NFC South: Reggie Bush

DeAndre Levy and Vincent JacksonUSA Today SportsDeAndre Levy and the Lions will need to keep Vincent Jackson in check on Sunday.
Tampa Bay started its season terribly before finding some answers the past two weeks. Detroit started its season strong but is suddenly vulnerable and has some questions.

Only the Lions are in the playoff picture heading into the last six weeks of the season. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers can play spoiler and give a damaging blow to the Lions' playoff hopes.

The Buccaneers will try to do that with a rejuvenated defense that caught the eye of Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford.

“They are an extremely talented defense,” Stafford said. “Probably the most talented defense we've played all year.”

ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Pat Yasinskas (Buccaneers) break down Sunday's matchup.

Rothstein: What has happened over the past couple of weeks to turn this Tampa team around?

Yasinskas: The short answer is that the Bucs suddenly have gotten much better at finishing games, a huge problem early in the season. But it goes much deeper than that. Coach Greg Schiano has a reputation for being stubborn and inflexible. But he's changed in recent weeks. His mood has been lighter on the practice field and when he's met with the media. More importantly, he's adjusted some things on the field. He's stopped stunting so much on the defensive line, and that's created more straight-ahead rushes for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Schiano has used cornerback Darrelle Revis in more man-to-man coverage after playing him in a lot of zone early in the season. The Bucs also have been running the ball much better, and that's a tribute to the offensive line.

Speaking of McCoy, he and Ndamukong Suh came out in the same draft, and early on, it looked like Suh clearly was the better player. But McCoy has been outstanding of late. What kind of a year is Suh having?

Rothstein: Suh's actual statistics are fairly pedestrian and wouldn't really stand out to anyone if they were just watching Detroit from afar. But he has faced a lot of double-teams throughout the season and has been somewhat consistent throughout the year. He played his best in the two games against Chicago -- four quarterback hurries in Week 10, two sacks in Week 4 -- but he and the rest of the Detroit defensive line almost inexplicably struggled to reach Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this past Sunday.

Detroit has not blitzed much this season, putting a lot of pressure on the front four, starting with Suh.

That'll lead into my next question -- how has Mike Glennon been progressing this season, and how does he move when he is pushed in the pocket a little bit?

Yasinskas: Glennon has been a pleasant surprise. He was thrown into the lineup when Josh Freeman was benched, and he struggled at first. But Glennon has steadily improved and has been very good in recent weeks. He had only three incompletions in Sunday's victory over Atlanta. He's shown poise and leadership. Glennon's strength is his big arm, and the Bucs are trying to develop more of a deep passing game. They showed signs that's catching on when Vincent Jackson caught two long passes against the Falcons.

I first saw Glennon when I was covering the filming of "Gruden's QB Camp" this past spring. Watching Glennon's college tape, I thought he didn't have the mobility to succeed in the NFL. As it turns out, I was wrong. Glennon is not a running threat, but he's not a statue, either. He's been extending some plays by scrambling.

Speaking of deep passing games, the matchup I can't wait to see is Calvin Johnson against Revis. I saw the Lions-Steelers game, and it seemed like Johnson disappeared in the second half. What was all that about? Revis and Johnson went head-to-head in a 2010 game, and Johnson caught just one pass for 13 yards. Do you see Revis, with a little bit of help, being help to keep Johnson quiet?

Rothstein: It depends on what Tampa tries to do defensively. When teams have tried covering Johnson with single coverage, he's destroyed opponents. It happened a good amount against Dallas and early against Pittsburgh. It goes to the situation most teams have had to face this season -- do you double-team Johnson and give a lighter box to Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, or do you play single high to focus on Bell and Bush and put Johnson in lighter coverage?

That said, Revis is one of the best corners in the league -- something Stafford acknowledged Tuesday -- and it should be an intriguing matchup Sunday. Johnson likes going against the top corners in the league and has had some success this season in those matchups, notably against Arizona's Patrick Peterson (six catches, 116 yards, two touchdowns) and Dallas' Brandon Carr (14 catches, 329 yards).

One of the other ways teams have had success against Detroit is to pressure Stafford, which hasn't been easy this season. It goes back to that first question with McCoy, but is he the key to any pressure Tampa might get?

Yasinskas: McCoy is the central piece of the defensive line, and everything feeds off him. But he's not alone in the pass rush. End Adrian Clayborn has some pass-rush skills, and the Bucs have started lining up outside linebacker Dekoda Watson as a rush end. But the Bucs also like to use their linebackers as blitzers, and Lavonte David (five sacks) is a very good pass-rusher. But it all goes back to McCoy. The Bucs rely on him to push the quarterback off the spot, and the other players can clean up.

You mentioned Bush. At least from a distance, it seemed like he got himself in the doghouse by fumbling against Pittsburgh. Is Bush in good graces with the coaching staff, or will we see less of him Sunday?

Rothstein: Doghouse? No. But he needs to work on protecting the ball better and hanging on to it, period. He's struggled with drops all season and lost fumbles two of the past three weeks. He's too big a weapon for Detroit to move away from him -- especially at home -- but if he continues on this trend, Bell might steal some of his snaps.

Prior to the arrival of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter last year, we used to spend a lot of time busting on the Atlanta Falcons for almost never using screen passes.

There might have been a reason why predecessor Mike Mularkey was so hesitant to throw to his running backs. Michael Turner simply wasn’t a receiving threat. In five seasons with the Falcons, Turner caught 59 passes.

Jackson
Koetter got the running backs more involved in the passing game last season, mainly by throwing to Jacquizz Rodgers a fair amount. But I suspect we could see that trend escalate tremendously in 2013.

A lot of people are viewing the arrival of Steven Jackson as Turner’s replacement as evidence that Atlanta’s running game will improve. I have no doubt that will happen.

But I think a lot of people are only looking at half of what Jackson brings to the table. Jackson is one of the best pass-catching running backs in recent history.

In fact, I just dialed up the database at ESPN Stats & Information and came up with something interesting. Since his arrival in the league in 2004, Jackson’s 407 receptions are the most by any running back in that period.

For the sake of comparison, the only other running backs with more than 300 catches during that same span are Brian Westbrook (396), LaDainian Tomlinson (386), Reggie Bush (372), Frank Gore (315), Ray Rice (311) and Darren Sproles (307).

I’m pretty sure we can expect to see some new wrinkles from Koetter because Jackson can do more than catch screen passes. He can run a lot of different routes. Rodgers can do the same.

That’s going to create all sorts of headaches for defenses that already have their hands full with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.

Even coach Mike Smith, who usually goes out of his way to not give away anything close to strategy is raving about Jackson's ability as a receiver.

“He’s a big strong running back that catches the ball extremely well,'' Smith told the media Wednesday. "He creates issues for defenses. He’s just another weapon that we have in our offensive arsenal. He’s a guy who had close to 100 catches in a season, so he’s a guy that we can use in the passing game. He’s not just a running back, he’s a receiving back as well.”
It was very easy to criticize the New Orleans Saints' defensive secondary last season. But, these days, you have to give at least one member of the defensive backfield credit for the way he’s going about his business.

Jenkins
Vaccaro
That’s safety Malcolm Jenkins. He’s welcoming first-round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro with open arms even though the rookie could take his job.

“If you kind of look back at history, you see when we drafted (running back) Mark Ingram, how Reggie (Bush) handled it ... it was kind of the opposite,” Jenkins said.

When the Saints drafted Ingram, Bush didn’t react all that well. His tweet (“It’s been fun New Orleans”) made for an uncomfortable situation in the locker room and Bush eventually was traded to Miami.

But Jenkins, a former first-round pick, said he’s fine with the addition of Vaccaro.

“It’s going to make me better,’’ Jenkins said. “It’s going to make me push myself and I think it’s going to make our team better.”

That’s a healthy attitude. Besides, it still is unclear how the Saints plan to use Vaccaro. They have Jenkins at free safety and Roman Harper at strong safety. Vaccaro could end up starting in place of either one of them. Or the veterans could remain as the starters with Vaccaro taking a role in the nickel package.

Although Jenkins never quite has played up to his enormous potential, I don’t think the Saints are quite ready to give up on him. By not giving up on the Saints the way Bush did, Jenkins still could have a future in New Orleans.

Reggie Bush and the Atlanta Falcons?

February, 25, 2013
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I’m hearing from a fair amount of Atlanta fans that think the Falcons should go after running back Reggie Bush.

It’s become increasingly obvious that Michael Turner is on his way out and the Falcons need to get a running back in free agency or the college draft. If he’s not re-signed by the Miami Dolphins, Bush will become a free agent in March.

Bush to the Falcons? I just don’t see it because the Falcons basically already have Bush. They have Jacquizz Rodgers, who pretty much is a younger version of Bush. Like Bush, Rodgers has nice speed, can run well inside, can run a little between the tackles and can catch passes out of the backfield.

Unlike Bush, Rodgers has no injury history and very little wear and tear. I’d rather have Rodgers than Bush. And I don’t think it would make much sense for the Falcons to have both Rodgers and Bush. They’re the same type of back, so you would only be diluting their talents by putting them together.

The Falcons need to add a running back that’s different from Rodgers. They need to get someone that’s a little bit bigger and more of a power runner. I think they can get someone like Wisconsin’s Montee Ball sometime after the first round of the draft.

Someone like that would be a nice complement to Rodgers. Someone like Bush would be a detriment to Rodgers because you would only be adding more of what you already have.

Time for Falcons to get younger at RB

February, 14, 2013
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TurnerMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsWith his production dropping and a high cap figure, Michael Turner's run in Atlanta may be over.
Let’s give Michael Turner his props. If he’s not the best running back in the history of the Atlanta Falcons, he certainly is close to that.

Turner is a major reason the Falcons made the playoffs in four of the past five seasons. He gave the Falcons four wonderful seasons and one mediocre one.

That last part is why the Falcons need to make the cold, hard business decision and give Turner his walking papers sometime between now and the start of free agency. Yeah, it may sound cruel for a guy that’s played so well and been a good teammate, but it clearly is time for a change.

Heck, you can just look back at last season and make a very strong argument that it’s past time for a change. Turner was visibly slower in 2012, and that came in a season when the Falcons limited his playing time.

Turner turned 31 on Wednesday, and I think it’s safe to say he’s not going to get any faster or better. He helped get the Falcons to the cusp of being a Super Bowl team, but they’re not going to turn things into a Jerome Bettis farewell tour if they let Turner stick around for the final year of his contract. They'll just stand still, or lose ground.

It’s time for the Falcons to pull the plug for many reasons.

Let’s start where you always should start with this type of situation. Let’s start with the money.

Turner is scheduled to count $8.9 million against the 2013 salary cap. Releasing him would instantly free up $6.4 million.

That would be significant money for a team that’s barely under the salary cap and needs to make efforts to prevent cornerback Brent Grimes, left tackle Sam Baker and strong safety William Moore from walking away as free agents.

[+] EnlargeJacquizz Rodgers
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsFalcons running back Jacquizz Rodgers could receive an increased role in 2013.
Could the Falcons restructure Turner’s contract and make it more cap-friendly? Sure, but there’s not much point in that.

That’s where the football part comes in. Atlanta doesn’t run the same offense it did in Turner’s first four seasons. When offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter arrived last offseason, he made the Falcons a pass-first team.

That’s why fans who are screaming for the Falcons to go out and get Steven Jackson, Ahmad Bradshaw or Reggie Bush are missing the mark by a mile -- or at least visions of a 1,000-yard season. They all come with wear and tear, and they all would come with hefty price tags.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s no longer practical in the NFL to pay huge money to running backs. That’s especially true when you have an offense that’s built around quarterback Matt Ryan and receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White.

The Falcons no longer need a running back who's going to give them 20 to 25 carries a game and rush for 1,300 yards a season.

What Atlanta needs is someone to work in tandem with Jacquizz Rodgers, who was paired with Turner last season. Rodgers showed he can do a little bit of everything and can do it pretty well. He might be able to take on an even bigger role next season.

But Rodgers needs someone to share the backfield duties, and I’m not sure third-stringer Jason Snelling will ever be ready to take on a bigger role than he has had.

The best thing the Falcons can do is let Turner walk away (he can contribute somewhere else for a year or two) and go out and get a fresh set of legs for the backfield.

There’s an easy and inexpensive way to do that. It’s called the NFL draft.

Running back is a position where it’s easy to make an instant impact. Just look at what Doug Martin did in Tampa Bay last season. And you don’t have to be a first-round pick like Martin to have sudden success. Look again to Tampa Bay, where LeGarrette Blount, who wasn’t even drafted, had a 1,000-yard season in 2010.

Blount might have been a one-hit wonder, but the point is you don’t need to use a first- or second-round pick to get a running back who can help immediately.

Guys such as Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle, Rutgers’ Jawan Jamison, Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor, Florida’s Mike Gillislee, Michigan State’s Le'Veon Bell, Nevada’s Stefphon Jefferson, Wisconsin’s Montee Ball and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin will likely be available any time from the late second round on, a place where salaries aren't that high.

They all have their merits, and each has his flaws. But the Falcons don’t need a perfect running back.

They just need someone who can complement what Rodgers brings to help them take the next step forward, because they’ve gone as far as they can with Turner.

NFC South evening update

November, 26, 2012
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It’s a little difficult to type as I deal with the goose bumps that come from the anticipation of Monday night’s showdown between Carolina and Philadelphia. But I’ll try to get through it.

Before we start talking Panthers and Eagles, let’s take a run through some other odds and ends from around the division.
  • Earlier Monday we saw some quotes from Tampa Bay offensive tackle Donald Penn that probably will end up in the Atlanta Falcons’ locker room when the two teams play in late December. Well, it turns out the Falcons might need to get a bigger bulletin board. Tampa Bay linebacker Adam Hayward told Ira Kaufman, “Their record says they're 10-1, but they're not a 10-1 team," among other things.
  • Good news for former Carolina defensive back Mike Minter, who truly was one of the classiest guys ever to pass through the NFC South. Minter will be the new football coach at Campbell University, according to Tom Sorensen. Minter had been working as the special teams coach at Liberty, and I have no doubt he’s ready to run his own program.
  • Miami defensive back Jonathan Amaya isn’t in the NFC South. But I see two division connections in this story about Amaya reportedly choking a cab driver. First off, Amaya previously was with the Saints. He came as part of the Reggie Bush trade, but later was released. Second, former Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib pretty much set the precedent for incidents with cab drivers.
  • Mark Bradley has a nice summation of Atlanta’s situation at running back. He says it’s too early to say for sure if Jacquizz Rodgers is ready to take over as Atlanta’s feature back, but it’s nice to know there’s an alternative to Michael Turner. The Falcons obviously are giving Rodgers more playing time and more carries. I’d expect things to keep moving in that direction as long as Rodgers continues to produce.
  • Larry Holder reports that New Orleans defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley will not face a suspension after he was ejected for kicking a San Francisco player on Sunday. But Bunkley still could face a fine from the NFL.

Catching up on NFC South roster moves

September, 2, 2012
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Let’s catch up on a bunch of roster moves around the NFC South.

-- The Carolina Panthers signed veteran defensive tackle Dwan Edwards and released defensive tackle Terrell McClain. Edwards was a second-round pick by Baltimore in 2004 and most recently was with Buffalo. The release of McClain comes as a bit of surprise. He was pressed into starting duty by injuries as a rookie last season and showed some promise. But the move shows the Panthers want more experience to go with veteran Ron Edwards up front.

The Panthers also signed guard Bryant Browning, receiver Lamont Bryant, defensive tackle Nate Chandler, receiver Jared Green, tight end Nelson Rosario, running back Armond Smith and guard Zack Williams to their practice squad.

-- The New Orleans Saints claimed safety Rafael Bush off waivers from the Denver Broncos and waived safety Jonathon Amaya. Isa Abdul-Quddus emerged as New Orleans' top backup safety and Amaya wasn’t much more than a special-teams player. Amaya’s claim to fame was that he came as part of the Reggie Bush trade in 2011.

-- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have signed running back D.J. Ware and released cornerback Brandon McDonald. The Bucs already seemed set at running back with Doug Martin, LeGarrette Blount and Michael Smith. Ware has history with offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan from their time together in New York. Makes you wonder if the Bucs might be looking to trade Blount.

The Bucs signed defensive tackle Corvey Irvin guard Julian Vandervelde and guard/center Cody Walllace. They also released defensive tackle Wallace Gilberry and Cody Wallace. The fact that the Bucs still are bringing in guards is a strong sign they haven’t made a firm decision on how they’ll replace Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph, who suffered a season-ending injury.

-- The Falcons signed receiver Drew Davis, tackle Bryce Harris, receiver Marcus Jackson, cornerback Peyton Thompson and defensive tackle Micanor Regis to their practice squad.

Observation deck: Falcons-Dolphins

August, 24, 2012
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I think we got a pretty good glimpse Friday night of what the Atlanta Falcons’ offense is going to look like with Dirk Koetter as the coordinator in a 23-6 preseason victory against the Miami Dolphins.

The starters got their most extensive playing time of the summer. I think it’s fair to say, the Falcons showed signs of everything they’ve talked about for months.

They aren’t completely putting running back Michael Turner on the shelf, but the Falcons sure look like a team that’s intent on relying more on the passing game than it has in recent seasons. In the time the first-team offense was in the game (the starters didn’t return after a touchdown drive with 6:48 left in the third quarter), the Falcons had 249 yards of total offense -- 204 of those coming through the air and 45 on the ground.

Turner carried 10 times for 35 yards and Jacquizz Rodgers had four carries for 4 yards. As they’ve promised, the Falcons took more shots downfield in the passing game.

Matt Ryan completed 18 of 26 passes for 220 yards and the highlight of his night was a third-quarter touchdown pass to Roddy White. The 20-yard pass was perfectly thrown into the corner of the end zone and White made the catch despite strong coverage. Ryan also hit Julio Jones on a 49-yard pass in the first half.

Turner and Rodgers didn’t get a lot of opportunities on the ground, but both were involved in the passing game. Turner, who isn’t known as a big receiving threat, had three catches for 36 yards and Rodgers had one catch for 18 yards.

Some other observations on the Falcons:
  • Atlanta’s first-team offense also had a pretty strong outing. After allowing Reggie Bush to gain 18 yards on his first carry, the Falcons did a nice job against the run. Cornerback Dunta Robinson and Kroy Biermann each tackled Bush for losses early in the game and cornerback Asante Samuel stopped him for no gain on a third down to force the Dolphins to punt. The pass defense did a pretty nice job against rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who completed 11 of 27 passes for 112 yards.
  • The defensive highlight of the night was an interception by safety Thomas DeCoud in the first quarter. It came on a Tannehill pass that was tipped by linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and the interception led to an Atlanta field goal.
  • Rookie left tackle Lamar Holmes got his first playing time of the preseason in the second half and promptly was called for a false start. Once again, I don’t think Holmes is an immediate threat to beat out Sam Baker for the starting job.
  • Rookie quarterback Dominique Davis continued his bid to make the team with a gorgeous 39-yard touchdown pass to Tim Toone in the fourth quarter.
  • Oh, by the way, preseason results don’t matter. But this one had some significance. The win snapped Atlanta’s seven-game preseason losing streak, which had been the longest active losing streak in the NFL.
METAIRIE, La. -- As he prepares for his third NFL season, it sounds as if New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham has figured out the secret to NFL success.

"I was told to never tug on Superman’s cape," Graham said.

He was talking about quarterback Drew Brees. Graham noted how the quarterback challenged him to a sprint race at the start of training camp and said he let Brees win. Graham was partly joking, but there was some deep wisdom in his words.

More than ever, the Saints are Brees’ team. They’ve been through an offseason unlike one any other team has faced. They’ve been through the painful drama of the bounty scandal and they’ll move forward without coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season, and general manager Mickey Loomis, who is suspended for the first eight games.

Brees, the league's highest-paid player, is coming off a season in which he set a NFL single-season record for most passing yards. No, let other teams try to tug on Brees’ cape. If the Saints really are going to endure all this adversity successfully, they need Brees’ skill and leadership more than ever. They need to ride the coattails of the most positive thing they have at the moment.

Brees knows this high-flying offense as well as anyone, including Payton. The Saints remain loaded at offensive skill positions. There’s little doubt this team still is going to score a lot, and that alone will keep it competitive.

But Brees can’t do everything by himself. Even before the word "bounty" started flying in March, the Saints knew they had to overhaul their defense. That became clear in last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco. That’s why defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired. Predecessor Gregg Williams had a gambling philosophy, going all-out to produce turnovers. The negative side effect was that the Saints gave up too many big plays.

Spagnuolo brings a more balanced philosophy. Sure, he wants turnovers, but he also wants to be able to shut down offenses from time to time. A big theme of this camp is the installation of Spagnuolo’s defense. Even though that’s not his side of the ball, Brees shows a lot of interest in the defense. Even in camp, the Saints are implementing game plans.

“[Spagnuolo] is going to try to find every flaw, just like we are going to do to them,’’ Brees said. “Along the way, I am certainly going to be picking his brain as to what he is seeing with our offense, how we can improve. That is how you help one another. That is a habit that we got into, me talking to the defensive guys, even if it is just the secondary guys, saying, 'You give away that blitz whenever you do this.' We are competing against each other, but in the end we are on the same team. I want them to be able to go out and have as much success as possible, just like they want us, on game day, to have as much success as possible.”

Maybe that’s the best way to improve the New Orleans defense. Practice against Superman every day. After you’ve been through that, everything else should be easy.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Mark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREMark Ingram rushed for 474 yards and five touchdowns during his rookie season with the Saints.
THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Mark Ingram’s playing time. Fan expectations for Ingram might be significantly higher than the team's. That’s somewhat understandable, because the Saints traded back into the first round in 2011 to draft Ingram. He played at a college powerhouse (Alabama) and won a Heisman Trophy. Instant stardom was expected by fans, but it didn’t turn out that way in Ingram’s rookie season.

He finished with 122 carries for 474 yards and five touchdowns. Injuries were part of the reason his numbers weren’t bigger. But even before the injuries, Ingram shared playing time with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory did a nice job joining the rotation after Ingram’s injury problems started. Ingram had a couple of offseason surgeries and said he’s completely healthy.

But that doesn’t mean Ingram suddenly is going to become a 300-carry guy. New Orleans’ offense is based on diversity, and that’s not going to change. The Saints aren’t going to take playing time away from Sproles, who set an NFL record for all-purpose yards last season, and Thomas is going to play because he has earned it with his performance.

Assuming Ingram stays healthy, I expect him to get more carries than last season, but a 200-carry season for about 800 yards is a reasonable expectation.

2. Will the linebackers be better than last season? I think they’ll be markedly better. Many believe the season-long suspension of Jonathan Vilma is going to hurt the Saints. If this were two or three years ago, I’d agree. But Vilma was bothered by knee problems last season, and his age seemed to be catching up to him. I think free-agent addition Curtis Lofton is an upgrade over Vilma in the middle. In fact, I think Lofton is pretty similar to what Vilma was two or three years ago. The Saints will be just fine in the middle.

Plus, the Saints didn’t sit still at outside linebacker. They signed free agents David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. It looks as if Hawthorne is well on his way to winning a starting job. That leaves Chamberlain competing with Scott Shanle, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas for the other starting job. There’s no true favorite here, and Shanle is the fallback option as the safe choice because he’s smart and dependable. But Chamberlain, Herring and Casillas are more athletic and at least come with the possibility of producing big plays. The hope is that one of those three can step forward to win the starting job.

3. Can the offensive line, minus Carl Nicks, be as good as last season? Nicks took the big money and left for Tampa Bay in free agency. Losing a player many scouts consider the best guard in the NFL must take a toll. But the Saints already had Jahri Evans, who might be the closest thing to Nicks. Loomis did a nice job getting Ben Grubbs to replace Nicks. Grubbs isn’t quite on the Nicks/Evans level, but he’s an above-average player and came at a much lower salary than Nicks. The Saints build their offensive line around the interior, and Evans and Grubbs will form a very strong guard tandem.

Brian de la Puente did a nice job taking over at center last year and should be fine with Grubbs and Evans surrounding him. The tackles are more of a question. The Saints are sticking with Jermon Bushrod on the left side and Zach Strief on the right. They’re serviceable, but Bushrod and Strief aren’t all-pros, and the presence of Evans and Grubbs should be enough to keep this offensive line among the better ones in the league.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Spagnuolo’s history. There is legitimate concern about the pass rush, because Spagnuolo likes it to come mostly from his front four. Aside from defensive end Will Smith, who will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, the Saints don’t have a proven pass-rusher. Many fans are worked up about the potential of Junior Galette and converted linebacker Martez Wilson. Those guys could turn into something, but maybe fans aren’t looking in the right direction.

Second-year pro Cameron Jordan might be a big factor. Yeah, I know that sounds like a stretch because Jordan had one sack as a rookie, but he was a first-round pick and still has plenty of untapped potential. There’s more than that, though. Look at Spagnuolo’s past. When he became defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 2007, Justin Tuck had gone through two NFL seasons with one sack. In Spagnuolo’s first season, Tuck had 10. In 2008, Tuck recorded 12.

If Spagnuolo can get anything close to double-digit sacks from Jordan, he may have short- and long-term answers for his pass rush.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

How much adversity can one team take? The Saints will use all that happened to them in the offseason as a rallying cry, providing strong motivation. But it’s tough for any team to ride one emotion (anger, in this case) for an entire season. This franchise has been through a lot, and you have to worry about that taking a toll at some point.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Drew Brees and Tom Benson
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREWith a new contract and instability in the coaching staff, Drew Brees will be asked to be even more of a leader for Tom Benson's Saints.
You also have to worry about the Saints being a target for opponents, especially those who spent the past few months hearing that the bounty program had targeted some of their own players. Then throw in the fact that assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has run the team in Payton’s absence, must serve a six-game suspension at the start of the season. At that point, the Saints are expected to make another of their assistants the acting head coach. Yes, this is a veteran team with outstanding leadership, but it sure looks like a lot of things are stacked against the Saints.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • There was a lot of buzz about cornerback Marquis Johnson in the first few days of camp. He made some nice plays and usually was around the ball. The Saints hope second-year pro Johnny Patrick can be their No. 3 cornerback after starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson. But Johnson has a chance to compete with Patrick and may have one slight advantage. The third-year player spent his first two seasons in St. Louis, where Spagnuolo was the coach. Johnson knows the system, and that might be why he’s off to a fast start in camp. If he can sustain it, he’ll have a chance to move past Patrick. At worst, Johnson has a chance to be the fourth cornerback and a key player on special teams.
  • The Saints have almost an embarrassment of riches at kicker. They have Garrett Hartley back from an injury that kept him out last season and veteran John Kasay, who filled in nicely for Hartley. Hartley and Kasay each have made a lot of big kicks in their careers. Although Kasay is 42, he’s not showing signs of slowing. Hartley has the stronger leg, but Kasay has been a model of consistency throughout his career. The Saints will let this competition play throughout camp. If it ends in a dead heat, it might be the toughest call of all when it’s time to trim the roster. Brought in by Loomis, Hartley has earned a spot in franchise history with some clutch kicks. But Loomis and Kasay go all the way back to the early 1990s, when they were together in Seattle.
  • There’s been a lot of talk about New Orleans’ young wide receivers early in camp. Adrian Arrington, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Andy Tanner and Chris Givens have made spectacular catches. But let’s keep that in perspective. Those catches came before the Saints put pads on and before defenders could hit. The Saints are looking for fourth and fifth receivers, but let’s not anoint any of these guys yet. The preseason games will determine who wins the final roster spots at receiver. Arrington’s entering his third season, and it’s time for him to start showing something. Toon comes in after a solid career at Wisconsin. They probably are the favorites to make the roster at this point. But Morgan, Tanner and Givens might be able to change the pecking order if they can make catches in traffic in preseason games.
  • The Saints thought they might get an eventual starter when they drafted Charles Brown in 2010. There was even hope that he might turn into the long-range solution at left tackle. That hasn’t come close to happening. Bushrod has settled in nicely at left tackle. The Saints hoped Brown at least would be able to start at right tackle. But that hasn’t happened, either. Strief beat out Brown for the starting job last season. When Strief was injured, Brown got playing time, but his play wasn't pretty. (If you don’t believe me, look at the tape of the loss to the Rams.) The Saints still say that Strief and Brown are competing for the starting job this season, but Strief has received all of the first-team work, and I didn't hear any buzz at all about Brown from coaches. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure Brown even will be on the roster when the regular season starts.
  • Speaking of offensive linemen who could be on the bubble, don’t forget Matt Tennant. The Saints drafted Tennant in 2010, thinking he'd be the heir apparent to Jonathan Goodwin at center. It hasn’t worked out that way. When Goodwin left via free agency last year, the Saints took an early look at Tennant and quickly signed Olin Kruetz, the former Bears star. When Kruetz abruptly decided to retire, the Saints didn’t turn back to Tennant. They turned to de la Puente, who now has a strong grip on the starting job. Like Brown, Tennant could be fighting for a roster spot. The Saints used to have a good reputation for finding offensive linemen beyond the first round of the draft (Evans, Nicks and Bushrod), but Brown and Tennant may have eroded that trend.
  • The Saints appear set with Graham and David Thomas at tight end. Graham is a great pass-catcher, and Thomas is a jack of all trades. But keep an eye on Michael Higgins, who spent much of last year on the practice squad before getting promoted to the regular roster late in the season. Higgins already has demonstrated he can block, and showed signs of being a good receiver early in camp. Thomas has had injury problems, and the Saints may not want to overuse him. Higgins could provide another alternative.
  • There has been talk that strong safety Roman Harper might not be a great fit in Spagnuolo’s defense because he isn’t known for great coverage skills. But I believe Spagnuolo will find a way to make this defense work for Harper. There’s really not an alternative behind him. His backup is Jonathon Amaya, whose only claim to fame is that he was part of the Reggie Bush trade.

NFC South evening update

May, 31, 2012
5/31/12
5:34
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Time for an evening run through the headlines from around the NFC South.
  • New Orleans assistant coach Joe Vitt said the Saints have the deepest group of linebackers he has been around. Vitt said the Saints have seven or eight linebackers that could start for most NFL teams. There’s no doubt the Saints upgraded at linebacker in the offseason. Newcomer Curtis Lofton is working with the first team at middle linebacker, and free-agent pickup David Hawthorne and incumbent Scott Shanle have been working on the outside. After them, the Saints have Chris Chamberlain, Nate Bussey, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas. The NFL has suspended linebacker Jonathan Vilma, but he is appealing. Even if Vilma ends up serving his suspension, the Saints have plenty of depth at linebacker.
  • For those who think the Buccaneers gave up tight end Kellen Winslow for basically nothing (a seventh-round pick that could end up turning into a sixth-round choice) to Seattle, John Clayton runs through the history of some other similar trades. In general, older players that are shipped for late-round draft picks, haven’t produced much with their new teams. Ironically, the one recent success story Clayton points to involves an NFC South team. Clayton writes that Reggie Bush, who was traded from New Orleans to Miami last season, was a notable exception to this trend.
  • NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he’s confident bounty programs no longer will be an issue. Goodell said that’s because the punishments handed down to the Saints spoke very loudly. I’m sure the message was heard around the league. But this thing isn’t completely over yet. The players facing suspensions are appealing, and also are awaiting on rulings from arbitrators on two different grievances.
  • Mark Cook reports that the Buccaneers have hired former NFL defensive back Terry Cousin as their director of player engagement. Different teams have different names for that job, but it basically is about helping players deal with NFL life off the field. Or as I like to tell Kevin Winston, who holds a similar job in Atlanta and held a similar job in Tampa Bay back in the 1990s, his job is to be a social worker/big brother. The Bucs have had their share of off-field trouble in recent seasons, and I think it’s safe to say that part of Cousin’s job will be to end that.
  • Daniel Cox has a column on Atlanta’s receiving duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones. Is that the best duo in the league? Maybe not yet, but I think it could work out that way this season. Jones should be even better in his second season, and White needs to lose the case of the drops he had last season. If both things happen and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is a little more creative than Mike Mularkey, this could be the best receiver duo in the league.
We’ve weighed in from a lot of different angles on the NFL’s announcement that New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been suspended for the 2012 season and defensive end Will Smith will be suspended for the first four games.

Now, let’s look at what some others are saying and writing about the NFL’s discipline.
  • John DeShazier writes that the Saints may have gotten off easy. He’s got a point. Although the season-long suspension of Vilma might have been harsher than many anticipated, things could have been a lot worse. The NFL initially said 22 to 27 players were involved in the three-year bounty program. The fact Vilma and Smith are the only current Saints facing suspensions has to come as something of a relief for an organization that probably was bracing itself to lose more players.
  • Brian Allee-Walsh has a similar take.
  • Peter King writes that, at least in terms of discipline, the Saints' bounty program has made Spygate look small. I don’t know that this thing was dramatically worse than Spygate, but the NFL obviously treated it that way.
  • You can head over to SportsNation and weigh in on if you think the Saints’ penalties were too harsh or not harsh enough.
  • New Orleans backup quarterback Chase Daniel said he was standing next to Vilma when the news about the suspensions came on television.
  • Here’s a good sampling of what current and former New Orleans players had to say about the suspensions. As you might imagine, they’re not very happy. Also, good to hear from Reggie Bush.
  • Here’s the NFL Players Association statement on the suspensions. It’s the typical NFLPA response to just about everything -- they haven’t seen enough evidence.
  • Here’s the release the NFL used to announce the suspensions, which includes details of the involvement of the players in the bounty program.

Heisman no longer bad omen for QBs

April, 19, 2012
4/19/12
10:03
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Sam Bradford/Cam NewtonUS PresswireSt. Louis' Sam Bradford, left, and Carolina's Cam Newton have helped change the thinking that a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback won't be successful in the NFL.
There was a time -- like pretty much the last 50 years -- when a Heisman Trophy wasn’t a very good thing for a quarterback to have on his résumé as he entered the NFL.

When Baylor’s Robert Griffin III gets taken early in next week’s NFL draft, he could be the latest piece in the trend of turning around the apparent curse on quarterbacks who won the Heisman. It has started to change only recently, but all of the sudden it’s looking like the trophy isn’t an anchor guaranteeing NFL mediocrity or obscurity for a quarterback.

Look back at 2010 winner Cam Newton. He was last year’s offensive rookie of the year for the Carolina Panthers and set all sorts of rookie passing (and rushing) records. There’s big hope in St. Louis that 2008 winner Sam Bradford can get back to the promise he showed as a rookie after struggling through a rough 2010 season. Then there’s 2007 winner Tim Tebow. He couldn’t throw spirals in Denver, but he won games. That at least created a market for Tebow to get traded to the New York Jets, where it remains to be seen if he’ll ever be able to win the starting job away from Mark Sanchez.

But there’s at least hope that Griffin, Newton, Bradford and Tebow can go on to have long and prosperous NFL careers. Before they came along, there were decades of evidence that suggested quarterbacks should just quit the game after winning the Heisman.

Remember Troy Smith, Eric Crouch, Danny Wuerffel, Charlie Ward and Gino Torretta? How about Ty Detmer, Andre Ware or Pat Sullivan?

They had little to no success in the NFL.

And remember Jason White?

I honestly did not at first. I had to go back and look up White, who won the trophy not all that long ago. He won it in 2003 while putting up some gaudy numbers at the University of Oklahoma. White didn’t even get drafted and quit football altogether after a short training-camp stint with the Tennessee Titans. He never even played in a regular-season NFL game.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Jerome Miron/US PresswireRobert Griffin III threw for 4,293 yards and 37 touchdowns on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy last season.
Guys like White, Smith, Crouch, Wuerffel, Ward, Torretta, Detmer, Ware and Sullivan all had some things in common. In general, they were able to win the Heisman because they put up big statistics at programs where they were surrounded by elite players. They also had limitations -- usually in size, speed or arm strength -- that prevented them from being taken very seriously by NFL talent evaluators.

But those same evaluators also missed on some Heisman winners who seemed to have what the NFL wanted. Remember Matt Leinart?

He came from one of those football factories (USC), where he was surrounded by guys like Reggie Bush, but Leinart was supposed to be the one whose college success could transfer to the NFL. That’s why the Arizona Cardinals drafted him in the first round. But Leinart was nothing short of a tremendous disappointment.

When he flopped, it looked like there really was something to the Heisman Curse.

Prior to Tebow, Bradford, Newton and Griffin, you’ve got to look at a list of 18 quarterbacks who won the Heisman before you find one who really made it big. You’ve got to go all the way back to Roger Staubach, who won it for Navy in 1963. He went on to have a great career for the Dallas Cowboys and earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Since Staubach won the Heisman, other quarterbacks have had to settle for just getting into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Sure, there have been a few Heisman winners to come out and have some success. Jim Plunkett won two Super Bowls, but his career didn’t really take off until he landed with the Raiders after mediocre stints in New England and San Francisco.

Vinny Testaverde had an extremely long NFL career and the longevity led to some impressive career statistics. But Testaverde never had the kind of career so many people imagined when he was coming out of the University of Miami and taken No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987.

Guys like Steve Spurrier and Doug Flutie bounced around and had some success. Then there’s Carson Palmer, who has had some bright moments, but still is trying to fully live up to the Heisman hype.

But Newton, Griffin, Tebow and Bradford finally might be able to put a stop to the near-half-decade drought of Heisman Trophy winners truly excelling in the NFL.

“Cam Newton is the best thing to ever happen to Robert Griffin III,’’ former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke said as we discussed this year’s crop of quarterbacks back in February. “Just like Drew Brees is the best thing to happen to [Wisconsin draft prospect Russell Wilson]. Cam showed that a big, athletic quarterback that can run can be great in the NFL. Brees showed that a guy that’s not 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5 can throw for 5,000 yards in an NFL season. We all know the NFL is a copycat league. Cam’s success and Drew’s success helps the draft stock of guys like Robert and Russell.’’

Ironically, Weinke’s name is another one on that Heisman list. His story might be the most unique of all the Heisman-winning quarterbacks. Weinke enrolled at Florida State after giving up a minor-league baseball career. He won the Heisman in 2000 and seemed to have the talent of a classic drop-back passer, but the fact he would turn 29 in his rookie training camp, pushed him into the fourth round of the 2001 draft. The Carolina Panthers took him and he started under coach George Seifert as a rookie, but never could quite won over John Fox, who took over the next year.

Weinke spent the next five seasons as a backup in Carolina and finished his career in 2007 with San Francisco.

These days, Weinke has carved a niche as a quarterback guru. He is the director of football operations at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He has worked extensively with Newton and some other quarterback prospects over the past few years.

Weinke says he’s seen the game change just since his playing days ended. Like just about everyone else, he says the NFL has become more driven by quarterbacks. He says natural talent is a prerequisite for NFL success and he points to guys like Newton and Griffin, saying they could be a new prototype. And he goes back to his point about the NFL being a copycat league.

“People are always looking for what works,’’ Weinke said. “Cam obviously had a fantastic rookie season. So people look at Robert and say he can do the same thing because the skill sets are similar.’’

For Griffin, Newton and Bradford -- and perhaps even Tebow in his own way -- maybe the skill sets are so good that it no longer matters if a quarterback is lugging around a Heisman Trophy.

Tuesday’s news that Baltimore Ravens running back Ricky Williams is retiring comes with a bit of an NFC South angle.

Williams once was the biggest thing to ever hit the New Orleans Saints. Remember the 1999 draft, when the Saints traded away all their picks from that year, plus a couple more for the following year, for the right to draft Williams?

Yeah, it made headlines all over the place because it was one of the most daring trades ever -- we’re talking way more daring and dangerous than what the Falcons gave up to get Julio Jones or what the Saints gave up to get Mark Ingram in the 2011 draft.

It was the biggest deal coach Mike Ditka made and (along with a 3-13 record that season) it led to the end of his coaching career.

When coach Jim Haslett arrived the next season, Williams had some success. He had two 1,000-yard seasons, but there were issues. Williams was a unique personality. He didn’t interact a lot with teammates and often conducted interviews behind the shield of his helmet.

"Ricky's just a different guy," former New Orleans receiver Joe Horn once said. "People he wanted to deal with, he did. And people he wanted to have nothing to do with, he didn't. No one could understand that. I don't think guys in the locker room could grasp that he wanted to be to himself -- you know, quiet. If you didn't understand him and didn't know what he was about, it always kept people in suspense."

Haslett was in suspense or, at the very least, never quite could figure out Williams. That’s part of the reason Deuce McAllister was drafted. By the end of the 2001 season, in which Williams rushed for 1,245 yards and caught 60 passes, Haslett was pretty clear that Williams didn’t fit his long-term plans.

In the spring of 2002, the Saints traded Williams to the Miami Dolphins. They were able to get back some of what they initially gave up for Williams by getting four draft picks, including two first-round choices, in return.

Williams’ career would go on to have all sorts of twists and turns. He had success at times in Miami. He also retired from football in 2004, only to return in 2005. Williams was suspended by the NFL in 2006 and wound up playing for Toronto in the Canadian Football League.

Williams returned to the Dolphins in 2007. He finished his career with Baltimore and ended up with 10,009 rushing yards and 74 total touchdowns (66 of them on the ground).

Not a bad career, especially when you consider all the interruptions.

Would it have somehow worked out better if things had been handled differently and Williams spent his entire career in New Orleans? It’s impossible to say for sure.

Williams’ track record suggests he might have encountered some of the same, or different, problems if he had been with the Saints the entire time. Things worked out all right for him. They also worked out for the Saints, aside from the initial price tag to get Williams. McAllister ended up having a very nice career.

Reggie Bush came in and did some nice things at certain times. Along the way, the Saints also added Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, who have done some pretty nice things at running back.

Revisiting the 2006 NFL draft

January, 25, 2012
1/25/12
1:33
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Here’s what I think is a fascinating Insider post Insider by Mel Kiper. He revisits the 2006 NFL draft and does it over again from scratch.

Bush
Bush
Williams
Obviously, Kiper’s got the benefit of hindsight. But it’s kind of fun to look back now and see how things could have been different for the NFC South teams.

Remember, the Saints had the No. 2 overall pick that year and the Houston Texans had the No. 1 choice. There was a lot of debate on if the Texans would take Mario Williams or Reggie Bush.

In the end, Houston went with Williams and the Saints took Bush. Williams and Bush each had their moments, but neither has quite lived up to his draft status. Bush was traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2011.

As Kiper does the 2006 draft all over, he no longer has the Saints drafting Bush. He has them taking center Nick Mangold. Imagine that? Mangold is widely considered the best center in the league. The Saints could have the best center in the league surrounded by Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, who are considered the best guards in the league.

But it wouldn’t have worked out that way in Kiper’s scenario. Remember, the Saints had one of the all-time great drafts in 2006. They added Evans, receiver Marques Colston and safety Roman Harper in later rounds.

In Kiper’s new draft, Evans, Colston and Harper don’t make it out of the first round and they land with other teams.

The Carolina Panthers had the No. 27 pick that year and they used it on running back DeAngelo Williams. In Kiper’s new draft, Williams would have been off the board long before Carolina drafted. Instead, Kiper has the Panthers selecting Antoine Bethea, who has turned into a very solid cornerback.

In 2006, the Buccaneers drafted guard Davin Joseph at No. 23. He’s turned out to be a solid player and is at the Pro Bowl right now. But, in Kiper’s new draft, Joseph is scooped up several spots before the Bucs can take him. Instead, Kiper gives Tampa Bay Kamerion Wimbley. Hey, at least with Wimbley, the Bucs would have had a pass rush in recent years.

The Atlanta Falcons didn’t have a first-round pick in 2006. They traded it to the New York Jets for defensive end John Abraham, who has had a very productive run in Atlanta. But the Jets turned that pick into tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Had the Falcons landed Ferguson in 2006, they never would have drafted Sam Baker in 2008.

At last, details of Reggie Bush trade

January, 25, 2012
1/25/12
12:29
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For months, Saints fans have been asking for full details on last summer’s trade of Reggie Bush to the Miami Dolphins.

For the longest time, those details seemed to be one of the league’s best secrets. We knew the Dolphins got Bush and the Saints got safety Jonathan Amaya, but that’s all we knew for sure.

But it looks like we finally have an answer. The Saints still haven’t said anything official. But Miami general manager Jeff Ireland finally filled in the blanks on the draft-pick compensation part of the deal Monday during a break in Senior Bowl practices.

Brace yourself, New Orleans fans. You’re not going to be jumping up and down about this one because your team is not gaining much. The Saints will move up either 18 or 19 picks in the sixth round of the draft.

Ireland confirmed that in addition to the trade of Bush for Amaya, the only other item in the deal is that the two teams swapped sixth-round picks.

The Dolphins will holed either the eighth or ninth pick in each round. The exact spot will be determined by a coin flip with the Carolina Panthers at the scouting combine in February.

So the Saints will receive either the eighth or ninth pick of the sixth round. But the Saints also have to send their own sixth-round pick to Miami. That’s the 27th pick of the sixth round.

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