NFC South: Peria Jerry

Mike NolanScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesFalcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan won't be lacking depth up front in 2014.
The Atlanta Falcons aren't panicking -- at least not yet -- over their inability to secure a top pass-rusher this offseason.

Sure, it would have been a nice luxury to land a proven talent such as Brian Orakpo or even a promising rookie such as Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack or Dee Ford. But the Falcons have a game plan, regardless of what outside perception might say.

The coaches and players fully understand the urgency. They know how pathetic the pass rush was last season, when the Falcons sacked or put quarterbacks under duress on just 22.4 percent of dropbacks, second-worst in the NFL. Not to mention the Falcons allowed opponents to convert 45.93 percent on third down, resulting in the league's worst third-down defense.

You know you're in trouble when you make Geno Smith look like an All-Pro.

So how are things supposed to improve? There is plenty of reason to be skeptical, including the absence of a speed-rusher. But I believe a collective effort will help the Falcons take significant strides with their defensive pressure and compensate for the lack of an elite pass-rusher.

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Hageman
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsAthletic rookie Ra'Shede Hageman could give a boost to the Falcons' pass rush in 2014.
Really. I do.

Altering the defensive approach is the first step. Although coach Mike Smith continues to preach defensive multiplicity without revealing much detail, the Falcons will have more of a 3-4 look in 2014. Believe that. It was obvious when players started talking about it immediately after last season. Then the Falcons added bulky nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson up front. Drafting defensive end Ra'Shede Hageman was further confirmation.

Think of it more as the Falcons building toward a 5-2 alignment, with three linemen and two outside linebackers getting pressure. As long as the Falcons can do so with consistency, they'll be fine.

The Falcons hope that having heavy hitters up front will create more stress on opposing offensive linemen and open lanes for the linebackers to make plays. And if he develops quickly, Hageman has the potential to be an outstanding inside rusher and a J.J. Watt-type pass-deflector. He is the wild card in this whole equation. He'll be motivated by fiery defensive line coach Bryan Cox.

In regard to the true pass-rushers, the Falcons have plenty of faith in third-year player Jonathan Massaquoi, who had four sacks last season and has played defensive end. His athleticism should be on display more often from the outside linebacker spot in 2014. Massaquoi told me this offseason that he feels the need to atone for not taking advantage of his opportunities last year.

Stansly Maponga and rookie Prince Shembo are the other two young players that intrigue me. Both have pass-rush ability, although Maponga was used sporadically last season. Folks who watched every game Shembo played at Notre Dame believe he is a much better pass-rusher than run defender or coverage guy.

And don't forget about veteran Osi Umenyiora. He led the team with 7.5 sacks but wore down as the season went along. Yes, he's 32 years old and his best days are behind him. But the Falcons could get a lot out of him as a strictly designated pass-rusher, the same role he played at the end of last season. Umenyiora has spent a significant amount of time trying to improve his technique and speed this offseason. To me, that sounds like a veteran determined not to go out with a thud.

When guys like Massaquoi, Maponga and even Umenyiora don't have to bang against offensive tackles regularly, like they did most of the time in a typical 4-3 alignment, they'll be fresher and able to sustain a consistent pass rush. The defensive linemen also should benefit from a strong rotation, considering the Falcons brought back Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry while adding Soliai, Jackson and Hageman.

There will be an adjustment period all around, particularly for those players getting accustomed to standing up rather than playing with their hands in the ground. The guy who shouldn't flinch is Kroy Biermann, who has experience in both roles. But Biermann -- who played just two games in 2013 because of an Achilles injury -- will be counted upon more against the run than the pass.

Of course, let's not forget the key figure in this whole equation: defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Last year wasn't indicative of what type of defensive mind he is. He's had success in the past out of a 3-4 base. He couldn't be too "multiple" last season, based on personnel. Nolan knows how to disguise coverages and dial up blitzes, when needed. And he'll have more to work with this season, including more capable bodies to sub in and out to keep the pressure consistent.

When you talk about facing the likes of Drew Brees and Cam Newton twice a year and having to contend with a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers in Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, it only emphasizes the importance of pressure for a Falcons team trying to return to playoff contention. It won't be about a guy such as Massaquoi suddenly exploding with double-digit sacks, though the Falcons would take it. It will be more about consistency, getting contributions from a number of different players, and keeping bodies fresh over the duration of 60 minutes.

A more balanced offensive attack with a little more emphasis on the run surely wouldn't hurt in terms of keeping the defense off the field. But when it comes down to it, the Falcons' defenders have to pin their ears back and have the desire to get after it.

The pressure is on.
The top two free agents (Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy) in the NFC South have been hit with the franchise tag. But plenty of division talent is on the market -- and that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who will be either traded or released by the Saints. The four writers who cover the NFC South (Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay, Mike Triplett in New Orleans, David Newton in Carolina and Vaughn McClure in Atlanta) got together and picked the top 15 free agents in the division.

1. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Whether he's a tight end or receiver, he has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, leading the league with 36 TD catches over the past three years.

2. Greg Hardy, Panthers DE: The Panthers had no choice but to place the franchise tag on Hardy. He played both defensive end spots, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback hurries.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons DT: Aging veteran Babineaux still has a knack for getting in the backfield, although he would admit his sack numbers need to be better.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsZach Strief, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has spent his entire eight-year career in New Orleans.
4. Mike Mitchell, Panthers S: He brought an attitude to the league's second-ranked defense with his aggressiveness.

5. Zach Strief, Saints OT: Strief is a solid veteran starter coming off his best season to date. He's not a dominator, but versatile and experienced enough to start for just about any NFL team.

6. Brian de la Puente, Saints C: He has been another solid starter over the past three years and finished strong in 2013 after a slow start.

7. Lance Moore, Saints WR: Moore's role diminished in the Saints' offense last year, but the sure-handed slot receiver is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season and can still be an asset at age 30.

8. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints S: He is a full-time starter who shows flashes of big-play potential every year, but the former first-round pick has never consistently met lofty expectations.

9. Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers CB: He may be undersized at 5-foot-9, but he proved he could be an every-down corner for the first time in his career.

10. Ted Ginn Jr., Panthers WR: Not only did he give quarterback Cam Newton the deep threat that he needed, he led the team in kickoff and punt returns.

11. Jabari Greer, Saints CB: Greer was one of the most underrated corners in the NFL over the past five years, but now he’s 32 and recovering from a major knee injury.

12. Peria Jerry, Falcons DT: The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in part due to injury, but he has shown a few flashes.

13. Erik Lorig, Buccaneers FB: Lorig is a versatile fullback who can make an impact as a lead blocker in the running game and also has some ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

14. Bruce Campbell, Panthers OT: With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross there's at least an opportunity for Campbell to be in the mix for a starting position.

15. Adam Hayward, Buccaneers LB: Hayward is one of the league’s better players on special teams. He also has value as a backup because he can play inside and outside linebacker.

Franchise/transition tags: Falcons

February, 17, 2014
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The franchise tag might have entered into play for the Atlanta Falcons this season had Matt Ryan's contract been an issue.

It isn't.

The quarterback was locked up prior to last season with a five-year, $103.75 million contract extension that included $59 million guaranteed. It kept 2013 from being the final year of his original six-year, $72 million rookie contract ($34.74 million guaranteed).

In others words, it won't be a concern for the Falcons once the first day for designating the franchise tag on a player comes Monday. The last time the Falcons used the franchise tag was on cornerback Brett Grimes in 2012 -- at a one-year price of $10.28 million -- as the two sides were unable to reach a long-term deal. Grimes, who suffered a season-ending Achilles' injury that year, now faces the possibility of being tagged again as the member of the Miami Dolphins.

As for the Falcons, they have no reason to designate a franchise player this year among a group of impending unrestricted free agents that includes defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry and Corey Peters. Some of the others bound for free agency include center Joe Hawley, tight end Chase Coffman and offensive tackle Mike Johnson. Free agency officially begins at 4 p.m. on March 11, although teams are allowed to negotiating with agents of players on other teams on March 9.

Maybe the franchise tag comes into play for the Falcons again if for some reason they can't get top receiver Julio Jones signed to a long-term deal before the 2015 season.

The deadline for designating franchise or transition players is 4 p.m. March 3. Eight players were slapped with the franchise tag last season.

Once a team designates a franchise player, it has until July 15 to work out a long-term extension with that player.

And once again, that shouldn't apply to the Falcons this year.

Around the NFC South

August, 27, 2013
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Time for a morning run through the headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Coach Mike Smith said that receiver Roddy White, cornerback Asante Samuel, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and kicker Matt Bryant, who all have been sidelined with injuries, are expected to be ready for the regular-season opener.

Undrafted rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow, who has been having a sensational preseason, moved up a spot on the depth chart. He now is listed with the second team.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Running back Jonathan Stewart is scheduled to meet with a doctor Tuesday. Stewart has been sidelined with an ankle injury the entire preseason. He might end up opening the season on the physically unable to perform list.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

After losing outside linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler to season-ending injuries, the Saints reportedly have made a trade with San Francisco for linebacker Parys Haralson. He’ll get a chance at immediate playing time, but the Saints still need Martez Wilson and Junior Galette to step up as pass rushers.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Mark Cook writes that, despite a shaky preseason, quarterback Josh Freeman still gives the Buccaneers the best chance of winning. I agree. Freeman’s performance in preseason games has been dismal, but preseason results often are misleading. The alternative is rookie Mike Glennon, who hasn’t looked great in the preseason. The Bucs need to open the season with Freeman. If his struggles continue, then you start think about making a switch.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons will hold their first practice of training camp this afternoon. Here are five things I’ll be keeping a close eye on:

Steven Jackson. The Falcons signed Jackson to spice up their running game after Michael Turner ran out of gas last season. But Jackson’s not exactly young either. He turned 30 earlier this week, which isn’t always a good age for running backs. But I’m expecting to see Jackson show his legs are a good bit fresher than Turner’s.

How much Tony Gonzalez practices. Part of the reason the Falcons were able to coax Gonzalez out of retiring was because they made a deal that he could go lightly in training camp. I’m guessing Gonzalez’s participation will be extremely limited. But that’s good news because the Falcons know what they have in Gonzalez and they’ll be able to take an extended look at rookie tight end Levine Toilolo.

How the offensive line lines up. Center Todd McClure retired and right tackle Tyson Clabo was released. The Falcons are moving second-year pro Peter Konz from guard to center. Garrett Reynolds appears to be the favorite to take Konz’s spot at guard. Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes are expected to compete at right tackle.

Stephen Nicholas. The veteran linebacker took a lot of heat from fans after opposing tight ends shredded the Falcons in the playoffs. But I’m not sure Nicholas was completely healthy. The Falcons still must have confidence in him because they didn’t make any dramatic moves at linebacker.

The defensive tackles. The Falcons had some talks with free agent Richard Seymour, but he has not been signed. That means the Falcons seem likely to head into the season with Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry as their top three defensive tackles. All three are heading into the final year of their contracts and I’m curious to see who steps up.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the one move each team in the NFC South needed to make but didn't.

Atlanta Falcons: There still is time to sign a veteran like Richard Seymour, but I’m surprised the Falcons didn’t do more at defensive tackle during the offseason. The team invested two draft picks in defensive ends but didn’t touch the middle of a defensive line that isn’t exactly a strength. Jonathan Babineaux is aging and heading into the final year of his contract. Corey Peters and Peria Jerry also are headed into the last year of their contracts. The Falcons stayed away from quick fixes this offseason, but they might get to training camp and realize they need another defensive tackle.

Carolina Panthers: This one is almost too easy. The Panthers went into the offseason with a glaring need at cornerback. They signed some midlevel players and have hopes for some of their young corners. But this team doesn’t have anything close to a No. 1 cornerback. In a division in which you’re going up against the likes of Roddy White, Julio Jones, Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston, that’s a scary proposition. The Panthers did put a lot of emphasis on their defensive line, which better generate a tremendous pass rush to compensate for the lack of elite talent at cornerback.

New Orleans Saints: General manager Mickey Loomis worked some minor miracles to get out of a nightmare salary-cap situation in the offseason. But the Saints, who are converting to a 3-4 defensive scheme, didn’t bring in any elite pass-rushers. They thought free agent pickup Victor Butler could blossom into something, but Butler will miss the season after suffering a knee injury during an offseason workout. That leaves the Saints looking to Will Smith, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson as their outside linebackers. Smith is aging and converting from defensive end to linebacker. Wilson and Galette have shown some potential, but neither is a proven pass-rusher.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sources have told me the Buccaneers would have given strong consideration to drafting tight end Tyler Eifert with their first-round pick if they hadn’t traded it away in the deal for cornerback Darrelle Revis. That tells me the Bucs realized they had a significant need at tight end. The shocking thing is they didn’t make some other dramatic move to improve the situation at the position. Instead, they’re going with Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree. There are indications that the Bucs think Crabtree can be a productive pass-catcher. But I wouldn’t count on the tight ends being a big part of Tampa Bay’s passing game this season.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player entering a contract year on each NFC South team who must deliver in 2013:

Atlanta Falcons: Let’s skip the easy way out and not go with quarterback Matt Ryan, because he would be only a temporary answer. You know as well as I do that Ryan is going to get signed to a huge contract extension before the season ever gets here. The Falcons don’t have a lot of other players not under contract through at least 2014, but one position group jumped out at me when I looked at guys heading into contract years. That’s defensive tackle, where Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry all are headed into the final year of their deals. I think Peters is the most significant one. If he can produce a solid season, I think the Falcons will want to keep him around to anchor the interior of their defensive line. Babineaux is aging, and some scouts will tell you he’s in decline. The Falcons don’t hold on to aging players too long (see John Abraham and Michael Turner), so this could be the last year with the Falcons for Babineaux. Same for Jerry, but for a different reason. A major injury as a rookie has kept him from reaching his potential, and it’s unlikely he’ll get a second contract with the Falcons. Peters is the one guy in his prime with starter ability, and a strong season could secure his future.

Carolina Panthers: Defensive end Greg Hardy isn’t fighting for a job as much as he is competing to earn a fortune. Hardy hit double-digit sacks last season, and he and Charles Johnson arguably are one of the league’s best defensive end tandems. If Hardy can hit double digits or close again, he’s going to earn a huge payday with the Panthers or someone else. Although Carolina has salary-cap issues well into the future, I think the Panthers will find a way to pay Hardy if he delivers another big season.

New Orleans Saints: Safety Malcolm Jenkins’ rookie contract initially was scheduled to run through 2014, but it was structured in a way that allowed the final year to void. That means this is a contract year for Jenkins, and the pressure is on the former first-round pick. He seems to have all the physical and intellectual skills, but he has yet to put it all together and become the player the Saints had hoped for. There is at least some reason to believe it all might come together for Jenkins. But the use of this year’s first-round draft pick on safety Kenny Vaccaro means the Saints are prepared to move on if Jenkins doesn’t step up.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: No player fits this category more firmly than quarterback Josh Freeman. When the Bucs were 6-4 and Freeman was playing well last season, it seemed certain that Tampa Bay would lock up Freeman for the long term this offseason. But Freeman stumbled down the stretch, raising concerns about whether he really is a franchise quarterback. The Bucs decided to hold off on the extension and let Freeman go into this season needing to prove he’s worth a long-term commitment. I don’t see third-round draft pick Mike Glennon as an immediate threat to beat out Freeman for the starting job. But the Bucs have started the process of trying to find an answer in case Freeman isn’t it.

NFC South afternoon update

May, 28, 2013
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Time for an afternoon run through some news and notes from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Former Atlanta defensive end John Abraham reportedly told at least one of the teams he visited with as a free agent that he wants to play on 60 percent of the defensive downs. Abraham is 35. It’s nice that he still is so competitive. But Abraham is going to have to accept reality and lower his expectations, or else he’ll end up retired.

John Clayton has a column on how the draft class of 2009 has been underwhelming. That’s particularly true in the NFC South (although Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman has a chance to rescue things with a big season) and it might hold more true in Atlanta than anywhere. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry’s career has been a sad saga. I think this guy would have been a big-time player, but he tore up his knee in his second NFL game. He’s been reduced to being a role player and is heading into the final year of his contract -- assuming he still is on the roster at the end of the preseason.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Defensive end Greg Hardy talks about the challenges of playing with asthma.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

WalterFootball.com already has a 2014 mock draft out. The bad news is they think the Saints still will be looking for a pass-rusher. The good news is the Saints don’t pick until No. 27, which, if it comes true, would mean that their defense can’t be all that horrible in 2013.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

With some help from hockey’s Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin ranks highly on this list of young, franchise-caliber duos from 26 cities. Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Carolina’s Cam Newton also are a part of top-20 duos. New Orleans isn’t represented, but I think it’s fair to assume that’s because Drew Brees doesn’t qualify as “young."
Last week, John Manasso reported that the Atlanta Falcons and veteran defensive tackle Richard Seymour were in contract talks.

That makes plenty of sense because Seymour has a home in the Atlanta area and the Falcons need some depth in the middle of a defensive line that includes Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry.

But I wouldn’t count on seeing any deal between the Falcons and Seymour for at least a few more days. At the moment, the Falcons are only $1.93 million under the salary cap and top draft picks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford remain unsigned.

However, there is a big bump in cap room on the way for the Falcons. Due to the fact, the Falcons designated offensive tackle Tyson Clabo as a June 1 release, they’ll free up $4.5 million in cap space later this week.

That would give the Falcons more than enough room to get Seymour and their draft picks signed.

Weakest link: Atlanta Falcons

May, 14, 2013
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Through the NFL draft and the early stages of free agency, most of the NFC South teams have done a nice job addressing their major needs.

But there is always room for improvement. With that in mind, I’m going to start a series in which I’ll take a look at the weakest link for each NFC South team. We’ll start with the Atlanta Falcons.

Defensive tackle wasn’t exactly a strength for the Falcons last year and they haven’t done anything to improve in this area. They have Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux as the starters and Peria Jerry would be the top backup in the rotation if things remain the way they are.

But I’m not sure the Falcons can afford to stick with the status quo. Babineaux isn’t getting any younger and Jerry isn’t anything special.

There is a lot of clamoring from Atlanta fans for the Falcons to go out and sign veteran Richard Seymour. There’s good logic behind that. Seymour would bring an instant upgrade to the middle of the defensive line.

There hasn’t been any hard evidence that the Falcons are interested in Seymour. But they might be playing the waiting game and seeing if his price drops.

The Falcons also are in a situation where they might have to wait until after June 1, when they free up $4.5 million in salary-cap room for the release of Tyson Clabo, to pursue Seymour or anyone else of consequence at defensive tackle.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a key player from each NFC South team who needs to show something in offseason sessions:

Atlanta Falcons: Drafted in the first round in 2009, Peria Jerry was supposed to be a dominant defensive tackle. That got thrown off track very quickly when Jerry tore up his knee in the second game of his rookie season. He has come back but never has been close to being the player he was before the injury. The Falcons have accepted that Jerry is only a role player. But Vance Walker left via free agency, and they would like Jerry’s role to increase this season. They want him to be the top option in the rotation behind starters Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters. This is the final year of Jerry’s contract. If the Falcons aren’t completely sold on what they see in Jerry during the rest of the offseason program and preseason, they could bring in a veteran defensive tackle.

Carolina Panthers: It is blatantly clear that it is now or never for wide receiver Armanti Edwards. The Panthers gave up a future second-round pick to draft Edwards in the third round of the 2010 draft. The hope was that the former college quarterback could be an effective receiver and return man. To date, Edwards has five career receptions and hasn’t been able to hold on to the return job. The acquisitions of return specialist Ted Ginn and a growing list of young receivers seem to put Edwards very much on the bubble as training camp approaches.

New Orleans Saints: Safety Malcolm Jenkins might be the most perplexing player in this division. A first-round pick in 2009, Jenkins seems to possess every talent (physical skills, work ethic and intellect) necessary to be a star. Yet Jenkins really hasn’t had much of an impact. Maybe new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will figure out a way to get Jenkins finally to play up to his potential. But the Saints used a first-round pick on Kenny Vaccaro, and they want to get him on the field. Maybe the arrival of Vaccaro will light a fire under Jenkins.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The team is putting a lot of eggs in Da’Quan Bowers' basket. After letting Michael Bennett depart through free agency, the Bucs have made it clear they’re counting on Bowers to be their main pass-rusher. The potential is there for that move to work out well. Bowers has rare physical skills and quickness. But injuries slowed him in his first two seasons. He needs to show the Bucs he can handle the wear and tear of starting for an entire season.
The 2013 draft is over, but Mel Kiper Jr. already is looking ahead.

Kiper’s first Insider 2014 Big Board is out and it’s worth pondering and thinking about what NFC South teams could be in the market for next year.

The biggest issue hanging out there is whether Josh Freeman is the long-term answer in Tampa Bay. I think Freeman will be fine and end up eventually getting another contract with the Buccaneers. But what if that doesn’t happen?

Well, the 2014 group of quarterbacks is looking better than the 2013 crop. Kiper has three quarterbacks rated in the top 25: Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Tajh Boyd.

And what if the New Orleans Saints don’t find an effective pass-rusher for their 3-4 defense? UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr is No. 5 on Kiper’s board.

Carolina is rolling the dice this season and going with a bunch of mid-level cornerbacks. Maybe some of those guys rise up. If they don’t, Kiper has Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy in his top 10.

I can look ahead and see Atlanta having a potential need at defensive tackle. Jonathan Babineaux isn’t getting any younger and Corey Peters and Peria Jerry aren’t getting any younger. Unless the Falcons fall apart, they’re not likely to have a top-10 pick. But they could target someone like LSU’s Anthony Johnson, who is No. 22 on Kiper’s board.
There has been a lot of talk about Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan eventually getting a contract extension.

It’s going to be an expensive proposition for the Falcons. But it shouldn’t be all that complicated. The Falcons want Ryan for the long term and he wants to stay in Atlanta. Thanks to Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco, the parameters are in place for a potential Ryan deal.

My guess is the Falcons and Ryan will reach an agreement sometime between now and the start of training camp. Of the NFC South players heading into the final year of their contracts, Ryan is the biggest name.

But I just scanned through the contract situations of all four NFC South rosters and I’m seeing at least one player from every team that could be in line for an extension. Let’s take a look:

Atlanta Falcons. Ryan obviously is the priority. But there’s one other player to keep an eye on in Atlanta. Defensive tackle Corey Peters is heading into the final year of his contract. Peters has become a solid starter and he’s helped by the fact that fellow defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry also are headed into the final season of their contracts. Babineaux is aging and I don’t see the Falcons extending him. Jerry’s career has been thrown off track by injuries, so I don’t see him as a candidate for an extension. It would be nice to have a little bit of long-term stability at defensive tackle. The Falcons likely will free up some cap room when they extend Ryan and that could allow them to give Peters a new deal.

Carolina Panthers. They’ve spent this offseason trimming salary-cap space, but it might be time to think about spending a little money. Defensive end Greg Hardy is heading into the final season of his contract. Hardy reached double-digit sacks last season and he and Charles Johnson give the Panthers one of the league’s top defensive end tandems. The Panthers might be wise to extend Hardy soon. If he turns in another big season, his price tag is only going to go up.

New Orleans Saints. They’ve worked their way through a difficult salary-cap situation this offseason, but it might be time to take care of the most underpaid guy on the team. Tight end Jimmy Graham is heading into the last year of his contract. In becoming one of the league’s best tight ends, Graham clearly has outperformed his rookie contract. Graham hasn’t complained about his relatively low salary, but it might be wise to make a pre-emptive strike and make him happy.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Wide receiver Mike Williams is headed into the final season of his contract and there have been indications the Bucs want to extend him soon. That would be a smart move. The Bucs have enough cap room to give Williams a front-loaded contract. He and Vincent Jackson form a very good combination at receiver. If the Bucs wait too long and Williams puts up another big season, he could get huge money on the free-agent market.

NFC South remaining needs

April, 29, 2013
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The NFL draft has come and gone. Overall, the NFC South teams did a good job of addressing their needs.

But no team is perfect. Let’s take a look at one area for each team that still could use some work:

Atlanta Falcons: They fortified the situation at cornerback nicely and that was the only glaring need. But, when you look a little deeper, defensive tackle is a spot where the Falcons don’t have a lot of depth. They lost Vance Walker in free agency. That leaves Peria Jerry as the only real option in a rotation behind Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters. The Falcons might want to bring in one more defensive tackle with some experience. Someone like a Richard Seymour would make a lot of sense.

Carolina Panthers: They did a great job of improving the middle of their defensive line by taking Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the first two rounds. But the Panthers ignored their secondary in the draft. The Panthers did bring in some mid-level free agents before the draft. But they might want to bring in some more.

New Orleans Saints: By not taking a pass-rusher early, the Saints seemed to give a vote of confidence to Victor Butler, Martez Wilson and Junior Galette. All three have some upside, but there are no guarantees. The Saints are tight against the cap, but they might be wise to bring in one experienced pass-rusher at a bargain rate.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs like to say they think Luke Stocker can take the next step and become a dependable all-around tight end. They’ll also tell you they think Tom Crabtree has upside as a pass catcher. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to add an experienced tight end to the mix.
A look at the NFC South’s best and worst from the past five NFL drafts, one team at a time.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Best choice: Matt Ryan. The Falcons got their franchise quarterback with the third overall pick in 2008. That was a great start for coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Ryan’s been good from the beginning, but he elevated his game to the next level in 2012 as the Falcons became a pass-first team. At times, Ryan was in the conversation for Most Valuable Player and he should only continue to get better. The next chore for the Falcons is to lock Ryan up with a contract extension.

Worst choice: Peria Jerry. The defensive tackle was taken with the No. 24 overall pick in 2009. He had some injury problems in college, but that trend got worse when Jerry tore up his knee at the start of his rookie season. He’s never been the same player he was before the injury and has been reduced to a backup role.

Verdict pending: Peter Konz. A second-round pick in 2012, Konz wasn’t able to beat out guard Garrett Reynolds at the start of his rookie year. But Konz stepped into the starting lineup near midseason and had some good games. Still, Konz’s future is very much up in the air. Although it looks like he can be a solid guard, he may have to move to center if the Falcons don’t re-sign veteran Todd McClure.

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