NFC South: Rashad Jennings
The New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons, a pair of 2013 disappointments with identical 2-2 records and hopes of factoring into their respective division races, play at MetLife Stadium at 1 p.m. ET Sunday. ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure present their preview:
Graziano: Vaughn, I'm going to get to the Falcons' defense in a minute, because I have a ton of questions about that. But I'd be remiss if I didn't start by asking: What was tight end Levine Toilolo doing at right tackle in the loss to Minnesota, and are they going to have five real offensive linemen to suit up for them Sunday?
McClure: The Falcons really had no other choice at the end of the Vikings game after three starting offensive linemen -- center Joe Hawley (ACL), left guard Justin Blalock (back) and right tackle Lamar Holmes (foot) -- exited with injuries. Two other linemen were inactive for the game. So, yes, depth is an issue with Hawley and Holmes on season-ending injured reserve. The good thing for the Falcons is that linemen Gabe Carimi, Peter Konz, Ryan Schraeder and rookie James Stone are capable of playing multiple positions. The Falcons also promoted guard Harland Gunn from the practice squad and signed tackle Cameron Bradfield. Konz's performance will be key as he steps in for Hawley, and the Falcons better hope Blalock's back responds well in preparation for Sunday.
I watched the Giants-Redskins game and was impressed with what the Giants were able to accomplish offensively. Can they sustain such momentum, particularly coming off a couple of extra days of rest?
Graziano: They're hoping so. What the Giants are saying is that the way the offense has looked the past two games represents progress in the new system, and that's why they think it has a chance to be more "real" than what they showed in the first two games. We will see.
What has surprised me is the way the offensive line has held up in pass protection the past two games after looking like a liability in preseason and once the regular season started. If that continues, then Eli Manning -- who's releasing the ball about a half-second faster on average this season due to the shorter drops and quicker reads on which the new system is built -- should be in a strong position to succeed. But since they're not a quick-strike downfield offense right now, I wonder what happens if they fall behind in a game and have to get into a shootout with a high-powered offensive team. The Texans aren't that, and Washington didn't put up a fight. Atlanta has all the weapons, but is the passing game where it needs to be right now in order to take advantage of the talent?
McClure: I think that goes back to our first question, Dan. If quarterback Matt Ryan gets adequate protection, he's one of the elite quarterbacks in this league. But it's hard to get that type of protection when you're using tight ends at right tackle.
Ryan actually has done a marvelous job extending plays with his feet, partly due to increased protection up front in the form of veteran right guard Jon Asamoah and rookie left tackle Jake Matthews. If Ryan can overcome whatever changes are made up front for the Giants, then maybe he’ll get the offense back in high gear. That’s something the Falcons haven’t been able to do on the road, where they’ve dropped four straight. Ryan needs time to find a playmaker such as Julio Jones down the field.
I saw a few unheralded Giants make some plays in the last game. It seems like the Falcons' defense lets no-name players have career games every time out. What do you expect out of some of the Giants' role players?
Graziano: My guess is that you're referring to tight end Larry Donnell, who caught three touchdown passes in Washington. The Giants always believe they can find productivity at tight end on the cheap, so they didn't flinch when everybody was getting on them all offseason for not having one. Donnell runs good routes and can jump high to catch the ball (he's a 6-foot-6 former basketball player), and it's to the coaching staff's credit that that's exactly what they're using him to do. He's not much of a blocker and can't do anything after the catch, but the thing he's good at, he's very good at, and as long as other teams aren't defending it well, they Gians will keep going back to it.
Fundamentally, this offense is built to operate through the run game, and it will continue to do so with an emphasis on Rashad Jennings as the lead back. He and rookie Andre Williams split carries Thursday because Jennings had 34 carries in the game just four days earlier, and they got a big lead and could ease off the gas. But it'll be Jennings to run the ball and set up play-action, and then it'll be Donnell, Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle or whoever's open when they throw it. Short stuff, timing-based stuff, and stuff designed to minimize mistakes and put the unimpressive names they have in the best possible positions to succeed.
Which brings me to this: The Falcons' defense seems to be quite good at putting opposing offenses in position to succeed. Any hope of things getting any better, or is this a defense that's going to struggle all year?
McClure: It's going to be a struggle unless they magically come up with some way to trade for J.J. Watt. There are not enough playmakers on the Falcons' defense, with no elite pass-rusher and no ball hawking defensive back who will create a lot of turnovers. Throw in their defensive leader, strong safety William Moore, being placed on short-term IR with a shoulder injury, and you have the recipe for disaster.
The defense actually looked respectable against Tampa Bay, but that was because the offense got off to a hot start and the Buccaneers were in desperation mode early. There is no excuse for giving up 558 yards to a Vikings team playing without Adrian Peterson and with a rookie quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. The Falcons continue to struggle with their third-down defense and continue to give up explosive plays. Manning and Jennings, among others, should be itching to put up big numbers against this pathetic defense that gives up a league-worst 8.37 yards passing per play and yields 429.8 yards per game, which is second-to-last in the league.
Defensively, how do you expect the Giants to contend with Jones, Devin Hester and Antone Smith?
Graziano: The Giants made a change at free safety last week, benching Stevie Brown for Quintin Demps, who was signed as a kick returner and has good speed on the back end. That change was made because Brown was struggling, but also with an eye toward the speed matchups they had coming up on the schedule -- DeSean Jackson last week, the guys you mention this week, and Jeremy Maclin and the Eagles next week.
Demps will play in the post while Antrel Rolle can move up in the box, and they'll likely plaster cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on Jones and use Prince Amukamara on whoever the second receiver is. Trumaine McBride, who was a starter last season, has replaced the injured Walter Thurmond as the nickel. McBride is a high-effort guy, but you can win physical matchups against him. The Giants rely on Rodgers-Cromartie's and Amukamara's ability to hold up in man coverage, but they believe they have enough speed with Demps and weakside linebacker Jacquian Williams to help supplement that as needed. If Rodgers-Cromartie is limited this week with his thigh injury, that could affect things. But as of now, that's the plan.
Good stuff, Vaughn, thanks. Travel safe, and I'll see you Sunday.
- After looking very good in the first two preseason games, the first-team defense didn’t have a good outing against the Jaguars. It is only the preseason and, ordinarily, you could say the Saints still are getting into Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme. But this one deserves at least a little concern. Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert looked better than he did at any point in his rookie season. Gabbert completed 13 of 16 passes for 112 yards. Plus, it wasn’t like Gabbert had Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield. Instead, Rashad Jennings was the main ball carrier and he had 62 yards on 11 carries in the first half. The Jaguars had 101 rushing yards in the first half.
- There were a couple of Saints' injuries that didn’t look good. Linebacker Chris Chamberlain appeared to injure his knee and receiver Andy Tanner was carted off with an apparent injury to his left leg. No details on the injuries were available immediately, but losing either player for an extended period could hurt. Tanner, who had a nice training camp and start to the preseason, is competing for a roster spot as the fourth or fifth receiver. Chamberlain, who played for Spagnuolo in St. Louis, has a shot at being a starter or key backup.
- Drew Brees didn’t get a lot of help from his offensive line early on. Brees was sacked and lost a fumble with 9:00 left in the second quarter. But Brees bounced back and the Saints had a nice drive late in the first half to cut Jacksonville’s lead to 17-10. Brees finished the night completing 10 of 13 passes for 133 yards and a touchdown.
- Backup quarterback Chase Daniel had a very efficient outing. He completed 16 of 21 passes for 185 yards and two touchdown. Daniel led what should have been the game-winning drive, connecting with running back Travaris Cadet on a 24-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. But Jacksonville rallied for a touchdown with 13 seconds left to keep Daniel and Cadet from being the heroes.
- Defensive end Junior Galette continued his strong preseason, putting pressure on Gabbert several times. I think Galette could end up starting as Will Smith serves a suspension for the first four games. After that, Galette could be a regular in the rotation because he has some explosiveness as a pass-rusher.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
It's become pretty obvious the Saints didn't have Liberty running back Rashad Jennings rated nearly as high as many of us did.
The same can be said for the rest of the league. As the sixth round nears its end, Jennings is still on the board. A lot of people, including myself, thought the Saints might take Jennings with one of their two fourth-round picks.
They didn't and it became totally clear there was no chance of the Saints drafting Jennings when they traded up into the fifth round ... to get a punter. The Saints traded their seventh-round pick and a fifth-round choice in 2010 to the Giants to take Southern Methodist punter Thomas Morstead, even though you could make a pretty good case that the Saints don't need a punter with Glenn Pakulak already on the roster.
Barring any unlikely trade, the Saints are done in this draft because they're out of picks.
The Saints still want to add a power runner, but they're going to have to find it another way. One option is Mike Bell, who already is on the roster, but they're going to be watching to see if a big back becomes available from another team between now and the start of the regular season.
It's time for a Monday edition of the mailbag.
JM in Charlotte writes: Hey Pat, I heard Mel Kiper Jr say on the radio over the weekend that he expects DE Michael Johnson to drop into the 2nd round. If this happens, do the Panthers draft him?
Pat Yasinskas: If Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson falls all the way to No. 59, I think the Panthers would have to consider taking him, if they're still at that pick. Johnson is similar to Julius Peppers in a lot of ways, including a reputation for taking plays off. Whether Peppers is with the Panthers this year or not, Johnson could be a nice pick because he could either take over for Peppers this year or next. That said, I don't know that Johnson will fall all the way to No. 59.
Josh in Winston Salem writes: Hey Pat, great job on the blog! My question is about Jermaine Phillips moving from safety to linebacker, which I just heard about after reading one fo your mailbags. Why? I have some problems with this move. First, it creates a void at safety and if the move doesn't work out, then there's still a hole at linebacker. Second, he is a 30 year old safety, and these are the years when you begin to lose speed and quickness (especially with the physicality Phillips plays with), and you want him to put on weight to play a whole new position? My list can go on and on, and in my opinion this move doesn't make any sense at all. What do you think?
Pat Yasinskas: I actually kind of like the move of Jermaine Phillips to weak-side linebacker. He really doesn't have to put on weight. He's pretty close to the same size Derrick Brooks was. I don't think the transition will be all that difficult. His job as a strong safety primarily was to make tackles and it will be the same at linebacker. The Bucs are high on Sabby Piscitelli and want him to take over at strong safety. That's part of the reason the move with Phillips is taking place.
Zach in Gretna writes: Pat, you've said Rashad Jennings is a perfect fit for N.O. I agree 100%. Do you think he has potential to become a number one back should they get a second or third to get him? Deuce became the number one guy, why not Rashad, right?
Pat Yasinskas: Yes, I really like Liberty running back Rashad Jennings and think he would be a great fit with the Saints. But landing him will be a challenge. He's viewed as a second- or third-round pick and the Saints don't have a pick in either of those rounds right now. But I say trade down a bit from No. 14, still draft a defensive player later in the first round and use the extra pick to get Jennings. That's all easier said than done, but I'd like to see the Saints do it if it's at all possible.
Brad in parts unknown: Hi,Pat -- What is up with Robert Meachem? Is his effort lacking or does he have trouble picking up the offense? He was very highly touted coming out of Tennessee, but it seems everyone leaps over him on the depth chart. Thanks.
Pat Yasinskas: I'm going to give Robert Meachem the benefit of the doubt for the moment. He was injured much of his rookie year, so last year essentially was his rookie season. I thought he came on a bit at the end of last year and the Saints are hoping he can show some more progress in training camp. It's not uncommon in the NFL for highly-touted receivers to struggle at the start of their careers. In fact, it's a trend in the NFC South. Carolina's Dwayne Jarrett and Tampa Bay's Dexter Jackson have had starts similar to Meachem's, yet they all have tremendous upside. There's still hope for these guys. As evidence, I point to Atlanta's Roddy White and Michael Jenkins. Both of those guys struggled early on, but they've become very good receivers.
Jay in atl writes: hey pat, now that Atl has a set offense with the exception of a TE, why are the falcons even thinking about trading for Tony Gonzalez who'll play for 2 more years at the max? Shouldn't they address that defense which finished 24th last year? They could use a player at every defensive position so why give up a 2nd rounder for a 33 y.o. player?
Pat Yasinskas: I am totally with you on that. I'm not sure the rumors of a possible trade for Tony Gonzalez were anything more than just rumors. The Falcons are committed to building through the draft and a move like that doesn't fit their profile. Something else doesn't fit about that scenario either. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey never is going to throw a bunch to the tight end. Yes, the Falcons could use a bit more receiving production from the position, but I don't see them making a big move to get it. They can find a tight end in the middle of the draft, who can come in and give them 25 or 30 catches a season.
Blake in Greensboro writes: Did you listen to Hurney the other day with the press? It kind of sounds like Peppers will stay. He even said he was confident he will stay. What do you think?
Pat Yasinskas: Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said what he had to say in his pre-draft press conference. It's the same thing he's been saying all along. But let's face reality. If someone steps up in the next few days and offers a first-round pick and a little more for Peppers, I think there's a very real chance the Panthers take the deal and get rid of a headache.
Pro from College Park, GA writes: Have you heard anything about a draft day trade involvong the Falcons and chiefs including draft picks Gonzales and or Dorsey?
Pat Yasinskas: Only the rumors that are flying among fans and I think that might be wishful thinking. Thomas Dimitroff has said all offseason the Falcons are going to build through the draft. I think he's serious about that.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Just heard a great interview with Rashad Jennings. The Liberty running back told Sirius NFL Radio that he just returned from a visit with the Saints earlier this week.
With apologies to Beanie Wells, I think Jennings could turn out to be the perfect back for the Saints to draft. I'm not saying Jennings is better than Wells because he's not. But I think Jennings would make a lot more sense if the Saints could get him with a second- or third-round pick.
But that's where the potential problem comes up. The Saints don't have picks in the second or third round at the moment. But that could always change.
Here's a scenario that I'm thinking about that I think would be a best-case situation for the Saints. Even though they probably could draft Wells at No. 14, I say don't do it. Try like heck to trade down in the first round (probably into the 20s) and add a second- or third-round pick.
That way, the Saints could go defense (cornerback, safety, linebacker or defensive tackle) in the first round and still come back and perhaps have a shot at Jennings in the second or third round.
Jennings is the kind of power back the Saints are looking for and would fit nicely in a backfield with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. Forget any concerns about the level of competition he faced at Liberty.
The guy was good enough to start his career at Pittsburgh. He transferred to Liberty to be close to his parents as his father was dealing with a serious illness.
Sounds like the kind of guy I'd want on my team.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
The New Orleans Saints on our team-by-team mailbag tour.
Hendrik in Koblenz, Germany writes: Hey Pat, it's great to have the opportunity to ask some questions.. I wonder wether the Saints are going to give Jahri Evans a contract extension. Hes is arguably the best young guard in the NfL and should be kept around to keep Drew upright. And i too wonder why there are so many experts expecting Beanie Wells to be the pick because i think Pierre Thomas did a great job and showed he can deliver and i think the Saints just need a better option at Sam or Will and they will be a Superbowl contender.. WHO DAT NATION!!!!Pat Yasinskas: I know the Saints were at least talking about the possibility of a long-term deal with Jahri Evans during the season last year and I strongly suspect they'd still like to do that. They've got a good offensive line in place and it makes sense to keep it together. As for the running back question -- and I'm getting that one from lots of readers -- my gut says the Saints can make better use of the No. 14 by drafting a defensive player. That's not a knock on Beanie Wells. But I like Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush has his positives. I don't think it makes sense to use a first-round pick on a guy you're going to use as a short-yardage back. I think the Saints can find that later in the draft. Or maybe they've already got that in Mike Bell.
KC in parts unknown writes: I think one of the most under the radar signings was the signing of Rod Coleman. He was a BEAST during his career before the last two season with the Falcons. Now that he is on a team with depth at the DT position and he should stay healthy due to the rotation, do you think this could be the sleeper pick up of the year for the Saints?
Pat Yasinskas: I like the move as well. Not sure that Rod Coleman will be the player he was with the Falcons, but I don't think the Saints are expecting him to be that. He's getting up there in age and could be a nice part of the rotation. Coleman said his body needed a year off from football. In a situational role, I think he could help the interior pass rush. Putting him and Sedrick Ellis together in the middle could also help defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant become more productive as pass rushers.
EddieC Cape Coral Fl writes: Since everyone believes we are taking Malcom Jenkins or Beanie Wells. What would you think the best fit is? Our defense is or biggest problem down the stretch and running game isn't to impressive with Reggie Bush being a dud.
Pat Yasinskas: I'm with you. I say the Saints should take Malcolm Jenkins. He can play cornerback or safety. I know the Saints already have made some moves to their secondary with Jabari Greer and Darren Sharper. But I think last year showed the importance of having depth in the defensive backfield.
Sam in Lafayette writes: Pat, after hearing all the news about the Saints meeting with Rashad Jennings, I'm compelled to believe that the Saints will try to trade down for more picks with hopes of picking him up in the 2nd or 3rd rounds. Do you see this happening, and which teams do you think would make the trade?
Pat Yasinskas: I like your idea about trading down and perhaps getting Rashad Jennings -- or some other power runner -- in the second or third round. As far as what teams might be interested in trading for New Orleans' first pick (No. 14 overall), we probably won't know until the Saints are on the clock. But I think it's a realistic possibility that the Saints could trade down to somewhere in the 20s, get one of the defensive players they like and add an extra pick.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
A quick trip through the Saturday headlines around the NFC South:
Carolina was one of the teams with a representative at the workout of Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew on Friday.
Pettigrew reportedly will make a pre-draft visit to the Falcons next week.
A lot of Atlanta fans have griped that the Falcons haven't done much in free agency. Daniel Cox makes a good point in explaining Atlanta's free-agency period really started last season when the Falcons signed receiver Michael Jenkins and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux to contract extensions. And don't be surprised if the Falcons try to lock up receiver Roddy White at some point.
Liberty running back Rashad Jennings reportedly will make a pre-draft visit to the Saints on April 14.
The father-in-law of tight end Kellen Winslow is missing in California. Winslow's father-in-law suffers from Alzheimer's and has been missing since Wednesday.