NFC South: Marquis Johnson

Around the NFC South

August, 23, 2012
A look at the top Thursday morning headlines from around the division:


Rookie Lamar Holmes, who has missed a lot of time with an injured toe, will make his preseason debut Friday night. Good for him, but I simply am not getting why so many fans think Holmes has a chance to instantly beat out Sam Baker for the starting left tackle job. I mean, I understand that Baker is not a fan favorite, and with backup Will Svitek lost to season-ending injury, there’s no one else to root for. But let’s be realistic. Holmes was a third-round draft pick, and many had him rated as a sixth-round talent. The Falcons took him as a project, and he barely has been on the practice field so far. The Falcons aren’t anywhere close to putting him out there to protect Matt Ryan’s blind side. They’ll give Baker every chance, and if they have some doubts, I suspect they first would bring in someone from outside or move backup right tackle Mike Johnson. Hey, former Carolina tackle Jeff Otah is out there, but I’m not sure he can pass a physical.

Mark Bradley has a column on the common perception that Ryan’s right arm suddenly got stronger because the quarterback lifted some weights in the offseason. Ryan politely scoffs at that notion, and he’s correct. As I’ve said many times, Ryan’s arm always has been strong enough to throw the deep ball. It’s just that he hasn’t always had great opportunities to do that, and you can blame most of that on the play-calling or on the offensive line not blocking well enough to allow it. I think all that is going to change with Dirk Koetter taking over as the offensive coordinator and Pat Hill as the offensive line coach.


Receiver Brandon LaFell said he doesn’t think there’s a secondary in the league that can stop Carolina’s receiving corps. Might sound a little brash from a guy that hasn’t completely proven himself. But confidence is generally something you want in your wide receivers. That trait always has worked pretty well for teammate Steve Smith.


Now that they’ve gone ahead and said offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will act as head coach for the first six games of the regular season, the next logical question is who will step in for general manager Mickey Loomis as he serves an eight-game suspension to start the season. Mike Triplett writes that Loomis doesn’t plan to name an official replacement, but pro scouting director Ryan Pace will have final say on roster moves. Director of football administration Khai Harley and director of college scouting Rick Reiprish also are expected to handle some of Loomis’ duties. These are guys Loomis relies on heavily all the time, and they’re familiar with his way of operating. I wouldn’t expect any big changes in philosophy. If the Saints have some in-season injuries and need to add some depth, these guys are more than capable of finding it.

Bradley Handwerger has an excellent story on Marquis Johnson. The New Orleans cornerback is speaking out against child abuse in an effort to prevent others from having to deal with what he faced as a youngster.

Running back Darren Sproles said he’ll sit out Saturday’s preseason game with Houston, but it would be a different story if it was a regular-season game.


After practicing with the Bucs on Wednesday, New England quarterback Tom Brady said he really doesn’t know much about Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman. He’s not alone there. Although starting NFL quarterbacks generally are considered a fraternity, the guy at the top doesn’t know everybody. The way quarterbacks generally bond is by getting to know each other at the Pro Bowl or playing against one another in the Super Bowl, especially those that are in different conferences like Freeman and Brady. That’s not an indictment of Freeman. It’s just further evidence that there’s a lot of room for growth.

Speaking of room for growth, Gary Shelton writes that all the Bucs should be taking lessons from the Patriots as the teams continue practicing together Thursday and face off in a preseason game Friday night. Can’t argue with that. The Patriots pretty much have set the standard for success in the NFL for most of the past decade or so.

Around the NFC South

August, 11, 2012
Time for a quick look at the Saturday headlines from around the NFC South:
  • As expected, middle linebacker Akeem Dent was not on the field Saturday morning as the Falcons had a walk-through session. I wouldn’t expect Dent to be on the field in Saturday afternoon’s session. But coach Mike Smith will address the media after that practice and, hopefully, he’ll have some sort of update on Dent’s condition. Dent suffered a head injury in the preseason opener and there have been reports he suffered a concussion. If that’s the case, I’d expect Dent to miss at least the next preseason game. If Smith provides any sort of update, I'll weigh in on it as soon as we hear the news.
  • Bryan Strickland has a list of things to watch from the Carolina Panthers in Saturday night’s preseason game with Houston. One of them is the defensive line. It has to make a big improvement from last year if the Panthers are going to succeed. The return of defensive tackle Ron Edwards from injury will help, but the Panthers need some other defensive linemen to step up.
  • New Orleans cornerback Marquis Johnson said the Saints are buying into Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. Johnson knows that defense better than his teammates. He played for Spagnuolo in Houston.
  • Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams said he’s fine with sharing carries with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. But I’ve got a hunch Williams will get more than the 155 carries he had last year. He averaged better than 5 yards per carry and it would serve the Panthers well to put the ball in his hands.
  • Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount went out on a limb and said he and rookie Doug Martin can be the best backfield duo in the league. That’s a stretch, but you have to admit Blount’s performance in the preseason opener was highly encouraging. At the very least, he’s going to play some sort of role in this backfield and it could be significant.

Observation deck: Saints-Patriots

August, 9, 2012

Do not be discouraged that the New Orleans Saints scored only three points in the first half of Thursday night’s 7-6 preseason loss at New England.

You know the points will come in bunches when Drew Brees is getting more than a few snaps in the regular season.

What you should be encouraged about is that the New Orleans defense didn’t allow a point in the first half. That came with Tom Brady, who has been known to put up huge numbers, playing almost the entire first quarter. That’s a huge accomplishment for a New Orleans defense that still is adjusting to coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme.

New Orleans' first and second defenses regularly stopped New England’s first and second offenses. The Patriots didn’t score until the third quarter, when both teams were playing third-stringers. That’s huge improvement over what we’ve seen out of the New Orleans defense in recent years.

Let’s take a look at some other observations on the Saints:
  • Spagnuolo’s defense relies heavily on getting a strong pass rush from the front four. There were signs that was working. Defensive end Will Smith put a nice hit on Brady and the ball popped loose. Linebacker Curtis Lofton recovered the fumble.
  • Brees attempted only four passes and completed one for 4 yards. Like I said, don’t read anything into a very short and quiet night for Brees. You know he’ll show up for the regular season.
  • Rookie defensive tackle Akiem Hicks had a flash play in the second quarter. He swatted down a pass by Ryan Mallett, which is even more impressive when you remember Mallett is 6-foot-6.
  • Martez Wilson has done a nice job making the switch from linebacker to defensive end. But Wilson needs to clean things up on special teams. He was flagged for roughing the kicker and gave the Patriots a first down after lining up offside as New England was about to punt.
  • Cornerback Marquis Johnson has had a nice camp and his momentum is carrying over into the preseason. Jackson, thanks to some more pressure from up front, came up with a second-quarter interception.
  • We all know Garrett Hartley and John Kasay are competing for New Orleans’ kicking job. The Saints let Kasay attempt a long field goal in the first half and he showed he has some leg left by connecting on a 46-yard attempt. Kasay missed a 41-yard attempt in the fourth quarter that could have given the Saints the lead. This might end up being the toughest call of all when the Saints have to trim their roster to 53. They might be wise to shop one of their kickers for trade. Kasay and Hartley both are better than a lot of guys who currently are projected as No. 1 kickers elsewhere.

Around the NFC South

August, 9, 2012
Time for a look at the top headlines from around the division:


Tom Jones writes that Tampa Bay’s pass rush still could be a liability. The Bucs produced just 23 sacks last offseason and didn’t make any dramatic additions up front. In fact, they lost defensive end Da’Quan Bowers to a torn Achilles tendon. Bowers is expected to miss at least half the season and could miss it all. If Tampa Bay is going to have more of an impact with the pass rush, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a pair of former first-round picks, will have to be stars. It would be nice if some other guys stepped up and contributed, but I don’t know if anyone beyond McCoy and Clayborn has the talent to make a real impact.

The Bucs made some moves at the bottom of the roster, signing cornerback James Rogers and defensive tackle Teryl White after parting ways with cornerback Derrick Roberson and defensive lineman Jayme Mitchell.


It appears as if there will be no settlement reached between the NFL and New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma before a judge decides whether or not to issue a restraining order on Vilma’s season-long suspension. That’s according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, who also reports the judge could issue the decision Friday or soon after that.

New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham appeared to suffer a back injury during Wednesday’s practice with the Patriots. He left practice and didn’t return. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt said the injury was nothing serious. But, if Graham is even slightly banged up, I wouldn’t count on seeing him in Thursday’s preseason game.

Nakia Hogan has a list of things to watch in the preseason game between the Saints and Patriots. One of those items is New Orleans’ young cornerbacks. With a bunch of injuries at the position, Corey White and Marquis Johnson are expected to get a lot of playing time. You wouldn’t want to see them going against Tom Brady in the New England offense in a regular-season game. But the preseason is different and this is a chance for White and Johnson to gain some valuable experience.


Carolina Huddle has a list of things to watch in Saturday’s preseason game between the Panthers and Texans. One item on that list is the battle between kickers Olindo Mare and Justin Medlock. I think this competition is tighter than people realize. Medlock has been having an excellent camp and the veteran Mare needs to redeem himself after missing too many field goals last season.

The Panthers are getting a little banged up. Receiver Steve Smith missed Wednesday’s practice with a bruised knee. Linebacker Jon Beason tweaked a hamstring and was held out of Wednesday night’s walk-through session. All indications are the injury to Smith is minor and it’s not a bad thing for a veteran receiver to get some rest in training camp. The Panthers don’t believe Beason’s injury is serious, but it’s still concerning because he missed almost all of last season with an injury and the Carolina defense crumbled as soon as he went down.


D. Orlando Ledbetter has his list of five players to watch in Atlanta’s preseason opener. One of them is wide receiver Kerry Meier. He has a chance to wrap up the No. 4 receiver spot. Also a regular on special teams, Meier has yet to make much of an impact as a receiver. But that could change this season because the Falcons like the versatility of Meier, a former college quarterback.

Atlanta Field Report has its list of five things to watch in the game between the Falcons and the Ravens. High on the list is pass blocking. That’s fitting because this was a problem spot last year. The Falcons addressed the area by adding offensive line coach Pat Hill and drafting guard Peter Konz in the offseason. We’ll start to get an idea if they can make a difference.

Saints shuffling cornerbacks

August, 2, 2012
There’s some news out of New Orleans that is less than ideal, but it might not be disastrous if the time frame works out as expected.

Assistant head coach Joe Vitt said that cornerback Jabari Greer is having sports hernia surgery in Philadelphia. Vitt said he expects Greer to be ready for the start of the regular season.

If that ends up being the case, the Saints are fine. Greer is a proven veteran who can pop right back in after missing most of camp and the entire preseason. But, if the time table runs longer on Greer’s recovery and he’s not ready for the start of the regular season, then the Saints face a potential problem.

Greer is New Orleans’ best cornerback and I say he’s the best corner in the NFC South. Fellow starting cornerback Patrick Robinson has also missed some camp time with a minor injury. That’s given guys like Johnny Patrick, Marquis Johnson and Elbert Mack an opportunity to get more practice time in camp and that’s a silver lining. Patrick is a second-year guy who the Saints would like to use as their nickelback and this will give the coaching staff a good chance to really gauge his progress. All indications are Patrick is having a good camp.

But I don’t think he’s reached a point in his career where the Saints would be very comfortable if he has to open the season as a starter.

NFC South evening update

July, 31, 2012
Time to take a look at the day’s headlines from around the NFC South.
  • Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said he plans to meet with offensive tackle Jeff Otah on Wednesday. The Panthers previously traded Otah to the New York Jets, but that deal was rescinded after Otah couldn’t pass a physical. The Panthers already were prepared to move on without Otah, and I don’t see them hanging onto him now. It will be tough to find another trade partner now because the fact Otah couldn’t pass a physical was made very public. I think Carolina’s only choice is to release Otah. But we’ll see if Hurney has something up his sleeve.
  • Undrafted rookie quarterback Dominique Davis drew some praise from coach Mike Smith. The coach talked about Davis’ strong arm. I can verify that. When I was at Atlanta’s camp, it clearly was evident Davis has a strong arm. But the thing that caused me a little concern was that he seemed to have only one speed -- fast. It didn’t matter if it was a screen pass or a shot over the middle to a receiver or a tight end, Davis was throwing the ball very hard, and didn’t seem to have a lot of touch.
  • Tampa Bay middle linebacker Mason Foster said he knows there are no guarantees as to how the linebacker group will be utilized in the regular season. But it’s pretty obvious the Bucs want Foster starting in the middle, with Quincy Black and rookie Lavonte David on the outside. Unless they really struggle in the preseason, I don’t think you’ll see any changes.
  • The Buccaneers got their first day off from training camp Tuesday. That’s probably a good thing. This team is off to a rough start when it comes to injuries, and a little rest can’t hurt.
METAIRIE, La. -- As he prepares for his third NFL season, it sounds as if New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham has figured out the secret to NFL success.

"I was told to never tug on Superman’s cape," Graham said.

He was talking about quarterback Drew Brees. Graham noted how the quarterback challenged him to a sprint race at the start of training camp and said he let Brees win. Graham was partly joking, but there was some deep wisdom in his words.

More than ever, the Saints are Brees’ team. They’ve been through an offseason unlike one any other team has faced. They’ve been through the painful drama of the bounty scandal and they’ll move forward without coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season, and general manager Mickey Loomis, who is suspended for the first eight games.

Brees, the league's highest-paid player, is coming off a season in which he set a NFL single-season record for most passing yards. No, let other teams try to tug on Brees’ cape. If the Saints really are going to endure all this adversity successfully, they need Brees’ skill and leadership more than ever. They need to ride the coattails of the most positive thing they have at the moment.

Brees knows this high-flying offense as well as anyone, including Payton. The Saints remain loaded at offensive skill positions. There’s little doubt this team still is going to score a lot, and that alone will keep it competitive.

But Brees can’t do everything by himself. Even before the word "bounty" started flying in March, the Saints knew they had to overhaul their defense. That became clear in last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco. That’s why defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired. Predecessor Gregg Williams had a gambling philosophy, going all-out to produce turnovers. The negative side effect was that the Saints gave up too many big plays.

Spagnuolo brings a more balanced philosophy. Sure, he wants turnovers, but he also wants to be able to shut down offenses from time to time. A big theme of this camp is the installation of Spagnuolo’s defense. Even though that’s not his side of the ball, Brees shows a lot of interest in the defense. Even in camp, the Saints are implementing game plans.

“[Spagnuolo] is going to try to find every flaw, just like we are going to do to them,’’ Brees said. “Along the way, I am certainly going to be picking his brain as to what he is seeing with our offense, how we can improve. That is how you help one another. That is a habit that we got into, me talking to the defensive guys, even if it is just the secondary guys, saying, 'You give away that blitz whenever you do this.' We are competing against each other, but in the end we are on the same team. I want them to be able to go out and have as much success as possible, just like they want us, on game day, to have as much success as possible.”

Maybe that’s the best way to improve the New Orleans defense. Practice against Superman every day. After you’ve been through that, everything else should be easy.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Mark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREMark Ingram rushed for 474 yards and five touchdowns during his rookie season with the Saints.

1. Mark Ingram’s playing time. Fan expectations for Ingram might be significantly higher than the team's. That’s somewhat understandable, because the Saints traded back into the first round in 2011 to draft Ingram. He played at a college powerhouse (Alabama) and won a Heisman Trophy. Instant stardom was expected by fans, but it didn’t turn out that way in Ingram’s rookie season.

He finished with 122 carries for 474 yards and five touchdowns. Injuries were part of the reason his numbers weren’t bigger. But even before the injuries, Ingram shared playing time with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory did a nice job joining the rotation after Ingram’s injury problems started. Ingram had a couple of offseason surgeries and said he’s completely healthy.

But that doesn’t mean Ingram suddenly is going to become a 300-carry guy. New Orleans’ offense is based on diversity, and that’s not going to change. The Saints aren’t going to take playing time away from Sproles, who set an NFL record for all-purpose yards last season, and Thomas is going to play because he has earned it with his performance.

Assuming Ingram stays healthy, I expect him to get more carries than last season, but a 200-carry season for about 800 yards is a reasonable expectation.

2. Will the linebackers be better than last season? I think they’ll be markedly better. Many believe the season-long suspension of Jonathan Vilma is going to hurt the Saints. If this were two or three years ago, I’d agree. But Vilma was bothered by knee problems last season, and his age seemed to be catching up to him. I think free-agent addition Curtis Lofton is an upgrade over Vilma in the middle. In fact, I think Lofton is pretty similar to what Vilma was two or three years ago. The Saints will be just fine in the middle.

Plus, the Saints didn’t sit still at outside linebacker. They signed free agents David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. It looks as if Hawthorne is well on his way to winning a starting job. That leaves Chamberlain competing with Scott Shanle, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas for the other starting job. There’s no true favorite here, and Shanle is the fallback option as the safe choice because he’s smart and dependable. But Chamberlain, Herring and Casillas are more athletic and at least come with the possibility of producing big plays. The hope is that one of those three can step forward to win the starting job.

3. Can the offensive line, minus Carl Nicks, be as good as last season? Nicks took the big money and left for Tampa Bay in free agency. Losing a player many scouts consider the best guard in the NFL must take a toll. But the Saints already had Jahri Evans, who might be the closest thing to Nicks. Loomis did a nice job getting Ben Grubbs to replace Nicks. Grubbs isn’t quite on the Nicks/Evans level, but he’s an above-average player and came at a much lower salary than Nicks. The Saints build their offensive line around the interior, and Evans and Grubbs will form a very strong guard tandem.

Brian de la Puente did a nice job taking over at center last year and should be fine with Grubbs and Evans surrounding him. The tackles are more of a question. The Saints are sticking with Jermon Bushrod on the left side and Zach Strief on the right. They’re serviceable, but Bushrod and Strief aren’t all-pros, and the presence of Evans and Grubbs should be enough to keep this offensive line among the better ones in the league.


Spagnuolo’s history. There is legitimate concern about the pass rush, because Spagnuolo likes it to come mostly from his front four. Aside from defensive end Will Smith, who will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, the Saints don’t have a proven pass-rusher. Many fans are worked up about the potential of Junior Galette and converted linebacker Martez Wilson. Those guys could turn into something, but maybe fans aren’t looking in the right direction.

Second-year pro Cameron Jordan might be a big factor. Yeah, I know that sounds like a stretch because Jordan had one sack as a rookie, but he was a first-round pick and still has plenty of untapped potential. There’s more than that, though. Look at Spagnuolo’s past. When he became defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 2007, Justin Tuck had gone through two NFL seasons with one sack. In Spagnuolo’s first season, Tuck had 10. In 2008, Tuck recorded 12.

If Spagnuolo can get anything close to double-digit sacks from Jordan, he may have short- and long-term answers for his pass rush.


How much adversity can one team take? The Saints will use all that happened to them in the offseason as a rallying cry, providing strong motivation. But it’s tough for any team to ride one emotion (anger, in this case) for an entire season. This franchise has been through a lot, and you have to worry about that taking a toll at some point.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Drew Brees and Tom Benson
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREWith a new contract and instability in the coaching staff, Drew Brees will be asked to be even more of a leader for Tom Benson's Saints.
You also have to worry about the Saints being a target for opponents, especially those who spent the past few months hearing that the bounty program had targeted some of their own players. Then throw in the fact that assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has run the team in Payton’s absence, must serve a six-game suspension at the start of the season. At that point, the Saints are expected to make another of their assistants the acting head coach. Yes, this is a veteran team with outstanding leadership, but it sure looks like a lot of things are stacked against the Saints.


  • There was a lot of buzz about cornerback Marquis Johnson in the first few days of camp. He made some nice plays and usually was around the ball. The Saints hope second-year pro Johnny Patrick can be their No. 3 cornerback after starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson. But Johnson has a chance to compete with Patrick and may have one slight advantage. The third-year player spent his first two seasons in St. Louis, where Spagnuolo was the coach. Johnson knows the system, and that might be why he’s off to a fast start in camp. If he can sustain it, he’ll have a chance to move past Patrick. At worst, Johnson has a chance to be the fourth cornerback and a key player on special teams.
  • The Saints have almost an embarrassment of riches at kicker. They have Garrett Hartley back from an injury that kept him out last season and veteran John Kasay, who filled in nicely for Hartley. Hartley and Kasay each have made a lot of big kicks in their careers. Although Kasay is 42, he’s not showing signs of slowing. Hartley has the stronger leg, but Kasay has been a model of consistency throughout his career. The Saints will let this competition play throughout camp. If it ends in a dead heat, it might be the toughest call of all when it’s time to trim the roster. Brought in by Loomis, Hartley has earned a spot in franchise history with some clutch kicks. But Loomis and Kasay go all the way back to the early 1990s, when they were together in Seattle.
  • There’s been a lot of talk about New Orleans’ young wide receivers early in camp. Adrian Arrington, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Andy Tanner and Chris Givens have made spectacular catches. But let’s keep that in perspective. Those catches came before the Saints put pads on and before defenders could hit. The Saints are looking for fourth and fifth receivers, but let’s not anoint any of these guys yet. The preseason games will determine who wins the final roster spots at receiver. Arrington’s entering his third season, and it’s time for him to start showing something. Toon comes in after a solid career at Wisconsin. They probably are the favorites to make the roster at this point. But Morgan, Tanner and Givens might be able to change the pecking order if they can make catches in traffic in preseason games.
  • The Saints thought they might get an eventual starter when they drafted Charles Brown in 2010. There was even hope that he might turn into the long-range solution at left tackle. That hasn’t come close to happening. Bushrod has settled in nicely at left tackle. The Saints hoped Brown at least would be able to start at right tackle. But that hasn’t happened, either. Strief beat out Brown for the starting job last season. When Strief was injured, Brown got playing time, but his play wasn't pretty. (If you don’t believe me, look at the tape of the loss to the Rams.) The Saints still say that Strief and Brown are competing for the starting job this season, but Strief has received all of the first-team work, and I didn't hear any buzz at all about Brown from coaches. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure Brown even will be on the roster when the regular season starts.
  • Speaking of offensive linemen who could be on the bubble, don’t forget Matt Tennant. The Saints drafted Tennant in 2010, thinking he'd be the heir apparent to Jonathan Goodwin at center. It hasn’t worked out that way. When Goodwin left via free agency last year, the Saints took an early look at Tennant and quickly signed Olin Kruetz, the former Bears star. When Kruetz abruptly decided to retire, the Saints didn’t turn back to Tennant. They turned to de la Puente, who now has a strong grip on the starting job. Like Brown, Tennant could be fighting for a roster spot. The Saints used to have a good reputation for finding offensive linemen beyond the first round of the draft (Evans, Nicks and Bushrod), but Brown and Tennant may have eroded that trend.
  • The Saints appear set with Graham and David Thomas at tight end. Graham is a great pass-catcher, and Thomas is a jack of all trades. But keep an eye on Michael Higgins, who spent much of last year on the practice squad before getting promoted to the regular roster late in the season. Higgins already has demonstrated he can block, and showed signs of being a good receiver early in camp. Thomas has had injury problems, and the Saints may not want to overuse him. Higgins could provide another alternative.
  • There has been talk that strong safety Roman Harper might not be a great fit in Spagnuolo’s defense because he isn’t known for great coverage skills. But I believe Spagnuolo will find a way to make this defense work for Harper. There’s really not an alternative behind him. His backup is Jonathon Amaya, whose only claim to fame is that he was part of the Reggie Bush trade.