NFC South: Joey Galloway

Today in NFC South history

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
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On this date in 2009, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made one of the most controversial moves in NFC South history.

They released Derrick Brooks, who at that point, easily was the best player in division history (Drew Brees might have surpassed him in recent years). The Bucs also released Warrick Dunn, Ike Hilliard, Joey Galloway and Cato June that day.

It was a strong statement that Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris, who recently had been named as general manager and coach, were going to try to build with youth. But the move stunned fans because Brooks was more than just a great player. He was an icon in Tampa Bay.

Initially, Brooks harbored some resentment toward the Bucs and said he wanted to continue playing elsewhere. There was a brief flirtation with the New Orleans Saints, but nothing came of it. As it turned out, no other team was interested in Brooks and he never played in the NFL again. Over time, things have thawed a bit between Brooks and the team. He’s a lock to someday enter the team’s Ring of Honor and could be a first-ballot Hall of Famer next year.

In hindsight, the Brooks release still was a questionable move. There’s no question Brooks was nearing the end of his career, but he still had plenty of value as a leader. I think the Bucs could have been a little better than 3-13 in the first year of the Morris/Dominik regime if they had kept Brooks around.

And I can’t help but wonder if the way the Brooks departure was handled has played at least some role in why the Bucs have had such a hard time selling out their home games in recent years.
Just about everywhere you look or listen there is speculation the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be in hot pursuit of wide receiver Vincent Jackson.

It makes sense on many levels, starting with the facts that the Bucs need a true No. 1 receiver and Jackson probably is the best available in free agency. There’s likely to be competition from Chicago and Washington and perhaps some other teams. The San Diego Chargers are also holding out a bit of hope that they can re-sign Jackson.

[+] EnlargeChargers' Vincent Jackson
Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIREVincent Jackson, a proven No. 1 receiver, could help the Bucs win more games in the NFC South.
But the Chargers will only do that if his price tag is somewhere around $11 million a season. If it gets higher than that, he likely will walk and Tampa Bay’s a very logical place for one of the top members of this free-agent class.

The Bucs have about $43 million in salary-cap space and it’s become increasingly clear the Bucs want to do everything possible to put quarterback Josh Freeman in position to succeed. Jackson certainly would help in that regard.

At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Jackson may not sound like the deep threat so many think the Bucs need. But Jackson is a bit of a freak of nature when it comes to his speed, plus he uses his strength to get separation.

Just look at his numbers when it comes to yards per catch. Last season, Jackson averaged 18.4 yards per catch. That’s the second-highest total of his career and the highest (19.7) came in his rookie season when he was used as a third receiver.

That shows Jackson isn’t losing a step, which is a concern for a receiver who just turned 29. It looks like Jackson has several good years left and the Bucs shouldn’t let their infamous history of bringing in receivers scare them off. Jackson’s not Alvin Harper or Bert Emanuel, guys that were No. 2 receivers elsewhere that the Bucs thought could emerge as No. 1 guys. Jackson also isn’t Keyshawn Johnson, Joey Galloway or Antonio Bryant, guys who produced in the short term, but, for various reasons, didn’t last in the long term.

Jackson is a proven No. 1 receiver. Although he had some off-field problems, those appear to be behind him and teammates and media members who have covered him say Jackson doesn’t have the “diva’’ personality so many receivers do. He’s described as very quiet and always has been liked by his coaches.

If the Bucs are going to get Jackson, it likely will cost them around $12-$13 million a year. That’s a lot, but the Bucs have indicated they’re ready to spend money after going lightly in free agency in recent years.

Jackson is the one guy out there that seems like a sure thing. Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace is a restricted free agent and I don’t think the Bucs are looking to give up draft picks. New Orleans Marques Colston isn’t a speed guy and he’s been banged up at times in the past.

If the Bucs don’t get Jackson, then they need to look in a different direction.

Robert Meachem (Saints), Mario Manningham (Giants) and Laurent Robinson (Cowboys) are guys that can stretch the field, but none of them is a true No. 1 receiver, although they'd come at a much lower price tag than Jackson. But even adding a speed guy could make it easier for Tampa Bay’s current group of receivers – Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Dezmon Briscoe, Preston Parker and Sammie Stroughter — to get open.

Hitting the NFC South hot spots

February, 16, 2011
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Let’s take a plunge into the NFC South mailbag.

Frank in Clearwater, Fla., asks if the Bucs might follow a strategy similar to last year and draft defensive ends with their first two picks.

Pat Yasinskas: I wouldn’t rule that out at all. The Bucs set the precedent last year when they were desperate for help at defensive tackle and took Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two picks. This year, they’re desperate for help at defensive end. They almost have to use at least one of their early picks on a defensive end and I wouldn’t be surprised if a second draft pick is used on a defensive end. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they sign a defensive end in free agency.

Ned in Canada wrote to say the Falcons should draft a wide receiver or a running back that’s a home-run threat because the only one they have is Roddy White.

Pat Yasinskas: No argument here. I said in our Leading Questions segment Tuesday the Falcons need to add a playmaker on offense and defense if they really want to take the next step. They do have to get a defensive end somewhere early in the draft or free agency. But I’d like to see them use an early draft pick on a receiver or running back with breakaway speed.

Sean in Charlotte, N.C., asks about the possibility of the Panthers signing wide receiver Plaxico Burress once he’s released from prison.

Pat Yasinskas: Not sure how long you’ve been in Charlotte, but if you’ve followed the history of the Panthers, you’d know there’s no chance of this happening. Ever since the Rae Carruth saga, owner Jerry Richardson has made sure the Panthers stay clear of any players with trouble in their background.

Clint in Santa Cruz, Calif., asks about the possibility of Burress landing with the Bucs.

Pat Yasinskas: Nice thought, but the Bucs are in a youth movement. They already have good young receivers in Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and Sammie Stroughter. Burress will be 34 before next season starts. If the Bucs wanted an old wide receiver they could have just hung onto Joey Galloway.

Jamie in Minden, Nev., asks about the future of Reggie Bush with the Saints.

Pat Yasinskas: Bush remains under contract to the Saints. He has a big salary and that would make him tough to trade. I don’t think the Saints really want to trade him. He’s a Sean Payton favorite. I think you could see a situation where the Saints restructure Bush’s contract to make sure they keep him. But I also think last year’s injury problems at running back and the likely departure of Pierre Thomas mean the Saints will seek another running back to go with Bush and Chris Ivory.

Steve in New Jersey asks if Carolina owner Jerry Richardson’s hard-line stance in the labor negotiations could end up hurting the Panthers down the road.

Pat Yasinskas: That’s a good point because the labor situation is getting nasty and Richardson’s right in the middle of it all. That could come back to haunt him with players perceiving him in a negative light. It would be pretty ironic because Carolina used to be viewed as a destination spot by a lot of players because Richardson, a former player, was widely considered one of the best owners in the league, Bank of America Stadium is a top-notch facility and Charlotte’s a nice place to live and has decent weather.

Devin in Tampa writes that the Glazer family seems very uninterested and uninvolved in the Buccaneers and asks about the possibility of Eddie DeBartolo buying the team and being a hands-on owner.

Pat Yasinskas: Wow, it never ceases to amaze me how some people in the Tampa Bay area continue to perceive the Glazers. Let’s clarify what I think is Devin’s biggest misconception. The Glazers are very involved and interested in their team. If you’re around One Buc Place, you’ll almost always see a Glazer brother around. Their employees will tell you they’re very involved in business operations. It’s true that they’re not heavily involved in football operations, but I view that as a good thing. Leave the football stuff to general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris. They seem to have things going in the right direction. Also, I think the Glazers get labeled because they’re not out in front of the cameras all the time. Is that really necessary for owners? How’s that worked out for Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones? Finally, Eddie DeBartolo had to disassociate himself from the San Francisco 49ers for legal reasons. Even if the Bucs were for sale, and they’re not, it might be difficult for DeBartolo to get back into the league.

Bucs just short of playoff berth

January, 2, 2011
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NEW ORLEANS -- As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers left the Superdome a few hours ago, they remained in the playoff picture.

They did their part by defeating the Saints, 23-13. But the Bucs (10-6) didn’t get the help they needed as the Packers and Giants won their games. The Packers ended up with the No. 6 seed.

There’s no playoff berth for the Bucs even though they reached what Raheem Morris constantly referred to as “the race to 10’’ wins all season. Ten wins usually mean a playoff berth, but it didn’t happen for the Bucs.

Still, you have to look at their season as a big success. Even in the New Orleans locker room, the Bucs were receiving high praise.

“I think Raheem Morris should be the coach of the year,’’ Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said.

That’s pretty high praise from an opponent. Let’s throw out some other superlatives about the Bucs.
  • The 10-6 season following last year’s 3-13 record marks the biggest turnaround in franchise history. The previous record came when the Bucs went from 5-11 in 2004 to 11-5 in 2005.
  • Quarterback Josh Freeman threw two touchdown passes. He now has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 13 consecutive games, which breaks the 12-game record set by Brian Griese.
  • Freeman finished the season with 3,451 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. The only other quarterback in franchise history to reach 3,000 yards, 20 touchdowns and fewer than 10 interceptions in a single season was Brad Johnson in 2002. Freeman also finished with a 95.9 passer rating. That’s the second-best mark in franchise history. Griese had a 97.5 rating in 2004.
  • Rookie receiver Mike Williams had an 18-yard touchdown catch against the Saints. That gives Williams 11 receiving touchdowns, which is a new franchise record. Joey Galloway had the previous record, 10 touchdown catches in 2005. Williams also finished with 964 receiving yards. The only rookie to have more receiving yards in franchise history was Michael Clayton (1,193) in 2004.
  • LeGarrette Blount became only the third rookie in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Cadillac Williams did it in 2005 and Errict Rhett in 1994. Blount finished with 1,007 yards and he did it on only 201 carries. In Williams’ rookie season, he carried 290 times and finished with 1,178 yards. Rhett carried 284 times for 1,011 yards.
  • With the Bucs' victory, the NFC South finished with three teams with 10+ wins this season (Atlanta – 13-3; New Orleans – 11-5; and Tampa Bay – 10-6). It marks just the second time since realignment in 2002 that a division has had three teams with double-digit wins in the same season (also the AFC South in 2007).

Roddy White has remade his career

October, 1, 2010
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Roddy WhiteAP Photo/Paul Abell Roddy White struggled early in his career, but can smile now as the NFC South's top receiver.
Before we start pondering how it happened or the precise moment it took place, let’s go ahead and throw out the obvious. Atlanta’s Roddy White is the best wide receiver in the NFC South and one of the best in the NFL.

There, I’ve said it, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized this has been the case for quite some time. You’re welcome to try to pinpoint the exact date that a guy who once seemed headed to being a bust became the best receiver in the NFC South. I couldn’t do it and, when I asked White, neither could he.

Fact is, White has just kind of grown into the role as some other guys have been backed off their claims. Narrow the time frame down from 2007 until today and White has been steadily surging while Carolina’s Steve Smith has been weighed down by a series of quarterback problems. Joey Galloway and Antonio Bryant came and went in Tampa Bay. New Orleans’ Marques Colston has had to share Drew Brees’ passes with all those other targets the Saints have.

[+] EnlargeRoddy White
AP Photo/Ric FeldRoddy White struggled during his first two years in the league until he "just finally grew up,'' White said.
There is only one NFC South wide receiver who has caught passes for 1,000 yards in each season starting with 2007. That’s White, and he’s at it again. Through three games, he’s second in the league with 25 catches, which has resulted in 258 yards, two touchdowns and a 2-1 start by the Falcons.

“Roddy White is the complete wide receiver,’’ Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said moments after the Falcons recorded one of the bigger regular-season wins in franchise history Sunday with a 27-24 overtime victory against the Saints in the Superdome. “He’s big, he’s strong and he’s fast. He runs great routes. He works hard. You couldn’t ask for more in a wide receiver.’’

Funny, because once upon a time, there were people around the league who thought White was going to go down in history as one of the biggest receiver busts ever. Taken out of the University of Alabama-Birmingham in the first round (27th overall) in 2005, White was seen as a raw talent.

One person who worked for the Falcons at the time White first arrived admitted the brass in Flowery Branch had a huge case of buyer's remorse after they saw White in his first training camp and through most of his first two seasons. That person said there was a moment during White’s rookie season when an assistant coach stood up in a meeting and said White simply wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL and there was no argument in response.

But a strange thing happened after White bumbled his way through a rookie season that featured 29 catches and a second season in which he improved to 30 catches, but zero touchdowns. As the Michael Vick saga was casting a sad shadow over the Falcons and Bobby Petrino was about to do the same, White suddenly became a legitimate NFL wide receiver.

That may be the single bright spot to emerge from a very dark time in franchise history. The more you look at where White is now, the brighter that spot gets. As the world around the Falcons seemed to be crumbling, a convergence of events were taking place that would shock everyone and put White’s career on a good path.

“I guess the easiest way to put it was that I just finally grew up,’’ White said.

That’s the simple way to put it, but White is quick to point out that it was much more complex than that. He’s even quicker to point out that he had some help.

“I’d gone through life just getting by on being a good natural athlete,’’ White said. “That’s the way I approached it my first two years and, in the NFL, it’s not good enough to just be an athlete.’’

As Vick was going and Petrino was coming, two other subtle moves took place that would forever change White’s career for the better. Perhaps the only good move Petrino made in his short stint as the head coach of the Falcons was hiring his younger brother, Paul, to coach wide receivers.

“When coach [Jim] Mora and his guys were here, I was eating a lot of cheeseburgers and going at about 215 [pounds],’’ White said. “When Paul Petrino came in, he sat me down and said, 'You need to get back to where you were in college.' I got back to around 205 to 208 and I suddenly realized I was moving faster and jumping higher. But it wasn’t just that. Paul Petrino worked me so hard and pushed me to string together good practices, go out there and do it every day.’’

Paul Petrino got some help from another source. In 2007, the Falcons brought in veteran wide receiver Joe Horn, in large part because they weren’t sure if White could play. But Horn ended up being part of the reason White has been playing so well in recent years.

[+] EnlargeRoddy White
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireRoddy White has 25 catches for 258 yards and two touchdowns this season.
“Playing with Joe was the best thing to ever happen to me,’’ White said. “He was a guy who had been to Pro Bowls and he took me under his wing and really taught me what this league is all about. He’s the one who made me realize what’s expected of you if you’re going to be a good pro. He’s the one who taught me that you have to prepare mentally every day and you have to go out and practice hard every day. He’s the one who showed me that this game takes so much more effort than I was putting into it.’’

The results were pretty much instant. In a 2007 season in which the Falcons went through several quarterbacks with little success, White somehow emerged with 83 catches for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns.

The next year, coach Mike Smith arrived and promptly drafted Ryan, who clicked with White right from the start. White had 88 catches for 1,382 yards and seven touchdowns in 2008 and 85 catches for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2009.

“It was somewhat of a gradual process, but there was a good chemistry between Roddy and me right from the start,’’ Ryan said. “It just keeps getting stronger because Roddy’s a guy that works very hard and he’s always where he’s supposed to be.’’

White’s been to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons and there’s no reason to think he won’t be there again.

“The thing with Matt is, he came in from the beginning and was asking what kind of routes I liked running and where I liked getting the ball and things like that,’’ White said. “When you do that, you’re both sort of volunteering ways to get better.’’

In their third season together, Ryan and White have the Falcons off to a fast start. In the past two games (victories against Arizona and New Orleans), the running game has clicked, the passing game has clicked and the rebuilt defense has a faster, more aggressive look.

“The sky really is the limit for this team,’’ White said.

It’s kind of funny that the guy the Falcons once thought couldn’t play is leading the way. He’s soaring on the field and he has become a leader in the locker room. Before every game, there’s a little reminder of the past and how White got to where he is now.

“Before every game, Joe Horn sends a text,’’ White said. “It’s pretty simple. He just says, go out, play hard, play physical and play smart.’’

That’s what White has been doing, and that’s the other strange twist to all this. The guy who once couldn’t go past fast-food restaurants on the way home or stay out of the nightclubs is taking on the role Horn once did.

“You know, it’s hard to find a guy that will share information with you when we’re all competing for jobs,’’ White said. “But Joe did that with me and now I try to do it with Harry Douglas. I look at Harry like my little brother, but I also look at him as what I used to be before Joe came along. I’m always on Harry about working hard every day. The most important thing Joe taught me was that you have to put the game first.’’

White’s been doing that since 2007 and that’s what has put him among the best receivers in the NFL.

What happened to rest of 'NFC Stout'?

December, 11, 2009
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Think back to night of Nov. 2. The Atlanta Falcons went into the Superdome and pretty much played the New Orleans Saints evenly.

Matt Ryan/Michael Turner
AP Photo/Donna McWilliamAt 6-6 and with Matt Ryan and Michael Turner out with injuries, the Falcons are long shots to make the playoffs.
The Falcons ended up losing, but, everywhere you looked that night, there was reason to believe Atlanta could at least contend in the NFC South. Michael Turner ran wild, Roddy White had a big night, Matt Ryan looked like he did last year and even the defense made some plays.

Just build on that, hope the Saints could get knocked off once or twice and there were lots of indications that, when the teams met again in Atlanta in December, the Falcons could win and take the division race right down to the wire.

Well, it’s December now and the Saints come to the Georgia Dome on Sunday and both teams will be carrying flags. The undefeated Saints already have earned an NFC South banner. The Falcons have thrown up a white flag.

“We’re not in the NFC South anymore,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith said in a conference call with the New Orleans media. “We’re in the Wild-Card Division.’’

Yes, the Falcons have pulled out of a union that traditionally had all four teams on the map until late in the season. But this season’s dramatically different.

Tampa Bay really never was in the picture. Carolina was pretty much out after an 0-3 start and any hope the Panthers had after winning their next two games disappeared forever with that pathetic home loss to Buffalo.

So what’s happened to a division that fans were calling the “NFC Stout’’ at the start of the season?

Well, let’s first give the Saints a ton of credit for putting so much distance between themselves and everyone else. But let’s also remember the Saints finished last in the division last season. They got dramatically better.

But let’s not forget the Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers did a pretty fine job of pulling themselves out of a division that now should be called the NFC New Orleans and Nothing Else.

Let’s take a look, team-by-team, at how it came to this:

FALCONS: The Falcons still were in it after that loss in New Orleans. They were 4-3 and they went to 5-3 a week later with a blowout win against Washington. Then, the Falcons self destructed. Ryan struggled and Turner got hurt. Then, Ryan got hurt, Turner got hurt and almost the entire offensive line got hurt. And the defense, which already was shaky at best, got really shaky.

“We haven’t made plays when they’ve been presented to us and you have to make those big plays and those game-changing plays in this league if you’re going to get the outcome you want,’’ Smith said.

The outcome the Falcons wanted for this year was to get back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, make the playoffs again and maybe even win the NFC South championship.

None of that’s going to happen. The Falcons are 6-6 and mathematically still in the playoff hunt. But let’s be realistic. With that defense and with Ryan and Turner looking like they each will miss one more game, there’s no reason why the Saints should lose this one to the Falcons. If Ryan and Turner stay out longer than this game, there’s no reason to believe the Falcons win anything until they’re back and, even then, the defense is capable of keeping any opponent in the game.

I still like Atlanta’s nucleus, but I like it for next year when it’s healthy again and there’s been time to fix that defense. For right now, though, seeing backup quarterback Chris Redman starting is like watching the Falcons wave a surrender flag.

PANTHERS: Call it overconfidence, complacency or a comedy of errors. Whatever you want to call it the Panthers have gone from 12-4 to one of the league’s most disappointing teams, and that’s probably going to cost coach John Fox his job.

He has no one to blame but himself and possibly general manager Marty Hurney, although I think Hurney still could have a job when Fox is gone. Yeah, Hurney’s the one who does the deals, but Fox is the one who told him what deals he wanted done. And the decision to bring back Jake Delhomme, as well as sign him to a contract extension, ranks as one of the biggest gaffes of the past offseason. A lot of coaches would have handed Delhomme his release after his five-interception game against Arizona in last season’s playoffs and a couple of horrible games late last season.

At the very least, it might have been wise to bring in an alternative to Delhomme. As much as the Panthers were proud of the fact that they were returning 21 of 22 starters, the downside to that was they paid a fortune to offensive tackle Jordan Gross and moody defensive end Julius Peppers. That left them with no salary-cap room to sign any depth and it has cost them dearly when injuries happened, and when some of those 21 starters turned out to be less than the coaching staff thought.

Fox brought stability to this franchise, but he might have brought too much for too long. His message no longer carries the same weight in some corners of the locker room, and there’s a feeling among some players that rules aren’t the same for everybody and some guys get, or have demanded and received, star treatment. It might be the quarterback, it might be the coach or it might be both of them plus a whole bunch of others, but someone’s going to have to take the fall for this mess.

BUCCANEERS: Let’s be real honest here. The Bucs took themselves out of this year’s NFC South race in February. That’s when they cut ties with Derrick Brooks, Jeff Garcia, Warrick Dunn, Ike Hilliard, Joey Galloway, Kevin Carter and several other older players who had just enough left to keep them close to making the playoffs last year. There was some logic in all that because the Bucs weren’t going to get any better if they kept the same crew around.

Instead, they got worse. Much of that was to be expected. But if this rebuilding plan had been carried out better, the Bucs would have been respectable early on and should be showing substantial progress by now. They’re not. Rookie quarterback Josh Freeman has brought some hope since taking over at midseason, but free-agent pickups Derrick Ward and Angelo Crowell haven’t brought anything to the table.

Coach Raheem Morris fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski before the season started and took the reins away from defensive coordinator Jim Bates after 10 games. Morris may get another year because ownership knew from the start this was going to be a project. But Morris and general manager Mark Dominik have a lot of work to do in the coming months.

So do Smith and Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Same for Fox and Hurney, if they’re still there, or for a new regime.

Long story short and we’ll borrow from Smith’s first quote: The Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers have a lot of ground to make up just to get back into the NFC South.

Midseason Report: Buccaneers

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:00
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Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

Power Rankings: Preseason: 26. This week: 31.

2009 Schedule/Results

Fernando Medina/US Presswire
Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman gives the Bucs hope for the future.
Where they stand: In the offseason, the Bucs (1-7) began a major rebuilding process that many of their fans couldn’t grasp. That’s understandable because there have been plenty of moves that have caused head-scratching. But the bottom line is the organization didn’t have high expectations for this year. The Bucs got rid of coach Jon Gruden because they were tired of patchwork and mediocrity every year. They wanted a plan for the long term and that came with the departures of veterans like Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway and Warrick Dunn. The Bucs fully realized they had to take two steps back to move forward with new coach Raheem Morris. The problem is it’s looked like the Bucs have taken about 50 steps back without really showing any hope for the future. But that might be changing now that rookie quarterback Josh Freeman is playing.

Disappointments: I’m supposed to limit this to 100 words, which won’t be easy. Start with the team releasing offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski right before the start of the season. Imagine where the Bucs would be right now if Jagodzinski had stayed and his playbook was as bad as the Bucs described it. Byron Leftwich was supposed to be a bridge to Freeman. He turned out to be a statue. Defensive backs Tanard Jackson and Aqib Talib let the team down with off-field actions. Defensive end Gaines Adams wasn’t having anything close to the breakout year the Bucs wanted and that got him traded to Chicago. Receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton simply haven’t produced. Running back Derrick Ward has been a complete bust and the kicking situation has been an utter mess. I could go on and on, but I’ve hit my word count.

Surprises: You have to look long and hard to find any positives for the Bucs. But wide receiver Sammie Stroughter has been one. He was a seventh-round draft pick, but he’s probably been the most productive rookie in the NFC South to the midway point. Defensive tackle Roy Miller also has shown some promise. Other than that …well, let’s just move to the next category.

Outlook: If you’re a Tampa Bay fan, do yourself a favor and just erase your memory of the first seven games. That actually makes sense because Freeman started the eighth game and that started a whole new era for the Bucs. Don’t get carried away with Freeman’s 1-0 record because there are likely to be a lot of rookie mistakes. But Freeman also has the physical talent to make some highlight plays. The rest of the season isn’t about climbing back into the playoff picture because that’s impossible. The rest of the season is about next season. It’s about seeing steady improvement from Freeman and finding some guys worthy of staying on this roster.
 
  J. Meric/Getty Images
  One of the largest questions Tampa Bay needs to answer is who will be their starting QB from among Luke McCown (12), Byron Leftwich (7) and Josh Freeman (5).

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- Take a look at any preseason magazine or watch any television show. The verdict is unanimous.

Everybody's got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked to finish fourth in the NFC South. If you want to know where they're projected in the whole league, look somewhere between No. 25 and No. 32.

Camp Confidential: NFC South
Panthers: Thurs., Aug. 6
Saints: Mon., Aug. 10
Falcons: Sat., Aug. 15
Buccaneers: Tues., Aug. 18
Training camp index

When you've got a new coach, a new general manager, uncertainty at quarterback and part ways with some of the biggest names in franchise history, you're going to be anointed as one of the NFL's worst teams.

"That's not a bad thing," middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said with a laugh. "That's the mindset we have going into this year. There may be no expectations for us from the outside. But, as a group, we think we can be pretty good.''

Why?

To understand what Tampa Bay has, you have to understand what the Bucs don't have. They don't have coach Jon Gruden, linebacker Derrick Brooks, receiver Joey Galloway, running back Warrick Dunn and quarterback Jeff Garcia back from the only NFC South team that's had a winning record each of the last two years.

That's been enough to drop expectations from prognosticators and fans to the lowest level since Sam Wyche and company were piling up double-digit losses in the mid 1990s. But maybe -- just maybe -- it doesn't have to be this way.

Maybe the Bucs aren't as bad as everyone thinks. They do have some positives.

 
  Cliff Welch/Icon SMI
  Barrett Ruud (right) is one of the Bucs' building blocks on defense.

"We've got a nice core group of players,'' Ruud said. "We've got a really good offensive line. We've got four or five really good running backs. We've got two quarterbacks that are really hungry and they're battling to be the starter. And we've got a defense that kind of had our pride taken away at the end of last year and we're trying to get back to where a Tampa Bay defense is supposed to be.''

Ruud has some valid points. Forget the quarterback situation for a second. The rest of the offense looks pretty good. The offensive line is solid, Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham are quality running backs and receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton and tight end Kellen Winslow might be able to make whoever is the quarterback look good.

The defense needs some work, but the Bucs have players like Ruud, cornerback Ronde Barber and safety Tanard Jackson to build around.

But, more than anything, the Bucs have new coach Raheem Morris. Yes, he's the youngest coach in the league and that's one reason for the low expectations outside the organization. But Morris is the reason the expectations are high within the organization.

"We were 9-3 last year and had a rocky ending because the atmosphere wasn't right,'' Clayton said." But the team we've put together this year is a whole lot better than last year. You know the energy is going to be in the right place because of the atmosphere. Raheem maximizes you. Raheem does a good job of maximizing everybody's effort and we didn't have that last year.''

Key Questions

Who will be the quarterback? Even the Bucs don't know the short-term answer to this one yet. They'll pick a starter after Saturday night's preseason game in Jacksonville. It will be either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich; they have been basically even through camp and one preseason game.

The Bucs will go with the quarterback they think can be more efficient because they believe the rest of their offense is solid. But it's no secret that the quarterback who opens the season is merely a stopgap. It's blatantly clear that Josh Freeman is the quarterback of the future.

Since drafting Freeman, Morris has gushed about the quarterback he coached
at Kansas State. The selection went against the wishes of many fans, who believed the Bucs should have focused on a defensive player. But that's history now because Morris and general manager Mark Dominik are committed to building this team around Freeman.

They want to bring Freeman along slowly and that's why they'll open the season with one of the veterans. But Freeman isn't going to sit forever. If McCown and/or Leftwich struggle, the same fans who booed Freeman's selection will be calling for him to start.

  Brooks

What's the defense going to look like without Brooks? It's going to be completely different and that's not just because the best player in franchise history is gone. Coordinator Monte Kiffin, the man who made the "Tampa Two'' scheme famous also is gone. The Bucs have a new coordinator in Jim Bates and a whole new defense.

There will be more bump coverage, but the emphasis still will be on speed. This isn't a very big defense. Former safety Jermaine Phillips has moved into Brooks' old spot on the weak side. Ruud's the only proven star in his prime and the veteran Barber will try to ease the transition.

But the Bucs believe they can develop some new stars and they're hoping guys like defensive end Gaines Adams and cornerback Aqib Talib can become core players very quickly.

What will the offense look like without Gruden? Again, things will be totally different. Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski brings in an offense that's focused on ball control and the Bucs have the parts in place to be a run-first team. Led by center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph, the offensive line might be the team's biggest strength.

One of the first moves Morris and Dominik made was to bring in Ward. He's going to be used in tandem with Earnest Graham. Jagodzinski's first goal is to establish the running game, but he's also got big plans for the passing game.

Gruden relied mostly on a horizontal passing game, but those days are gone. Although the Bucs may not have a true speed receiver, they'll use play action to try to create opportunities for Bryant, Winslow and Clayton down the field.

Market Watch

 
  Cliff Welch/Icon SMI
  The Bucs took a risk in trading for Kellen Winslow and signing him to a new, long-term contract.

Without much depth at wide receiver, camp was a golden opportunity for Dexter Jackson to redeem himself after a horrible rookie season. Jackson's been given a lot of chances, but hasn't been able to take advantage of him. A second-round pick from a year ago, there's a very real chance Jackson won't even make the roster. ...The move of Phillips to weakside linebacker is working out nicely and it comes with another component. Part of the reason the Bucs decided to move Phillips was because they wanted to get Sabby Piscitelli into the starting lineup at strong safety. He's embraced that chance and showed he can make big plays in the preseason opener.

The Bucs have known for months that they might have to go without starting guard Arron Sears, who hasn't reported to camp because of a "private matter." Sears was a very solid player the past two years, but there shouldn't be much drop off. The Bucs already were high on Jeremy Zuttah, who showed some promise as a rookie last year. He's had the entire offseason to work with the first unit. The Bucs would welcome Sears back, but they're not counting on that happening any time soon.

The Bucs knew what they were getting into when they traded for Winslow and turned around and gave him a huge contract. The tight end comes with enormous talent and baggage. Winslow had injury problems and often was the center of controversy in Cleveland. Morris is trying to light a fire under Winslow and already has criticized him. But that's all part of a plan to try to get the most out of Winslow's talents.

The Bucs also took a gamble by drafting wide receiver Sammie Stroughter in the seventh round. Stroughter has had some personal problems in the past. But all indications are he's put those behind him. Stroughter has been one of the stars in camp. At the moment, he's probably the leading candidate to be the No. 3 receiver. He's shown the ability to go across the middle and he also has return skills.

Observation Deck

The Bucs had pictured Angelo Crowell as their starting strongside linebacker when they signed him as a free agent. But injuries have held Crowell back and Quincy Black appears to have locked up the starting job. Backup Adam Hayward also has had a strong preseason and can do a lot on special teams. Crowell no longer is a lock to make the roster. ... Defensive tackle was a big concern in the offseason because Chris Hovan is aging and Ryan Sims never has been dominant against the run. The Bucs will use those two as the starters, but they feel a lot better about this position as they prepare to break training camp. Third-round pick Roy Miller has had a strong preseason. So has Dre Moore, who did little as a rookie last year. Moore has kept himself in shape after struggling with weight issues last year. The Bucs plan to use a four-man rotation and play Miller and Moore a lot. Miller could emerge as a starter before long. ... Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson has been a backup throughout his career. But the new coaching staff penciled him in as a
starter from the very beginning and he hasn't disappointed. The coaches believe Wilkerson can play the run and rush the passer. They'll also rotate Stylez White into the lineup, but Wilkerson will get the majority of the snaps.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

More than any other year in its brief existence, the NFC South has changed its face in the offseason.

Derrick Brooks, Deuce McAllister and Keith Brooking -- guys who had been the symbols of their teams -- are gone. So are big names such as Joey Galloway, Ken Lucas and Jeff Garcia.

In some cases, their departures were surprising. In others, it simply was the culmination of a year spent on the hot seat. They're gone, but there are plenty of other big-name players to take their chairs.

Here's a look at five prominent NFC South players who could be on the hot seat this year.

Ronde Barber, cornerback, Tampa Bay. A lot of critics said he was on the hot seat and on his way out last year. But Barber survived the Tampa Bay purge of old guys that claimed Brooks, Galloway, Garcia and Warrick Dunn. There's a reason for that. New coach Raheem Morris previously was Barber's position coach and he knows better than anyone what's left in Barber's tank. Sure, Barber is 34 and he got off to a very rough start last year. But the fact is Barber's play was one of the few bright spots as Tampa Bay collapsed late last year. It doesn't hurt to have someone with Barber's experience to help ease the transition. Besides, the Bucs don't really have a legitimate option to start opposite Aqib Talib. If Elbert Mack somehow ends up in that role, then we'll know Barber is through.

Muhsin Muhammad, wide receiver, Carolina. Although he hasn't so far, logic says Muhammad's age will catch up to him at some point. He's 36 and coming off a solid season. He's also been the only receiver the Panthers have been able to get consistent production out of lining up across from Steve Smith. Muhammad and Smith have a very peaceful coexistence and that's part of the reason why the Panthers want to keep them together. Muhammad's a top-notch blocker in the running game and never has been known for his speed. But the first step Muhammad loses will be one too many. The Panthers have spent the last two years grooming Dwayne Jarrett and he seemed to win the trust of the coaching staff late last season. The Panthers believe Jarrett is the future at this position and they may look to gradually move him ahead of Muhammad.

Charles Grant, defensive end, New Orleans. This guy's been in the league since 2002 and he really hasn't done much since the 2004 season. Grant had three sacks in an injury-shortened year last season and 2.5 in 2007. He's been on the hot seat basically since the arrival of coach Sean Payton in 2006. But that seat is hotter than ever. Grant is scheduled to serve a four-game suspension to start the season. So is fellow starting defensive end Will Smith. The Saints have known this for months and they've got Bobby McCray and Paul Spicer ready to open the season as their starters. If one of them steps up, they could stay in Grant's starting role even after he returns.

Jamaal Anderson, defensive end, Atlanta. This guy was the eighth overall pick in the 2007 draft. To date, he has two career sacks. Bobby Petrino and Rich McKay drafted Anderson and that means coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff don't have any particular allegiance to him. They realize Anderson has a lot of potential and they'll give him one more training camp to show something. But they've got Chauncey Davis waiting in the wings and they also drafted Lawrence Sidbury.

Gaines Adams, defensive end, Tampa Bay. Adams came from the same draft class as Anderson and was selected No. 4 overall. His career has been slightly better than Anderson's, but Adams hasn't been anywhere close to dominant. He has 12.5 sacks in two seasons and those have come almost entirely via his speed. Adams has yet to show any moves as a pass rusher. Tampa Bay's new regime has spent the offseason trying to help Adams develop some moves. If he doesn't flash them soon, he might end up moving on. Stylez White is a competent third end and new defensive coordinator Jim Bates won't hesitate to turn to him if Adams doesn't start producing.

NFC South training camp preview

July, 23, 2009
7/23/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Atlanta Falcons
Training camp site: Flowery Branch, Ga.

Campfires: The offense is pretty much set with last year's starters virtually intact and the addition of tight end Tony Gonzalez. That's going to put the focus of camp on a defense that overachieved last year and will have five new starters.

Division Camp Previews
Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
Friday: NFC West | AFC West

MORE
Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates

The hottest battles will be in the secondary, where the Falcons have to replace safety Lawyer Milloy and cornerback Domonique Foxworth. Atlanta's coaching staff is hoping second-round pick William Moore can step in and start at safety, but second-year pro Thomas DeCoud provides a decent fallback option if Moore's not ready. DeCoud had a strong showing throughout the offseason and isn't going to give up the job without a fight.

Cornerback might be the most intriguing spot to watch in camp. The Falcons are set with Chris Houston on one side, but it's a wide-open competition for the other starting spot and the nickelback job. The plan is to throw Brent Grimes, Von Hutchins, Chevis Jackson and rookies Christopher Owens and William Middleton out there and see who rises up. Keep an eye on Jackson, who came on strong in the second half of his rookie season last year.

Camp will be a downer if ... there are any injuries on the offensive line. The Falcons have a starting five that probably played over its head last year and very little depth. Veteran Todd Weiner retired after last season and the Falcons tried to replace the flexibility he gave them by signing veteran Jeremy Newberry. But Newberry retired earlier this week because of knee problems.

 
  Paul Abell/Getty Images
  Tony Gonzalez gives quarterback Matt Ryan another target in the Falcons' passing game.

Coach Mike Smith is very good at mixing up the tempo of his practices, but he may have to be more cautious with his offensive line. Left tackle Sam Baker had back problems last year and center Todd McClure has wear and tear on his 32-year-old body. If some young linemen don't step up -- and there aren't many likely candidates -- the Falcons may have to keep an eye on the waiver wire for some depth.

Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Matt Ryan masters the offense he looked so good in as a rookie. That's a strong possibility. Although he already was very good, Ryan looked noticeably better in minicamp practices in the spring.

The Falcons didn't hold back much of the playbook from Ryan last season, but they're going to expand it significantly this year. The addition of Gonzalez suddenly gives the Falcons the pass-catching tight end they lacked last year. That should only help receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, who blossomed with Ryan last year. And don't forget second-year receiver Harry Douglas. He showed some promise last year, but looked ready to take on a bigger role in offseason workouts.

The Norwood factor: One player to keep an eye on in camp and preseason games is running back Jerious Norwood. The Falcons realize they put a very heavy load on starter Michael Turner last season and they don't want him approaching 375 carries again. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has to find a way to give Norwood some of Turner's carries. That's not as simple as just swapping them out. Turner is a
power runner and Norwood is a speed guy. The Falcons need to put in some wrinkles to take advantage of Norwood's skills.


Carolina Panthers
Training camp site: Spartanburg, S.C.

Campfires: The Panthers are returning 21 of 22 starters from a team that went 12-4. But the disastrous playoff loss to Arizona means that Carolina can't be complacent. Coach John Fox never has been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons and he needs to if he wants to stay off the proverbial "hot seat."

 
  Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
  Jake Delhomme and the Panthers need to put last season's playoff loss to Arizona behind them.

Fox needs to revitalize a defense that collapsed down the stretch last season and much of that responsibility will fall to new coordinator Ron Meeks. Barring injury or upset, the only new starter will be cornerback Richard Marshall, who will replace Ken Lucas. A lot of fans are wondering if Marshall is ready to be a starter. The coaching staff wouldn't have let Lucas go if Marshall wasn't ready. He's been a very good nickelback the past couple of years and should do fine opposite Chris Gamble.

The bigger question might be who's going to replace Marshall at nickelback? The Panthers seem to have rookie Sherrod Martin ticketed for that spot. That may seem a little risky, but Fox has a pretty good track record when it comes to playing rookie cornerbacks quickly. Marshall and Ricky Manning Jr. were able to step in and contribute as rookies.

Camp will be a downer if ... Steve Smith pulls a repeat of last year. Early in camp, Smith punched out Lucas, who was kneeling on the sideline. That led to a two-game suspension for Smith. The incident may have helped pull the team together in some ways, but the Panthers can't endure something like that again.

Things tend to get hot in Spartanburg, but Fox and his staff need to keep the ultra-competitive Smith cool. Smith's nasty streak is a big part of what makes him such a great receiver. But he needs to save that for the regular season and let the team get through camp peacefully.

Camp will be a success if ... the Panthers can put the Arizona playoff loss behind them. Losing badly at home was a terrible end to what had been a very nice season, and Fox has to eliminate any hangover from that. One of Fox's strengths is his ability to motivate and he's got to convince this team it can win big games when it matters most.

Fox has been adamant about sticking with quarterback Jake Delhomme, who had a disastrous outing against Arizona. That's a strong show of confidence from the coach. But Fox may have to spend part of camp convincing the rest of the team that the move is a result of confidence and not stubbornness.

It starts up front: Early in Fox's tenure, his defensive line was dominant and the team was built around the front four. That hasn't been the case in recent years. The back seven is very good, but it can become great with more production up front.

Although end Julius Peppers is the only big name on the line, the Panthers have the ingredients to be good up front. They didn't draft Everette Brown to spend his rookie season on the bench. He'll join in a rotation with Peppers, Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton. If Peppers can play at a level close to his $17 million franchise tag, there could be a lot of sack opportunities for Brown, Johnson and Brayton.


New Orleans Saints
Training camp site: Metairie, La.

Campfires: As far as pure numbers, the Saints have the most legitimate position battles in the NFC South. That competition should be a good thing for a team that underachieved, particularly on defense, last season.

General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton did a nice job of creating competition with a bunch of offseason moves geared at making the defense better. Last year's biggest problem area was in the secondary and that's where the best camp battles will be. The Saints paid free-agent cornerback Jabari Greer big money and that probably makes him a starter.

 
  Crystal LoGiudice/US Presswire
  Rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins will battle for one of the starting cornerback spots.

But the battle for the other starting cornerback spot should be intense. The Saints used their first-round pick on Malcolm Jenkins, who probably has the most physical talent of any rookie on the roster. But Jenkins truly will have to earn the starting job because the Saints think very highly of Tracy Porter, who got off to a strong start before suffering an injury in his rookie season. Porter brings a high level of confidence and he's not going to give up a starting spot very easily. If the Saints open the season with Jenkins as their nickelback, they'll have far more depth than they've had in recent years.

Camp will be a downer if ... it's anything like last season. A rash of injuries started in last year's training camp and the plague continued through the regular season. That was a major reason why the Saints missed the playoffs. Even with added depth, they can't endure another season like last year. Payton ran the NFC South's most-intense camp last season and he may have learned from it.

The Saints have moved their camp back to their practice facility and a look at their schedule shows a large amount of afternoon practices in the indoor facility. There also are a fair amount of days where the Saints will practice only once. That should help keep the team fresh and cut down on the injuries. That's hugely important for a team that will open the season without s
tarting defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant, who are suspended for the first four games.

Camp will be a success if ... Gregg Williams' defensive system takes hold quickly. Coordinator Gary Gibbs took the fall for last season's defensive failures and the Saints went out and spent big money to bring in Williams. Once viewed as one of the league's top defensive minds, Williams is looking for redemption after recent struggles in Jacksonville and Washington.

There will be some changes in the defensive scheme. But, more importantly, he'll be trying to install a mindset. Williams is known for having high-motor, aggressive defenses. The Saints haven't had anything that resembled that throughout Payton's tenure. There is plenty of talent in place and the defense showed signs it was developing an aggressive attitude in minicamp. If that continues, the Saints could have the one thing that's separated them from the playoffs the past two seasons.

Who will run the ball? That remains a huge question for a team whose passing game is pretty close to perfect. Payton's not going to take the ball out of the hands of quarterback Drew Brees, but the coach has made it clear he wants to develop a running game that's more consistent than last season.

With Deuce McAllister gone, the Saints have made it clear they plan to go with the tandem of Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. Payton will use camp and the preseason games to experiment with their roles and try to put Bush and Thomas in spots that play to their strengths.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Training camp site: Tampa, Fla.

Campfires: Fans are going to need rosters for this training camp. Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway, Jeff Garcia and Warrick Dunn are gone. Tampa Bay's youth movement, which starts with new coach Raheem Morris, is in full swing as the Bucs truly look for a new identity.

Starting jobs are open all over the place, particularly on defense. The Bucs have moved safety Jermaine Phillips to Brooks' old spot at weakside linebacker and are putting Sabby Piscitelli in Phillips' old spot. If either of those moves fail, the Bucs could always move Phillips back to safety, but the team is planning on this switch working out. It better because the Bucs have plenty of other questions elsewhere. Is veteran cornerback Ronde Barber still capable of playing at a high level? Is defensive end Gaines Adams finally ready to play up to his potential?

 
  J. Meric/Getty Images
  Play him or sit him? That's the decision the Bucs face regarding rookie quarterback Josh Freeman.

But the biggest question of all -- and the one most fans will be watching -- is at quarterback. Tampa Bay used its first-round pick on Josh Freeman and Morris already has dubbed him as the franchise quarterback. The Bucs initially threw out all sorts of hints that Freeman, who left college a year early, would sit as a rookie. But he came on faster than expected in minicamp and that could change the thinking. The Bucs probably will enter the preseason looking to start either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich. But it's not out of the question that Freeman could outshine both veterans. If that happens, the Bucs would have to speed up their plan.

Camp will be a downer if ... none of the quarterbacks steps forward. The rest of the offense is pretty solid, but this team won't go anywhere without a quarterback who can make the passing game work. There are reasons why McCown has never been a true starter and why Leftwich has gone from being a franchise quarterback in Jacksonville to being just a guy.

McCown has enough athleticism to make you believe there's upside, and Leftwich still throws the ball very nicely at times. But nothing is certain with either of these guys. If Freeman plays like a rookie in camp, the Bucs may have to settle on a quarterback by attrition. That's not a great situation because if McCown or Leftwich starts slowly, fans will be screaming for Freeman before he's ready.

Camp will be a success if ... the new schemes catch on. The Bucs aren't going to look anything like Jon Gruden's Bucs. New offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski is installing a power running game and a vertical passing game. New defensive coordinator Jim Bates is going away from the famed Tampa 2 defense and going with a system that relies heavily on pressure from up front.

The Bucs are young in a lot of ways, but they'll need new leaders like Barrett Ruud, Derrick Ward, Kellen Winslow and Antonio Bryant to step up and lead this team through the transition process.

Whatever happened to Michael Clayton? After a brilliant rookie year, the wide receiver spent the past few seasons buried in Gruden's doghouse. A lot of people were stunned when the new regime handed Clayton a big contract, instead of letting him walk as a free agent. There's a reason for that.

The new regime believes Clayton can be a productive starter. Forget all the talk about what a good blocker Clayton is in the running game. Sure, that will help. But Clayton isn't getting big money just to block. He got paid because Morris, general manager Mark Dominik and Jagodzinski think he can be a solid No. 2 receiver.

Trey Wingo, Cris Carter and Marcellus Wiley preview the NFC South.

Bucs working on new look

May, 21, 2009
5/21/09
2:35
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- Some of you had been asking through the mailbag recently if that huge portrait of Jeff Garcia was off the wall of Raymond James Stadium yet.

It is now. I just made a loop around the stadium as I went to lunch (note to self: add two miles to the expense report) and Garcia's gone. So are Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway, Warrick Dunn and all the ghosts of Buccaneers past. Heck, even some of the current Bucs had their portraits taken down because those walls are now bare.

I'm sure there will be new decorations of current players (Josh Freeman perhaps?) coming soon. Speaking of Bucs and portraits or posters, there's a billboard ad just South of the stadium for season tickets. It's got a huge picture of linebacker Barrett Ruud.

He hasn't been showing up for workouts and reportedly wants a new contract. That billboard gives him a little more ammunition in his negotiations with a team that's looking for faces for its franchise.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

When the door finally stopped swinging at One Buccaneer Place back in February, Ronde Barber was the only one of the old Bucs still standing inside.

 Barber

The legend of all Tampa Bay legends, Derrick Brooks, was gone. So were Joey Galloway, Jeff Garcia and Warrick Dunn. Almost everyone with ties to the Tony Dungy era was gone. Even a lot of guys who came in under Jon Gruden were gone. Raheem Morris, 32, was taking over and just about everyone older than him packed their bags.

Except Barber, who is 34 and coming off a season that a lot of fans thought was subpar. But there's really only one opinion that matters in Tampa Bay these days and that's Morris'. He kept Barber around and there's a reason for that.

Morris believes Barber still can play. So does Barber. He hasn't been talking to the Tampa Bay media much these days and Morris has said it's because Barber is upset with suggestions that he's over the hill. That may be a good thing because it gives Barber something to prove and the Bucs might need that.

Rookies, Vets on the Hot Seat
ROOKIES ON THE HOT SEAT
• AFC: N | S | E | W
• NFC: N | S | E | W

VETS ON THE HOT SEAT
• AFC: N | S | E | W
• NFC: N | S | E | W

They're starting Aqib Talib on the other side. They've got Elbert Mack, a young prospect they're high on, but the other starting job still belongs to Barber and that might not be as bad a thing as many fans think.

Morris was the defensive backs coach last year and he knows Barber better than anyone. The fact is Barber did struggle last year, but not all of last year. He had some rough games early on, but he played well down the stretch.

If Morris thinks there's something left in Barber's tank, there probably is. But his age and the perception of fans means he's probably the NFC South player who is on the hottest seat (Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme draws honorable mention in this category) until he proves otherwise.

 
  Nelson Chenault/US PRESSWIRE
  With a new head coach and new contract, Michael Clayton feels he now has a good opportunity to realize the promise he showed during his rookie season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- Michael Clayton has a theory on why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers handed him a five-year, $26 million contract just over a month ago.

It's not what you'd expect to hear from any wide receiver, a position where egos often are large and driven solely by receptions and touchdowns on the stat sheet. For four seasons, Clayton's numbers have been disappointing by any standard, but he smiles when he talks beyond the statistics.

He smiles when he talks about his blocking skills.

"I really think that's why I stayed here because they value the blocking so much," Clayton said.

The Bucs are paying a wide receiver more than some of their offensive linemen to block for their running backs? There's a bit more to it than that, but the basic answer is the Bucs view Clayton's blocking as a huge positive.

It seems every time new coach Raheem Morris talks these days, he uses the words "violent" and "physical." That's how he wants his team to play. It seems every time new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski speaks, he mentions how important it is to run the ball.

Michael Clayton
#80 WR
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

CAREER STATS
REC YDS AVG LNG TD
205 2,706 13.2 75 9

That's why Clayton has found a home -- and a big role -- only a few months after it looked like he'd be the first guy out of town after the Bucs lost their last four games to finish 9-7 and out of the playoffs.

Free agency and a fresh start seemed to be the only way for Clayton to revive a career that had sputtered after he caught 80 passes as a rookie in 2004. He'll be the first to tell you he deserves some of the blame. Clayton, 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds these days, admits he put on too much weight after his rookie year and that led to some injuries.

But even as he started taking better care of himself and staying healthy, Clayton never was fully able to emerge from coach Jon Gruden's doghouse. After catching seven touchdown passes as a rookie, he's had only two over the last four seasons and his reception totals in each season didn't even come to half of what he did as a rookie.

"I came in and caught 80 balls," Clayton said. "I felt ability-wise and confidence-wise, at that point, let's just build the team around the success that I had and bring in some fast guys to go down the field. They went totally opposite and kind of took me out."

Joey Galloway became the top target and Clayton disappeared.

"I loved and respected coach Gruden, but I fell into the nature of the business," Clayton said.

The nature of the business changed dramatically a couple of weeks after the season, when Gruden was fired and Morris was hired. Clayton was gearing up for free agency and even began going through the process, but he knew the coaching change opened a door that seemed to be closed.

 
  Nelson Chenault/US PRESSWIRE
  New head coach Raheem Morris already has a good relationship with Clayton.

Clayton has a strong relationship with Morris, the defensive backs coach last season. Morris was the guy who even recruited Clayton to play a little defense. Clayton lined up at cornerback for a couple of plays in a goal-line situation in a game against Kansas City last season.

"[Morris] had that trust in me to go out there and be an athlete. He knows what type of person I am," Clayton said. "He also knows what type of receiver I am, what I bring to the table and how to utilize my talents."

Yes, as important as his blocking ability may be, Clayton wants a chance to do more than that. He wants to be a starter. He wants to be an every-down receiver and get more than 30-some catches a year.

Galloway is gone now. Antonio Bryant is the only sure thing the Bucs have at receiver, but Clayton wants to give them more than that.

"Basically, I think there are going to be opportunities in the short passing game and they're going to utilize receivers who can help move the chains in traffic," Clayton said. "I think they'll put me in position where I can help the team. Everybody's going to get an opportunity to catch a lot of balls. It hasn't always been like that in the past."

No, it hasn't. Clayton, at times, was reduced to being nothing more than a special-teams player. But he's endured that and has managed to stay with a team he was fully prepared to leave.

Clayton's starting over. Four years later, he believes the time -- and the chance -- has come for him to finally build on that brilliant rookie season.

"At the end of the day, I'm not the fastest guy," Clayton
said. "But you talk about longevity and I pride myself on perfecting my craft. I feel like I'm a complete player and that's what keeps wide receivers around for a long time. I feel like, in this offense, I'm going to get a chance to show what I can really do."

Afternoon mailbag

March, 19, 2009
3/19/09
5:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

In an attempt to stay ahead of the mailbag traffic, I've decided to do a Thursday afternoon edition. We won't do team-by-team mailbags today -- just a quick trip through the whole NFC South.

Chris in New Orleans writes: Pat, I appreciate the great coverage on the Saints recent transactions. My question is: Charles Grant and Will Smith, are they still facing a four game suspension from the league and do you feel this may effect the Saints draft picks and future free agengy this year? Thanks

Pat Yasinskas: Yes, it still is a possibility that Charles Grant and Will Smith could be suspended. That's up to the NFL and we, like the Saints, have to wait to see what's decided. But I think the Saints already have done some preparation already for this possibility. The recent signing of defensive end Paul Spicer, who also has the ability to play defensive tackle, gives them some solid, veteran depth. They already have Bobby McCray as their third defensive end. Not saying that will totally stop the Saints from getting a defensive end in the draft, but I don't think they're in a situation where they absolutely have to go out and get one. Spicer and McCray are good enough to get you through a few games as starters.


Mike in Eden NC writes: Hey Pat, Is there any possibility of sending Peppers to Denver for Cutler?? This would take care of our QB struggles and take all the Peppers stress out of the situation.

Pat Yasinskas: That's a popular question with Carolina fans. But I'll say, again, I don't see a trade of Julius Peppers for Jay Cutler, although I can see the logic behind the idea. But I don't think Marty Hurney and John Fox -- or the Broncos for that matter -- see the same thing we do. This situation is a lot more complicated than just swapping one disgruntled player for another. There's the matter of compensating Peppers, who probably is looking for a deal that will make him the best-paid defensive player in the league. There's also the possibility Cutler might want a new (in other words, big) contract if he lands with a new team. Not saying it's right or wrong, but Fox and Hurney have a lot of loyalty to Jake Delhomme. I just don't think this move fits their profile.


Ed in Cape Coral, FL writes: Pat - I am real worried about the Bucs defense, I've asked you about LB, CB and safety. Now what about DT? It was never more apparent how important Haye and Hovan were those last 4 games when they were both either out or playing injured. I loved Wilkersons play last year whenever he came in or on special teams, and I thought Sims did a great job when he was called upon. Neither did well on a fulltime basis in place of Haye or Hovan. So what will they do?

Pat Yasinskas: Agreed -- defensive tackle remains a major issue for the Bucs. Jovan Haye left through free agency and Chris Hovan's not getting any younger. Jimmy Wilkerson and Ryan Sims are backups. I'm quite sure the Bucs aren't done at this position. New defensive coordinator Jim Bates likes to have at least one big, run-stuffing tackle. I'm pretty sure you'll see that come in either free agency or the draft, perhaps even early in the draft.


Hesaidwhat in parts unknown writes: Hey Pat. Does the media attention Peppers has got latley help the draft picks panthers get for him?

Pat Yasinskas: Unique and original question. Like it and hadn't thought about it in those terms before. After pondering it a little bit, I think the reports and speculation of the New England Patriots perhaps wanting to trade a second-round pick to Carolina for Peppers could help his value. If other teams see that and have an interest in Peppers, they might think they can get him with a slightly-better deal, like maybe a first-round pick.


Nikolas in London ON writes: Big fan of your blog. Im a buccs fan and I seem to be one of the few that actually loved the house cleaning that Tampa did, i think it was an a good decision what about you?

Pat Yasinskas: I'm liking Tampa Bay's housecleaning more now that I see the rest of the plan unfolding with signings like linebacker Angelo Crowell and running back Derrick Ward and the trade for tight end Kellen Winslow. I still think the Derrick Brooks situation was not handled as well as it could have been. But, as far as letting guys like Joey Galloway and Warrick Dunn go, I think the Bucs were getting rid of some older players and that's understandable. We're still seeing the whole second half of that equation playing out.


H.E. in Chattanooga writes: Pat, I've really enjoyed your coverage of the NFC South. But being a Falcons fan, my only concern is with their defense. In early mock drafts, people have predicted the Falcons going after the Utah Safety Smith. Now they are predicting the Falcons going after the Georgia Tech DE Johnson. What are your predictions and what do you think of the aforementioned options? Thanks!

Pat Yasinskas: With the Falcons sitting at No. 24, it's hard to make an exact prediction right now. But I agree there are needs at safety and in the pass rush. I subscribe to the theory that you don't take a safety in the first round (unless it's somebody really special and you have a top 10 pick). I think the Falcons can wait on this need. I definitely could see them going for a defensive end, like Georgia Tech's Michael Johnson. They don't have much of a pass rush besides John Abraham and Johnson would be a popular pick in Atlanta. Also, don't rule out an outside linebacker, such as Southern California's Brian Cushing or Clay Matthews.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

They drafted "franchise'' quarterbacks who didn't work out in Vinny Testaverde and Trent Dilfer. For years now, they've been using patchwork QBs -- Shaun King, Brad Johnson and Jeff Garcia.

  2008: Best of Jay Cutler
  NFL.com Video
  The best moments from Jay Cutler in 2008.

Now, there's a growing chance the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a chance to get their hands on a sure-fire franchise quarterback. That's Jay Cutler, who the Bucs tried to trade for a few weeks back. It didn't happen then and the Broncos came out and said they wouldn't be trading their quarterback.

But now it's time to re-examine that possibility. Cutler and the Broncos haven't put their differences aside and owner Pat Bowlen today admitted what the Broncos weren't admitting. Cutler officially could be on the block.

"I'm disappointed in the whole picture, not just disappointed that we might lose our star quarterback,'' Bowlen told The Denver Post.

The fact Bowlen is talking like that means Cutler could be available and the Bucs have to be watching. In fact, they should be acting. This is a chance for them to get the franchise quarterback Jon Gruden never could -- heck, Cutler would become the only franchise quarterback besides Doug Williams in Tampa Bay history.

The guy is 25 and has a huge arm. He'd be perfect in the new offense of coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, who wants to throw downfield. Yeah, Cutler can pout at times and he's not always produced at critical times. But he's far better than anything the Bucs have (Luke McCown), or any available free agent or any quarterback that's going to be available at No. 19 in the draft.

The Bucs have done a nice job of overhauling their offense. They traded for tight end Kellen Winslow. They signed running back Derrick Ward. The placed the franchise tag on Antonio Bryant and have a very solid offensive line in place. Sure, they still need some role players on defense and, perhaps, a speed receiver.

But the one thing that could legitimize the new regime of coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik would be to trade for Cutler. They tried to do it once before.

If that's an alternative again, the Bucs have to make it happen. Throw out a first-round pick and maybe another draft choice or two or even a player. Throw in some Cuban sandwiches, Tampa cigars or whatever it takes. Then, turn around and give Cutler a nice new contract to make him happy in his new home. The Bucs have the cap room to make all that happen.

A lot of fans were upset with the Bucs after Tampa Bay cut the likes of Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn, Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard. They could make people start to forget those moves -- heck, they could make fans start to see the logic in those moves -- if they go out and get Cutler.

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