NFC South: Kareem Huggins

Tiki Barber, along with twin brother, Ronde, talked about his planned attempt at a comeback after sitting out the last four NFL seasons.

Tiki Barber has said he wants to play again and the running back should have some potential suitors around the league once the lockout is over. But don't look for Tampa Bay to be one of them.

Although Ronde Barber is a cornerback for the Bucs and has some influence with coach Raheem Morris, it's an extreme long shot that the Bucs would pursue Tiki Barber. They're deep in a youth movement and LeGarrette Blount is set as the No. 1 back. Cadillac Williams is eligible to be a free agent, but the Bucs are expected to make an attempt to keep him.

If Williams leaves, the Bucs also have Kareem Huggins, who is coming back from a knee injury, as a third-down back. But the Bucs also could go out and pursue a younger running back in free agency.

We’ve had some system-wide technical problems much of the day, so I haven’t been able to provide a report from the Bucs’ "minicamp" in Bradenton, Fla. -- until now. Some other items that were delayed by the technical problems also should be popping up. We’ll keep this one to the basics and will share some other Tampa Bay stuff with you down the road.

  • The Bucs began a series of three-day workouts at IMG Academies Tuesday morning, organized largely by quarterback Josh Freeman. IMG football director Chris Weinke, a former member of the Carolina Panthers, and some members of his staff supervised the on-field activities and IMG strength and conditioning coach Jeff Dillman supervised the weight-lifting session and the stretching session before the players began workouts.
  • Approximately 50 players were in attendance, highlighted by cornerback Aqib Talib. He’s been in the news this offseason as he faces an assault charge in a March incident in Texas. But it’s not that big a surprise that Talib attended the session. He took part in some of Freeman’s earlier workouts in Tampa, according to teammates. Talib is awaiting trial and also could face discipline from the Bucs or the NFL. But, as long as the lockout remains in place, the league and the team can’t issue any punishment for Talib. He talked briefly with reporters on his way to the practice field and again as he walked off. He declined to discuss his case and said he wanted to simply focus on football.
  • Although IMG also is hosting the National Football League Players Association rookie event that has been called the NFL’s rookie symposium in previous years, at least two of Tampa Bay’s draft picks took part in the morning session. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn and linebacker Mason Foster went through drills with their new teammates. Some others apparently elected to attend the rookie event.
  • The notable players not on the field for the morning session included running back Cadillac Williams, linebacker Barrett Ruud, cornerback Ronde Barber and defensive end Stylez G. White. Williams, Ruud and White are expected to be unrestricted free agents when the lockout ends. Freeman said some players stayed away because of their contract situations and others ran into scheduling conflicts or travel problems. Freeman said some more players could be joining the workouts this afternoon or Wednesday.
  • When asked who was paying for the use of the facilities and lodging for the players, Freeman said that IMG had been very generous in making the event possible. He then added that he and several veterans are chipping in to pick up the tab.
  • Several players recovering from major injuries were in attendance but not taking part in the on-field activities. They included running back Kareem Huggins, defensive tackle Brian Price and wide receiver Arrelious Benn.
To all those who think the four NFC South teams are so set at running back they don’t need to touch that position in the upcoming draft, I give you DeShawn Wynn.

In the second half of the New Orleans Saints' playoff loss to Seattle, Wynn was getting much of the playing time and serving as the last-resort blocker for Drew Brees as the Saints tried to come from behind and keep their dream of back-to-back Super Bowls alive. It didn’t happen, and that’s largely because the Saints simply ran out of running backs.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireThe Bucs and Saints brought in Alabama's Mark Ingram for a pre-draft visit.
Wynn, who had been with the Saints earlier in the season, had been re-signed in the week leading into the game. Same for Joique Bell, who didn’t make the active roster that day, but the Saints could have used him. They went into the game with Julius Jones and Reggie Bush as their running backs.

Jones was a retread from coach Sean Payton’s Dallas days and was with the Saints only because there already were problems at running back. Bush spent much of last season on the sideline, but was healthy enough to at least set foot on Qwest Field. That’s more than can be said for Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, who weren’t available because of injuries.

Jones and Bush quickly got banged up by a Seattle defense that didn’t scare too many people last season. That left the Saints with Wynn and a loss.

There’s a lesson in that for the entire NFC South. No matter how set you think you are at running back, you’re probably not as well off as you think. As they head into the draft, the Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers all seem to have at least an immediate feature back, and the Saints look to have plenty of options in an offense that relies on playing a variety of running backs.

But none of the NFC South teams can afford to ignore running back in this draft. Here’s a team-by-team look at why:

Falcons. Michael Turner's coming off a season in which he ran for 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns and Jason Snelling's a solid backup with the ability to function as a power runner and catch passes out of the backfield. But that’s not enough.

The Falcons got only two games out of Jerious Norwood before he went down with a season-ending injury. Norwood is the guy the Falcons always have envisioned as their speed back, but he’s never been able to stay healthy, and his time in Atlanta looks to be over.

[+] EnlargeMichael Turner
Al Bello/Getty ImagesMichael Turner logged over 700 carries combined during the 2008 and 2010 seasons and could be wearing down.
The Falcons could look for a pure speed back like Kentucky’s Derrick Locke or North Carolina’s Johnny White in the middle rounds. But there’s been talk in mock-draft circles that Alabama running back Mark Ingram could be available when the Falcons pick at No. 27. There are seemingly larger needs at defensive end and wide receiver, but would the Falcons be wise to pass on Ingram if he’s available?

Ingram’s not a pure speed back and he’s not a true power back. He’s somewhere in between, and he’s the closest thing to a surefire feature back in this year’s draft. The Falcons have been pushing their luck with Turner. He carried 334 times last season and 376 times in 2008. He missed five games because of injury in 2009. There were times last season when Turner seemed to lack the pop he showed early in his Atlanta days, and you have to wonder if he’s starting to wear down.

It might be time to get an heir apparent in Atlanta. Even if Turner stays healthy, the Falcons could use someone to pick up some of his carries or else they might end up with an empty backfield like the Saints in Seattle.

Buccaneers. Tampa Bay fans are excited about LeGarrette Blount and rightfully so. The undrafted rookie was cut by the Titans in training camp, and Tampa Bay took a shot by picking him up. By midseason, Blount was Tampa Bay’s feature back. He ran for 1,007 yards on just 201 carries.

Blount’s role and statistics should only continue to improve next season. But it’s tough to look objectively at Tampa Bay’s backfield situation and say the Bucs are just fine. Cadillac Williams is a potential free agent. If he returns, it will be only in the role of third-down back he filled the second half of last season. There’s a chorus of fans in Tampa Bay who believe Kareem Huggins is the perfect complement to Blount.

Kareem Huggins
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaKareem Huggins, who figures to be LaGarrette Blount's backup, is coming off a major knee injury.
He might be. Huggins is one of those guys who flashes promise in the preseason. But he has only four regular-season carries in his career and he’s coming off a major knee injury. Before the lockout, the Bucs weren’t overly optimistic Huggins would be ready for the start of training camp.

Then, there is Blount. His physical style and habit of trying to hurdle defenders could leave him open to injury. Also, Blount went undrafted for a reason. He had a violent altercation with an opponent after a college game, and questions remain about his ability to keep his emotions in check over the long haul. Maybe that’s why the Bucs had Ingram in for a pre-draft visit earlier this week.

Panthers. On paper, they’ve got the best backfield in the division. They’ve got DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and either one could be the feature back for most teams. They also have Mike Goodson, who emerged last season when there were injuries in the backfield.

But, depending on how the labor situation plays out, Williams will be either a restricted or unrestricted free agent. Stewart came into the league with foot problems and rarely has been completely healthy. If Williams goes, the Panthers suddenly are on thin ice. They’d be one Stewart injury away from having to use Goodson, who is ideal as a part-time player, as their full-time running back.

Saints. This circle started and will end with New Orleans. The Saints re-signed Thomas before the lockout. They’ve given indications they plan to extend Bush’s contract and keep him. All signs are that Thomas, Bush and Ivory should be recovered from their injuries. Promising young running back Lynell Hamilton also is coming back from injury.

The numbers say the Saints are just fine at running back. But recent history tells another story. The Saints also had Ingram in for a visit, and he has to be a consideration if he’s available at No. 24. Even if it’s not Ingram, the Saints need to add a running back somewhere in the draft.

Of all the NFC South teams, the Saints know best that you never can have enough good running backs. If they had one more last year, they might have gone back to the Super Bowl.

Draft needs: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

February, 23, 2011
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the final stop in our series of team-by-team draft needs.

  1. Defensive end. This is easily the biggest need for the Bucs, who finished last season with Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder as the usual starters. There was almost no pressure from up front. The Bucs invested a lot in the middle of their line last year by taking defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two picks. Each of those guys showed some promise before having their rookie seasons cut short by injuries. Both should be healthy next season, and the Bucs want to surround them with quality players on the outside.
  2. Safety. Tanard Jackson, who might be the most talented safety in the NFC South, isn’t eligible to apply for reinstatement from his one-year suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy until late September. The Bucs can’t count on him returning, because there is no guarantee he’ll be reinstated. Cody Grimm played well before having his rookie season cut short by injury. Sean Jones is the other starter, and he’s only ordinary. Tampa Bay has really strong cornerbacks, and adding some more talent at safety could make this secondary one of the league’s best.
  3. Running back. LeGarrette Blount wound up taking over as the feature back as a rookie, and Cadillac Williams could return as the third-down back if he doesn’t leave through free agency. But the Bucs need a true backup to Blount because he is such a physical runner and that could expose him to injury. They like Kareem Huggins, who was injured last year, but there’s no guarantee he could step into a feature role if something happens to Blount. Keeping Williams as a third-down back would be a nice coup for the Bucs, but he showed last season that he no longer is a feature back.
  4. Linebacker. This could move up the list a couple of spots if middle linebacker Barrett Ruud departs through free agency. Even if he stays, the Bucs still need to look at this position. Geno Hayes and Quincy Black are decent on the outside, but the Bucs could use some more athleticism at linebacker.
  5. Offensive line. This is very much up in the air with guard Davin Joseph likely to test free agency. The Bucs got some nice play from several young offensive linemen last season, and left tackle Donald Penn has become a force. But, with the Bucs having quarterback Josh Freeman and a wealth of talent at most of the skill positions, they have to make sure the offensive line keeps getting better.

Panthers running away in I.R. race

December, 14, 2010
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There were a few house-keeping transactions made around the NFC South today as Carolina put defensive end Everette Brown, linebacker Jason Williams and guard Travelle Wharton on injured reserve and Tampa Bay did the same thing with Quincy Black and Gerald McCoy.

For those keeping sore at home, that means the Panthers lead the NFC South with 14 guys on injured reserve. But before we start sounding like all of Carolina's problems are because of injuries, let's also note that the Buccaneers now have 12 guys on injured reserve. The Bucs are 8-5 and the Panthers are 1-12.

The New Orleans Saints are 10-3 and they have nine guys on injured reserve and the Atlanta Falcons are 11-2 and only have three guys on injured reserve. So, yes, there definitely is some correlation between injuries and success (or lack of it) on the field.

But let's analyze how much of an impact having guys on injured reserve have had on each team. You can find the complete injured reserve list at the bottom of the roster on each team's website and I'm not going to list every guy here. For this discussion, I'm not including guys like Atlanta's Sean Weatherspoon, who have missed significant playing time. I'm only talking significant players who have been placed on the injured reserve.

Carolina. Running back DeAngelo Williams is the biggest name on the list, but he at least played a portion of the season. I think not having right tackle Jeff Otah or linebacker Thomas Davis all season have been the biggest injury influences in Carolina. Of course, it would have been nice if the Panthers had middle linebacker Dan Connor for a longer stretch. Would the Panthers have been better if they didn't have so many injuries? Absolutely, but they wouldn't have been all that much better. Was a healthy Matt Moore any better than Jimmy Clausen? In fact, I'll argue that the Bucs have been hit harder, especially in recent weeks.

Tampa Bay. I'm looking at names like Jeff Faine, Davin Joseph and Aqib Talib and seeing high-level starters. McCoy was the team's first-round draft pick and had turned the corner after a slow start. Fellow defensive tackle Brian Price, a second-round pick, missed almost the entire season. I'm also looking at names like Cody Grimm, Kareem Huggins and Kyle Moore and seeing guys who would be nice contributors if they were healthy.

New Orleans. Things are a bit misleading here. Nine guys on injured reserve might sound like a lot. But cornerback Randall Gay and running back Lynell Hamilton might be the only two the Saints really have missed.

Atlanta. There is no way around it. The Falcons have been lucky when it comes to injuries. Yes, Weatherspoon, cornerback Dunta Robinson, receiver Michael Jenkins and backup running back Jason Snelling have missed time with injuries. But there are only three guys on injured reserve and running back Jerious Norwood is the only name of any significance. But Norwood's been out for so long and had so many injury problems in the past that the Falcons wrote this guy off long ago.

Buccaneers have to shuffle RBs

October, 18, 2010
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were looking at all options in their running game, have lost one of them. Coach Raheem Morris said running back Kareem Huggins will miss the rest of the season after suffering a knee injury in Sunday’s loss to New Orleans.

With starter Cadillac Williams struggling to provide any explosive plays, the Bucs had hoped to give Huggins more playing time and that he could spark the running game. But that no longer is a possibility and the Bucs will have to turn to backups LeGarrette Blount and Kregg Lumpkin.

But the Bucs likely will have to give Williams the bulk of the playing time for at least a few more weeks. Blount and Lumpkin each joined the team just before the start of the regular season and are still adjusting to the offense.

In hindsight, this makes last year’s signing of Derrick Ward look even worse. Ward was signed to a big contract and was expected to at least share carries with Williams and maybe even replace him as the feature back. That never came close to happening.

Ward was ineffective last season and did little in training camp before the Bucs went ahead and cut him in the preseason.

Tuesday is the trading deadline, but I wouldn’t expect the Bucs to go out shopping for a back. If anything, they might sign another free agent.

Final Word: NFC South

October, 8, 2010
10/08/10
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 5:

[+] EnlargeCadillac Williams
Cliff Welch/Icon SMICadillac Williams will still be the starter and get the majority of the carries for Tampa Bay.
Not ready to trade in the Caddy. I think there’s been a bit of overreaction to Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris saying running backs Kareem Huggins and LeGarrette Blount are going to get increased playing time. Yeah, that’s going to happen. But Morris never has said Cadillac Williams is being benched or anything close to that. He’s still the starter and he’s still going to get the bulk of the carries. Huggins and Blount will get some carries and part of the reason for this is the Bucs think a little lighter load might make Williams more effective.

The homecoming. Chicago defensive end Julius Peppers returns to Bank of America Stadium on Sunday. A lot of people used to say Peppers didn’t show up all the time when he played for the Panthers. I think it’s a given that he’ll show up for this one because he wants to make a statement. That’s going to put the heat on Carolina tackle Jordan Gross. But if the hapless Panthers have one thing going for them, it’s that Peppers and Gross spent most of their careers practicing against each other. Gross is a pretty strong blocker and he might be able to keep Peppers from rubbing too much salt into the wounds of his former team. But the Bears have been giving Peppers the freedom to line up wherever he wants. He may avoid Gross some of the time and go after Geoff Schwartz on the right side.

The slumping Saints? There’s been all sorts of talk about how the Saints are winning ugly. I don’t dispute that, but they are 3-1 and loaded with talent. At some point, things are going to click and the Saints are going to put together a pretty win. I think it comes Sunday in Arizona. The Saints aren’t going to play down to the level of competition in this one.

A new MVP. Pretty much since we started the Blog Network in the summer of 2008, I’ve been saying Drew Brees is the best current player in the NFC South. At least for the moment, I’m going to back off that. I still think Brees is one heck of a quarterback and I’m not all that concerned that his numbers are down a bit so far this year. But, after four games, I feel very strongly that Atlanta receiver Roddy White has been the NFC South’s Most Valuable Player. Time for this guy to start getting the league-wide recognition he deserves.

Mismatch? Even with the Rays in the playoffs and the Bucs coming off a bye week, there’s a pretty good buzz in Tampa Bay about how the Bucs are going to handle Cincinnati receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens (too bad Antonio Bryant's not part of the mix). With rookie Cody Grimm getting his second start at free safety, that’s a legitimate concern. But the rest of Tampa Bay’s secondary is pretty good. Aqib Talib, Ronde Barber and Sean Jones need to help Grimm out a bit. But, here’s an idea: If the Bucs can start generating just a little bit of a consistent pass rush, the secondary can survive this one.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers mailbag

October, 7, 2010
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Let’s start off our weekly series of team-by-team mailbags with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Chris in Harrisburg, Pa., writes: With Tanard Jackson's future in serious question, do you think the Bucs might try and develop Myron Lewis to be their FS in the future? I know a lot of scouts projected him as a FS because that was the position that best fits him. What’s your take?

Pat Yasinskas: I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Lewis switching to safety in the long term because he does have the size and the skill set for the position. But that’s not the kind of change you make right now. It’s too difficult on a rookie to make that switch in the middle of the season. Besides, the Bucs have high hopes for Lewis as a cornerback and cornerbacks are harder to find than safeties. With Ronde Barber nearing the end of his career, there is hope that Lewis eventually can be his replacement in the starting lineup.


Chris in Virginia writes: I saw the link where Cadillac Williams talked about his limited days as a featured back. Looking ahead, I think that the duo of Kareem Huggins as a speedster and LeGarrette Blount as a power back can be very potent and I'm excited to see it in action. Your thoughts?

Pat Yasinskas: I’m curious to see Huggins and Blount in action. I liked what I saw from Huggins in camp and in the preseason. I walked by Blount as he came off the practice field Wednesday and he’s a very big guy. They have the potential to be an interesting duo, but let’s see them in action before getting too excited.


Marques in San Diego writes: So with the bye week through have you heard anything about the starting free safety position. Does Cody Grimm have it locked up? Or does maybe Sabby Piscitelli get another shot as a starter? I've seen Sabby making a lot of special team tackles this season and i think he deserves another chance. For better or worse he does have more experience than our rookie Grimm.

Pat Yasinskas: Every indication I have is that Grimm will remain the starter. Yes, he gave up a big play against Pittsburgh. But the Bucs thought he also did some good things and that he has plenty of potential. He also is a natural free safety. I agree Piscitelli is doing a nice job on special teams. But he’s really not a free safety. He’s a strong safety and pass coverage and ball skills are not his strengths. I think he’s destined to stay as a special-teams guy and backup strong safety.

How I See It: NFC South Stock Watch

October, 6, 2010
10/06/10
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» NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

[+] EnlargeSmith
AP Photo/Bill HaberSteve Smith's injury leaves the Carolina Panthers with no established big-play threats at wide receiver.
1. Cadillac Williams, running back, Tampa Bay. One thing about coach Raheem Morris that sets him apart from most other coaches is he’s not afraid to telegraph his moves. During the bye week, he made it pretty clear that the Bucs are going to cut down on Williams’ carries and try to insert LeGarrette Blount and Kareem Huggins more often.

2. Carolina’s wide receivers. With Steve Smith likely out with an ankle injury and Dwayne Jarrett released after he was charged with driving while impaired, the Panthers are down to rookie receivers Brandon LaFell, David Gettis and Armanti Edwards. They also claimed David Clowney off waivers Tuesday. Edwards has yet to be active on game day. Rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen doesn’t exactly have a stellar cast to throw to.

3. New Orleans’ offensive line. It’s not what it was a year ago. That’s a little disappointing because the line returned intact, but it hasn’t been dominant. Drew Brees is getting pressured more than usual, the running game’s been only ordinary and All-Pro guard Jahri Evans has developed a sudden knack for getting called for holding penalties.

RISING

1. Curtis Lofton, linebacker, Falcons. He’s been a pretty good middle linebacker in his first two seasons. But the knock on Lofton was that he didn’t make big plays, and he talked this summer about how he wanted to change that. It’s happening. In Sunday’s victory against San Francisco, Lofton had nine tackles, a sack and an interception. A few more big plays and Lofton could be a strong candidate for the Pro Bowl.

2. Roddy White, receiver, Falcons. It’s hard to put White’s stock much higher than it already was. We declared him the best receiver in the NFC South last week. But White went out and took his game to a higher level Sunday. He made one of the most incredible plays of his career and it didn’t even involve him catching the ball. After Nate Clements had a late interception, White ran him down from behind and popped the ball loose to cause a fumble that the Falcons recovered. Atlanta then went on a drive and kicked the game-winning field goal.

3. Usama Young, safety, Saints. He’s usually just a special-teams player. But a series of injuries forced him into the strong safety spot in Sunday’s victory against Carolina. With the Panthers close to the range where they could kick a game-winning field goal, Young stepped up and had a tackle where he dropped DeAngelo Williams for a four-yard loss. That and a sack by free safety Malcolm Jenkins on the next play took the Panthers definitively out of field-goal range.

Around the NFC South

October, 5, 2010
10/05/10
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Tuesdays generally are off days for players and coaches around the league. But there's still a fair amount of happenings in the NFC South today. Let's take a look at some headlines.

Trent Dilfer said the New Orleans Saints still are the best team in the NFL. He says the mark of a great team is being able to win with your “C’’ stuff and that the Saints will continue to improve as the season goes on. I agree with Dilfer, but I also put the Atlanta Falcons right there with the Saints.

With the Buccaneers talking about getting more work for running backs LeGarrette Blount and Kareem Huggins, Cadillac Williams acknowledges that his days as a feature back could be coming to an end. But I wouldn’t go writing Williams off completely just yet. He might be more productive playing in some sort of rotation.

The Chicago Bears have signed former New Orleans defensive end Charles Grant. Kind of ironic that Grant’s replacement is Alex Brown, who came from the Bears as a free agent in the offseason.

Mike Ornstein, a marketing agent with a frequent presence at New Orleans Saints’ practices and games and the man Sean Payton talked about handling the team’s accommodations in Miami during the Super Bowl, reportedly has entered a guilty plea for conspiring to scalp Super Bowl tickets. Ornstein also was the former marketing agent for New Orleans running back Reggie Bush.

With the arrest of Dwayne Jarrett for reportedly driving while intoxicated, Joseph Person writes that it’s time to get rookie Armanti Edwards some playing time in Carolina. I couldn’t agree more. Yeah, Edwards might be a project, but the entire Carolina team is a project right now. Might as well let Edwards get involved with the rebuilding while its on the ground floor.

New Orleans safety Darren Sharper says he’ll be ready to come off the physically unable to perform list and play in a few weeks. With all the injuries the Saints have at safety, Sharper’s return could be very timely.

With one quarter of the season over, Atlanta coach Mike Smith offers a progress report to D. Orlando Ledbetter on the Falcons.

Winslow active for Buccaneers

September, 19, 2010
9/19/10
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Tight end Kellen Winslow, who missed practice with a knee injury all week, will be active today and is expected to start.

Get used to it. That’s the way the Bucs expect it be throughout much of the season. Winslow’s not going to get a lot of practice time as the Bucs try to keep his knee healthy enough to get him on the field Sundays.

The inactives for the Bucs are running back Kareem Huggins, cornerback Myron Lewis, running back LeGarrette Blount, linebacker Niko Koutouvides, offensive lineman Ted Larsen, defensive lineman Michael Bennett and receiver Preston Parker.

Ranking the NFC South running backs

September, 8, 2010
9/08/10
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We’re going to wrap up the NFC South position rankings with the running backs. I saved that position for last because I think it probably is the most intriguing of all the groups in the division.

There are three guys who can make a legitimate claim to being No. 1 based just on their past résumés and a few other guys who could enter the argument if they stay healthy and catch a few breaks. On to the list.

    [+] EnlargeMichael Turner
    Marvin Gentry/US PresswireMichael Turner is determined to prove his breakthrough season in 2008 was not a fluke.
  1. Michael Turner, Falcons. I went with Turner at No. 1 because I’m thinking he’ll have the best statistics in the division when all is said and done. Turner’s on a mission to prove his huge 2008 season wasn’t a one-hit wonder. He admitted he let himself get out of shape before last season and that may have caused his slow start and led to some injuries. Turner’s been working on his conditioning all offseason and I think he’ll have a bounce-back year.
  2. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers. If Williams was in a different offense, I might go with him at No. 1 because I think he’s the most complete back in the division. He’ll get his 1,000 yards again and catch some passes, but he doesn’t get all the carries in Carolina.
  3. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers. He and Williams might comprise the best backfield duo in the league. Flip a coin on who gets more carries because that’s pretty much what coach John Fox does. These guys are both studs. The Panthers run enough to keep both of these guys happy.
  4. Reggie Bush, Saints. I know I’ll take some hits for this one, but I feel pretty strongly that Bush is in for a big season. He looks healthier and faster than I’ve seen him in recent years. Is he ever going to get 30 carries a game like Turner? No. But this guy is so dynamic that he’s a threat to score any time he touches the ball and Sean Payton will always find ways to get him touches.
  5. Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers. One of the most inspirational guys in the NFL the last few years, Williams finally is coming into a season where he didn’t have to spend the entire offseason rehabbing an injury. He’s overcome two major knee injuries and he’s going to get the bulk of the carries for the Bucs.
  6. Pierre Thomas, Saints. He and Bush are kind of a lighter version of Stewart and Williams. They’re going to share carries and they may even have a third guy in the mix. Thomas is more of a traditional running back than Bush and he’s a guy who can run for 1,000 yards if he gets enough carries.
  7. Jason Snelling, Falcons. This guy came out of nowhere last year and helped the Falcons get to a winning record, despite Turner’s injury problems. Snelling has become a favorite of the coaching staff and probably has earned a share of the carries this year. He’s big and dependable and can also fill in at fullback if needed.
  8. Jerious Norwood, Falcons. He is the classic tease. Norwood will give you some runs that are worthy of the highlight reel. But he also lacks durability and never has truly been able to carve a niche in this offense.
  9. Kareem Huggins, Buccaneers. The Bucs saw enough out of this kid that they went ahead and unloaded Derrick Ward, who simply just didn’t fit in Tampa Bay. Huggins is undersized, but he flashed all sorts of big-play ability in training camp and the preseason.
  10. Mike Goodson, Panthers. He got only 22 carries last year and there aren’t a lot of opportunities with Stewart and Williams around. But I think you might see a bit more of Goodson this year. He’s got big-play ability and can catch the ball out of the backfield.

NFC South mailbag

September, 1, 2010
9/01/10
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Time for another edition of the NFC South mailbag. Kind of interesting that the first three questions all come from Texas. Could we be taking over the territory of “The Beast’’?

Brendan in Dallas writes: How do you feel about Darren Sharper coming off this knee surgery? Do you think that he'll be able to have the great season like he did last year or should we expect more of Malcolm Jenkins this season? I myself like how Jenkins' been doing this preseason so I wouldn't mind having a younger guy like Jenkins out there.

Pat Yasinskas: I am extremely interested to see what the Saints do about Sharper in the next few days. All indications are he’s not ready to contribute right now and the Saints will have to make a difficult decision. I think the likely scenario is they’ll place him on the physically-unable-to-perform list, hope he can heal up and bring him back as insurance for the second half of the season. But I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the Saints cutting Sharper or him deciding to retire. It’s been very clear for some time now that Jenkins will open the season as the starter at free safety. Jenkins is young and very talented. I don’t think it’s out of the question that he can put up numbers similar to what Sharper did last season.


Victor in El Paso, Texas writes: Now that the Bucs have cut Derrick Ward do you think the Bucs will get another running back?

Pat Yasinskas: I would not totally rule out the Bucs picking up a running back when other teams make their cuts. The Bucs constantly monitor the waiver wire and are always looking to upgrade a roster that clearly still needs some upgrading. But I don’t think it’s an absolute necessity that the Bucs get a running back. They appear content to head into the season with Cadillac Williams and Kareem Huggins as their top two running backs. Clifton Smith might factor in as a situational player. Plus, fullback Earnest Graham has some history at tailback and can always move back over there.


Robert in Dallas Texas writes: Keep up the great work! Two quick questions for you: Do you think the Bucs should make a move on a trade for Matt Leinart? Would he be an upgrade compared to Josh Johnson?

Pat Yasinskas: I’m not completely sold on Josh Johnson as a No. 2 quarterback yet. I think he’s a legitimate No. 3 with upside. I would like to see the Bucs add a backup with some legitimate NFL experience. But I’m not sure Leinart is the guy they should be looking at. First off, if Arizona’s trying to trade the guy they went through the offseason planning to start, that should raise some serious red flags. He’s a guy that was a high draft pick and has never done much in the NFL. We might be looking at another Heather Shuler or Ryan Leaf. I’d rather see the Bucs pick up some veteran with a little bit of starting experience that can come in, accept his role as No. 2 to Josh Freeman and fit well in the locker room. If the Saints, who may carry only two quarterbacks, decide to cut Patrick Ramsey, that's a guy I think the Bucs should be all over.


Harris in Weaverville, N.C. writes: I am a hard-core Panthers fan. However, I can't say that I keep up with every team in the NFL enough to know the answer to this question: Are there any teams in the NFL that are so loaded with wide receivers that there will be some decent pickings when the final cuts are due on Saturday? What are the chances that the Panthers will make a WR move from the waivers?

Pat Yasinskas: You can bet that Marty Hurney and his staff will be watching to see what wide receivers get cut by other teams by Saturday afternoon’s deadline. Given the fact the Panthers don’t have a lot of depth at receiver, I think a move is entirely possible. Just to throw a couple of names out there from other NFC South teams that might be available -- Tampa Bay’s Michael Clayton and New Orleans’ Adrian Arrington. Yes, Clayton largely has been a bust in Tampa Bay, but he could fit better in Carolina’s system. He is a good run blocker and might be a scaled-down version of Muhsin Muhammad. Arrington’s a guy who’s been held back by injuries and a very deep receiving corps in New Orleans, but he’s got plenty of upside.


Greg in Tampa writes: Can you explain to us Bucs fans why the NFL waited a whole YEAR to suspend Aqib Talib? One would think the league would act when the courts do.

Pat Yasinskas: A good question and something I’ve also wondered about. More than anything, I think this one got caught up in red tape. It took some time for the legal system to play out and that’s why the NFL didn’t take action last year. But couldn’t this suspension have been determined much earlier this year? You would think so. But I’m guessing Talib’s file was a little lower on Roger Goodell’s desk than Ben Roethlisberger’s. Goodell has the ultimate say on all suspensions and it sometimes takes some time for that to happen. But it’s not like the Bucs didn’t see this one coming. They pretty much knew from the end of last season that they’d be opening the season without Talib.
Whether you realize it or not, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just made a pretty strong statement to their entire roster.

Coach Raheem Morris announced after Tuesday’s practice that running back Derrick Ward has been released.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Ward
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireDerrick Ward rushed for 409 yards during his one season in Tampa.
“After practice today we were able to notify Mr. Ward,” Morris said. “It’s just like any other profession when it is time for you to depart. It’s not a surprise anytime in our profession anytime we tell you to go -- can’t say you’re surprised. You have every day to go out there and prove yourself. ”

I think the last part of that quote, about proving yourself, is hugely significant. Ward was signed to a big free-agent deal last year and the initial plan was for him to be the No. 1 running back. But Ward really didn’t do much last season as Cadillac Williams came back from injury and firmly grabbed the starting job. Much like former receiver Antonio Bryant, Ward didn’t always handle things the way the Bucs would have liked.

In a dismal preseason, he didn’t score any points with the coaches by pouting. The Bucs have a healthy Williams, a promising prospect in Kareem Huggins and they always can fall back on Earnest Graham, who can play fullback or tailback.

Yes, they could have hung onto Ward as insurance in case anything happened to Williams. It would have at least given them a veteran alternative that wouldn’t force a change at fullback. But Ward didn’t do anything to show the Bucs he was a guy they wanted on the field, and he put up a pretty convincing case that he wasn’t a guy they wanted in their locker room either.

Morris was hired last year and took a lot of criticism for being too friendly with his players and that label might have had some truth to it. He put up with some things last year that other coaches wouldn’t have. But it’s pretty clear Morris has learned from some mistakes in this area.

Last year, maybe he spent a little too much time trying to be everyone’s buddy. With moves like cutting Ward (and there could be some more veterans following soon), Morris is establishing himself as everyone’s coach.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Quarterback Josh Freeman’s fractured thumb isn’t the only significant injury for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Saturday night’s game.

Running back Derrick Ward left the game with what the team called a head injury and that means it’s possible he suffered a concussion. The team said Ward will not return to the game. We’ll see if there’s any more word tonight.

Ward was one of Tampa Bay’s big free-agent signings last year, but he has struggled the moment he joined the Bucs. He was unable to beat out Cadillac Williams for the starting job and wasn’t a big factor last year.

Ward had a rough outing, including two fumbles, in last week’s preseason game with Miami. He also was unimpressive through most of training camp and there has been speculation Kareem Huggins could be challenging him for the No. 2 running back spot.

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