NFC South: Mario Williams

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints are well aware of the challenge they'll face Sunday when Buffalo Bills pass-rusher Mario Williams comes to town. The Saints got to know the 6-foot-6, 292-pounder up close and personal during his years with the Houston Texans from 2006-2011.

During that span, they faced Williams twice in the regular season and four times in the preseason. The Saints and Texans also got together for a week of joint practices in three straight preseasons from 2008-2010.

Veteran players and coach Sean Payton all agreed, however, that Williams is playing as well as ever now in his eighth NFL season. Williams has already racked up 10 sacks -- including a game-changer last week that forced a fumble and led to the Bills' come-from behind win over the Miami Dolphins.

Here's what the Saints have been saying about Williams this week:

Payton: “You know, he plays that weakside/outside linebacker position which can put him right or left based on your formation in the base. In the nickel snaps, he's more to our right and to his left. He's had an exceptional season. He's had sacks from inside. He's had sacks from outside. He's someone who is comfortable on either side of the tackle. So you've seen that production. He's healthy. He's long. Certainly he is a player that you have to account for because he changed the game last week, we saw in the final snaps. He's really playing well.”

Offensive tackle Zach Strief: “The scouting report? He's really big. He's a really good athlete for a guy with that kind of size. He's moving well, he's really productive this year. I think you see him, he's given a couple teams a lot of trouble. So he's a guy, you don't want him to get going.

“Obviously he's highly talented, and I think they're putting him in good positions out there to rush the passer. And he's responded. I think he's a better rusher from their left, and he's been more productive there. And obviously there's a lot of things you can do games-wise, movement, to get a guy in a good matchup, to keep him away from double teams. They've done a good job with that. And at the end of the day, he's beat a lot of blockers.

“And I think it's probably nice for him to be healthy. I think last year he dealt with some things. I think you're seeing someone playing healthy, and that helps a lot.”

Saints quarterback Drew Brees: “Yes (this is the best he's looked). We played against him a lot, practiced against him a lot when he was with the Texans at those training camps and we played against him, that type of thing. He's always been a physical presence, but over time you just develop certain skills and techniques and master certain things. And I definitely think he's gotten better as the years have gone on. He's always had that big physical presence, but he has the tools to go along with it and you see the results.”

Guard Jahri Evans: “Oh, man, he's one of those guys like (Julius) Peppers, man. He's a freak of nature. Just one of those guys who can really dominate up front and do a lot of things well. And I think it's showing in their play this year. He's just a great competitor.”

Double Coverage: Bills at Saints

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Williams-BreesUSA TODAY SportsMario Williams and the Bills' defense will attempt to slow down Saints QB Drew Brees.
The New Orleans Saints (5-1) are one of the NFL's most dominant home teams (3-0 this year, 32-11 since 2008). They've also won four straight games following bye weeks. So Sunday's matchup against the Buffalo Bills (3-4) certainly seems like a favorable one.

However, the Bills have proven to be a tough out. They're coming off of a 23-21 victory at Miami. All but one of their games has been decided by a touchdown or less. And they'll bring one of the NFL's most disruptive pass rushes into the Superdome, led by Mario Williams.

Injuries will be a key issue, especially on offense. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (foot) and Bills running backs C.J. Spiller (ankle) and Fred Jackson (knee) all are battling ailments.

ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Bills reporter Mike Rodak break down the matchup:

Triplett: I saw that Williams and the Bills' pass rush certainly delivered last week with a game-changing sack and forced fumble in the fourth quarter to beat the Dolphins. How good is that pass rush? And do you think the Bills' defense overall is capable of slowing down Drew Brees and the Saints' high-powered offense?

Rodak: Mike, the pass rush has been the strength of what has been a banged-up defense. Williams has 10 sacks this season and the Bills are disrupting 20.1 percent of opponent dropbacks (measured by sacks, passes defensed, interceptions and batted balls), which is second to the 7-0 Chiefs (26.5 percent).

As for facing the Saints' offense, I think the Bills are better equipped for the challenge now than they would have been earlier this season. With Jairus Byrd and Stephon Gilmore back from injuries and being eased into action, the Buffalo defense will have its best playmakers on the field. Still, we're talking about a middle-of-the-pack defense that has yet to have everything click. The run defense has struggled and the Bills have shown a tendency to give up the big play at times. The Saints will have their chances.

I haven't had a chance yet to watch the Saints live this season, but I can tell you that those who were left in the Ralph Wilson Stadium press box two weeks ago had their eyes glued to that Saints-Patriots thriller. If the Saints pull that out, they're 6-0. Can we attribute their success early this season entirely to Sean Payton's return, or is there more to it?

Triplett: Payton's return is a huge part of it. Essentially, the Saints have been proving that their 7-9 season in 2012 was a fluke. I think many people nationally forgot just how good this offense was in 2011, when Graham and Darren Sproles emerged as weapons for them. They went 13-3 that year and set the NFL record for yards gained. Now, they're back in their comfort zone with Payton back as one of the NFL's best game planners and motivators.

This year, the biggest surprise is how well the defense has been playing after such an abysmal performance in 2012. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette and the entire secondary have been huge for them. And I think it's legit.

Speaking of coaches, Mike, I have to ask about the impact Doug Marrone is making there. He has ties here after serving as Payton's first offensive coordinator and offensive line coach from 2006-08.

Rodak: Indeed, Marrone does have ties to New Orleans, not only as a coach, but also as a player. He was asked about it Monday and, probably trying to keep the focus on this week's game, didn't wax nostalgic about his time there, but simply said it was a good experience in his progression to becoming an NFL head coach.

As far as what he has done in Buffalo, I'd say it's so far, so good. But naturally as a first-year coach, the jury is still very much out on him. A lot will depend on how EJ Manuel performs when he returns this season and then beyond. But most importantly, Marrone has been able to avoid distractions or controversy, like what we saw with the Greg Schiano-Josh Freeman situation after Schiano made the jump from the college game. This seems to be a tight-knit locker room and a team that has closely contested each of its games this season.

Mike, there's a pair of recent first-round picks in Kenny Vaccaro and Jordan who have helped anchor the new-look Saints defense under Ryan. Tell me about what they've done, but also about what holes on defense the Bills might exploit.

Triplett: Jordan has been the Saints' defensive MVP so far. In fact, he was probably their defensive MVP last year, too. But this year he's starting to gain national attention for the impact he's making as a power pass-rusher and standout run defender. He's a big athlete at 6-foot-4 and about 290 pounds. So he's a good fit at 3-4 end but also at 4-3 end, where he's essentially lined up for most of this year since they play so much nickel and dime. Jordan has five sacks, a forced fumble and 24 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.

Vaccaro, meanwhile, has been fun to watch since Ryan moves him around so much (deep safety, in the slot, blitzing, sometimes even at linebacker and corner). It's similar to the way the Pittsburgh Steelers use Troy Polamalu, though Vaccaro is obviously not at that level yet. He's still developing, but he's played almost every snap this year and has made several impact plays.

If the Bills' run game is going strong, that could give the Saints a few problems. Their run defense hasn't been their strength. But it's something they've been willing to sacrifice while making it a priority to prevent big plays. The Bills need to keep this game close so they're not forced to play catch-up -- which is no easy task. Do you think they've found some stability with Thad Lewis at quarterback? Or might we see Matt Flynn instead this week?

Rodak: They've definitely found some stability with Lewis at quarterback. While I don't think there's much of a chance that Lewis remains the starter when Manuel returns, it's not a stretch to say that Lewis has actually played better than the rookie. He has shown better accuracy on some of his passes and also seems more willing to drive the ball downfield when he needs to. His statistics haven't blown anyone away -- he ranked in the bottom third of the NFL in QBR in each of his two starts -- but the Bills seem more than happy with what they're getting out of him.

Flynn was inactive Sunday against the Dolphins, six days after arriving in Buffalo. I think the Bills would ideally like to have him as their backup instead of undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel. But as far as surpassing Lewis, I think that would take a collapse by Lewis over the next few games and an impressive showing by Flynn in practice.

Mike, how do you see this game playing out? Do you expect Graham to be available for the Saints?

Triplett: I think Graham will be highly questionable all week. I wouldn't be surprised at all if he's out or limited, which would obviously put a dent in the Saints' offense. But I still think Brees has enough weapons -- starting with Sproles, Marques Colston and Pierre Thomas in the passing game -- to move the ball and put up close to 30 points or more.

If New Orleans scores early and forces Buffalo to play catch-up, the Bills could really be in trouble. And if the Saints are the ones who have to play catch-up, they've proven they can do that. Buffalo's best chance is to control the clock with its run game, win the turnover battle and force the Saints to settle for field goals.

The latest installment of #NFLRank is out, and it includes Nos. 41-50 for offense and defense. This segment is filled with NFC South players. Let’s take a look.

Offense

43. Tampa Bay guard Carl Nicks

Stats & Info: Nicks missed nine games last season, his first with the Buccaneers after signing a five-year, $47.5 million deal as a free agent last offseason. Nicks earned more than $24 million last season, which ranked fourth in the NFL behind only Drew Brees, Vincent Jackson and Mario Williams, according to the Roster Management System.

Yasinskas comment: There is obvious concern about his health, because he has a staph infection and is coming off a major foot injury. But, when he’s healthy, Nicks might be the best guard in the league.

44. New Orleans guard Jahri Evans

Stats & Info: Evans has played 5,242 offensive snaps since 2008, ranking second in the NFL behind only Justin Blalock. A first-team All-Pro each of the past four seasons, Evans has started every game for the Saints in the Drew Brees era (since 2006).

Yasinskas comment: Evans is the anchor of an offensive line that has been good for a long time. Other players have come and gone, but Evans has been the constant.

45. Tampa Bay receiver Vincent Jackson

Stats & Info: Jackson was Tampa Bay's safety valve on third down last season, ranking fourth in the NFL in third-down targets behind only Brandon Marshall, Wes Welker and Calvin Johnson. On third down, Jackson had 20 catches resulting in a first down, ranking behind only Roddy White.

Yasinskas comment: He joined Tampa Bay last season and instantly became quarterback Josh Freeman’s favorite target. He and Freeman should be even more comfortable after a year together.

Defense

41. Tampa Bay safety Dashon Goldson

Stats & Info: Goldson defended the most passes (10) when lined up as a safety in 2012. Eight of them were thrown less than 20 yards downfield, which also led all safeties.

Yasinskas comment: The Bucs knew they were getting a talented player when they signed Goldson away from San Francisco. They also have discovered Goldson brings even more to the table. He already has emerged as a defensive leader.

NFC South to date:

Offense

43. Nicks

44. Evans

45. Jackson

51. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin

65. New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston

70. Carolina center Ryan Kalil

71. Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith

86. New Orleans guard Ben Grubbs

87. Atlanta running back Steven Jackson

98. Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross

100. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton

Defense

41. Goldson

51. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy

55. Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson

80. Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel

86. Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon

93. Atlanta safety William Moore

96. Atlanta defensive end Osi Umenyiora

97. Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron

98. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David
The Atlanta Falcons have been tied to a possible trade for New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis.

I’m not buying it.

Sure, Revis would be a nice upgrade for any secondary. But I don’t think he’s in Atlanta’s plans.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff has made it pretty clear he wants to take care of his own guys first. That means cornerback Brent Grimes, safety William Moore and left tackle Sam Baker are tops on the list. Oh, and the Falcons also want to sign quarterback Matt Ryan to a long-term extension sometime this offseason. And tight end Tony Gonzalez might decide to return for one more season.

Yes, the Falcons freed up a bunch of cap room last week when they released Dunta Robinson, Michael Turner and John Abraham. But that wasn’t done to clear the way for Revis.

It was done to clear the way to keep Moore, Grimes and Baker.

Think back to last year when fans were calling for the Falcons to go out and sign Mario Williams. They Falcons didn’t do that. Instead, they re-signed their own free agents.

I’m expecting more of the same. Could Dimitroff make a significant move somewhere along the way? Yeah, he generally is good for one or two big moves a year. But I’m not getting any indication right now that the Falcons are attempting to make a play for Revis.

NFC South award time

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Doug Martin, Robert McClain, Drew BreesUSA TODAY SportsThe NFC South may not get a lot of recognition come awards time, but Tampa Bay's Dough Martin, Atlanta's Robert McClain and New Orleans' Drew Brees all deserve some attention.

Although we in the NFC South sometimes have an inferiority complex when it comes to recognition, there will be no shortage of it in what follows.

I already rolled out my All-NFC South team and named Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan the division’s Most Valuable Player. But let’s take this time to hand out some other awards for the 2012 season.

Comeback Player of the Year: I’m starting with this one because it’s probably my favorite story of the season. I’m going with Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis. He probably won’t win the league-wide award because Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson are bigger names (there’s that NFC South inferiority complex again). But nobody came back from more than Davis. The guy tore his ACL three times. As far as anyone knows, no NFL player had ever come back from three torn ACLs -- until Davis did it. And he did more than come back and just play. He turned in a very solid season.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: This one is easy. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin is the only choice. On the night they drafted him, coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik talked about how Martin would be an all-purpose back. He was precisely that. He ran inside and outside, caught passes and made LeGarrette Blount disappear.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: This one is not quite as easy. I’m giving the nod to Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, but only by a slight margin. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David also had an excellent first season, but Kuechly led the NFL in tackles, and Carolina’s defense was better than Tampa Bay’s.

Coach of the Year: Hmmm, I’ll go way out on a limb and take Atlanta’s Mike Smith. In a year when the other three teams went 7-9 and the Falcons went 13-3, Smith is the only option. Aside from throwing a challenge flag on a play that would have been automatically reviewed and trying to force the ball to Michael Turner too much, I can’t think of very many mistakes Smith made. Of course, the real test for Smith will be whether he can get the first postseason win of his career.

General Manager of the Year: Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff wins in a landslide for the same reason Smith did. You just can’t argue with 13-3. Plus, I’ve got to give Dimitroff a lot of credit for not listening to public sentiment (that’s not a strong point for every general manager in this division) during the free-agency period. Fans were screaming for the Falcons to go after Mario Williams and other big-name free agents. Dimitroff didn’t listen and simply re-signed most of his own free agents. You can’t argue with the result.

Best free-agent signing: Receiver Vincent Jackson cost the Buccaneers a fortune, but he was worth every penny of it. Almost instantly, he became the best receiver the Buccaneers have ever had (yep, he edged out the likes of Alvin Harper, Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green). He gave Tampa Bay a big-play threat, and he also made Mike Williams perhaps the best No. 2 receiver the Buccaneers have ever had.

Best trade: Dimitroff’s biggest move of the offseason was a trade to get Asante Samuel, even though there were rumblings the veteran cornerback was in steep decline. That turned out to be far from the truth. Samuel showed he has plenty left. More importantly, he has brought a swagger that Atlanta’s defense lacked in recent years.

Second-best trade: I know there is a segment of Tampa Bay fans that thought the midseason trade of Aqib Talib to New England was a horrible move. I understand that the Bucs' pass defense was bad and trading away your best cornerback isn’t going to provide immediate help in that department. But I think Dominik deserves kudos for looking at the big picture and for getting anything in return for Talib. Let’s be honest: Talib was nothing but a headache throughout his time in Tampa, and there was no way Schiano was going to want him around in 2013. Talib would have walked away in free agency, and the Bucs wouldn’t have had anything to show for him. The trade at least gave them a 2013 fourth-round pick.

Best release: A lot of people think Smith is too nice a guy. That’s mainly because the Atlanta coach genuinely is a nice guy. But that doesn’t mean he’s soft. Smith can be very firm when it’s in the best interest of his team, and that’s what happened at midseason when he and Dimitroff released defensive end Ray Edwards. Let’s not sell Edwards short and say he was a slouch. The 2011 free-agent signing was a tremendous slouch. He had lost his starting job to Kroy Biermann, and he was causing problems in the locker room. Instead of letting things fester and spread to other corners of the locker room, Smith simply told Edwards to hit the road.

Best defensive player on the worst defense in history: The New Orleans defense shouldn’t get too many accolades because it allowed more total yards than any defense in history. But middle linebacker Curtis Lofton deserves some praise. He came over from Atlanta, where he no longer was viewed as an every-down linebacker and showed that, at least for the Saints, he still was an every-down linebacker.

Best assistant coach: Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wins, although Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan got consideration. Koetter came in and did a better job than predecessor Mike Mularkey of letting Ryan go out and do the things he does best.

Best off-field tactic: Appeal anything and everything. That’s the approach New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma took throughout the entire bounty scandal. There were plenty of twists and turns, and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who oversaw the final appeal, did not clear Vilma of wrongdoing (no matter what Saints fans think), but Tagliabue ultimately did vacate what was supposed to be a season-long suspension for Vilma.

Most underrated player: Robert McClain. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re not a Falcons fan. Even Atlanta fans had no idea who McClain was until Brent Grimes went down with a season-ending injury. McClain stepped up and gave Atlanta quality play as the No. 3 cornerback and sometimes even as the No. 2 cornerback. For the record, McClain was a seventh-round draft pick by Carolina in 2010 and spent some of 2011 in Jacksonville. He probably will be sticking around Atlanta for a long time.

Best performance by a guy that had a "down" season: Drew Brees might be the only guy in the world who can go out and throw for 5,000 yards and have people still think he had a bad season. Brees wasn’t horrible. But when you’ve been almost flawless for several seasons, anything less is viewed as an off year.

NFC South midseason bests/worsts

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We rolled out our All-NFC South midseason team Wednesday. Now, it’s time to run through some other bests and worsts from the first half of the season.

Smith
Smith
Best job by a head coach: Atlanta’s Mike Smith is 8-0. You can’t even consider anyone else.

Best job by a general manager: Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff. See above explanation.

Worst job by a general manager: Carolina's Marty Hurney. He took the fall after a 1-5 start.

Best signing: Tampa Bay paid dearly for Vincent Jackson. But Josh Freeman finally has a true No. 1 receiver, and it’s paying dividends.

Worst signing: You could make a case for New Orleans defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley. But I think the fact that the contract extension coach Sean Payton signed more than a year ago was voided by the NFL is a fiasco. Maybe this will get resolved happily. But how can you have a coach, who was supposed to be under contract through 2015, sitting on the verge of possible free agency? (Note: Carolina’s signing of running back Mike Tolbert, when the Panthers already had a crowded backfield, gets honorable mention).

Best non-move: Atlanta fans were screaming for the Falcons to sign free-agent defensive end Mario Williams. Dimitroff didn't listen. Ask Buffalo fans how much Williams has helped the Bills.

Rookie of the Year: This one’s become easy after the past few games. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin has a chance to become one of the NFL’s best and most complete running backs.

Most Valuable Player: Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is the only name fit to appear here.

Biggest disappointment: You can’t hang all of Carolina’s problems on quarterback Cam Newton. But you can put a lot on him. He hasn’t stepped forward at all after a very promising rookie season. This team has been among the biggest disappointments in the NFL. When that happens, the quarterback has to shoulder some of the blame.

Best trade: I still am stunned that Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik was able to get anything more than a week of free cab rides in exchange for troubled cornerback Aqib Talib. Dominik had to give up a seventh-round pick next year along with Talib, but he got New England’s fourth-round pick in 2013.

Best coordinator: It’s a tough call between Atlanta’s Mike Nolan on defense and Dirk Koetter on offense. They’ve both been fantastic. But I’ll give the nod to Koetter, because he made two important discoveries -- the screen pass and the fact that Sam Baker can play left tackle in the NFL.

Worst coordinator: It would be too easy to go with New Orleans’ Steve Spagnuolo. Besides, I don’t think he has the personnel he needs to really make his system work. Instead, I’ll go with Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. There’s no question he has personnel to work with, but the results haven’t been there.

Best equipment manager: This time, and this time only, I’m going with Atlanta’s Brian Boigner. We all know that Carolina’s Jackie Miles is the best equipment manager in the history of the NFL, and probably will be a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Miles hasn’t lost his fastball. But Boigner really stepped up a few weeks ago, when he and his assistants jumped into overdrive and got the Falcons out of Philadelphia before Hurricane Sandy arrived.
Michael Turner/Maurice Jones-DrewUS PresswireReplacing Michael Turner, left, with the younger Maurice Jones-Drew would upgrade the running back position, but at what cost?

One of the things I like best about this job is that any time there’s even a rumbling that a player might be on the trading block, the questions start coming.

It generally doesn’t matter who the player is. Would the ____ be interested? And you can fill in the blank with the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers or Saints.

But the recent reports that Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew is open to a trade have brought a variation of the usual pattern.

I haven’t gotten a single question about if the Panthers, Saints or Buccaneers might be interested in Jones-Drew. That’s mainly because the Panthers and Saints already have an abundance of quality running backs and the Bucs are hoping rookies Doug Martin and Michael Smith can help push them into that category.

The Atlanta fans, however, have been out in full force. They aren’t simply asking about potential interest in Jones-Drew. They’re going ahead and suggesting terms of the trade -- Jones-Drew in exchange for Michael Turner, straight up.

I can see some of the reasons for the rapid speculation. New Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter had a lot of success with Jones-Drew in Jacksonville. New Atlanta coach Mike Mularkey had a lot of success with Turner when he was offensive coordinator in Atlanta. Jones-Drew would bring a lot more variety to Atlanta’s backfield. Turner could bring stability to Jacksonville’s backfield and that’s important as Mularkey tries to develop second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

But there are more compelling reasons why I don’t see Jones-Drew ending up in Atlanta. Let’s run through them:

1. Do you really think the Jaguars would give up Jones-Drew for Turner? Jones-Drew is 27 and Turner is 30. That’s a huge age difference when you’re talking about running backs. Their value simply isn’t the same. The Falcons would have to give up more than Turner to get Jones-Drew.

2. I’m not sure the Falcons really need Jones-Drew. Don’t get me wrong, the guy is a tremendous running back. He led the NFL in rushing yards last season and he also can catch the ball out of the backfield. The Falcons already have made it clear they don’t want Turner getting more than 300 carries this season. The automatic assumption is they want to keep Turner fresh and there’s some truth to that. But I also think a big part of the reason the Falcons don’t want to run Turner so much is because they want to be more of a passing team. If they bring in Jones-Drew, they might be tempted to fall back on the running game and that would take away from the plans they have for Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez in the passing game.

3. I can’t help but wonder if the Falcons might look at this scenario and think about their recent history. They paid a lot of money to cornerback Dunta Robinson because he thought he might be the missing link to a Super Bowl championship. They did the same thing with defensive end Ray Edwards. They gave up a lot in terms of draft picks to get Jones last season. So far, the Falcons haven’t reached a Super Bowl. If they still were in the one-player-away mode, wouldn’t they have at least made a run at Mario Williams in free agency? There obviously is urgency for the Falcons to win big quickly, but they spent the offseason keeping what they had and tweaking it. It sure don’t seem like their current mindset would be to make an explosive move right before the start of the regular season.

4. The thing that’s being overlooked in all this is the very reason Jones-Drew is holding out in Jacksonville. He has two years remaining on his current contract and wants a new deal. When players like Jones-Drew hold out, it’s because they want to be among the top-paid players at their position. Adrian Peterson averages $14.2 million a season. Chris Johnson averages $13.5 million. Jones-Drew wants something comparable -- no matter where he plays. The Falcons really aren’t in a position to spend that kind of money. They already have $117 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that’s likely to be somewhere around $123 million and they might have to factor in a contract extension for Ryan before then (and there's also the matter of re-signing some potential free agents and signing next year's draft class). Plus, let’s go back to Jones-Drew’s age. Do you really want to tie up huge money in a running back that’s averaged over 300 carries a season the past three years? Do you really want to tie up huge money in a guy that’s going to be in the same situation as Turner in two or three years?
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

A lot of fans were upset when the Falcons didn’t pursue Mario Williams in free agency. The only real move the Falcons made to add to a pass rush that was less than ferocious last year was to draft Jonathan Massaquoi. I’m not expecting the fifth-round pick to have an instant impact. That means the Falcons are going basically with what they had last season. They’ll start veterans John Abraham and Ray Edwards and rotate Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury in at times.

Despite having no major changes up front, the coaching staff sincerely believes the pass rush will be better this season. There’s some decent logic to that. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan made it known he wanted three starting-caliber cornerbacks. He has that now with Asante Samuel joining Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson.

The thinking is that Samuel, Grimes and Robinson will tie up receivers a bit longer and quarterbacks will have to hold onto the ball. If that happens, Abraham is a threat to finish with double-digit sacks.

Edwards also could fall into that category. He didn’t have a big season after coming in as Atlanta’s top free-agent pickup last year. A knee injury might have contributed to that. But Edwards wasn’t happy with his performance, or the criticism that came with it. He’s motivated to go out and prove the skeptics wrong. If he gets a little help from the cornerbacks, Edwards could have a big year.
Peter KonzJeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Falcons bolstered their offensive line with the addition of Peter Konz in the second round.

As it turns out, the Atlanta Falcons aren’t planning to jump over that playoff hurdle that’s been talked so much about.

They simply plan to plow right through it. The latest evidence came Friday night when the Falcons used their second-round draft pick (No. 55 overall) on Wisconsin center (more on that in a moment) Peter Konz.

It would have been very easy for the Falcons to overreact and do something crazy after an embarrassing January playoff loss to the New York Giants. Yeah, they could have made a leap in free agency for defensive end Mario Williams, which seemed to be the preferred rout by 99 of every 100 Falcons fans.

But the fact is, if the Falcons had landed Williams back in March, they wouldn’t be as good a team as they are today. Seriously.

Yeah, I know it sounds a little ridiculous to say the Falcons are better off without a guy who could have brought them double-digit sacks. But it’s the truth. Had the Falcons signed Williams, they would have had to gut their existing roster.

The salary-cap space Williams would have taken up would have prevented the Falcons from keeping guys like receiver Harry Douglas, safety Thomas DeCoud, defensive end John Abraham, center Todd McClure and running back Jason Snelling. They might not have been able to fit cornerback Brent Grimes under the salary cap with the franchise tag. Even if they did, they would have had to have made some dramatic moves -- like releasing receiver Roddy White, running back Michael Turner or fullback Ovie Mughelli.

Any or all of those moves seemed possible in the immediate aftermath of the loss in New York. But owner Arthur Blank, who earlier in his tenure may have been prone to overreacting, sat down with coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coolly came up with a plan on how the Falcons can take the next step.

Smith and Dimitroff have had four straight winning seasons, but have yet to win a playoff game. When you’ve had four straight winning seasons, you don’t blow a team up. You keep it together and fix the things that are wrong.

Without flash, that’s precisely what the Falcons have done and Friday night was just another step.

“We were really honed in on the offensive line as you can imagine,’’ Dimitroff said, moments after selecting Konz. “We need to get more stout on this offensive line.’’

There’s no doubt about that. Let’s consider this item from ESPN Stats & Information: The Falcons were one of 10 teams to average less than 4.0 yards per rush between the tackles last season. That came despite the fact they have a bruising runner in Turner.

The Falcons also didn’t do a great job of protecting quarterback Matt Ryan. That failure was the major reason why all the downfield passing we heard about after the Falcons traded up to draft Julio Jones didn’t fully materialize last year. The Falcons were soft up front and it cost offensive line coach Paul Boudreau his job.

Other than left tackle Sam Baker, a first-round pick in 2008, the Falcons really haven’t made huge investments in their offensive line. The arrival of Konz changes that.

Although he played center at Wisconsin, Dimitroff said “we’re listing him as a guard/center right now’’.

It’s no big secret McClure is at the end of his career. He’s 35 and it shows. The Falcons brought him back as insurance, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be their starting center on opening day. Guard Joe Hawley also can play center. Hawley also could factor into the situation at guard, where he played last season along with Justin Blalock and Garrett Reynolds. Add Konz to that mix and it’s pretty clear the Falcons are going to throw all their guards and centers onto the field in training camp and the preseason and see which of the three emerge as the best trio.

“Let’s come in here and have some great competition and see who can protect Matt Ryan the best,’’ Dimitroff said. “We want production and we want guys who can finish. In Peter, we have a guy who can do both of those.’’

Look, I’m not saying a guard/center from Wisconsin is going to come in the second round and push right through that hurdle all by himself. Konz is just a part of the puzzle and maybe fans can finally see that picture coming together now.

There’s a reason why Atlanta didn’t have a first-round pick this year. Jones was the first-round pick for last year and this year and he’s better than any receiver in this year’s draft. There was a reason why the Falcons didn’t make to splurge in free agency. They didn’t have the salary-cap room to do it without ripping a good team apart.

Little by little, they’ve made moves that have them gaining speed as they head for that hurdle. Just this week, they traded a late-round draft pick for four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel and quickly signed him to a cap-friendly deal.

In theory, Samuel should team with Grimes and Dunta Robinson to give the Falcons one of the league’s best cornerback tandems. In theory, Konz should team with all those other offensive linemen to make the Falcons tougher up front.

Yeah, there still are a few needs -- the pass rush, depth at tight end and maybe some more help on the outside of the offensive line. The Falcons are well aware of all that. They’ll address those needs in the rest of the draft and after it when the time and the price are right. But, now, you can see their offseason plan taking shape.

If the Falcons had gone out and paid a fortune for Williams, they wouldn’t be making solid, safe picks like Konz because they’d be desperately trying to repair all the other damage they did to their team.
The Atlanta Falcons could not discuss cornerback Asante Samuel until he officially was on their roster.

Well, the paperwork has been finalized. The Falcons traded a pick in this year’s draft (reportedly, a sixth-round choice) to Philadelphia for Samuel, who has signed a three-year contract with Atlanta.

So let’s hear what the Falcons have to say about the fourt-time Pro Bowl cornerback.

“We are pleased to be able to add a player of Asante’s caliber to our roster,” Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “Asante has established himself as a very productive player during his career. He is a proven player in this league and we feel that this move upgrades the talent of our roster and improves our football team.”

“We just improved our team today,” coach Mike Smith said. “Asante Samuel is a good football player and you can never have enough good players on your team. Our game has become more of a passing game, and you have to have the players who can neutralize how offenses are trying to attack you.”

Smith’s right. The Falcons are a better team now than they were a day ago. As I mentioned earlier, the Falcons now have three starting-caliber cornerbacks (Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes already were on the roster). That’s great news for the defensive backfield.

But there’s another positive aspect to this move. I know a lot of Atlanta fans wanted the Falcons to go after free-agent defensive end Mario Williams. They didn’t. But Samuel’s arrival suddenly makes Atlanta’s pass rush better.

Yeah, it’s true the Falcons haven’t added any pass rushers this offseason. But having Samuel in the secondary should help guys like John Abraham and Ray Edwards produce more coverage sacks because quarterbacks aren’t going to find as many open receivers.
The Atlanta Falcons shocked more than a few of their fans when they didn’t go after defensive end Mario Williams in free agency.

As owner Arthur Blank explained in this column from Saturday, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff chose to stick with continuity instead of making splashy moves. Salary-cap considerations factored into that.

[+] EnlargeRay Edwards
Kim Klement/US PresswireThe Falcons signed Ray Edwards to a big contract last offseason, but he had just 3.5 sacks in 2011.
There was speculation that the Falcons would let veteran defensive end John Abraham leave when he revealed before the start of free agency that he wanted a deal worth $12 million per season. Abraham didn’t get that kind of money on the open market and he’s back with the Falcons on a three-year contract that averages $5.5 million.

Abraham will turn 34 next month, but the Falcons still believe he can be the key to their pass rush. He had 9.5 sacks last season and 13 in 2010.

“John has been our most productive pass-rusher since we’ve been here,’’ Smith said at the recent NFL owners meeting. Chronologically, his age may say one thing, but his body says another. John will still command how they’re going to block him and that’s going to open other options for (new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan) and what we want to do schematically.’’

The Falcons don’t have a first-round draft pick and may pursue another pass-rusher at some point in the draft. But they still view Abraham as their top threat up front. Defensive end Ray Edwards, Atlanta’s big free-agent signing last year, had just 3.5 sacks last season. The Falcons are expecting more out of Edwards, as well as rotation players Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury. They also want more production out of the middle of their defensive line. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux had just one sack after producing a combined 10 sacks in 2009 and 2010.

“You don’t want to have just one guy that’s getting all the production,’’ Smith said. “You want other defensive linemen and linebackers being productive pass-rushers. If you look at Coach Nolan’s 14 years as a defensive coordinator, he’s been one of the most productive on third down. You want to have a scheme that puts added pressure on the quarterback on third downs."
Arthur BlankAP Photo/Nell RedmondArthur Blank contends the Falcons failed to maximize their talent last season.
Given the way Atlanta Falcons fans have reacted to what the team has done (or, more accurately, not done) this offseason, I was expecting Arthur Blank to pull out earmuffs as he reached into his pocket just before the start of an interview last week.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the owner of the Falcons pulled out a pair of sunglasses. This was a rare step outside during the NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. He slipped on the shades, surveyed the Atlantic Ocean, sat down on a bench and started explaining, in great detail, the course his team has chosen.

Maybe this will, once and for all, stop all the screaming in Atlanta about how the Falcons didn’t pursue LB Mario Williams and didn’t really do much of anything in free agency. Blank has a detailed answer for that and, when you listen, it should all start to make sense.

There was a moment when I looked directly at Blank, but could have sworn I was seeing and hearing Gene Hackman. It was almost exactly like the scene in “Hoosiers," where the basketball coach played by Hackman firmly tells a referee “my team is on the court" after a player fouls out and the coach elects to go with four players instead of turning back to a player who had defied orders.

Blank has said, “My team is on the field."

[+] EnlargeJones
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireFans should expect to see bigger plays from Julio Jones in 2012.
Yeah, the marquee free-agent signings have been linebacker Lofa Tatupu and guard Vince Manuwai. And Atlanta fans aren’t exactly jumping up and down about the fact that the Falcons re-signed defensive end John Abraham and center Todd McClure; it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if they decided to retire. Throw in the re-signing of role players Thomas DeCoud, Jason Snelling and Harry Douglas, and it’s easy to see why a lot of Atlanta fans believe the Falcons haven’t done a single thing to get better after ending last season with an embarrassing playoff loss to the New York Giants.

But Blank has an explanation, so let’s hear it.

“I feel good about where we are,’’ Blank said. “I know we didn’t make a big splash going into free agency. But that really wasn’t our intention going into this year. We really felt we had a lot of talent. We were fortunate that we had the opportunity to bring in the two new coordinators and a few other coaches. At some point, it’s not even a matter of if the contents are correct. Sometimes, it’s a matter of who is delivering the message and whether the players are hearing it or not.’’

The man makes a good point. The 2011 Falcons team that went 10-6 (and didn't play with much consistency) was essentially the same team that went 13-3 and played with a great deal of consistency in 2010. The 2012 Falcons have largely the same roster as the previous two teams. In the eyes of Blank, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, the problem last season and the reason this team hasn’t won a playoff game under the current administration isn’t about the roster.

Maybe the roster was just fine, but the coaching staff and the schemes were holding back the Falcons. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey left after the season to become head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left after the season to become the defensive coordinator at Auburn. Both men left on their own, but I get the impression that if they hadn’t, they might have been shown the door.

Let’s be honest here. Mularkey’s offensive system reached its peak in 2010 and didn’t get any better even with the addition of talented rookie receiver Julio Jones last season. VanGorder’s defense was solid but never dominant, which was a disappointment because the Falcons have some individual talent on defense. Mularkey has been replaced by Dirk Koetter, and VanGorder has been replaced by Mike Nolan.

“I love the selections that Smitty and Thomas made,’’ Blank said.

I get the sense that the days of QB Matt Ryan rolling out and almost always checking down are over. I get the sense that the days of sitting back in the Cover 2 are long gone.

“Dirk and I have had numerous discussions in terms of what our players are capable of doing,’’ Smith said during the meetings. “I think, first and foremost, you have to design your schemes toward what the players are capable of doing. We’ve spent a lot of time identifying the strengths and weakness of all our guys and what they do well and what they don’t do well, and we want to put together an offense that accentuates their strengths.’’

In other words, the Falcons aren’t going to be handing the ball to Michael Turner 300-plus times a season. They’re going to try to take some shots downfield with Jones and Roddy White, and they’re going to get versatile second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers more involved in the offense. They also will try to put Ryan in a position where he can go from being a good quarterback to an elite one.

Smith said he’s had similar discussions with Nolan, the former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers who has had success as a defensive coordinator elsewhere. Nolan is noted for producing aggressive defenses. Some minor tweaks to attitude and scheme could provide an upgrade over the VanGorder units that never were able to establish any sort of identity.

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireBy re-signing John Abraham, the Falcons are valuing continuity over flash.
Blank made quite a bit of noise after the loss to the Giants about how simply getting to the playoffs wasn’t good enough. He wants his team to win playoff games and contend for the Super Bowl.

That really hasn’t changed. But after the heat of the moment cooled a bit, Blank, Smith and Dimitroff sat back and realized they weren’t all that far from where they wanted to be. Early in his days as an owner, Blank was portrayed as hands-on and reactionary. I don’t think those descriptions really fit him anymore and I think he’s learned from his past. I think Blank is at a stage where he remains plugged in but trusts Smith and Dimitroff to make the football decisions.

“I went back and studied this over a long period of time in the NFL and studied the great teams,’’ Blank said. “Consistency is very important in terms of leadership with coaches and players. The great teams, what they have done is they’ve kept their head coaches for a longer period of time, kept their general managers for a longer period of time, and they identified early enough their core players and they extended them. The football staff has done a great job of identifying the players that can help us and keep them.’’

The salary cap also was a factor in the Falcons’ approach to the offseason. Pursuing Williams or some other big names in free agency would have meant sacrificing continuity. The only key player the Falcons lost was middle linebacker Curtis Lofton -- and that was a calculated loss. Lofton wanted a lot of money and Atlanta placed a limit on his value. If the Falcons had made just one or two big free-agency moves and kept Lofton, guys like Abraham, McClure, DeCoud, Douglas and Snelling wouldn’t be on the roster. The team would have had to cut other players to free up cap room. The Falcons could have made a splash, but it would have left them with all sorts of holes.

“What you have to look at is, this is not like baseball,’’ Blank said. “There are limits. This is real money and not monopoly money … one of the beauties in the NFL is that in July and August fans of every team think their team has a chance to go to the playoffs or to go to the Super Bowl and win it. The salary-cap system forces you to make some tough choices. Thomas and Smitty and their staffs made these choices because they believe they were the ones that will give us the biggest bang for the buck going forward. I certainly tested their logic and asked questions, but I think their plan was all very sound and well-formulated.’’

Like it or not, Blank is putting his team (the one chosen by Smith and Dimitroff) on the field this fall. You might not like it now and that’s fine with Blank. He thinks you’ll like it a lot more as the season goes along.

NFC South free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Atlanta Falcons

Key additions: LB Lofa Tatupu, G Vince Manuwai

Key losses: LB Curtis Lofton, WR/KR Eric Weems

Keeping their own: Much to the chagrin of their fans, the Falcons chose not to pursue defensive end Mario Williams or any other big-name free agent. Instead, they focused hard on keeping their own guys. That started before the season ended with tight end Tony Gonzalez re-signing and continued into free agency as the Falcons made it a point to lock up guys like receiver Harry Douglas, defensive end John Abraham and running back Jason Snelling. They also protected cornerback Brent Grimes with the franchise tag.

The only loss that really hurt was Lofton. The Falcons liked him, but new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan didn’t view him as a three-down player. The Falcons still made an effort to keep Lofton, but weren’t willing to pay big money. They brought in the veteran Tatupu, who could be a short-term answer. But there’s a hope within the organization that second-year pro Akeem Dent can step forward and win the job immediately because he’s the guy that’s going to end up there for the long term.

What’s next: Don’t completely rule out the addition of a minor or mid-level free agent or two, but the Falcons are focusing mainly on the draft. Even with Abraham back, they’re still looking to improve their pass rush and defensive ends could be in play. But the Falcons also could add a defensive tackle because Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry are coming off sub-par seasons. Some depth in the secondary and a kick returner also are possible targets.

Key additions: RB/FB Mike Tolbert, G Mike Pollak

Key losses: G Travelle Wharton

The splash came last year: The Panthers haven’t been very active in free agency. That’s largely because they made their big moves coming out of the lockout last year. They signed defensive end Charles Johnson, running back DeAngelo Williams, linebacker Jon Beason, defensive tackle Ron Edwards and linebacker Thomas Davis to huge deals, and that’s why they had very little salary-cap room to work with this year.

But the Panthers didn’t really reap the rewards of some of those signings because Beason, Davis and Edwards all suffered early injuries. That took a toll on the defense. But all three of those guys are back and healthy and that should improve the defense immediately. Carolina developed an explosive offense last season and a strong defense could turn the Panthers into playoff contenders.

What’s next: The Panthers have very little cap room and don’t figure to make many more moves in free agency. They’re focused in on the draft and there needs have been narrowed. They’re likely to address cornerback and defensive tackle early in the draft. But don’t be surprised if they take a linebacker somewhere in the first three or four rounds, and it’s even possible they could target one in the first or second. Davis is coming off his torn ACL and the Panthers don’t know if he’ll be anything close to what he was before the injuries.

New Orleans Saints

Key additions: LB Curtis Lofton, DT Brodrick Bunkley, G Ben Grubbs

Key losses: G Carl Nicks, CB Tracy Porter

Miracle workers: Faced with an extremely tight salary-cap situation and some bizarre off-field events, it’s somewhat amazing the Saints were able to keep as much as they did. They didn’t want to lose Nicks, who might be the best guard in the league and is in his prime. But that’s the price they had to pay to make sure they kept quarterback Drew Brees and receiver Marques Colston, as well as adding players like Lofton, Grubbs and Bunkley.

The Brees situation remains complicated. He's still carrying the franchise tag. The Saints need to get him signed to a long-term deal quickly. Even more than ever, the Saints need Brees’ leadership abilities. They need him signed and happy before their offseason program starts April 16.

What’s next: With the possibility of multiple defensive players facing possible suspensions as a result of the bounty program, the Saints still could be looking to make significant moves. It will be hard to draft players that will make an instant impact because the Saints are without picks in the first two rounds. That means they might have to pull some more help out of free agency, even with limited cap space. They could use another pass-rusher to complement Will Smith. Even after adding Lofton and Bunkley, the Saints still could use depth at linebacker and defensive tackle.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key additions: WR Vincent Jackson, G Carl Nicks, CB Eric Wright

Key losses: C Jeff Faine

Locking them up: Part of the reason the Bucs didn’t lose much of anything in free agency is because they’ve done a nice job of locking up some core players in recent years. They made it a point to make sure offensive linemen Donald Penn, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah never got close to leaving. Add Nicks to that group and the Bucs have a chance to have one of the league’s better offensive lines. As the season gets going, some other young players will be rewarded with contract extensions as they show they fit in coach Greg Schiano’s system.

What’s next: After making the initial splash, the Bucs said they’re done with free agency and are focused on the draft. That’s largely true, although the team is keeping a close eye on what remains on the market. This is a team that still is building and will still have needs after the draft. The Bucs have a big need at running back, where they have to find at least one player to complement LeGarrette Blount. The cornerback position could be an early target in the draft even after Ronde Barber decided to return for a 16th season. There also is some uncertainty about Aqib Talib's future. Even if he remains with the team, the Bucs need depth at the position. There also is uncertainty at linebacker and a need for depth at safety and tight end.

Falcons have their pass-rusher

March, 16, 2012
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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.
The biggest NFC South surprise out of the first night of free agency isn’t the Tampa Bay Buccaneers agreeing to terms with receiver Vincent Jackson and chasing a bunch of other free agents.

We knew coming into free agency that the Bucs were among the league leaders in salary-cap space and they had pledged to spend money.

I’m more surprised by the silence of the Atlanta Falcons than anything else in the division. Other than a report that they’ve re-signed backup quarterback Chris Redman and slot receiver Harry Douglas, I’ve heard nothing out of the Falcons all night.

There has been no solid indication they’re pursuing defensive end Mario Williams as many expected. Williams reportedly is visiting Buffalo.

Are the Falcons sitting still? I doubt it. Maybe they’re just really good at keeping their interests quiet or maybe they just are not in the Williams sweepstakes and their hands are somewhat tied by limited salary cap space.

But I wouldn’t count on the Falcons staying silent for long. They have an aggressive owner in Arthur Blank, who has made it clear that simply reaching the playoffs no longer is good enough. To get playoff wins, the Falcons need a pass-rusher. They need a left tackle. They need some depth in several other areas.

Maybe the Falcons are riding out the first wave of free agency and letting price tags settle down. But there are still ways for the Falcons to create salary-cap room. At some point, they’re going to break their silence.

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