NFC South: Jason Baker

Updated NFC South salary-cap space

September, 5, 2012
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Now that we’re into the first week of the regular season, the way salary-cap figures for each team are calculated has changed.

In the offseason, only the top 51 figures count against a team’s cap. Now, every contract counts and that includes practice squad players and guys who are no longer on the roster, but are counting for outstanding pro-rated bonus money.

I just got a look at where each NFC South team stands under the cap, so let’s run through it.

The Falcons are only $1.049 million under the cap. If this team suffers a serious injury and wants to sign a replacement of any significance, it likely will have to restructure a contract or two to free up room. The Falcons are carrying a lot of “dead money,” including some that stretches back to guys who haven’t played for Atlanta since 2010. Jamaal Anderson, Michael Jenkins, Chauncey Davis and Ovie Mughelli are taking up more than $2 million in salary-cap space.

The Carolina Panthers are at $5.1 million and some of that is due to smart accounting. Former guard Travelle Wharton is costing the team $1.9 million, but the hit for this year is spread out equally for next year. The Panthers do have about $550,000 tied up in former punter Jason Baker and kicker Olindo Mare and they also lost an injury grievance to safety Nate Salley, which is costing them $440,000. The Panthers already are projected to be close to the 2013 cap and would like to carry some of this year's room over to next year.

The New Orleans Saints are $8.7 under the cap, but that’s misleading. Defensive end Will Smith's $5.1 million figure is off the books during a four-game suspension, but comes back on as soon as it’s over. Smith also could come back on the books if the NFL Players Association gets a temporary restraining order on his suspension. Jonathan Vilma's $3.3 figure isn’t counting as he serves a season-long suspension. But, like with Smith, the Saints have to keep room open for him in case he is reinstated, even if it’s only temporary.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have $14.9 million in cap space. That figure doesn’t include Wednesday’s re-signing of cornerback Brandon McDonald and the release of offensive lineman Derek Hardman, but those moves likely will have only a minor impact. The Bucs rank third in the league in cap space, but don’t call them cheap. They spent a fortune in free agency and front-loaded the contracts of Carl Nicks, Vincent Jackson and Eric Wright. I wouldn’t anticipate the Bucs using most of their remaining salary-cap space. They want to carry it over to next year because they already are projected to be close to the 2013 salary cap. Carrying over some of this year’s cap space would give the Bucs room to add a few more free agents next year.

Around the NFC South

August, 21, 2012
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A look at the Tuesday morning headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

At first, there were signs that undrafted rookie Dominique Davis could push John Parker Wilson for the third quarterback job. Now, there’s speculation he could move ahead of Chris Redman as the backup. I think that’s a little premature. Davis has a lot of upside and could end up as the backup down the road. But, if something happens to Matt Ryan, I think the Falcons would feel much safer leaving the team in the hands of Redman for the short term.

Jacquizz Rodgers never returned a kickoff in college. But it looks as if he’ll fill that role for the Falcons this season. Makes sense, because Rodgers is one of the team’s fastest players and has the potential to deliver long returns.

The Falcons, who had only one fight throughout training camp, had two scuffles break out Monday.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

After spending the entire offseason working to improve the defense, Carolina coach Ron Rivera said he still is concerned about an inability to get offenses off the field on third downs. He’s got two preseason games left to fix that.

It might not be the flashiest of positions, but the battle for the punting job might be the most intense competition in Carolina’s preseason. Veteran Nick Harris and rookie Brad Nortman are the candidates, and they’ve been even so far. Punting was a problem last season, and the Panthers want to upgrade over Jason Baker, who was let go after last season.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Bradley Handwerger writes that having to make a trade for veteran linebacker Barrett Ruud so late in the preseason was less than ideal, but it was the best move the Saints could make after suffering three significant injuries at linebacker. Ruud is a long way removed from the days when he was a top middle linebacker in Tampa Bay, but he’s smart enough to come in and run the defense in the absence of Curtis Lofton. With Ruud in the middle, the Saints will look to start him along with Scott Shanle and Jonathan Casillas until Lofton and David Hawthorne are healthy enough to return.

Former New Orleans special-teams star Steve Gleason said comments he made to HBO’s “Real Sports’’ have been misinterpreted by the media. Preview material of the episode, which is scheduled to air Tuesday night, have touted Gleason as being surprised that no one reacted to former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ speech the night before last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco. Gleason now says he wasn’t questioning the lack of a reaction by players and coaches. He says he was surprised others in his immediate group, and not with the team, didn’t seem to react when Williams made the comments.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

With the New England Patriots coming to town for joint practices Wednesday and Thursday, the Buccaneers are healthier than they’ve been most of the preseason. Running back LeGarrette Blount, left tackle Donald Penn, cornerback Aqib Talib and tight end Luke Stocker, who all have been banged up, are expected to be ready to practice against the Patriots.

Safety Ahmad Black is making a strong case for a roster spot. Ronde Barber and Mark Barron are set as the starters, so Black will have to climb over the likes of Cody Grimm, Larry Asante, Tramain Thomas and Keith Tandy.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In one sentence, Ron Rivera can take the 2011 Carolina Panthers and make them 9-7 instead of 6-10.

“I look at the Minnesota game, I look at the Detroit game and I look at the second Atlanta game," the Carolina coach said after practice on a recent morning.

No need to go back and look up those games. There’s one very common thread -- the Carolina defense crumbled when it mattered most. Despite hitting the jackpot drafting quarterback Cam Newton and suddenly having the most explosive offense in franchise history, the Panthers still finished third in the NFC South.

“It was hard for [defensive coordinator] Sean [McDermott], because he really had to pull back on what he likes to do, and disappointing for me because I wanted more from our defense," Rivera said. “But I think the toughest part of all is when you look back and see certain opportunities where if somebody just stepped up and made a play on the defensive side of the ball, it’s a totally different result to the ballgame."

But Rivera and the Panthers aren’t doing too much reflecting these days. Instead, Rivera’s looking at a fully stocked defense, and that’s reason enough for optimism. Jon Beason, who missed almost all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon, is back. So is defensive tackle Ron Edwards, who suffered a season-ending injury early in training camp. There is even hope that outside linebacker Thomas Davis, who once seemed to be on the verge of becoming a superstar, can fully recover from his third torn ACL and contribute at least as a role player.

The Panthers used their first-round pick on Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who can play inside or outside, chase down running backs and rush the passer. There were other moves here and there for depth, and that’s why veteran left tackle Jordan Gross is looking across the line and seeing a defense that looks nothing like last season’s.

“I don’t think people truly realize how much we lost with the injuries last year," Gross said. “Missing Beas was a big deal as far as football, but it was an even bigger deal in the locker room. He’s the constant on that defense. He’s the guy that’s always chiming in on any team issue and getting on guys or encouraging guys. There really wasn’t a leader out there last year, once he was gone.

“Having Ron Edwards back also is huge, because he’s a big-body guy that we haven’t had in awhile, and that’s going to help the entire defense. Kuechly obviously is a guy that’s going to make some plays, and I think our pass rush has gotten better, just from having experience thrust upon them last year. Just practicing against them in camp, I can tell you that defense is going to be a whole lot better."

If Gross is right, Carolina fans could be very happy. This team hasn’t had a winning season since 2008. That could change with some improvement from the defense, because the world already knows Newton and the offense are going to score. If the defense can make just a few more of those plays Rivera talked about, the Panthers could be in the playoffs.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The No. 2 cornerback spot. The Panthers have made it pretty clear they don’t want Captain Munnerlyn starting at cornerback. He brings athleticism and swagger but lacks the size to be an effective every-down cornerback. Ideally, the Panthers would like to slide Munnerlyn inside and let him line up with slot receivers in the nickel package.

That makes all sorts of sense, but there’s one big catch. At the moment, the Panthers aren’t sure they have anyone who can take Munnerlyn’s place as the starter. They got all excited about rookie Josh Norman in June workouts, and he still might end up in that role, but his fast track to a starting job stalled when he missed some time with an injury early in camp. There also was hope that second-year pro Brandon Hogan could claim the spot. But Hogan’s knee, which he injured in his final year of college, still doesn't allow him to stay on the practice field with anything approaching consistency.

Maybe Norman steps up in what’s left of the preseason. If not, the Panthers might give Darius Butler, who spent two seasons with New England before joining the Panthers last season, the starting job. Or maybe they still start Munnerlyn, but slide him inside in nickel situations and let Butler take his spot on the outside.

[+] EnlargeMike Tolbert
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonThe addition of Mike Tolbert, right, further crowds a backfield that includes DeAngelo Williams, left, and Jonathan Stewart.
2. The workload at running back. You can make a case that the Panthers underused running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart last season. So what did the Panthers do in the offseason? They added Mike Tolbert as a free agent from San Diego. The Panthers say Tolbert will be a fullback but also say he’ll get some time at tailback and will be asked to catch passes out of the backfield.

That sure makes it sound like the number of carries for Williams and Stewart, who each have had 1,000-yard seasons in the past, will be reduced even more. But I think people are missing the point. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was riding the hot hand with Newton last season, and the Panthers frequently played from behind. When the coaching staff reflected on last season, I think it concluded that the running backs weren’t involved enough. Count on a conscious effort to get Williams and Stewart more carries.

It might look like Tolbert just complicates things. But players don’t call Chudzinski “The Mad Scientist" for no reason. They know he has big plans for this backfield. We could end up seeing all sorts of combinations of Williams, Stewart and Tolbert, and there could be all sorts of new plays. It sure beats the heck out of the old days in Carolina when variety in the backfield meant a draw play to Nick Goings.

3. The lineup at linebacker. When the Panthers drafted Kuechly, fans wondered what that meant for Beason. Kuechly played the middle in college, and the natural assumption was that he would do the same in the NFL. Kuechly might end up in the middle someday, but not while Beason is around.

Beason is a natural in the middle, and the Panthers aren’t going to move him. They’ll use Kuechly on the weak side. Davis’ comeback is a great story, but it almost certainly isn’t going to end with his return as a full-time starter. James Anderson will be the other starter. If the Panthers get anything out of Davis, it will be viewed as a bonus. At best, the Panthers plan to use Davis as a situational player in some nickel packages. They could resort to the 3-4 defense a little more often, but the 4-3 is going to remain their base defense.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeRyan Kalil
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneCenter Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer, declaring fans will be rewarded for their support with a "one hundred-percent, sterling silver victory -- the Lombardi Trophy."
One of the biggest signs of optimism I’ve ever seen came a few days before camp when center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer, promising a Super Bowl victory this season. Let’s turn to Kalil for an explanation.

“The idea behind the letter wasn’t to spark anything with the team, but really to let the fans in on how the culture was changing here," Kalil said. “I think in recent years, the culture has been too much of, 'If the Panthers win, great. And, if not, nobody expects much from us.’ I think Ron Rivera came in here and the mindset has just changed. There’s a sense of urgency, and a winning attitude that I haven’t seen since I’ve been here. That was the idea behind the letter -- just to get the fans excited, because we haven’t given them a whole lot to cheer about in recent years, and they’ve been very supportive of us. They deserve a better team, and we’re going to give them years of better things to come."

I’ve gotten to know Kalil pretty well, and he’s not the kind of guy who would pull a stunt like this just for show. Kalil was used to winning at USC and, if he was willing to go out on a limb like this, he must feel pretty confident that what he’s seen in the offseason program is about to translate into something special.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There’s no question the presence of Kuechly and Beason will make the linebackers better, and there’s no doubt Edwards will help the run defense. But, outside of Charles Johnson, where’s the pass rush? There was almost no pass rush outside of Johnson last season, and it’s not like the Panthers made any dramatic moves in that area this offseason.

Maybe this is the year Greg Hardy and Eric Norwood finally reach their potential, but it’s not as if they’ve had major flashes in the past. There’s been a little buzz in camp about Thomas Keiser. I’m not sure he’s ready to be a full-time starter, but he could be a situational player. The Panthers might have to make more active use of the blitz. If they don’t, then a secondary that’s not exceptionally talented could be in for another long season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The special teams were almost as big a problem as the defense last season. That’s why the jobs at punter and kicker are completely wide open. There are no favorites here. The Panthers are simply going to go through the preseason and see whether Olindo Mare or Justin Medlock kicks better. If Medlock emerges, the Panthers will be happy to swallow their pride after giving Mare a big contract last season. They just want consistency. It’s the same at punter, where the Panthers let Jason Baker go after last season. They invested a draft pick in Brad Nortman but went out and signed veteran Nick Harris. They’re not indebted to either.

  • Brandon LaFell pretty much has locked up the No. 2 wide receiver job opposite Steve Smith. But there’s a logjam of receivers after that. David Gettis, Louis Murphy and Seyi Ajirotutu seem to be competing for the No. 3 spot. But they might not all make the team. The Panthers also are high on younger receivers Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams and Armanti Edwards, each of whom can contribute in the return game. Edwards, whom the Panthers drafted as a project in 2010, has shown some promise in camp but probably isn’t going to make the roster ahead of Adams and Pilares.

  • There was a lot of talk about competition at right tackle and left guard entering camp. But those competitions didn’t turn into much. The Panthers already were locked in on Byron Bell as their right tackle after he played so well there last season. They also seem fully prepared to go with rookie Amini Silatolu at left guard. Veterans Mike Pollak and Bruce Campbell were brought in, but the Panthers are viewing them as quality backups.

  • There’s been a buzz around camp about how well third-year quarterback Jimmy Clausen has played. Sad part is, it doesn’t really matter. Newton’s set as the franchise quarterback for at least the next decade, and Chudzinski has strong ties to veteran backup Derek Anderson. Clausen is stuck at No. 3. The Panthers might as well try to showcase him in the preseason games. If he really is playing that well, someone might be willing to trade a draft pick for him.

  • The Panthers brought in Haruki Nakamura as an alternative to Sherrod Martin at safety. The thinking was Nakamura, who was Ed Reed’s backup in Baltimore, could end up beating Martin out. As it turns out, the acquisition seems to have ignited a fire under Martin. He’s having a nice training camp, and it looks like he’ll hold onto the starting job if he can continue playing well through the preseason.
  • The Panthers aren't the slightest bit worried about Newton's running into "the sophomore slump." There is good reason for that. Newton had one of the best statistical seasons ever by a quarterback, and he did that coming out of a lockout during which he wasn't able to spend any offseason time with his coaches. Newton has had an entire offseason this year, and all indications are he spent as much time around the facility as possible. The Panthers fully believe Newton didn't even come close to hitting his full potential last season.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

Carolina’s special teams were among the worst in the league last year. That’s why the Panthers didn’t sit still in the offseason. They went out and made a bunch of moves that should help their special teams.

Safety Haruki Nakamura, linebacker Kenny Onatolu and fullback Mike Tolbert all have been productive on the coverage units in previous stops. The Panthers also used two draft picks on two players they expect to be regulars on special teams. Wide receiver Joe Adams has excellent potential as a return man. The Panthers also drafted punter Josh Nortman, but the job doesn’t automatically belong to him. The Panthers also brought in veteran Nick Harris to compete with Nortman, after they released Jason Baker earlier in the offseason.

Even kicker Olindo Mare, who had some big misses last season, is going to have to win his job. The Panthers brought in former Canadian Football League kicker Justin Medlock to compete with Mare. There’s competition everywhere. That’s a good thing. Injuries left the Panthers very short-handed on special teams at times last season. This offseason, general manager Marty Hurney has gone out of his way to make sure the Panthers have plenty of talent and depth there. If the special teams and the defense can be better than last year, Carolina has a chance to challenge for a playoff spot.

Looking back on the sixth round

April, 28, 2012
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The sixth round of the NFL draft is over and each NFC South team made one pick. Let’s take a look.

The Buccaneers selected West Virginia cornerback Keith Tandy. At this stage of the draft, it’s all about depth. With Aqib Talib’s future still uncertain and the possibility of Ronde Barber playing safety, Tandy gives the Bucs some more depth at cornerback and a likely special-teams player.

The Saints took Syracuse guard Andrew Tiller. This is one guy that you don’t write off as a career backup just because he’s a sixth-round pick. First off, Tiller has great size and some upside. Second, the Saints have a history of finding great guards later in the draft. They found Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, although Nicks left this year via free agency. Oh, there’s one other factor here. Tiller’s college coach was Doug Marrone, who used to be New Orleans’ offensive coordinator, so Tiller should have some familiarity with the Saints’ offense.

The Falcons picked Mississippi State safety Charles Mitchell. He’s a little short, but he’s strong and powerful. As a three-year starter in the SEC, he has experience against good competition. He should provide some solid depth behind Thomas DeCoud and William Moore.

The Panthers used the final pick of the sixth round on Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. This is significant. The Panthers released punter Jason Baker in a salary-cap move and needed a replacement. They found one in Nortman.

Panthers cut punter for cap room

March, 14, 2012
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The Carolina Panthers just announced the release of punter Jason Baker.

This one is not a huge surprise.

“We talked to Jason and his agent and told them that it came down to a salary-cap decision,” general manager Marty Hurney said. “We appreciate everything he has done for us. He’s been a model Panther since he came to the organization.”

The Panthers are tight against the salary cap and Baker was counting for almost $2 million. By releasing him, the Panthers freed up $1.55 million in cap space. Baker joined the Panthers in 2005 and had a productive run. But his gross (42.7) and net (34.1) averages last season were lows in his time with the Panthers.

Panthers: Who's on the hot seat?

February, 27, 2012
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At the moment, the Carolina Panthers are the only NFC South team that is over the salary cap.

The Panthers are projected to be about $9 million above the cap. We continue our look at which NFC South players are potential cap casualties with a look at some candidates from the Panthers.

Linebacker Thomas Davis is scheduled to receive an $8 million roster bonus soon after free agency opens. But simply releasing Davis only gives the Panthers about $300,000 cap relief from Davis’ scheduled cap figure of $5.9 million. I don’t see any way the Panthers pay Davis, who is coming off his third ACL injury, the roster bonus. But Davis wants to stay in Carolina and the Panthers like him. Both sides could be willing to work out a new deal that waives the bonus and lowers Davis’ cap figure.

Veteran guard Travelle Wharton has been a solid player throughout his time in Carolina. But Wharton is scheduled to count $7.6 million against the cap. The Panthers could free up almost $4 million by releasing him. Wharton turns 31 in May and the Panthers have some younger offensive linemen that have promise.

The Panthers also could make some changes in their kicking game to free up some cap space. Kicker Olindo Mare was a disappointment last year. The Panthers wouldn’t save much ($300,000) by releasing him, but they’re in a situation where every penny counts. Punter Jason Baker also had a disappointing 2011 season. He’s scheduled to count almost $2 million against the cap and the Panthers could free up $1.7 million by releasing him.

Around the NFC South

February, 22, 2012
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Time for a look at Wednesday morning's top headlines from around the NFC South.

With the Panthers $9.6 million over the salary cap, Joseph Person writes that linebacker Thomas Davis, quarterback Jimmy Clausen, guard Travelle Wharton and punter Jason Baker are potential cap casualties.

Here’s the scouting report on LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers, who has been mentioned as a possible first-round target for the Panthers.

Atlanta’s Tyson Clabo graded out as one of the league’s top pass-blockers. Speaking of Clabo, here’s one writer’s explanation why he ranked Clabo among the top 20 tackles in the league and left Carolina’s Jordan Gross and Tampa Bay’s Donald Penn off the list.

Stephen Holder writes that the Buccaneers are likely to try to re-sign potential free agents Jeremy Zuttah and kicker Connor Barth. They’re two of Tampa Bay’s younger free agents. Zuttah has value because he can play center and guard and Barth has shown good accuracy. Age could work against running back Earnest Graham and safety Sean Jones as the Bucs look at their own free agents.

Film of the NFC South chat

February, 17, 2012
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We spent a lot of time looking ahead to free agency and the NFL draft during Friday’s NFC South chat. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.

Preston (New York): After watching a lot of Bucs film from last year, it seemed to me that Kellen Winslow looked slower, had problems creating separation, and made a lot of silly mistakes during the season (How many offensive pass interference calls against him?). Could the Bucs be looking to work on finding a replacement for him going into the offseason?

Pat Yasinskas: Wouldn't totally surprise me. Sure new coaching staff is looking at film of everyone right now. If they see same things you do, there could be a move.

Paul (Knoxville): Which piece is more important to NO...Nicks or Colston?

Pat Yasinskas: I've gotta go with Nicks. He's a big part of why Brees has been so well protected. Colston's great too. But you're asking me to pick between the two of them. I'll go with Nicks because they have -- and can add -- other guys that can catch the ball.

Cj South Carolina [via mobile]: Can the Falcons sign Nicks?

Pat Yasinskas: I still think he'll stay in New Orleans. Would he help Falcons? Absolutely. He's the best guard in the league. But I think the Falcons need to take care of left tackle before they do anything else.

Carter (Atlanta): What will the falcons do at left tackle?

Pat Yasinskas: Marcus McNeil? Maybe. But they better do their homework on the medical side. Other than that, it's tough to get a good left tackle in the draft when you don't have a first-round pick and the current list of free agents isn't all that attractive.

Paul (Knoxville): Saints getting Thomas Davis...could that be a possibility?

Pat Yasinskas: I could see Saints taking a shot on him. They have a history of taking shots on guys whose careers have been stalled by injuries or other reasons. If Thomas can get back to being what he was before the injuries, he could be a steal. But obviously that's a lot to expect from a guy who has had three torn ACLs.

Ben (Atlanta): Do you think Jason Baker will be replaced in the near future? No one talked about it much last year because punting isnt a really fun topic, but our net punting avg was horrible.

Pat Yasinskas: Ah, yeah, there's a good one. I should have mentioned him before when reader asked about potential releases for Panthers. I could see that one happening. He's making pretty big money for a punter.

Here’s the complete transcript of Friday’s NFC South chat.
Tampa Bay general Mark Dominik, Carolina punter Jason Baker and Atlanta director of event marketing Roddy White (not to be confused with the Atlanta receiver by the same name) all were nominees for the inaugural Salute to Service Award.

The award will be presented by USAA, a provider of insurance and other services to members of the U.S. military and their families. Dominik, Baker and White all have been active in putting together events involving military members with their teams.

Tennessee Titans owner K.S. “Bud’’ Adams Jr. and Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh have been selected as the two finalists for the award, which will be presented Saturday night.

Camp Confidential: Panthers

August, 4, 2011
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- You’ve heard plenty about the lockout over the past few months, but it actually was in effect in Charlotte since 2008.

The moment owners opted out of the previous labor agreement, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson realized there were tough financial times ahead. He immediately decided he wasn’t going to spend big money on long-term deals for players or coaches (the Panthers didn’t add a single unrestricted free agent in 2009 or 2010) because Richardson wanted to protect everyone else who worked for his franchise during these tough times.

That’s why defensive end Julius Peppers was allowed to walk in free agency last year. That’s why John Fox was allowed to be a lame-duck coach entering a 2010 season that turned into a nightmare. Despite having a roster filled with a reasonable amount of individual talent, the Panthers went 2-14 and fan apathy reached an all-time high.

But Richardson’s entire philosophy changed the moment the labor situation was resolved. He took the lock off his checkbook and began paying huge money to keep players such as defensive end Charles Johnson, running back DeAngelo Williams and linebackers Jon Beason, James Anderson and Thomas Davis. He added free agents such as kicker Olindo Mare and traded for tight end Greg Olsen. Including rookies, Richardson already has written checks for more than $100 million in signing bonuses.

Throw in the fact that Ron Rivera has replaced Fox and the Panthers chose quarterback Cam Newton with the first pick of the draft, and there suddenly is optimism the Panthers can quickly escape the label of being one of the league’s worst teams.

“That’s the one thing I’ve learned from being a Carolina Panther for going on nine years is that you never know what kind of a team we’re going to field from year to year,’’ veteran left tackle Jordan Gross said. “Things can change dramatically, and I think they are going to here. I love Coach Rivera’s philosophy and the staff he’s put together. They’re committed to winning, and the organization has shown that as well with what it has done with getting new guys and re-signing our own guys. I think we can be as good as we want to be.’’

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Cam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAs the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft, it is inevitable that Cam Newton will at some point start for the Panthers at quarterback.
THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Will Newton be the savior of this franchise? It’s way too early to even have a clue if the guy who played only one full season at Auburn will succeed in the NFL. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that the Panthers aren’t asking Newton to be their savior -- at least not right away.

The hope in Carolina is that Newton will get a reasonable grasp of the offense in training camp and show it in preseason games. If he does, he’ll be the opening-day starter. The Panthers don’t want to prolong the inevitable and start the season with Jimmy Clausen because Newton clearly is their future.

The playbook can expand as time goes on, but the organization believes that Newton can step right in behind an offensive line that should be good and can take advantage of a strong running game, very good tight ends and wide receiver Steve Smith.

2. What will the new offense look like? The popular thing to do in Carolina is assume that the departure of Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson means the Panthers are suddenly going to start throwing the ball all over the field.

They will throw more, but the Panthers won't pass as often as people think. That would be foolish with a rookie quarterback and it would border on insanity to keep the ball out of the hands of running backs Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Under new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, there will be significant differences from the Fox/Davidson era.

Chudzinski came from San Diego and plans to use an offensive scheme that’s based on what the Chargers do. You’ll see more passes to the tight ends, a big reason the Panthers brought in Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. You’ll see plays designed to get Smith away from double coverage. But don’t expect Newton to step right in and immediately be Philip Rivers.

3. What will the defense look like? Rivera has a defensive background. His coordinator is Sean McDermott, who spent time in Philadelphia. Some personnel changes in the middle of the defensive line will allow Beason, Anderson and Davis to again become play-making linebackers. That’s going to make this defense look a little like Fox’s defense of a few years back. But the real change will be a new philosophy that involves taking risks and being aggressive. The Panthers didn’t blitz much last year and didn’t have much success when they did. That’s going to change. McDermott’s going to use those athletic linebackers as blitzers, and with Johnson and Greg Hardy already up front, Carolina suddenly could have a dynamic and disruptive pass rush. The secondary is not loaded with big-time talent, but it could look a lot better if quarterbacks are forced into mistakes.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Armanti Edwards
Joshua S. Kelly/US PRESSWIREArmanti Edwards reached out to punter Jason Baker during the offseason to work on fielding punts.
Granted, it’s early, but the Panthers are hopeful receiver/return man Armanti Edwards will make an impact. A second-round pick last year, Edwards was a nonfactor as a rookie. That was largely because Fox believed the former college quarterback did not belong in the NFL. He barely let Edwards on the field as he made a statement to an owner and front office that wanted the lame-duck coach to embrace a youth movement. But Fox is gone and there’s sudden optimism about Edwards. The team didn’t know it until after the lockout ended, but it was delighted to find out that Edwards reached out to veteran punter Jason Baker during the offseason. The two worked out together frequently and Edwards made dramatic improvement in his ability to catch punts. There’s a good chance he could be the main punt and kickoff returner this season. He also could be involved in certain packages as a wide receiver.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

The perception is the Panthers have done just about everything they’ve wanted to in free agency. But that’s not quite reality. According to a league source, the team made a strong play for free-agent receiver Santana Moss, offering him a three-year deal worth $15 million. Moss took the deal back to the Redskins, who matched it, so he elected to stay in Washington. That one shook the Panthers a bit. Although they have high hopes for young receivers Brandon LaFell and David Gettis, they want to pair a proven veteran with Smith to start the season. Look for them to bring in another veteran at some point before the start of the regular season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Keep your eye on the cornerbacks who remain on the market or come available over the next few weeks. The Panthers let Richard Marshall leave via free agency. They still have Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn, but a team that has been so aggressive this offseason isn’t going to sit still at this position. The Panthers will sign a cornerback with starting experience at some point. They’re just waiting for the right guy at the right price.
  • The Panthers pushed veteran kicker John Kasay out the door and handed Mare a $4 million signing bonus. Kasay, 41, remained accurate on field goals, but the feeling was that he no longer had the leg strength to make long kicks. Mare’s 38 and still can make long field goals. But the biggest reason the change was made wasn’t about field goals. It was about kickoffs. The Panthers carried a kickoff specialist the past few years and didn’t want to waste a roster spot by doing that again. With the league moving kickoffs up 5 yards this year, the team believes Mare can produce a lot of touchbacks.
  • Don’t overlook running back Mike Goodson. As long as Williams and Stewart are healthy, he’s not going to get a bunch of carries. But Goodson was one of the few bright spots from last season and the new coaching staff noticed him on film. He can do a lot out of different things out of the backfield, and the coaching staff believes there's a role for Goodson. Think of a scaled-down version of what New Orleans did with Reggie Bush and plans to do with Darren Sproles.
  • Perhaps the most unsung move the Panthers made all offseason was hiring Mike Shula, the son of legendary coach Don Shula, as quarterbacks coach. He's had ups and downs as an NFL coordinator and college head coach at Alabama. But Shula has grown from it all and is a very good quarterbacks coach and teacher. If Shula can develop Newton or Clausen into a big-time quarterback, the world finally might give this guy his due.
  • The return of right tackle Jeff Otah is more significant than many realize. Otah missed all of last season with a knee injury but is fully healthy now. That’s going to have a huge impact on the running game.
  • Ryan Kalil signed his $10 million franchise tender and the team hasn’t talked to him about a long-term deal. But that’s simply because the front office has been so tied up making other moves. This team realizes Kalil is still young and already considered one of the best centers in the game. As soon as things settle down a bit, expect Kalil to be offered a big long-term deal.
We’ve only just begun to find out the philosophies of new Carolina coach Ron Rivera and I don’t think he’s been asked yet how he feels about using a roster spot for a kickoff specialist.

That’s something his predecessor John Fox did for much of the last four years by carrying Rhys Lloyd. But today’s news from the NFL competition committee that the league is proposing some major changes to kickoff rules could have a big impact on Lloyd’s value to Rivera or any other NFL coach.

The competition committee will ask teams to vote at next week’s owners meeting on a proposal to move the point of the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line. In other words, kickers will start five yards ahead of where they have been. The proposal also includes switching the point of a touchback from the receiving team’s 20-yard line to the 25-yard line.

This could make Lloyd expendable. He already was coming off a rather unimpressive 2010 season. Lloyd produced just 11 touchbacks. He had 21 in 2009 and 30 in 2008.

Veteran place-kicker John Kasay might not have the leg strength he once did, but he might be able to get the ball close to the end zone if he’s kicking off from the 35-yard line. Punter Jason Baker also has handled some kickoffs in the past.

Who are the NFC South union reps?

February, 20, 2011
2/20/11
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With the labor negotiations going on and a potential lockout looming if a deal isn’t completed by the end of the day on March 3, I decided to see who the representatives are from each NFC South team to the NFL Players Association.

Here’s the official link to the list on the union’s website.

I knew several off the top of my head. But there also have been several changes, and one division team suddenly lost its player rep. Atlanta's rep, safety Erik Coleman, recently was releasedd by the Falcons. Offensive lineman Tyson Clabo and linebacker Coy Wire are listed as the co-alternates, and one of them will take Coleman’s place. Interesting side note here, Clabo is a potential free agent.

Carolina’s rep is veteran kicker John Kasay. That’s very interesting, because Kasay and Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, who is leading the ownership part of the talks, might be as close as any player and owner in the league. The co-alternates after Kasay are wide receiver Steve Smith and punter Jason Baker. Makes you almost wish Kasay comes down with the flu for a few days so that Smith has to go to the negotiating room. Smith might not be able to get a deal done by himself, but asking the mercurial receiver to step into a room where people are supposed to be diplomatic sure might liven up the talks.

Contrary to popular belief, quarterback Drew Brees is not New Orleans’ player representative. That title officially is held by offensive lineman Jon Stinchcomb, and defensive end Will Smith is listed as the alternate. Brees was in the room for talks the day before the Super Bowl when Richardson allegedly made condescending comments to Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning. For the record, neither Brees or Manning are listed as representatives or alternates for their teams.

Tampa Bay’s rep is center Jeff Faine, with guard Davin Joseph and receiver Maurice Stovall listed as the co-alternates. Joseph’s scheduled to be a free agent, and there are some questions about Faine’s future with the team. He has a high salary and has been injury-prone since joining the Bucs.

NFC South links: Georgia Dome expansion

June, 30, 2010
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Atlanta Falcons

An architect's study shows that an expanded Georgia Dome could have a retractable roof, offer twice the current number of club seats and add thousands more parking spaces to the 5,500 it has now.

Wide receiver Roddy White may be called on by NFL security to discuss his version of what took place at a restaurant that hosted a party for Michael Vick's birthday.

Carolina Panthers

Tom Sorensen of the Charlotte Observer doesn't think general manager Marty Hurney, whose contract expires at the end of June, will be hurting for a job.

Punter Jason Baker still remains in regular contact with his high school football coach.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints top ESPN The Magazine's Ultimate Standings for 2010.

Agent Mike Ornstein ran "special ops" for the Saints during their stay in Miami prior to the Super Bowl.

The Shreveport Times takes a look at the Saints' busy offseason.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Despite a breakout season in 2009, Bucs linebacker Quincy Black is still treating this offseason as if he's trying to make the team.

The 2010 edition of the Buccaneers' Rookie Club held its first two events last week.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Panthers just finished their first minicamp practice. My main assignment is to write a column on rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen and I’ll get started on that momentarily.

But, first, I wanted to give you some quick observations from the morning session.

Cornerback Richard Marshall was the only player of note not in attendance. Marshall is a restricted free agent and is seeking a long-term contract. Linebacker Thomas Davis, also a restricted free agent, took part in practice, marking a significant step in his recovery from an injury that force him to miss much of last season.

Chatted with general manager Marty Hurney on the phone the other day and he kept saying, “We are young’’. I believed him, but the full magnitude didn’t really hit me until I saw the Panthers on the practice field. There really are just a handful of guys still on this team from when I covered the Panthers in my newspaper life. Still having trouble adjusting to seeing other guys wear the numbers Mike Minter and Mike Rucker used to wear. The Panthers only have four guys on the roster who are 30 or older. One of those is kicker John Kasay and another is punter Jason Baker.

There were some blue lines painted on one of the practice fields. Not sure exactly what that’s about. Might be for some soccer use. Or maybe they’re there to keep receiver Dwayne Jarrett straight on his routes.

Quarterback Matt Moore talked to the media for the first time since the Panthers drafted Clausen. Moore said all the right things, but I think it’s fair to say he doesn’t appear to be thrilled by the pick.

All right, I’m going to get to work on the Clausen column. I’ll be back with that this afternoon and I’ll have some notes from Carolina’s second practice later on.

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