NFC South: IMG Academy

Versatility should help Zack Martin

February, 20, 2014
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Zack Martin is going to his hometown this weekend, but that doesn’t mean he’s going home.

Aside from dinner with his family Saturday night, the trek to Indianapolis is purely a business trip. Martin will be taking part in the scouting combine and trying to help his draft stock.

The Notre Dame product already is considered one of the top offensive linemen in the draft. But there are differing schools of thought about which position Martin should play. He spent his college career at left tackle, but some teams envision him as a guard

“It doesn’t really matter to me,’’ Martin said earlier this week during a break in his combine training at IMG Academy. “I just want to be on an NFL team. I’m most comfortable at tackle, but I feel I could make the transition to guard fairly easily.’’

Martin started to make that transition at the Senior Bowl. Multiple teams asked to see Martin work at guard, so he spent part of his practice time there and played about 15 snaps at guard during the game.

“Zack can play tackle and he also can play inside,’’ IMG Academy director of football operations Chris Weinke said. “He’s one of the smarter guys I’ve been around. This kid can process information. He’s probably one of the quicker linemen I’ve been around. When you put him in a box, he’s as quick as they come and he’s powerful. He just has a great combination of quickness and power. He’s going to translate nicely, wherever they use him at the next level.’’

Martin could be on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' radar. The Bucs could be looking to overhaul their offensive line after it underachieved last season. The Bucs could be looking for upgrades at guard and tackle and Martin might be an answer at either position.

Most important assistant coaches

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Assistant coaches often are anonymous, but they can be a big part of the reason why a team succeeds are fails.

Let’s take a look at the NFC South assistants, not including coordinators, that could be most important in 2013:

Atlanta Falcons. I’m going with two here because the Falcons list Tim Lewis as their secondary coach and Joe Danna as their defensive backs coach. Both will have their hands full because the Falcons released cornerback Dunta Robinson and cornerback Brent Grimes left via free agency.

Veteran starter Asante Samuel and nickel back Robert McClain remain, but the Falcons suddenly have a lot of youth at cornerback. They used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford and Lewis and Danna will have to get those two up to speed quickly because the Falcons open their season against the pass-happy New Orleans Saints. It’s likely the Falcons will have one of the rookies starting and the other could compete with McClain for playing time.

Carolina Panthers. Aside from offensive coordinator Mike Shula, I think quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey could be the most important member of this staff. Dorsey is new to coaching. He had been working in Carolina’s scouting department the last two years, but was added to the staff when coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach in Cleveland and Shula was promoted.

But Dorsey, who had a journeyman career as an NFL quarterback, should be able to relate well to quarterback Cam Newton. Dorsey worked as an instructor at IMG Academy when Newton was doing his combine preparation there in 2011.

New Orleans Saints. You could make a strong case for any of the defensive assistants as the Saints try to overhaul a unit that ranked No. 32 in the league last year. But I’m going with offensive line coach Brett Ingalls.

After spending the last four years as the running backs coach, Ingalls was moved to offensive line coach after Aaron Kromer left to become the offensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears. Ingalls spent a large chunk of his time as a college assistant working with offensive linemen, so this territory is not foreign to him.

Ingalls has his work cut out for him. A tight salary-cap situation prevented the Saints from re-signing Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod. The Saints will go to camp with Charles Brown, Jason Smith and rookie Terron Armstead competing for the right to protect Drew Brees' blind side. Ingalls should be helped by the fact he has a strong interior line anchored by guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, but he needs to get solid play out of the left tackle spot.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This one is easy because everything in Tampa Bay this season is about quarterback Josh Freeman. He’s headed into the final year of his contract and this season will determine if he has a long-term future with the Bucs.

That’s why I’m going with quarterbacks coach John McNulty. He’s new to the Bucs, but has history with coach Greg Schiano. McNulty worked for Schiano at Rutgers. Schiano tried to hire McNulty to his staff last year, but was refused permission by Arizona, where McNulty was coaching the wide receivers.

McNulty has a reputation for having a bright offensive mind and it will be up to him and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan to help Freeman become more consistent.

Sharrif Floyd not ready to look back

February, 21, 2013
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Sharrif FloydCourtesy of IMG AcademySharrif Floyd, who endured a tough childhood in Philadelphia, is likely to be a first-round pick in April.
BRADENTON, Fla. -- On a sun-splashed Florida afternoon, Sharrif Floyd sat and chatted about where he’s been and where he’s going. It’s a remarkable story, one that should fill Floyd with a sense of accomplishment.

But that’s not the case.

“Someone told me recently to look in the mirror and reflect on everything," Floyd said. “But I’m not ready yet. It’s not time to reflect."

The time is coming, and Floyd knows it. The University of Florida defensive tackle is expected to be a first-round pick in April’s NFL draft, and that means he’ll get a contract worth millions of dollars. It’s so close that Floyd can see it, but he doesn’t want to jinx anything. He said he’s treating this week’s scouting combine as a way to seal his future.

If he does what he’s supposed to do in Indianapolis over the coming days, he’ll hear his name called in the first round in April. Only then will he pause to reflect.

Only then will he stop to think about how far he’s come from his early life in North Philadelphia. Sitting on the posh campus of IMG Academy, where he spent the past six weeks getting ready for the combine, was about as far from North Philadelphia as Floyd could get.

“I grew up in a bad neighborhood," Floyd said. “I didn’t have much coming up. My father was in and out of jail. Going to elementary school, I wore the same pair of clothes every day and I was picked on all the time. I wanted to drop out of elementary school."

Aside from sports, nothing came easy. Things weren’t easy on the home front.

“I think it’s fair to say I was abused growing up," Floyd said. “Pretty much every day or every other day. Extension cords, belts, broomsticks, bamboo sticks, whatever."

Floyd said that came from the man he grew up thinking was his father, but there’s another cruel twist involved.

“I found out when I was 16 that he wasn’t my real father," Floyd said. “Once I found that out, I moved out. Bounced around and stayed with my grandmother, stayed with my guidance counselor and stayed with some of the other football players. I got it together, hung in there, and I’ve gotten to where I need to be."

Floyd didn’t want to name the man he thought was his father and said he’s put distance on that period of his life.

“I don’t wake up thinking about it," Floyd said. “But I do use it to remind myself to just work hard, because that’s how I got out of a bad situation and I want to stay in a good situation. Once I got into football, I got a lot of good guidance and support."

The best advice of all might have come from Floyd’s middle school basketball coach, Michael Edwards, who told him his future might be in football. Floyd didn’t start playing football until the eighth grade. But once he started, he didn’t stop.

At George Washington High School, Floyd became one of the biggest recruits in Philadelphia history. Still, life wasn’t easy. Floyd was chosen for the U.S. Army All-American Combine in 2009, but he couldn’t afford the cost of the travel to San Antonio. Other students at his high school made brownies and sold them to make sure Floyd could go.

Floyd landed a scholarship to Florida and immediately earned a starting job. He moved to defensive end as a sophomore and back to defensive tackle last season. Floyd decided to pass up his final season at Florida to enter the draft.

That appears to be a smart move, because most draft experts and scouts rank Floyd as one of the top two or three defensive tackles in the draft. Most projections have him going in the middle of the first round. Coincidentally, the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, who both have major needs at defensive tackle, are sitting right in the middle of the first round.

“Sharrif is a guy that has all the tools," said IMG Academy director of football operations Chris Weinke, a former NFL quarterback. “He’s going to be a guy that can go in and cause some havoc early on. His quickness for a big man is unmatched. The combination of power and speed with that guy really separates himself at that position. I see him being a real force in the NFL."

Maybe he’ll be a force with the Panthers. Or maybe the Saints. Or maybe with some other NFL team.

It doesn’t matter to Floyd. He said he doesn’t have a particular dream scenario of what team he would like to go to. He just wants to be a first-round pick.

“Right now, I’m still grinding and focused on my goals," Floyd said. “Once this next goal is accomplished, you’ll probably see a little bit of excitement and a little bit of tears out of me, and I’ll reflect on where I came from. But I’m not there yet."

An alternative to Tony Gonzalez?

February, 20, 2013
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BRADENTON , Fla. -- As the Atlanta Falcons watch the workouts at the NFL scouting combine this week, it’s pretty much a certainty their coaches and scouts will be keeping a close eye on Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert.

The Falcons have been lobbying hard for Tony Gonzalez to return for one more season, but they have to be ready in case the veteran decides to retire. That’s the scenario in which Eifert could be a target with the 30th overall pick in the draft.

“Tyler is going to be a guy that’s going to step in and be an impact player, probably much easier than the typical player making this transition,’’ said Chris Weinke, director of football operations at IMG Academy, where Eifert has spent the past six weeks preparing for the combine.

[+] EnlargeTyler Eifert
Courtesy of IMG AcademyTight end Tyler Eifert said he feels that having basketball in his background will help him with his transition to the NFL.
Eifert and Stanford’s Zach Ertz are widely considered to be the top two tight ends in the draft and many mock drafts have them going late in the first round. Bringing back Gonzalez is Atlanta’s preference, but Eifert might be the best alternative.

“I thought he was a great player when he got here, but I think he’s even better now,’’ Weinke said. “What I mean by that is he’s got the God-given athletic ability, but he’s taken that and maximized it. Just his fluidity in his route running and his consistency catching the ball, what I’ve seen over the last few weeks is a guy that’s even better than when he came in here. The most important thing to me is the way he carries himself. This kid already is a pro.’’

If Gonzalez does decide to retire, it could disrupt Atlanta’s entire offense. Gonzalez has been an integral part of the passing game and few tight ends can duplicate his skill set. But Eifert is a reasonable facsimile and he already is fairly polished.

He had 50 catches for 685 yards and four touchdowns last season and had 140 catches for 1,840 yards and 11 touchdowns in his college career. Like Gonzalez and some other top tight ends, Eifert has basketball in his background.

His father, Greg, played basketball at Purdue in the 1980s. Eifert was a very good high school basketball player in Indiana.

“I think there are a lot of similarities,’’ Eifert said. “Just the way you use your body in basketball to get position. It’s similar to what a tight end has to do.’’

Early in his college career, Eifert wasn’t known as much of a blocker.

“That’s always been kind of my knock, that I can’t block,’’ Eifert said. “But I think I’ve gotten better at that and continue to improve. I think I’m a pretty good blocker now.’’

Eifert says he has no strong preference about which team drafts him. But he does have a clear vision of what he thinks his role will be in the NFL.

“As a complete tight end that can stay on the field for all three downs, that can make plays and stretch the defense,’’ Eifert said.

That could be exactly what the Falcons are looking for.

Forget Olympics, Hunt headed for NFL

February, 20, 2013
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- When he came to the United States from his native Estonia in 2008, Margus Hunt viewed America as the land of opportunity.

“My goal and vision was to be in the Olympics in 2012," Hunt said.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Hunt will be going to the National Football League in 2013, which may be an even more amazing accomplishment than if he had gone to the Olympics.

[+] EnlargeMargus Hunt
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY SportsMargus Hunt, a defensive end out of SMU, is headed to the NFL scouting combine this week.
The defensive end from SMU is being touted as a possible first-round pick in the April draft (he might even be a consideration for the Atlanta Falcons at No. 30 overall). IMG Academy director of football operations director Chris Weinke, who has been helping Hunt prepare for the scouting combine, said he expects his pupil to open some NFL eyes in Indianapolis.

“He’s a unique individual," Weinke said. “He’s a physical specimen. He’s going to test out as well as anyone tests out over there. He hasn’t played the game a ton. What I see from him is huge upside because of lack of experience. But he’s got the mentality that he’s going to do whatever it takes. He just needs to get into a system and continue to gain some experience and I think he’s going to be around for a long time."

Just getting drafted would be quite a story for a guy that never played high school football and didn’t start playing until the 2009 season at SMU.

“Growing up, I vaguely knew what the game was about," Hunt said. “I kind of knew there was a game out there like that, but that’s about all I knew."

Part of that was because American football doesn’t get a lot of attention in Estonia. But part of it was because Hunt’s passion was track and field. Hunt won all sorts of junior championships in the shot put, discus and hammer throw and he thought his path to the Olympics would run through Dallas.

SMU had dropped its men’s track program, but coach Dave Wollard was attempting to get it started again. Hunt enrolled at SMU on a part-time basis in 2008 and began working out privately with Wollard.

“After a while, nothing happened, so we had to find a different alternative," Hunt said. “My first option was to go to a different college altogether and work something out. But I really didn’t want to leave SMU. The football coaches had always seen me in the weight room and were always bugging me about trying out for the football team. Eventually, coach (June) Jones agreed to let me have a tryout."

Jones must have seen plenty of potential in that tryout because he turned around and gave Hunt a football scholarship. That move paid off nicely for the Mustangs.

Hunt, 6-foot-8 and 277 pounds, recorded 31 tackles, eight sacks, 11.5 tackles for a loss, forced two fumbles and blocked three kicks in his final season.

The one knock is Hunt doesn’t have a lot of football experience. But Weinke said that shouldn’t be viewed as a negative.

“I’ve seen him develop a lot since he got here," Weinke said. “He’s gotten a lot better technique wise. He’s still not a finished product and that’s what should be exciting to teams that are looking at him because there still is so much upside."
BRADENTON, Fla. -- When you talk to Sheldon Richardson, it’s a waste of time to beat around the bush.

Richardson
You can make subtle implications that he’s "outspoken" or "confident," but Richardson will take you right to the point.

"I’m cocky, to most people," Richardson said Monday after a workout at IMG Academy, where he’s been preparing for the NFL’s scouting combine.

Yes, the Missouri defensive tackle is the person who said Georgia played "old man football." He’s also the one who -- before the Tigers played the Longhorns in 2011 -- went on a rant about how he hates Texas.

"It was just a comment that I made because a lot of my teammates were from Texas and they were reminiscing about guys they played against in high school and how great they are now, and I didn’t like that too much," Richardson said. "It was praising the other team too much. When we’re out on the field, you can’t be friends. It wasn’t Colt McCoy at quarterback. It was his little brother [Case] and we got after him defensively."

Missouri defeated Texas 17-5.

"I'm myself," Richardson said. "I really don’t see why guys sit there and praise other coaches and other teams when it’s totally different in your own locker room. Why sit there and say, 'That’s a great team' when it’s not?' "

Maybe Richardson has earned the right to say what’s on his mind. In his final two college seasons, he recorded 112 tackles, six sacks and had 18.5 tackles for a loss. Most scouts and draft experts list him as one of the top two or three defensive tackles in a class that’s particularly deep at that position. If he lasts until the middle of the first round, Richardson would be an obvious target for the New Orleans Saints or the Carolina Panthers.

"I’ll just say this -- he’s a grown man," IMG Academy director of football operations Chris Weinke said. "In terms of his ability to make every move, he makes it seamlessly. Our defensive line coaches have just been enamored with his explosiveness. He’s going to be a guy that teams are going to look at to be an impact player from the get-go."

He’ll also be a guy with plenty of confidence.

"I’m me," Richardson said. "I’ll just go out and do what I’ve been doing. I’ve got a lot of film and I’ve made a lot of tackles. I like where I stand going into the combine. I feel like my talent, my confidence and work ethic put me ahead of anyone in this draft."

Montee Ball could be 'special' RB

February, 19, 2013
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Montee Ball has heard the talk and, contrary to what you might expect, he likes it.

“They say I’m not special," the University of Wisconsin running back said Monday after a pre-combine workout at IMG Academy. “They say I’m not especially fast. They say I’m not especially big. Well, fine, I’ll take that as a compliment. They’re not tearing me apart. They’re just saying that I don’t do one thing special. So what? If you’re pretty good all the way around, then you can be a very good running back."

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Mary Langenfeld/USA TODAY SportsMontee Ball rushed for 3,753 yards and 55 touchdowns during his final two seasons at Wisconsin.
Ball is talking about the draft gurus and scouts that say he’s not a first-round pick. Most say he’ll go in the second or third round, which is a little surprising for a guy who scored more touchdowns (83) than anyone in the history of college football (FBS).

At 5-11 and 212 pounds, Ball is too small to be the traditional power back and too big to be a pure speed back. But, if you want to stereotype him, Ball has a couple of suggestions.

“Curtis Martin and Terrell Davis,’’ Ball said. “People said the same thing about them. They didn’t do anything special. Well, they both ended up having pretty good careers.’’

Ball has a point. He ran for more than 1,800 yards in each of his final two college seasons while scoring 55 rushing touchdowns. As a junior he caught 24 passes and scored six touchdowns.

“The thing that surprise me most about him is the way he catches the ball,’’ IMG director of football operations Chris Weinke, a former NFL quarterback, said. “Coming from Wisconsin, I wasn’t expecting him to be very polished at catching the ball. But he caught the ball effortlessly. He just looks really natural doing it.’’

Wisconsin veered off its normal offense in 2011 when Russell Wilson was the quarterback. The Badgers got Ball involved as a receiver out of the backfield. But Wisconsin went back to its old ways last season and Ball caught only 10 passes.

“I’ve always been able to catch the ball,’’ Ball said. “I did it in high school and I caught it when it came my way in college, but it’s something I feel I can do a lot more of on the next level.’’

Let’s play a little game of connect the dots here. There is one NFC South team that seems to be crying out for a running back like Ball this offseason.

That’s the Atlanta Falcons. Michael Turner is getting older and could be a salary-cap casualty. The Falcons are high on the potential of Jacquizz Rodgers, but he may not be big enough to handle the rushing load all by himself.

Put someone like Ball in the same backfield as Rodgers and the Falcons suddenly could spice up a running game that wasn’t very good last season.

“I don’t have any dream scenario of what team I want to go to or what kind of offense I want to be a part of,’’ Ball said. “I just want to go somewhere and get a chance to be a three-down back and show what I can do.’’

What can Ball do on the next level?

“I think he can be a very good NFL running back,’’ Weinke said. “I think he’s going to show people at the combine he’s a little faster than they thought. We already know he can run between the tackles and change directions. And he can catch the ball and block. Consistent is the first word I think of when I think of him.’’

Maybe that consistency will be what makes Ball special in the NFL.

Who might fit in the NFC South?

February, 18, 2013
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I just returned to NFC South headquarters after spending most of the day watching draft prospects prepare for the combine at IMG Academy.

I started off with this item on former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o because he obviously has been one of the biggest stories of the last month or so and that will only continue when he gets to the combine. I don’t know if Te’o will end up in the NFC South or not, but I did see several prospects I think could be natural fits in the division.

I sat down with Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, Wisconsin running back Montee Ball and SMU defensive end Margus Hunt. I’ve got a tape recorder filled with interviews to transcribe and I’ll be writing about each of those players in the coming days.

In the meantime, why don’t you have some fun and discuss in the comments section below where in the NFC South you can see Floyd, Richardson, Eifert, Ball and Hunt landing. In a couple of cases, I can see potential targets for more than one NFC South team.

Manti Te'o ready for NFL combine

February, 18, 2013
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o will be the center of attention when the NFL scouting combine opens later this week and most of the NFC South teams are likely to be watching closely.

Te'o
Te’o has been in the headlines since it was revealed that he was the victim of what he said was a hoax that led him to have an online relationship with a woman that did not exist.

The story came to light soon after Te’o arrived at IMG Academy to begin preparing for the combine.

“He missed precisely one day,’’ said former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke, the director of football operations at IMG Academy where Te’o has been preparing for the combine. “He’s gone about his business and been the same guy all along. I really admire that because a lot of guys his age would not be able to handle this as well as he has. I haven’t seen any signs of it being a distraction and I expect him to go up to Indianapolis and have a great combine.’’

Those closest to Te’o said he’s shown no signs of being distracted by the off-field drama.

“Manti has been the same Manti I went to college with,’’ said former Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, who also has been working out at IMG. “He left to do the Katie Couric interview for one day and I think he was back that same night. He’s been out on the field working just like he’s always worked. I’ve tried to be there for him, but I don’t know that he’s needed all that much help because he’s such a strong person to begin with.’’

Teams are likely to grill Te’o about his situation during his individual interviews at the combine. Most draft gurus have been projecting Te’o as a likely first-round pick.

The Saints, Buccaneers and Panthers all pick in the middle of the first round and the Atlanta Falcons are scheduled to pick No. 30 overall. New Orleans needs some stability in its linebacker corps and Tampa Bay could be looking to add a linebacker because Quincy Black suffered a major injury last season. Carolina doesn’t appear to have much need at linebacker, but it remains to be seen if veteran Jon Beason will be a salary-cap casualty.

It may be a long shot that Te’o is still available when the Falcons pick. But, knowing how thorough the Falcons are, I’m sure they’ll do their homework on Te’o just in case.

Pre-combine scouting trip

February, 18, 2013
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I’m about to begin my annual pilgrimage down to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. To do some pre-combine stories.

IMG has more than 30 prospects who have been doing its combine preparation, which is run by former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke. Ironically, or maybe no coincidence whatsoever, Weinke spent most of his career with Carolina and the Panthers have used their last two first-round picks on players who have trained at IMG (Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly).

I’ll try to pin Weinke down and see if I can get an early read on who Carolina’s top pick will be this year. I’m only kidding – sort of – on that part, but I’ll be getting scouting reports from Weinke and talking to several players, and that will lead to several stories in the coming days. I’ll be back later on after watching the workouts and doing interviews.

Here’s the list of prospects who have been working out at the facility, according to IMG Academy:

NFC South afternoon update

February, 5, 2013
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Time for a run through of some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Jay Adams writes that most of the early mock drafts have the Falcons taking a tight end at No. 30. That could happen. But, as I wrote last week, the Falcons are lobbying Tony Gonzalez to come back for one more season and I think there’s a decent chance of that happening.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Now that the Panthers have finished making changes, Joseph Person takes a look at the complete updated coaching staff. The Panthers made changes in several areas, but I think the key ones were at offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach because this franchise is all about quarterback Cam Newton. There’s no doubt the Panthers will miss offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who left to become the head coach in Cleveland. But I think they did a nice job making sure Newton has as much continuity as possible. They promoted Mike Shula from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. They made Ken Dorsey, who had been working in their scouting department, the quarterbacks coach. Dorsey had worked with Newton at IMG Academy before he was hired by the Panthers.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The company that runs the Mercedes-Benz Superdome said it will hire an outside party to investigate what caused the power outage during the Super Bowl. Probably a good idea to let a neutral party get to the bottom of this. If New Orleans is going to host future Super Bowls, the NFL needs to have confidence that a similar problem isn’t going to occur.

Rob Ryan and Romeo Crennel reportedly are the two most likely candidates to become the new defensive coordinator. Both have history in the 3-4 scheme that coach Sean Payton wants to switch to. I think either one would be a good hire. Ryan’s had success as a defensive coordinator. Crennel hasn’t had much luck as a head coach, but has a good reputation as a coordinator.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Quarterback Josh Freeman makes an appearance in ESPN The Magazine’s Music issue. The photo is at least worth a look.

In this radio interview, Warren Sapp said his daughter will make his presentation speech at his Hall of Fame induction this summer.
Luke KuechlyAP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtRookie linebacker Luke Kuechly has a league-best three games with 15 or more tackles.


There’s a lot of talk out there about who should be the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Andrew Luck? Robert Griffin III? Russell Wilson? Doug Martin?

You could go on for days with that one. But there's another, less-talked-about question out there.

Who should be the Defensive Rookie of the Year?

I say that one’s much clearer than the offensive award. Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is the best defensive rookie in the NFL.

Think about it for a second and see if you can come up with someone better than Kuechly, who has flown under the radar, mainly because Carolina’s season has left the Panthers largely ignored.

I look at players such as Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, Denver’s Derek Wolfe, Green Bay’s Casey Hayward, Minnesota’s Harrison Smith, Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David and Mark Barron, New England’s Chandler Jones, St. Louis’ Janoris Jenkins and Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict and nobody blows me away.

Kuechly does.

Amid the rubble that has been Carolina’s disappointing season, Kuechly has been a huge bright spot -- and he seems to be getting better as the season goes on. He had a career-high 16 tackles in Sunday’s victory against Atlanta.

His 130 tackles (we’re using press-box stats, not revised numbers from coaches) lead the league. Kuechly has a shot to be the first rookie since Patrick Willis in 2007 to lead the league in tackles and to at least challenge Willis’ record for tackles by a rookie (174).

Not bad for a guy who freely admits he’s still getting used to his new job.

“The theme of what I’ve learned from the older guys since I’ve been here is that it’s a job now and you have to treat it like one," Kuechly said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. “You’re not in college anymore. You don’t leave practice and go back to the dorm and hang with your buds. You put in a full day here and you go home and rest. You have to take care of yourself mentally and physically because, at this level, you have to stay on top of everything."

He's always around the ball somehow, some way. When he gets a little bit more wisdom, it's going to be amazing what he's going to do.

-- Steve Smith, on Luke Kuechly
The main thing Kuechly has been staying on top of has been whomever has the ball. He leads the league with three games recording at least 15 tackles. No other player has more than one such game. Go back and watch any Carolina game and Kuechly always seems to be around the ball.

“The guy he reminds me of -- that's had this much success so quickly -- would be Dan Morgan," veteran receiver Steve Smith said. “Very smart. He's always around the ball somehow, some way. When he gets a little bit more wisdom, it's going to be amazing what he's going to do."

I like Smith’s comparison of Kuechly to Morgan a lot. That’s mainly because that’s the first thing I thought of when I first watched Kuechly go through a workout and interviewed him at IMG Academy as he was preparing for the scouting combine last February.

After the interview, I talked to IMG Academy director of football operations Chris Weinke, who came in the same 2001 Carolina draft class as Morgan and Smith. When I mentioned the comparison, Weinke nodded in agreement and said, “They’re both all about football."

Carolina fans might not like the comparison of Kuechly to Morgan, but it’s meant as a huge compliment. Morgan is a bit of a tragic figure because persistent injuries prevented his career from truly blossoming and cut it way too short. But when he was on the field, Morgan was as good as any linebacker.

I look at Kuechly and I see what Morgan could have been.

Apparently, so does Smith.

“He just makes plays," Smith said. “He's a young guy that came in, didn't come in entitled, real eager to learn."

Much like Morgan, Kuechly has a low-key personality. He is quiet and exceedingly polite -- until you put him in pads and have people run at him. That’s when Kuechly tackles anything that moves.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Kuechly led the nation in tackles in two of his three seasons at Boston College and finished second in the other season. That’s why the Panthers used the ninth overall pick in the draft on him.

The Panthers opened the season with Jon Beason in the middle and Kuechly on the weak side. That lasted four games before Beason went down with an injury and Kuechly shifted to the middle, the position he played in college, and took over the role of the leader of the defense.

Carolina’s defense has drawn a lot of criticism this season. But there has been a noticeable difference since Kuechly moved to the middle. In the first four games, the Panthers allowed an average of 393.8 yards. In the past nine games, the average has dropped to 328.9 yards, which ranks eighth in the league during that span.

“You see his leadership,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “You see his maturity as far as leading the defense. You see how he rallies his teammates, how he handles his teammates. How his teammates work with him, how he works with them.’’

If it continues, you could see a Defensive Rookie of the Year in Carolina.

Around the NFC South

October, 5, 2012
10/05/12
9:04
AM ET
Let's take a run through the Friday morning headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Receiver Julio Jones said he’s fine after playing with a laceration on his hand against Carolina. Jones refused to blame his hand for playing a role in a dropped pass. But drops have been an issue for Jones so far this season. He leads the team with four.

When asked to rate the performance of the defense so far, cornerback Asante Samuel gave it a five out of a possible 10. I think he’s being a little too critical. This defense has been very good at times, but it hasn’t always been consistent. Maybe a little urging from a veteran like Samuel will help bring the consistency.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The pass rush had a huge game last week with seven sacks. Coach Ron Rivera said there’s no reason the pass rush can’t have a big impact every week. He’s right. Carolina has talent up front, particularly Charles Johnson. Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson is coming to town Sunday and the Panthers can help themselves if they can bring consistent pressure.

Although Wilson is an unknown to most of the Panthers, rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly knows him well. While playing at Boston College, Kuechly faced Wilson, who was playing for North Carolina State, three times. The two also did their pre-combine training together at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

It’s starting to appear likely receiver Lance Moore will miss Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury. Moore missed his second straight day of practice Thursday. The Saints re-signed receiver Greg Camarillo to provide depth.

Adam Schefter reports that suspended coach Sean Payton will attend Sunday’s game, but general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt will not. Vitt previously has said he doesn’t want to be a distraction for the Saints. The NFL granted quarterback Drew Brees’ request to let all three men attend a game in which he will attempt to break Johnny Unitas’ record of throwing a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Dory LeBlanc writes that Tampa Bay’s bye week is coming at the perfect time. Usually, teams like to have their bye a bit later. But, with a new coaching staff, the Bucs are still adjusting and the bye gives them some time to make some adjustments.

Gary Shelton writes that coach Greg Schiano is a work in progress. That’s very true. We’ve only seen his team play four games. The Bucs are 1-3 and Schiano has angered some people around the league. But there also have been signs of hope from his team and the real measure of Schiano will be if his team gets better as the season goes on.

Around the NFC South

September, 6, 2012
9/06/12
9:54
AM ET
Time for a Thursday morning run through the headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan says he believes second-year pro Akeem Dent is ready to take over as the starter at middle linebacker. He better be ready. After parting ways with Lofa Tatupu, the Falcons really don’t have any other options. Veteran Mike Peterson, who also plays the outside, could step into the middle for a few games. But the Falcons need Dent to be a steady force in the middle for this defense to work the way they want.

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon gets it. Check out this column by Daniel Cox in which Weatherspoon brings up his chances of having a Pro Bowl season. This isn’t the typical “I want to go to the Pro Bowl’’ statement. It’s Weatherspoon saying that, if he’s in the discussion, it probably will be because the Falcons are having a good season. That’s what you want to hear from the guy that’s expected to be the defensive leader.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Although the Democratic National Convention’s big Thursday night event has been moved out of Bank of America Stadium due to the threat of bad weather, the Panthers said they’re happy they left early for Florida. They say setting up at IMG Academy is like having a few extra days of training camp before they open their season at Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Tom Sorensen has a very nice column on receiver Steve Smith, who is working to raise money to buy shoes for needy children. Smith has done some great things for others during his career. He’s also had some ugly incidents that, at times, have overshadowed the good. Call it maturity or whatever you want, but Smith seems to be approaching a point where the good consistently outweighs the bad.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The last time New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees faced Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III was in a football video game before the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. Brees won that game with a last-second touchdown pass to Lance Moore. File that away and see if history repeats itself Sunday.

This is Griffin’s first NFL game and the Saints don’t know what to expect from him and Washington’s offense. But linebacker Curtis Lofton said the best thing a defense can do with any rookie quarterback is to put the pressure on him.

Temporary New Orleans coach Aaron Kromer said linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith could play Sunday if they’re able to gain a temporary restraining order on their suspensions. I have no doubt Smith, who went through training camp and the preseason, could step right back into the lineup. But Vilma was working on rehabbing his knee before his suspension began and it’s unclear how healthy that knee is.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Defensive back Ronde Barber isn’t crazy about the notion that luck is involved in him making his 200th career start on Sunday. He’s right. In the NFL, you create your own luck. You have to be good and, if you’re able to avoid serious injury for that long, it probably has more to do with taking care of yourself than with luck.

I don’t know if it will change anything, but a Tampa Bay fan drew laughter when asking NFL commissioner Roger Goodell why the league doesn’t drop its “archaic’’ television blackout policy during a question-and-answer session Wednesday. We should get word Thursday afternoon if Sunday’s home opener will be aired on local television. Unless the Bucs have sold 9,000 tickets since Friday, that probably isn’t going to happen.

Panthers have been studying Rutgers

September, 6, 2012
9/06/12
7:32
AM ET
BRADENTON, Fla. -- When you have to open your season against a coaching staff that never has been together before in the National Football League, there’s only one thing to do.

Go back and watch film of Rutgers in recent years. It may sound unusual, but it really is what makes the most sense.

Schiano
That’s what Carolina coach Ron Rivera and his staff have done as they prepare for Sunday’s season opener against Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano, the former Rutgers coach.

Rivera, who made his own debut as an NFL head coach last year, faced the Bucs twice last season but admits he expects Schiano’s team to look dramatically different from what predecessor Raheem Morris put on the field last season.

“You take what they did in the preseason and you try to study that and then you look at where they’ve come from,’’ Rivera said Wednesday after the Panthers worked out at IMG Academy. “Knowing what coach Schiano’s done and what he’s been about at Rutgers, I’d like to think that we have an idea. It’s going to be hard. Honestly, I’d like to open up with somebody we’re familiar with. But, unfortunately, it’s the way it is, so we get ready for it and we react to it and just get ready for them. The big thing is we just have to react. We have to be prepared to make decisions and changes.’’

The Panthers also have studied the New York Giants’ offense because that’s the system in which Tampa Bay coordinator Mike Sullivan was groomed.

“It’s tough,’’ Carolina middle linebacker Jon Beason said. “You look at their offensive coordinator. I think he was quarterbacks coach for the Giants last year, so you’ve got to watch some film there. You see there’s some carryover or some common concepts as far as the running game or the passing game. Then, you’ve got to go with what you saw in the preseason. It makes it tough, but you’ve got to expect the unexpected. They’re going to have some wrinkles and so will we.’’

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