NFC South: John Clayton

Live from the Georgia Dome

January, 20, 2013
1/20/13
12:03
PM ET
ATLANTA -- I’m in the Georgia Dome, where things are quiet for the moment.

The gates aren’t open to fans yet and the only players I see on the field loosening up are Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant and punter Matt Bosher.

But the atmosphere is going to change soon enough because the parking lots already were jammed with tailgate parties and I did notice a few fans wearing San Francisco jerseys.

I’ll be back with inactives about 90 minutes before kickoff. Colleagues John Clayton and Mike Sando are here with me and Ashley Fox also should be arriving soon. Also, I'm scheduled to chat about the matchup between the Falcons and 49ers on ESPN Radio at approximately 12:30 p.m. ET.

Be sure to join us in the Countdown Live chat throughout the game.

On the road to Atlanta

January, 19, 2013
1/19/13
12:14
PM ET
TAMPA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT -- I’m about to fly to Atlanta to get in position to cover Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons.

I’ll be joined by colleagues Ashley Fox, John Clayton and Mike Sando. We’ll bring you news, notes and analysis before, during and after the game.

You can also join us for the Countdown Live chat that will go on throughout the game.

On the road to Atlanta

January, 12, 2013
1/12/13
1:03
PM ET
TAMPA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT -- I’m about to board a plane to Atlanta, where I’ll be covering Sunday’s game between the Falcons and Seattle Seahawks at the Georgia Dome.

Colleagues John Clayton, Ashley Fox and I will bring you all the news, notes and analysis before, during and after the game. I’ll check in as soon as I get into the stadium on Sunday morning.

Please join us for the Countdown Live chat that will go on throughout the game. A page for the chat will pop up on this blog an hour or so before the game.

NFC South afternoon update

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
5:37
PM ET
Time for an afternoon trip through some headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

We touched on this a few times during the season. But, for reasons that I can’t figure out, quarterback Matt Ryan had way better statistics on the road than he did at home during the regular season. Colleague Mike Sando has the breakdown of Ryan’s home and road stats.

In their final college season, Peter Konz was playing center and snapping the ball to Russell Wilson. Now, Konz is playing guard for the Falcons and Wilson is Seattle’s quarterback. Konz said he and Wilson remain friends. But Konz said he’s not talking to Wilson in the days leading into Sunday’s playoff game.

The Falcons are urging fans to arrive early for Sunday’s game. I’m going to follow their advice. I generally leave my hotel three hours before kickoff. But I’m going to depart 30 minutes earlier this time. Part of it is due to the probability of increased traffic. But the bigger reason is that I’ll be chauffeuring John Clayton. Things tend to move a little slower when you’re with Clayton because he gets the rock-star treatment from fans and it’s not uncommon for him to stop to pose for pictures or sign autographs. On second thought, I might leave the hotel four hours before kickoff.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Linebacker Luke Kuechly and guard Amini Silatolu were named to the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team. Kuechly also was chosen Defensive Rookie of the Year by the same organization.

Joseph Person reports that former Chicago special-teams coach Dave Taub has interviewed with the Panthers. Taub has some history with coach Ron Rivera.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Russell Paternostro, who spent 16 years as the Saints’ strength and conditioning, coach passed away at 71.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Running back Doug Martin, linebacker Lavonte David and safety Mark Barron were named to the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team.

Stephen Holder writes that defensive end Michael Bennett is hitting free agency in a good year. The crop of defensive ends isn’t that impressive and he could command big money on the open market. But I think the Bucs, who have plenty of salary-cap room will make a push to sign Bennett before he has a chance to hit the market.

Worst contracts in the NFC South?

October, 25, 2012
10/25/12
3:14
PM ET
John Clayton has his list of the 10 worst contracts in the NFL and two NFC South players are on it.

Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams (five years, $43 million) came in at No. 6. It’s tough to dispute that because Williams hasn’t produced big numbers the past two seasons. Williams’ contract is compounded by the fact the Panthers also gave Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert big contracts. But, amazingly, the Panthers really aren’t making good use of the trio. They’re running the read option and quarterback Cam Newton is the only one putting up much in the way of rushing yards. Williams was only on the field for five plays in Sunday’s loss to Dallas. I still think Williams is a very talented player, who could be well worth his contract -- if he was used the right way. Nobody knows how things are going to play out in Carolina after the season, but the Panthers clearly are going to have to unload some big contracts and Williams appears to be at the top of the list.

Clayton also has New Orleans defensive end Will Smith (six years, $60.8 million) at No. 8. Again, it’s tough to argue this one. I think Smith is a solid all-around defensive end, but not a great one. He has two sacks this season and had 6.5 last year and 5.5 in 2010. The Saints are going to have to make some 2013 salary-cap decisions and they obviously need to make some adjustments to their defensive personnel. At the very least, I’d expect the Saints to ask Smith to restructure his deal. At worst, they could part ways with him.

John Clayton upstages Michael Jordan

September, 16, 2012
9/16/12
12:45
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I just saw a legend in person.

Former NBA star and current Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan just walked through the press box prior to the start of Sunday’s game between the Panthers and the Saints.

Jordan turned some heads, but he clearly is not biggest star in the press box. I’m sitting next to rock star John Clayton, who has been getting swarmed with attention from people who have seen his new television commercial.
We’ve hit you with a lot of predictions in recent days. Get ready for some more. John Clayton, Herm Edwards, Ron Jaworski, Mel Kiper Jr., Chris Mortensen, Bill Polian and Adam Schefter have their predictions on who will play in the Super Bowl.

Only one of the seven has an NFC South team making it to the Super Bowl. It’s Polian, who is going with the Atlanta Falcons. Polian says this is the year Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan truly blossoms.

“I really think Ryan is going to grow under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, and I look for him to take a pretty big leap because of the nature of the offense,’’ Polian said. “It will not be the run-heavy offense of the past. It will be more wide open, and Ryan will get a chance to spread his wings.’’

Ironically, Polian has the Falcons playing the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl. Ryan is forever linked to Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco because they came out in the same draft class. However, Polian’s pick doesn’t come with a totally happy ending for Atlanta fans. He has the Ravens beating the Falcons in the Super Bowl.

Clayton: Brees, Ryan top 10 QBs

August, 23, 2012
8/23/12
3:06
PM ET
It’s time for one of the highlights of the preseason.

John Clayton has his annual rankings of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks. These usually make for great debates and this year is no exception.

In fact, I’ll at least throw out some (respectfully) dissenting thoughts on where Clayton has each of the four NFC South quarterbacks ranked.

He has New Orleans’ Drew Brees at No. 3. That’s a very lofty ranking, but I think you could at least make the argument that Brees could be No. 1 or No. 2. Clayton has Aaron Rodgers at No. 1 and Tom Brady at No. 2. They’re both great quarterbacks, but are either one of them clearly better than Brees? I’m not so sure.

Clayton has Atlanta’s Matt Ryan at No. 10. I totally agree that Ryan is a top 10 quarterback. In fact, I think you could make the case he could be a spot or two higher. Tony Romo is No. 8 on Clayton’s list and Michael Vick is No. 9. We’re all entitled to our opinions, but I easily would take Ryan over Romo or Vick as my quarterback.

For that matter, I’d also take Carolina’s Cam Newton over Romo and Vick. I’d even rank him (very slightly) ahead of Ryan, which is exactly what I did earlier this summer when I listed my NFC South top 25 players. But Clayton has Newton at No. 15 and that’s my biggest dispute with his ranking of any of the NFC South quarterbacks. I know Newton only has played one season and I’m projecting what he’ll do in 2012, but he’s a top 10 quarterback in my book.

That brings us to the final NFC South quarterback, Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman. Clayton has him at No. 16. I think Freeman’s going to bounce back from last year’s disaster, but I don’t know that you put him right next to Newton at this point. Clayton also seems to be counting on Freeman getting back on track because he’s got him ranked one spot ahead of San Francisco’s Alex Smith, who took his team deep into the playoffs last season.

I’m sure you have your opinions as well. Fire away in the comments section below.

NFC South: More or Less

June, 20, 2012
6/20/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC More or Less: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?

ATLANTA FALCONS: Clayton has the Falcons going 11-5. He also has them as the only NFC South team going to the playoffs. I think the first part is right, but I'm not so sure on the second (more on that later). The Falcons went 10-6 last season, and it was somewhat disappointing because the team went 13-3 in 2010 and thought it had made upgrades. This time around, the Falcons didn’t make any big trades to jump up high in the draft and they didn’t sign any big-name free agents. That’s because the coaching staff and front office believe the roster is very talented and that changing both coordinators and the offensive and defensive schemes were the best ways to improve this team.

More or less? Eleven wins sounds about right. If Clayton is wrong, it may be because the Falcons win 10 games.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Clayton has the Saints going 9-7 and not making the playoffs. I’m assuming Clayton believes all the offseason turmoil will take a toll on the Saints, and I understand that thinking. But I think the Saints are still a team that can win 10 games and go to the playoffs. Yes, it will be difficult without coach Sean Payton, but the Saints upgraded at linebacker with Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo should make the defense better. We know Drew Brees and the offense are going to be very good. The Saints also are adopting an us-against-the-world mentality, and that will motivate them nicely.

More or less? Clayton could end up being right because the team certainly faces some challenges. But there's enough veteran leadership and motivation in place that this team won't tumble too much.

CAROLINA PANTHERS: Clayton has them going 8-8. I think he is being a little conservative. If things break right and the Saints stumble or the Falcons get caught up in all the pressure they're facing, I could see Carolina winning as many as 10 or 11 games. The Panthers already have the kind of offense that can score points with just about anybody, and it should only be better in Cam Newton's second season.

The defense remains the big question mark, but linebacker Jon Beason and defensive tackle Ron Edwards are back from injuries, and the Panthers drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly with their first-round pick. That's going to help a lot.

More or less? If the Panthers can put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they should be better than a .500 team.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Clayton has the Bucs going 6-10. That would be a two-win improvement over last season, which ended with 10 consecutive losses. But I think the Bucs have their eye on something better than 6-10, and this team is capable of more.

The cupboard isn't bare here. The Bucs have stockpiled some nice young talent in recent drafts. Those players haven't completely proven themselves yet, but players such as quarterback Josh Freeman, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive end Adrian Clayborn can prosper under the guidance of new coach Greg Schiano. The Bucs also gave themselves an infusion of veteran talent by signing receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright, which should bring veteran leadership that was lacking.

More or less? I think the Bucs have a chance to finish closer to 8-8.

Podcast: Drew Brees contract update

April, 17, 2012
4/17/12
12:15
PM ET
ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton covers Drew Brees' contract situation , the Vikings' future in Minnesota, the release of the 2012 schedule, and more.

Podcast: John Clayton discusses Saints

April, 3, 2012
4/03/12
11:00
AM ET
ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton shares his thoughts on the expected punishment of players who were involved in the Saints' illegal bounty system, whether the Colts will select Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III with the No. 1 pick in the draft, and more.

On the road to New Orleans

November, 5, 2011
11/05/11
3:02
PM ET
TAMPA, Fla. – I’m about to begin the trip to New Orleans to cover Sunday’s game between the Buccaneers and Saints.

Keep an eye on the headlines section of our main NFL page for any breaking news while I’m out of pocket. Saturday’s are generally pretty quiet in the NFL, but I’ll weigh in on any developments once I get into New Orleans or perhaps during my layover in Atlanta. Speaking of arriving in New Orleans, I’ll be landing this evening and rushing straight to my hotel to catch the game between LSU and Alabama. Due to some poor travel planning on my part, I won’t land until after the game has started, but I’m pretty optimistic I should be able to catch at least the second half.

On Sunday morning, colleague John Clayton and I will be at the Mercedez-Benz Superdome to bring you all the pregame news and notes. Then, we’ll be writing about whatever happens in the game between the Saints and Buccaneers.
The great John Clayton has his annual ranking of quarterbacks, which is always a topic for debate.

In this year’s version, Clayton lists includes 13 “elite’’ quarterbacks. What exactly is an “elite’’ quarterback? Well, I think you could debate that for weeks on end. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s go with Clayton’s definition. That’s only fair because I talk to Clayton on a daily basis and know he puts an enormous amount of time and thought into this.

“Elite quarterbacks are the ones who usually make the playoffs, so I categorize the elites as the ones who give their franchises the best chance,’’ Clayton wrote. “The league has 12 playoff spots, and usually 10 or 11 of the elite quarterbacks fill those positions. To be elite, a quarterback must have 4,000-yard potential, complete 60 percent of his passes and score more than 20 points a game.’’

The good news for the NFC South is that it has three quarterbacks in the elite category. Clayton also gives the same honor to the NFC East, but I think you could make the argument the NFC South has the strongest overall quarterback group based on where he has the guys from each division ranked.

New Orleans’ Drew Brees is No. 4 and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is No. 7. They both come before the NFC East run of Michael Vick, Eli Manning and Tony Romo at Nos. 8 through 10.

Clayton also has Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman at No. 13. Although that’s one spot beyond the number of playoff teams, Tampa Bay fans shouldn’t feel too badly about this one. Clayton has the arrow pointing up on Freeman, who has had only one full season as a starter. I know Clayton is very high on Freeman and believes he could move into the top 10 before long.

After the big three, there’s a huge drop to Carolina’s Cam Newton. Clayton has him at No. 32, but the good news here is that Newton’s not last on the list. Clayton ranked 33 quarterbacks and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton is at the bottom of the list.
Just wanted to give you a little more clarification on the salary-cap implications of the New Orleans Saints releasing veteran right tackle Jon Stinchcomb on Monday.

I checked some rules and also put in a call to ESPN’s John Clayton, who knows how the salary cap works perhaps better than anyone on the planet and here’s what we came up with.

Stinchcomb’s $2.25 million base salary for this year was guaranteed, so the Saints are on the hook for that. Throw in this year’s share of prorated bonuses ($2.425 million) and the Saints are taking a $4.675 million cap hit this year. It could even be a little more. Stinchcomb also was scheduled for a $100,000 workout bonus this offseason. Clayton and I couldn’t come up with a decisive answer on if workout bonus will still count because offseason conditioning wasn’t allowed in the lockout. If they do, tack on another $100,000. That would bring the hit to $4.775 million, which was exactly what Stinchcomb’s cap figure would have been if he stayed with the Saints this season.

He had two more years on his contract and this release is treated like a June 1 cut, meaning some of the cap hit will spill over to next year. In 2012, Stinchcomb still will count $4.85 million toward New Orleans’ salary cap. That's the total of the prorated bonuses that would have been spread out over 2012 and 2013.

How much will Cam Newton make?

July, 12, 2011
7/12/11
11:58
AM ET
We don’t know all the details of the proposed rookie salary system and that’s mainly because the owners and players haven’t finalized a new labor deal yet.

But we do have enough information of what’s being talked about to at least make an educated guess at what Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, can expect to haul in.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Noel Vasquez/Getty ImagesUnder a rookie wage scale, Cam Newton stands to make several million dollars less than previous No. 1 overall picks.
The bottom line is Newton’s going to make some serious money, but it won’t be as much as Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford, the last two No. 1 overall picks, got. Last year, Bradford got a six-year deal worth $78 million that could jump to as much as $86 million and $50 million of that was guaranteed.

In 2009, Stafford got a six-year deal worth $72 million and $41.7 million of that was guaranteed. One of the few points both the owners and the players agreed upon long ago was that it wasn’t fair for rookies to come in and immediately make more than some of the top players. That’s why the new deal is likely to include lots of changes to rookie contracts and it’s going to cost Newton some money -- at least compared to Stafford and Bradford.

Per John Clayton, the way the talks currently are heading Newton can expect about $22 million over four years. The sides are still negotiating how fifth years will be handled. There’s talk of making the fifth season an option year for first-round picks and Clayton reports there’s talk of a limit on the fifth-year salary, although that could fluctuate a bit depending on where a player was taken in the first round.

Clayton estimates the high end for Newton is probably somewhere around $34 million to $36 million over five years. The other uncertain point is what kind of signing bonus Newton can expect. The Rams structured Bradford’s contract so there wasn’t an official signing bonus, but he more than made up for it with an option bonus of just under $18 million. All the new rules remain to be seen, but Carolina sources are estimating they’ll have to pay Newton a signing bonus somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 million to $14 million.

SPONSORED HEADLINES