NFC South: Matt Williamson

Champ BaileyDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesChamp Bailey is looking to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2013 season.

Sure, Champ Bailey might be over the hill.

But that doesn't mean he can't help the New Orleans Saints get over the hump.

Of course, you have to be skeptical about how much Bailey has left in the tank at age 35. And it's hard to ignore the fact that the Denver Broncos decided to let him go at a time when they're all-in to win while Peyton Manning is still their quarterback.

But it's also hard to argue with the Saints' decision to sign Bailey on Friday for two reasons above all others:

1. Bailey is one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history. Not just a guy who made one or two Pro Bowls in his prime. A guy who made 12 of them -- one shy of the record for all defensive players in league history.

2. The Saints have proven time and again this offseason that they're looking forward, not in the past. They've cut ties with six of their own all-time great veterans this offseason. They've pored over every player on the roster with a cold, calculating eye because of their salary-cap constraints and their desire to win another Super Bowl as soon as possible.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
AP Photo/Eric GayIt will be up to Rob Ryan to see what kind of production he can still get out of Bailey.
And the Saints believe Bailey is worth a two-year contract that is worth up to $7 million, according to a report by ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

The Saints believe that creative defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can find a role for the 6-foot, 192-pound cornerback, who has always excelled in press coverage -- even as recently as 2012, before a foot injury plagued his disappointing 2013 season.

So count me among the optimists in this deal.

If nothing else, it's no small matter to add a future Hall of Famer to the locker room, film room and practice field. I'm not sure I've ever seen such an overwhelming response from Saints players about a new addition as we saw on Twitter following the news of Bailey's deal.

I spoke with ESPN scouting insiders Matt Williams and KC Joyner about Bailey. Both were turned off by Bailey's struggles in 2013 (when he was limited to five regular-season games because of the injury before returning for the playoffs). And Williamson said, "I hate to say it, but I think he's pretty close to done."

Joyner was a little higher on Bailey, though, since he was impressed with Bailey's 2012 performance.

Joyner has a metric he calls "good coverage" rating for defensive backs. He said Bailey's rating of 29 percent in 2012 ranked 21st among NFL cornerbacks that year. And he said he was a "shut-down" corner when he was in press coverage that year, when he allowed only four short completions and one contact penalty in 15 passes thrown his way.

Last year, however, Joyner said that Bailey allowed nine completions for 123 yards on a total of 11 passes thrown his way in all one-on-one coverage situations.

"If the cornerback of 2013 shows up, that's not gonna be a good sign," Joyner said. "You want to see him revert back to an earlier version. But that depends on how much injuries were impacting him last year."

Bailey, for one, believes he can bounce back.

He told the Saints' website that he tried to "grind my way" through the injury last year but couldn't quite get over it.

"I have a little more to my game, I believe, especially mentally," Bailey said.

Joyner is also optimistic.

"I'll bet he can get back to what he was in 2012," Joyner said. "If they get that Champ Bailey, the 2012 version, you've got a solid cornerback. He's not gonna be the shut-down guy he was in his prime. … But I would think he's one of those players who can bounce back.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see him, even if he takes a quarter-step back from 2012, that's still a very good No. 3 corner or a solid starter. You wouldn't be afraid to put the guy on the field if he's at that level."

Bailey will compete for that No. 2 starter job with Corey White and Patrick Robinson, two younger corners with some starting experience but also inconsistent track records.

Bailey could also play some sort of hybrid safety-cornerback role in nickel and dime packages. That's what a handful of defensive coaches and personnel executives told ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold when he asked around about Bailey's prospects in recent weeks.

But Bailey told USA Today that the Saints never approached him about the idea of switching to safety, and that he will have a chance to compete for the starting corner job.

"I still think corner is their No. 1 need. Yesterday and today," Williamson said. "I guess the Saints are in win-now mode. And I don't think they're super worried about looking to the future right now, and they're taking their shot. [Bailey] didn't play very well, though.

"He had a tough season [in 2013]. And I hate to say it, but I think he's pretty close to done. But maybe he sticks around for one year.

"The thing I thought most was, from where [the Saints] are picking in the draft, there should be some corners to pick from in the top two rounds. Maybe Bailey is just their mentor."

Williamson also pointed to the Broncos' season-ending playoff loss after the 2012 season, when Bailey struggled in coverage against Baltimore Ravens speed receiver Torrey Smith, as another sign of Bailey's gradual decline.

Williamson said the Saints will want to avoid having Bailey in single coverage against speed receivers. But he did agree that Bailey's press coverage and tackling ability can still be strengths. And Williamson is confident in Ryan's ability to put players in the right positions.

"He's such a great athlete and a rare specimen and a great player," Williamson said. "I'm not sure exactly how he fits. But it was obviously a weakness, and if you get a little out of him, great. He's still a good tackling corner. He's a physical corner still. Knowledge of the game. He can still compete for the football in the air for sure."

Clearly, the Saints are making a little bit of a gamble here. But I believe in Bailey's long track record. I believe in what I saw from Ryan's abilities as an aggressive chess-master last year. I believe in the talent that's now stacked around Bailey in the Saints' secondary.

And I believe, if nothing else, the Saints' 2014 season just became even more interesting.

NFC South Insider draft guides

April, 16, 2013
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On our Insider pages, we’re running extensive draft previews on each NFC South team.

You can see Atlanta’s draft preview here. You’ll see a lot of similarities to things we already have discussed on the Falcons, but one thing that jumped out at me was Todd McShay including Connecticut cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson in the “best fits’’ category for the Falcons. A lot of cornerbacks have had their names tied to the Falcons, but Wreh-Wilson generally hasn’t been mentioned. McShay’s plugged in, so this is one worth watching.

On the Carolina Panthers, one thing that stood out was Mel Kiper Jr. writing that the wish list should go defensive tackle, cornerback and safety (in that order). I don’t disagree with that. But I also think there’s a good chance the Panthers could go with a cornerback first and add a defensive tackle a little later.

When it comes to the New Orleans Saints, Matt Williamson touches on a good point when he lists wide receiver as a “quiet need’’. He’s right. The Saints have Marques Colston and Lance Moore and a bunch of unproven guys. Plus, Colston isn’t getting any younger. It might be time to add another receiver to the mix in the middle rounds.

On the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the item that made me think was the effusive praise that Chris Sprow heaped on the 2012 draft class. It’s well deserved. Doug Martin and Lavonte David had excellent rookie seasons and Mark Barron showed plenty of promise. If the Bucs can get another class anywhere close to last year’s, it could help this team turn the corner quickly.
Trent Dilfer, Gary Horton, Mel Kiper Jr. and Matt Williamson got together and came up with an outstanding project that looks a few years down the road. Check out this Insider post in which they have NFL Future Power RankingsInsider for all teams.

The rankings are based on what the panel projects teams will look like in the 2015 season. The panel used the following criteria -- roster, quarterback, draft, front office and coaching staff -- and weighed each in order of importance to come up with the rankings. You can see a more detailed explanation of the methodology here.

From an NFC South perspective, the rankings don’t look all that different from results in recent years or what most people are projecting in 2012.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireWith young stars like TE Jimmy Graham, the Saints are likely to be contenders for years to come.
The panel says the New Orleans Saints, who have won two of the past three division titles, will be the division’s best team in 2015. The panel notes the bounty scandal and its punishments, but the consensus seems to be that the Saints can overcome that because there’s a strong nucleus in place, as well as a good coaching staff and front office. Horton notes the Saints have to build around guys like Jimmy Graham and Mark Ingram in the future. I think it’s true that the Saints have to develop some more young stars in the next few years. But, as long as Drew Brees is the quarterback, the Saints should be a top-10 team.

After the Saints, there’s a bit of a surprise. Although the Saints and Falcons have been the class of the division in recent years, the panel doesn’t see that quite being the case in 2015. The Falcons are No. 13 and the Panthers are No. 12.

Let’s start with why the Panthers are viewed as a team on the rise. Dilfer sums it up well by saying quarterback Cam Newton has an incredibly high ceiling. In 2015, Newton will be just approaching that ceiling. There’s no doubt the future looks bright for Carolina, but the Panthers may have to replace longtime stars Jordan Gross and Steve Smith before too long.

I disagree with the panel slightly on the placement of the Falcons. I think Atlanta will be a top-10 team in 2015 and probably each year between now and then. I agree with the panel that the Falcons have some old players at several positions, but I think general manager Thomas Dimitroff gradually will address those issues. As long as Matt Ryan and Julio Jones stay healthy and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon continues to emerge as a defensive star, I think the Falcons will be an annual playoff contender.

The Buccaneers are No. 19. While that ranking is last in the division, the Bucs have been in the 20s and 30s in a lot of recent rankings. The panel sounds optimistic about the Bucs in discussing the young talent and the new coaching staff. But there are a lot of unknowns. If quarterback Josh Freeman can get his career back on track and coach Greg Schiano can make the transition from college to the NFL, I think the Bucs have a real chance to jump up in the rankings when 2015 actually rolls around.
Earlier, we gave you the rundown on what picks each NFC South team currently holds heading into the last day of the draft.

Let’s also take a quick look at what players are still available. Mel Kiper Jr. has this Insider list Insider of the best players remaining and it has some names that many expected to be off the board long ago.

Mississippi tackle Bobby Massie and Miami running back Lamar Miller are easily the two biggest surprises on the list and people are starting to wonder if they have medical or other issues. I’m also shocked Oklahoma linebacker/defensive back Ronnell Lewis and Florida State offensive tackle Zebrie Sanders still are available.

Saturday’s portion of the draft starts at noon ET and it’s going to move very rapidly. If you’re able to, join us in Countdown Live, the interactive chat in which you can talk with the eight divisional bloggers, Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson, Football Scientist KC Joyner and others.

I’m not even going to try to give you instant analysis on every one of Saturday’s NFC South picks on the blog. That’s what our Insider Draft Tracker is for. I’ll weigh in on picks of note and maybe provide a quick summary of each round or every couple of rounds.

But my main assignment Saturday is to write a division-wide draft wrap-up and I’ll be working on that through much of the day. That should post on this blog soon after the draft ends.
The NFL draft doesn’t resume until 7 p.m. ET, but the chatter already is starting to pick up. No, I haven’t heard any real strong rumors about NFC South teams looking to make trades in the second round, but that’s possible as the night goes on.

Meanwhile, we’ll start cranking back up with a few programming notes.

I’ll be joining Bill Rosinksi and Darin Gantt on ESPN 730 (AM) in Charlotte right about 5 p.m. ET.

If you joined us on Countdown Live on Thursday night, I’ll invite you to join us again. If you didn’t, you might want to take advantage of this interactive chat. If ever an event was made for a live chat, it’s the draft. Readers can join all eight NFL bloggers, Football Scientist KC Joyner, Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson and others. I was astounded by how many people took part Thursday night and wouldn’t be surprised if we get even more NFC South fans involved now that the Falcons and Saints will be joining the draft.

I’ll spend a good chunk of the night on Countdown Live, but I will have to duck out from time to time to write blog items and a column on whatever turns out to be the most intriguing happening of the night.

Also, I encourage you to check out our Insider Draft Tracker. It has detailed analysis on every pick and also includes video.

Panthers have hit the big time

December, 7, 2011
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Just received what I think is some very big news out of Bristol.

Sunday’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers will be a Countdown Live game. That’s where we chat live throughout the game, with help from Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson and ESPN Stats & Information.

We don’t get a lot of Countdown Live games in the NFC South. They usually come only when the Saints and Falcons play each other or when there is a Monday night game involving an NFC South team.

But the Panthers and Falcons are the chosen ones this week in the 1 p.m. ET slot. We know the Falcons are very much in the playoff race. After knocking off a juggernaut like Tampa Bay, I guess the Panthers now are on the national radar and, thus, we have Countdown Live.

Check the blog Sunday. You’ll be able to get straight into Countdown Live from there.

NFC South programming notes

November, 25, 2011
11/25/11
7:57
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Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. Now, it’s time to get ready for a busy weekend in the NFC South, so let’s take a look at what’s ahead.

First off, there will be no NFC South chat this Friday. I’ll be working, but the people in Bristol that handle the technical part of the chat are off. We’ll have our usual Final Word segment later this afternoon and will check in on the important injuries when the final injury reports come out late Friday afternoon.

We’ll help make up for the missed chat Monday night. NFC East colleague Dan Graziano and I will be chatting throughout the game between the Saints and Giants and I believe Matt Williamson, KC Joyner and ESPN Stats & Information will be joining us. To get into that chat, just go to the NFC South Blog on Monday night and you’ll see a post for Countdown Live that you can jump right into.

I’ll also have a column to preview the Monday night game over the weekend. I can’t give it away early, but I’ll hint that it’s about an area in which the Saints have shown dramatic improvement lately.

Having a Monday night game will help me watch the three Sunday games closely. I’ve got a place where I can sit in one game and watch the Buccaneers against the Titans, the Panthers against the Colts and the Falcons against the Vikings all at the same time. I’ll get you wrap-ups on those games soon after they finish.

We’ll also get you the Sunday morning inactives at approximately 11:30 a.m. ET. I’ll also check in during the Sunday games if there is anything of major significance.

Weekend programming notes

November, 12, 2011
11/12/11
12:36
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TAMPA, Fla. -- I’m about to head out to Atlanta where I’ll be covering Sunday’s game between the Falcons and Saints.

I’ll check in later this afternoon if there is any news. On Sunday, I’ll be at the Georgia Dome early to bring you any pregame news and I’ll get you the list of inactives.

Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson and I will be chatting on Countdown Live throughout the game. Just check the blog before or during the game and you’ll be able to get into Countdown Live.

Bucs' Donald Penn playing, talking big

November, 3, 2011
11/03/11
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TAMPA, Fla. -- As you read this, keep in mind that Donald Penn talks big.

“My thing is, at the end of my career, I want to play 15 years and be a Hall of Famer and be one of the greats,’’ the left tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers said.

[+] EnlargeDonald Penn
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI Donald Penn is making a name for himself in Tampa as the Bucs' starting left tackle.
That might sound like an extreme ambition for a guy who has been to precisely one Pro Bowl (last season).

“He loves to talk and talks about nothing all the time,’’ said New Orleans defensive end Will Smith, who will line up against Penn on Sunday in the Mercedez-Benz Superdome. “He’s a nice guy. I know him off the field. But on the field, he just loves to talk about anything. He loves to self-promote himself.’’

In an interview with Sirius NFL Radio several weeks ago, Smith said Penn “talks as much as wide receivers,’’ who are commonly known as big talkers. Smith said Penn can be anywhere from funny to entertaining to annoying on the field. The topics can change, but the talk never stops, said Smith, who has been playing against Penn for five seasons.

“He’s made big strides as a player,’’ Smith said. “But he’s always been a talker.’’

Penn doesn’t deny any of that. He said he feeds off talking to opponents throughout a game.

“One of the things is, if you’re going to talk you’ve got to back it up,’’ Penn said. “I’ve been lucky enough to back it up.’’

That may sound a little like the self-promotion Smith talked about. But the thing is Penn doesn’t have to do all the promoting on his own these days.

"You can make an argument that Donald Penn is the best left tackle in football right now,'' former Pro Bowl tackle and current Westwood One Radio analyst Tony Boselli recently told The Tampa Tribune. "He's athletic, he's powerful, he's a good run blocker and an even better pass blocker.''

“A very solid left tackle,’’ said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. “They don’t give him a lot of help and he doesn’t really need it. People like to say you have to find a left tackle in the top 10 in the draft. But Penn is proof that you can get a good one outside of the top 10. Heck, the Bucs got him for nothing and that almost never happens with left tackles.’’

It wouldn’t be far off to say that Penn came out of nowhere. But the fact is he came out of Utah State. He had a shot at being drafted, but tore up his knee on the first play of the Hula Bowl in his final season. He showed up at the scouting combine, but was unable to work out.

“After that, I just fell off the map,’’ Penn said.

He went through the 2006 draft without being chosen. He later signed with the Minnesota Vikings and landed on their practice squad. The Bucs signed Penn off Minnesota’s practice squad later that season, thinking they were getting a guy who could be a career backup.

But it wasn’t long before Penn talked – and worked – his way into a starting role. He began the 2007 season projected as a backup for veteran Luke Petitgout, who the Bucs had brought in from the New York Giants.

“I was always telling Petitgout I was going to take his job,’’ Penn said.

Pretty soon, that’s exactly what Penn did. Petitgout started four games in 2007 before getting injured. Penn started 12 games that season and hasn’t missed a start since.

“Once I got that opportunity, I tried to do my best to not let it get taken away from me,’’ Penn said. “You don’t know when you’re going to get an opportunity like that again.’’

The talk of Penn as one of the league’s best tackles didn’t start right away. It’s really just started to heat up in the last year or so. That coincides roughly with the timeline of when the Bucs made a big commitment to a guy who wasn’t even drafted. At the start of training camp in 2010, the Bucs gave Penn a six-year, $48 million contract.

They paid him like a big-time left tackle. The contract might have changed the perception of Penn around the league, but he said he never viewed himself as anything less.

“I’ve always thought of myself in those terms,’’ Penn said. “You need to think of yourself in those terms to be a great player. You have to have confidence. Thinking of yourself as the best, that’s the most confidence you can have. I always knew I was good. I just needed a shot.’’

Penn’s become the most steady force on Tampa Bay’s offensive line. In a season in which the 4-3 Bucs have been up and down, Penn has been perhaps the team’s most consistent player.

In one three-game stretch, Penn had the task of blocking Atlanta’s John Abraham, Minnesota’s Jared Allen and Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney. He gave up only one sack (to Allen) and Penn’s been getting a lot of praise from around the league.

“I’m going up against the best every week and I don’t get nearly as much help as most tackles do,’’ Penn said. “I appreciate finally getting the notoriety. Tampa is not a big media center, so you don’t get as much attention. But I’ve been doing it for five years now and I’ve been doing it well. It feels good to finally get some recognition for it.’’

But one Pro Bowl and a few nice comments don’t add up to the Hall of Fame career Penn talks about and he knows that.

“That’s my goal,’’ Penn said. “I’m a long way away from it, but that’s what I’m trying to reach. That’s why I’m working so hard and playing so good because I want to get there. I want to be known as the best left tackle in the game when it’s all said and done.’’

Yeah, that’s all down the road. But it no longer seems as impossible as it did when Penn was a practice-squad player. Maybe if he keeps talking big and playing the way he has recently, he just might meet his goal.

Josh Freeman vs. Sam Bradford

August, 26, 2011
8/26/11
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In this Insider post, Matt Williamson takes a look at fast-rising stars. He picks one player at each position that he believes will make a dramatic rise this year.

At quarterback, Williamson goes with Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman. He says he’ll take Freeman over Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford.

I would do the same without question. Bradford had a nice rookie year and Stafford’s done some nice things when healthy.

But let’s just look at Freeman compared to Bradford last year. It’s a fair comparison because it was the first full season as a starter for both quarterbacks.

The only important category where Bradford finished ahead of Freeman was passing yards. Bradford threw for 3,512 yards while Freeman threw for 3,451. But Bradford attempted 590 passes, while Freeman attempted 474.

Freeman completed 61.4 percent of his attempts and Bradford completed 60 percent. Freeman averaged 7.3 yards per pass, while Bradford averaged 6 yards. Bradford had 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Freeman had 25 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Freeman also has some running ability. He ran for 364 yards last season. Bradford doesn’t have that talent. He rushed for 63 yards last year.

I think Bradford’s going to be a good quarterback and I think his numbers will increase this year. I can see him getting up around 25 touchdowns and maybe near 4,000 yards passing if he throws as much as he did a year ago.

But I think the ceiling is a lot higher on Freeman. I think the Bucs are only just beginning to realize what they have. I easily can see Freeman throwing for something like 35 touchdowns and 4,000 yards this season.

Looking at NFC South top needs

July, 18, 2011
7/18/11
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Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson takes a look at the top three needs for every team in the league as we get ready for the start of free agency (we hope).

Williamson surprised me a bit when he listed Atlanta’s needs. I don’t disagree with the needs he cites -- offensive line, defensive end and tight end. But I am surprised that he went in that order. I firmly believe defensive end is Atlanta’s No. 1 need and I’m convinced they’re going to address it by signing someone like Minnesota’s Ray Edwards or Carolina’s Charles Johnson. As far as the offensive line goes, yes, it is a need. Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock are all potential free agents, center Todd McClure is aging and the jury is still out on left tackle Sam Baker. I think the Falcons will keep one or two of their free agents and they’ve drafted offensive linemen the past few years to prepare for this situation. But I still wouldn’t be surprised if they go out and sign one strong offensive lineman.

When it came to Carolina, Williamson had defensive tackle at the top of the list. No argument here. Yes, Carolina used two third-round picks on defensive tackles, but we don’t know if they’ll have much impact right away. This position has been a glaring weakness for the Panthers the last few years and I think it would be a good idea to go out and sign someone like Seattle’s Brandon Mebane.

Williamson lists outside linebacker, strong safety and offensive tackle as New Orleans’ biggest needs. I’m totally with him on outside linebacker. The team just drafted Martez Wilson and has high hopes for Jonathan Casillas. But they’re both question marks. A veteran team with Super Bowl aspirations might be wise to pick up a proven linebacker.

For Tampa Bay, Williamson lists offensive line, cornerback and running back as the biggest needs. Offensive line could be a huge need if guard Davin Joseph leaves via free agency. Even if he stays, the Bucs could use some help in this area. Cornerback is a bit of an uncertainty because we don’t know if Aqib Talib will be disciplined or if the team will part ways with him. But I do like young corners Elbert Mack, Myron Lewis and E.J. Biggers and think they could combine with veteran Ronde Barber to give the Bucs decent play at cornerback, especially if Tampa Bay can generate any type of a pass rush. I also like the fact Williamson lists running back as a need. A lot of people tend to assume that the Bucs are fine with LeGarrette Blount. He’s very good, but there’s very little depth behind him, especially if Cadillac Williams leaves through free agency.
Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson is one of the people I rely on most when it comes to personnel evaluation.

Williamson has front-office and scouting experience in the league and his opinions are valuable tools to the writers on the ESPN.com blog network. I didn’t have to call Williamson for this nugget because it appeared on his Twitter account.

When asked to list five young quarterbacks he would start a team with, the first two guys Williamson mentioned were Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. He followed them with Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford and Joe Flacco.

No argument here. I don’t think you could go wrong with Freeman or Ryan. Freeman’s only had one full season as a starter, but it was a very good one and his upside is tremendous. Ryan’s led the Falcons to three consecutive winning seasons since he’s entered the league.

The one knock on Ryan is that he hasn’t won a playoff game, but I think the Falcons are working hard to do everything they can to change that. That drafting of receiver Julio Jones should help. But I also think coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey need to tweak their offensive philosophy just a bit.

With Michael Turner, the running game always is going to be important. That’s fine. But I don’t think the Falcons have truly freed Ryan up to put him in positions where he can make more big plays. I think the minds in Flowery Branch, Ga., have realized that this offseason and I think you’ll see Ryan have some limitations taken off him next season.
In our recent Call It poll we asked you to vote on which NFC South team has the best defensive line.

The poll was sparked by Matt Williamson’s Insider post, which had the New Orleans Saints as the division’s best. When I threw the question at you, there wasn’t major disagreement with the Saints having the best defensive line in the division.

Smith

Smith


More than 6,800 of you voted and 44 percent gave the nod to the Saints. Makes sense. Although there’s not a dominant defensive line in the division, the Saints clearly are the best. They’ve got Will Smith, who has been a very good defensive end at times, and Sedrick Ellis, who has emerged as a force in the middle. The Saints also recently added defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and first-round draft pick Cameron Jordan should provide a long-term upgrade at defensive end.

But, after we got past the Saints, there were some surprises in the voting. Tampa Bay was second with 29 percent, Atlanta third at 16 percent and Carolina fourth at 10 percent. I’m a bit surprised that Tampa Bay finished so far above Atlanta.

Abraham

Abraham


The Falcons do have the division’s premier pass rusher in John Abraham and the best interior player in Jonathan Babineaux. True, they’ve got some holes at other spots, but a healthy Peria Jerry could provide a huge boost for the interior and the Falcons are likely to go out and get one of the best pass rushers on the market whenever free agency opens.

But I think the voting reflects some speculation on what could happen in 2011 with Tampa Bay’s defensive line. In 2010, the Bucs weren’t very good up front. They had no pass rush and rookie defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price each showed some promise before having their seasons ended by injuries.

The Bucs just added defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers with their top two picks in this year’s draft and they still could look to add more help. McCoy and Price are expected to be healthy and, if Clayborn and Bowers live up to their billing, the Bucs suddenly could have a very good defensive line. It could be better than Atlanta’s and it could even end up being better than New Orleans’. But we won’t know until those players get out on the field.

Carolina’s fourth-place finish was not a surprise. But new coach Ron Rivera has some talent to work with. Defensive end Charles Johnson emerged as a pass-rushing force last season and the Panthers used two third-round picks on defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Sione Fua.
In this Insider post, Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson ranks the four NFC South defensive lines.

Although Atlanta has the division’s most dynamic pass-rusher in John Abraham and the best interior player in Jonathan Babineaux, I won’t argue with Williamson ranking New Orleans as the best defensive line in the NFC South.

The Saints have the division’s most complete defensive line, and the addition of first-round pick Cameron Jordan should only help in that regard. Put Jordan and Will Smith together and you’ve got two quality defensive ends. Same with Sedrick Ellis and Shaun Rogers at defensive tackle.

I think Atlanta can close the gap with a big free-agent signing (Ray Edwards?) and improved play from Peria Jerry, who has been hampered by a knee issue almost from the start of his career.

Tampa Bay and Carolina are both building with youth on the defensive line, and the Bucs used their first two picks this year on defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, while the Panthers used two third-round picks on defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Sione Fua. The Panthers already have promise on the outside, where Charles Johnson is coming off a breakout season.

But let’s turn it over to you. Take a look at the Call It poll to the right and cast your ballot for the best defensive line in the NFC South.
Patrick PetersonBrian Spurlock/US PresswirePatrick Peterson is regarded by some draft gurus as the best player in this year's pool of players.
Let’s go ahead and agree on the expert witnesses' credentials and swear them in as we begin the case of Patrick Peterson vs. the National Football League draft.

Peterson is challenging the age-old law that you simply don’t take a cornerback with the first pick in the NFL draft. It’s never been done before, at least not in the modern era. In fact, case law shows that a cornerback never has been chosen earlier than Shawn Springs when Seattle picked him at No. 3 in 1997.

But the people at Peterson’s table can put any number of guys on the stand and make a case that it’s time to change the law.

“I honestly think he’s the best player in the draft,’’ said Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson, a former NFL front-office worker. “He’s as clean a prospect as there is coming out in this draft. There are no character flaws or physical problems. I don’t know that there is a single thing you can put down about him that’s a negative.’’

“Peterson is the best player in this draft, period,’’ said Tony Softli, who worked as a high-ranking personnel official for the Carolina Panthers and the St. Louis Rams. “There’s nobody who’s even close.’’

Plenty of draft gurus agree and consider Peterson the best player in the draft. But those same guys are putting out mock drafts, and almost none of them puts Peterson as the first pick.

That pick belongs to the Panthers, and they’ll be the ultimate judge on whether it’s time to rewrite the draft rules to say it’s not a crime to draft a cornerback first -- especially one with the ability to return kickoffs and punts.

Will they do it? That’s anybody’s guess. The Panthers, coming off a 2-14 season and beginning the tenure of Ron Rivera as coach, are methodically working their way through the process. Rivera has said there are as many as eight players being looked at as options with the pick.

It’s safe to assume that defensive linemen Da’Quan Bowers, Nick Fairley and Marcell Dareus are under Carolina’s microscope. Same goes for quarterbacks Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert, and they’re being examined under a more powerful lens. But what about Peterson, the guy you can look at from 50 yards away and see is basically flawless?

That’s where Rivera, general manager Marty Hurney and even owner Jerry Richardson are going to have to make one of the most interesting calls in recent draft history. There’s no doubt the Panthers need a quarterback, but Newton and Gabbert come with questions. There’s a big need for help in the middle of the defensive line, and Fairley or Dareus could fix that. Even though the Panthers have talent at defensive end, they almost have to give some consideration to Bowers, who is a game changer at a position where teams aren’t afraid to use high draft picks. But each of the defensive linemen comes with some questions.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireRon Rivera said as many as eight players are serious candidates to be the No. 1 overall pick.
Peterson doesn’t.

“Why would you not take this kid?’’ Softli said.

Well, that answer is buried deep in minds around the NFL, and traditions can be hard to break.

“The logic is that if you have one of those guys at one corner, he’s going to be marginalized because people are just going to attack the other corner all day,’’ Williamson said.

Softli echoes that and points to baseball, where the theory is you build up the middle with good pitching, a catcher, shortstop and center fielder. In other words, you don’t build a baseball team around a left fielder or a first baseman.

“The philosophy is that you build from the inside,’’ Softli said. “On defense, you build around the defensive line or the linebackers. On offense, you start with the quarterback or the running backs or the guys that block for them. The last piece you put in an offense is a wide receiver or a tight end. The last piece you put on a defense is a cornerback. It’s because those guys are on the outside.’’

We’ve heard all the glowing testimony on Peterson, and we’ve heard why the current law is in place. Everyone seems to agree on all of that. But ask what the Panthers should do with the first pick, and that’s where reasonable minds disagree.

“They have to get a quarterback,’’ Williamson said. “I take Gabbert over Newton because there’s less downside. Look at the rest of Carolina’s roster. They’ve got running backs and I like their young wide receivers, Brandon LaFell and David Gettis. They’ve got a good offensive line. This isn’t the Houston offensive line when David Carr was coming in. They need a quarterback and this is an exceedingly friendly time to do it. Apologies to Patrick Peterson, who I think the world of, but they have to go with a quarterback.’’

Richardson and Hurney are traditional guys, but Softli has some advice for his former bosses.

“They can get a transition guy at quarterback,’’ Softli said as he pointed to quarterbacks such as Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb, who might be available via trade or free agency. “They can get their quarterback in another year or two when there’s more of a can’t-miss guy. Why not just take the best player in the draft? You can’t go wrong on that.’’

Carolina already has cornerbacks Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble, who have played at high levels in the past. Captain Munnerlyn also has shown signs he can be a solid starting cornerback. Marshall got into the bad graces of the front office last year, and Gamble fell out of favor with former coach John Fox last season. It’s possible one of those guys could go, but the other could stay and team with Peterson as the starters and Munnerlyn as the nickel. That would leave the Panthers with second and third cornerbacks who aren’t all that easy to pick on.

That might help bend the law in the Panthers’ eyes, and Softli points to the franchise’s past for more support. He remembers 2002, when defensive end Julius Peppers was in a draft class that featured Carr and Joey Harrington. The Panthers held the second pick in that draft and Softli remembers sitting in pre-draft meeting rooms with Hurney, Fox and college personnel director Jack Bushofsky.

“We were all sitting there hoping that Houston wouldn’t take the best player,’’ Softli said. “They took Carr and we could have had Harrington, but we wanted the best player. Peppers was the best player, and history has shown that. Harrington’s out of the league and Carr’s a third-string quarterback.’’

The verdict won’t come until the Panthers make their pick in late April. But they have to at least look at Peterson and wonder whether the guy with no questions would make it worthwhile to break the law.

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