NFC South: Olindo Mare

Around the NFC South

November, 21, 2012
11/21/12
9:42
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Let's take a look at the top headlines from around the division:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

NBC reportedly gave strong consideration to “flexing’’ the Dec. 2 game between Tampa Bay and Denver to prime time. But the network elected to keep the game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. So why stick with a game that features a mediocre team (Dallas) against a horrible one (Philadelphia) when the Bucs and Broncos are very much in the playoff race? It’s simple. Dallas and Philadelphia are huge markets and audience size is the key.

Dory LeBlanc compares the start of the Greg Schiano era to the early days of former Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy. There are a lot of similarities between the two. But there also is a big difference. Schiano had his first team playing competitively right from the start and the Bucs are very much in playoff contention early in the second half of the season. Dungy’s first team started very slowly and didn’t show progress until the second half of the season while finishing 6-10.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

In his weekly film study, Mike Triplett writes that the Saints did a lot of mixing and matching and running different plays out of different formations at Oakland. That creates good matchups and the Saints had pretty close to a flawless outing Sunday. This looked like the New Orleans offense of recent years. But let’s curb the enthusiasm a bit by remembering that the Saints were playing the Raiders.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The team released kicker Justin Medlock and replaced him with Graham Gano. Oh, like it matters at this point? Medlock missed his last three field goal attempts, but the Panthers said they were looking at the long term when they chose to keep Medlock over veteran Olindo Mare in the preseason. But I don’t think anyone in Carolina is thinking about the long term right now.

ATLANTA FALCONS

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that the Atlanta run defense has had too many missed tackles and too many missed hits in the past couple games and that the Falcons face a big challenge with Tampa Bay rookie running back Doug Martin on Sunday. But I see a common thread in recent weeks. The Falcons have been without injured outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and there are indications he could return Sunday. That could go a long way in fixing Atlanta’s run defense. Weatherspoon is arguably the best player on the Atlanta defense. Without question, he’s the leader of the defense. Just having him on the field could make a significant difference because Weatherspoon is very good at making sure everyone around him is doing what they’re supposed to do.

The Buccaneers caused a stir early in the season when their defense still was going all out even as other teams were taking a knee at the end of games. Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said the Atlanta offensive line will be prepared to play hard right up to the final whistle.
The Carolina Panthers may be on their way to making history -- and not in a good way.

There are lots of unflattering statistics connected with Carolina’s 1-5 start. But here’s one I hadn’t even thought about until ESPN Stats & Information passed it along.

The Panthers have attempted only two field goals in their first six games.

As it turned out, it really didn’t matter if the Panthers kept veteran Olindo Mare or journeyman Justin Medlock, who battled for the job in training camp. They kept Medlock, who has made both of his field-goal attempts.

The Panthers are within range of setting a new record for fewest field-goal attempts in a season. Since the NFL went to its 16-game format in 1978, the 1999 Cleveland Browns set the record by attempting only 12 field goals.

Updated NFC South salary-cap space

September, 5, 2012
9/05/12
12:43
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Now that we’re into the first week of the regular season, the way salary-cap figures for each team are calculated has changed.

In the offseason, only the top 51 figures count against a team’s cap. Now, every contract counts and that includes practice squad players and guys who are no longer on the roster, but are counting for outstanding pro-rated bonus money.

I just got a look at where each NFC South team stands under the cap, so let’s run through it.

The Falcons are only $1.049 million under the cap. If this team suffers a serious injury and wants to sign a replacement of any significance, it likely will have to restructure a contract or two to free up room. The Falcons are carrying a lot of “dead money,” including some that stretches back to guys who haven’t played for Atlanta since 2010. Jamaal Anderson, Michael Jenkins, Chauncey Davis and Ovie Mughelli are taking up more than $2 million in salary-cap space.

The Carolina Panthers are at $5.1 million and some of that is due to smart accounting. Former guard Travelle Wharton is costing the team $1.9 million, but the hit for this year is spread out equally for next year. The Panthers do have about $550,000 tied up in former punter Jason Baker and kicker Olindo Mare and they also lost an injury grievance to safety Nate Salley, which is costing them $440,000. The Panthers already are projected to be close to the 2013 cap and would like to carry some of this year's room over to next year.

The New Orleans Saints are $8.7 under the cap, but that’s misleading. Defensive end Will Smith's $5.1 million figure is off the books during a four-game suspension, but comes back on as soon as it’s over. Smith also could come back on the books if the NFL Players Association gets a temporary restraining order on his suspension. Jonathan Vilma's $3.3 figure isn’t counting as he serves a season-long suspension. But, like with Smith, the Saints have to keep room open for him in case he is reinstated, even if it’s only temporary.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have $14.9 million in cap space. That figure doesn’t include Wednesday’s re-signing of cornerback Brandon McDonald and the release of offensive lineman Derek Hardman, but those moves likely will have only a minor impact. The Bucs rank third in the league in cap space, but don’t call them cheap. They spent a fortune in free agency and front-loaded the contracts of Carl Nicks, Vincent Jackson and Eric Wright. I wouldn’t anticipate the Bucs using most of their remaining salary-cap space. They want to carry it over to next year because they already are projected to be close to the 2013 salary cap. Carrying over some of this year’s cap space would give the Bucs room to add a few more free agents next year.
Let the speculation begin in the Carolinas. Kicker John Kasay has been released by the New Orleans Saints, Mike Triplett reports.

That means Garrett Hartley won out over Kasay in what was perhaps the most interesting position battle in all of the NFC South.

You know what the next question is: Could Kasay, one of the most popular players in Carolina history, be headed back to the Panthers?

I get the romance of it all. Kasay joined the Panthers in their 1995 expansion season. He lasted way longer than any of the original Panthers. He was a fan favorite and well-liked by everyone in the organization. When the Panthers released Kasay last year, many fans were irate. They became even angrier when replacement Olindo Mare missed some big field goal attempts last season.

Now, throw in the fact that Justin Medlock, who beat out Mare in the preseason, missed two long attempts in Thursday night’s preseason finale and it’s easy to understand why a lot of Carolina fans are calling for the Panthers to bring back Kasay.

But that’s a real long shot. First off, the Panthers aren’t going to judge Medlock just on one game. The two field goals he missed were from 56 yards and 50 yards and they came in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field. No NFL kicker ever has made a field goal of more than 50 yards in that stadium. Medlock kicked very well during training camp and the first two preseason games.

Even if the Panthers aren’t totally comfortable with Medlock, I think they’d sign another kicker before bringing back Kasay, 42. Remember, when the Panthers decided to let Kasay go, it was because they didn’t feel he could handle kickoffs and they didn’t want to use up another roster spot on a kicker. Rookie punter Brad Nortman doesn’t kick off. If the Panthers do make a move for a kicker it will be for someone who can handle kickoffs and field goals.

I’m guessing the next time you see Kasay in a Carolina uniform will be when the Panthers unveil a statue of him outside of Bank of America Stadium soon after he retires.

Observation deck: Panthers-Steelers

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
10:19
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Let's run through some quick observations on the Panthers' 17-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Thursday night's preseason finale:
  • Coach Ron Rivera held out just about all of his starters and it showed. Charlie Batch and Pittsburgh’s offense went right through Carolina’s defense for a touchdown on the first drive of the night. But let’s keep in mind this wasn’t Carolina’s rebuilt -- and healthy -- first-team defense.
  • Veteran backup Derek Anderson got the start at quarterback and played the first half. Jimmy Clausen replaced him. The Panthers already have decided Anderson will be Cam Newton's backup. I've been back and forth on whether or not the Panthers should even keep Clausen, a second-round draft pick in 2010, on the roster. After watching Clausen in extended playing time, I say keep him around. Clausen wasn't flawless, but he showed more than I've seen out of him in a long time (maybe since his Notre Dame days). He led the Panthers on a long touchdown drive on his first series. He also threw a long touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. I had been thinking the Panthers might be better off letting Clausen go, keeping only two quarterbacks on the active roster and bringing in a developmental project on the practice squad. But I think Clausen showed he still has some upside. I'd keep him around, just in case something happens to Newton or Anderson. If it does, I'd rather see Clausen than some developmental guy.
  • The Panthers have gone to great lengths to improve the special teams. But I think there’s still reason for concern. It was negated by a penalty, but Pittsburgh’s Chris Rainey had what should have been a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown.
  • One guy who continues to impress me is defensive end Thomas Keiser. He’s done some good things earlier in the preseason and he did it again against the Steelers. Keiser swatted down a Batch pass at the line of scrimmage. I think Keiser’s emergence was a big reason why Eric Norwood was released earlier in the week.
  • I think receiver Joe Adams makes the team, mostly because the team used a fourth-round pick on him. But I think the Panthers might go slowly with Adams, who was a contender for some work as a return man. But I think Adam’s muffed punt return and lost fumble could prompt the Panthers to bring him along slowly. He did have a 20-yard punt return at the end of the first half.
  • Speaking of rookie receivers, it’s going to be difficult to cut undrafted free agent Jared Green. He had a nice training camp and caught a touchdown pass from Clausen on Thursday night. I think the numbers make it almost impossible to keep Green on the 53-man roster. But I think he’s a strong candidate for the practice squad.
  • The quick conclusion when the Panthers released veteran Olindo Mare was that Justin Medlock would be their kicker. He still might be. But Medlock missed two field-goal attempts on Thursday. Neither was a chip shot, but you still have to wonder if the Panthers might watch the waiver wire for kickers.

Around the NFC South

August, 28, 2012
8/28/12
10:14
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Let's take a look at the headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

The cause and nature of the foot injury that is sidelining defensive tackle Corey Peters for the first six games remain mysteries. The Falcons have been very guarded about Peters’ situation. But they’ve had the inside information on it for some time and the fact they haven’t gone out and brought in an alternative must mean they feel good about what they have seen out of Peria Jerry. A first-round draft pick in 2009, Jerry’s career has been limited by injuries. But he’s looked good throughout training camp and the preseason.

Speaking of the Falcons and their tendency to stay quiet on injuries, coach Mike Smith now is admitting defensive end Ray Edwards was dealing with more serious injury issues than the public knew about last season. All indications are that Edwards is healthy now. If that’s the case, that could be a big boost for the Atlanta pass rush. Edwards never really made an impact in that area last season, but the Falcons signed him to complement John Abraham and believe he can fill that role now that he’s healthy.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

With the Democratic National Convention coming to Charlotte and Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers are hitting the road. They’re leaving their stadium and practice facility to the politicians and all the accompanying logistical issues to head to Florida. They open their season Sept. 9 at Tampa Bay. The team will leave next Tuesday and settle into IMG Academies in Bradenton, where they’ll practice for three days. The team is treating this like an extension of training camp or an extended road trip. The Panthers will do all their on-field work and weight lifting at IMG and hold their meetings back at the team hotel. They could have stayed in Charlotte, but I think getting out of town – and avoiding all the potential distractions – is the smart move.

Carolina’s release of kicker Olindo Mare on Monday has some fans rooting for the New Orleans Saints to release John Kasay and the Panthers to bring back their original kicker. I wouldn’t count on that. The team is serious about going with former Canadian Football League kicker Justin Medlock. Kasay is still with the Saints and could end up winning the job over Garrett Hartley. Even if he’s available, it doesn’t make sense for the Panthers to bring back Kasay. The main reason he was let go in the first place was because the Panthers didn’t think he could handle kickoffs and they didn’t want to carry a kickoff specialist. Medlock can handle kickoffs and field goals.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Akiem Hicks might not be the only rookie defensive tackle on New Orleans’ opening-day roster. Mike Triplett points out that Monday’s release of Remi Ayodele means there’s a chance that undrafted rookie Tyrunn Walker could make the regular-season roster. If he does, it probably will mean the Saints will carry five defensive tackles.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Gary Shelton runs through the list of college coaches moving to the NFL and the quarterbacks they went with in their first season. In a lot of cases, the coach and the quarterback didn’t succeed. But Greg Schiano and Josh Freeman might be able to be an exception to this. Freeman obviously had some issues last season, but I think he still is more talented than a lot of quarterbacks and Schiano and his staff have spent their entire time in Tampa Bay trying to set things up to make Freeman’s life easier.

The Bucs say they were aware Amobi Okoye had a history of knee issues when they signed him. But the fact Okoye has missed a big chunk of the preseason is a bit concerning because the Bucs don’t have a lot of other depth at defensive tackle.
Olindo Mare, who received a huge contract from the Carolina Panthers last year, won’t be handling the kickoff duties for the team this year.

The Panthers announced Monday that Mare has been released. Presumably, that means former Canadian League player Justin Medlock has won what was a competition for Carolina’s kicking job throughout the preseason.

Mare’s signing last year caused controversy because the Panthers released John Kasay, the final remaining player from their 1995 expansion team, to make room for Mare. The thinking was that Mare was as accurate as Kasay and could also handle kickoff duties. But Mare had a disappointing 2011 season and missed some crucial field-goal attempts. The Panthers brought Medlock in as competition and decided to let Mare go.

Although the Panthers gave Mare a four-year, $12 million contract last year, the salary-cap implications of his release are minimal. Mare was scheduled to count $3.2 million against this year’s salary cap. By releasing him, the Panthers still will be responsible for $3.1 million.

The kicker job isn’t the only area where the Panthers are going in a younger direction. They also released veteran Nick Harris. That means the Panthers are ready to go with rookie Brad Nortman as their punter. The Panthers drafted Nortman in the sixth round. They brought in Harris to compete with him and Nortman won the job.

As Carolina trimmed its roster to 75 players, there were several other moves of note.

Receiver David Gettis, who missed last season with a knee injury, has been placed on the physically unable to perform list. Gettis, who had been considered a candidate to start, wasn’t able to get healthy enough during the preseason. By going on PUP, Gettis now can be activated after six games. The Panthers also placed cornerback Brandon Hogan on the reserve/injured list. Hogan had been considered a candidate for significant playing time, but he also was slow in recovering from a knee issue. In the next five days, it will be decided if Hogan will take an injury settlement, be placed on injured reserve for the entire season or be released.

The Panthers also waived receiver Darvin Adams, guard Roger Allen, receiver Michael Avila, receiver Brenton Bersin, guard Will Blackwell, defensive end Eric Norwood, running back Lyndon Rowells, tight end Greg Smith, running back Josh Vaughan and receiver Rico Wallace.

Around the NFC South

August, 16, 2012
8/16/12
10:07
AM ET
Time for a run through the Thursday morning headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Veteran Mike Peterson will get the start Thursday night at middle linebacker as Akeem Dent recovers from a concussion. But undrafted rookies Max Gruder and Pat Schiller also are expected to get long looks. It might be wise to keep one of those guys around as a backup because Peterson could have to shift outside if there are injuries there in the regular season.

Alex Welch has a list of things to watch from the Falcons in Thursday night’s game and one of them is receiver Harry Douglas. He sat out the opener with an injury, but I’d look for the Falcons to get him involved quickly because they have big plans for Douglas. The plan is to use him exclusively as a slot receiver with Roddy White and Julio Jones on the outside. With White and Jones taking most of the attention from defenses, Douglas has a chance at a very productive season.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

It’s pretty obvious the Panthers would like to start rookie Josh Norman at cornerback and slide Captain Munnerlyn to nickelback. But Munneryln said he still wants to be a starter. Munnerlyn said he doesn’t mind moving inside on passing downs. It remains possible Munnerlyn could start and move inside on passing downs, but I think the Panthers are going to give Norman every chance to win the job.

Joseph Person and Jonathan Jones have an update on position battles as the Panthers break camp. A critical one is at kicker, where Justin Medlock has been better than Olindo Mare on long field goals. But Medlock needs to show improvement on kickoffs if he’s going to win the job.

It’s not too early to start projecting 53-man rosters. That’s what Carolina Huddle does here.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Quarterback Drew Brees, who suddenly seems very willing to offer his opinion on anything, said he hopes replacement officials aren’t used during the regular season. Brees said he wouldn’t have the same level of trust and confidence in replacement officials as he does in regular officials. Maybe he should have a chat with his buddy, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Although backup Chase Daniel is considered a scaled-down copy of Brees, there’s one big difference between the two quarterbacks. Daniel has the green light to take off and run. It’s something he does well. I’m sure Brees could run more if he was asked, but that’s not something the Saints want.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Ira Kaufman writes that Adrian Clayborn has emerged as the one sure playmaker on Tampa Bay’s defensive line. Clayborn produced 7.5 sacks as a rookie last season. I have no doubt Clayborn can bring that number to double digits if he can just get a little help from his friends up front.

Tom Jones has a list of reasons why Tampa Bay’s training camp was a success. The one that stood out to me is that the players are buying into coach Greg Schiano’s system. I’ve seen no signs that would dispute that. Schiano’s hard-nosed style was a bit of a concern at first because this team was used to just the opposite. But I think unloading Tanard Jackson, Kellen Winslow and Brian Price sent a pretty clear message that players better buy into the system, or else they won’t be a part of it.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In one sentence, Ron Rivera can take the 2011 Carolina Panthers and make them 9-7 instead of 6-10.

“I look at the Minnesota game, I look at the Detroit game and I look at the second Atlanta game," the Carolina coach said after practice on a recent morning.

No need to go back and look up those games. There’s one very common thread -- the Carolina defense crumbled when it mattered most. Despite hitting the jackpot drafting quarterback Cam Newton and suddenly having the most explosive offense in franchise history, the Panthers still finished third in the NFC South.

“It was hard for [defensive coordinator] Sean [McDermott], because he really had to pull back on what he likes to do, and disappointing for me because I wanted more from our defense," Rivera said. “But I think the toughest part of all is when you look back and see certain opportunities where if somebody just stepped up and made a play on the defensive side of the ball, it’s a totally different result to the ballgame."

But Rivera and the Panthers aren’t doing too much reflecting these days. Instead, Rivera’s looking at a fully stocked defense, and that’s reason enough for optimism. Jon Beason, who missed almost all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon, is back. So is defensive tackle Ron Edwards, who suffered a season-ending injury early in training camp. There is even hope that outside linebacker Thomas Davis, who once seemed to be on the verge of becoming a superstar, can fully recover from his third torn ACL and contribute at least as a role player.

The Panthers used their first-round pick on Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who can play inside or outside, chase down running backs and rush the passer. There were other moves here and there for depth, and that’s why veteran left tackle Jordan Gross is looking across the line and seeing a defense that looks nothing like last season’s.

“I don’t think people truly realize how much we lost with the injuries last year," Gross said. “Missing Beas was a big deal as far as football, but it was an even bigger deal in the locker room. He’s the constant on that defense. He’s the guy that’s always chiming in on any team issue and getting on guys or encouraging guys. There really wasn’t a leader out there last year, once he was gone.

“Having Ron Edwards back also is huge, because he’s a big-body guy that we haven’t had in awhile, and that’s going to help the entire defense. Kuechly obviously is a guy that’s going to make some plays, and I think our pass rush has gotten better, just from having experience thrust upon them last year. Just practicing against them in camp, I can tell you that defense is going to be a whole lot better."

If Gross is right, Carolina fans could be very happy. This team hasn’t had a winning season since 2008. That could change with some improvement from the defense, because the world already knows Newton and the offense are going to score. If the defense can make just a few more of those plays Rivera talked about, the Panthers could be in the playoffs.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The No. 2 cornerback spot. The Panthers have made it pretty clear they don’t want Captain Munnerlyn starting at cornerback. He brings athleticism and swagger but lacks the size to be an effective every-down cornerback. Ideally, the Panthers would like to slide Munnerlyn inside and let him line up with slot receivers in the nickel package.

That makes all sorts of sense, but there’s one big catch. At the moment, the Panthers aren’t sure they have anyone who can take Munnerlyn’s place as the starter. They got all excited about rookie Josh Norman in June workouts, and he still might end up in that role, but his fast track to a starting job stalled when he missed some time with an injury early in camp. There also was hope that second-year pro Brandon Hogan could claim the spot. But Hogan’s knee, which he injured in his final year of college, still doesn't allow him to stay on the practice field with anything approaching consistency.

Maybe Norman steps up in what’s left of the preseason. If not, the Panthers might give Darius Butler, who spent two seasons with New England before joining the Panthers last season, the starting job. Or maybe they still start Munnerlyn, but slide him inside in nickel situations and let Butler take his spot on the outside.

[+] EnlargeMike Tolbert
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonThe addition of Mike Tolbert, right, further crowds a backfield that includes DeAngelo Williams, left, and Jonathan Stewart.
2. The workload at running back. You can make a case that the Panthers underused running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart last season. So what did the Panthers do in the offseason? They added Mike Tolbert as a free agent from San Diego. The Panthers say Tolbert will be a fullback but also say he’ll get some time at tailback and will be asked to catch passes out of the backfield.

That sure makes it sound like the number of carries for Williams and Stewart, who each have had 1,000-yard seasons in the past, will be reduced even more. But I think people are missing the point. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was riding the hot hand with Newton last season, and the Panthers frequently played from behind. When the coaching staff reflected on last season, I think it concluded that the running backs weren’t involved enough. Count on a conscious effort to get Williams and Stewart more carries.

It might look like Tolbert just complicates things. But players don’t call Chudzinski “The Mad Scientist" for no reason. They know he has big plans for this backfield. We could end up seeing all sorts of combinations of Williams, Stewart and Tolbert, and there could be all sorts of new plays. It sure beats the heck out of the old days in Carolina when variety in the backfield meant a draw play to Nick Goings.

3. The lineup at linebacker. When the Panthers drafted Kuechly, fans wondered what that meant for Beason. Kuechly played the middle in college, and the natural assumption was that he would do the same in the NFL. Kuechly might end up in the middle someday, but not while Beason is around.

Beason is a natural in the middle, and the Panthers aren’t going to move him. They’ll use Kuechly on the weak side. Davis’ comeback is a great story, but it almost certainly isn’t going to end with his return as a full-time starter. James Anderson will be the other starter. If the Panthers get anything out of Davis, it will be viewed as a bonus. At best, the Panthers plan to use Davis as a situational player in some nickel packages. They could resort to the 3-4 defense a little more often, but the 4-3 is going to remain their base defense.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeRyan Kalil
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneCenter Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer, declaring fans will be rewarded for their support with a "one hundred-percent, sterling silver victory -- the Lombardi Trophy."
One of the biggest signs of optimism I’ve ever seen came a few days before camp when center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer, promising a Super Bowl victory this season. Let’s turn to Kalil for an explanation.

“The idea behind the letter wasn’t to spark anything with the team, but really to let the fans in on how the culture was changing here," Kalil said. “I think in recent years, the culture has been too much of, 'If the Panthers win, great. And, if not, nobody expects much from us.’ I think Ron Rivera came in here and the mindset has just changed. There’s a sense of urgency, and a winning attitude that I haven’t seen since I’ve been here. That was the idea behind the letter -- just to get the fans excited, because we haven’t given them a whole lot to cheer about in recent years, and they’ve been very supportive of us. They deserve a better team, and we’re going to give them years of better things to come."

I’ve gotten to know Kalil pretty well, and he’s not the kind of guy who would pull a stunt like this just for show. Kalil was used to winning at USC and, if he was willing to go out on a limb like this, he must feel pretty confident that what he’s seen in the offseason program is about to translate into something special.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There’s no question the presence of Kuechly and Beason will make the linebackers better, and there’s no doubt Edwards will help the run defense. But, outside of Charles Johnson, where’s the pass rush? There was almost no pass rush outside of Johnson last season, and it’s not like the Panthers made any dramatic moves in that area this offseason.

Maybe this is the year Greg Hardy and Eric Norwood finally reach their potential, but it’s not as if they’ve had major flashes in the past. There’s been a little buzz in camp about Thomas Keiser. I’m not sure he’s ready to be a full-time starter, but he could be a situational player. The Panthers might have to make more active use of the blitz. If they don’t, then a secondary that’s not exceptionally talented could be in for another long season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The special teams were almost as big a problem as the defense last season. That’s why the jobs at punter and kicker are completely wide open. There are no favorites here. The Panthers are simply going to go through the preseason and see whether Olindo Mare or Justin Medlock kicks better. If Medlock emerges, the Panthers will be happy to swallow their pride after giving Mare a big contract last season. They just want consistency. It’s the same at punter, where the Panthers let Jason Baker go after last season. They invested a draft pick in Brad Nortman but went out and signed veteran Nick Harris. They’re not indebted to either.

  • Brandon LaFell pretty much has locked up the No. 2 wide receiver job opposite Steve Smith. But there’s a logjam of receivers after that. David Gettis, Louis Murphy and Seyi Ajirotutu seem to be competing for the No. 3 spot. But they might not all make the team. The Panthers also are high on younger receivers Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams and Armanti Edwards, each of whom can contribute in the return game. Edwards, whom the Panthers drafted as a project in 2010, has shown some promise in camp but probably isn’t going to make the roster ahead of Adams and Pilares.

  • There was a lot of talk about competition at right tackle and left guard entering camp. But those competitions didn’t turn into much. The Panthers already were locked in on Byron Bell as their right tackle after he played so well there last season. They also seem fully prepared to go with rookie Amini Silatolu at left guard. Veterans Mike Pollak and Bruce Campbell were brought in, but the Panthers are viewing them as quality backups.

  • There’s been a buzz around camp about how well third-year quarterback Jimmy Clausen has played. Sad part is, it doesn’t really matter. Newton’s set as the franchise quarterback for at least the next decade, and Chudzinski has strong ties to veteran backup Derek Anderson. Clausen is stuck at No. 3. The Panthers might as well try to showcase him in the preseason games. If he really is playing that well, someone might be willing to trade a draft pick for him.

  • The Panthers brought in Haruki Nakamura as an alternative to Sherrod Martin at safety. The thinking was Nakamura, who was Ed Reed’s backup in Baltimore, could end up beating Martin out. As it turns out, the acquisition seems to have ignited a fire under Martin. He’s having a nice training camp, and it looks like he’ll hold onto the starting job if he can continue playing well through the preseason.
  • The Panthers aren't the slightest bit worried about Newton's running into "the sophomore slump." There is good reason for that. Newton had one of the best statistical seasons ever by a quarterback, and he did that coming out of a lockout during which he wasn't able to spend any offseason time with his coaches. Newton has had an entire offseason this year, and all indications are he spent as much time around the facility as possible. The Panthers fully believe Newton didn't even come close to hitting his full potential last season.

Around the NFC South

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
8:35
AM ET
Time for a look at the top headlines from around the division:

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

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.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

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 PANTHERS

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.

ATLANTA FALCONS

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.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The Carolina Panthers put out their first depth chart Tuesday afternoon. Let me emphasize this is an unofficial depth chart, but there are several things that jump out at me.

Let’s start with one thing that’s very atypical for the Panthers, who generally are the most conservative team in the NFC South when it comes to such matters. The Panthers are listing rookie Amini Silatolu as the No. 1 left guard. That probably will be the case come opening day, but the Panthers generally don’t list rookies as starters on their first preseason depth chart. Instead, they give veterans every benefit of the doubt. But I think this is a pretty good sign that the Panthers aren’t really counting on veterans like Mike Pollak or Bruce Campbell to start. I’d say an injury is about the only thing that would prevent Silatolu from being the starter when the regular season opens.

But the flip side of this is that the Panthers are listing first-round draft choice Luke Kuechly as the No. 2 weak-side linebacker behind veteran Thomas Davis. Kuechly has been working with the first team throughout training camp. This one purely is a courtesy to Davis, who is trying to come back from his third torn ACL. Kuechly is pretty much guaranteed a starting job in the regular season.

Another item worth noting is that Derek Anderson is listed as the No. 2 quarterback behind Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen is No. 3. Coach Ron Rivera was asked after Tuesday’s practice if Anderson was the backup and the coach didn’t hesitate to affirm that. It looks like Clausen, who started as a rookie in 2010, is looking at another season of being the third quarterback.

The Panthers are listing Sherrod Martin as their starting free safety and that could end up being the case in the regular season. But all indications out of Carolina’s camp are that Martin is very much in competition with free-agent addition Haruki Nakamura for the starting job.

I’ve also been told that the Panthers view the punter and kicker jobs as serious competitions. They’re listing veteran Olindo Mare No. 1 and Justin Medlock No. 2 at kicker and Nick Harris as the No. 1 punter with rookie Brad Nortman as No. 2. But the order at both spots could change, depending on what happens in the preseason games.

Around the NFC South

August, 5, 2012
8/05/12
9:15
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Time for a look at the top Sunday morning headlines from around the division:

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Jeff Duncan writes the Saints have no one to blame for the bounty drama but themselves. He’s absolutely right. Although fans like to put the blame on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, alleged “snitches’’ and the media, the Saints could have diminished this situation or totally avoided it. The NFL told them to stop the bounty program back in the 2009 season. That didn’t happen and the league says the bounty system lasted through the 2011 season. The Saints continue to insist there was no bounty program. But they knew they were doing something to at least give the league the impression there was a bounty program. If they had cut out whatever they were doing or at least satisfactorily explained to the league that it wasn’t a bounty program, this whole drama would have gone away a long time ago and there probably wouldn’t have been any suspensions.

Assistant head coach Joe Vitt declined to say how much he’ll play his starters in Sunday night’s Hall of Fame Game. But he did say the team will follow a plan similar to what it used when it played in the game in 2007. In other words, you probably won’t see quarterback Drew Brees and the rest of the starters for more than two series.

Suspended coach Sean Payton paid a brief visit to the Saints on Saturday as he was in Canton, Ohio for the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions. Payton did nothing more than say some brief hellos. For those thinking he violated the NFL’s rule against Payton having contact with anyone employed by the Saints, I don’t think that’s an issue. Payton’s not in a position to test the league and all indications are he checked with the NFL and found out he was allowed to stop by and say a very quick hello to his team.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The boo birds were out in Charlotte at Saturday’s Fan Fest as kicker Olindo Mare missed two of four field-goal attempts and had another one blocked. Mare didn’t have a great season last year and the Panthers brought in Justin Medlock to push him. The Panthers were hoping Mare could just forget about last year and bounce back to the form that previously made him one of the league’s more dependable kickers. But it doesn’t appear that’s happened. Looks like the Panthers have a full-fledged kicking competition on their hands.

Quarterback Cam Newton drew most of the cheers during Fan Fest, but the most encouraging sign of the day might have come when he was intercepted by rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly. Carolina’s defense wasn’t very good last season and Kuechly was drafted to make it better. Looks like he already is having an impact.

Tom Sorensen writes about the competitive spirit of Captain Munnerlyn. Although he’s undersized, that spirit is what has made Munnerlyn successful. The Panthers are hoping to shift Munnerlyn to nickel back this season and start either Brandon Hogan or Josh Morgan. But I think it’s safe to say Munnerlyn is doing everything in his power to try to hold onto the starting job.

ATLANTA FALCONS

The Saints are the only NFC South team playing five preseason games. But the Falcons will get some practice work against another team Monday when they hold a joint workout with the Tennessee Titans. I’m not a big believer in preseason games and I think these joint practices can be at least as beneficial.

One thing you won’t see in the joint workout is tackling. Coach Mike Smith said he and Tennessee coach Mike Munchak want their players to get to work against another team and there will be some hitting. But Smith and Munchak don’t want their players bringing each other to the ground.

The Falcons reached an injury settlement with Robbie Frey and released the running back Saturday. An undrafted free agent, Frey had been sidelined by a foot injury and had almost no chance of making the team.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The Bucs say they’ve seen some encouraging signs at the box office and they’re going to take advantage of a new NFL rule that allows them to declare a sellout if they’ve sold 85 percent of their general admission seats. But co-chairman Bryan Glazer said he’s not prepared to predict that every home game will be a sellout. The Bucs have had only two home sellouts the last two seasons. I think the Bucs have taken some steps that could help by lowering some ticket prices, adding some big-name free agents and by utilizing the 85-percent rule. But I think the best way to make sure most of the games aren’t blacked out on local television will come if new coach Greg Schiano and his team get off to a fast start.

Although rookie Doug Martin appears to be the leader for the starting running back job so far, the Bucs won’t make a decision until they see their backs in preseason games. That’s understandable because the backs aren’t really subject to hits in practices. But I think the job is Martin’s to lose. They only way he’s not the starting running back is if he has a disappointing preseason and LeGarrette Blount has a tremendous one.

Receiver Vincent Jackson and quarterback Josh Freeman still are working to develop chemistry. But Jackson has shown an uncommon work ethic on the practice field and in the meeting rooms. He also is the most physically talented receiver in Tampa Bay history. Jackson could be just what Freeman needs to get his career back on track.
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Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

Carolina’s special teams were among the worst in the league last year. That’s why the Panthers didn’t sit still in the offseason. They went out and made a bunch of moves that should help their special teams.

Safety Haruki Nakamura, linebacker Kenny Onatolu and fullback Mike Tolbert all have been productive on the coverage units in previous stops. The Panthers also used two draft picks on two players they expect to be regulars on special teams. Wide receiver Joe Adams has excellent potential as a return man. The Panthers also drafted punter Josh Nortman, but the job doesn’t automatically belong to him. The Panthers also brought in veteran Nick Harris to compete with Nortman, after they released Jason Baker earlier in the offseason.

Even kicker Olindo Mare, who had some big misses last season, is going to have to win his job. The Panthers brought in former Canadian Football League kicker Justin Medlock to compete with Mare. There’s competition everywhere. That’s a good thing. Injuries left the Panthers very short-handed on special teams at times last season. This offseason, general manager Marty Hurney has gone out of his way to make sure the Panthers have plenty of talent and depth there. If the special teams and the defense can be better than last year, Carolina has a chance to challenge for a playoff spot.
This is the time of year when you hear a lot about offseason workouts. This is when teams can begin conditioning drills and get out onto the field to start working on football and that continues through minicamps and organized team activities.

It’s a great time to build chemistry. You’ll also hear a lot of coaches bragging about how almost all their players are participating in the workouts, which is great. But, in some cases, there’s a lot of money to be earned just for showing up and working out in the offseason.

I just got a look at all the offseason workout bonuses scheduled to be earned (if the players take part in a majority of the workouts) by NFC South players this year and there were some eye openers. Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik doesn’t use a lot of workout bonuses in the contracts he negotiates. But, when he does use them, they’re significant. Tight end Kellen Winslow and cornerback Eric Wright have the largest workout bonuses in the division for 2012 at $500,000 each. Offensive tackle Donald Penn is right behind them at $400,000 and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is scheduled to collect $300,000. Linebacker Quincy Black has a $250,000 bonus and defensive tackle Amobi Okoye is slated to make $200,000. Those six are the only Buccaneers with workout bonuses this year, but they come to a total of $2.15 million.

Carolina general manager Marty Hurney and New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis are much more liberal in their use of workout bonuses. The Saints and Panthers each have 21 players scheduled to earn workout bonuses this year.

Carolina’s scheduled workout bonuses add up to $2.055 million. I won’t list anyone under six figures. But here are the guys who can earn big money. Charles Johnson, Jon Beason, DeAngelo Williams, Ryan Kalil and Ron Edwards each are scheduled to make $250,000. Charles Godfrey, James Anderson, Olindo Mare and Garry Williams each can earn $100,000.

If all the New Orleans players take part in enough workouts, the Saints will have to pay out $2.381 million. Sedrick Ellis leads the Saints with a $250,000 workout bonus. Jahri Evans, Lance Moore and Scott Shanle each are scheduled to make $200,000 and Will Smith is slated to make $150,000. Marques Colston, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Jermon Bushrod, Jonathan Vilma, Malcolm Jenkins, Devery Henderson, Pierre Thomas, David Thomas, Korey Hall and Will Herring each are scheduled to make $100,000.

Apparently, Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff, who probably works out more (he rides a bike religiously) than any NFC South general manager, doesn’t believe in workout bonuses. Dimitroff has used them very sparingly in the past. This year, there’s not a single Atlanta player schedule to earn a workout bonus.

Projecting Panthers starters

May, 1, 2012
5/01/12
11:17
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The NFL draft is over and the Carolina Panthers have added at least one new starter.

That’s linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was drafted with the No. 9 overall pick. It just remains to be seen if he’ll start in the middle or on the outside.

Let’s take a look at Carolina’s projected depth chart as I see it at the moment.

OFFENSE
DEFENSE
  • MLB Jon Beason or Kuechly (one of them will move outside)
SPECIALISTS
  • P Brad Mortman (at least one rookie besides Kuechly will play a lot)
  • PR Joe Adams (the rookie also could get some time as the slot receiver)

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