NFC South: Ovie Mughelli

Falcons shake things up at fullback

November, 7, 2012
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Although the Atlanta Falcons are 8-0, they’re not superstitious enough to sit still when they see a potential weak spot.

The team just announced it has released veteran fullback Lousaka Polite and replaced him with Mike Cox, who was with the team last season.

The Falcons came through the preseason thinking rookie Bradie Ewing would take over the role once handled very well by Ovie Mughelli. But Ewing suffered a season-ending injury before the regular season started and the Falcons quickly turned to Polite.

But they weren’t getting the results they wanted. Polite wasn’t the dominant lead blocker for Michael Turner that Mughelli once was, or that they imagined Ewing turning into.

Polite dealt with an injury. But, even when he returned, the blocking wasn’t what the Falcons thought it should be. That’s why they let Polite go, and they’ll turn the role over to Cox.

Updated NFC South salary-cap space

September, 5, 2012
9/05/12
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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.

Around the NFC South

September, 4, 2012
9/04/12
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Let's take a run through the Tuesday morning headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Although former Atlanta fullback Ovie Mughelli was released by the Rams, general manager Thomas Dimitroff made it sound like the Falcons will stick with Lousaka Polite as the only true fullback on their roster. Running back Jason Snelling also can play fullback.

Atlanta receivers coach Terry Robiskie, like many around the league, believes it takes a young wide receiver three years to fully develop. But there are strong signs that Julio Jones is ahead of the curve. He had a good rookie season, despite injuries and has been outstanding in the preseason. Of all the players I saw in my tour of NFC South training camps, none stood out more than Jones. Also, keep in mind, he had a full offseason program this year. That’s something he lacked as a rookie, due to the lockout.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The team will practice one more time at home before turning Bank of America Stadium over to the Democratic National Convention. The Panthers will leave for Florida on Tuesday afternoon and spend the rest of the week working out at IMG Academies in Bradenton before playing the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Rookie cornerback Josh Norman was honored by Coastal Carolina on Saturday. More importantly, Norman shed some light on what his role will be with the Panthers. Norman said he’s been told he’ll play outside on passing situations. That means the team will be able to move Captain Munnerlyn inside on passing situations, which is what the coaching staff has wanted to do all along.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who has been out with an injury, said he’ll be ready to play Sunday against Washington. Same for wide receiver Adrian Arrington. Linebacker David Hawthorne, who had surgery to fix a torn meniscus, wasn’t so sure. He said that decision will be up to the trainers. I’m thinking Hawthorne may have to sit an extra week or two. But if the Saints have Lofton on the field for opening day, their linebacker corps will be a lot better than it was in the final weeks of the preseason.

More good news for the Saints on the injury front. Cornerback Jabari Greer, who had surgery to fix a sports hernia in August, said he’ll be ready to go Sunday.

Rookie receiver Nick Toon, who already was placed on injured reserve, is expected to have surgery on his left foot. That’s the same foot Toon had surgery on before his final season at Wisconsin.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye who was released by the Bucs on Friday and signed by the Bears, said he left questioning the character of coach Greg Schiano. Okoye implied he was told his injured knee would be allowed to heal and, when it wasn’t coming along quickly enough, he was pushed to the door.

Newly-acquired running back D.J. Ware thinks Tampa Bay’s Mike Sullivan is ready to be a successful offensive coordinator. The two were together with the New York Giants and won two Super Bowls.

Atlanta Falcons cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
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Click here for the complete list of Atlanta Falcons roster moves.

Most significant move: In yet the latest sign that they’re going to become more of a passing team, the Falcons are going with Lousaka Polite as the only true fullback on their roster. They released Mike Cox, who became the starter last season after Ovie Mughelli suffered a major injury. Throughout Mike Mularkey’s tenure as offensive coordinator, the Falcons used Mughelli extensively as a lead blocker for Michael Turner. Polite’s a solid veteran, but I think the fact the Falcons are going without a true backup fullback says a lot. Tailback Jason Snelling can play fullback if needed, but I think this is an indication that new coordinator Dirk Koetter doesn’t plan on using fullbacks as much as this team did in recent years.

Onward and upward: More than any other franchise in the NFC South, the Falcons pride themselves on keeping their team together. That’s why I’m fairly surprised that third-year cornerback Dominique Franks was waived. He seemed to be in the lead for the job as the punt returner and he also made several nice plays as a cornerback in the preseason. Take this as a sign that the Falcons think more highly of fourth-year corner Chris Owens, who they also drafted and have developed. Owens will be the fourth corner after Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel. There is some mileage on the guys ahead of him, so Owens could end up in a bigger role as the season goes on. Also, this pretty much means the Falcons plan to use wide receiver Harry Douglas as their main punt returner. Franks shouldn’t have a problem landing on another roster.

What’s next: Quarterback Matt Ryan is “the franchise’’ in Atlanta. I know fans aren’t sold on left tackle Sam Baker. But I’m a little more concerned that all the Falcons have behind Baker, who has had injury problems in the past, is rookie Lamar Holmes, who missed a chunk of the preseason with an injury. I think the Falcons need to find a bit of insurance with a left tackle that’s had a little experience in the NFL. Until Holmes has a little more time to get coached up, this team is one Baker injury away from disaster.

Around the NFC South

July, 25, 2012
7/25/12
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Time for a look at some of the top Wednesday morning stories from around the NFC South.
  • D. Orlando Ledbetter has an overview of the Falcons’ running back situation. He covers the usual stuff about limiting Michael Turner’s carries and getting Jacquizz Rodgers more playing time. But he also reminds us that fullback Ovie Mughelli, who had been a fixture in Atlanta, is gone. Rookie Bradie Ewing and veteran Mike Cox will compete for the starting job. Mughelli went down with an injury last season and the running game never was quite the same.
  • There was no big surprise as the Times-Picayune finished its list of the top 25 Saints with Drew Brees at No. 1. How could anyone else have been in that spot? Although, I will admit I was getting a little nervous as I was doing my NFC South top 25 recently and Brees’ contract negotiations were dragging on. It doesn’t really matter now that Brees has a new deal, but I still would have kept him at No. 1 even if he was holding out.
  • Bradley Handwerger wonders what New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham will do in his third season in the NFL. He had a huge second season, catching 99 passes. Can Graham deliver similar results in 2012. I see no reason why he can’t. Graham still is relatively new to football, after spending most of his college years as a basketball player. Graham already is very good, but I don’t think we’ve seen his full potential yet.
  • Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said LeGarrette Blount has arrived on time for all offseason activities. That’s significant because getting to work on time has been a challenge for the running back in the past. But Schiano made it sound like Blount is following all the new rules. So he’s got that going for him, which is nice. But the Bucs didn’t go out and draft running back Doug Martin in the first round to have him sit on the bench.
  • During a speech to local business leaders, Carolina Panthers president Danny Morrison told a story about team owner Jerry Richardson that had not been revealed publicly before. Morrison said that back in December, Richardson attended the funeral of a PSL holder he never had met. This -- and hundreds of other stories about quiet gestures to fans and staff members -- is why I have enormous respect for Richardson. The man has plenty on his mind. He’s running an NFL team, he’s had major health issues and he’s got a family member dealing with a serious health condition, but he still has time for the fans.

Falcons have flexibility

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

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

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

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

NFC South programming notes

May, 14, 2012
5/14/12
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It’s back to business as usual after a little down time.

Before we start moving ahead, though, there were two events that happened while I was off that I’d like to weigh in on.

The Atlanta Falcons released veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli. The Falcons likely would have preferred to release him back before the start of free agency, but Mughelli still was recovering from a season-ending leg injury suffered last year. Once Mughelli was healthy enough to pass a physical, the Falcons went ahead and pulled the plug. They’re taking a bit of a leap of faith in hoping that rookie Bradie Ewing or Mike Cox can fill the void. Mughelli easily was the best fullback in the NFC South the past few seasons. But age was catching up to Mughelli. That’s something the Falcons have to be conscious of at multiple positions because they still have guys like defensive end John Abraham, center Todd McClure and tight end Tony Gonzalez. This team has to start mixing in some younger players and parting ways with Mughelli was one way to move in that direction.

Mughelli was a great lead blocker for Michael Turner, but I’ve got a feeling new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter isn’t going to be using the power running game quite as much as predecessor Mike Mularkey. Yes, Ewing or Cox will take on that role at times, but I think you’ll see more one-back sets as the Falcons try to get Jacquizz Rodgers on the field more often to take advantage of his speed.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if Koetter uses an H-back from time to time. From the moment the Falcons drafted receiver Kerry Meier, they have raved about his versatility. But we really haven’t seen much of Meier except on special teams. The Falcons are deep at receiver, so using an H-back from time to time could be one way to get Meier onto the field.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers suffered a big blow when defensive end Da'Quan Bowers tore his Achilles tendon in an offseason workout. Even though the length of the offseason program has been shortened and new rules are in place limiting how much contact players can have even during regular-season practices, this type of thing still will happen. Anytime you get athletes out on the field, there is the potential for injury.

This one hurts because the Bucs thought Bowers could develop into a full-time starter in his second season. Bowers has said he expects to return at some point this season, but that may be overly optimistic. Adrian Clayborn and Michael Bennett could form a decent starting tandem, but the Bucs have to hope that someone like George Johnson can step into the third spot in the rotation. Johnson will get his chance between now and roster cuts at the end of the preseason. If he impresses, he could have a spot in the rotation. If not, the Bucs will be looking hard at the waiver wire in late August and early September.

The other thing to ponder here is what the injury means for Bowers’ career. He had micro-fracture knee surgery prior to last year’s draft and that led to a lot of speculation that his career might only last about four years. If Bowers does miss the entire season and the speculation about his knee turns out to be correct, his career could be about half over.

Ranking the NFC South RB situations

May, 9, 2012
5/09/12
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1. Carolina Panthers: The Panthers have the best one-two punch at running back in the entire league in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Although they traded Mike Goodson to the Raiders this offseason, they also signed Mike Tolbert, who could play some fullback as well as running back. The Panthers’ backfield is stacked.

I am extremely high on Stewart and would love to see what he would be able to do if he didn’t have to split time, as evidenced by his whopping 5.4-yard average in 2011. Stewart has power, elusiveness, is very fluid, but also explosive. He can be one of the very best running backs in the NFL. He has come into his own as a receiving option. Stewart’s 47 receptions last season were more than he accumulated over his first three years in the league combined. One knock on Stewart is that he could stand to improve as a pass blocker, but he also just recently turned 25, so his best might be yet to come.

There is also a ton to love about what Williams brings to the table. In 2008, Williams had a monster season, rushing for more than 1,500 yards. He has yet to approach such production again, but like Stewart, Williams averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2011. Williams has great vision, runs with excellent pad level and I very much believe he has a lot more in the tank even though he recently turned 29. Williams is a solid receiver but seems to have been passed over by Stewart for the bulk of those duties.

Despite his stature, Tolbert also can contribute quite a bit in the passing game. I don’t see him as a fullback, but rather a punishing ball-carrier with an incredibly low center of gravity and excellent power. Tolbert has gotten into the end zone 21 times over the past two seasons and clearly excels near the goal line.

Having quarterback Cam Newton a part of this rushing attack helps a great deal, but the Panthers also will be getting mauling right tackle Jeff Otah back and drafted a similar bruising masher in the run game to play guard in Amini Silatolu. The Panthers should have one of the league’s very best rushing attacks -- and a very dangerous offense overall -- in 2012.

2. New Orleans Saints: The Saints have more backs than they know what to do with, but they distribute the touches from this position extremely effectively. The Saints did not have a first-round pick in this past draft because they traded it to acquire Mark Ingram in the 2011 draft. He appeared in only 10 games during his rookie season due to injury issues. He flashed some of that first-round ability during those games, but overall, it was a rough season for Ingram. However, this former Heisman Trophy winner has true “bell cow” running back traits. Ingram has an excellent combination of leverage, power and vision with a fine burst through the hole. He can make yardage on his own and has the temperament to carry the load. Ingram’s knee now has to be a bit of a concern, though.

The Saints’ most dynamic player at the position -- maybe in the entire league -- is Darren Sproles. He is pure electricity as a runner or receiver. And the Saints use Sproles’ talents to perfection. Drew Brees and the Saints’ coaching staff do a fantastic job of using personnel, formation and motion to get Sproles in advantageous situations -- either as a receiver against an inferior coverage player or as a runner against minimal defenders in the box. And Sproles excels when used in such a manner. As you would expect with his diminutive stature, Sproles can struggle in protection. But despite his size, Sproles hasn’t missed a game in the past four years and has missed only two games in his six-year career.

As third running backs go, Pierre Thomas has no equal in the NFL. Thomas is a potent blend of what both Ingram and Sproles bring to the table. Thomas is somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none. Thomas would start for several teams in the league right now. He finished the 2011 season with just under 1,000 combined yards.

Further showing off their embarrassment of riches as this position, the Saints also have Chris Ivory. Ivory isn’t flashy or dynamic, but he runs with great conviction and power. Getting Ivory the touches he deserves could prove difficult, unless Ingram’s knee remains a major problem.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers traded into the late first round to select Doug Martin. Considering Greg Schiano’s history at Rutgers favoring versatile two-way running backs like Ray Rice and Brian Leonard, I expect Martin to quickly grab ahold of the starting job in Tampa Bay over LeGarrette Blount.

Blount is a very powerful runner and is good overall with the ball in his hands, but he has fumbling issues and offers little as a receiver or in protection, which is just too much of an advantage to the opposing defense when he is on the field. But if given carries or if the Bucs are playing with a lead, which was rare last year, Blount can pound the opponent into submission. His career average of 4.6 yards per carry should not be easily dismissed, especially considering the circumstances he was under last year.

But Martin is the better all-around talent compared to Blount. A compact bowling ball with very good vision and a natural skill set for churning out yardage, Martin is also highly adept as a receiver out of the backfield. The Bucs also used a seventh-round pick on Michael Smith, which further shows their lack of trust in Blount.

Mossis Madu is also in the mix for Tampa Bay. As shown by their investments at guard, the Buccaneers are a run-first team. That is what Schiano wants and his offseason moves strongly indicate that is the approach Tampa Bay will be taking going forward, along with taking some shots deep downfield to Vincent Jackson. Martin should get the bulk of the running back touches, but there might be enough to keep both lead backs fed.

4. Atlanta Falcons: In a division loaded with high-quality running backs, Atlanta’s backfield is last on my list. Michael Turner is the lead back here. I see Turner as a declining player who needs a high volume of touches to be effective. Although Turner is a decent pass blocker, he offers very little as a receiver, which is a huge detriment in today’s NFL.

After Week 11 last season, Turner had only one game in which he rushed for more than 76 yards. Turner finished the season with 1,340 yards on the ground and six 100-yard days, but his performance was much too up and down on a week-to-week basis for a back of his nature. I am not implying Turner is over-the-hill. He isn’t. Turner still has value and can be very effective if used properly. But he just isn’t what he once was in terms of his elusiveness and burst. Amazingly though, Turner can still break off long runs. He also has missed only five games over the past five seasons, but I think the Falcons would be wise to get some insurance for their 30-year-old back.

Jacquizz Rodgers is ahead of the game with his blitz pickup for a young back, but now the Falcons need to enhance his role catching the football. That seems like the next logical step in this dynamic player’s development. As a runner, Rodgers certainly isn’t built to be a lead guy, but he shows some power for his size and is competitive in all phases of the position. He could break out in 2012.

Antone Smith and Dimitri Nance are also on Atlanta’s roster, but it seems logical that the Falcons will add another veteran running back with size to back up Turner.

At fullback, the Falcons have one of the best lead blockers in recent years in Ovie Mughelli, but the usage of a fifth-round pick on Bradie Ewing, another downhill hammer blocker, could be the beginning of the end for Mughelli in Atlanta. The Falcons also have Mike Cox, a pure battering-ram fullback, in the equation. But it is unlikely they keep three blocking fullbacks on the roster.

NFC South links: Jefferson impresses Bucs

May, 9, 2012
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Atlanta Falcons

The team cut 31-year-old veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli, who was due to earn a base salary of $3 million in 2012.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a post-Mughelli depth chart.

Former Falcons executive Brian Xanders is out as GM in Denver.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers signed former Jaguars punter Nick Harris.

Former Texans receiver Jacoby Jones visited with the Panthers, but opted to sign with the Ravens.

Cat Scratch Reader has a profile of punter Brad Nortman, Carolina's sixth-round pick.

New Orleans Saints

Jonathan Vilma's lawyer said the NFL has yet to respond to his request that the league release any and all evidence it has compiled against Vilma as it relates to his involvement in the Saints' pay-for-performance bounty program.

Who do you believe in the Saints' bounty situation? Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless discuss.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Former LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson impressed the Bucs enough during a rookie minicamp to get a contract and an extended tryout this summer.

Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy treated 400 Bucs fans to the premiere of Marvel's "The Avengers" Friday night.

Projecting Falcons starters

May, 1, 2012
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The Atlanta Falcons have had the quietest offseason of any NFC South team. But that doesn't mean they won't have some changes in their starting lineup.

Now that the NFL draft is over, let's take a look at my best guess at what Atlanta's starting lineup will look like in September.

OFFENSE
  • LT Sam Baker (or someone not yet on the roster)
  • RG Peter Konz (unless he ends up playing center)
DEFENSE
SPECIALISTS

NFC South draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The 2012 NFL draft won’t be remembered as the flashiest in NFC South history. That honor belongs to the 2011 draft -- probably forever.

It’s tough to top a draft in which quarterback Cam Newton went No. 1 to Carolina, Atlanta traded up for receiver Julio Jones and New Orleans traded back into the first round to get running back Mark Ingram. Aside from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pretty good splash, this year’s NFC South draft wasn’t filled with drama.

Instead, it was filled with very deliberate picks that addressed big needs all around the division.

BEST MOVE

No pick set the division's tone for this draft better than Carolina's selection of Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly at No. 9 overall.

There’s nothing really flashy about Kuechly, but the Panthers didn’t need flash this time around. They got that with Newton, and he gave them a prolific offense. But that offense was only enough to carry the Panthers to a 6-10 record last season. Carolina couldn’t play defense, and opponents have run all over the Panthers the last few seasons.

A lot of people thought the Panthers should go with a defensive tackle in the first round. But there were two reasons they didn’t. They weren’t enamored of any of the first-round prospects at that position. They also feel pretty good about what they already have at defensive tackle. Ron Edwards, a big free-agent pickup last year, is coming back from an injury that kept him out last season, and the Panthers think he can anchor their defensive line. They also used two third-round picks on defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Sione Fua last year.

The Panthers believe they have the personnel to clog up the middle. Kuechly should be able to come in and do what he does best. He can roam the field and be the kind of tackling machine he was in college. This guy had as few flaws as any player in the draft and is ready to make an instant impact. It remains to be seen whether Keuchly or Jon Beason will play the middle and which one will slide outside. It doesn’t really matter. Either way, the Panthers now have a deep linebacker corps that should be able to stop just about any running game.

RISKIEST MOVE

You could say the Saints made a risky move by using their first draft pick on a player who didn’t even play his college ball in the United States. They drafted Regina (Canada) defensive tackle Akiem Hicks with the No. 89 overall pick in the third round.

The fact Hicks didn’t play against elite completion means there is obvious risk with this pick. But why not take a shot when you’re this late in the third round? Hicks has tremendous upside, and he was good enough to be recruited to LSU before leaving for Canada. The Saints have a great history of discovering gems (Jimmy Graham, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston) later in the draft. They took a risk, but it might pay off.

[+] EnlargeMark Barron and Doug Martin
Kim Klement/US PresswireThe Bucs made headlines with their first-round draft picks, S Mark Barron and RB Doug Martin.
Hicks should at least have a chance at some playing time early on. The Saints don’t have much behind Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis at defensive tackle. Hicks could end up in the rotation very quickly, and the Saints could end up looking very smart for taking this risk.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

The Bucs haven’t been exciting in any way in quite some time. But they provided virtually all of the excitement within the division in this draft. General manager Mark Dominik shrewdly made some trades that gave the Bucs the ammunition to move up twice and come out of the draft with three instant starters.

Get over the fact that Dominik used the No. 7 overall pick on a safety, Alabama’s Mark Barron. The Bucs weren’t sold on LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne for reasons we don’t know. They were sold on Barron, and safety might have been the weakest position on their roster heading into the draft. Trading down from No. 5 to No. 7 started a process in which Dominik was able to manipulate the draft with trades that gave him two other starters -- running back Doug Martin and outside linebacker Lavonte David.

The Bucs traded back into the first round to get Martin late Thursday night. They were without a second-round pick Friday night. But they saw David sitting there, they had the ammunition, and they pounced. No NFC South team needed more help from this draft than the Buccaneers, and Dominik made sure they got help that will matter right from the start.

FILE IT AWAY

Atlanta’s selection of Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing in the fifth round might not seem like a big deal on the surface. For now, Ewing is probably nothing more than a special-teams player. But the Falcons also were looking a year or two down the road when they made this pick. Veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli is coming off a major injury, and he’ll turn 32 in June. It was time to find someone to groom as Mughelli’s eventual successor.

Looking back on the fifth round

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
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The fifth round of the NFL draft is over and it is worth noting this was the first time in this draft that each of the four NFC South teams had a pick in the same round.

Let’s take a look at who’s joining the NFC South from the fifth round.

The Buccaneers added West Virginia linebacker Najee Goode. He’s viewed primarily as an inside guy, but has the ability to slide outside. The Bucs are coming out of this draft much deeper at linebacker.

The Panthers took Coastal Carolina cornerback Josh Norman. He’s not a threat to contend for a starting job anytime soon. But Norman has good instincts and should have a chance to play on special teams.

The Saints selected Samford safety Corey White. He doesn’t have typical safety size, but does have good cover skills. That’s significant. Starting safety Roman Harper isn’t known as a cover guy. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo likes to have safeties who can cover, so there’s room for White on the roster.

The Falcons picked Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing and Troy defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi. Ewing’s not spectacular in any area, but does everything reasonably well. He likely will start off as a special-teams player, but eventually could take over for veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli. Massaquoi already is 24 years old, but he does have some upside as a pass-rusher. The Falcons need all the pass-rushing help they can get.
Peter KonzJeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Falcons bolstered their offensive line with the addition of Peter Konz in the second round.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the Falcons had gone out and paid a fortune for Williams, they wouldn’t be making solid, safe picks like Konz because they’d be desperately trying to repair all the other damage they did to their team.
Soon after news of the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program broke, the NFL asked all 32 teams to sign a pledge that they would never run a bounty program. Part of the agreement also urged teams to promote player health and safety and do it beyond their own buildings.

The Atlanta Falcons appear to be the first team to be stepping forward publicly on this initiative. The Falcons announced they will team up with the NFL to hold a health and safety forum April 19 at 6 p.m. at Wynbrooke Theme School in Stone Mountain, Ga.

Team president and CEO Rich McKay, fullback Ovie Mughelli, kicker Matt Bryant, wide receiver Kevin Cone, offensive lineman Andrew Jackson and former Atlanta linebacker Coy Wire will represent the Falcons. They’ll be joined by NFL medical personnel, several neurosurgeons and a representative from the Centers for Disease Control.

The panel will address safety matters facing youth athletes with more than 100 local parents, 60 youth football commissioners and coaches from around Georgia.

Here’s a link where you can learn more about the NFL’s efforts to promote health and safety at all playing levels.

Falcons: Who's on the hot seat?

February, 27, 2012
2/27/12
2:10
PM ET
The Atlanta Falcons currently aren’t under a lot of salary-cap pressure. They have over $20 million to work with, but that could change in a hurry.

The Falcons are likely to re-sign cornerback Brent Grimes or use the franchise tag on him. The Falcons also have said they want to re-sign middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. Although defensive end John Abraham and his agent have made it sound like he won’t return to Atlanta, it remains possible the Falcons could bring him back if Abraham’s price tag drops from the $12 million he’s seeking. The Falcons also have several other free agents, including receiver Harry Douglas, that they’re likely to have some interest in keeping.

If most or all of those free agents are signed, the Falcons could have some salary-cap decisions to make on players currently under contract. The Falcons aren’t the type of team that likes to sit still and it’s likely they’ll be spending some significant money in free agency.

With that in mind, let’s finish our series on NFC South players that could be on the hot seat with the Falcons.

Although Mike Smith said at the combine he looks forward to left tackle Sam Baker returning, I think that might have been a case of a coach just being nice. Releasing Baker, who lost his starting job last year, would free up $2.6 million in cap space.

Fullback Ovie Mughelli has been an outstanding blocker throughout his time with the Falcons. But he’s about to turn 32 and is coming off a leg injury that cut last season short. The Falcons could save $3 million by releasing him and there are other guys out there that can block.

Defensive tackle is another position where the Falcons might have to make some big decisions. Jonathan Babineaux is coming off a very quiet year and he’ll turn 31 early next season. He’s scheduled to count $4.6 million against the cap and the Falcons could clear $3.6 million in cap space by releasing him. There might be temptation by fans to say the Falcons should release Peria Jerry instead. Understandable because Jerry hasn’t done much since getting hurt early in his rookie season (2009). But the Falcons still think Jerry has some upside. More importantly, cutting Jerry wouldn’t help the Falcons against the cap. In fact, it would hurt them. Jerry is scheduled to count $1.95 million against the cap. If the Falcons cut Jerry, they’d take a $2.2 million cap hit.

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