NFC South: Jacquizz Rodgers

While rookie Devonta Freeman generated a lot of buzz for the Atlanta Falcons this offseason, another running back quietly went about his business in preparation for the 2014 campaign.

Jacquizz Rodgers, entering his fourth season, isn't worried about being overlooked in the backfield equation, with Freeman being touted as a possible every-down back and Steven Jackson already the starter. Fan-favorite Antone Smith also is a part of the group and undrafted rookie Jerome Smith hopes to make an impression.

Rodgers
"There are no concerns," Rodgers said, speaking about the addition of Freeman. "You've got to come and compete every year. It just makes the group better, bringing more guys. It makes everybody work harder at practice. We're going to work collectively. We're going to learn from each other. And we're going to make each other better each and every day."

The Falcons had to think toward the future with Jackson ready to turn 31 next month. That is why they drafted Freeman in the fourth round out of Florida State.

"He's a good running back," Rodgers said of his new teammate. "Comes from a winning program. Fast guy: a guy that's willing to learn, willing to learn from the older guys. He's a good piece to our puzzle in the backfield."

Rodgers has value as an all-purpose back, so he should be part of the rotation entering the regular season. So what happens when Freeman starts taking touches from Rodgers once the season starts?

"It wouldn't bother me because you know I'm going to go out there and work hard, and just continue to do what I've got to do," Rodgers said. "I know when I got my shot, I'm going to go all out."

Rodgers compiled 1,248 all-purpose yards last season, including 575 kickoff return yards. The addition of Devin Hester as a return man will keep Rodgers from being as a effective on special teams, but he will likely stay in the mix as insurance.

Rodgers remains a threat as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and a player capable of creating mismatches. Plus, he brings another aspect that a rookie such as Freeman might have a hard time with initially.

"Blocking, I take very good pride in that," Rodgers said. "As a running back, if you want to be on this field, that's one thing that you've got to be able to do."

Rodgers is capable of a lot. That is why he should have a place on the field this season.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons addressed another need with their first of two fourth-round draft picks by selecting Florida State running back Devonta Freeman.

Freeman (5-8, 206) left college early after winning the national title. The Miami native received a third-round grade from the draft advisory board.

"I took a visit up there one time and I was like,'I want this to be my home, man,'" Freeman said Saturday via teleconference. "I just loved the atmosphere. It just reminded me so much of Miami. ... I was just praying to God. God is so good. I'm just so blessed.

"I'm going to work. I promise that. I promise I'm going to go to work every single day."

The Falcons needed another body in the backfield after Jason Snelling abruptly decided to retire. It left the team with aging veteran Steven Jackson as the primary ballcarrier with Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith behind. The Falcons finished last in the league in rushing last season.

Freeman has some elusive ability. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he averaged 3.9 yards before first contact per rush and gained more than 67 percent of his rushing yards before contact.

Freeman appeared in 39 games during three seasons at Florida State, starting 26 contests, including his final 19 appearances. He racked up 2,255 yards with 30 touchdowns on 404 carries and caught 47 passes for 475 yards and a touchdown.

Freeman said he wanted to follow in the footsteps of another Florida State back who went on to play for the Falcons: Warrick Dunn.

"I want to be great, like he was," Freeman said of Dunn. "I want to give to the community. I want to speak to the community. ... I'm just happy to be a part of the Atlanta Falcons."

Here's a story detailing some of the obstacles Freeman overcame as a child and some of the people who helped him along the way, including one famous rapper.
Atlanta Falcons running back Jacquizz Rodgers was supposed to count $692,750 against the 2014 salary cap. Now, his cap number has grown to $1,436,750.

Rodgers
Rodgers was one of a handful of players from the 2011 draft class who were awarded with the Proven Performance Escalator, according to the NFLPA records. Players qualify for this increase in Year 4 of their contracts if they participate in a minimum of 35 percent of their club’s offensive or defensive plays in two of his first three regular seasons or a cumulative average of at least 35 percent of the plays over all three seasons.

Rodgers, a former fifth-round pick from Oregon State, saw his base salary grow from $645,000 to $1.389 million. The cap number factors in prorated signing bonus.

Now, the Falcons are one of seven teams with three running backs with cap numbers exceeding $1 million in ’14 with Rodgers, Steven Jackson ($4,166,666) and Jason Snelling ($1,733, 334). But remember, Rodgers' value extends beyond what he does in the backfield. He is the team’s kick returner and compiled a team-leading 1,248 all-purpose yards this past season.

The Falcons’ cap situation is sure to fluctuate from now until the start of the new league year (March 11) based on cuts, extensions, and possible re-signings and restructurings. Players typically don’t get released until after the Super Bowl and there is no immediate rush for teams to re-sign their own free agents.

Here are the cap numbers for the players under contract for 2014, with Rodgers’ figure updated and then retiring Tony Gonzalez ($8.75 million) omitted.

Quarterbacks
Matt Ryan $17,500,000
Dominique Davis $570,668
Sean Renfree $506,474

Running backs
Steven Jackson $4,166,666
Jason Snelling $1,733,334
Jacquizz Rodgers $1,436,750
Antone Smith $762,500
Josh Vaughan $645,000
Bradie Ewing $616,048
Patrick DiMarco $570,00

Wide receivers
Roddy White $6,325,000
Julio Jones $5,149,375
Harry Douglas $3,645,833
Darius Johnson $495,000

Tight ends
Levine Toilolo $570,146
Adam Nissley $496,000
Andrew Szczerba $495,000

Offensive linemen
Justin Blalock $7,660,000
Sam Baker $6,250,000
Garrett Reynolds $1,578,750
Peter Konz $978,709
Lamar Holmes $703,400
Harland Gunn $570,000
Ryan Schraeder $495,666
Terren Jones $495,000

Defensive ends
Osi Umenyiora $4,750,000
Kroy Biermann $3,583,334
Cliff Matthews $656,750
Jonathan Massaquoi $612,215
Malliciah Goodman $594,272
Stansly Maponga $541,685

Defensive tackles
Travian Robertson $581,474
Adam Replogle $420,000

Linebackers
Stephen Nicholas $4,000,000
Sean Weatherspoon $2,670,000
Akeem Dent $860,725
Joplo Bartu $496,666
Paul Worrilow $495,666

Cornerbacks
Asante Samuel $5,125,000
Desmond Trufant $1,855,931
Robert Alford $773,045

Safeties
William Moore $5,150,000
Thomas DeCoud $4,800,000
Zeke Motta $506,474
Kemal Ishmael $506,474
Sean Baker $420,000

Specialists
Matt Bryant $3,312,500
Matt Bosher $668,950
Josh Harris $570,834

*Total for 49 under contract in 2014: $108,367, 314. Projected 2014 cap: $126.3 million.

Rapid Reaction: Atlanta Falcons

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
11:49
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A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons34-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night:

What it means: Although the Falcons showed a lot of fight and might have spoiled the night -- had NaVorro Bowman not picked off a ball deflected from Falcons receiver Harry Douglas’ hands and returned 89 yards for the game-clinching touchdown -- the loss might have helped Atlanta in the end. Now, at 4-11, the Falcons are sixth in the draft order with a chance to move up, depending on the outcome of the final weekend of games. Some fans continue to lobby for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but the Falcons would likely need a top-five pick to even have a chance at Clowney. Whatever the case, the draft will be intriguing for a team trying to recover from an unexpected fall down the NFL standings.

Stock watch: Drew Davis’ stock grew on one play. The unheralded receiver not only helped with a block at the line of scrimmage, he then found an opening down the field, caught a pass from Matt Ryan, did a spin and picked up 45 yards after the catch en route to a career-long 59-yard reception. It helped set up Steven Jackson’s 2-yard touchdown run. Davis has made some plays this season and probably deserved more opportunities. Matt Bosher's stock also rose after the punter/kicker executed a perfect onside kick that was recovered by Jason Snelling, although it all went for naught after Bowman's pick-six.

Crucial calls: Two defensive penalties on the Falcons will be talked about the next few days, and only one of them should have been called. Veteran defensive end Osi Umenyiora made a rookie mistake when he lined up in the neutral zone with the 49ers facing third-and-10 from their own 17. It gave the 49ers a more manageable third down, which they converted, and the drive ended with Colin Kaepernick’s touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin. Then, on the very next 49ers drive, Falcons rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow was whistled for a phantom pass-interference penalty on third down. The questionable call helped set up a San Francisco field goal.

Wounded warriors: The Falcons were already down one defensive starter when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was declared inactive with a knee injury. Then, early in the game, starting defensive tackle Corey Peters went down with an Achilles injury. That’s bad news for Peters, who is set to become a free agent. Running back Jacquizz Rodgers and receiver Douglas also got banged up during the game, but Douglas returned in time to surpass 1,000 receiving yards for the season.

What’s next: Sunday’s season finale against the Carolina Panthers should be all about Tony Gonzalez. The Hall of Fame-bound tight end will play his final NFL game in front of the home crowd at the Georgia Dome. The organization is likely to honor Gonzalez with a video tribute. He won’t go out with a Super Bowl ring, but Gonzalez will still walk off a true champion.

Rapid Reaction: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

October, 20, 2013
10/20/13
4:06
PM ET

ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 31-23 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: The Bucs are 0-6, and they’ve lost 11 of their last 12 dating to last season. This loss was similar to the first five of this season. The Bucs were in the game but never able to take control. That storyline is getting old. The lack of progress doesn’t bode well for coach Greg Schiano, who clearly is on the hot seat. About the only thing Tampa Bay fans have to look forward to is an early draft pick next year.

Stock falling: On a play in which the Bucs had seemed to force a punt near the end of the first quarter, reserve defensive end Trevor Scott was called for roughing the passer. That gave the Falcons a first down, and they followed up with a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Jacquizz Rodgers.

Stock rising: Rookie running back Mike James got extensive playing time after starter Doug Martin left with a shoulder injury. James looked fairly solid, which could lead to more playing time, even if Martin is all right. The Bucs have been using Martin too much and need to reduce his workload.

Missing in action: Tampa Bay’s pass rush was pretty much nonexistent. That’s why Ryan, who was without starting receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, was able to have such a productive day.

Why bother? I don't understand Schiano's decision to kick a field goal with five minutes left in the game. Even with the three points, it still was a two-score game.

What’s next: The Bucs host the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Covering Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez one-on-one without help is what every linebacker dreads, and what the future Hall of Famer craves.

So as the Falcons prepare for the Dolphins this Sunday, you can understand why the prospect of Julio Jones drawing extra attention excites Gonzalez.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan & Tony Gonzalez
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMatt Ryan and Tony Gonzalez are preparing for what the Falcons hope will be plenty of one-on-one matchups against the Dolphins in Week 3.
"They doubled up (Larry) Fitzgerald a lot, and you would probably think they’d do the same thing against Julio (Jones), which is going to create one-on-one matchups with other guys," Gonzalez said. "They blitz a lot, too, which creates one-on-one matchups. We have to go out there and know that this week we’re expecting that man-to-man coverage. Especially when they go to that blitz, you have to beat your one-on-one coverage. And we think we have the guys to be able to be successful at that."

Gonzalez addressed the topic while referencing how Miami defended explosive Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald in Week 4 of last season. Fitzgerald had eight receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown and was targeted 15 times as the Dolphins bracketed him, for the most part. Fellow Cardinals receiver Andre Roberts took advantage of the attention on Fitzgerald and finished with six catches for a career-high 118 yards and two touchdowns in Arizona’s 24-21 overtime win.

And that was with Kevin Kolb at quarterback.

Imagine what Matt Ryan might be able to do with his variety of weapons, provided he gets protection against a potent Dolphins defensive line led by Cameron Wake. Not to mention Gonzalez should win his one-on-ones, considering the Dolphins have surrendered 13 catches for 177 yards to starting tight ends through two games.

Jones, however, is certain to be the focus of Miami’s defensive game plan after posting career highs in both receptions (11) and receiving yards (182) in last week’s 31-24 win against St. Louis. His day included an 81-yard catch-and-run score. Jones was extremely effective in the screen game, too.

"That’s one thing you know Miami is probably going to make adjustments, especially with Julio catching all those screens," Gonzalez said. "They might have a plan for that, I’m pretty sure. That’s another trend around the NFL: You’ve seen them set up the run, the screen is taking the place of that run."

Speaking of the running game, an integral part will be missing Sunday with Steven Jackson already ruled out with a hamstring injury. He’ll be replaced by the elusive Jacquizz Rodgers and downhill runner Jason Snelling.

Besides losing Jackson for what looks like three weeks, the Falcons also lost defensive end Kroy Biermann (Achilles tear) and fullback Bradie Ewing (separated shoulder) to season-ending injuries and lost linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (foot) until at least Week 11. (Weatherspoon was placed on injured reserve with designation to return.)

This week, key players such as receiver Roddy White (high-ankle sprain), left tackle Sam Baker (knee/foot) and cornerback Asante Samuel (thigh) have all been held out of practice this week, although White returned on a limited basis Thursday. Even Jones (knee) was limited the past two days.

"Injuries are a part of the game," Gonzalez said. "It’s the NFL. Look across the league. That’s what happens. That’s part of the business, is staying healthy. And, unfortunately, we’re down a little bit right now.

"But at the same time, that’s why we have the backups that are going to come in and they’re going to do the job hopefully just as well as the starters would have. And that’s what’s expected of them. It’s a hard position for them to be in, but I think that they’re up to that challenge. The coaches are going to make adjustments. We’re going to be fine."
Ryan Tannehill and Julio JonesUSA TODAY SportsRyan Tannehill and the undefeated Dolphins will try to upset Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons.
The Miami Dolphins are basking in the light of a 2-0 start while the Atlanta Falcons are just trying to find some healthy bodies.

The two teams play each other Sunday in a game that has big implications in the AFC East and NFC South races.

ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas examine this matchup:

Yasinskas: James, like many, I thought the Dolphins would be an improved team. But it's looking like they might be even better than I thought. They've gone out and started their season with two big wins on the road. What's going right for the Dolphins and, more importantly, how good are they?

Walker: It's early, Pat, but Miami is already exceeding my expectations. I pegged the Dolphins to be an 8-8 team this year. That still could happen if the team loses focus, but Miami is on pace to do better. I credit two things: improved playmaking ability and the growth of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Miami committed more than $200 million in free-agent contracts to players like receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Brent Grimes and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. All of those players came up big in last Sunday's win over the Indianapolis Colts. When you add in the fact Tannehill has improved in his second year, it's easy to see why the Dolphins are also taking the next step. Atlanta is a team many believe is a Super Bowl contender, but the group is banged up. Pat, how much will injuries impact the Falcons in this game?

Yasinskas: Atlanta has some major injury problems. The Falcons had to put defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann and fullback Bradie Ewing on injured reserve this week and there are reports that running back Steven Jackson will miss a few weeks. The loss of Biermann means the Falcons will have to play rookies Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow at linebacker and second-year pro Jonathan Massaquoi at defensive end. If Jackson is out, the Falcons will have to go with Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling as their running backs, and that's a sharp drop-off. That probably means the Falcons will pass even more than usual and rely on Roddy White and Julio Jones. Is Miami's secondary ready for that tandem?

Walker: I had a good conversation with Miami's top cornerback, Grimes, on Tuesday. He was complimentary of both White and Jones -- and Grimes would know. The former Falcon watched both receivers grow in Atlanta and practiced against them. It will be fun to see who has the advantage between Grimes and White/Jones, depending on the play. Grimes told me they all know each other so well that it's probably a push. The bigger concern for Miami's secondary is the other cornerback spot. Veteran starter Dimitri Patterson didn't play in Week 2 due to a groin injury. He's working his way back and could play Sunday. Rookie corners Will Davis and Jamar Taylor also returned to practice this week, which could provide depth. Similar to the game against Indianapolis, Miami must do a lot of things schematically to cover up its issues opposite Grimes. That includes using the safeties over the top and getting a good pass rush. Speaking of pass rush, the Dolphins have nine sacks in the first two games. Can they exploit the Falcons in this area?

Yasinskas: Miami's pass rush has to be a major concern for the Falcons. Atlanta revamped its offensive line in the offseason and it's taking some time to come together. The right side of the line is of particular concern with guard Garrett Reynolds and Lamar Holmes as the starters. Reynolds is average at best and Holmes, a second-year pro, was thrown into the starting lineup when Mike Johnson went down with an injury in the preseason. Holmes is very much a work in progress, so the Falcons will have to try to give him some help by getting their tight ends and running backs involved as pass-blockers. Still, Atlanta should be able to move the ball through the air because it has Matt Ryan, Jones, White and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Has Tannehill developed enough to win a shootout?

Walker: That's an interesting question, Pat. I'm not sure anyone -- even Miami's coaching staff -- has the answer. I did notice the Dolphins' game plan in Week 1 against Cleveland was fairly conservative compared to Week 2 against Indianapolis. Those are two different teams, and perhaps the Dolphins realized they needed to be more aggressive throwing and take more vertical shots deep to match Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. This is a similar type of challenge, because Atlanta's offense is built around scoring points in the passing game. Tannehill is getting better at taking over parts of a game in Year 2. His play in the second half the past two weeks has been terrific. The Dolphins are outscoring opponents 24-6 in the third and fourth quarters, in part because Tannehill is moving the chains, putting points on the board and keeping Miami's defense fresh. I don't expect this game to be all on Tannehill's shoulders. The defense remains the strength of the Dolphins. Keeping Atlanta's scoring around 23 points or fewer, as opposed to having Tannehill throw for 400 yards, is probably Miami's best shot to win.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When he purchased the Atlanta Falcons in 2002, Arthur Blank wasn’t looking primarily to make money.

“It’s a solid business, and the NFL is king of the sports world and all that," said Blank, who made his fortune as co-founder of Home Depot. “But I got in this business to win. You want to win for your franchise, you want to win for the fans, and you want to win for the city and the state and you want to win for your players and the people in this building. All of that is what’s important to me. I’m a super competitive guy, and I want to win."

After some up-and-down early years in Blank's tenure, the Falcons finally have become consistent winners. The team has had five consecutive winning seasons since the arrival of coach Mike Smith, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and quarterback Matt Ryan. That’s remarkable progress for a franchise that had never had back-to-back winning seasons before the trio came along. And last year’s trip to the NFC Championship Game certainly was another step -- the Falcons came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl.

But Blank’s not the type of guy to dance around. He wants more. He wants a Super Bowl championship. Wait, make that championships, plural.

At the news conference to announce Ryan’s contract extension Thursday evening, Blank strongly said he and the Falcons can’t really relax until they have Super Bowl rings.

“I think when you have five consecutive winning seasons and go to the playoffs four out of five years, you’re very much in the game," Blank said. “I feel good about what we’ve built, but I also feel like it’s time to take the next step."

He’s not alone. Smith had a strong message for his team on the first day of camp.

“I wanted everybody to understand we’re not 10 yards from the Super Bowl," Smith said. “We’re 193 days from the Super Bowl, which is where we want to be at the end of the season."

The Falcons didn’t go into panic mode and make desperate moves in the offseason. But it’s easy to detect the sense of urgency around Atlanta’s camp. The Falcons won’t quite say it’s Super Bowl or bust, but they believe it’s their time to continue moving in that direction.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
AP Photo/John BazemoreAtlanta's pass-oriented offense should have better balance in 2013 with RB Steven Jackson in the mix.
“When an organization comes close to a goal you want to attain and you don’t get there, I think the first thing that you’ve got to do is make sure everybody doesn’t live in the past," Smith said. “I tell my guys there are three time frames you can live in. You can live in the past. You can live in the future. You can live in the now. As human beings and athletes, we live in all three at different times, but the majority of the time has got to be spent in the now and we have some goals that we want to attain now."

Three hot issues

1. The running game has to work. The Falcons clearly have made the transition to a pass-first team, and that’s not going to change. But they need some semblance of a running game. That’s something they lacked last year as Michael Turner aged and fizzled out.

The Falcons have added Steven Jackson, and that should provide a significant upgrade. Jackson doesn’t need to be the workhorse runner he was earlier in his career, and the Falcons still want to get Jacquizz Rodgers some playing time.

A combination of Jackson and Rodgers should be more than enough to give the Falcons a running game. That should complement the passing game by clearing the way for play-action passes. It also should come in handy when the Falcons are in control of games and trying to eat up some clock.

2. The defense needs a star and an identity. Although Smith comes from a defensive background, the Falcons never have had a really strong defense during his tenure. That needs to change if this team really is going to challenge for a Super Bowl.

It should help that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is entering his second season and most of the players know his defense. But it’s time for this defense to build a real identity, and I look for Nolan to try to put a more aggressive product on the field.

It also would help Nolan if he can find a true star on his side of the ball. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon could be that guy. Weatherspoon has been very good so far, but he needs to take the next step and become a prolific playmaker.

3. The pass rush has to produce. For virtually all of Smith’s tenure, the pass rush has consisted of John Abraham and not much else. But Abraham, 35, was released in the offseason because of his age. The Falcons replaced him by bringing in Osi Umenyiora.

On the surface, it appears as if Umenyiora should be able to give the Falcons what Abraham used to. But this defense needs more than Umenyiora to get after opposing quarterbacks. The team is hoping one of its young defensive ends, particularly Jonathan Massaquoi, can step up and complement Umenyiora.

But I’m expecting Nolan to get more creative in his second season and get his linebackers and defensive backs more involved as blitzers.

Reason for optimism

Despite the loss to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons took a big stride last year by winning a playoff game against Seattle. It was the first playoff victory of Smith’s tenure, and it was significant because it showed the Falcons they can win in January.

This now is a veteran team without many holes. On paper, it’s as good as any team in the NFC. This team knows its window for winning a Super Bowl is wide open at the moment but isn’t going to stay that way forever.

[+] Enlargeatt Ryan
AP Photo/David GoldmanWith a hefty new contract and premium weapons around him, Atlanta QB Matt Ryan will be playing under heavy scrutiny all season.
Reason for pessimism

There always are going to be doubts about the Falcons until they win a Super Bowl. Is Smith too nice of a guy? Does Ryan have what it takes to win the big one?

Those questions still linger. And, with those questions, there is a lot of pressure. It remains to be seen whether this team can handle that kind of pressure.

Observation deck

One of the first things that struck me on the practice field was the size of rookie tight end Levine Toilolo. He’s 6-foot-8, which makes him the tallest tight end in the NFL and a potential matchup problem for linebackers and defensive backs. The best thing about veteran Tony Gonzalez's taking part only on a limited basis is that Toilolo will get plenty of reps and a chance to develop quickly. But I’m not sure Toilolo will immediately beat out Chase Coffman, who had a very strong offseason, for the No. 2 tight end spot.

If you’re looking for an unsung player who is going to make an impact this season, start with Bradie Ewing. The Falcons drafted him last year and planned to use him as the lead blocker for Turner. But Ewing got hurt in the preseason and missed his entire rookie year. Turner had his problems last year, but I think the lack of good blocking from the fullbacks was a factor. Ewing has nice size and should be able to open holes for Jackson.

Don’t read too much into the fact that Mike Johnson has received all the first-team reps at right tackle so far in camp. Johnson might have a slight edge thanks to experience, but the team still has high hopes for second-year pro Lamar Holmes, and he’s likely to be given some reps with the first team.

The speculation that defensive end Kroy Biermann could be used more as a linebacker is more than speculation. Biermann was spending a lot of time at linebacker in the first two days of camp. He’s athletic enough to play in pass coverage and should be able to generate a pass rush from a linebacker position.

The Falcons seem a little thin at defensive tackle, but they might have some quiet plans to get second-year pro Travian Robertson more involved in the rotation. He played a little as a rookie, and I expect his playing time to increase. Also, defensive end Cliff Matthews appears to have bulked up and could slide inside at times.

Second-round pick Robert Alford is going to have a shot at playing time at cornerback. But I think there’s another reason the Falcons drafted Alford. He has return ability, and the Falcons need to improve their return game. Third receiver Harry Douglas also could be an option in the return game. The Falcons would like to get Douglas more touches because they believe he’s an explosive player. But it’s tough to get Douglas touches in the passing game with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Gonzalez around. Letting Douglas handle punt returns could give him four or five more touches a game.

I had been thinking the Falcons would bring in a veteran backup for Ryan at some point. But, after watching second-year pro Dominique Davis the past few days, I’m not so sure the Falcons are still looking. Davis looked sharp and decisive. He’ll get a lot of playing time in the preseason games. If he performs well, the Falcons will stick with him as their backup.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each NFC South team as training camps get underway.

Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons are pretty well set at the offensive skill positions, but one guy to keep an eye on in training camp and the preseason is running back Jacquizz Rodgers. With the arrival of Steven Jackson, will Rodgers have a role as the third-down back? Jackson has a strong history of catching passes out of the backfield, but the coaching staff likes Rodgers and believes he has home run potential every time he touches the ball.

Carolina Panthers. From a fantasy standpoint, the issue is whether DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart will be the primary ball carrier. If both are healthy, they’ll split carries to some degree. But Stewart’s health remains a big question. He’s coming off surgery on both ankles and has had an assortment of injuries throughout his career. Williams had a strong finish last season and that may put him in the good graces of the coaching staff.

New Orleans Saints. The departure of Devery Henderson leaves the Saints looking for a third receiver after Marques Colston and Lance Moore. This position is critical because the Saints use so many three-receiver sets. Joe Morgan and Nick Toon appear to be the leading candidates for this job. Morgan seemed to have the advantage in minicamp, but the competition likely will go through camp and the preseason. Morgan is a long strider who has shown an ability to make some big plays. Toon, who missed his rookie year with an injury, is more of a possession receiver.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Veteran tight end Dallas Clark wasn’t re-signed and that means there will be a preseason battle for playing time at tight end. Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree appear to be the front-runners, but neither has produced much yet. The Bucs believe Stocker can do a little bit of everything and could blossom. But they also think that Crabtree, who was brought in from Green Bay, can be a productive pass catcher. Still, from a fantasy standpoint, drafting a Tampa Bay tight end probably isn’t a great idea.

Around the NFC South

July, 9, 2013
7/09/13
10:23
AM ET
Time for a run through the top headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

D. Orlando Ledbetter continues his list of the top 25 Falcons with defensive end Kroy Biermann at No. 17. The Falcons have invested a lot of recent draft picks in defensive ends and they want to get them on the field. That could lead to Biermann getting time in a hybrid role because he can play both end and linebacker.

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter hinted that running back Steven Jackson probably won’t get a lot of carries in the preseason games. That makes a lot of sense because the Falcons need the veteran healthy and ready for the regular season. Backup Jacquizz Rodgers still is proving himself and could benefit from additional carries in the preseason.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Max Henson has an overview of the situation at quarterback. Cam Newton is set as the starter with Derek Anderson as the top backup. The most intriguing thing here could be the competition for the No. 3 spot. Jimmy Clausen was the starter in 2010, but hasn’t appeared in a game since. He’ll be competing with undrafted rookie Colby Cameron for the final roster spot.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

A former NFL player is suing the Washington Redskins and former assistant coach Gregg Williams, saying they used a bounty program that resulted in his career-ending injury. Williams later came to the Saints and the NFL has said he ran a three-year bounty program that resulted in the suspension of Williams and others last year. The Saints’ bounty scandal appears to be over, but this news makes you wonder if the team could face some legal issues in the future.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Running back Doug Martin sounded unimpressed after meeting NBA legend LeBron James.

Links: Falcons' Rodgers aims to play

June, 24, 2013
6/24/13
10:54
AM ET
Atlanta Falcons

With the addition of Steven Jackson to the Falcons' roster, backup Jacquizz Rodgers maintains a positive attitude toward his potential playing time. “When I get in the game, I’m going to try to make my plays and try to get my number called more often,” Rodgers told D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’ll try to make every carry and every catch count.”

Rookie cornerback Robert Alford says he's a versatile player who is willing to play anywhere in order to get the Falcons a Super Bowl ring.

Since joining the Falcons in the offseason, Osi Umenyiora has shown the rest of Atlanta’s young defensive ends what it means to be a professional pass-rusher, writes Daniel Cox of the team's website.

Carolina Panthers

J.J. Jansen "understands if fans don’t know his name. He plays a position with little clout: long-snapper," reports the Charlotte Observer's Ben Weinrib.

Undrafted rookie safety Robert Lester accepted the Panthers' free-agent offer, and as the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person writes, "if Lester’s showing at the team’s three-day minicamp is any indication, it was a decision that could prove to be mutually beneficial."

New Orleans Saints

The Saints need new cornerback Keenan Lewis to stop the big plays, and former Steelers teammate Ike Taylor offers high praise for Lewis and his abilities. SB Nation's Canal Street Chronicles breaks down film on Lewis.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune continues its top 25 players on the Saints series, kicking off Monday with No. 20 defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley.

QB Drew Brees takes to Twitter to calm fears over a fake news story that he'd broken his legs in a car accident.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Unwanted faxes could create a $270M headache for the Buccaneers, according to the Tampa Bay Times' Peter Jamison.

While the Bucs' new defensive backs coach has been afforded some significant luxuries in CB Darrelle Revis and S Dashon Goldson, Tony Oden still has a sizable workload on his hands.

Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has focused on his diet in the offseason, dropping 20 pounds.
Prior to the arrival of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter last year, we used to spend a lot of time busting on the Atlanta Falcons for almost never using screen passes.

There might have been a reason why predecessor Mike Mularkey was so hesitant to throw to his running backs. Michael Turner simply wasn’t a receiving threat. In five seasons with the Falcons, Turner caught 59 passes.

Jackson
Koetter got the running backs more involved in the passing game last season, mainly by throwing to Jacquizz Rodgers a fair amount. But I suspect we could see that trend escalate tremendously in 2013.

A lot of people are viewing the arrival of Steven Jackson as Turner’s replacement as evidence that Atlanta’s running game will improve. I have no doubt that will happen.

But I think a lot of people are only looking at half of what Jackson brings to the table. Jackson is one of the best pass-catching running backs in recent history.

In fact, I just dialed up the database at ESPN Stats & Information and came up with something interesting. Since his arrival in the league in 2004, Jackson’s 407 receptions are the most by any running back in that period.

For the sake of comparison, the only other running backs with more than 300 catches during that same span are Brian Westbrook (396), LaDainian Tomlinson (386), Reggie Bush (372), Frank Gore (315), Ray Rice (311) and Darren Sproles (307).

I’m pretty sure we can expect to see some new wrinkles from Koetter because Jackson can do more than catch screen passes. He can run a lot of different routes. Rodgers can do the same.

That’s going to create all sorts of headaches for defenses that already have their hands full with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.

Even coach Mike Smith, who usually goes out of his way to not give away anything close to strategy is raving about Jackson's ability as a receiver.

“He’s a big strong running back that catches the ball extremely well,'' Smith told the media Wednesday. "He creates issues for defenses. He’s just another weapon that we have in our offensive arsenal. He’s a guy who had close to 100 catches in a season, so he’s a guy that we can use in the passing game. He’s not just a running back, he’s a receiving back as well.”
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC South team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons upgraded this position quite a bit in free agency by replacing Michael Turner with Steven Jackson. This will be Jackson’s 10th NFL season, but he is still running very hard and shows an impressive burst for his age. He is as physical as ever and, for the first time in recent memory, will not be facing stacked boxes down after down. Jackson is also a far superior receiver to Turner, which is extremely important in this offense, which excels with so many great receivers. Jackson might not have a lot of big years left, but I expect 2013 to be one of his finest. Jacquizz Rodgers caught 53 passes last year, but Jackson should cut into Rodgers’ role on throwing downs. And Rodgers isn’t a true answer if Jackson were to go down. That lead role probably would go to Jason Snelling, who also is not a liability catching the football. Rodgers should see a fair amount of playing time, though, in Atlanta’s three-wide receiver sets, as he did a year ago.

Carolina Panthers: The Panthers have more running backs than they know what to do with -- and have invested too many premium resources at this position. The lead guy here is Jonathan Stewart, who, if given the chance to be a featured back for an entire season and able to stay healthy, might just prove to be one of the top half-dozen backs in the league. Stewart has missed only nine games over his five seasons but is constantly fighting nagging injuries. He also averaged a meager 3.6 yards per carry last season after averaging 5.4 the year before. The Panthers recently restructured DeAngelo Williams’ contract, ensuring he'll remain in Carolina. This will be Williams’ eighth NFL season, but he hasn’t received more than 173 carries in any of the past three seasons. He has breakaway abilities and a penchant for breaking off long runs. I think he still has plenty left in the tank. Mike Tolbert is listed as a fullback, but he is a short-yardage specialist who is a bowling ball with a low center of gravity. For a back of his dimensions (5-foot-9, 245 pounds), he is also a surprisingly adept receiver. Oddly, when considering all of its other needs, Carolina used a sixth-round pick on Kenjon Barner, a perimeter and space player who comes from Chip Kelly’s high-octane Oregon offensive attack.

New Orleans Saints: Chris Ivory is now with the Jets, but the Saints still have a full stable of capable backs. In his first two NFL seasons, Mark Ingram has rushed for only 1,076 yards combined and has averaged under 4.0 yards per carry. But I expect Ingram to break out in 2013. Health issues have been a problem since he entered the league, but, as the 2012 season went along, he looked more and more comfortable. Despite its great prowess throwing the ball, Sean Payton’s offense stresses a physical, inside running game, which suits Ingram very well. Darren Sproles turns 30 before the season, but he is not at all short on quickness, speed or explosiveness. He is an elite receiving back who has caught 161 balls over his past 29 regular-season games. Pierre Thomas isn’t huge on production numbers, but he is extremely effective on a per-touch basis as a runner or receiver. He could fill in very ably in Ingram’s or Sproles’ role for a short period of time. The Saints use Thomas extremely well. Travaris Cadet could have a small role for New Orleans.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Doug Martin was a phenom in his first season, accumulating nearly 2,000 combined yards even though the Buccaneers were missing their high-priced guards to help pave the way. Martin entered the league NFL-ready with an excellent all-around game. He is a very good, but not great, receiver. The same is true for his pass protection. He should only get better in both areas. But Martin is already a very good runner who can get to the corner with speed, break long runs and handle the physical pounding at the position. He is an excellent interior runner. Rookie sixth-round pick Mike James could be Martin’s direct backup, but Tampa Bay also used a seventh-round pick last year on Michael Smith. Brian Leonard is on the roster, as well. James isn’t flashy but has size and isn’t a dancer. Smith has more quickness to his game, but probably wouldn’t be suited for a large role if Martin were to miss time. Leonard plays hard and is a good blocker and receiver. He is also an accomplished special-teams player and knows how to help a team. Don’t be surprised if the Buccaneers consider adding a veteran running back before training camp opens.

The Atlanta Falcons' strategy early in the free-agency process was to keep their own players. But when you have a team that came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl, you have to step outside.

That’s precisely what the Falcons did Thursday afternoon when they agreed to terms with running back Steven Jackson.

Instantly, Atlanta’s running game looks a lot better than it did last season, when Michael Turner clearly was showing signs of wear and tear. Jackson comes with mileage of his own, but at 29 he’s younger than Turner (31) and he still was productive in St. Louis last season.

Jackson averaged 4.1 yards per carry while rushing for 1,042 yards and four touchdowns behind an offensive line that was less than stellar. He has handled as many as 346 carries a season in his career, but I don’t think that’s what the Falcons are seeking.

I think they’re looking for a running back who can handle between 200 and 250 carries and split time with Jacquizz Rodgers. The Falcons also want someone who can be efficient in short-yardage situations, and Jackson has a successful history with that.

Unlike Turner, Jackson also has been a receiving threat out of the backfield. In 2006, he caught a career-high 90 passes. I don’t think the Falcons will ask him to catch that many, but if Jackson can give them 30 to 40 catches, he will make the offense a lot more complete.

The Falcons released Turner last week. They also released defensive end John Abraham and cornerback Dunta Robinson. Those moves put the Falcons even more yards away from the Super Bowl, but adding Jackson means they have bridged some of that gap.
Cornerback Robert McClain was one of the most pleasant surprises for the Atlanta Falcons last season, and he’s being rewarded for it.

McClain will receive an extra $269,000 as part of the NFL’s performance-based pool, which is designed to reward players with low base salaries that get significant playing time. McClain got the biggest chunk of Atlanta’s $3.46 million pool.

Other players to earn more than $100,000 in the performance pool were center Todd McClure ($251,000), guard Peter Konz ($175,000), running back Jacquizz Rodgers ($159,000), linebacker Akeem Dent ($146,000), receiver Drew Davis ($139,000), safety William Moore ($135,000) and safety Chris Hope ($125,000).

I'll get you the biggest winners in the performance-based pool for the other NFC South teams a little later.

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