NFC South: Pittsburgh Steelers
It wasn’t a trade but two of the biggest free-agent signings by the Steelers and Panthers amounted to two players switching teams. The Steelers signed former Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell on March 11, luring him away from Carolina with a five-year, $25 million contract. The Panthers finally added a wide receiver when they signed Jerricho Cotchery last Thursday to a two-year contract. ESPN.com Steelers writer Scott Brown and ESPN.com Panthers writer David Newton take a closer look at this de facto swap.
Scott Brown: David, you reported that Cotchery’s contract is worth as much as $5 million. I’m happy for Cotchery, a good player and an even better person, but I am a little surprised that the Panthers gave that much money to a complementary wide receiver who turns 32 in June. Is it a sign that the Panthers were desperate at wide receiver or do they really like Cotchery because he is still productive and gives them a veteran presence?
David Newton: Maybe a little bit of both. After losing out on Hakeem Nicks and with other free agent receivers signing elsewhere, the market was pretty bare. Cotchery was one of the few veterans left, and the Panthers couldn't go into training camp without somebody to help bring along what likely will be the youngest receiving corps in the NFL -- the 31-year-old Cotchery aside. His value comes from his experience and the leadership. That he's played in a system similar to what offensive coordinator Mike Shula ran for five of his 11 seasons is a plus. That he can play all three receiver spots even though he has been labeled as a slot receiver also worked in his favor. Is he as good as Steve Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver, who was released? I don't think so, even though Smith soon will be 35. But everything else Cotchery brings seems to be a plus.
Having said that, Mitchell brought an aggressive attitude to Carolina's defense last season. Was that something the Steelers were looking for when they signed him?
Brown: They really needed to get younger and faster in the secondary and the Steelers accomplished both by signing Mitchell. Adding another thumper to the back end of their defense is a bonus and it looks like Mitchell has the range to cover a lot of ground. He will need to do that playing with Troy Polamalu. The eight-time Pro Bowler moves around the field, sometimes leaving the Steelers with a single safety as the last line of defense.
I really like this signing for the Steelers as Mitchell is only 27 and seems to be on the upswing of his career. He talked about his work ethic during his introductory news conference in Pittsburgh and seems to have the desire to be great. If he gives the Steelers a badly needed playmaker for their defense they will be very happy with this signing.
Since you covered Mitchell during the season in which he really blossomed what can you tell Steelers fans about one of the newest additions to the team?
Newton: He's one of the best quotes on the locker room, mainly because he's brutally honest. It's refreshing. He's also one of the more fined players in the league, which he doesn't hesitate to remind commissioner Roger Goodell of. Beyond all that, he's a solid player in coverage and with the occasional pass rush. His numbers this past season were good enough to make the Pro Bowl. Just not a lot of people knew much about him. But the thing I liked the most, and the reason the Panthers wanted him back, was he brought an aggressive attitude to the secondary -- heck, the defense.
Having said that, was aggressiveness something the Steelers were looking for or needed when they signed him?
Brown: They need the mindset because it lends itself to making game-changing plays and the Steelers could more of that from their defensive backs. They intercepted just 10 passes last season, ranking near the bottom of the league, and they were minus-four in turnover differential. If Mitchell builds on a season in which he intercepted four passes -- four fewer than the Steelers’ defensive backs combined -- he will make for a good pairing with Polamalu.
The Mitchell signing got the Steelers off to a good start in free agency but they have since lost two of their top three wide receivers. I think losing Cotchery was bigger than Emmanuel Sanders -- even though the latter was a starter -- because it seemed so likely that he would re-sign with the Steelers. But the Panthers made Cotchery and offer he couldn’t refuse, leaving the Steelers with little experience at wide receiver behind Pro Bowler Antonio Brown before they signed Lance Moore.
David, what was the reaction from Panthers’ fans to the Cotchery signing? Relief more than anything that they finally brought in an established wide receiver?
Newton: More astonishment that they let 34-year-old Steve Smith go and signed a 31-year-old that hasn't accomplished nearly what Smith has. I think a few were won over when Cotchery said out of respect he would not wear Smith's No. 89, the number he wore at Pittsburgh. He seems like a classy guy and people will appreciate that. There's still concern that he's not a No. 1 or maybe not even a No. 2 receiver. Many are calling for Carolina to trade for Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, even though the price tag for Jackson would be prohibitive for a team in need of a true No. 1.
How do you see Cotchery fitting in on a team that is looking to take the next step in the playoffs after a 12-4 season? Does he have enough in the tank to be a No. 2 at least?
Brown: Cotchery is class personified, and he is a consummate professional -- in his preparation, dealings with the media and mentoring younger players. Steelers rookie Markus Wheaton became Cotchery’s shadow last year because he wanted to learn from such a respected veteran. Does that translate into Cotchery giving the Panthers the kind of production he enjoyed last season when he rejuvenated his career? I’m not sure that is the case if the Panthers are counting on him starting.
I think Cotchery would best serve Carolina as a No. 3 wide receiver, one who uses his smarts and experience to get open more than his speed. I can tell you this: Ben Roethlisberger trusted Cotchery more than any wide receiver on the roster last season and I think Cam Newton will also find that Cotchery is always where he is supposed to be and just as reliable with his hands. What Carolina has to though is keep adding reinforcements at wide receiver so they don’t have to rely too heavily on Cotchery.
- Coach Ron Rivera held out just about all of his starters and it showed. Charlie Batch and Pittsburgh’s offense went right through Carolina’s defense for a touchdown on the first drive of the night. But let’s keep in mind this wasn’t Carolina’s rebuilt -- and healthy -- first-team defense.
- Veteran backup Derek Anderson got the start at quarterback and played the first half. Jimmy Clausen replaced him. The Panthers already have decided Anderson will be Cam Newton's backup. I've been back and forth on whether or not the Panthers should even keep Clausen, a second-round draft pick in 2010, on the roster. After watching Clausen in extended playing time, I say keep him around. Clausen wasn't flawless, but he showed more than I've seen out of him in a long time (maybe since his Notre Dame days). He led the Panthers on a long touchdown drive on his first series. He also threw a long touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. I had been thinking the Panthers might be better off letting Clausen go, keeping only two quarterbacks on the active roster and bringing in a developmental project on the practice squad. But I think Clausen showed he still has some upside. I'd keep him around, just in case something happens to Newton or Anderson. If it does, I'd rather see Clausen than some developmental guy.
- The Panthers have gone to great lengths to improve the special teams. But I think there’s still reason for concern. It was negated by a penalty, but Pittsburgh’s Chris Rainey had what should have been a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown.
- One guy who continues to impress me is defensive end Thomas Keiser. He’s done some good things earlier in the preseason and he did it again against the Steelers. Keiser swatted down a Batch pass at the line of scrimmage. I think Keiser’s emergence was a big reason why Eric Norwood was released earlier in the week.
- I think receiver Joe Adams makes the team, mostly because the team used a fourth-round pick on him. But I think the Panthers might go slowly with Adams, who was a contender for some work as a return man. But I think Adam’s muffed punt return and lost fumble could prompt the Panthers to bring him along slowly. He did have a 20-yard punt return at the end of the first half.
- Speaking of rookie receivers, it’s going to be difficult to cut undrafted free agent Jared Green. He had a nice training camp and caught a touchdown pass from Clausen on Thursday night. I think the numbers make it almost impossible to keep Green on the 53-man roster. But I think he’s a strong candidate for the practice squad.
- The quick conclusion when the Panthers released veteran Olindo Mare was that Justin Medlock would be their kicker. He still might be. But Medlock missed two field-goal attempts on Thursday. Neither was a chip shot, but you still have to wonder if the Panthers might watch the waiver wire for kickers.
There’s a perception that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan doesn’t have a very strong arm.
If you saw Saturday night’s 34-16 preseason loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers, you now know that’s a total myth. In the second quarter, Ryan threw one of the prettiest deep passes you’ll ever see. With the ball at his own 48-yard line, Ryan took a deep drop and heaved a perfect pass a few yards into the end zone.
Julio Jones, who was brought into bring explosive plays and allow Ryan to showcase his arm, slightly beat his man and dove for a pass that couldn’t have been put in a better location.
One slight problem -- Jones dropped the pass. But, hey, it’s a preseason game and the fact he dropped it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is Ryan -- who completed 22 of 42 passes for 220 yards with one touchdown and one interception while playing only the first half -- showed himself, his teammates, his coaches and his critics that he’s got a big enough arm to do some deep damage.
The Falcons have made it pretty clear they’re going to throw down field more often this season. Now, they should have the confidence to do it frequently and maybe Jones will hold onto the ball.
Some other observations on the Falcons:
- The Atlanta defense made Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown look like an All-Pro. He caught two touchdown passes, including a long one where safety Thomas DeCoud completely mistimed a leap to try to intercept the ball.
- It might be cliché to say a guy is in midseason form. But it’s accurate when you talk about Atlanta receiver Roddy White. How many receivers have 100-yard games in the preseason, unless one of the catches is for 60 or 70 yards? While playing only the first half, White had eight catches for 101 yards and his longest play went for 22 yards.
- I can’t help but wonder what Atlanta’s defensive line is going to look like after rosters get cut down to 53 players. Defensive ends Ray Edwards, John Abraham and Kroy Biermann are probably locks to make the team. So are defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry. Vance Walker, who had a sack Saturday night, is probably battling Trey Lewis for the final spot. Or the Falcons could carry five defensive tackles. But things get interesting at defensive end after the first three. The Falcons like young ends Lawrence Sidbury and Cliff Matthews. They also have veteran Chauncey Davis. But the interesting thing is Davis has a $3.75 million salary-cap figure. That’s way too high a number for a fourth defensive end. I’m guessing the Falcons go with Sidbury or Matthews because they can free up $3 million in cap space for this year by releasing Davis.
1. The debut of Ray Edwards. He was Atlanta’s prized signing in free agency, but fans have yet to see the defensive end play. He had a minor operation on his knee in the preseason and the team has brought him along slowly. He’s supposed to get a fair amount of playing time. Edwards might not go into the third quarter like the rest of the starters, but the Falcons are anxious to get a look at their investment and they’ll be looking for signs he can help the pass rush.
2. Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon at linebacker. These two have played before, but haven’t worked together as starters in the regular season. Weatherspoon took Nicholas’ starting job last year and showed promise as a rookie. But his first year was interrupted by injuries. Weatherspoon has the potential to be a play-making linebacker. Nicholas has good speed and athleticism and he’s back in the starting lineup in place of veteran Mike Peterson. The Falcons wanted more speed at linebacker and they’re hoping that translates into more big plays.
3. Matt Ryan and the offense. There have been a few big plays and bright moments in the first two preseason games. But there also have been some mistakes. The third preseason game is the one where starters get the most playing time and the Falcons want to show they have the kinks worked out on an offense that has a chance to be one of the league’s best.
It’s understandable since both have good size, running ability and strong arms. But the draft gurus weren’t the only ones comparing Newton to Roethlisberger.
In Roethlisberger’s rookie year, Pittsburgh had strong talent and didn’t ask the quarterback to do too much. In the 14 games (13 starts) Roethlisberger appeared in, the Steelers averaged a little over 21 passes a game. Roethlisberger threw for 2,621 yards with 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
The Panthers gladly would take those kinds of numbers from Newton and they’d be thrilled if he came anywhere close to posting a 66.4 percent completion rate like Roethlisberger did as a rookie. Although Carolina is coming off a 2-14 season, the front office and coaching staff don’t view the Panthers as a typical 2-14 team and they believe Newton could be in a position to succeed right away without having to do everything.
There’s some sound logic in that. Carolina should have a good running game. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are one of the league’s top duos at running back. If right tackle Jeff Otah is healthy, the offensive line should be very good. The Panthers brought in Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey to add a pass-catching element to the tight end position. If the Panthers can get a No. 2 receiver to step up behind Steve Smith, this offense is in good shape.
Of course, that’s all assuming Newton can come in and take advantage of what’s around him. He doesn’t have to be an instant superstar. He just needs to make a few plays a game and let the rest of the offense do its thing. Sort of like what Roethlisberger did as a rookie.
By the way, did we mention the 2004 Steelers went 15-1?
TAMPA, Fla. -- There could be even another element to the quarterback situation for the Buccaneers.
The team could be looking to trade one of its quarterbacks for a draft pick. Coach Raheem Morris wouldn't confirm an NFL.com report that the Bucs are shopping three of their quarterbacks for a trade, but he didn't deny it either.
"Oh, man, they're Nostradamus," Morris said when asked about the report. "Everybody in this league, all 32 teams around this time start calling front offices. I can't control who calls us. Everybody's interested in everybody's roster and everybody's looking to nit-pick off everybody's roster. Everybody has talent and you're trying to accumulate the best talent on your football team. That's just all that talk is what that is."
But it makes total sense for the Bucs to at least try to find out what the market value might be for Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown or Josh Johnson. They're not about to let go of rookie Josh Freeman, who they call their franchise quarterback.
But that's likely in the future. For now, it appears the Bucs will open the season with either Leftwich or McCown as their starter. They're about even at this point and a potential trade could play into Morris' decision, although the Bucs likely would be able to get only a late-round pick (at best) for any of their quarterbacks.
Leftwich, a former starter in Jacksonville, probably has more trade value because of his experience. McCown has only seven starts. Johnson, a second-year pro, has yet to play in an NFL game and probably wouldn't bring much in a trade.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
METAIRIE, La. -- At long last, Jon Gruden has found the perfect quarterback.
Too bad he's not coaching him, but Gruden heaped praise on New Orleans' Drew Brees on Thursday afternoon. Rich Gannon might have come close at times, but Brad Johnson, Jeff Garcia and the 372 other quarterbacks who passed through Gruden's hands in Tampa Bay never got this many kudos.
"I love him," Gruden said. "I've always been a big fan of his. What you see isn't always the whole picture. What people don't see is Drew Brees behind the scenes. He's on top of things as you can imagine. This is very important to him, every snap, the outcome of every play. He's a great competitor. A fearless guy. A tremendous leader. Couple that with his talent, his instincts and the fact that he's a lot better athlete than people think and you have a superstar quarterback, who probably hasn't gotten the national or global recognition that he deserves, especially after last season."
Gruden is spending a couple of days visiting Saints' camp. Part of it is to prepare for his job as a "Monday Night Football" broadcaster. Part of it is to visit with Saints coach Sean Payton, whom Gruden worked with in Philadelphia. Payton is letting Gruden sit in on meetings and stand on the sidelines during practice.
Gruden said he plans to do the same thing with Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin next week.
|New Bucs coach Raheem Morris, center, has surrounded himself with coordinators who have head-coaching experience.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- Jim Bates walked into a room full of people he had never met Wednesday morning, smiled a few times and started talking. Within a minute or two, there was a comfort level.
A day earlier, Jeff Jagodzinski did the exact same thing.
If nothing else at this point, it's pretty easy to see the new offensive and defensive coordinators of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are extremely poised, polished and very good at communicating. Yeah, they also have long histories of drawing X's and O's pretty well, but Raheem Morris' decision to hire these two guys to run his offense and defense was about more than drawing up plays.
When you're a 32-year-old, first-time head coach, who never truly has even been a coordinator in the NFL, you need help from those who have been there before. When you're trying to build credibility, one of the smartest things you can do is surround yourself with it.
That's precisely what Morris did when he hired Bates and Jagodzinski.
It's not exactly a new concept. Think Mike Tomlin (one of Morris' best friends) working with veteran defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh and winning the Super Bowl in their second year together. Think Atlanta's Mike Smith going out and getting offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and turning around a dismal franchise in their first season. Or even think back into Tampa Bay's history and remember when first-time head coach Tony Dungy tabbed Monte Kiffin as his defensive coordinator and the duo made the NFL's worst franchise into an annual playoff contender.
"I think Raheem is jumping all over this opportunity," Bates said. "He's hired an excellent coaching staff, and it's our job to help us win games. If we win games that's all to be decided. Raheem will do a great job in his role. Age is not a factor. Sometimes a younger guy can get closer to the team than some of us older guys."
|Cliff Welch/Icon SMI|
|Jon Gruden's inability to relate to players contributed to his downfall in Tampa.|
In large part, Morris, who was Tampa Bay's defensive backs coach last year, was promoted because ownership believes he can relate to players. An inability to do that turned out to be a fatal flaw for predecessor Jon Gruden, who has been bashed by multiple players since his firing.
There's an old adage in the NFL that if you fire a fat coach you go out and hire a skinny one. Morris may be Gruden's opposite in that he's capable of being a buddy to his players, some of whom are older than he is.
But the bigger question is whether Morris knows how to be a head coach. That answer will play out. But the smartest move Morris has made so far is surrounding himself with two guys who have been head coaches and coordinators and that's an excellent start.
"If I can share some things that can help Raheem, I will," Jagodzinski said. "That's what a staff is supposed to do. They wouldn't call it a staff if you could do it all yourself."
Morris has mentioned Tomlin, Gruden and Herm Edwards (coaches he's worked with in the past) as his role models. Those guys aren't with him now, but Bates and Jagodzinski give Morris two guys who have been in his shoes.
Start with Bates. He's 62 and has a grandfatherly presence. Sure, Bates can get as excited as anyone in the heat of a game, but he does it with the coolness of a guy who has been coaching for 37 years. Bates has been a head coach -- on an interim basis -- and players rallied for him to get the full-time job. He got that same kind of support from the players in Green Bay when he interviewed for the Packers' job in 2006, but the team elected to go with Mike McCarthy.
Bates has been a defensive coordinator for the Falcons, Dolphins, Packers and Broncos. There have been plenty of times when Bates' name came up as a possible head coach, but those days probably are over at a time when the NFL trend is to hire young head coaches.
"It was close," Bates said about his opportunities to be a head coach. "There's no bitterness. I'm glad to be where I'm at. I'm happy to be defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Bucs. I am in the best situation Jim Bates could be in right now."
Jagodzinski's got a similar, although shorter, history. He's been a head coach, although not in the NFL, and a history as an NFL coordinator. Jagodzinski, 45, was Boston College's head coach the last two years, but was fired when, against the school's wishes, he interviewed for the head job with the New York Jets in January.
"I don't think it's a step back,'' Jagodzinski said.
Maybe not. There's little doubt Jagodzinski will have control over the offense. Morris' experience is on the defensive side. A little bit of success could help Jagodzinski, who has been a coordinator in Green Bay, become an NFL head coach.
But that's down the road. For now, a large part of the job for Jagodzinski and Bates is to make sure Morris succeeds as a head coach and their roles will go way beyond drawing up new playbooks and calling plays.
"Yes, X's and O's are important, but a lot of times it is, "Can you work with the guy? Do you feel comfortable with him?" Jagodzinski said. "That's one of the most important things I learned about being a head coach. You better surround yourself with the best possible people that you can. It wasn't a popularity contest, it was the best possible people."
Only time will tell if Morris succeeds. But it sure looks like he's surrounded himself with the best possible people. That's a great start.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
First, the Bucs traded a seventh-round pick in 2009 to the Steelers for Mahan. Then, they turned around and traded Buenning to Chicago for a 2009 seventh-round pick. (Officially, the Bucs are saying both trades involve an undisclosed draft pick. But league sources said each trade involves a 2009 seventh-round pick.)
Mahan, who previously played for Tampa Bay, was expendable after losing his starting center job to Justin Hartwig. Mahan can play guard or center and the Bucs were thin on interior depth with starting guard Davin Joseph likely out for at least a month with a broken foot.
Rookie Jeremy Zuttah is expected to start in Joseph's place, but Mahan will give the Bucs a solid backup and flexibility on the interior.