since 2009. They also are playing in the Georgia Dome, where they’ve won 10 straight games (the NFL’s longest active home winning streak). So everything appears to be in Atlanta’s favor. Until you consider this -- the Falcons have not won a home game against the New York Giants since 1978.

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireWith three more receiving yards Julio Jones will reach 1,000 yards for the season.
Terrific tandems: The meeting between the Falcons and Giants will feature the two most prolific pairs of wide receivers in the NFL since the start of the 2011 season. In that span, Atlanta’s Roddy White and Julio Jones have combined for 4,392 receiving yards, while New York’s Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks have combined for 4,384 yards. By the way, Jones needs only three receiving yards to reach 1,000 for the season. That would make Jones and White the first pair of Atlanta receivers to hit 1,000 yards since Tony Martin and Terance Mathis in 1998.

A record they don’t want: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are allowing 311.6 passing yards per game. At that pace, they would give up 4,986 passing yards by the end of the season, which would be an NFL record. The current record was set last season when the Green Bay Packers gave up 4,796 yards.

A record he doesn’t want: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees leads the league with 32 touchdown passes and is tied with Andrew Luck for the league lead with 18 interceptions. Since 1970, Lynn Dickey (1983) and Brian Sipe (1979) are the only quarterbacks to lead the league in both touchdowns and interceptions.

Intentional grounding: The Carolina Panthers have been making the most of quarterback Cam Newton's running ability. He leads the team with 640 rushing yards. The last quarterback to finish a season as his team’s leading rusher was Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb in 2000.

How the Panthers lost to the Giants

September, 21, 2012
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – With some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look at how the Carolina Panthers lost, 36-7, to the New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night.


  • Carolina quarterback Cam Newton didn’t handle the Giants’ blitz very well. When facing five or more pass-rushers, Newton was 5 of 10 for 83 yards with two interceptions. Newton entered the game second in the league with a 72.7 completion percentage against the blitz. New York’s Eli Manning, meanwhile, was much more efficient against the blitz. He completed 7 of 8 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown when facing five or more pass-rushers.
  • Carolina’s defense, which had a horrible game, was particularly bad in the secondary. Rookie cornerback Josh Norman and safety Haruki Nakamura struggled all night -- despite the Giants being without starting receiver Hakeem Nicks. Ramses Barden stepped in and had the game of his life, catching nine passes to match his reception total for the entire 2011 season. Barden caught all seven of his targets between the numbers for 114 yards.
  • Manning ate up Carolina’s secondary downfield. On passes that traveled 10 yards or more, Manning was 7 of 9 for 135 yards and a touchdown. He’s averaging 15.4 yards per attempt on throws of that distance, which ranks him second in the NFL behind Robert Griffin III.
  • Barden wasn’t the only New York replacement to burn Carolina’s defense. Andre Brown stepped in for the injured Ahmad Bradshaw and rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Carolina’s tackling was particularly bad against Brown and the running game. Brown finished with 71 yards after initial contact; 63 of those yards came in the first half as the Giants jumped out to a 20-0 lead.

Defense still holding Panthers back

September, 21, 2012
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Andre BrownAP Photo/Bob LeveroneAndre Brown and the Giants exposed Haruki Nakamura (43), Josh Norman -- and Carolina's whole D.


CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers got their best defensive player back from injury, patched the middle of their defensive line, picked up the best linebacker in the draft and found an alleged “steal’’ at cornerback in the fifth round.

Put all that together with talent like defensive end Charles Johnson' and cornerback Chris Gamble', and it was supposed to add up to a team that’s a playoff contender.

It might be time to rethink that.

After watching Carolina’s defense in a 36-7 loss to the New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night, I think the Panthers look a lot more like the 6-10 team they were a year ago.

Their defense looked worse than it did last season. It was horrible.

“We missed tackles," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “We were soft in coverage. You can’t do that against a good football team."

No doubt the defending Super Bowl champions are a good team. But the fact is the Panthers can’t play this kind of defense and have any chance of going to the postseason.

The Giants weren’t even a fully loaded team. Starting receiver Hakeem Nicks, starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw and starting tackle David Diehl missed the game due to injuries.

Like it mattered.

Andre Brown stepped in for Bradshaw and ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Ramses Barden stepped into Nicks’ spot and produced nine catches for 138 yards. Raise your hand if you had heard of Brown or Barden before Thursday night.

Yeah, it helped that they were playing with quarterback Eli Manning. But it was Carolina’s defense that turned Brown and Barden into superstars.

The Giants scored on their first four drives and had a 20-0 lead by halftime and the game was pretty much over. Heck, it might have been over by the time the Giants built a 10-0 lead with 3:46 left in the first quarter.

“You get smacked in the face, you have to turn around and throw a punch," Rivera said. “Sometimes, we don’t know how."

That’s the really disappointing part -- that the Panthers don’t know how to throw a punch. The whole offseason was supposed to be about the defense getting better.

Middle linebacker Jon Beason, the leader of the defense, was coming back from missing most of last season with an injury. Same for defensive tackle Ron Edwards. The Panthers went out and drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly in the first round and they’re starting fifth-round pick Josh Norman at cornerback. They also brought in free-agent safety Haruki Nakamura and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards.

That was supposed to fix everything. Instead, it looks like the Panthers fixed nothing.

“One thing we’re trying to do is get out of this rut," Rivera said. “We’re trying to get away from how things used to be and trying to create a vibe. We’d love to have that type of vibe a team like the Giants have."

The only vibe coming out of this game was a bad one.

“If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers, I would be holding my head down in shame at the product that was out there," quarterback Cam Newton said.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images"If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers, I would be holding my head down in shame at the product that was out there," Cam Newton said.
Newton (16-of-30 for 242 yards and three interceptions) and the offense were far from perfect, but they weren’t the root of all evil. The offense never had a chance because the defense was so bad from the very start.

“We never stopped the bleeding on defense," Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “They came out and did everything they wanted. Nobody really made a play tonight."

Maybe the Panthers can turn it around. Maybe the defense can bounce back and Carolina can contend for a playoff berth for the first time since 2008.

But it’s not looking really promising right now. It’s looking as though the Panthers should have done a lot more to patch up their defense in the offseason. Maybe Ron Edwards really is just a guy. Maybe there was a reason why Buffalo released Dwan Edwards at the start of the preseason.

Maybe the Panthers, who like to preach about building through the draft, should have drafted a good interior defensive lineman sometime in the past few years. Heck, the last good defensive tackle they drafted was Kris Jenkins in 2001. George Seifert was calling the shots then, so you have to assume the Panthers fell into that one.

Kuechly overran several plays against the Giants, just as he did in the first two games. Norman got lit up by New York’s receivers.

“I thought Josh Norman was a little soft, and that’s uncharacteristic of him," Rivera said.

Makes you wonder if starting a fifth-round pick at cornerback right off the bat really is a good idea. Then there’s Nakamura. The Panthers went out and signed him simply because he was Ed Reed’s backup in Baltimore.

There was a reason why Nakamura was a backup in Baltimore. Go look at the film from Thursday night. Watch him standing still 30 yards off the line of scrimmage and not giving the cornerbacks any help. Watch the angles he took on a couple of tackle attempts that didn’t even come close to being successful. I'm having a hard time believing that Sherrod Martin, who was benched in favor of Nakamura, is any worse.

“What this was was a lesson that you get from your big brother," Rivera said. “They came in and slapped you around and dragged you through the gravel a little bit."

Yep, even after all that offseason work, Carolina’s defense is still the little brother. If that defense doesn’t somehow grow up soon, it’s going to be another long season in Carolina.

By the numbers: Giants/Panthers

September, 20, 2012
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As we get ready for Thursday night’s game between the Panthers and Giants, let’s turn to ESPN Stats & Information for some numbers on Carolina and New York.
  • Eli Manning threw for 510 yards in Sunday’s victory against Tampa Bay. The last Giants quarterback to throw for 500 yards in a game was Phil Simms with 513 in 1985. Simms followed that up with 196 passing yards in his next game.
  • The Giants will be without injured receiver Hakeem Nicks and running back Ahmad Bradshaw. So far this season Nicks and Bradshaw have accounted for 39.6 percent of the team’s total yards from scrimmage. Last season, Nicks and Bradshaw accounted for 34.4 percent of the Giants’ total yards from scrimmage.
  • There have been 20 quarterbacks taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft (since 1967). Carolina’s Cam Newton will become just the third to face off against the defending Super Bowl champion in each of his first two seasons. Newton and the Panthers lost to Green Bay last year. The only other two No. 1 overall draft picks to face Super Bowl champions in each of their first two seasons were Sam Bradford and Terry Bradshaw (Bradshaw didn’t start, but came off the bench in a 1970 game against Kansas City). Both went 0-2.

Looking back at Falcons' loss

January, 9, 2012
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NEWARK, N.J. -- Before I head back to NFC South Blog headquarters, let’s revisit Atlanta’s 24-2 playoff loss to the New York Giants just a bit more.

Let’s turn to ESPN Stats & Information for some perspective.

A lot was made of coach Mike Smith’s decision to go for it on fourth down on one play in the first half and another in the second half. Both times, Matt Ryan ran a quarterback sneak. Both times, Ryan came up short. The decisions look bad in hindsight. But the numbers coming into the game favored the Falcons.

On designed quarterback rushes of a yard or less on third or fourth down during the regular season, Ryan converted three of four into first downs. The Giants had allowed first downs on five of eight such rushes.

Ryan had virtually no success when trying to throw downfield. On throws that traveled more than five air yards, Ryan was nine of 21. That 48.2 percentage was the fifth worst of Ryan’s career in games in which he’s attempt 20 or more passes of five yards or more. He averaged only 5.8 yards per attempt on those throws, after averaging 8.7 yards and a 53-percent completion rate during the regular season.

Atlanta’s defense had big trouble stopping Eli Manning and the New York passing game inside the numbers. Manning completed 14 of 21 attempts for 206 yards and three touchdowns over the middle. During the regular season Manning never had a game in which he threw more than one touchdown over the middle. In the regular season, he had nine touchdowns and nine interceptions inside the numbers.

The Falcons also struggled with their tackling. New York running back Brandon Jacobs had 47 yards after contact and teammate Ahmad Bradshaw. The 90 combined yards after contact were more than Bradshaw and Jacobs combined for in any regular-season game.

Atlanta’s blitzes didn’t slow Manning. He completed seven of nine passes when faced with five or more pass rushers. Four of those went to Hakeem Nicks for 98 yards and two touchdowns.

Atlanta’s running game never got going. The Giants allowed just 27 of Atlanta’s 64 rushing yards to come before initial contact. That’s the fewest yards perfect contact the Giants have allowed all season. They had allowed an average of 75.4 yards before contact during the regular season.

Bryant is active for Bucs

September, 27, 2009
9/27/09
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Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


TAMPA, Fla. -- We just got the list of today’s inactives and it’s pretty interesting for both the Bucs and the Giants.

Each team has declared a key injured player active. Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Bryant is on the active list. So is New York defensive end Justin Tuck, although I suspect the Giants will use him cautiously.

Tampa Bay’s inactives include running back Earnest Graham, center Jeff Faine, offensive lineman Marc Dile, receiver Maurice Stovall, defensive tackle Dre Moore and defensive end Kyle Moore. Josh Freeman is the inactive third quarterback.

New York’s inactives are running back Danny Ware, cornerback Aaron Ross, cornerback Kevin Dockery, tackle Adam Koets, receiver Domenik Hixon, receiver Hakeem Nicks, linebacker Clint Stintim and defensive lineman Chris Canty.

Your mock pick for the Panthers

April, 24, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

We put Carolina fans in a tough spot by asking them to call what the Panthers will do at No. 59. But that's no more difficult than what John Fox and Marty Hurney will face Saturday as they wait for the 58 picks before them to sort out and try to decide what to do about Julius Peppers.

In some ways, Fox and Hurney have it easier than our readers because they, theoretically, could have a say in what happens with Peppers. In our readers' mock draft, voters didn't have that luxury because projected trades weren't an option.

Readers had to stay put at No. 59 and guess what the Panthers will do.

That led to some spirited debate and a close call in the final tally. Let's turn it over to a reader, who I think made a case that represented the majority, to announce the pick.

Travis in Phoenix, AZ writes: The Panthers with the 59th overall pick take Paul Kruger from Utah. This would be a solid pick, I mean first off the guys from Utah...Im pretty sure Smith wouldnt punch someone who went to Utah...second look at his name...cant you see it...call him Freddy instead of Paul...intimidation factor...The real reason however, this guy is a good Defensive End, he wont be a Peppers but he can put pressure on a QB and can stop the run, if we could trade peppers and also get Johnson from Georgia Tech then those 2 would be perfect together, 2 different styles and could play together for a long time...remember the Peppers Rucker combo that was so great...Rucker was a big part of that, holding up his side so Peppers would let loose...Kruger is that kind of DE...

Pat Yasinskas: Like the argument, but I'm going to share another with you. Kruger won by 15 votes and the second-place finisher was his college teammate, defensive back Sean Smith. We'll go out to Utah for the flip side of that argument.

Blake in Garden City, Utah, writes: Carolina Panthers should take (Sean Smith- CB Utah) This might be a reach if he falls this far. He could give us another big corner to pair with Gamble and Keep Marshall in the slot. This would help with covering the big recivers in the nfc south. Bryant,Colston,White and would help our d-line get some coverage sacks. Also, he could be moved to safety he he stuggles at corner. Fox love guys he can move around!

PY: Either way, I don't think the Panthers can go wrong with a Utah player. That's where they got Steve Smith and Jordan Gross and both have worked out very well.

There also was some decent support for defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert, quarterback Pat White and wide receiver Hakeem Nicks.

Five random thoughts

April, 22, 2009
4/22/09
1:50
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Lots of random thoughts running through my head as the draft approaches. Here are five of them.

 
  Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images
  Are the Bucs still interested in drafting QB Josh Freeman?

1. Once the Buccaneers signed quarterback Byron Leftwich, I thought they were out of the market for Josh Freeman. Now, I'm hearing strong rumblings that's not necessarily the case. It looks like Freeman remains at least a possibility for the Bucs.

2. If the Bucs draft Freeman, there will be a trickle-down effect on the other quarterbacks. Leftwich and Luke McCown would stay. Veteran backup Brian Griese probably already is on the market for a trade and there's no way he'd stay if Freeman joins the club. I'm also having a tough time seeing how the Bucs could keep Josh Johnson, a fifth-round pick last year, if Freeman comes to Tampa Bay. Could the Bucs turn around and trade Johnson? It's possible, but I can't see them getting more than a seventh-round pick in return.

3. I've been fielding a lot of questions about NFC South teams trading down in the first round. I think that's a very viable option for the Saints, Bucs and Falcons. They really won't know what scenarios are available until they're on the clock, but the Saints and Bucs are short on draft picks because of previous trades and it makes sense to reload their cupboards. Sitting at No. 24, the Falcons are in prime territory to get some offers to trade down. They probably still could get a player they like if they drop down to late in the first or early in the second round.

4. I know the Panthers have needs on defense and there's no telling what will happen with Julius Peppers. But let's say they stay put at No. 59 and North Carolina receiver Hakeem Nicks still is sitting there. Would the Panthers, who have a history of success with players with ties to the Carolinas, be able to pass up a guy who could be a nice successor to Muhsin Muhammad?

5. Is it too early to call Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff the best drafter in the NFC South? Maybe so. But, then again, Dimitroff got Matt Ryan, Sam Baker, Curtis Lofton, Harry Douglas and Chevis Jackson in last year's draft and they all have made significant contributions. Dimitroff hasn't had a swing and a miss -- yet.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

University of North Carolina wide receiver Hakeem Nicks will declare for the NFL draft after his junior season, the school announced.

Obviously, there are 31 other teams that may have interest in a quality receiver, but keep a close eye on the Panthers. With Muhsin Muhammad nearing the end of his career and uncertainty about if Dwayne Jarrett ever can be a starter, the Panthers need to groom someone to play opposite Steve Smith. Beyond good tools, Nicks also would bring one import intangible to the table.

Nicks is a local guy and Panthers owner Jerry Richardson always has been enthusiastic about pursuing players from the Carolinas.

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