NFC South: Marcus McNeill

Falcons have flexibility

May, 14, 2012
The Atlanta Falcons didn’t make the kind of big splash at the start of free agency that many of their fans wanted.

But, little by little, they’ve made moves that should help make their roster stronger. They traded for cornerback Asante Samuel just before the draft and it’s pretty obvious the Falcons are counting on second-round pick Peter Konz to have an immediate impact on their offensive line. But this offseason might be far from over for the Falcons, who were strapped by the salary cap early in free agency.

That’s not really the case these days. Atlanta got a boost when it got a $3 million cap credit as fallout from the Michael Vick situation and some of that helped make room for Samuel. The Falcons cut veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli last week and they’re on the hook for a $733,335 cap hit for that. But the move cleared up $3 million in cap space.

That gives the Falcons some money to work with and you could see another move or two before training camp starts. Although the Falcons say they’re comfortable with Sam Baker at left tackle, I’m not sure that’s a great idea. At very least, they should bring in someone to compete with Baker. Veteran Marcus McNeill is still hanging out there in free agency. McNeill had an injury last season that may require more time to heal. If it does, I could see the Falcons bringing in McNeill. If not, the Falcons have enough room to look at some other alternatives.

Falcons: One big question

May, 3, 2012
Did the Falcons do enough to get tough enough up front?

The Falcons went hard after offensive linemen in the draft. They took Wisconsin guard/center Peter Konz in the second round and Southern Mississippi tackle Lamar Holmes in the third. They also added guard Vince Manuwai in free agency.

The plan seems to be to throw Konz and Manuwai out there with guard Justin Blalock, center Todd McClure, guard Garrett Reynolds and guard/center Joe Hawley. The Falcons will let them all compete in training camp and and then decide which combination gives them the best interior. Konz probably will emerge as a starter, and either he or Hawley could replace McClure, who is aging fast. That should improve the interior of the offensive line, but what about the outside? Left tackle Sam Baker struggled last season, and the fact that Holmes was sitting there in the third round is a pretty good indicator that he’s not ready to step in and be a stud left tackle.

If the Falcons really are serious about throwing downfield more, they have to give quarterback Matt Ryan more time. The Falcons still may have to add a left tackle (Marcus McNeill) to compete with Baker if they really want to solidify their offensive line.

Speaking of solidifying lines, the Falcons haven’t done much on the defensive side, and that also was a problem area last year. They brought back veteran defensive end John Abraham, but they don’t have any other especially strong pass-rushers. I wouldn’t count on an immediate impact from fifth-round pick Jonathan Massaquoi. Guys like Ray Edwards, Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury have to step up, or the Falcons have to go try to find a pass-rusher in what remains of free agency.

Falcons add more O-line depth

April, 27, 2012
The Atlanta Falcons just drafted an offensive tackle, but I don’t think you can go ahead and pencil in Lamar Holmes as an instant replacement for Sam Baker at left tackle.

The Falcons took Holmes out of Southern Mississippi with a third-round pick (No. 91 overall) -- and that’s not where you find rookie left tackles who can make an immediate impact. The scouting reports on Holmes suggest he’s a project. He’s a big guy, a former basketball player with some athletic ability. But scouts say Holmes has decent run-blocking ability right now, but is very raw as a pass blocker.

I don’t think that sounds like the scouting report of a guy you want protecting Matt Ryan’s blind side right off the bat. Maybe Holmes develops into something down the road.

But, for now, it looks like the Falcons are preparing to go to training camp and let Baker compete with Will Svitek. But don’t be surprised if the Falcons bring in someone with experience (Marcus McNeill?) sometime after the draft.

Falcons have their pass-rusher

March, 16, 2012
The Atlanta Falcons have their new pass-rusher. It’s their old pass-rusher.

John Abraham has agreed to a contract that will keep him with the Falcons, Adam Schefter reports.

The deal is for three years, and financial terms have yet to be disclosed. But I think it’s safe to assume the yearly average is somewhere less than the $12 million or more Abraham said he was looking for before free agency.

The Falcons let Abraham test the market a bit and it didn’t seem like he was a red-hot commodity. Understandable, because he’s about to turn 34.

That’s why I’m not sure that this was the best possible move the Falcons could have made. They could have pursued Mario Williams, who signed with Buffalo. I’m not sure if the Falcons even poked around on Williams or any other pass-rushers, but they obviously don’t have a ton of salary-cap room, so that may have prevented a flashy move.

I think Abraham’s been a very good player for the Falcons, but you have to worry about a decline in play because of his age. Abraham had 9.5 sacks last season, but 3.5 of those came against a hapless Jacksonville team.

But the Falcons are going with what they know. Their coaching staff is very familiar with Abraham, and their medical and training staffs probably have a good idea if he has anything left in the tank. The Falcons must believe Abraham has something left. But it sure would be nice if the other starting defensive end, Ray Edwards, who signed a big contract last year, is more productive in the pass rush next season.

In one other bit of news that should make Atlanta fans, who have been critical of the team for staying quiet in free agency, very happy, the Falcons reportedly will visit with former San Diego left tackle Marcus McNeill next week. Aside from defensive end, left tackle might have been Atlanta's biggest need entering free agency.

NFC South: Free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Atlanta Falcons

Key free agents: CB Brent Grimes (franchise tag), LB Curtis Lofton, DE John Abraham, WR Harry Douglas and C Todd McClure.

Where they stand: The Falcons put the franchise tag on Grimes but would like to sign him to a long-term contract. That would improve a salary-cap situation that’s already decent. Keeping Lofton and Douglas, who have been developed by the current coaching staff, is also likely to be a priority. Although Abraham led the team with 9.5 sacks last season, his age and salary expectations work against the possibility of his return. Unless Abraham’s price tag drops significantly, the Falcons seem likely to let him walk. McClure could opt to retire. But if he wants to play, it’s likely the Falcons would welcome him back.

What to expect: After a quick and embarrassing exit from the postseason, owner Arthur Blank made it very clear that simply making the playoffs isn’t good enough. Blank expects to contend for a Super Bowl title. The Falcons went all in last year when they traded up to draft receiver Julio Jones and paid big money to free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards. Look for them to take a similar approach this year. The Falcons are usually good for at least one major move an offseason, and this year we could see two or three. Don’t be surprised if the Falcons go hard after Houston linebacker Mario Williams because they need a pass-rusher to replace Abraham. Without a first-round pick, the Falcons also probably will use free agency to fill a big need at left tackle. There aren’t a lot of options, but tackle Marcus McNeill could be a target if he is released, as expected, by the Chargers. The Falcons could even make a play for New Orleans guard Carl Nicks. His presence would make life easier for any left tackle, and pulling him away from the Saints also would weaken a division rival.

Carolina Panthers

Key free agents: TE Jeremy Shockey, LB Dan Connor, G Geoff Hangartner, LB/DL Antwan Applewhite and QB Derek Anderson.

Where they stand: The Panthers seem to be uncertain whether Shockey plans to retire or keep playing. If he wants to play, they’d gladly take him back because he’s a nice complement to Greg Olsen. They also are likely to make a strong attempt to keep Hangartner, who did a nice job after Carolina had several guards injured last preseason. It’s similar with Applewhite, who was signed during the season and made nice contributions. But the Panthers seem prepared to let Connor test free agency because they can’t promise him playing time with Jon Beason returning from injury as the starting middle linebacker. Anderson could return, but the Panthers likely will at least explore the possibility of looking for an upgrade as Cam Newton’s backup.

What to expect: Don’t expect a lot. The Panthers had their big splurge coming out of the lockout last summer, and they’re paying the tab for that now. They will have to release players and restructure contracts just to get below the cap before free agency starts. Linebacker Thomas Davis, who is coming off his third torn ACL, is a prime candidate for release or restructure. Although the team clearly wants to improve its defense, don’t look for any major moves in free agency. The team simply doesn’t have the cap room to make any big deals. The team might sign a midlevel free agent or two, but major upgrades will have to come through the draft.

New Orleans Saints

Key free agents: QB Drew Brees (franchise tag), G Carl Nicks, WR Marques Colston, CB Tracy Porter and WR Robert Meachem.

Where they stand: The past three years have been the most peaceful and prosperous in franchise history. But the peaceful part already has ended this offseason. In addition to getting into trouble with the NFL for a bounty program, the Saints are dealing with contract issues that are beyond challenging. They used the franchise tag on Brees and that’s going to cost them around $15 million. Even if they do reach a long-term agreement with Brees, his cap figure for this year could climb above $15 million. Either way, the Saints are going to have major cap issues. They’ve already restructured the contract of defensive end Will Smith and may do the same with linebacker Jonathan Vilma or perhaps even release him and some veterans. The Saints are going to have so much cap space tied up in Brees that they’ll have a hard time keeping their other free agents. Nicks would seem to be the priority with Colston close behind. But keeping even one of them would be a victory for the Saints.

What to expect: General manager Mickey Loomis always has been aggressive and daring, and he might have to be even more creative than usual because of the cap situation. The Saints simply aren’t the type of team to sit still. They had flaws exposed in a playoff loss to San Francisco, and they’re asking new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to fix their defense. The problem there is a lot of the current personnel doesn’t fit all that well in Spagnuolo’s scheme. Loomis needs to find a way to get at least one more pass-rusher up front and needs to add an athletic linebacker or two. He also may have to fill more needs if the Saints lose as many free agents as most expect. This team lacks a first-round pick in the draft, so Loomis will have to make some big moves when it comes to releasing players or restructuring contracts just to give the Saints a shot at being a little bit active in free agency.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key free agents: K Connor Barth (franchise tag), CB Ronde Barber, RB Earnest Graham, LB Geno Hayes, S Sean Jones, DE Michael Bennett (restricted) and RB LeGarrette Blount (exclusive rights).

Where they stand: The Bucs begin coach Greg Schiano’s tenure in a unique situation. They’ve got a ton of cap room and need improvement in lots of areas. But they’ll deal with what they have between now and the start of free agency. A decision on Barber probably will come very soon. Schiano has indicated he’d like the veteran back, but Barber could choose to retire, which also would create a major need at cornerback. That position also could be an issue later in March when starting cornerback Aqib Talib is scheduled for trial on an assault charge. Talib could go to prison or face a suspension from the NFL, but his fate will be unknown at the start of free agency. Hayes didn’t have a great season last year, but he has upside, and the new staff might want to keep him. The Bucs are likely to let Graham walk because of his age. A return by Jones is possible at a reasonable salary, but the Bucs still need to look to upgrade at safety.

What to expect: The exact amount will depend on how many of their free agents are brought back, but the Bucs are likely to have somewhere around $50 million in cap space at the start of free agency and that will put them near the top of the league. After barely dipping into free agency last year, the Bucs were able to carry over extra cap room, and general manager Mark Dominik has publicly said the team plans to be more active in free agency. But fans need to keep that in perspective. The Bucs aren’t going to suddenly return to the days when Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen regularly shelled out money for big-name players in their 30s. The Bucs started a youth movement three years ago, and there are some parts in place. Now, it’s time for them to supplement those parts. They’ll be active in free agency, but they’ll be focusing on players still in their 20s. They’ll also be focusing on improving the supporting cast of quarterback Josh Freeman, who they believe can become great. Look for them to add a speed receiver, perhaps someone like Mario Manningham (Giants) or Eddie Royal (Broncos). The Bucs also want to improve at running back, where Blount is a one-dimensional power runner. They could look for a pass-catching specialist or opt to look for a complete back who could even replace Blount as the starter. On defense, the Bucs probably will try to upgrade at linebacker. If Barber and/or Talib aren’t back, the Bucs will have to make a move or two at cornerback and probably wouldn’t hesitate to pay big money to someone such as Cortland Finnegan (Titans).