NFC South: Hot Button

Panthers on path for playoffs?

December, 28, 2011
In their latest installment of Hot Button, Ashley Fox and John Clayton debate which non-playoff team is poised to get to the postseason next year.

Fox takes the Eagles and that’s not a stretch. There’s no question the Eagles have all sorts of talent. But they underachieved and there’s no guarantee they won’t do it again next season.

Clayton says the Carolina Panthers are set up to head to the playoffs next season. I’m with Clayton on this one. Clayton compares the Panthers to the Detroit Lions of a year ago. The Lions finished strong last season and have made the playoffs this season.

The Panthers also are finishing their season with some momentum. They’ve shown they can score with anybody with Cam Newton as their quarterback. They’ve had some issues on defense, but middle linebacker Jon Beason and defensive tackle Ron Edwards should return from injuries. That will help and I anticipate the Panthers will use a few draft picks and sign a few free agents on the defensive side of the ball.

Will that be enough to get them to the playoffs? I see two obstacles in the way -- the Saints and the Falcons. They already are playoff teams and I don’t see either one of them falling apart next season. But Newton has given the Panthers something they’ve never really had before. That’s a dynamic offense.

If Carolina can just put together a decent defense, the Panthers could be playoff contenders next season.

Hot Button: Where's the NFC South?

August, 30, 2011
In their latest Hot Button debate, John Clayton and Ashley Fox argue about who will win the NFC.

Clayton takes the Green Bay Packers and Fox says it will be the Philadelphia Eagles. I’d say both are legitimate contenders, but what about the NFC South?

Atlanta’s coming off a 13-3 season and added Julio Jones and Ray Edwards. New Orleans won the Super Bowl in the 2009 season. Sure, the Saints slipped a bit last year when they lost to Seattle in the playoffs.

But their two biggest flaws were exposed in that game. They worked hard this offseason to correct those problems, drafting Mark Ingram and signing Darren Sproles to make sure they have depth at running back, and they added defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin to help solidify the run defense.

I think either the Saints or Falcons could overtake the Packers and Eagles. By the way, if you click the Hot Button link above, there’s an attached poll where you can vote for who you think will win the NFC. The Saints and Falcons are on there, but they’re not getting a lot of votes. Maybe you can change that.

NFC South programming notes

July, 1, 2011
A few NFC South programming notes as we get ready for Fourth of July weekend.

A bit later Friday, we’ll continue our series in which we look at the Hall of Fame chances for some current NFC South players. The next installment will feature a look at two veteran defensive backs -- New Orleans safety Darren Sharper and Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber. If you haven’t voted for one of them in our recent Call It poll, consider this your final reminder to do so.

Speaking of the Hall of Fame and polls, jump over to SportsNation, where there is a whole package of polls about current and former players with a chance at the Hall of Fame. One of them includes Sharper. Carolina fans, if you can forgive him for leaving, Julius Peppers’ name appears on a few of the polls.

We’ll also have an item later today on how frequently NFC South teams used six offensive linemen last season. I think you’ll be somewhat surprised to see two teams used the formation more often than just about any other teams in the league.

On Tuesday, we’ll have our weekly Hot Button debate on our main NFL page. This debate is about if a team would be better off signing Plaxico Burress or Tiki Barber. I took Barber and made a case that he can help a team -- maybe even one in the NFC South, although I think that’s a long shot.

Due to the holiday weekend, we won’t be doing the NFC South chat this Friday. Also, I’ll be out next week, so we won’t have another chat until July 15 and, hopefully, the labor situation will be settled by then and we’ll have some real football to talk about. Things may be a little quiet next week, but our editors will pop up some headlines and video and you might see an item or two from a guest blogger. Heck, you might even see analysis pieces on how all four teams stand coming out of the lockout. I’ve got them written already and we can hit the button on them if we get word that the lockout officially is coming to an end. I’ll be back at it July 11.

NFC South programming notes

June, 27, 2011
Let’s take a quick look at the week ahead in the NFC South.

It’s “Best of the NFL’’ week on and you’ll see all sorts of best throughout our site. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we’ll have lists of bests in all sorts of categories for NFC South players, coaches and franchises on this blog. As part of the “best’’ theme we also will have our Power Rankings on the 10 best overall players in the NFL. I’ve seen the results of our voting, but am sworn to secrecy until they’re unveiled Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, I’ll be an hour or so south of NFC South Blog Headquarters. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by quarterback Josh Freeman, will be holding their version of a minicamp at IMG Academies. The NFLPA also will be holding its version of the rookie symposium at IMG Academies and it initially looked like I’d be covering that. But the NFLPA has decided not to open the event to the media and access to players will be limited to a very brief period after the event is over. It looks like our television side will handle the rookie event and share some video with us and I’ll focus on the Buccaneers.

I’ll also be working ahead on some future columns for down the road. I’ve been enlisted to take a turn in our Hot Button series. The debate is going to be on if Plaxico Burress or Tiki Barber has a better chance of helping a team this year. Let me be clear, I don’t think either of those guys is going to land in the NFC South this year, but I will be making the case on which one of them I think can have a bigger impact on a team somewhere else.

I’ll also continue on our series that looks at the chances of some current NFC South players eventually getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We’ve already examined Drew Brees and Tony Gonzalez. Next on the list will be a combination piece where I’ll take New Olreans’ Darren Sharper and Tampa Bay’s Ronde Barber and explore the possibility of them landing in the Hall of Fame.

Other than that, we’ll just wait to see what happens on the labor front and be ready to react if the lockout is lifted.
In this Hot Button debate, John Clayton and I throw out possible landing spots for potential free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Clayton throws out the Houston Texans. I go with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, even though there’s been a lot of speculation Asomugha could end up in the NFC East.

Here’s part of what I wrote in making the case the Bucs could be a player for one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
Tampa Bay isn't known as a big spender, but the Bucs are in a position to change that. Assuming that there's a new labor agreement in place, and that it will have a salary cap, the Bucs are going to be looking at the salary-cap floor. They currently have only about $62 million committed toward the 2011 salary cap. That's the lowest figure of any team. We don't know what the minimum will be yet, but the Bucs are going to have to spend some money to get there.

Ownership just might be willing to do that. The Bucs have an attendance issue. Even as the team improved and finished a surprising 10-6 last season, Raymond James Stadium failed to sell out once. One reason for fan apathy is that some feel the ownership won't spend big money to put a better product on the field.

Landing Asomugha could put an end to that perception, and he also would improve the product on the field. The Bucs are in good shape on offense with quarterback Josh Freeman, receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount. They've invested a lot in their defensive line in the past two drafts.

But there's an issue in the secondary. Aqib Talib is talented and young, and he's the team's best cornerback. But he's also been plagued by off-field troubles and his future is uncertain. Asomugha is more talented and proven than Talib. He also comes without headaches. Throw him out there with veteran Ronde Barber on the other side and let young corners E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis develop behind them.

And why should Asomugha want to come to Tampa Bay? The Bucs are on the rise, and he could be part of the kind of team he never had in Oakland. He could live in a place with great weather, play in a stadium with a great natural-grass field and not have to pay state income tax, because Florida doesn't have one. The Bucs have one other card up the sleeve -- coach Raheem Morris. Put him and Asomugha in a room and he may sign a contract within an hour or two. Morris is charming, charismatic and a former defensive backs coach.

This would be a perfect fit for the player and team.

Check out the entire package over on our NFL home page. We've even got a SportsNation poll on where Asomugha might land. At last check, the Bucs were a strong contender in that poll.
One thing I wanted to get to Tuesday, but didn't -- thanks to the NFL schedule release and some other projects -- was this Hot Button debate. So let's turn our attention there now.

It’s between colleagues John Clayton and James Walker and they're asking which class of 2008 quarterback, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan or Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, will get to a Super Bowl first. There’s also an attached SportsNation poll where you can vote for Ryan or Flacco.

Let’s be clear that Clayton and Walker are friends of mine. Clayton’s been a mentor and Walker has become a good friend since we’ve been teammates on the ESPN blog network. I respect the opinions of both of these guys.

But I’m going to side with Clayton on this one. He says Ryan will win the race and cites Baltimore’s residence in the AFC as the reason because Flacco has to compete against some great quarterbacks and great teams. I see it as a little more than that.

No knock on Flacco, who is a very solid quarterback. But I think Ryan is flat-out better, even if their statistics are virtually the same. I think Ryan’s the kind of talent who could carry an offense to the Super Bowl.

I think it’s time for the Falcons to start letting him do that. While Ryan’s first three years have been very good, the Falcons have yet to totally turn him loose. Part of that is because they have a very good running game and like to keep balance in the offense.

But I think, when coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff sat down after the season and really thought about how to take the next step, they had to start thinking about putting more on Ryan’s shoulders.

They weren’t happy with their production of “explosive plays,’’ -- plays that go for 20 yards or more. Well, there’s a way to solve that. Let Ryan throw some more passes downfield. Let him work out of the shotgun formation more often and let him run the no-huddle offense more often. Every time Ryan runs the no-huddle it seems to work quite nicely. Also, stop wasting time having Ryan roll out. He doesn’t really like it, it’s not what he does best and it doesn’t accomplish much. Oh, and it also might be nice to add a speed receiver in the draft to go with Roddy White.

Walker’s argument in Flacco’s favor is that Ryan has yet to win a postseason game. That’s true and that knock is going to be with him until he wins one.

There’s one way to erase that knock. Simply turn Ryan loose and he’ll start winning postseason games and that’s how you get to a Super Bowl.