NFC South: Reggie Brown

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When training camp started, it didn’t look like Micheal Spurlock even had a chance to make the roster with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

[+] EnlargeMichael Spurlock
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIMicheal Spurlock's fourth-quarter touchdown catch put the Bucs in the lead to stay.
Rookies Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn were high draft picks and Sammie Stroughter had carved a spot for himself with a strong rookie season last year. The Bucs also had traded for Reggie Brown and had veterans Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall. A former college quarterback, Spurlock had bounced around the league as a receiver and return man and hadn’t made a reception since he was a rookie with the Arizona Cardinals in 2006.

But Spurlock kept making play after play in the preseason. When the roster dust settled, Brown and Clayton were gone and Spurlock was ahead of Stovall on the depth chart. Still, the conventional wisdom heading into the season was the Spurlock would not be much of a factor.

So much for conventional wisdom. All Spurlock did Sunday was make the biggest play of the day for the Buccaneers. Actually, he had two big plays. The first was a crucial third-down catch that gave the Bucs a first down.

The bigger one came late in the game when Spurlock caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from Josh Freeman to put the Bucs ahead to stay in a 17-14 victory after they had trailed 14-3.

Bucs take chance on LeGarrette Blount

September, 6, 2010
Just when it looked like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had made it through a preseason without anything crazy (like firing a coordinator) happening, we’ve got some developments out of One Buccaneer Place that are a little out of the ordinary.

It’s not quite as chaotic as the firing of offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski just before last season. But, still, the Bucs just unloaded the punter they drafted (Brent Bowden) and released receiver Reggie Brown, who they once thought enough of to make a trade for him with five years left on his contract.

To replace Bowden, the Bucs signed Chris Bryan. He’s the guy who spent four years playing in the Australian Football League before going to Green Bay this offseason. Although Bryan averaged 42 yards a punt in the preseason, the Packers let him go.

The release of Brown was a bit more surprising. Although the Bucs were carrying seven receivers and it was obvious someone had to go, I didn’t think it would be Brown. As recently as a few weeks ago, team officials were talking about him being a possible starter opposite Mike Williams. That job now could go to Arrelious Benn or Sammie Stroughter.

To fill Brown’s roster spot, the Bucs signed running back LeGarrette Blount. You might recognize the name. He’s the former Oregon running back who gained notoriety after punching an opponent and confronting fans at the end of a 2009 game against Boise State. Blount was suspended for the rest of the season. The suspension was later reduced and he played in a December game against Oregon State and in the Rose Bowl.

The Bucs have been pretty vocal about character recently, and they’ve prided themselves on having a controversy-free preseason. Well, preseason is over and, even though Blount served his suspension and made apologies, his mere presence is going to create a media stir for at least a few days.

Blount wasn’t drafted and spent this preseason with the Titans before being released.

The Bucs also announced they’ve added receiver Dezmon Briscoe, tackle Will Barker and tackle Derek Hardman to the practice squad.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers cutdown analysis

September, 4, 2010
Click here for a full list of Tampa Bay’s roster moves.

Biggest surprise: The Buccaneers kept seven wide receivers, one or two more than the norm around the league. The two guys that many thought were on the bubble -- simply because of numbers -- that made the team are Preston Parker and Micheal Spurlock. Parker’s an undrafted rookie out of North Alabama and Spurlock’s a converted college quarterback. Both have return skills.

No-brainer: Cutting wide receiver Michael Clayton was costly because the Buccaneers still have to pay him $3 million in money that was guaranteed to him when he signed what now looks like a foolish contract last season. But, seriously, it would have taken a rash of injuries at receiver for Clayton to have had a real shot at a roster spot. After drafting Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn and trading for Reggie Brown to go with Sammie Stroughter, the Bucs had four young receivers they liked. They kept Clayton through camp just in case there were injuries or one of the young receivers wasn’t as good as advertised. Williams has been better than expected and Benn, Brown and Stroughter are what the Bucs thought they were. Clayton still could have been kept around as insurance. But when you’ve got a young team and are trying to build good chemistry, it doesn’t make much sense to keep around a veteran who once was a No. 1 receiver to be the No. 5 guy.

What’s next: Tampa Bay’s roster is far from set in stone. General manager Mark Dominik showed last year that he always is looking to upgrade the talent on his roster and the Bucs have room for improvement. In particular, the Bucs could be looking to add depth to a thin offensive line and for a defensive end with some pass-rush skills.

Pike wins No. 3 QB job in Carolina

September, 4, 2010
We still are waiting for the Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints to announce their full list of roster cuts. We’ll have a full analysis on each team as soon as they make the full announcements.

But there are some moves trickling out and a couple of them are of some significance, although not really surprising.

First, Tampa Bay receiver Michael Clayton reportedly has been cut. It was obvious Clayton, who has been a disappointment since his rookie season, was on the bubble, especially with the Bucs making it pretty obvious that Mike Williams, Reggie Brown, Arrelious Benn and Sammie Stroughter are going to be the first four receivers. The interesting thing here is that the Bucs still have to pay Clayton $3 million that was guaranteed when he signed a new contract last year.

Next, the Panthers reportedly have told quarterback Hunter Cantwell that he’s been released. Again, not a huge surprise. With Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen in the first two spots, it came down to a decision between rookie Tony Pike and Cantwell. Pike was a draft pick and that might have been the difference. Cantwell remains eligible for the practice squad if he’s not signed by another team.

NFC South mailbag

September, 4, 2010
As we wait for teams around the league to announce their roster cuts (that will probably come late this afternoon in most cases), let’s take a trip through the mailbag. Questions about T.J. Houshmandzadeh landing in the NFC South seem to be the dominant topic, so we’ll deal with that first.

Chris in Knoxville, Tenn., writes: What are the chances Carolina trades Dwayne Jarrett to Seattle for T.J. Houshmanzadeh?

Pat Yasinskas: I’m not going to totally rule this one out. The reports say Seattle is ready to trade or cut Houshmandzadeh and Jarrett hasn’t made himself a centerpiece in the Carolina receiving corps. But I think this one is a long shot for several reasons. Trades are easy to talk about, but don’t happen all that often in the NFL. Bringing in an aging wide receiver doesn’t exactly fit with Carolina’s youth movement and there must be a reason Seattle is ready to part with Houshmandzadeh. Also, what makes anyone think any team is going to give up something for Jarrett? Yeah, I know he played for Pete Carroll at USC, but it’s not like he’s shown anything since he’s been in the NFL.

Bhavik in Atlanta writes: What do you think of the Falcons signing T.J. Houshmandzadeh? He's getting old, which is something against the Falcons philosophy but he can have a solid year.

Pat Yasinskas: I’m having a tough time figuring out why so many Atlanta fans think there’s a big need for help at wide receiver. Roddy White’s a very good No. 1. Michael Jenkins is a role player at No. 2 and the Falcons are excited about having a healthy Harry Douglas in the slot. Eric Weems and Brian Finneran provide solid depth and Troy Bergeron may even make the roster. I know a lot of Atlanta fans are down on Jenkins because he doesn’t put up big numbers, but that’s not really his role in this system. His role is to be a safety valve as a possession receiver and a blocker in the running game and he does those things well. With tight end Tony Gonzalez, it’s almost like the Falcons have an extra wide receiver. Gonzalez and White are going to be the main targets in the passing game and I don’t think the Falcons want someone cutting into their opportunities.

Todd in Indianapolis writes: I'm going to be the first to ask,what are the chances the Bucs go after TJ Housh? .f not Carolina probablyy will and we can’t have that!!!

Pat Yasinskas: I really don’t see that one, Todd. It just doesn’t fit with Tampa Bay’s plan. The Buccaneers are going with youth. They drafted Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams this year and Sammie Stroughter last year and they traded for Reggie Brown with five years remaining on his contract. That gives them four young receivers and the plan is to let them grow up with Josh Freeman.

Kenneth in Boston writes: Do you think the Saints could possibly think about switching to a 3-4? Junior Galette seems like the perfect man for an outside linebacker/pass rush specialist and the team can use all their depth, especially to stop 4 receiver sets. Casillas is a great start, but I'd like to see the Saints use more of their young LBs and Clint Ingram in some mixes. Also, Tony Hargrove could definitely play a defensive end in a 3 man front, lined up next to Will Smith and Sedrick Ellis. Your thoughts?

Pat Yasinskas: You may see Gregg Williams throw a 3-4 front out there now and again just to confuse other teams. But the Saints are a 4-3 defense at heart and they’re not about to switch from that. Their personnel is set up for the 4-3 scheme. Besides, I wouldn’t go projecting too much of a role for Ingram. I think there’s a decent chance he won’t even be on the roster by the end of today.

Ranking the NFC South wide receivers

September, 2, 2010
We’re going to pick up the pace on the NFC South position rankings as we near the end. We looked at tight ends Thursday morning and, now, we’re going to move onto the wide receivers.

In terms of overall strength, I’d say this position is one of the better ones in the division. But there’s a huge disparity between the Saints, who have a bunch of good receivers to the Panthers, who have only one proven commodity, to the Buccaneers, who have lots of potential but no sure things. On to the rankings.

  1. [+] EnlargeSteve Smith
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSteve Smith led the Panthers with 982 receiving yards last season.
    Steve Smith, Panthers. There were three guys in the race and the other two had better numbers than Smith last year. But I’m playing a hunch that Smith will have a monster season, even though the Panthers have some uncertainty at quarterback. I’m basing this on my theory that Smith, always a high-energy guy, will be more motivated than ever after simmering on the sidelines throughout training camp while recovering from a broken arm.
  2. Roddy White, Falcons. I came very close to going with White at No. 1 and White’s numbers from the last three seasons would have validated that choice. I think White can have an even bigger impact this year because running back Michael Turner and slot receiver Harry Douglas are healthy and they should take some coverage away from White.
  3. Marques Colston, Saints. Colston also got consideration for No. 1. He’s often a man among boys and his size makes him a mismatch for just about any cornerback. His 70 catches last season don’t quite compare with the numbers White and Smith usually put up, but that’s mainly because New Orleans has so many other options in the passing game. Still, Colston is the best of all those options.
  4. Robert Meachem, Saints. After a rough start to his career, Meachem emerged last season and caught nine touchdown passes. I expect him to only get better. He’s earned the trust of Drew Brees and the coaching staff and that means more passes will be coming his way.
  5. Devery Henderson, Saints. Yep, I’m going with three New Orleans receivers in the top five. That’s a credit to Brees and Sean Payton for spreading the ball around so well. Henderson is a guy who has grown into a very solid receiver, after overcoming major problems with drops early in his career.
  6. Mike Williams, Buccaneers. I’m really hesitant to rank a rookie receiver this high because I’ve seen too many of them through the years struggle after looking great in the summer. But I think Williams might be the exception to this rule. In camp and the preseason, he’s just gone out and made plays day after day. Tampa Bay needs someone to emerge as a No. 1 receiver and he seems to be leading the candidates.
  7. [+] EnlargeMike Williams
    Kim Klement-US PresswireRookie Mike Williams is turning heads with his play.
    Michael Jenkins, Falcons. A lot of people like to criticize Jenkins because he doesn’t put up flashy numbers. But that’s not really his role in the Atlanta offense. White and tight end Tony Gonzalez are going to get the bulk of the passes thrown their way. Jenkins’ job is to be a safety valve and a strong blocker in the running game. That might not sound like a big deal for a wide receiver, but in Atlanta’s system it is. Jenkins is the best blocking receiver in the division.
  8. Harry Douglas, Falcons. Some Atlanta fans are rooting for Douglas to take Jenkins’ spot in the starting lineup, but that’s not really in the plans. The Falcons want to use Douglas in the slot. He’s a guy who can stretch the field and pull some coverage away from White and Gonzalez. He also gives Matt Ryan another downfield threat besides White.
  9. Reggie Brown, Buccaneers. Someone’s going to end up being the starter opposite Williams and the Bucs think Brown has a shot at securing that role. This is a guy the Bucs traded for with five years left on his contract. He’s still adjusting to the system a bit, but the Bucs think he’s going to fit in.
  10. Brandon LaFell, Panthers. The rookie could end up starting because the Panthers really don’t have much beyond Smith. LaFell’s progressing pretty well and the Panthers see him as a younger version of Muhsin Muhammad. That’s a nice comparison, but LaFell’s still got a lot of work to do to get to that level.
  11. Sammie Stroughter, Buccaneers. The plan is to use him in the slot, where Stroughter is a perfect fit. He showed big-play ability last year and the Bucs are fantasizing about Stroughter running under some deep passes from Josh Freeman.
  12. Lance Moore, Saints. He was sort of overshadowed and forgotten last year, but that may have been mainly due to injuries. In 2008, Moore was New Orleans’ most consistent receiver. With Colston, Meachem and Henderson around, Moore might not get a great deal of playing time. But he’s a nice luxury to have around in case there are injuries. How many No. 4 receivers around the league are better than this guy?
  13. Dwayne Jarrett, Panthers. Carolina’s been waiting for the light to go on since Jarrett was drafted. It hasn’t happened yet and maybe it never will. If LaFell ends up starting, Jarrett may just fade away.
  14. Arrelious Benn, Buccaneers. He was a second-round pick, but Williams has been better in the preseason. The Bucs aren’t down on Benn. They think he’s progressing at the normal pace for a rookie and he could play more of a role as the season goes on.

What to do with Michael Clayton?

August, 29, 2010
Perhaps the most interesting thing out of Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris in his media session after Saturday night’s preseason game against Jacksonville came when he was asked about receiver Michael Clayton.

Morris confirmed that Clayton dressed for the game but did not play, and provided an explanation that didn’t include any sort of injury to the veteran receiver who might be on the roster bubble.

“We got a chance to evaluate some of Reggie (Brown) and we were able to evaluate some of Arrelious Benn,’’ Morris said. “Really, we got a chance to look at those guys. We’ve already seen a lot of Michael Clayton, and we’re going to get a chance to see a little bit of Michael Clayton next week as well. All those guys, we’re going to find out who’s going to play Z for us, who’s going to be our starter.’’

That’s probably all true, the Bucs haven’t settled on a starting Z receiver, although rookie Mike Williams has locked up the starting spot on the other side and Sammie Stroughter is going to get significant time as the slot receiver.

But was there a little more to why Clayton never got on the field Saturday night? Perhaps. Anytime a veteran, who is on the bubble and not injured, doesn’t play this time of year, you have to wonder if his team is trying to trade him and making sure he doesn’t get hurt before a deal goes down.

Does Clayton, with the massive contract the Bucs gave him last season, really have much, or any, trade value? Actually, he might.

The Bucs pretty much stunned the NFL world last offseason when they handed Clayton a new five-year contract that could be worth as much as $26 million. They gave him a $2 million signing bonus, a $1.5 million roster bonus and $3 million in 2009 base salary. That money already is in Clayton’s pocket, and there’s nothing the Bucs can do about that.

They also guaranteed him $3 million in base salary for this season, and a lot of people think that -- along with base salaries that amount to about $13 million combined for 2012, 2013 and 2014 -- will be enough to scare off any potential trade partner. There also some escalators and incentives in those years that could earn Clayton even more money.

But is his contract really such an obstacle to a potential trade? Maybe not as much as many think. There’s no doubt Clayton’s been a disappointment. But there are some teams out there that are desperate for help at wide receiver, and the guy does have some talent. Really, all a trade partner would be taking on for sure this season would be Clayton’s $3 million guaranteed base salary. That might be a little high for a guy that’s a fourth or fifth receiver. But, in an uncapped year, it might not be all that much for a team that thinks Clayton could be a No. 3 receiver, or maybe even a little more than that.

Yeah, the rest of the contract isn’t too appealing. But nothing else is guaranteed, and another team could cut Clayton after this season and be responsible for absolutely nothing going forward, even if a salary cap returns.

If the cap returns in 2011, the Bucs would be responsible for $1.8 million in pro-rated bonus money for Clayton, but that would be it. If they can’t get someone to trade for Clayton and decide not to keep him, they still have to pay him $3 million for this season and would be responsible for the pro-rated bonus money next year.

In a best-case scenario, if the Bucs truly have given up on Clayton, they can get some sort of late-round pick for him in a trade and pass that $3 million guarantee off to another team.

NFC South mailbag

August, 26, 2010
Marc in Durham, N.C., writes: What happened to Jermaine Phillips? He was a legit safety and I think he would be better than Sean Jones. Why have they not thought about putting him back there with Tanard Jackson?

Pat Yasinskas: I get a lot of questions on Phillips from Tampa Bay fans, and, strangely, many of them think he still is on the roster. That’s not the case. Phillips, who the Bucs began switching from safety to linebacker before last season, wound up moving back to safety. But he appeared in only two games before suffering a season-ending injury. The Bucs elected not to bring him back after the 2009 season. Phillips has not been signed by any other team. I don’t know the exact reason why, but his age (31), health and a domestic incident in January all could be factors. Given the league’s recent history of suspending players that violate the conduct code, teams might be hesitant to sign Phillips if he’s facing a possible suspension.

Joshua in Charlotte, N.C., writes: Good work for your rankings of the different positions. You've included a lot more players than I expected, including backups. My biggest complaint is putting both New Orleans corners at the top of the list. I know they had injury issues last year so they're not entirely to blame, but New Orleans was ranked towards the bottom of the league in pass defense - despite playing on an aggressive defense against one-dimensional offenses that had to pass to keep up with New Orleans’ offense. While I don't think Chris Gamble deserves to be at the top of the list, I'd move him up a notch to fourth and drop Tracy Porter to fifth. You mentioned sacks being an issue, but New Orleans had more sacks last year and performed worse than Carolina. Even with Julius Peppers, Carolina was in the bottom third in sacks and still fourth in pass defense. Gamble is a stud and deserves better.

Pat Yasinskas: Your points are taken, and everyone is entitled to an opinion. One of the purposes of this blog is to generate conversation, and judging by the number of comments on the cornerbacks post, we’re accomplishing that. My opinion, based largely on talking to coaches, front-office people and players is Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter clearly are the best two cornerbacks in the NFC South at the moment. Look at what the New Orleans defense did in the games when Porter and Greer were healthy. They were healthy early on and they were a huge part of the reason Darren Sharper was allowed to play center field and produce so many early interceptions. Sharper’s numbers dropped when they went out. Also, looking at where New Orleans ranked on pass defense (based on yards allowed) isn’t a fair way to judge Porter and Greer. A lot of those yards came when they were out. Even when they were in the lineup, a lot of teams were throwing constantly to keep up with the New Orleans offense, so the yardage totals were high. Bottom line: When healthy, Greer and Porter are a dynamic duo. They were healthy enough last season for the Saints to win the Super Bowl. As far as Gamble, I have the utmost respect for him and think he’s been a very good cornerback for a long time. Putting him at No. 5 was not a knock at Gamble at all. I debated going as high as No. 3 with him, but, projecting a little bit, and thinking about supporting casts, I also put Aqib Talib and Dunta Robinson in front of him.

Jeff in Tampa writes: Do the owners plan on expanding the roster and game-day player limits if they go to an 18-game schedule - say 60 man roster and 54-man game-day roster? This way starters will never be on special teams, and some much needed depth on game day will be available for the long grind?

Pat Yasinskas: Jeff, why don’t you just call Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay directly and ask him? Rich, who is co-chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, and I were just talking about you when I was at Falcons’ camp a few weeks ago, and he remembers you fondly. Time to let the rest of you in on the back story here. Jeff is Jeff Bender, and he was supposed to be the starting quarterback at Tampa’s Jesuit High back in 1976. But McKay’s father, John, just got hired to take over the expansion Buccaneers and Rich enrolled at Jesuit for his senior year and became the quarterback under legendary coach Bill Minahan. Bender dutifully served as the backup that season and went on to have two pretty good years as the starter. Anyway, Jeff, I think it’s likely an 18-game regular season would come with expanded rosters, expanded practice squads and probably some different rules on how the injured-reserve list is treated. As it stands now, if a player goes on injured reserve, he’s done for the season. In an expanded format, I think we could see something more like what Major League Baseball does and players would be allowed to return after a specified period.

Michael in St. Petersburg, Fla., writes: There is constant talk of receiver competition with the Bucs and trade talks. With Minnesota hurting a receiver could we send one there for a late-round pick?

Pat Yasinskas: Minnesota traded cornerback Benny Sapp to Miami for receiver Greg Camarillo on Wednesday. For the Bucs, Mike Williams, Sammie Stroughter, Arrelious Benn and Reggie Brown are pretty much guaranteed roster spots, and there’s no way the Bucs are shopping any of them. That basically leaves Michael Clayton or Maurice Stovall. If the Bucs could swing a draft pick (and I mean any draft pick) for either of those two guys, Mark Dominik instantly gets my vote for NFL Executive of the Year.
TAMPA, Fla. – The Buccaneers just announced Reggie Brown will start at wide receiver tonight.

This might not be a one-time thing. I think Brown could end up in the starting lineup on opening day. He’s starting in place of the injured Maurice Stovall tonight, but Stovall never really was the guy the Bucs wanted to be the starter. He’s a career backup and special-teams player.

Brown’s a guy the Bucs traded for (with five years left on his contract) and they’ve got big plans for him. If he plays well through the rest of the preseason, I think Brown and rookie Mike Williams will open the season as the starters with Sammie Stroughter as the slot receiver.

Also, tight end Kellen Winslow has dressed for tonight’s game, but the Bucs said he’s not expected to play. The Bucs have been cautious with Winslow throughout the preseason as they rest his knee.

Which NFC South rookies will start?

August, 18, 2010
TAMPA, Fla. -- I’m sitting here looking at Tampa Bay’s unofficial depth chart for this week and it made me wonder how many rookies across the NFC South we’re going to see in the starting lineup in the opening week of the regular season.

Let’s take a look at the prospects for each team.

Tampa Bay: Currently, the Bucs list receiver Mike Williams and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy as starters. We’ve also got to include punter Brent Bowden. I think those three are set as starters, but the Bucs may have even more rookies in the lineup. Defensive tackle Brian Price fell behind a bit because of an injury, but he could vault ahead of Roy Miller. Second-round pick Arrelious Benn has come along a bit slower than Williams. He could move into the starting lineup at some point later in the season, but it looks like the Bucs will open the season with Reggie Brown, Sammie Stroughter or Maurice Stovall as their other receiver.

Carolina: Even though they are having a youth movement, there’s a chance the Panthers could open the season without a rookie in the starting lineup. Receiver Brandon LaFell is probably the best bet, even though the Panthers have been singing the praises of Dwayne Jarrett lately. Second-round pick Jimmy Clausen has been good in camp and was very good in the first preseason game, but the starting quarterback job still belongs to Matt Moore. Greg Hardy and Eric Norwood have had great camps, but probably will open the season as situational pass rushers.

Atlanta: It looks like first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon will start, but it still is unclear if he’ll be taking the spot of Stephan Nicholas or Mike Peterson. Third-round pick Corey Peters has a very real chance to be in the starting lineup, with defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux suspended for the opener and Peria Jerry coming back gradually from injury. At the very least, Peters is going to get significant playing time.

New Orleans: It’s looking like the Saints won’t have any rookies starting anytime soon. That’s not the mark of a bad draft. That’s the mark of general manager Mickey Loomis doing a nice job keeping the Super Bowl champions pretty much intact. You’ll probably see some of cornerback Patrick Robinson, offensive tackle Charles Brown and tight end Jimmy Graham as the season goes on.

Bubble watch: Michael Clayton

August, 16, 2010
We’ve moved into preseason games and that means we’re getting closer to roster cuts. With that in mind, I’ll begin an occasional series about players on the bubble. We’ll start it with Tampa Bay receiver Michael Clayton.

A lot of people were mystified when one of the first moves coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik made after taking over last season was to hand Clayton a new contract that runs through 2013. Clayton hadn’t done anything of note since his rookie season, and the hope was he would emerge as a factor under a new coaching staff.

That didn’t happen and Clayton clearly is on the bubble as the Bucs have brought in a bunch of young receivers. Clayton has worked hard in camp and hasn’t looked bad. But he hasn’t done anything special, and it would take several injuries for him to end up in a starting role.

Draft picks Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn are going to make the roster. So is Sammie Stroughter. Reggie Brown is a guy the Bucs traded for, and he’s got a roster spot as well. After that, there’s Maurice Stovall and a bunch of young guys.

That’s where it gets down to numbers. Stovall and Clayton are basically the same guy, and either one can help you on special teams. The Buccaneers likely will keep five or six receivers, and that begs one question: Do you keep Clayton as a No. 4, No. 5 or No. 6 receiver?

It’s a tough call, because he’s not a bad guy in the locker room and he’s the most experienced receiver the Bucs have. It’s not uncommon for young receivers to look good in camp and the preseason, but have trouble once the regular season rolls around. Clayton could provide a little insurance.

But let’s throw out one other number that matters – and this could be highly significant. The Bucs are on the hook to Clayton for $3 million this season. That’s guaranteed money that he gets if he makes the roster or not. It would seem like a waste to pay a guy $3 million to go away, but don’t rule out that possibility.

Who knows what’s going to happen with the Collective Bargaining Agreement? There is no salary cap in place this season, but but Clayton’s scheduled base salary for 2011 is $3.75 million. In 2012, he’s to make $4.5 million, and it's $4.75 million in 2013. None of those salaries are guaranteed. There’s a chance the Bucs could look ahead at those numbers and just go ahead and pull the plug on Clayton sooner rather than later.

NFC South Sunday mailbag

August, 15, 2010
Time for another edition of the NFC South mailbag.

Justin in Indiana writes: What happened to Sean Jones? I didn't see him at all in the preseason game. (Could have been just me.) Though I thought Sabby Piscitelli was pretty solid for a preseason game.

Pat Yasinskas: Jones did play last night, and was credited with one tackle and one assist, but I also didn’t see him do anything that jumped out. I saw Piscitelli a couple of times, particularly noticed him making a solid open-field tackle and also providing good coverage on one pass play. The strong safety position remains very much up for grabs. Although the Bucs gave Piscitelli the start, they haven’t seen major improvement in camp. Last night might have changed things a bit. They know what Jones can do. But they want to see more of Piscitelli before making a decision. Piscitelli’s got some physical talent, and the Bucs want to give him one last chance to put it all together. If it doesn’t happen, they’ll go with Jones.

Miles in Houston writes: I was looking at your recent post saying Derrick Brooks is the best all time player in the NFC South. So I looked back at the recently inducted Rickey Jackson and I felt his stats justified him being in the conversation with Brooks. I know people look at the fact that Jackson didn’t win the big one, but I don’t see how that is as relevant to a player's worth as people like to make it out to be. In Jackson's case, his team’s lack of success had to do more with the offense than a defense that gave up less yardage in 1991 than the much heralded 2000 Raven's defense.

Pat Yasinskas: By no means am I selling Rickey Jackson short. The guy was a tremendous football player and the fact he is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame says a lot. But I said Brooks is the best player in the history of the NFC South (by the way, that means any player ever with any team now in the NFC South) and will continue to say that. Drew Brees might change that in a few more years. But, right now, there’s no one even close to Brooks in this category. He spent his entire career with Tampa Bay, was the driving force behind the turnaround of a dismal franchise, and his 2002 season was as good as any defensive player ever has had as he led the Bucs to a championship. Jackson did a lot of great things in New Orleans, but he also spent a pretty good chunk of his career in San Francisco.

Rob in Houston writes: Regarding your post about worst to first in the NFC South, I think it's worth nothing that the one exception in 2008 (Atlanta) was in the hunt, almost won the division, and made the playoffs. Maybe Tampa does have a shot this season. I'm watching their preseason against the Dolphins at the moment, and they are showing some flashes.

Pat Yasinskas: Hey, stranger things have happened. That Atlanta team you referenced was in total disarray when Mike Smith took over, and virtually everyone had the Falcons ranked No. 32 in the league before the season started. They wound up going 11-5 and would have kept the worst-to-first streak alive if Carolina had not gone 12-4. History has shown anything can happen in the NFC South.

Jordan in Greensboro writes: I'm a Panthers fan and was impressed with Jimmy Clausen’s performance in the Ravens game. However, it seemed like a lot of his passes were very wobbly. Is this a concern, or is it no big deal?

Pat Yasinskas: The rain might have been a bit of a factor. But I also saw Clausen throw some very sharp passes. From what I know, the Panthers like his mechanics and arm a lot, so I don’t think this is a big issue.

Jesse in Trezevant, Tenn., writes: In Derrick Brooks' retirement speech, he mentioned that there we a handful of teams seeking his service (and a few perhaps tried to sign him). Do you know which teams? It is hard to think of Brooks being in any other jersey.

Pat Yasinskas: The New Orleans Saints and the Oakland Raiders were the two teams that were mentioned in connection with Brooks last preseason. Those were the only two I heard about. Not sure an actual offer was made by either team.

CCE in Los Angeles writes: Just wanted to know your thoughts about the play of Dominique Franks in last night's first preseason game. I really thought that he was a steal for Atlanta in the fifth round. I watched the preseason game with Kansas City, and it seemed like I heard his name called a lot. Is it possible he'll be starting opposite Dunta Robinson when the regular season starts?

Pat Yasinskas: The Falcons are very high on Franks, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen out of him. But he’s not a candidate to start right away. He’ll be a backup, and you’ll probably see a lot of him on special teams. But it looks like Christopher Owens or Brent Grimes will start opposite Robinson.

Matt in Tampa writes: Is Mike Williams going to start for Tampa?

Pat Yasinskas: It sure looks that way. The rookie receiver has been getting a lot of first-team work, and is making the most of it. The bigger question might be who starts opposite Williams? Fellow rookie Arrelious Benn also is in the mix, but might open the season as a backup. I think it comes down to Reggie Brown or Sammie Stroughter for the other starting job.

NFC South training camp preview

July, 23, 2010
The good news for the New Orleans Saints is they are defending Super Bowl champions. The bad news is that’s not a great spot to be in in the NFC South.

The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl, and the 2003 Carolina Panthers, who lost it, didn’t even make the playoffs the following year. Since the division came into existence in 2002, there has been no such thing as a dynasty in the NFC South. No team has won the division crown in back-to-back seasons.

The Saints, who already have re-written history, will have to do it again if they want to stay on top. But the Atlanta Falcons might not be far behind, the Panthers have enough talent to be dangerous and the Buccaneers almost have to be better than last season.

We’ll find out soon enough if anyone can challenge the Saints. The test begins next week when all four NFC South teams report to training camp.


Falcons: What does John Abraham have left?

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Falcons are confident defensive end John Abraham still has something left in the tank.
For the past couple of years, the 32-year-old defensive end has been one of those guys who doesn’t practice all the time because the Falcons go out of their way to keep him healthy and fresh. That plan isn’t likely to change this season, but the Falcons will be keeping a very close eye on Abraham in camp.

His sack total dipped from 16.5 in 2008 to 5.5 last season. The obvious question is if Abraham is on the last legs of his career. Despite the statistical evidence, the Falcons believe there’s something left. After closely watching film of Abraham from last season, the coaches firmly believe Abraham can get back to double-digit sacks. Part of their thinking is he’ll benefit from improved play from the interior of the defensive line and that Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury are ready to generate pressure from the other side. Recent history has shown the Falcons are willing to make deals late in the preseason (trading for cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Tye Hill) if they feel they have a weakness. But they’re hoping Abraham shows enough in camp to convince them the pass rush will be adequate.

Panthers: What must Matt Moore do to win the starting quarterback job?

A lot of people believe this training camp will be highlighted by a battle between Moore and rookie Jimmy Clausen. That’s not really the case -- or at least not how Carolina’s brass views the situation. The truth is the Panthers are going to camp with every intention of Moore being the starter. He earned that much by playing well at the end of last season.

Coach John Fox isn’t about to open the season with a rookie starting at quarterback. He could turn to Clausen later in the season if things aren’t going well. But the immediate starting job is Moore’s, and the only way he can lose it is to have a disastrous training camp and preseason.

Saints: Are the Saints ready for a return to the “real’’ world?

Rightfully so, the Saints spent a lot of time this offseason celebrating their first Super Bowl title. Great for them and great for their fans. But all that’s about to end. Coach Sean Payton runs what I think is easily the toughest camp in the NFC South, and I don’t anticipate that changing. If anything, camp might be tougher this year.

Payton is an excellent motivator and he’s well aware the Saints now are the jewel on the schedule of every opposing team. The track record of Super Bowl champions in the following season hasn’t been all that impressive in recent years. Payton knows that, and you can bet that message is going to be conveyed to his team. A big part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season is because they had such a tough and productive camp.

Buccaneers: Who are the starting wide receivers?

The Bucs truly don’t know the answer to that question right now and that’s not a bad thing. The plan is to throw all the receivers out there in camp, let them compete and see who rises up. A lot of fans were frustrated and puzzled when the Bucs let Antonio Bryant walk in free agency, leaving the team without a clear-cut No. 1 receiver. But the Bucs believe they’re better off without Bryant, who wasn’t all that productive last season and didn’t endear himself to the front office or coaching staff when he made public comments about the coaches and quarterback Josh Freeman that were far from flattering.

The Bucs used early draft picks on Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. It’s likely at least one of them will start right away. Veterans Reggie Brown, Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall will compete for the other job. If both rookies look good in camp, it’s possible they could be the starters because there isn’t much upside with Brown, Clayton or Stovall. Second-year pro Sammie Stroughter also is in the mix. But, ideally, the Bucs would like to use him as the slot receiver.


Falcons: Brian VanGorder. The defensive coordinator has done a nice job of working with the talent he’s had the past two seasons. The Falcons haven’t always had the talent to play the kind of defense coach Mike Smith and Van Gorder want and they’ve gotten by with patchwork. But those days are over. Last year’s top picks, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, return after missing almost all their rookie seasons with injuries and the Falcons used their top two picks this year on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters. They also spent a fortune signing cornerback Dunta Robinson. Although questions remain about the pass rush, the Falcons have the talent to play their scheme. That means the defense must take a big step forward.

Panthers: Dwayne Jarrett. A former second-round pick, Jarrett has not had much of an impact. With Muhsin Muhammad retired and Steve Smith expected to miss most of training camp with a broken arm, Jarrett is going to get a very long look in training camp. In a best-case scenario, Jarrett finally reaches his potential and earns the starting wide receiver job across from Smith. For that to happen, Jarrett must show an attention to detail and consistency; both have been lacking from his game. The Panthers drafted Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards early because they’re not sure if Jarrett ever will blossom.

Darren Sharper
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIIf Darren Sharper isn't 100 percent healthy, he might not be the starter for the Saints.
Saints: Darren Sharper. The safety had a brilliant 2009 season. Sharper instantly became a fan favorite, but his lock on the starting job at free safety isn’t nearly as secure as many people think. Sharper is 34 and coming off knee surgery. We don’t even know if he physically will be able to do much during training camp. The Saints have moved Malcolm Jenkins, a first-round pick a year ago, from cornerback to safety. A lot of fans view Sharper as the Drew Brees of the defense, but I’m not so sure the coaching staff ever has seen it that way, and the Saints didn’t break the bank to re-sign Sharper in the offseason. If he’s 100 percent healthy, Sharper could stay in the starting lineup. Anything less and the Saints won’t hesitate to go with Jenkins.

Buccaneers: Ryan Sims. He was a starter with Chris Hovan at defensive tackle the past few years. The Bucs got rid of Hovan as soon as they could after last season. With the team using its top two picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, Sims can’t be feeling too secure. With Roy Miller also in the mix and the Bucs in a full-blown youth movement, Sims needs a strong camp just to secure a roster spot.


Under-the-radar player to keep an eye out for in camp: Clifton Smith, return man/running back, Buccaneers. It may seem like a stretch to call a guy who has been to a Pro Bowl an under-the-radar player, but Smith fits the profile. After missing most of the second half of last season with concussion problems, Smith has sort of been forgotten. That might be a mistake. Smith established himself as a top-notch return man when he made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season two years ago and helped ease the colossal mistake in which the Bucs drafted Dexter Jackson in the second round. When the new coaching staff took over last season, there was some talk about getting Smith more involved on offense. That got derailed by his injuries, but the plan could get back on track this year. Cadillac Williams is the main running back in Tampa Bay, but you could start to see Smith get some action as a situational player. With his speed, he could be an explosive receiver out of the backfield and also might be able to handle a few carries a game.


It’s not an offensive skill position, so it won’t be flashy. But the best position battle in the NFC South will be sorted out in Spartanburg, S.C., as the Carolina Panthers try to figure what to do with their linebackers. This was supposed to be a spot with enormous strength, but an offseason knee injury to Thomas Davis has turned this into a huge question. Davis probably will miss the entire season, throwing the linebacker corps into a state of uncertainty.

The only thing that’s certain is that Jon Beason remains one of the best linebackers in the league and the unquestioned leader of this defense. But the Panthers aren’t even sure where Beason will line up. He has been fantastic in the middle, but he may move to Davis’ spot on the weak side. In what essentially amounts to a game of musical chairs, the Panthers are looking at four linebackers and trying to figure out the strongest starting trio. One reason they’re considering moving Beason is because they believe Dan Connor can be solid in the middle. He’ll get a chance to prove that in camp.

But the Panthers also will be keeping a close eye on outside linebackers Jamar Williams and James Anderson. If they both rise up, Beason could remain in the middle. If Connor rises up and the Panthers aren’t comfortable with Williams and Anderson as their starters on the outside, they won’t hesitate to move Beason.

Big Question: Who are Bucs' WRs?

July, 6, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What wide receivers does Josh Freeman have to throw to this season?

[+] EnlargeMike Williams
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaFourth-round pick Mike Williams has looked sharp in minicamps.
As it was with its defensive tackle weakness, Tampa Bay was very proactive on draft day bolstering its wide receiver corps. Before the draft, the Buccaneers may have had the worst set of wideouts in the NFL. While this wideout group grows up with a very promising second-year quarterback in Freeman, there will be a learning curve, but the future is pretty bright at this position. I commend Tampa Bay for acquiring talent for Freeman to develop with. Too many teams select a quarterback in the first round but don’t do enough to help him be successful in a difficult transition to the NFL.

Fourth-round pick Mike Williams and second-round selection Arrelious Benn are obviously the players to watch. Rarely does a situation present itself so well for a pair of rookies to come in and make an immediate impact. While it wouldn’t necessarily be reason for concern if it didn’t occur, Tampa Bay would love to see Williams and Benn establish themselves as the starting wideouts. By most accounts, and obviously it is extremely early in the process -- Williams is ahead of Benn and has been very impressive. Benn also has battled an ankle injury. Williams probably offers more big-play vertical ability. Neither player is afraid of contact, but Benn is the more physical wideout in all areas of his game. These two hold the fate of the Bucs’ receiving corps in their hands. That is pretty exciting, and I can’t wait to watch them work with Freeman during the preseason.

The two talented rookies stand apart from the pack at this position, but Tampa Bay does have another youngster to pay attention to in Sammie Stroughter. I like this second-year receiver’s game. He is a pure slot guy, but he is quick, tough and reliable. His skill set probably will never translate into a starting role, but he is perfect for the slot and with Williams and Benn in the fold, Tampa should be set with their top three wideouts for years to come.

If the youngsters hit stumbling blocks, Reggie Brown would most likely pick up the slack in 2010. Brown isn’t real dynamic and quickly fell out of favor in Philadelphia, but he has been productive and can be a bridge player for the short term.

Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall are two more big-bodied wideouts who could surprise. Everyone knows Clayton’s story -- a one year wonder right out of college who hasn’t done a thing since. But now, there isn’t any pressure. Will he step up and make an impact? I doubt it, as I see little explosion and he struggles to get consistent separation. But is it possible? Sure, why not? Stovall also is talented, but has never put it all together. Injuries have played a factor, but he just hasn’t shown any level of consistency.

This season might not be pretty and surely the Bucs will feature a ball-control approach in the passing game. I also expect a lot of throws in the middle of the field to Benn, Williams, Stroughter and Kellen Winslow -- whom I also expect to be a factor in a wideout role detached from the formation. But the future is bright here and the young players will get every opportunity to succeed.

NFC South weekend mailbag

June, 26, 2010
James in Anaheim, Calif. writes: My question relates to Tampa Bay's acquired receiver, Reggie Brown. Since the trade, I have not heard a single word about him. With all the excitement for the future with the younger guys, have you heard anything about his performance in the offseason? We could use some veteran WR leadership.

Pat Yasinskas: The media hype has been focused on rookies Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. But I can assure you that Tampa Bay’s coaching staff has been very happy with Brown. He’s going to camp with a chance to compete for a starting job.

Jeremy in Boston writes: Over the past two years, the Falcons have traded for another player during training camp/preseason i.e. Domonique Foxworth, Tye Hill. One need that still seems glaring is the pass rush. If the Falcons do not see much improvement in the D-Line position, do you see them trading w/the Bengals for Antwan Odom or for another D-linemen during the preseason?

Pat Yasinskas: I like the way you noticed that trend. Yes, the Falcons felt vulnerable at a position late in each of the past two preseasons. They went out and did something about it. Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith are creatures of habit. If they get into training camp and a few preseason games and don’t feel good about their defensive line, I think they could look to add someone in a trade. I don’t know that Odom would be a specific target because you never know who else might be available.

Jim in Vancouver writes: Do you think the fates of Raheem Morris and Mark Dominick are still tied together? When they were both promoted everyone talked like they would both be fired if the Bucs failed. Now that they've both been on the job for a while and I feel that, while I'm still not sold on Morris, Dominick has shown himself to be a competent GM (at least on draft day). Last year he got Josh Freeman, Roy Miller and Sammie Stroughter (plus Kellen Winslow via trade) and this year he was praised for the Bucs' top picks. If the Bucs struggle this year, but the young players show promise, could Dominick stay while Morris goes?

Pat Yasinskas: Well, we’re looking down the road here. But, in your scenario, yes, I think it’s possible Dominik could outlast Morris. Dominik is well regarded by ownership and he could survive a tough season in which the young players show some promise even if Morris doesn’t. They may not be a total package deal. But, keep in mind, the Bucs still believe this duo can work out. I think steady progress in the youth movement is the goal expected by ownership this year.

Dan in New Orleans writes: I realize that Bobby McCray is one-dimensional (a pass-rusher) and isn't even necessarily the greatest in that one dimension. But what I don't understand is the timing of his release from the Saints. Why cut him between OTAs and training camp? You get to bring so many guys to camp, why not just take him and see what happens? Or why didn't they just cut him before OTAs? I can't imagine they saw something in shorts and helmets at OTAs that constituted his release.

Pat Yasinskas: Quite simply, it came down to money. McCray was scheduled to receive a big roster bonus. After seeing what they’ve got in Alex Brown and speculating on Jimmy Wilkerson coming off his injury, the Saints felt McCray would be nothing more than a backup and didn’t feel his was worth big money.