NFC South: Patrick Robinson

A look at the New Orleans Saints' projected defensive depth chart as it stands today:

DE1 –- Cameron Jordan, Tyrunn Walker

DE2 –- Akiem Hicks, Glenn Foster

NT –- Brodrick Bunkley, John Jenkins

OLB1 –- Junior Galette, Keyunta Dawson, Kyle Knox

OLB2 –- Parys Haralson, Victor Butler, Rufus Johnson

SILB –- Curtis Lofton, Ramon Humber

WILB –- David Hawthorne, Kevin Reddick

CB1 –- Keenan Lewis, Rod Sweeting, A.J. Davis, Trevin Wade

CB2 –- Corey White, Patrick Robinson, Terrence Frederick, Derrius Brooks

SS –- Kenny Vaccaro, Rafael Bush

FS –- Jairus Byrd

Thoughts: There aren't too many glaring holes here. I keep ranking cornerback as the Saints' top defensive need because they could use a more proven starter opposite Keenan Lewis. But they obviously have plenty of depth at the position.

Conversely, the Saints don't have much depth at safety. But if they sign a veteran corner such as Champ Bailey, they could use him as a pseudo-safety in nickel and dime packages. They could potentially do the same thing with White, who played safety in college.

The one position I really think the Saints need to address at some point in the draft is linebacker. They could use young backups who can play special teams right away and eventually push to replace veterans such as Hawthorne and Haralson.

And as coach Sean Payton said last week, teams are always on the lookout for more pass-rushing help -- though they should be improved in that area with Victor Butler returning from injury and Rufus Johnson having another year to develop.
METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints didn't plan to start a youth movement or some kind of extreme roster makeover on their defense this season. In fact, they worked hard to restructure the contracts of core veterans such as Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Roman Harper because they wanted them to be part of their revitalized defense.

But the Saints and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have been forced to continually adapt as six projected starters have gone down with injuries.

[+] EnlargeJunior Galette and Cameron Jordan
AP Photo/Bill FeigYoung players such as Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan, with five sacks between them, have emerged to help turn around the Saints defense.
The result? The Saints are 3-0, and a defense that last season set the NFL record for most yards allowed now ranks as the fourth-toughest in the league (295.7 yards allowed per game).

Although no one around Saints camp is claiming they’re better off without those missing veterans, there is obviously some sort of mojo that has developed while dynamic young playmakers such as linemen Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Junior Galette and safety Kenny Vaccaro have started to emerge.

“I gotta start by saying it’s very unfortunate that we had so many pivotal parts of our defense go down. One guy that sits right next to me in this locker is Will Smith, and that’s something that can’t be replaced,” Hicks said. “But there’s definitely an energy, and we can use that. So it’s been working out.”

The Saints lost three projected starters to season-ending injuries this summer – outside linebackers Smith and Victor Butler and end Kenyon Coleman. Then inside linebacker Vilma was placed on short-term injured reserve after he had minor knee surgery in training camp (he could return at midseason). And in recent weeks, safety Harper and tackle Brodrick Bunkley have been sidelined by injuries, and nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2.

Yet none of those injuries has seemed to faze the Saints. If anything, the circumstances have empowered some of the young players who are stepping into more prominent roles.

Coach Sean Payton said that kind of injection of youth and energy can benefit a team – but only if the players “earned those positions.”

“In other words, I don’t think by design you go out and say, ‘We’re going to keep all these young players and cut the veterans,’” Payton said. “One thing that we try to do is just keep the best players. And the young players that earned spots we felt like were players that earned spots. And the veteran players that made the roster we felt like earned those spots. So, like you said [when the question was posed], it wasn’t by design.”

It hasn't just been young players stepping up to fill the void. Veteran linebacker David Hawthorne has played well as a replacement for Vilma. And the Saints traded for veteran linebacker Parys Haralson to help replace Smith.

And the most important change the Saints made to their defense this offseason came on the coaching staff -- which was by design. Payton fired former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo after just one year on the job and replaced him with Ryan -- whose versatile schemes and energetic personality clearly have resonated much better with Saints players.

“Anything but the old defense, I would have got excited regardless,” said Galette, who has never been shy about voicing his displeasure with Spagnuolo’s system, which he felt was too rigid and reactive rather than unpredictable and aggressive. “But Rob, just meeting him as a person off the field, his character and his personality just kind of sinks in with everybody else, and he still feels like he’s young and he brings a lot of energy himself.

“Anything but Spags would’ve been great. But Rob is just a plus.”

The players have been feeding off of each other as well. As veteran inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said, that amped-up energy level is especially noticeable along the defensive front, where young guys such as Jordan, Galette, Hicks, Martez Wilson, Tyrunn Walker, John Jenkins and Glenn Foster have taken turns rising to the challenge – and cranking up friendly rivalries among themselves.

For instance, when Galette (two sacks) was asked who’s having the better season so far between him and Jordan (three sacks), he said, “C’mon, are you serious right now? That’s not a serious question. Who do you think?”

“There’s no days off. We get to the film room, and it’s like, 'OK, I got off the ball faster than you.' You’re competing. And that’s that competitive nature that I feel like we lacked in past years,” Galette said – though he was quick to point out that he doesn't think the Saints are better off without their injured veterans.

“Obviously it would help if Will and Victor were here. But we can’t worry about that right now,” Galette said. “This is who we have right now, and this is what we’re gonna keep rolling with.”

It may not be how the Saints drew it up in the playbook, but sometimes the best thing a team can do is call an audible.

TAMPA, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 16-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

What it means: The Saints improve to 2-0. Since 1990, 63 percent of the teams that have started 2-0 have gone to the playoffs. Tampa Bay falls to 0-2. Since 1990, 12 percent of teams to start 0-2 have made the playoffs.

Lightning delay: The Saints marched down the field and made a field goal on their opening drive, but that’s when the game stalled. Officials ordered both teams to the locker room, and fans were ordered to go to the concourses because of lightning in the immediate area. The game was delayed for 69 minutes.

Play of the day: Marques Colston's last-minute catch of a Drew Brees pass to set up the game-winning field goal.

Almost play of the day: Middle linebacker Mason Foster picked off a Brees pass and returned it for a touchdown to give the Bucs the lead with 12:40 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Non-play of the day: Vincent Jackson caught what appeared to be a touchdown bomb from Josh Freeman with 6:58 left in the third quarter, but the play was nullified because Tampa Bay was flagged for using an illegal formation.

Non-play of the day II: The Saints kicked a field goal with 20 seconds left in the second quarter to (briefly) take a 13-7 lead, but Tampa Bay was called for a penalty, putting the ball at the 2-yard line. The Saints took the points off the board and went for the touchdown. A Mark Ingram run was stuffed. Think coach Sean Payton would like those three points back?

Stock watch: Freeman lost a fumble and threw an interception. That’s not going to silence his critics.

Injury watch: New Orleans cornerback Patrick Robinson was carted off the field with what appeared to be a leg injury and did not return.

What’s next: The Bucs play at the New England Patriots next Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET. The Saints are home against the Arizona Cardinals.

Observation deck: Saints-Texans

August, 25, 2013

There is reason for concern for the New Orleans Saints’ defense. There also is reason for hope.

Evidence of both was on display in Sunday’s 31-23 preseason victory.

Let’s start with the concern. New Orleans fans know all too well that the Saints had the league’s worst defense last season. The Saints have changed coordinators and schemes, but it looked as if nothing had changed early on.

The Texans gained 164 yards of total offense in the first quarter and the New Orleans defense struggled in all areas. But, even with Houston’s offensive starters remaining in through the end of the first half, some signs of hope emerged.

Cameron Jordan, who I think will excel as a 3-4 defensive end, came up with a sack and a quarterback pressure. Undrafted rookie Glenn Foster came up with his fourth sack of the preseason. Linebacker David Hawthorne, playing in place of the injured Jonathan Vilma, showed signs he can hold up in pass coverage. Cornerback Patrick Robinson, who struggled all of last season, had great coverage on a deep pass in the second quarter.

Oh, and one other thing besides all that -- you can bet that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was holding back on a lot of things that the Atlanta Falcons will see in the season opener.

Some other quick observations on the Saints:
  • The Saints already have had some injury problems at linebacker and, now, they may have another one. Will Smith limped off the field in the second quarter and didn’t return. Trainers appeared to be looking at his right knee.
  • If rookie Kenny Stills hadn’t already won the third receiver job, I think he might have accomplished that Sunday. Stills had a great catch despite strong coverage on a deep sideline route. He followed that up with a touchdown catch.
  • Backup quarterback Luke McCown had another strong performance. McCown completed 10 of 14 for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Reserve running back Travaris Cadet, who had some problems with fumbles earlier in the preseason, made a couple of nice catches out of the backfield. Cadet is in a competition with rookie Khiry Robinson for what is likely to be the final running back spot on the roster.
  • Receiver Andy Tanner stayed in the competition for a roster spot by making two touchdown catches.
METAIRIE, La. -- The first thing I noticed when watching the New Orleans Saints practice was the silence.

There was no messing around and no coaches screaming at players. Instead, the Saints looked like a veteran team that is intensely focused -- more focused than last year, when chaos surrounded the entire season. Maybe even more focused than in 2009, when the Saints eventually won their first Super Bowl championship.

The quiet practices are a firm sign that coach Sean Payton is back in charge and that this team wants to put last season as far in the past as possible. The bounty scandal that led to the season-long suspension of Payton and a disappointing 7-9 record is over, and the Saints want to return to their winning ways.

“Last year was an apparition," quarterback Drew Brees said. “It was a different time with all the situations that had taken place. This year, just knowing that we’ve got everybody here, this is our team. Nobody’s missing. This is the team that can accomplish great things, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Here’s our window of time to bring it together. We know there’s going to be tough times. We know there’s going to be adversity. Build that attitude, build that chemistry, and get ready to make a run at it.”

Payton’s return alone should make a big difference. He’s one of the league’s best coaches and possesses a brilliant offensive mind. After watching his team from a distance last year, Payton had some strong critiques for his players, even the superstars.

Soon after Payton was reinstated, he called tight end Jimmy Graham and told him that a season in which he caught 85 passes but led the league in drops, according to ESPN Stats & Information, wasn’t good enough.

“First, he called me and I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t pick it up," Graham said. “He was pretty mad because it took like two or three days for me to call him back. The conversation was very serious, talking about his expectations for me and the things that I need to correct from last year and how he’s ready to be back. He’s ready to see my growth even more."

Payton needs to see growth from more than Graham. He’s made it clear that he wants to run the ball more often and that the Saints have to be substantially better on defense.

If the Saints can combine those things with Brees and the passing game, they should be right back in playoff contention.


1. The defensive overhaul. Payton is an offensive guru, but the first order of business upon his reinstatement was to replace defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Rob Ryan. Spagnuolo’s defense never caught on in New Orleans, and the Saints finished last season ranked No. 32 in total defense.

The Saints aren’t just switching coordinators. They’re switching schemes. With Payton’s blessing, Ryan is installing a 3-4 scheme. The pass rush now will have to come from the outside linebackers, particularly Junior Galette, Will Smith and Martez Wilson, a trio of guys that previously played defensive end.

The secondary also is going through some major changes. The Saints signed free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.

The defense will look a lot different because Ryan uses a lot of exotic looks. If the results are different from last season, the Saints will be in good shape.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere won't be any excuses for Mark Ingram this season, as the Saints plan to keep him involved in their running game.
Ingram’s time? Payton repeatedly has said the Saints need to get back to running the ball more efficiently. They were good in that area in their Super Bowl season but got away from the run last season.

There really is no reason the Saints shouldn’t be able to get production from the running game. They have a good offensive line and three talented running backs -- Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.

The real wild card is Ingram. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis used a first-round pick on Ingram in 2011, but he hasn’t produced a lot in his first two years. I think Payton is going to make it a point to give Ingram more carries this season.

A new age of receivers. A few years ago, the Saints had a receiving corps as deep as any in the league, which came in handy because they use so many three- and four-receiver sets. But Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson left over the past two seasons. Joe Morgan, who had been ticketed for the third receiver spot, suffered a season-ending injury in camp.

That leaves starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore as the only sure things. Beyond them, there’s a lot of uncertainty. But the Saints hope veteran Steve Breaston, who was signed this week, and second-year pro Nick Toon, who missed his rookie season with an injury, can fill the void.


Any team that has Brees as its quarterback is going to be competitive. With weapons such as Graham, Colston and Sproles, the Saints are going to score plenty of points. It would be difficult for the defense to be any worse than last season.

If the Saints can just put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they can be a dangerous team.


Rob Ryan
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsRob Ryan will bring an aggressive new 3-4 attack to New Orleans, but do the Saints have the proper personnel to run it effectively off the bat?
The Saints already have had some tough breaks when it comes to injuries. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman and outside linebacker Victor Butler, who were brought in specifically to fill important roles in Ryan’s defensive scheme, already have suffered season-ending injuries.

Ryan is an aggressive coach, and the 3-4 has had plenty of success around the league in recent years. But I’m not sure Ryan has the personnel to make this defense succeed. It could take another offseason to get this defense fully stocked.


One of the brightest spots in training camp has been the play of second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. I saw him make several big plays during my visit. Hicks is going to get his chance to shine in the regular season, and with Coleman out, it looks like he'll be a starter at defensive end.

In another sign that the Saints are serious about running the ball more, Graham has bulked up. The tight end said he now weighs about 270 pounds and that he’s focusing on becoming a better blocker.

The Saints have a history of finding unheralded running backs who end up making a contribution (see Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet). They might have found another one in Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M. Robinson has flashed big-play ability in camp. The Saints have so much depth at running back that it might be tough for him to make the roster, but he could end up on the practice squad.

There was some thought that Jason Smith, a former first-round pick by the St. Louis Rams, could end up as the starting left tackle. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Charles Brown has been getting virtually all the first-team work. Smith has fallen to third on the depth chart and is working behind rookie Terron Armstead. It’s looking like Smith might not even make the roster.

In recent years, the Saints have brought rookie defensive backs along slowly. Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson didn’t play significant roles in their first seasons. But I don’t think the Saints are going to be cautious with Vaccaro. Whether it’s at one of the safety spots or as the nickelback, Vaccaro is going to play a lot this season.

Around the NFC South

August, 1, 2013
Let's take a run through the top morning headlines from around the division:


D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that defensive end Kroy Biermann has been spending a lot of time with the linebackers, and defensive end Osi Umenyiora has said he’s learning to play standing up. Are the Falcons switching to a 3-4 defense? I don’t know that they’re ready to give up on the 4-3 as their base, but I think we could see a fair amount of 3-4 fronts.


Although the Panthers drafted Edmund Kugbila and have looked at some veterans, Geoff Hangartner still appears to be the front-runner for the starting job at right guard. Kugbila has been dealing with injuries and it seems unlikely he’ll be able to beat out Hangartner anytime soon.


Mike Triplett writes that undrafted rookie cornerback Rod Sweeting has been making a positive impression so far in camp. With Patrick Robinson dealing with an injury, Sweeting has gotten increased reps. He’s been making the most of them and could have a chance at a roster spot.


Wide receiver Vincent Jackson is known as a deep threat after averaging 19.2 yards per catch last season. But Jackson wants to be known as more. He wants to be known as a complete receiver, who also can go over the middle and catch balls in traffic. Jackson also did some of that last year and has shown he’s versatile. But Jackson still is one of the best deep threats in the league and the Bucs aren’t going to stop trying to take advantage of that.

Around the NFC South

July, 24, 2013
Let's take a run through some news and notes from around the division:


D. Orlando Ledbetter continues his countdown of the top 25 Falcons with tight end Tony Gonzalez at No. 2. If you’re going by lifetime achievements, Gonzalez might even be worthy of No. 1 ahead of quarterback Matt Ryan. But, at this point in his career, I’d rate Gonzalez after Ryan and receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White.

The Falcons released wide receiver Tim Toone.


One reason I admire Carolina coach Ron Rivera is that he’s a realist. As he candidly tells Scott Fowler, Rivera knows this is a crucial year for him. I think it’s pretty fair to say that anything less than a playoff berth isn’t going to satisfy owner Jerry Richardson.


Larry Holder reports that linebacker Victor Butler, safety Roman Harper and cornerback Patrick Robinson will begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list. Butler tore his ACL during the offseason program and is expected to eventually go on injured reserve. The injuries to Robinson and Harper aren’t believed to be as serious and they could return during camp.


On his list of five players who must come through this season, Roy Cummings includes the usual suspects like quarterback Josh Freeman, but he also brings up a good point by listing safety Mark Barrron. The team’s top draft pick last year, Barron didn’t shine as a rookie. He should have a better chance to stand out this year. The arrival of free safety Dashon Goldson will allow Barron to spend more time in the box, where he’s at his best.

Links: Criticism of Cam Newton unjustified

July, 3, 2013
Atlanta Falcons

Julio Jones came in at No. 26 on the NFL Network's list of the top 100 players of 2013. How does Jones compare to the five wide receivers ranked ahead of him? Daniel Cox of the team's official website takes a look.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter continues his ranking of the Falcons' top 25 players. Coming in at No. 23 is Garrett Reynolds.

The Falcons like their top four cornerbacks and Mark Bradley of the AJC, with an assist from Rivers McCown of Football Outsiders, presents the analytics that show why.

Carolina Panthers

Ron Rivera is one of six NFL coaches on the hot seat this season, according to's Elliott Harrison.

Robert Lester had one idea about who Cam Newton was after the two squared off in college -- Lester for Alabama and Newton for rival Auburn -- but now that the two are teammates, Lester has a different view of Newton, writes Don Kausler Jr. of “[Newton] mingles with everybody in the locker room,” Lester said. “He’s just overall a great guy. He’s funny. He’s a guy that messes with me every day. Whenever I see him, he says, ‘War Eagle!’”

Newton’s greatness is being overshadowed by a lot of needless criticism, writes Frank Schwab of Yahoo! Sports.

New Orleans Saints

The Times-Picayune continues its series on the Saints’ top 25 players, with No. 13: Thomas Morstead.

The team's website is showcasing 25 reasons to get excited about training camp, and coming in at No. 24 is John Jenkins.

After studying some film of Patrick Robinson, Canal Street Chronicles concludes that the cornerback is in for a breakout season.

The Saints made more scouting department moves Tuesday, promoting Terry Fontenot to director of pro scouting and naming Jason Mitchell as an area scout and Paul Zimmer as college scouting coordinator.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Recently retired cornerback Ronde Barber will be in the broadcast booth for Bucs preseason games this summer, reports the Tampa Tribune.

Wide receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Davin Joseph are back from their USO tours overseas. In a video interview with Rachel Ramirez of the team's official website, the players talk about their first experience in a war zone.

Coach Greg Schiano said that Dekoda Watson could be in the mix for the starting strongside linebacker job.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC South team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Atlanta Falcons: Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson left via free agency, but the Falcons made up for it in the draft, using their first-round pick on Desmond Trufant and their second-rounder on Robert Alford. Trufant and Alford are fine prospects, but rookie cornerbacks often struggle initially. Atlanta’s pass rush should be just average at best. Trufant is the likely starter opposite Asante Samuel. Samuel offers little against the run, but is still a very good cover man and a true ball hawk at the corner position. Another cornerback here of note is Robert McClain, who got little fanfare for his work last season but performed admirably for the Falcons. Atlanta might now have four quality options at this position. At safety, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore return as the starters. There is little behind these two, but DeCoud and Moore are a fine pairing. Moore in particular stepped up his all-around game last season and is quickly becoming a do-it-all player and a key member of this defense.

Carolina Panthers: By drafting two defensive tackles with their first two picks, the Panthers look as though they have a fantastic front seven. But their secondary still really worries me. Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore were added at cornerback, but that simply isn’t enough to elevate concerns about the back end of Carolina’s defense. Chris Gamble is out of the picture, leaving Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn as the Panthers’ starting corners, although Florence could factor into that equation. Norman had a very up-and-down -- mostly down -- 2012 season, but he does have ability and could be primed to take a step forward in 2013. Munnerlyn, who is best equipped to be a slot cornerback, is probably the Panthers’ best defensive back. Josh Thomas has been underwhelming throughout his career and will provide cornerback depth. Carolina is one of the weakest teams in the league at the safety position. Charles Godfrey will start for sure, and Haruki Nakamura is likely to be the other stating safety. Godfrey is average in coverage and isn’t much of a force in the run game, but he is the best the Panthers have right now. Nakamura should be a backup, but he will most likely be forced to log a lot of snaps. Carolina should be scouring the waiver wire for secondary help, especially at safety.

New Orleans Saints: The Saints made two prominent additions to a secondary that struggled mightily in 2012 by signing cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafting safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round. Lewis and Jabari Greer will be the Saints’ starters, with Patrick Robinson as the nickel corner, which is what suits him best. But overall, this looks like a solid trio of cornerbacks for New Orleans’ new 3-4 defense, which should stress more press man coverage, although Lewis is probably better suited to zone or off coverage. Roman Harper remains on the team right now, but his type of in-the-box safety who is a liability in coverage is starting to become a dinosaur in this league. Replacing him with Vaccaro gives the Saints much more flexibility from the position. Vaccaro is a great-looking prospect with size, range and physicality. Malcolm Jenkins also has some versatility to his game in that he can patrol the deep middle or walk up and play man coverage against a slot receiver or tight end. However, Jenkins has never quite lived up to his first-round status. Jim Leonhard also is on the roster and could provide stability in a part-time role or as a replacement if Vaccaro or Jenkins were to fall to injury. This secondary looks to be much improved from a year ago.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs made one of the biggest moves around the league this offseason by trading for Darrelle Revis. Tampa Bay featured some of the worst starting corners in the league last season. With Revis on board, that certainly will not be the case again -- even if Revis is not quite himself initially after his knee injury. Having Revis allows the Bucs to match up an elite cover man on the opposing No. 1 wide receiver and more or less leave Revis alone against the likes of Marques Colston, Steve Smith and Julio Jones or Roddy White. By doing so, the rest of the secondary obviously can manipulate coverage to better deal with other threatening weapons. That means Revis’ counterpart, most likely the disappointing Eric Wright or second-round pick Johnthan Banks, will often have safety help over the top. I would imagine Tampa Bay is hoping Banks grabs hold of that starting spot and doesn’t let go. Wright has been a liability since signing a big contract with the Buccaneers. Leonard Johnson also should factor in as a physical quality fourth corner, but he is speed-deficient. Tampa Bay also signed Dashon Goldson, giving them an excellent pairing of safeties along with last year’s first-round selection, Mark Barron. Barron is more of the strong safety type -- and Goldson more of a free safety -- but both can operate near the line of scrimmage or deep in coverage. Expect Barron to take a big step forward in his second season, especially in coverage. Barron could develop into the type of modern defender that matches up well against the new breed of athletic NFL tight ends.
As I look at what NFC South teams did in the NFL draft, I’m not seeing a lot of players that will make instant impacts.

In fact, I’m seeing only four players that are likely to be starters on opening day. Let’s take a look:

Atlanta Falcons: Go ahead and put first-round pick Desmond Trufant in the lineup as a starting cornerback opposite Asante Samuel. Second-round pick Robert Alford will get a chance to compete with Robert McClain for the job at nickel back. Levine Toilolo, a fourth-round choice, has a shot at some decent playing time as the second tight end.

Carolina Panthers: First-round pick Star Lotulelei will be an instant starter at defensive tackle next to Dwan Edwards. Second-round pick Kawann Short could start off his career rotating in for Lotulelei and Edwards. The rest of Carolina’s draft picks will begin their careers as special-teams players.

New Orleans Saints: Although the Saints brought defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson along slowly in recent years, I think safety Kenny Vaccaro will get thrown right into the starting lineup. He’s likely to unseat Roman Harper as the Saints overhaul their defense and go to a 3-4 scheme. It might be too much to expect third-round pick Terron Armstead to be an immediate starter at left tackle. But Armstead will get a look in training camp because Charles Brown and Jason Smith are the only other options.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: At worst, second-round pick Johnthan Banks will begin his career as the third cornerback. That’s virtually the same as a starter because teams use so many nickel packages. But I think there’s a good possibility Banks vaults past Eric Wright and starts opposite Darrelle Revis. Fourth-round picks Akeem Spence and William Gholston have a chance to earn spots in the rotation on the defensive line.
With the New Orleans Saints’ selection of Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, there’s a common assumption that either strong safety Roman Harper or free safety Malcolm Jenkins will be on the way out.

But I’m not so sure that’s the case. I think the Saints might be able to find prominent roles for all three safeties. Coach Sean Payton made it sound like Vaccaro could play several roles.

“He has versatility,’’ Payton said. “I think when you watch him play and you study game tape, he plays a lot of nickel because of the amount of spread offenses they saw in their league last year. There were a lot of snaps where he is down in the paint with two safeties behind him, covering down on the No. 2. One of the things that is attractive about this player is that he can do that and he’s got that versatility to play not only safety, but to play down over the slot. You saw a lot of evidence of that. In fact, we had to go back and get more snaps of true safety film on him, rather than nickel film. I think he’s versatile enough to play either one of the safety positions and certainly a guy that can handle some of the nickel.”

I know a lot of Saints fans are down on Harper and would like to see Vaccaro simply replace him. But I don’t think the Saints are ready to just let Harper go. If they wanted to get rid of him, they would have done it by the third day of the league year when $2.6 million of his base salary became guaranteed. If the Saints released Harper now, it would end up costing them cap space.

And I don’t think the Saints are ready to give up on Jenkins. He hasn’t blossomed into a star, but he still has upside. Vaccaro could get some safety work, but move to the nickel against slot receivers. The Saints can't be too confident in Patrick Robinson as their nickel back after he struggled last year.

I think the Saints still are trying to figure out how they’ll use Vaccaro. I think they also are still figuring out what his arrival means for Harper and Jenkins. There may be room for all three to have roles.

“We say the same thing every year: we’re going to create competition with everyone in our camps,’’ Payton said. “We felt like if he was available, we were getting an awfully good defensive football player to help our team. Now it will be up to him and us as coaches to get him up to speed along with everyone else. That kind of stuff will sort itself out.’’
We conclude our pre-draft rankings of position-group needs with the defensive backs.

Remember, the earlier the ranking, the greater the need.

Carolina Panthers: General manager Dave Gettleman has assembled a group of guys that could be decent second or third cornerbacks. But the Panthers still could be in the market for a true No. 1 cornerback. They also need to upgrade at safety.

New Orleans Saints: The pass defense was a mess last year. That’s why the Saints signed cornerback Keenan Lewis as a free agent. They’re hoping Jabari Greer can bounce back from a rough season, but they may want to upgrade from Patrick Robinson as the nickel back. The Saints also could look for a safety to challenge Roman Harper.

Atlanta Falcons: The only reason I have the Falcons third in this area is because everything is relative. The Panthers and the Saints have desperate needs in the secondary. The Falcons, who have Pro Bowl safeties in Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, aren’t desperate but they do have a significant need at cornerback. They need one more starting-caliber cornerback to go with Asante Samuel and Robert McClain.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A couple days ago, the Bucs would have topped this list. But the trade for cornerback Darrelle Revis changed everything. Tampa Bay suddenly has a pretty solid secondary with Revis joining Eric Wright and safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron. But it still is possible Tampa Bay could draft a cornerback fairly early because they’re unsettled at nickel back.

Around the NFC South

April, 20, 2013
Time for a Saturday morning run through the headlines from around the NFC South:


There seems to be a good chance the Bucs will draft a quarterback sometime after the first round. Stephen Holder runs through the possibilities and mentions Florida State’s E.J. Manuel. I like Manuel a lot. I think he could fit Tampa Bay’s offensive system and could turn into an eventual starter if Josh Freeman, who is headed into a contract year, doesn’t have a good season.


Although much of the pre-draft speculation has the Saints taking a pass-rusher in the first round, Mike Triplett writes not to rule out cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Desmond Trufant. Even after adding Keenan Lewis in free agency, I think cornerback is at least a possibility because the Saints might not have a lot of confidence in Patrick Robinson.


Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson’s first pre-draft visit was with the Panthers. But Joseph Person writes that it’s unlikely Carolina will have a chance to get Johnson, who is likely to be gone before No. 14. But, if Johnson somehow slips a bit the Panthers would have to consider him. He could be an instant upgrade over Byron Bell on the right side and eventually switch to the left side as the successor to Jordan Gross.


More and more teams are turning to analytics to predict success of draft prospects. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said the Falcons are using analytics to supplement their scouting work. In other words, the Falcons aren’t going overboard with analytics; they’re only using them as part of the puzzle.
Here is how I see the New Orleans Saints' starting lineup as they head toward the NFL draft:


WR Marques Colston

LT Charles Brown

LG Jahri Evans

C Brian De La Puente

RG Ben Grubbs

RT Zach Strief

TE Jimmy Graham

WR Lance Moore

QB Drew Brees

RB Pierre Thomas and/or Darren Sproles

FB Jed Collins


DE Will Smith

DT Brodrick Bunkley

DE Cameron Jordan

OLB Victor Butler

ILB Curtis Lofton

ILB Jonathan Vilma

OLB Junior Galette or Martez Wilson

CB Keenan Lewis

CB Jabari Greer

FS Malcolm Jenkins

SS Roman Harper

Notes: Brown is not a sure thing at all at left tackle. The Saints may draft a left tackle or sign one later in free agency. The team has high hopes for Wilson and Galette, but still could look to add a pass-rushing linebacker. The starting cornerbacks are probably set, but the Saints still could look to upgrade over Patrick Robinson as the No. 3 cornerback.

Little money for NFC South CBs

April, 3, 2013
If you want to make serious money, you probably don’t want to be a cornerback in the NFC South right now.

With the departures of Dunta Robinson and Chris Gamble, there just aren’t many highly-paid cornerbacks left in the division.

I just did a quick sampling of NFC South cornerback salaries (including bonuses) for this year and only Atlanta’s Asante Samuel ($4.95 million), New Orleans’ Keenan Lewis ($7 million), Jabari Greer ($4.15 million) and Patrick Robinson ($800,000), Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn ($1.1 million) and Tampa Bay’s Eric Wright ($7.75 million) are scheduled to make more than the minimum salary, which varies depending on the number of accrued seasons a player has. And it’s important to note that Wright is likely to either take a cut in pay or get released before long.

This is all shocking for a division that’s full of high-powered offenses. Right now, there’s no clear-cut best cornerback in the division.

That leads me to believe that all four teams might not be done making moves at cornerback. Carolina doesn’t have a No. 1 corner on its roster. Neither does Atlanta. Greer and Lewis might be all right in New Orleans, but the Saints need some insurance in case Robinson has a repeat of last year. Outside of Wright, Tampa Bay has a bunch of young, no-name corners.

That’s got to change. We’re going to see some corners taken early by NFC South teams in the upcoming draft and that could bump up the pay scale.

Of course, there’s one other scenario hanging out there that could change the cornerback pay scale. If Tampa Bay ever gets around to trading for Darrelle Revis (and I think there still is a decent chance of that), the Bucs will have to work a long-term deal to pay him more than any other cornerback.