NFC South: Kevin Carter
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.
|Larry French/Getty Images|
|Veteran defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson, left, looks to have nailed down a starting job with the Bucs and could be poised for a breakout year in Jim Bates' defense.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- In our NFC South chats and mailbags the last few months, we've talked a lot about guys who could be "breakout" players this season. Names such as Robert Meachem, Dwayne Jarrett, Michael Clayton and Harry Douglas commonly have been floated out there as possibilities.
That's what happens when you talk about wide receivers like Meachem, Jarrett and Clayton, who haven't quite played up to their draft status, and guys like Douglas, who teased us with flashes of promise as a rookie.
But let's go away from receivers for a minute. Let's go below the radar and look for a guy who really has a chance to seemingly come out of nowhere and do big things.
How about Tampa Bay defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson?
If you haven't heard of him, you will. I'll go out on a limb and predict Wilkerson will be the one NFC South player who truly breaks out this season. And I'm not saying Meachem, Jarrett, Clayton and Douglas won't have good seasons. I think all four have a chance to step up.
Here's why I think Wilkerson is ready to do more than any of us expect. You might not know it yet, but this guy's already a starter. Yes, he's got precisely six starts in a six-year NFL career. But the fact is, the Bucs have designated Wilkerson as their starting defensive left end.
|David Drapkin/Getty Images|
|In a part-time role last season, Jimmy Wilkerson collected 5.0 sacks.|
Wilkerson's gone through the entire offseason program and minicamps and gotten just about every rep with the first team.
"It's up to me now to keep that starting job," Wilkerson said. "Someone is going to have to outwork me and outperform me to get that starting job away from me."
That's probably not going to happen. When you've gone this far into an offseason without drafting a rookie or signing a free agent to take this spot, you've shown you're committed to the guy who's there.
Tampa Bay's new coaching staff has done precisely that with Wilkerson. In fact, he's probably viewed a lot more favorably right now than he's been at any point in his career -- which isn't necessarily saying a whole lot, but Wilkerson takes that as a compliment.
"It would be very gratifying if I could go out there and be the full-time starter," Wilkerson said. "I could take a step back and say I defied all the odds of people saying, 'You'll never make it in the NFL' and 'You're too slow and you're too small.' If you just stay consistent and give it your all every day out on the field, the coaches are going to see that and say, 'There's a guy we can count on out there on the field as a starter.'"
That's pretty much what coach Raheem Morris and his staff have said with their actions this offseason. As part of their youth movement, they let veteran Kevin Carter walk. Yeah, Stylez (formerly Greg) White still is around. But Wilkerson was getting all the first-team work before White's recent bicycling accident, which didn't score him many points with the coaching staff.
So why has Wilkerson been such a hit with Morris and new defensive coordinator Jim Bates? Let's let Wilkerson tell it in his own words and, then, we'll expound a bit.
"The thing I learned in six seasons is to keep your mouth shut and keep going out there every day and doing your best,'' Wilkerson said. "If you do that, at the end of the day, things are going to end up working out for you.''
The start of this season could be the proverbial "end of the day" for Wilkerson. After five very unremarkable seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs (Wilkerson came into the league as a sixth-round draft choice out of Oklahoma), he signed as a free agent with the Buccaneers last year. One of the driving forces behind that move was general manager Mark Dominik, who then was the personnel director for Tampa Bay. Dominik's basic selling point to former coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen was that Wilkerson was a guy who had untapped potential and, at worst, would be a dependable backup.
Wilkerson showed signs of being more than that last season in Monte Kiffin's defense. He was used as a backup at defensiv
e end and defensive tackle. He only started one game, but his playing time kept increasing as the season went on. In a part-time role, one in which he often wasn't set up to rush the passer, he produced five sacks and played the run very well.
Put Wilkerson in Bates' defense for a year, let him focus solely at left end and see what you get.
"With Coach Bates, we're more of a rush mentality than a run mentality now," Wilkerson said. "It's rush first."
Give Wilkerson a full year like that and I'll go ahead and project him with double-digit sacks. That definitely would qualify as a breakout year.
Maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong. Keep a copy of this and let me know in December.
Ray Hamilton, Brian Baker, Bill Johnson, Todd Wash and Robert Nunn have more in common than being defensive line coaches in the NFC South.
They also might face the biggest challenges of any coach on their individual staffs this season. There's a common theme through all the NFC South teams this year -- the defensive lines have to get better.
That's going to be largely up to the guys in charge of the defensive lines. Here's a look at the NFC South defensive line coaches and the challenges they face.
Ray Hamilton. He's a veteran and has long been recognized as being one of the best in the business. Hamilton did a fine job last year as veteran end John Abraham had a huge season and the Falcons were able to get by with the aging Grady Jackson in the middle of their line. But the Falcons had almost no pass rush outside of Abraham and Jackson is now gone. That brings new challenges for Hamilton. He's worked very hard this offseason with underachieving end Jamaal Anderson and there's hope Anderson can emerge in his third year. But the Falcons have Chauncey Davis as an insurance policy and drafted a project in Lawrence Sidbury. In a perfect world, Anderson steps up, Davis plays a role and Sidbury can be groomed as an eventual replacement for Abraham. Hamilton's also got a lot of work to do in the interior. Jonathan Babineaux has emerged as a very solid tackle, but Hamilton will have to break in rookie Peria Jerry next to him.
Brian Baker. He's new to the Panthers and so is most of the defensive staff. Baker has a fine resume and has gotten big results out of Leonard Little, Robert Porcher, Luther Elliss and Kevin Williams in his previous stops. That's a good start because the coaching of the defensive line has been a controversial issue for the Panthers for most of John Fox's tenure. Once upon a time, the Panthers had Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner up front and they were coached by Mike Trgovac, who was regarded as one of the best defensive line coaches in the game. But Trgovac moved up to coordinator in his second season. That led to the hiring of Sal Sunseri as defensive line coach and some raised eyebrows around the league. A lot of people thought Sunseri, who was new to the NFL and had a background with linebackers, wasn't ready for the position and was hired because he was Fox's friend. Some players on the defensive line also held that view and the perception never went away. For reasons that haven't been fully explained, Jenkins asked out and got traded to the Jets, and Peppers still is asking out. Sunseri left after the season to coach at Alabama. Baker inherits a group that doesn't have nearly the talent level the Panthers once did, even if Peppers stays. He's going to have to coach up rookie Everette Brown very quickly and get some role players to overachieve. In the old days, Fox's teams were built around the defensive line. That's no longer the reality, but Baker has to bring this unit up to a respectable level.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Bill Johnson. This was a critical hire as the Saints, once again, overhauled their defense and brought in coordinator Gregg Williams and a bunch of new personnel. Johnson's inheriting a group with lots of talent, but some players who haven't consistently lived up to their potential. It's Johnson's job to draw that from them and he'll start with defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. In his first season with Denver, Johnson helped second-year pro Elvis Dumervil get 12.5 sacks. There's no reason why Smith and Grant both shouldn't be around the double-digit mark in sacks. One way Johnson will try to help those two is to give them some help from the inside, and the Saints have the potential to get that from second-year pro Sedrick Ellis, who had a solid rookie season. But Johnson's not counting on just Ellis. He helped bring veteran Rod Coleman out of retirement. There's history with Johnson and Coleman. They worked together in Atlanta and Coleman produced 28 sacks in their time together. Coleman's age may prevent him from being the force he once was, but he gives Johnson another guy who can make things happen up front.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Todd Wash and Robert Nunn. Wash is coaching the defensive ends and Nunn is handling the defensive tackles. That combo approach is probably a good thing because the Bucs need all the help they can get up front. The defensive line was a major player in last year's late-season collapse, and there will be at least two new starters as end Kevin Carter and tackle Jovan Haye have left the team. Wash's main task is to get third-year end Gaines Adams to be more productive. There's talent there, but Adams needs to add some moves to go with his physical skills. Nunn's got to get young tackles Roy Miller and Dre Moore ready quickly because Chris Hovan didn't look like he had a lot left at the end of last season, and Ryan Sims and Jimmy Wilkerson are role players. New coordinator Jim Bates is bringing a whole new scheme to the Bucs, but that transition should be helped by the fact that Nunn worked with Bates in Miami and Green Bay.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are next in our series of team-by-team mailbags.
Patrick in Tampa writes: hi pat, i know the Glazers look at raheem morris and see a young mike tomlin. how long of a leash do you think he is on and how long do you think he has to put a championship team on the field?
Pat Yasinskas: I know there are some out there who think Raheem Morris might only be around for one season. I disagree and I'll point out a couple of reasons for that. First, the Glazers had to sign off on the selection of quarterback Josh Freeman. When you make a move like that, you're committing a minimum of two to three years for a young quarterback to develop. Second, the Bucs still have to pay Jon Gruden for three seasons. I don't think they want to be paying Gruden, Morris and another coach.
Ryan in parts unknown writes: I hear there is a lot of talk concerning the Bucs picking up Jason Taylor to help there defensive rush game. Its sad when Miami wont even consider the dancing star thats lost his shine but it would be even sadder if Tampa took a chance on him at this point. I'd rather see Tampa bring in a few less expensive risks like some defensive players from south Fl teams like South FL or FIU. Which do you find to be the biggest risk, gambeling on old dogs or new ones that can still learn new tricks?
Pat Yasinskas: Defensive coordinator Jim Bates has said the Bucs have at least talked about Taylor, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen. The Bucs have set a clear precedent that they're going with youth by releasing Derrick Brooks and some other veterans. They've followed that plan throughout the offseason. They asked veteran defensive end Kevin Carter to hang loose until after the draft. But after addressing the defensive line in the draft, they told Carter to move on. Although there could be an exception made for Taylor, I think the Bucs plan to stick closely to their plan.
Sonny in Las Vegas writes: I have a dozen things that I WANT to ask, but this is what I WILL ask: In the spirit of Coach Morris' new regime with regards to open competition, which of these first and second year players--E.J. Biggers, Geno Hayes, Dexter Jackson, Josh Johnson, Elbert Mack, Roy Miller, Kyle Moore, Dre Moore, Sammie Stroughter, Josh Vaughn, DeAngelo Willingham--could plausibly develop into a situation where they see significant playing time? The D Linemen seem like a safe bet, especially inside, but any surprises? P.S. What's the status of Hayes' injury? Thanks Pat!
Pat Yasinskas: I'm with you on the defensive linemen. I think Roy Miller starts right away and Kyle Moore and Dre Moore each play a role. The two other guys on your list that I like are Elbert Mack and Sammie Stroughter. The Bucs are very high on Mack and I think they view him as the third corner behind Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber right now and can envision him becoming a starter in time. Stroughter looked very good in this weekend's minicamp and has a real shot to make the team.
Eric in Paris writes: Do you think the Bucs will really take time for Freeman to develop? With a hard schedule ahead, lots of coaching change and few veterans gone, they can be pressed by the losses to put Josh into the starting line-up to give fans something to look at.
Pat Yasinskas: Here's my best guess right now: I say Luke McCown opens the season as the starter. The Bucs play a midseason game in London against the Patriots and have a bye after that. I say that Freeman's starting in the game after the bye.
Dylan in Las Vegas writes: Pat, There has been some talk that Alex Smith was just as productive as Jeremy Stevens over the same stretch. If that is the case, do you think it was wise to keep Stevens over Smith since Smith is 5 years younger and without the character issues?
Pat Yasinskas: I think it came down to the Bucs wanting to get something in return for their tight ends and Smith was the most marketable of the group.
A.J. in Dallas, TX writes: What is the Bucs best case scenario this season? Optimistic fans might say we can make the playoffs, but is that too far-fetched? What would be considered a succesful season, in your opinion, and what should us Bucs fans realisticly expect? Thanks alot!
Pat Yasinskas: Nothing's far-fetched anymore. At this time last year, a lot of people were wondering if the Atlanta Falcons could even win a game. They won 11 and made the playoffs. But I think the Bucs can have a successful season if they continue to improve as the year goes on and they get Freeman some playing time and experience.
The NFC South stayed focused mostly on defense in the fourth round, the first round in which all four teams have made a pick.
Six players were selected and only two of them were offensive players. Both of those were chosen by Carolina as the Panthers took Texas A&M running back Mike Goodson and Syracuse fullback Tony Fiammetta. That makes sense because the Panthers need to replace versatile veteran Nick Goings, who was released after last season.
The Saints also had two picks and they followed the defensive path that was started when they took defensive back Malcolm Jenkins in the first round. They went into Carolina's backyard to take two Wake Forest players, linebacker Stanley Arnoux and safety Chip Vaughn. Arnoux brings some fresh legs to a veteran group of linebackers and Vaughn gives the Saints some flexibility in the secondary as they decide if Jenkins is a cornerback or safety.
Tampa Bay took Southern California defensive end Kyle Moore, who started to show some pass-rush skills last season. However, I think there's still a decent chance the Bucs will bring back veteran defensive end Kevin Carter, who remains a free agent.
But Atlanta's pick might be my favorite of the fourth round. The Falcons chose Richmond defensive end Lawrence Sidbury. Yes, this small-school guy might be a project, but I think Mike Smith can coach him into being a big contributor.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
We'll wait until later in the week to predict who NFC teams will draft. But it's time to make five fearless predictions on other events that will happen during the next week.
|Panthers head coach John Fox looks ahead to the 2009 season.|
1. Let's assume for the moment that the Panthers stay put and have their first pick at No. 59. Coach John Fox is going to come out moments after the pick and declare that whoever the Panthers took was "the best player on our board'' and "we had a first-round grade on him." General manager Marty Hurney, sitting next to Fox will turn red. Out in the hallway after the press conference Hurney will lecture Fox about not giving out too much ammunition for agents to use when it comes time for contract negotiations.
3. At least 10 times this weekend, Atlanta coach Mike Smith will use the phrase "part of the process'' in talking about how this year's draft class will help the team.
4. Unlike 10 years ago when the Saints traded their draft for Ricky Williams and Mike Ditka and company went golfing, Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis will remain hard at work. At the moment, they've got a first-round pick and don't pick again until the fourth round. Just a hunch, but I think Payton and Loomis will find a way to get a choice in either the second or third round.
5. Despite the wishes of many of their fans, the Panthers won't draft a quarterback -- at least not in the first four rounds. They might take an extra body for training camp after that, but that's all. For better or worse, Fox is going to stick with Jake Delhomme.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Say what you want about Carolina's silent offseason. At least the Panthers are in good company.
I was just reviewing what's happened around the league since the start of free agency and one thing really jumped out. The Panthers are one of only two teams that hasn't signed an unrestricted free agent from another team.
The Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers are the other. It makes a lot of sense to keep your team pretty much intact after winning a Super Bowl.
But the Panthers aren't in the same boat as the Steelers. Yes, they were 12-4 last season, but that playoff loss to Arizona was ugly and it showed the Panthers have needs.
The only real moves they've made since the end of last season were re-signing offensive tackle Jordan Gross and placing the franchise tag on defensive end Julius Peppers. Keeping Gross was hugely important because he's the anchor of a good offensive line. The Panthers did what they had to do with Peppers, who has asked out of Carolina.
The franchise tag gives the Panthers some power over Peppers. They can pretty much force him to stay, if they want. They've also put themselves in a position where they can trade Peppers and get some decent compensation.
But those two moves have handcuffed the Panthers when it comes to the salary cap and kept them from playing in free agency. Gross, Peppers and quarterback Jake Delhomme are combining for about $38 million in cap space right now.
That's why Carolina hasn't really pursued any free agents. At the same time, they've lost players like kick returner Mark Jones and cornerback Ken Lucas. They've got alternatives at those spots, but they're still running the risk of losing long-snapper Jason Kyle and they need depth on the defensive line, in the secondary and at wide receiver.
Are the Panthers going to be able to fill all those needs in the draft? No, they'll take care of some spots, but not all of them. At some point, probably after the draft, the Panthers are going to have to make some moves in free agency. If they get rid of Peppers, someone like veteran defensive end Kevin Carter probably still will be sitting out there and could be a possibility. There are also some decent veteran cornerbacks available (and probably more coming after the draft) that could fill the nickel back role behind starters Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall.
Maybe they trade Peppers and free up $17 million in cap space. Maybe they extend Delhomme's contract and trim his cap figure for this year. Or maybe they restructure some other contracts.
But the Panthers have to make at least a few moves in free agency. The Steelers can go the route of not fixing what isn't broken. The Panthers still have some flaws that have to be fixed.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
|Rich Kane/US Presswire|
|Ex-Bill Angelo Crowell should take Cato June's place at strongside LB.|
First impression? Nice move by the Bucs and it starts to clear up some of the clouds on their defense. Crowell was a productive strongside linebacker in Buffalo and the Bucs presumably will play him at the same spot. This also comes on a day when it became public the Bucs are going to take a look at strong safety Jermaine Phillips moving to weakside linebacker.
Barrett Ruud stays in the middle. Essentially, what the Bucs are doing is replacing Cato June with Crowell and Derrick Brooks with Phillips, although there are fallback options like Quincy Black, Adam Hayward and Geno Hayes. But those guys likely will end up as backups.
There was outrage when the Bucs let Brooks, the best player in their history, go on Feb. 25. They let June go that same day and there were at least some raised eyebrows on that move.
Well, now, the other shoes have fallen. I think Crowell can be a slight upgrade over June. As far as Phillips, it's impossible to know how he'll fare in a new spot, but he has the potential to do some good things. He'll never be the Brooks of four or five years ago, but he might be able to become as good as Brooks was the last year or two.
The Phillips move also means the Bucs can get Sabby Piscitelli onto the field as the starting strong safety. At times this offseason, it's looked like the Bucs didn't really have a plan. But, gradually, it's coming together and they're filling their needs.
They still could use a cornerback and at least one defensive tackle, but there's still time to work on that. There's also a chance the Bucs will re-sign veteran defensive end Kevin Carter. Take care of all that and that basically leaves quarterback as the only glaring need.
Anybody want to talk some more about Jay Cutler?
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- There are a couple of rosters sitting around in the media room here at One Buccaneer Place that were printed right before last season's finale against Oakland.
I just walked over and grabbed one and started scratching off the names of the guys who got released Wednesday. Then, I did a little bit more of the obvious and scratched off Jeff Garcia, who we already knew wasn't coming back and a little more doodling.
Long story short: The Bucs had 11 players who were 30 or older on the roster on the last day of last season. That number now stands at five and two of those are the punter and kicker.
Josh Bidwell is 32 and Matt Bryant is 33. The only other guys 30 or over on the roster at the moment are cornerback Ronde Barber (33), quarterback Brian Griese (33) and defensive tackle Chris Hovan (30). Maybe you can throw in defensive end Kevin Carter (35), who is scheduled to become a free agent Friday morning, or maybe the Bucs just let him walk, too.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Our third stop on the tour of NFC South team-by-team mailbags is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
JAD in Woodbridge writes: Hey Pat, do you think it is possible for the Buccaneers to sign T.J, Haynesworth, and Ward from the Giants, and have enough money to sign our own FA?
Pat Yasinskas: While I'm cautioning fans of the other three NFC South teams not to get too carried-away with their free-agency expectations, I'm not doing that with the Buccaneers. They've got a lot of cap space to work with and coach Raheem Morris has pretty much admitted the Bucs are going to pursue Albert Haynesworth. Makes sense because they need help in the middle of their defensive line and he's the best defensive tackle available. That doesn't mean for certain the Bucs will get Haynesworth, but I expect them to make a serious run at him. Keep one other thing in mind when you're talking about the Bucs and free agency: Florida has no state income tax and that's important to players (and their agents) when you're talking about multi-million-dollar deals.
J.J. in Denver, CO writes: Pat, As a Buccaneers fan I would love to get Albert Haynesworth in FA but what are the possibilities of obtaining WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh if we cant land Haynesworth? Or any situation that would land them both in Tampa? Thanks for the work you do with the NFC South Blog.
Pat Yasinskas: Even if the Bucs do get Albert Haynesworth, and re-sign their own free agents (Jermaine Phillips, Kevin Carter and Phillip Buchanon), they still could make a run at T.J. Houshmandzadeh. They've got enough cap room to do all that -- and even make several more moves. Picture Houshmandzadeh and Antonio Bryant together. You might see the Bucs throw the ball downfield more than they have in a long time.
Jeff in denver writes: I'm worried with Antonio Bryant not wanting to sign his franchise offer. He's really all we have on the team man thats really worth a damm. do you think they front office will give him a long term contract or what?
Pat Yasinskas: Relax a bit on Bryant. Yes, his agent is saying he's not happy with the franchise tag. But that's what agents are supposed to do and it's part of the game. The Bucs can keep trying to sign Bryant to a long-term contract up until July 15 and I suspect there will be a lot more talk about trying to lock him up.
Brian in Oklahoma writes: With free-agency looming around the corner, which free agent would you most likely see the Bucs making the a run for? And by the way like the blog very informative.
Pat Yasinskas: Well, we've mentioned Haynesworth and Houshmandzadeh already, so I'll give you another name I've hard some rumblings about. That's New York Giants running back Derrick Ward. I've heard the Bucs may pursue him and I think that would make a lot of sense. They clearly need another running back. They've got Earnest Graham and that's a good start. But Warrick Dunn's not getting any younger and nobody knows if Cadillac Williams will play again or be anywhere close to what he was before his two major knee injuries.
Chris in Arizona writes: Pat, first off, love your blog. Second, I know I'm just thinking way too far into the future here, but If Coach Jags wants to use Tight Ends more in the offense, and I know this is way too early to even bring this up but I'm doing it anyway. What are the chances the Bucs draft a guy like Rob Gronkowski out of Arizona, who many people think will be the best TE in the NCAA next season, in the 2010 draft? hey I'm a Bucs fan at the U of A, so I'm just getting over hyped aren't I?
Pat Yasinskas: Nothing wrong with looking into the future. But let's wait a year and see where the Bucs are at before we go making predictions on the 2010 draft. They might find an answer this year.
Daryl in Springfield, NJ: Hi Pat, As always, love the NFC South blog. I just was looking over Jagodzinski's comments, and I was wondering about his plans to use a zone blocking scheme. I've never been a fan of zone blocking and the Bucs built their line around maulers recently rather than the smaller quicker linemen you seen in zone blocking teams. How will this affect the Tampa o-line? Will there be a need for an overhaul just when it seems like the line it turning into a major bright spot for the team?
Pat Yasinskas: Good question. The one thing Jeff Jagodzinski and defensive coordinator Jim Bates said in their introductory meetings with the media is that they both have some things they like to do, but they won't put their players in spots where they're not playing to their strength. Tampa Bay's offensive line is a strength. Say what you want about former coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen, but they've invested a lot in the offensive line in free agency and the draft the last few years and it's the unquestioned strong point of this offense. Jagodzinski may insert some zone-blocking principles, but I don't think you'll see him go with the pure zone-blocking schemes we've seen in Atlanta and Denver in the past. It would make no sense to blow up a strong point and start all over.
Although it's a virtual certainty Tampa Bay will make some changes on its defensive line, the Bucs are trying to keep one piece in place.
A league source said the Bucs are making an attempt to re-sign defensive end Kevin Carter, who is scheduled to become a free agent later this week. With the Bucs expected to look to get younger in many areas under new coach Raheem Morris, Carter may be a bit of an exception.
Carter will turn 36 in September. But he played well in 2008, especially early in the season. The Bucs may look to add another starter opposite Gaines Adams in free agency or the draft and use Carter as a backup in a rotation.
No deal has been reached, but the source said it could happen before Friday.
The final stop on our team-by-team mailbag tour is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
MW in NY writes: Will the Bucs attempt to acquire Fred Taylor?
Pat Yasinskas: Wow, didn't take long after Taylor's release from Jacksonville to get Tampa Bay fans started on this path. Logical question (shared by many of you) based on Tampa Bay's way of doing things in recent years. The Bucs of Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen never were afraid to bring in a big-name veteran near the end of his career (perhaps the only one they didn't get was Brett Favre, and they tried like heck). But I'm sensing new general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris are going to take a different approach in this area. Part of the reason Allen and Gruden got fired was because they were always looking to patch things together quickly and it never really looked like they had a long-term plan. Yes, Dominik did work for Allen and he'll take the good parts from him (mainly salary-cap management). But Dominik also worked with Rich McKay, Tim Ruskell and Jerry Angelo at the start of his career and he probably picked up some ideas from them as well. I think Dominik and Morris are going to be very deliberate in their moves and try to build this team with a younger core that can stay in place for a while. There might be some veterans, including some high-profile free agents, brought in. But I think the days of signing guys at the end of their careers are over. Taylor was a great player, but is he much different than Warrick Dunn right now? I'm not even sure the Bucs will be keeping Dunn.
Jim Wright in Tampa writes: Should Bucs go after a QB in the 1st round of the draft; perhaps Josh Freeman of KSU; most likely Stafford and Sanchez will be gone by the time the Bucs draft in the 19th spot. Or would they do better to take a WR or DT or DE. Hopefully, McCown will do well but we may still a a QB for the future.
Pat Yasinskas: I think it's a little risky to think you can get a franchise quarterback with the 19th pick. The Bucs have high hopes for Luke McCown and that's why they re-signed him. But I still think it's entirely possible Tampa Bay could add a quarterback in the draft or as a free agent. But I think a team picking in the middle or late first round can get more value by drafting another position. I agree the Bucs could use help at wide receiver, defensive tackle or defensive end and a new coach and general manager might get more rapid results by drafting one of those positions. I think the Bucs will add another quarterback to the mix, but I don't think it will come in the first round of the draft. Maybe later in the draft or maybe in free agency.
Brian in parts unkown writes: Just wanted to know with all of the players that the Bucs have becoming free agents, which of those would you expect the to retain?
Pat Yasinskas: Just looking at the list of Tampa Bay's potential free agents, I'd say receiver Antonio Bryant, cornerback Phillip Buchanon and safety Jermaine Phillips are the top three priorities. I also think there's a chance receiver Michael Clayton could stay because his problems were with Gruden and not the new regime. We already know the Bucs aren't bringing back quarterback Jeff Garcia. I think defensive end Kevin Carter, defensive tackle Jovan Haye and tight end Jerramy Stevens also will be allowed to test free agency.
Jordan in Orlando writes: Has the bucs released any info about resigning WR Bryant?
Pat Yasinskas: The Bucs aren't going to release any information on Bryant unless they have him signed. They're in the negotiating process and I'm sure the Bucs want to keep Bryant. He also has a desire to stay in Tampa Bay after resurrecting his career there last year. Morris was on Gruden's staff and got a first-hand look at how Bryant turned his life around. In a lot of ways, that's an advantage because Bryant wouldn't have to prove himself to another head coach. But we're at the point in time where it comes down to business and money. I think the Bucs are working hard to keep Bryant and my guess is you'll see him re-sign with Tampa Bay. Also, I think even if Bryant re-signs, the Bucs could be a big player for another wide receiver in free agency.
Another quiet day in the NFC South so far, but that could always change this afternoon as teams get ready for the start of free agency. Speaking of that, I've been getting a lot of people asking for lists of free agents.
I did team-by-team breakdowns back in January but decided to run the lists for all four NFC South teams here just to refresh everybody. Keep in mind, these are the guys who are prospective free agents at the end of the month and things could always change with teams re-signing their own players or using the franchise tag.
Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Michael Boley, defensive end Chauncey Davis, cornerback Domonique Foxworth, tackle Wayne Gandy, linebacker Tony Gilbert, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, defensive tackle Jason Jefferson, punter Michael Koenen, safety Lawyer Milloy, tight end Justin Peelle and linebacker Coy Wire.
Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Donte' Curry, tackle Jordan Gross, offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner, return man Mark Jones, long-snapper Jason Kyle, tackle Frank Omiyale, defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Adam Seward and defensive tackle Darwin Walker.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Unrestricted free agents: Cornerback Aaron Glenn, quarterback Joey Harrington, receiver Devery Henderson, defensive tackle Antwan Lake, guard Matt Lehr, running back Aaron Stecker, tackle Jon Stinchcomb and linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Unrestricted free agents: Wide receiver Antonio Bryant, cornerback Phillip Buchanon, defensive end Kevin Carter, receiver Michael Clayton, quarterback Jeff Garcia, receiver Cortez Hankton, defensive tackle Jovan Haye, safety Jermaine Phillips, defensive tackle Ryan Sims and tight end Jerramy Stevens.
Restricted free agent: Tackle Donald Penn.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
|Greg Trott/Getty Images|
|Julius Peppers' situation has made things complicated in Carolina.|
The problem is this isn't a perfect world. There's only one franchise tag and the Panthers could use it on Peppers at around $17 million or Gross at nearly $9 million. This gets even more complicated because Peppers has made it clear he wants out of Carolina and Gross has said he wants to stay.
The Panthers have to come out of this with something in return. They can get two first-round picks if they franchise one of these guys and another team signs him to an offer sheet. But it's more likely and realistic that they'll franchise one and turn around and trade him.
Solution: The bottom line here is you might as well keep the guy who wants to be with you. Pay Gross his money before the start of free agency. Franchise Peppers and unload him for whatever you can get.
Secondary concern: No matter what happens with Peppers, the Panthers need to juice up their defensive line. A few years back, it was supposedly the best in the league when Peppers played with Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner. Those three are long gone and Peppers is about to join them.
Solution: The Panthers need to get a first-round pick for Peppers and use it on a defensive end. The other option would be signing a high-priced free agent, but there's not a lot out there and the Panthers aren't flush with cap space. They've got to be aggressive in pursuing some midlevel defensive tackles in free agency.
|G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images|
|Jonathan Vilma (top) and the Saints have yet to agree on a deal.|
It's a little risky to let Vilma hang out there because another team could swoop in and steal him away. But you have to believe the Saints will make sure they keep Vilma. They need him to be the centerpiece of the defense for new coordinator Gregg Williams to succeed.
Solution: Hope they've already got a handshake deal in place with Vilma. The Saints have a bunch of other needs and they can't afford to let their one certainty get away.
Secondary issue: The Saints need to overhaul their secondary -- again. They've got a keeper in cornerback Tracy Porter, who missed much of his rookie year with an injury. Roman Harper is passable as a strong safety if the Saints can add some cover guys around him. Cornerback Mike McKenzie is 34 and coming off another major injury, and free safety Kevin Kaesviharn got beat far too often last year.
Solution: The Saints have to get at least one more quality cornerback and a free safety. The problem is they don't have a lot of cap room and have only four draft picks at the moment. But the good news is the Saints are pretty much set on offense. They need to use pretty much their entire draft and whatever cap space they can clear on getting some defensive help.
|Dale Zanine/US Presswire|
|Antonio Bryant was the Bucs' top receiver last year, but he's up for free agency.|
But the Bucs need to give McCown a fair chance and Jagodzinski's offense an opportunity to succeed. The best way to do that is with some downfield targets and the Bucs didn't have many of those last year. Veteran Joey Galloway is likely on his way out of Tampa Bay because of age and last year's injuries.
Antonio Bryant stepped up as the No. 1 receiver last year and he's scheduled to become a free agent. After Bryant, the Bucs got almost nothing out of their wide receivers last year.
Solution: With more than $40 million in cap space, the Bucs absolutely have to re-sign Bryant before free agency starts. But they can't stop there. There should be a good crop of free agents available and several more receivers could be available by trade. Tampa Bay's passing game was horizontal last season. Jagodzinski wants to make it vertical this year. But the Bucs need to get him some guys who can get open downfield.
Secondary issue: Much like the rest of the team, the defensive line fell apart at the end of last season. Kevin Carter and Chris Hovan started looking old. Defensive tackle Jovan Haye was hurt much of last season and not very effective when he was on the field.
Solution: With all that cap money, the Bucs almost have to make a run at defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth or Peppers. All they really have on the defensive line is end Gaines Adams, who is still a work in progress. They can let Haye walk as a free agent and it's not inconceivable that they might free up more cap room by cutting Hovan and Carter. The Bucs need to work on the line heavily in free agency and the draft.
|Kirby Lee/US Presswire|
|The Falcons will have to find a replacement for the aging Lawyer Milloy.|
The Falcons liked Coy Wire after he took over for Boley late last season. Wire and Boley are both scheduled to be free agents and Brooking presents a dilemma for the Falcons.
Brooking has spent his entire career with Atlanta, grew up in Georgia and played at Georgia Tech. He's been a good soldier through some good and bad times. But it's clear Brooking is near the end of his career. The Falcons found a good middle linebacker in Curtis Lofton in last year's draft. Now, they have to surround him with talent.
Solution: The Falcons might as well let Boley walk. The Brooking situation could work itself out. Brooking did some broadcasting after the season and it's possible he could decide to retire. That would end things gracefully. If that doesn't happen, the Falcons might have to release him. They should make a decent attempt to keep Wire, but linebacker has to be a priority in the draft and free agency.
Secondary issue: Safety Lawyer Milloy's experience was one of the reasons the secondary played beyond its talent level last season. He made guys like safety Erik Coleman and cornerbacks Chris Houston and Domonique Foxworth better than they really were. But Milloy is near the end of his career and it doesn't make a lot of sense to re-sign him to a long-term deal.
Solution: The Falcons will continue to try to help the secondary out by generating some pass rush from someone other than defensive end John Abraham. But, even with more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the Falcons need some younger legs in the secondary. They need a replacement for Milloy and it wouldn't hurt to get another quality cornerback, too.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Since the Bucs just re-signed quarterback Luke McCown, we'll strike while the iron is hot and make Tampa Bay the next stop on our team-by-team mailbag tour.
By the way, co-worker John Clayton just got some details on McCown's contract. It's a two-year deal that should be worth about $7.5 million, with $5 million guaranteed in salary and bonuses for 2009. However, the deal also has some incentives that could make it worth up to $14 million.
Pete in Largo writes: I just read that the Buc's just resigned McCown?...who pulled the trigger on this? Do you see this as a quick fix to get us through the year until next year's draft? How does this impact bringing up Josh Johnson?
Pat Yasinskas: Yes, the Bucs have re-signed Luke McCown. I'd strongly suspect that general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris pulled the trigger on this. It's the first significant move of their regime. Not certain McCown is the answer, but there are a lot of personnel folks out there who think he has a lot of upside. Dominik and Morris were around McCown in practice every day last year and I think the fact they re-signed him speaks a lot about what they think of him. Not sure that this move has a big impact on Josh Johnson. He was a project under Jon Gruden, and I think he's still a project.
Walter writes: Hey Pat, I'm a big fan of your blogging. I have a couple questions actually. 1.) Who will start at QB for the Bucs in 2009? 2.) Who wins the NFC South crown in 2009? Thanks man!
Pat Yasinskas: Even with the McCown signing, I still could see the Bucs making another move at quarterback, perhaps in the draft. As it stands right now, they've got McCown, Johnson and Brian Griese under contract. Jeff Garcia can become a free agent, and I suspect he will. If the Bucs stay with their current roster of quarterbacks, I think McCown emerges as the starter, Griese the backup and Johnson No. 3. As for predicting the NFC South, let's hold on a bit. I want to see what happens in free agency and the draft before making any calls on that.
Miles in Orlando, Fla., writes: Just saw in the chat that the bucs resigned Luke McCown. What do you think the odds are that he ends up the starter next year? And is this an indication that they don't want to draft a QB? And since everyone's all abuzz about the cap space the bucs have, what do you think the most likely names will be to end up in pewter next year?
Pat Yasinskas: Again, I don't think the McCown signing necessarily means the Bucs are done at quarterback. I still think they could draft one. This just means they don't absolutely have to go out and make a desperate move for a quarterback. As far as free agency, I expect the Bucs to be very active at a number of positions and we'll discuss some names in the questions below. But, one thing to keep in mind with all that cap space is, the Bucs need to use some of that to keep some of their own free agents, mainly receiver Antonio Bryant.
Daniel in Tampa writes: what are the chances of the bucs getting boldin... and what would they have to give up to get him.
Pat Yasinskas: Anquan Boldin has made it pretty clear he wants out of Arizona, and I suspect the Bucs, like a lot of other teams, are monitoring the situation. Even if the Bucs do re-sign Bryant, they still need another receiver. I think Boldin would be a consideration, but I think the outcome will be determined on what his market value is and some teams may be more aggressive than the Bucs as potential trade partners. I can't see Dominik and Morris giving away a large chunk of their first group of draft picks.
Charles in Mt. Dora, Fla., writes: Check out Doug Williams' career stats. Trent Dilfer won the Super Bowl too. Williams is extremely overrated.
Pat Yasinskas: I'm well aware of Doug Williams' career stats. I'm going to disagree with you and say the guy was underrated. Yeah, his stats weren't always pretty, but think back to what was around him and the style of offense the old Bucs played. I'm not saying he's Johnny Unitas, but I'd take Doug Williams in his prime as my quarterback any day. The guy had great intangibles and was as good a leader as you'll ever find.
Casey in Phoenix writes: Just curious on your thoughts about several Bucs vets, including Joey Galloway, Michael Clayton and Jeff Garcia. It is obvious that all were in Gruden's doghouse for one reason or another and that probably played a major role in why they didn't play at times. What are the chances that these three, or various combinations, are back next year to prove that they still have something to give. I'm not totally sold that Galloway is washed up and the same for Clayton. I'd personally like to see what they really can do with a fresh start, but hopefully that doesn't have to come from a new team.
Pat Yasinskas: I think the signing of McCown is the end of the road for Jeff Garcia in Tampa Bay. But I think he has something left and can help another team. I also think Joey Galloway is on his way out. His age, cap number and injuries last season work against him. I think the Bucs will look heavily at wide receivers in free agency. Michael Clayton might be a slightly different story. If Jon Gruden had stayed, I'd say Clayton definitely would be gone. With Morris and Dominik taking over, I think there's at least a chance the Bucs try to re-sign Clayton. He's got some talent and a new coaching staff might be enough to inspire him.
Dean in parts unknown writes: Lee Roy Selmon the only past Buc in the HOF? Did you forget that Steve Young played two seasons with the Bucs. How about coaches, Joe Gibbs was an assistant on the Bucs staff in the early days.
Pat Yasinskas: I think you got my point. Lee Roy Selmon is the only real Buccaneer in the Hall of Fame -- for now. Do you seriously count Steve Young and Joe Gibbs? Young was a nobody in his brief time with the Bucs and made his career in San Francisco. If you want to claim Joe Gibbs, I think there are some fans in Washington who might argue with you on that. If you really want to go overboard, why don't you add Anthony Munoz to your list, too? He once practiced a few times with the Bucs in training camp before deciding his career was over. Selmon will have some company in a few years when Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp join him.
Roderick in Brooklyn writes: Pat how's it goin I'm a extremely happy Bucs fan now that Gruden is gone but I was wondering w
ith the problems in the D-Line do you believe the Bucs will try to purse a player like Julius Peppers or Albert Hanesworth(If he becomes available) and could you enlighten me on what OC Jeff Jagozinski's offensive style is because I'm a bit unfamiliar with him.
Pat Yasinskas: The defensive line is an area I expect the Bucs to be very aggressive with. Chris Hovan and Kevin Carter wore down at the end of the year, Jovan Haye is a free agent and Gaines Adams still is a work in progress. The Bucs certainly have enough cap room to make a play for Julius Peppers or Albert Haynesworth, and I suspect they'll at least test the waters. As for Jeff Jagodzinski's offense, it's going to be different than Gruden's and I think that can be a good thing. Jagodzinski favors a vertical passing game and the Bucs were way too horizontal last year. I also think you'll see a pretty fair split between the run and pass.