NFC South: Jake Locker

Final Word: NFC South

October, 19, 2012
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 7:

[+] EnlargeAaron Kromer
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneAaron Kromer will coach his last game as the Saints' interim head coach this week at Tampa Bay.
Kromer’s last stand: This will be the final game as interim head coach for New Orleans’ Aaron Kromer. Coincidentally, Kromer spent three seasons as an assistant with the Buccaneers before joining the Saints in 2008. The Saints are 1-4 under Kromer, and a win could go a long way in helping his chances of eventually landing a full-time gig as a head coach. Kromer had a good reputation around the NFL before this season, and he has handled a difficult situation without any major problems. But adding another win can only help his résumé. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt will take over the team when he returns from his suspension after Sunday's game.

Dallas domination: The Panthers defeated the Cowboys the first time the teams ever met in the regular season. But Dallas has dominated the regular-season meetings since then, winning eight straight against the Panthers. That’s the longest active streak the Cowboys have against any opponent.

Go for the goal line: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Carolina’s Cam Newton is one of only two starting quarterbacks who have not completed a pass in the end zone this season. All four of Newton’s touchdowns have been completed before the end zone. Tennessee’s Jake Locker is the only other quarterback who hasn’t completed a pass in the end zone.

Back to being Brees? After a rocky start, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has come on strong the past two games. In the first three games, Brees completed 54.7 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and five interceptions while compiling a 34.8 Total QBR. In the past two games, Brees has completed 64.6 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and one interception while posting an 83.0 Total QBR.

A positive Bucs stat: It’s been hard to come up with a lot of positive numbers on the Bucs for the past year or so, but here’s one. Tampa Bay has won four of its past six home games against NFC South opponents. So much has happened in the interim that it might be tough to remember that the Bucs won at home against Atlanta and New Orleans last year. But the bottom fell out after the Bucs intercepted Brees three times that day. Tampa Bay lost its final 10 games of the season, costing then-coach Raheem Morris his job.

Observation deck: Saints-Titans

August, 30, 2012

Some quick observations from the Saints' 10-6 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Thursday night's preseason finale:
  • Assistant head coach Joe Vitt went almost exclusively with backups, which isn’t at all surprising when you consider the Saints were playing their fifth preseason game, including the Hall of Fame Game. The Saints started third-string quarterback Sean Canfield. He is a long way from being Drew Brees and even backup Chase Daniel, but Canfield looked better than I’ve ever seen him in practice and previous preseason games. Canfield did turn the ball over a couple of times, but I think he at least made a case for the Saints to keep him around.
  • I think a lot of people thought third-round defensive tackle Akiem Hicks would be a project because he played his college football in Canada. I think a lot of people might have sold Hicks short. He continues to impress. He sacked Jake Locker in the first quarter. It’s pretty obvious Hicks has earned a spot in the rotation behind starters Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis. You could even look a year ahead and perhaps picture Hicks as a starter because Ellis’ contract is up after this season and the Saints will have a tight salary-cap situation in 2013.
  • Receiver Joseph Morgan continues to look good. I think he probably holds the edge on rookie Nick Toon for the No. 4 receiver spot (I count Courtney Roby, a return man) as the fifth receiver. That makes you wonder if the Saints will keep six receivers on the roster. My guess is they will. Toon’s a guy they were high on before his preseason got interrupted by an injury. Toon’s healthy now and I don’t think he’s a guy you want to risk losing by releasing him and hoping to get him back on the practice squad.
  • The competition for the fourth running back spot remains close between Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet. But I think Ivory might have gained a bit of ground in this game because Cadet lost a fumble.
  • A lot of people were stunned when safety Isa Abdul-Quddus made the team last year. I was one of them, but I’m starting to see why now. Quddus knocked a ball loose in the second quarter and Elbert Mack recovered the fumble. Quddus already has established a role as a special-teams player. But I think he’s turning into a solid backup at safety, and somewhere in the future he could end up starting.

Observation deck: Titans-Buccaneers

August, 17, 2012
TAMPA, Fla. -- Some quick thoughts on the Buccaneers’ 30-7 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium:
  • I don’t want to speculate too much on LeGarrette Blount's injury, but it’s a pretty major concern any time a running back suffers what appears to be an injury to the knee or leg. Blount went down with 2 minutes, 18 seconds left in the first half. He stayed on the ground for a long time and the medical staff appeared to be looking at his left leg or knee. Blount eventually left the sideline and went to the locker room, presumably for further testing. Blount had a strong training camp and had gotten the start in each of the first two preseason games. Blount appeared to have a shot at keeping his starting job or at least get serious playing time in tandem with rookie Doug Martin. But, if Blount’s injury is serious, Martin might have to be a do-it all running back. Rookie Michael Smith, Mossis Madu and De'Anthony Curtis would be candidates for backup duty if Blount is out for an extended period.
  • I’ll let you know if coach Greg Schiano has any update on Blount’s injury in his post-game press conference. But I’m guessing it might be a day or two before we know anything for sure.
  • Tampa Bay’s run defense, especially on the second level, struggled. The Titans ran for 123 yards in the first half and Chris Johnson seemed to stroll into the end zone on both of his touchdown runs.
  • Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck combined to throw for just 37 yards in the first half. Give Tampa Bay’s pass defense some credit for that. But Locker might have helped the Bucs look good as he completed just 4 of 11 passes for 21 yards while getting the start.
  • Safety Ahmad Black had Tampa Bay’s biggest defensive play of the night. He intercepted a Locker pass and returned it 29 yards to the Tennessee 2-yard line. Two plays later, Josh Freeman hit Mike Williams with a touchdown pass.
  • Freeman had an unspectacular outing. He completed 4 of 10 passes for 21 yards before giving way to Dan Orlovsky.
  • I’d say depth on the offensive line is an issue. Orlovsky was sacked four times. Mobility is not his strength, but Orlovsky didn't have a chance most of the time.
All the talk about Drew Brees' quest for a new contract that will make him the highest-paid player in the NFL got me thinking about quarterback salaries and average per year.

It remains very likely that, sometime between now and Monday afternoon, Brees and the Saints will work out a contract that pays him somewhere around an average of $20 million per season. That would put Brees on top of the list of quarterback pay. He’s earned that honor.

But what about the rest of the NFC South quarterbacks?

First off, let’s be clear that none of them are at the same level as Brees. But two of them are likely to come up for contract extensions sooner rather than later and Brees could help raise the bar.

As it stands right now, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is tied for No. 13 in average per year at $11.25 million. Ryan’s contract currently runs through the 2013 season and there have been some rumblings the Falcons could start looking to extend him. Unless he goes out and wins the Super Bowl this season, I don’t think Ryan falls into the category of elite quarterbacks, but I think it would take an average of somewhere between $14 million and $16 million a season to lock him up.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman ranks No. 22 with a $5.24 million average per year. Freeman’s coming off a tough season, but still has plenty of upside and also has a contract that expires after the 2013 season. If the Bucs really believe he is their franchise quarterback, they might be wise to try to extend him before Freeman gets a chance to get back on the field and really drive his price tag into the upper echelon. Then again, the Bucs might want to wait a bit to see if Freeman can recapture his style of play from the 2010 season before making any big commitment.

Carolina’s Cam Newton is No. 21 with a $5.506 million average salary. Although he was the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, Newton’s first contract was less than a lot of guys drafted in the years just ahead of him because the league put in new rules last year that limit rookie contracts. If Newton continues to play like he did as a rookie, he could be looking at numbers like Brees a few years down the road.

I’ve assembled a list of the top 32 quarterbacks, based on average salary per year. Here it is:

Wrap-up: Saints 22, Titans 17

December, 11, 2011
Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 22-17 victory against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at LP Field:

What it means: It wasn’t pretty, but the Saints got a win. At 10-3, they’re atop the NFC South. They also recorded their third straight 10-win season, something that had never happened in franchise history. The Saints also moved to 3-2 in outdoor games this season and it’s been mentioned more than a few times that the Saints are not a good outdoor team. But they beat a good team, although Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was injured and rookie Jake Locker had to step in. You could make a case the Saints showed they can win outdoors. But the fact that they didn’t win impressively probably will continue to fuel speculation the Saints could face trouble if they have to go to Green Bay or San Francisco in the postseason.

What I liked: The play of Marques Colston. He caught two fourth-quarter touchdown passes. Colston sometimes gets overlooked because the Saints have so many great offensive weapons and his statistics aren’t what they could be if he played in an offense that didn’t spread the ball around so much. But this guy deserves more credit than he gets. He might not be the best receiver in the league, but he’s in the top 10.

What I didn’t like: The Saints moved the ball early, but had to settle for field goals. That rarely happens with the Saints and you have to think this was a one-time thing.

Defense rises: I thought the New Orleans defense played well through most of last week’s victory against Detroit. The defense also stepped up in the final minutes against Tennessee. The Saints stopped the Titans on a fourth-and-1 with a little over two minutes left. Linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar also sacked Locker as time expired.

The streak lives: It took a little longer than usual, but Drew Brees ran his streak of consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass to 40. That’s second on the all-time list. Johnny Unitas (47) holds the record.

What’s next: The Saints play the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday at Mall of America Field.

NFC South evening update

November, 23, 2011
I was a little tied up this afternoon, working on a Thanksgiving story on a former NFC South player that will appear Thursday morning. But there was a lot happening throughout the division Wednesday afternoon, so let’s hit the links to catch up.

Atlanta coach Mike Smith said he expects rookie receiver Julio Jones, who has been sidelined by a hamstring injury, to return to practice Thursday.

The Falcons might be catching a break Sunday. Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson is still wearing a boot and his high-ankle sprain may keep him from playing in the game with Atlanta.

Tampa Bay safety Tanard Jackson, who had been sidelined with a hamstring injury, returned to practice Wednesday. Coach Raheem Morris sounded optimistic about Jackson’s chances of playing Sunday. Morris wasn’t as optimistic about defensive end Michael Bennett, who has a groin injury.

The Buccaneers, who have struggled to sell out home games in recent years, announced their pricing plan for 2012 season tickets. The team says the new plan will drop prices on 80 percent of the seats at Raymond James Stadium.

It looks like the Bucs will see Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback for the Titans on Sunday. Hasselbeck had to leave last Sunday's game with an elbow injury and the Titans had to turn to rookie Jake Locker. But Hasselbeck and coach Mike Munchak both said the injury should not be an issue.

Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton said he feels safer running than when he’s sitting back in the pocket. Makes plenty of sense. Newton is big and strong enough that the chances of him getting hurt while running aren’t that high. Newton’s most vulnerable when he’s stationary in the pocket and defenders can hit him from the blind side.

Bradley Handwerger writes about how successful the Saints have been coming off their bye week since coach Sean Payton changed his approach about time off in 2009.
Mike SmithKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSince Mike Smith took over in 2008, the Falcons are 16-3 after a loss -- and 8-0 since 2009.

ATLANTA – If you looked at and listened to Falcons coach Mike Smith in the media room deep within the Georgia Dome last Sunday and this Sunday, you probably wouldn’t have noticed much difference.

Other than a couple – really, only a couple – of quick smiles after this Sunday’s 23-17 victory against the Tennessee Titans, Smith was the same guy he was last week. That was when the Falcons suffered perhaps the most emotionally draining loss of Smith’s career.

That was when he made a decision that backfired in overtime and the Falcons lost to the New Orleans Saints. Win or lose, Smith is always the same guy.

That’s why the Falcons bounced back with a crucial win against the Titans.

“I think that’s the mark of a fantastic football coach, when he can keep his emotions in check at moments when a lot of us might not be able to do that,’’ Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “Mike’s an even-keel guy. He’s competitive and he gets fired up, but he keeps it in check.’’

The Falcons, playing as well as they have all season for the first three quarters, jumped out to a 23-3 lead. Yeah, there were a few bumps near the end, when rookie quarterback Jake Locker replaced an injured Matt Hasselbeck and rallied the Titans to a pair of touchdowns. But that didn’t really matter.

What did matter was how the Falcons started. A lot of other teams might have folded after a loss like the one the Falcons suffered to the Saints. A lot of other teams might have let their season spiral out of control.

But the Falcons now are 6-4 and only a game behind the Saints in the NFC South standings. That’s because the Falcons aren’t like a lot of other teams and Smith isn’t like a lot of other coaches.

“It starts at the top,’’ said Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw for 316 yards, a touchdown and was not intercepted. “Smitty does a great job of teaching off the tape from the week before and really ingraining in all of us that it’s time to move on.’’

Smith has a 24-hour rule. Basically, that means you’ve got 24 hours to celebrate a win or think about a loss. After that, it’s on to the next game.

Lots of teams and lots of coaches have some sort of similar rule. It might sound cliché and Smith is certainly capable of spewing clichés. But the difference is the Falcons really do buy into the 24-hour rule.

Consider this: Since Smith’s arrival in 2008, the Falcons are 16-3 in games after a loss. Since 2009, they’re 8-0.

“We really do flush it after 24 hours,’’ said defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who batted down two third-quarter passes, had two quarterback hurries and two tackles for a loss. “We have a great leader in Mike Smith. Whatever he tells us to do, we do. We’ve seen the results of his 24-hour rule and I think that’s why we buy into it totally.’’

You can’t argue with the results. But Smith, who was more than willing to step up and take the blame last week, wasn’t standing around and take the credit this week. Instead, he pointed at his players.

“It says a lot about the guys,’’ Smith said. “Regardless of the outcome, we know it’s a long season. Regardless of the outcome, we have to move on to the next football game. Our guys have done an outstanding job since we’ve been here. That’s one of the things from the very first day that we got together, we talked about what the formula for being a successful football team is and one of the things is to put defeats behind you and move to the next ball game. Our guys really have bought into that. We don’t let things linger.’’

There’s no doubt the players deserve plenty of credit for bouncing back against the Titans.

“We have a mature locker room and we have a group of guys that understand what it takes to be a professional,’’ Ryan said. “You’re going to have some tough losses and you need to move on from that. I think, collectively, all 53 guys and our practice-squad guys take that to heart and that’s probably the reason why.’’

The maturity of Atlanta’s players may set the Falcons apart from a lot of teams. The Falcons have some very strong leadership from veterans like Babineaux, tight end Tony Gonzalez and center Todd McClure. Some younger guys, like Ryan and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton also have emerged as very strong leaders.

“When our backs are against the wall, everybody gets locked in and we are on the same page,’’ Lofton said.

But the maturity of the coach might be what matters most. Just as an example, let’s compare Smith and the Falcons to another NFC South team. Let’s compare the Falcons to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris took a lot of criticism after last week’s loss to Houston. He spent a lot of the past week firing back at critics, criticizing some of his own players and talking about how difficult Tampa Bay’s schedule has been. No matter how much Morris said he had moved on from the Houston loss, he hadn’t. The Bucs went up to Green Bay on Sunday and lost to the Packers. Tampa Bay now is on a four-game losing streak. At 4-6, the Bucs’ hopes of a playoff berth are fading away.

After the loss to New Orleans, Smith took way more criticism than Morris; Smith didn’t respond a single time. He never singles out players for criticism and you’ll never hear him using anything that sounds remotely like an excuse.

That’s why the Falcons still are very much in the NFC South race. The Falcons are far from flawless and they’ve yet to be very consistent this season. But you look at their roster and you look at their coach and it’s not all that hard to imagine everything suddenly clicking, maybe at just the right time. The rest of their schedule really isn't that difficult and they've got a rematch in New Orleans the day after Christmas.

The Falcons have faced some adversity, but they still have their heads well above water. That’s why anything remains possible for this team. Smith is the reason for that.

“Mike Smith is a guy of positivity and passion,’’ Dimitroff said. “He’s a guy that is so competitive. Mix all those things together and that’s what he presents to the players, day in day out and game in, game out. The players feel that he has their back and I think it’s vice versa that they have his back.’’

Smith is a model of consistency. With that kind of example every day, maybe the Falcons will become a consistently good team before this season is over.

Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

September, 14, 2011
Cam Newton and Andy DaltonGetty ImagesCarolina's Cam Newton, left, and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton are the latest examples of quarterbacks who started the first game of their rookie seasons.
There’s an ancient NFL proverb that says you shouldn’t play a rookie quarterback right away. If you do, the logic goes, you might ruin him.

In breaking and somewhat related news: The world is flat.

Yeah, Christopher Columbus shot the second one down, and let’s turn to Cam Newton and Andy Dalton to take care of the first. Let’s label the exhibits Rookie QB 1 and Rookie QB 2.

Just look at the evidence Newton and Dalton put on the field Sunday as the only two rookie quarterbacks to start the season. Newton threw for 422 yards, the most ever by a player making his NFL debut.

And this was a guy who some fans and draft gurus said wouldn’t be able to run an NFL offense?

Then there was Dalton. He wasn’t as flamboyant as Newton, and he left the game with an injury. But, before he did, Dalton was a very efficient 10-of-15 passing for 81 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions to help the Cincinnati Bengals kick off the post-Carson Palmer era with a victory against Cleveland.

And Dalton slid all the way to the second round of the draft?

There’s a lesson to be learned from what Newton and Dalton did on Sunday. You can start a rookie quarterback right off the bat. And this theory’s not exactly brand new.

Take a look at recent years. Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez have played quickly and fared well. As a matter of fact, can you name the last early draft pick who truly got "ruined" by playing too soon?

I say it’s David Carr, and that was a long time ago and in unique circumstances. Carr was playing on the expansion Houston Texans, who never really did anything to build a quality offensive line during his tenure.

You can throw out names like Joey Harrington, JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young and Alex Smith. But I think those were guys who were going to struggle no matter how soon they played.

Yeah, maybe in a dream world you can let Aaron Rodgers sit behind Brett Favre for a few years. But the NFL’s not a dream world, and maybe it’s time for those still clinging to the myth that a quarterback has to sit to let go.

Maybe it’s time -- or at least close to time -- for the Vikings, Jaguars and Titans to realize they’ve got nothing to lose by playing Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker sooner rather than later.

In a new age when first-round rookie contracts are limited to four years with an option for a fifth, there’s a sense of urgency to find out what a quarterback can do. Yeah, you can make the argument that’s throwing a guy to the wolves. But the Panthers threw Newton to the Cardinals and the Bengals threw Dalton to the Browns and no one got ruined.

This is the inaugural edition of Quarterback Watch. We’ll be here every Wednesday throughout the season, examining the trends and themes involving quarterbacks and looking at whose stock is on the rise and whose is declining.



He has not been able to speak to head coach Raheem Morris, offensive coordinator Greg Olson or quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt during the lockout, but Josh Freeman still is getting some coaching.

The Tampa Bay quarterback has acted as a coach while organizing and running workouts for his teammates. But, behind the scenes, he’s been getting help from the outside. Freeman has continued a tradition that started after his first season at Kansas State. He’s been working with private quarterbacks coach Anton Clarkson. Here's the link the to Clarkson's website.

[+] EnlargeFreeman
Chuck Cook/US PresswireAnton Clarkson believes Josh Freeman has what it takes to be an elite NFL quarterback.
“We’ve still worked some on the on-field stuff, but this year has been different because of the lockout,’’ said Clarkson, who played quarterback at Oregon State and Hofstra and is based in Southern California. “This year, we’ve focused more on defenses, understanding the coverages and the blitz protections. We’ve spent more time looking at film.’’

Clarkson, whose client list also includes rookie Jake Locker and several college and high school quarterbacks, including Joe Montana’s sons, has traveled to Florida several times to work with Freeman and the quarterback has gone out to California on multiple occasions.

“The other thing we’ve worked on and talked a lot about is working on leadership,’’ Clarkson said. “That comes pretty easily and naturally to Josh. He might only be 23, but he’s a wise-old soul. When the lockout was coming down, I was about to talk to him about the idea of setting up some workouts for his teammates, but he already beat me to the punch.’’

Although most of Freeman’s workouts so far have been for offensive skill-position players, he has said the Bucs will hold more of a minicamp session the last week of June, with offensive linemen and defensive players expected to take part.

As soon as that’s over, there’s another step in place to get ready for the start of training camp. Clarkson said Freeman will come to California as soon as the workouts end and, this time, he’s bringing guests. According to Clarkson, receivers Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and Sammie Stroughter are expected to join Freeman in California for a series of on-field workouts and time in the film room. Clarkson has a strong knowledge of Tampa Bay's playbook and knows Morris, another Hofstra product, very well.

Freeman and Clarkson first began working together at the urging of the Kansas State staff and have continued each offseason since. They also talk during the season and Clarkson said Freeman is one of the best pupils he’s ever worked with.

“First off, Josh has a great deal of natural talent,’’ Clarkson said. “He’s gigantic and he’s naturally athletic. But, more than that, he’s one of the most competitive and driven people I’ve ever been around. When I’m working with him and talking to him, he’s almost trying to steal the words out of my mouth. He’s so desperate to add information and make himself a better player and he’s never satisfied. As good as his numbers were last season, if you talk to him, they weren’t good enough. The fact the Bucs went 10-6, but didn’t make the playoffs has given him another chip on his shoulder.’’

Freeman threw 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions last year.

“Every year since I’ve worked with him I’ve asked him what his goals for the team are and what his personal goals are,’’ Clarkson said. “He’s given the same answer every year. His team goal is to win the championship. Individually, he always says he wants a season without an interception and I always tell him, 'Josh, that’s not really possible,’ but he darn near proved me wrong on that one last year.’’

Clarkson said Freeman’s nature is to never be satisfied. That’s why Clarkson believes Freeman soon will be among the league’s elite quarterbacks.

“Just a Pro Bowl alternate wasn’t good enough for him last year,’’ Clarkson said. “He looks up to guys like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. He wants to get to a point where he can put his name up there with those guys.’’

Can he do it?

“Absolutely, there is no doubt in my mind,’’ Clarkson said. “Physically, he’s more talented than those guys in terms of size and strength. He’s a remarkable athlete. Those guys have set themselves apart by putting in an enormous amount of work on the field and in the film rooms and meeting rooms. Josh obviously is younger than them, but he’s working to catch up to them by really focusing in on all the things they did to set themselves apart.’’

You Called It: Cam Newton

April, 9, 2011
You have spoken loud and clear in the inaugural edition of “Call It.’’ We asked you to vote on which quarterback the Panthers should take with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

And the winner, in your eyes, was pretty clear. Auburn’s Cam Newton was the runaway winner with 47 percent of the more than 5,000 votes. Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert was No. 2 at 24 percent. “Other,’’ which I guess would include guys like Jake Locker and Andy Dalton, or not drafting a quarterback at all, drew 18 percent of the vote. Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett came in last at 11 percent.

From what I know, I think the Panthers are thinking the same way as most of our voters. They haven’t made a final decision, but I believe they are leaning toward Newton.

Even though the majority of you say Newton will be the pick, I’m getting a lot of notes in the mailbag from people who oppose such a move. The general theme from those people is that Newton’s background means he will be a bust. You could end up being right in the long run.

But, as I’ve said before, I think the Panthers are looking at the upside. They’re aware of the downside and just might be willing to step out of their old, conservative style and take a chance.

We’ve got our second “Call It’’ vote up, and it deals with Aqib Talib’s future in Tampa Bay. I’ll give this one a little more time for you to vote, and we’ll probably make a final analysis on what you have to say Tuesday or Wednesday.

Watch Jake Locker's workout live

March, 30, 2011
It seems like Auburn’s Cam Newton or Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert will be the choice if Carolina is going to take a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

But the Panthers have been doing an incredible amount of due diligence on every quarterback in this draft. I’m sure they’ll at least be represented Wednesday when Jake Locker has his pro day workout at the University of Washington.

In fact, you can attend Locker’s workout. It’s scheduled to be carried on ESPN3 at 2 p.m. ET. Here’s the link.

Blaine Gabbert's hype starts today

March, 17, 2011
My longtime friend and former co-worker Tom Sorensen created quite a stir Wednesday when he wrote that all signs are pointing to the Carolina Panthers taking Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick.

He also added a couple qualifiers that said the Panthers at least seem to be trying to convince the NFL world of that fact and maybe they’re hoping to trade down.

A lot of people took this to mean Sorensen was reporting the Panthers are -- almost absolutely -- taking Newton. But a lot of those people were taking things too literally and not getting what Sorensen was really saying.

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
AP Photo/Darron CummingsBlaine Gabbert hasn't thrown in public since the Insight Bowl.
Let’s start with a little lesson in the world of newspapers and journalism. Beat writers cover the facts. Columnists provide analysis of the news and opinions. The lines have blurred in some cases as the journalism world has restructured itself extensively in recent years. A certain blog network took a group of former newspaper beat writers and essentially asked us to stop being traditional beat writers and start using our past experience to write mostly analysis and opinion.

Sorensen’s a great columnist, capable of crossing lines some columnists, who write off the top of their heads, don't. He’s got some good sources, so he sometimes ends up writing news or columns that contain some strong hints at the news.

I think his Wednesday piece fell into the latter category. Sorensen was analyzing what’s already known. There’s no doubt the Panthers have been doing extensive homework on Newton, and that’s basically what he wrote. Does he have some vibe that the Panthers are leaning in that direction? I don’t know for sure, but Tom’s not the kind of guy to just throw things out without having some insight.

But let’s remember, this wasn’t written as a flat-out news story, and Tom didn’t definitively say whom the Panthers will be drafting No. 1. He just said the signs seem to be pointing in that direction.

The draft doesn’t start until April 28, and a lot of signs can change direction between now and then. Heck, that could even start happening Thursday.

You’re going to see all sorts of stories that Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert is having his pro day today and is scheduled to have a private workout with the Panthers this weekend.

Will the signs suddenly switch to the Panthers drafting Gabbert? Maybe so, or maybe it will just appear that way. Don’t read too much into that, because if you really think about it, it’s highly unlikely the Panthers have made any firm decision on either quarterback or even if they’ll take one with the first pick.

That’s largely because they’d be foolish if they didn’t wait until now to take a hard look at Gabbert. Today will be the first time he’s thrown publicly since he concluded his career in the Insight Bowl. He didn’t throw at the combine. Sure, the Panthers probably have watched hours of tape on him from college. But it wouldn’t be wise to make any decision until seeing Gabbert.

The Panthers will get two chances to see him throw extensively the next few days, and it’s likely they’ll at least narrow their thinking on quarterbacks after an up-close look.

Oh, by the way, there’s a little more on the quarterback front this morning. Our Chris Mortensen reports that Gabbert scored a 42 on the Wonderlic. That’s a great score and only one point behind Alabama’s Greg McElroy, who turned in the highest score of all the quarterbacks. Newton’s score was 21. That’s rather mediocre and only one point ahead of Washington’s Jake Locker, who had the lowest score of the high-ranking quarterback prospects.

Is the Wonderlic going to make Carolina’s final decision? Is Gabbert’s workout going to be the one deciding factor?

No, this is a process, and general manager Marty Hurney is a methodical guy. His signs have pointed toward Newton so far, but Hurney and the Panthers aren't going to be done until they read all the signs.

QB prospect for Saints, Falcons, Bucs

February, 28, 2011
It seems like the only quarterback prospects we’ve been talking about for months are Auburn’s Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert. Now that the combine is here, Washington’s Jake Locker and Arkansas Ryan Mallett also are getting some attention.

But let’s face the facts, the Carolina Panthers are the only NFC South team in the market for a starting quarterback this year. I have said and continue to say, that won’t come through the draft. I think the Panthers go out and get a quarterback with some experience in a trade or free agency and use the No. 1 overall pick on a defensive lineman, either Clemson end Da’Quan Bowers or Auburn tackle Nick Fairley.

But there’s one common theme I see with the other three NFC South teams when it comes to quarterbacks. Each of them could use an upgrade at backup and the guy that I’m real curious about is Delaware quarterback Pat Devlin.

I could see the Buccaneers, Falcons or Saints taking a shot on Devlin anywhere from the fourth round on and I think he could be better than what any of those teams have at backup. Maybe not immediately, but I think Devlin is sort of a hidden gem in this draft and a few weeks of training camp could make him better than Tampa Bay’s Josh Johnson, Atlanta’s Chris Redman or New Orleans’ Chase Daniel, the current backups for those three teams.

In fact, I view Devlin as a scaled-down Matt Ryan. I followed those two closely in high school because both are originally from my home state, Pennsylvania. Devlin was better than Ryan in high school. Penn State’s Joe Paterno didn’t even recruit Ryan, but he recruited the heck out of Devlin and convinced the quarterback to back out of a commitment to Miami as Devlin was generally seen as the highest-rated quarterback in his high school class.

Things didn’t work out for Devlin at Penn State, even though he had some bright moments. Paterno, who is well known for always favoring upperclassmen, chose Darryl Clark to start over Devlin. That prompted Devlin to transfer to Delaware, where he had a decent career.

His performance at the combine was decent, but nothing outstanding. These days, Devlin’s not as polished as Ryan was when he came out of Boston College in 2008. But Devlin has prototype size, a decent arm and excellent mechanics.

He’s not going to be an instant starter. But he could provide a quality backup for Atlanta, New Orleans or Tampa Bay. In fact, I’d argue Devlin has a better shot landing in the NFC South than Newton or Gabbert.

QBs fall off Kiper's Big Board

February, 2, 2011
Mel Kiper has his latest Big Board out and it’s not necessarily good news for the Carolina Panthers. At least according to Kiper, the pool of top quarterbacks is dwindling.

Kiper has taken Washington’s Jake Locker and Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett out of his top 25 and he does not have a quarterback among his top five. Carolina has the top pick, but the early indications are there isn’t a quarterback worthy of that choice. With strong interviews and good workouts at the combine or in private, Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert may be able to rise.

But it’s looking more and more like Carolina will be choosing between a pair of defensive linemen – Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley and Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers. They’re the top two players on Kiper’s board and they’re among 10 defensive linemen in the top 25.
Since Washington’s Jake Locker is widely considered the top quarterback prospect at the Senior Bowl and the Carolina Panthers are in the market for a quarterback and have the first pick in 2011 draft, you would think the two sides already are getting to know each other.

Well, it hasn’t come to that point – at least not yet. Locker just met with reporters a little bit ago. I have a friend at the Senior Bowl who covers one of the other NFC South teams and asked him to ask Locker if he had interviewed with the Panthers yet.

Locker’s response was that he had not met with the Panthers and, at least at the moment, no interview was scheduled.

I wouldn’t go reading too much into this right now. New Carolina coach Ron Rivera didn’t arrive at the Senior Bowl until Tuesday and practices started Monday. Rivera still is putting his coaching staff together and getting acclimated.

Sure, a lot of teams interview a lot of players at the Senior Bowl. But the Panthers might be waiting for the combine to interview Locker. They also could bring him in for a private visit before the draft. My guess is they’ll sit down with Locker at a later time.

The Panthers have been out in full force at Senior Bowl practices and it’s safe to assume they’re watching every move Locker makes. If he shows some signs, he could be the franchise quarterback they’re looking for, the Panthers then will make an effort to get to know Locker.