NFC South: Jason Pierre-Paul
Coach Mike Smith said Jacquizz Rodgers has shown he has what it takes to be a feature back. This could be the week that actually happens. The Falcons gradually have increased Rodgers’ playing time. Starter Michael Turner has been limited in practice because of an elbow injury.
Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy caused a stir this week when he said the Panthers are better than Atlanta. The Falcons seem to be taking the comments in stride. Veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez said, "What else is he going to say at this point? They haven’t won many games."
As Carolina gets ready to host Atlanta, it’s worth looking back at Cam Newton’s crucial fumble in the Week 4 meeting between the Panthers and Falcons. If Newton didn’t fumble, Carolina would have been 2-2 and had some momentum. It’s at least worth wondering if the season would have gone differently for the Panthers if they had come away with a big win in the Georgia Dome. If Newton hadn't fumbled, maybe the Panthers wouldn't be 3-9. Maybe Marty Hurney still would be the general manager and maybe coach Ron Rivera's job would be secure.
Speaking of plays that could have changed the outcome of the first meeting between Atlanta and Carolina, safety Haruki Nakamura reflects on not getting to Roddy White in time to break up a pass that set up the game-winning field goal.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Bradley Handwerger points out that the current Saints are similar to the 2007 and ’08 editions. They’re not playing well in the fourth quarter, and that’s why they’re 5-7. If you want evidence, look no further than quarterback Drew Brees. His fourth-quarter passer rating this year is 53.8. Last season it was 93.7.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin went out of his way to explain defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul’s comment that said it’s easier to prepare for Brees than Washington’s Robert Griffin III. I think it’s pretty obvious that Pierre-Paul wasn’t slighting Brees. He simply was pointing out that Griffin’s running ability is a unique challenge for a defense. But coaches and players are going to use anything close to a perceived slight as motivation.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
The Bucs will gather their Super Bowl team for a 10-year celebration on Sunday. But defensive back Ronde Barber won’t be able to take part in all the festivities because he’s the only member of that team still playing. Barber, 37, told Martin Fennelly he’ll stop playing as soon as he declines. There hasn’t been any decline yet, and I think the Bucs gladly would welcome Barber back for one more season.
At 6-6, the Bucs need a strong finish to reach the playoffs. But Gary Shelton points out Tampa Bay’s December history often has been less than stellar. This team might be different though. If the Bucs can re-establish running back Doug Martin and get quarterback Josh Freeman back on the path he was on before losing the past two games, a playoff berth is possible if the Bucs add three or four more wins. Even missing the playoffs with a 9-7 or 8-8 record would be a successful season for a team that was 4-12 last season.
He’s ranked No. 2 on a list of 25 prospects that have yet to make their full impact. Those players have to have entered the league between 2009 and 2011 as no better than a third-round pick. They have to have fewer than five career starts. They also have to be on their original contract and can’t be over 26 years old in 2012.
Wilson meets all that criteria, but he’s on this list for another reason. He has enormous potential. He played linebacker in college and has a rookie, although only sparingly. He’s making the move to defensive end in 2012 and that’s what has FBO all fired up. They describe Wilson as a player with a Jevon Kearse-meets-Jason Pierre-Paul body type." That’s pretty impressive praise for a guy that’s barely played in the NFL. But the Saints, particularly defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, see it as well.
Spagnuolo needs to bolster his pass rush because defensive end Will Smith is the only proven pass rusher on the front four and he’s looking at a four-game suspension to open the season. If the Saints can make Wilson into a strong pass rusher, there defense suddenly will get a lot better.
The only other NFC South player to make the list is Atlanta middle linebacker Akeem Dent. I like this call a lot. Dent was one of the league’s best special-teams players last year when he was the backup middle linebacker behind Curtis Lofton, who left as a free agent to join the Saints. The Falcons brought in veteran Lofa Tatupu as insurance at middle linebacker. Tatupu once was a very good player, but he’s had injury problems and sat out last season. The Falcons will start Tatupu, if they have to. But I think the hope in Atlanta is that Dent uses training camp and the preseason to show he’s ready. If he can convince the coaches of that, Dent likely will end up as the starter.
Jacksonville’s hiring of Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey as head coach probably means Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzkinski will be staying with the Panthers. Chudzinski also interviewed for the Jacksonville job. No other teams have asked permission to interview Chudzinski.
New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas is coming off one of the best games of his career. He had 121 all-around yards in the playoff victory against Detroit. Thomas, who was bothered by an ankle injury last year, said he’s healthy. The Saints have used Thomas in a rotation with Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory and all three running backs look fresh.
Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said that after facing the Falcons he agrees with teammate Justin Tuck who previously said the Atlanta offensive line plays dirty. Funny, but the Atlanta offensive line wasn’t slowing Pierre-Paul down in Sunday’s playoff game.
Atlanta has 20 potential unrestricted free agents and the list is heavy on defensive players. Defensive end John Abraham, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, safety Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Brent Grimes are not under contract. I assume re-signing Lofton and Grimes will be at the top of Atlanta’s wish list. The Falcons have a fair amount of cap money and should be able to afford to keep both.
Marty Schottenheimer, who interviewed for Tampa Bay’s coaching job, said he’s intrigued by the young talent the Buccaneers have.
The Times-Picayune has its weekly graphic on Drew Brees’ passes. Take a look at what he did on deep passes against the Lions. I see only one incomplete pass.
Since the Bucs seem intent on going with an older coach, Charlie Campbell throws out a suggestion. He writes the Bucs should hire Monte Kiffin, who is the defensive coordinator at the University of Southern California. Kiffin hasn't been an NFL head coach. But he had a long run as Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator and was very popular with the fans.
Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday’s Falcons-Giants playoff game:
Protecting Matty Ice. It already has been established that one of the biggest matchups in this game will be Atlanta’s offensive line against New York’s pass rush. The Falcons had a tough time protecting Matt Ryan early in the season, even against base defenses. But Atlanta’s offensive line has been better of late. In his past seven games, Ryan has 12 touchdowns and no interceptions against four or fewer pass rushers. But, with Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul, the Giants are one of the league’s best at generating a pass rush from their front four.
Gonzo’s unlucky streak. Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez probably will be a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He already holds virtually every receiving record for tight ends. But there’s one thing Gonzalez never has done. He’s gone through his entire career without winning a playoff game. Gonzalez’s 238 regular-season games without a playoff win are the most by a position player in the Super Bowl era. Gonzalez played in three playoff games with Kansas City and was with Atlanta last season when the Falcons lost to the Packers.
1. Take the next step. Since arriving together in 2008, coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan have produced four consecutive winning seasons. That’s great, but the big knock on Smith and Ryan is that they have yet to win a playoff game. When they were the No. 1 seed last year, they lost at home to the No. 6 Packers. Going on the road to a cold-weather venue will be difficult. But Atlanta went all-in this season with the trade up to draft Julio Jones and sign defensive end Ray Edwards. They need a postseason victory to make this season any sort of success. Ryan also needs to shed the label that he can’t win the big one.
2. Stop the pass rush. The Falcons had problems protecting Ryan early in the season and that caused lots of problems. The offensive line has played better lately. But the Giants feature a very strong pass rush. They have Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora is back from an injury. The Giants can generate pressure with their front four alone. The Falcons are going to have to use their running backs and tight ends to give left tackle Will Svitek some blocking help.
3. Slow down Victor Cruz. The New York receiver has come out of nowhere to become one of the league’s top receivers. Cruz has lots of speed and has been making lots of big plays downfield. If cornerback Brent Grimes, who has missed time with a knee injury, is healthy, he and cornerback Dunta Robinson can match up with Cruz and the short and mid-level passing game. But safeties William Moore, Thomas DeCoud and James Sanders will have to step up and do a better job providing help than they did in the regular season. Of course, it would also help if Atlanta can generate a pass rush. There are some signs that’s possible. After a slow start, defensive end John Abraham has come on strong in recent weeks.
Oh, and let’s not forget a group of receivers (Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem) that’s as deep as any other in the league. All of the above are huge reasons the New Orleans Saints are 7-3 and sitting atop the NFC South.
But if the Saints are 8-3 on Tuesday morning, it won’t necessarily be because of the previously mentioned guys. It will be because of the best thing the Saints have going for them right now.
That’s the offensive line. Yep, seriously. A group that struggled with adversity from training camp right up until midseason suddenly has become one of the team’s biggest strengths. That offensive line will have to be stronger than ever Monday night when the Saints host the New York Giants at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Giants come into New Orleans tied for second in the league with 31 sacks. Jason Pierre-Paul is No. 3 with 9.5 sacks, and Osi Umenyiora is tied for 12th in the league with 7. There’s no doubt the Giants can get after the quarterback, but I’d give the edge to the New Orleans offensive line right now.
This unit has suddenly found itself, and it’s only going to keep improving.
“The offensive line is the group that has to play with the most continuity,’’ Brees said. “They have five guys that need to be on the same page every play. It’s hard to do, and yet I feel like we have smart, tough guys that do that.”
But it wasn’t always this way. The New Orleans offensive line has been flawless only the past two games. In victories over division rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta, the Saints haven’t allowed a sack. Note what Brees said about continuity. That’s why I’m saying the New Orleans offensive line will continue to improve.
Coach Sean Payton has a brilliant offensive mind, and his offensive coaches have worked very hard to fix some early problems. The linemen have put in a lot of work after a flaw that could have ruined the season was fully exposed to the rest of the league.
On Oct. 30, the Saints strolled into St. Louis as huge favorites against the Rams, who were winless at the time. The Saints left embarrassed, and Brees was battered like he’d never been battered since joining New Orleans in 2006. He was sacked six times and hit at least an additional 10 times.
It added up to a 31-21 victory by the Rams and a lot of tape for the rest of the league to look at. The season could have spiraled out of control right then, but it hasn’t.
That’s because the Saints limped out of St. Louis knowing something like that could never happen again, and it hasn’t. Brees hasn’t been sacked -- or even pressured very much -- since that day.
That’s because the Saints finally have figured out who their five best linemen are, and they’ve finally been able to get them all on the field at the same time. It just took about half a season for all the pieces to be on the table.
The Saints came out of the lockout knowing they would have to mess a bit with the continuity of the offensive line, which might have been the league’s best during the 2009 Super Bowl season and wasn’t bad last year.
The Saints liked Jonathan Goodwin, but they weren’t going to pay huge money to keep a 32-year-old center. They let him sign with San Francisco. They’d prepared for Goodwin’s eventual departure by drafting Matt Tennant in 2010.
But the Saints looked at Tennant for the first few days of training camp and quickly realized he was nowhere near ready. They quickly went out and signed Olin Kreutz, who was 2 years older than Goodwin, to a much cheaper deal and hoped he could act as a bridge for a year until Tennant was ready.
The bridge collapsed quickly. Kreutz started three games before being sidelined for two games with a knee injury. He came back for one game and then decided to walk away from the Saints, saying he no longer had the desire to play. Subsequent reports said Kreutz’s decision might have been made because the Saints were about to bench him -- not to go with Tennant, but to throw in the ultimate no-name player.
That was Brian de la Puente, who’d been bouncing around training camps since 2008 but had never appeared in a regular-season game until he started when Kreutz first was injured.
About the same time Kreutz was walking away, right tackle Zach Strief was dealing with a knee injury that sidelined him for five games. Strief didn’t exactly have a great pedigree to begin with. He’d been with the Saints as a backup since 2006 but was thrust into the starting job when the Saints decided to cut aging veteran Jon Stinchcomb in training camp. The Saints initially hoped the Goodwin departure would be the only change and they could squeeze one more season from Stinchcomb. But training camp quickly showed that Stinchcomb was at the end of the road, and the Saints handed the starting job to Strief. He started off pretty well but then went down with the injury. Charles Brown struggled as Strief's replacement.
But Strief has returned to start the last two games, and de la Puente is getting very comfortable in the middle.
“Certainly the time on task, snaps and experience for a young center and Zach Strief coming off an injury, all those things help,’’ Payton said. “They’ve played very good football here of late. We think it’s a key to us playing good football games. Certainly from a repetition standpoint, the more those guys get to work together, the more they become comfortable with the center, who is going to making a lot of the calls and [identifying] the defense along with Drew, I think that’s very important.’’
It’s important to note that the Saints already had and continue to have the league’s best guard tandem in Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is never going to be a superstar, but he’s been starting for three seasons and has become a very dependable player.
The Saints went through some changes and early adversity on their offensive line. But now that Strief and de la Puente have emerged as nice complementary players to Nicks, Evans and Bushrod, things have stabilized.
The Saints might have taken a couple of initial steps back when they let Goodwin walk and released Stinchcomb, and they certainly took a hit when Kreutz didn’t work out. But all of a sudden, it’s looking as though the adjustment period is over. The Saints might have an even stronger offensive line than before.
They’re going to need that against the Giants.
Pat Yasinskas: Lloyd, as you well know, you’re more than welcome to disagree with me. It’s what makes the world go round. Dunlap was my pick in that mock draft, which is only a mock draft. The only draft picks that matter for the Saints are the ones that Mickey Loomis makes.
Adam in Columbia, SC writes: Is there any chance the Panthers make a move for Osi Umenyiora?
Pat Yasinskas: That question is coming from a lot of fans and there are logical reasons for that as word comes out of New York that Umenyiora could be on the move. Umenyiora is a proven pass rusher and that’s something the Panthers don’t really have. He also has spent his career with the New York Giants. He and John Fox weren’t there together. Fox left for Carolina the year before Umenyiora joined the Giants, but the defense remained pretty similar. However, I have not heard anything concrete that would lead me to believe the Panthers are pursuing Umenyiora. He’ll turn 29 in November, which isn’t old in most places, but it is pretty old in the big picture of what the Panthers seem to be doing. I don't think you'll see Fox or Marty Hurney parting with any of their draft picks.
Josh in Flowery Branch, GA writes: You made my week with that story about Demaryius Thomas possibly coming to Atlanta. I'm a huge GT fan and Falcons fan and I would love to see that move. What are the chances that actually happens?
Pat Yasinskas: I think it’s possible Thomas gets to stay in Atlanta. But it’s going to depend largely on what happens with the 18 picks in front of the Falcons. I still think defensive end Brandon Graham would be the choice if he’s still available and I could also see the Falcons going with a linebacker like Sean Weatherspoon. But, if those guys are gone, I could see the Falcons going with Thomas. The need at receiver isn’t as big, but there still is some need. The Falcons didn’t send their top four personnel guys to his workout just for the heck of it.
Will in Roswell, GA writes: I know Jason Pierre-Paul is an exceptional athlete and he would be a tempting pick if he was there at 19 when the Falcons pick. But his lack of production scares me. He reminds me exactly of what Jamal Anderson was coming out of college. A physical specimen who has a lot of upside and not a lot of production. So I think the Falcons need to stay far away from JPP.
Pat Yasinskas: Yep, those thoughts definitely crossed my mind when I was making Atlanta’s pick in our mock draft. I really wanted to take Graham, but he was already gone. I went with Pierre-Paul because he was the best pass rusher available. Yes, there are questions about how legitimate he is after playing only one season at a major college and that may scare the Falcons off. We’ll see how it sorts out Thursday night.
» Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)
Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Dream scenario/Plan B.
Dream scenario: They get Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham with the first-round pick and come back with an outside linebacker and a center in the middle rounds. Graham’s been a very productive college player and the risk of him being a bust is low. He can fit a need immediately. Plan B: If Graham is somehow gone, that could change things dramatically. Jason Pierre-Paul has raw athleticism, but comes with questions. The Falcons may instead look toward linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, defensive tackle Jared Odrick or even an offensive lineman.
Dream scenario: A big defensive tackle, like Terrence Cody, falls until they have their first pick in the second round. Cody would fill a huge void and make the run defense much better. They could follow him up with a wide receiver and a quarterback who can begin his career behind Matt Moore. Plan B: If Cody’s not there, a true run stuffer might not be available. The Panthers may have to go with a receiver first and that’s a dangerous proposition because their draft history with receivers has been terrible.
New Orleans Saints
Dream scenario: They done such a good job filling in depth at defensive end that it’s no longer a huge need. That leaves outside linebacker as the only really big need. The Saints likely would be very happy to land a linebacker like Weatherspoon or Jerry Hughes and get some depth at defensive tackle and tight end over the next few rounds. Plan B: The Saints aren’t desperate in any area. If a linebacker isn’t there with value in the first round, they can save that for a bit later and perhaps draft a defensive tackle or tight end first. The Saints are capable of surprises and a running back in the first few rounds isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Dream scenario: There doesn’t seem to be a big preference between defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy. The Bucs gladly would take either one and follow up with a receiver like Golden Tate and a cornerback with their two second-round picks. Plan B: If the Bucs don’t get a defensive tackle first, it’s almost a disaster because the need is so great. If Suh and McCoy are somehow gone, they’d have to consider taking offensive tackle Russell Okung, safety Eric Berry or a defensive end and they’d still have a glaring hole in the middle of their defensive line.
Just wanted to share some thoughts with you on my picks. I felt pretty confident taking Gerald McCoy at No. 3 for the Buccaneers. In other words, there’s a real chance this could happen.
As long as St. Louis takes quarterback Sam Bradford first overall, the Bucs will have a shot at McCoy or fellow defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. They’ll be happy with either one.
I didn’t feel nearly as confident taking South Florida defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul with the No. 19 pick for Atlanta. I went into the mock thinking I’d get Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham, but he was taken before I got on the clock. I also have seen a lot of other mocks where Pierre-Paul was gone before the Falcons picked. Also, the draft was done last week. That was before I found out Sunday that the Falcons sent all of their top brass to a private workout by Georgia Tech receiver Demaryius Thomas. Not saying the Falcons definitely will take Thomas, but it’s possible. Still, I think the need for a pass-rusher is heavy on Atlanta’s mind.
Speaking of not being able to take the guy I wanted, it also happened at No. 32 for the Saints. I was locked in on Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, but Mike Sando beat me to the punch and gave him to the Cardinals at No. 26. I had to scramble a bit and couldn’t find another outside linebacker I thought was worth the value here. That’s why I went with Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap. The Saints aren’t desperate at defensive end, but they don’t have a lot of young guys there and Dunlap could be a long-term solution.
Carolina didn’t have a first-round pick. But, in fairness to Panthers fans, I’m going to project what I think they’ll do with their second-round choice. I’ll do that later this afternoon, after I take my turn in today’s marathon draft chat.
Rum in New Orleans writes: Many times fans claim their team/owner is cheap, but do they really check out the League payroll levels? I guess this is directed at the Bucs, but folks used to claim Mr. Benson was cheap because of the level of our FAs -- but when you'd read the NFL payrolls, the Saints were always near the top. We used to have to OVER-PAY for folks to come down South -- how much do you think Drew Brees, Who Dat Nation, and a Lombardi change recruiting? What are the strong and the weak points of each team in the NFL South?
Pat Yasinskas: Very relevant question right now because I get a steady stream of complaints from Tampa Bay and Carolina fans about their teams being cheap. In Tampa Bay’s case, it’s hard to argue that, but I just wish fans would look at the bigger picture and stop blaming frugality for all their problems. The Bucs made a conscious decision to start building through the draft. Right or wrong, that’s what they’re doing and their plan is to not sign big-name free agents, no matter how much their fans scream for them. They’re also planning to use some of that money to re-sign some of their own core players -- Barrett Ruud, Donald Penn and Cadillac Williams -- to long-term deals. As far as the Panthers, nobody had ever called Jerry Richardson cheap before this year and it’s ironic that he suddenly has that label. Yes, he let some high-priced veterans go and wasn’t a big player in free agency. But the Panthers haven’t been a big player in free agency since the year the signed Ken Lucas and Mike Wahle. Yes, I think some of what Richardson has done (or hasn’t done) this offseason is tied to Richardson’s concerns about the labor situation. But the fact is the Panthers have believed in building through the draft throughout the time John Fox and Marty Hurney have been there. Atlanta’s another team that believes in building through the draft, but Arthur Blank opens the checkbook now and then and he did it this year for Dunta Robinson. If you’ve ever seen the Falcons’ practice facility, you know Blank is far from cheap. And you’re right, Tom Benson used to have a reputation for being cheap and that probably wasn’t deserved because the Saints did have to overpay at times. But those days are over. New Orleans is now a place where players want to be.
Andy in Whispering Pines, N.C., writes: I've been reading some of the other blogs and have seen that Albert Haynesworth may be had for a second-round pick. Being that Carolina is in dire need of a defensive lineman, what are thoughts on a trade for a pick. Oh yeah, he is only 28 which is much in line with the youth movement that Fox has been working on!
Pat Yasinskas: There’s no doubt Haynesworth could help the Panthers, who desperately need a force in the middle. But I don’t see this happening. The Panthers don’t have their first-round pick this year. If they trade away their second-round pick, there’s a good chance they come out of this draft without any impact players. That just doesn’t fit Carolina’s philosophy. Plus, Haynesworth comes with the sort of baggage Richardson doesn’t like. Also, think back to the early days of the Panthers when they made a trade with Washington for defensive tackle Sean Gilbert. That turned out to be a disaster and I’m sure Richardson remembers that.
Rob in Bush, LA writes: I haven't seen anyone talk about this but maybe I missed it. The NFL Draft starts at 6:30 p.m. New Orleans time Thursday night. In past drafts, each team has 15 minutes to make their selection. 32 teams X 15 minutes each = 8 hours. The Saints, picking at 32, won't be picking until about 2:30 a.m. in the morning local time. How many people will see it "live"? Might not even make the morning edition of the Times-Picayune. Whose idea was this?
Pat Yasinskas: Blame the NFL and television. It’s all about ratings and the success of the NBA draft in prime time that has set the stage for this. The good news is that each team will only get 10 minutes this year as opposed to 15. So you're looking at maximum of five hours and 20 minutes as opposed to eight hours. Also, not every team will take the full time allotted for their picks, but it still will be pretty late when New Orleans makes its pick.
Kyle in Peachtree City, Ga., writes: I have been watching USF DE Jason Pierre-Paul lately. And I believe he is the real deal. Is there any way the Atlanta Falcons will trade up to get him or is there any chance he drops to us?
Pat Yasinskas: I think there is a chance Pierre-Paul could be there when the Falcons pick at No. 19. It would be very interesting to see what the Falcons do if he is available. Pierre-Paul is an awesome athlete, perhaps even the best natural athlete in this year’s draft. He has the potential to be a tremendous pass rusher, which the Falcons desperately need. The one knock is that Pierre-Paul only played one year at a Division I program and doesn’t have a ton of experience against top competition. General manager Thomas Dimitroff seems to prefer guys who have a strong history of production. But I could see him making an exception here because Pierre-Paul’s upside is so great.
Ryan in Charlotte writes: With all this talk about Steve Smith needing someone to work with, should the Panthers just let Smitty interview and scout some receiver prospects? Then he can actually find someone he likes and maybe the Panthers draft the guy? Would this ever even be able to happen?
Pat Yasinskas: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if something like that already has happened. I’m not saying the Panthers have been sending Smith and a notebook to pro days or that he’s been doing in-depth interviews with prospects. But it’s not uncommon for teams to use current players as sounding boards on potential picks. They might have asked Smith about which receivers he likes or let him chat with a few of them as they came through for pre-draft visits.
Tampa Bay. The Bucs probably are the only team with any sort of realistic shot at Pierre-Paul because a lot of people are pegging him as a top-10 pick. The common belief is the Bucs are intent on getting a defensive tackle at No. 3 and that’s probably true. But what do the Bucs do if Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy are taken with the first two picks?
Pierre-Paul, who had a private workout with the Bucs last week, would have to be a consideration because the Bucs also need help at defensive end. They could even perhaps trade down a few spots and still get him.
Atlanta. The Falcons are sitting at No. 19. If Pierre-Paul somehow slips that low, you almost have to believe Atlanta would take him, but it probably won’t come to that. Trading up would be the other option for the Falcons to get perhaps the best pure pass-rusher in the draft. But they’d probably have to move into the top 10 to make sure they get him and the cost could be prohibitive.
New Orleans. The Saints don’t pick until No. 32 and it’s virtually certain Pierre-Paul will be long gone by then. Trading up into the top 10 is probably the only way the Saints could get him. It’s not likely, but general manager Mickey Loomis has been known to take some chances.
Carolina. As I was working on this story and watching Pierre-Paul at his pro day, I couldn’t help but think I haven’t seen an athlete this gifted since Julius Peppers came into the NFL in 2002. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Panthers got Pierre-Paul to take Peppers’ place? Well, we can dream about it. But it won’t happen. The Panthers don’t even have a first-round pick and they’d have to package several picks to move anywhere near the territory in which Pierre-Paul will be taken.
The answer is Tampa. That’s hardly surprising because USF is in Tampa. But Pierre-Paul was at Tampa International Airport when I talked to him and his visit to Tampa had nothing to do with USF.
Yep, Pierre-Paul had a private workout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier Thursday.
“It was awesome,’’ Pierre-Paul said. “I really like coach (Raheem) Morris and all their coaches and I know some of the players. I love Tampa. I’d love to play there. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but that would be my dream.’’
Like a lot of people, Pierre-Paul said he expects the Bucs to select either defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh or defensive tackle Gerald McCoy with the No. 3 overall pick. But, what if both of those guys end up going in the first two picks?
There’s not another defensive tackle viewed worthy of going that high in the draft. The Bucs might have to look in another direction and that’s why they had Pierre-Paul in for the visit. They’d have to at least consider taking a defensive end because the pass rush is another area of need.
Pierre-Paul is widely viewed as a first-round pick and some experts have him as a top-20 prospect and he’s even been mentioned in a few top-10 lists. It may be a long shot, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Pierre-Paul to the Bucs. One other thing to keep in mind is, if the Bucs can’t get either of the defensive tackles, they might be able to trade down a bit in the first round and Pierre-Paul could be a good value a bit later.
Pierre-Paul spent most of the last few months working out in Miami and is a native of South Florida and that leads to another possible scenario he likes. We wrapped up our conversation as he was boarding a plane to Miami and he’ll spend tomorrow working out privately for the Dolphins. Pierre-Paul said he also has worked out for Tennessee, Cincinnati and Minnesota.
My main purpose was to work ahead on an upcoming column on University of South Florida defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul that will come out as we get closer to the draft. But I took down a bunch of observations that I’ll share with you now.
- Read into this whatever you want, but the three head coaches I spotted out there were Tom Coughlin, Marvin Lewis and Lovie Smith. Head coaches generally don’t show up to watch potential late-round picks.
- I didn’t see an NFC South head coaches or general managers out there. But I did see New Orleans defensive line coach Bill Johnson. He helped lead some of the drills. Not sure Pierre-Paul’s going to last anywhere near where New Orleans is scheduled to pick at No. 32. But South Florida had another defensive end, George Selvie, working out and he could be around in the third or fourth round.
- Speaking of NFC South defensive line coaches in attendance, I also spotted Carolina’s Brian Baker. Carolina doesn’t even have a first-round pick at the moment, so I don’t think Pierre-Paul was the main reason Baker was there. He might have been checking out Selvie.
- Safety Nate Allen didn’t run the 40-yard dash. He said he passed because he’s not completely healthy. But he did the other drills and said he believes he fared well.
- Besides the head coaches mentioned above, I saw a few other dignitaries out there – Tampa Bay personnel executive Doug Williams, mega-agent Drew Rosenhaus (he represents Pierre-Paul), new South Florida coach Skip Holtz, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and Cleveland defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
- Nice move by South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe to full take part in the workout. Grothe suffered a major knee injury last season. He worked out with a bulky brace on his left knee and his throws didn’t appear all that spectacular. But this was a kid who came in with doubts about his height and arm strength even before the injury. He had nothing to lose by working out. In fact, he probably scored some attitude points just by showing up. Grothe is a long shot to even get to camp with an NFL team and admitted he may have to head to the Canadian Football League. But he’s got a private visit with the Bucs coming up in less than two weeks and the workout might have reminded some teams Grothe is out there.
Obviously, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is the main attraction. But I’ll keep an eye on the other Bulls, including safety Nate Allen. I’ll check back in with you after the workout to let you know how the Bulls did. I’ll also let you know what NFC South dignitaries show up out there.
I also will be working on a lengthy profile of Pierre-Paul that is scheduled to run as we get a bit closer to the draft.
Obviously, the big name there will be defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. He’s projected as a first-round pick and some say he could go in the top 10. I’ll be doing an extensive column on Pierre-Paul as we get closer to the draft.
But I’m also going to be keeping a close eye on Nate Allen, because one NFC South personnel executive told me to keep an eye on Allen. The executive, who didn’t want to be named, said his team really likes Allen. Most projections out there have Allen as a second-round pick, but a strong workout could put him even closer to the first round.
Also this week, we’ll have our regularly scheduled programming with The Big Question on Tuesday, Draft Watch on Wednesday and Stock Watch on Thursday. The NFC South chat also is scheduled for Friday at 1 p.m. ET.