NFC South: Remi Ayodele

Around the NFC South

March, 4, 2013
Time for a look at the top headlines from around the division:


D. Orlando Ledbetter reports that it appears St. Louis running back Steven Jackson will be the top target in free agency. I’m not totally opposed to the move because Jackson will be an upgrade to Michael Tuner. But I think the Falcons would be better off using a mid-round pick on a running back and pairing him with Jacquizz Rodgers. Jackson’s good, but he is almost as old as Turner.


Steve Harrison reports that it’s possible early talk about tying new amateur sports facilities to funding for Bank of America Stadium could be scuffled.


The controversy from the bounty scandal should be over, but it’s not. Remi Ayodele is strongly denying former teammate Anthony Hargrove’s claim that it was Ayodele captured on audiotape saying “pay me my money."


Roy Cummings writes that this is the week the Bucs and Ronde Barber should sit down and discuss the veteran safety’s future with the team. It’s possible Barber may want to continue playing and the Bucs would welcome him with open arms. It’s also possible the Bus may want to move in another direction. It also is possible Barber will elect to retire.
Drew Brees, Matt RyanUS PresswireRecent history has raised the intensity between Drew Brees' Saints and Matt Ryan's Falcons.
For at least one week, it really doesn’t matter that the New Orleans Saints got off to an 0-4 start or that Bountygate seems to have been airing as long as “As The World Turns."

The Saints host the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and that means only one thing. The NFC South’s best rivalry -- and one of the NFL’s best rivalries in recent seasons -- will take center stage, and everything else will be forgotten.

Yeah, the Saints are 3-5 and have had more turmoil than perhaps any team in NFL history. Yeah, the Falcons are 8-0 and cruising through a sea of tranquility.

But none of that matters. If the Saints are going to step up and be the Saints of old in just one game this season, it will be this one. If the Falcons are going to slide back in just one game this season (and we’ll discuss their past playoff issues when the time comes), it will be this one.

These teams simply don’t like each other. Although they came into the NFL at roughly the same time (in the mid-1960s) and always had a bit of a geographic rivalry, this turned into a full-fledged feud in only recent years. That’s largely because the teams have been good at the same time, egos have gotten out of control and been bruised, and it’s all made for some great entertainment.

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and look at some incidents that have come to define this rivalry.

Photo flap: I’ll start with a game in the Georgia Dome late in the 2010 season. In a classic battle, the Saints edged the Falcons 17-14 to clinch a playoff spot. But it wasn’t so much what happened in this game that made it memorable. It was what happened after the game.

A group of New Orleans defensive players went to the locker room and then came back out onto the field to have their pictures taken on the Falcons logo. The Falcons, a team that tries very hard to keep a low profile and stay out of public controversies, were privately offended and irate.

The Saints, a team that’s not shy about anything, displayed the photos like trophies. New Orleans defensive tackle Remi Ayodele used some graphic terms to describe what the Saints were doing, even though I’m certain he was speaking only in the figurative sense.

After Ayodele’s comments went viral, New Orleans assistant head coach Joe Vitt tried to douse the flames by saying how much the Saints respected the Falcons. But, in perhaps breaking an unwritten rule (don’t celebrate on another team’s logo), the damage already was done.

Pouring it on? Then, almost exactly a year removed from the logo fiasco, there was the night in New Orleans when a lot of people (including some in the Falcons' organization) thought coach Sean Payton was running up the score as he let Drew Brees continue throwing as he set an NFL record for passing yards in a season and the Saints defeated the Falcons 45-16. In Atlanta's locker room that night, there were more than a few players who felt disrespected, although they could have prevented it by slowing Brees.

Statue war: Respect -– or a lack of it -– can flow both ways. That became obvious this summer when the Saints unveiled a statue of one of the most popular players in franchise history (Steve Gleason) making perhaps the biggest play in franchise history.

The statue replicates Gleason’s punt block in the first game back in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But the other figure in the moment, former Atlanta punter Michael Koenen, has no Falcons logos and his name doesn’t appear on the back of his figure.

The Falcons said they realize the significance of Gleason’s play in the history of the Saints and the city of New Orleans but they were advised by the NFL not to allow their trademark to be used in connection with things out of their market. The Falcons could have made an exception to the NFL’s guidelines but elected not to.

That angered a lot of New Orleans fans. Anger is a big part of any rivalry and doesn’t have to be limited just to fans.

Burning bridges: We were reminded of that in the offseason when Atlanta linebacker Curtis Lofton was a free agent. Lofton eventually signed with the Saints and, throughout the offseason, used every opportunity to take subtle -- sometimes not even subtle -- shots at his former team.

Lofton really drew the line in the sand when he said one of the reasons he signed with the Saints was because he wanted to be with a team that had a chance to go to the Super Bowl. That one didn’t go unnoticed in the Falcons’ offices or locker room in Flowery Branch, Ga. But, long before that, lots of lines were crossed both ways in this rivalry.

With the Saints off to a bad start, this game probably has no playoff implications for them, and the Falcons could pretty much put an end to New Orleans' playoff hopes with a victory. But the Saints would love nothing better than to knock the Falcons from the ranks of the unbeaten.

Heck, if the Saints could win and send the Falcons into a tailspin, it might make their crazy season worthwhile.

If the Falcons win, it keeps them marching toward their ultimate goal -- the Super Bowl -- and that could provide further motivation for them Sunday. For those who haven’t thought that far ahead, the Super Bowl is in New Orleans this season.

Sunday might as well be the Super Bowl for the Saints. They want to derail the Falcons somehow, because the last thing anyone in New Orleans wants to see is Atlanta players celebrating in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in February.
The New Orleans Saints obviously are happy with what they have seen so far out of rookie defensive tackle Akiem Hicks.

That became evident Monday as the team announced it has released veteran defensive tackle Remi Ayodele. It’s pretty obvious the Saints plan to use Hicks and Tom Johnson as the backups in the rotation behind starters Sedrick Ellis and Brodrick Bunkley. The Saints initially had brought Ayodele back to New Orleans as insurance in case Hicks, who played his college football in Canada, did not develop quickly.

Ayodele joined the Saints in 2008 and started 29 games over three seasons. He left for Minnesota as a free agent last year, but was re-signed by New Orleans in free agency.

Ayodele was the biggest name on the list of transactions made by the Saints to get down to the 75-player limit. The only other veteran released Monday was quarterback Luke McCown. He had been signed during the offseason before the Saints and starter Drew Brees were able to work out a new contract. The Saints are set with Brees and Chase Daniel as their top two quarterbacks. Sean Canfield remains on the roster for now, but the Saints often have carried only two quarterbacks on the roster in recent seasons.

The Saints also waived linebacker Aaron Tevis, center Brian Folkerts, tight end Jake Byrne, safety Johnny Thomas, receiver Derek Moye, guard Paul Fenaroli, tackle Hutch Eckerson, defensive end Donovan Robinson, receiver Kevin Hardy, cornerback Kamaal McIlwain, defensive tackle Swanson Miller, cornerback Cord Parks and receiver Marques Clark.

The NFC South's best rivalry

November, 11, 2011
Roddy White, Jabari GreerChuck Cook/US PresswireAfter saying plenty about the Saints last season, Roddy White's twitter account has been quiet.

Perhaps the best indicator of how big Sunday’s game is between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons is Roddy White’s verified Twitter account.

For nearly a week now, it’s gone almost silent. White, who never has been one to hold back what’s on his mind, has weighed in a few times on the Joe Paterno controversy, but he hasn’t written a word about the Saints.

That says a lot about what this NFC South rivalry has become. If White’s staying quiet and the Saints aren’t getting their cameras ready for postgame pictures, you know players from both teams are taking this game very seriously. There also is a very good chance they’re following orders from New Orleans coach Sean Payton and Atlanta coach Mike Smith, who realize you don’t need to throw gas on a fire that’s been burning for about four years, and still may not have reached its peak.

It might not have the historic significance of, let’s say, Green Bay-Chicago or Washington-Dallas, but it’s hard to find a rivalry that’s been more heated the past few years.

"This is one of the most overlooked rivalries in football right now,’’ Atlanta running back Michael Turner said. “We've been playing some great games. We know we don't like each other. We've been fighting each other since 2008 for this division. It's a rivalry game."

The part about not liking each other is about as close as any Saint or Falcon has come to fanning the flames. But that part is pretty well known if you’ve spent any time around either team. It extends even to the fans.

"If you're just kind of walking around town, fans say, 'If you do one thing this year, just beat Atlanta,' " New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said. "I think that's probably the sentiment of fans that have been longtime Saints fans, I'm sure. Maybe longtime Falcons fans say the same thing to them about beating the Saints, I don't know.’’

It’s pretty safe to say that Atlanta fans -- longtime or not -- do feel the same way about the Saints.

Two incidents from last season demonstrate just how strong this rivalry has become.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Drew Brees
Chuck Cook/US PRESSWIRE"If you're just kind of walking around town, fans say, 'If you do one thing this year, just beat Atlanta,' " Drew Brees said.
One came long before White turned to more tame tweets -- or Smith ordered him to. Before a game with New Orleans last season, White tweeted that the “grace of God’’ was the reason the Saints won their Super Bowl so the "city wouldn’t fall apart."

That caused outrage by New Orleans fans and probably didn’t score much goodwill with the Saints. But this rivalry flows both ways. After New Orleans defeated Atlanta in the Georgia Dome last season, some of the Saints were seen dancing and having their pictures taken on the Falcons’ logo. Former New Orleans defensive tackle Remi Ayodele made a comment that indicated the Saints were intentionally showing the ultimate disrespect to the Falcons.

That caused a stir, but the Saints insisted they had the utmost respect for the Falcons and the pictures were taken to commemorate an important victory.

As word of that scene spread through the Atlanta locker room, defensive end John Abraham, generally one of the more subdued Falcons, grew visibly angry.

“We can never let that happen again,’’ Abraham said.

The Saints and the Falcons weren’t biting this week when the media asked them about that incident. Not even White.

"They came down here and got a W,’’ White said. “They can kind of do whatever they want to do. That's kind of what happens. When we won down there, we kind of went on the field. It happens. We kind of did our thing when we went down there and won the game. They won, so congratulations to them.’’

But don’t let the diplomacy fool you.

"I'm not too familiar with that. I heard about it,’’ said Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who tried to be coy when first asked about the incident.

That didn’t last.

“But at the same time, I don't forget a lot of stuff,’’ Weatherspoon said. “Sometimes you have to have the memory of an elephant."

Although the Saints and Falcons are the oldest of the four NFC South franchises and played together in the NFC West before realignment in 2002, the rivalry hasn’t been this volatile for long. Both teams struggled through much of their early existence. When one team was good, the other wasn’t.

When Carolina entered the league in 1995, the NFL tried to make the Falcons and Panthers a natural rivalry because the cities are less than a four-hour drive apart. But that never really took off because the Panthers and Falcons were seldom good at the same time.

Without any encouragement by the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers became the NFC South’s only real rivalry, soon after the division came into existence. In those days, Carolina’s Brentson Buckner and Kris Jenkins and Tampa Bay’s Warren Sapp and Kenyatta Walker, lobbed verbal shots back and forth. Even Carolina punter Todd Sauerbrun and Tampa Bay kicker Martin Gramatica got into the rift and the teams played a series of brutally physical games through the middle of the past decade.

That rivalry has faded. But it’s been replaced by the Falcons and the Saints.

"If you look at the past four years, ever since Mike Smith has been there and Sean has been here, both teams have been up there as far as first or second in the division quite a few times,’’ Brees said. “So I'd say that's part of the reason why it's even more competitive now than maybe it ever has been."

There’s no doubt. When two good teams are going at each other, it makes things more interesting. The Saints are 6-3 and the Falcons are 5-3 and they’ll be playing for first place when they meet Sunday in the Georgia Dome.

Things tend to get heated between the Falcons and Saints these days. But that’s a good thing. It’s the sign of a healthy rivalry. The best rivalry the NFC South has ever had.
We still don’t know exactly what the Saints will be getting from the Dolphins in exchange for Reggie Bush. But we do know that safety Jonathon Amaya is at least part of the package, according to ESPN’s John Clayton.

Although veteran safeties Roman Harper and Darren Sharper are free agents, I wouldn’t go reading too much into the Amaya acquisition. He might have some upside, but he appeared in only 10 games as a backup last season. At best, he can begin his time with the Saints as a backup safety and special-teams player.

In other Saints news, defensive tackle Remi Ayodele has agreed to terms with the Vikings. Ayodele became expendable with the signing of Shaun Rogers prior to the lockout

The Saints also reportedly have agreed to terms with seventh-round draft picks Greg Romeus and Nate Bussey.

Around the NFC South

April, 22, 2011
Time for a trip through the headlines around the NFC South.

Mike Mayock writes that he’s not convinced the Carolina Panthers are going to draft Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. I see things from a different direction. While no final decision has been made, I think the Panthers are leaning strongly toward Newton. They’re down to their final meetings and unless someone can talk general manager Marty Hurney out of taking Newton (or Hurney talks himself out of the move), I think it’s going to happen. I really don’t see any team offering a trade that would entice Carolina to move out of the No. 1 spot.

Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik said he’s disappointed by the arrests on driving-under-the-influence charges of several staff members in recent months and is thankful that no one has been injured.

Mike Triplett takes a look at New Orleans’ defensive tackle situation. Even though the team signed Shaun Rogers before the lockout, a defensive tackle in the draft remains a possibility. Remi Ayodele and Anthony Hargrove are potential free agents.

Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White reportedly filled out an arrest application for a man who wants White to pay him $10,000 to get three of his game jerseys back. White reportedly gave them to the man, who was supposed to frame them for a much lower price. The story doesn’t indicate if White filled out the application with a pen or via his always-interesting Twitter account.

It's schedule day in the NFL

April, 19, 2011
Tuesday is somewhat of a national holiday in the NFC South and throughout the National Football League.

This is the day the NFL will announce its schedule for the 2011 regular season. Actually playing that regular season, of course, will be contingent on a new labor agreement being worked out. But the league is proceeding with business as usual on the scheduling end.

The announcement is coming at 7 p.m. ET, and as soon as I have a chance to process the schedule, I’ll have full analysis on the slate for each of the four NFC South teams. That should be up soon after 7 p.m.

For those who don’t remember which opponents each team is supposed to face, you can get the complete listing for each team by clicking here.

We already know the Buccaneers are scheduled to “host’’ an Oct. 23 game with the Chicago Bears in London. That’s not a prime-time game, but it’s definitely a showcase game. It should be interesting to see how the Bucs and the rest of the NFC South fares when it comes to prime-time games.

My guess -- and this is only a guess -- is that the New Orleans Saints will get the Thursday night game to open the season against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. It makes too much sense not to have the last two Super Bowl champions open the season against one another. I’ll also guess the Saints get two other prime-time games.

I’ll put the Falcons in the same category and guess that they end up with three prime-time games. They were 13-3 last season, have a quarterback with national appeal (Matt Ryan) and a receiver capable of starting a Twitter controversy (Roddy White) at any time. I'll also guess and say that at least one of the two meetings between the Saints and Falcons will be shown in prime time, and we'll see if Remi Ayodele and his New Orleans teammates do any postgame logo dancing.

The Bucs? Well, that’s a tough one to call. They went 10-6 last season and appear to be a young team on the rise. They’re also a team with attendance problems at home. I’ll speculate and say the Bucs get one prime-time appearance and I’m guessing it will be on the road. I'm also hearing the Bucs still are a very legitimate candidate to be featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks'' this summer, assuming there is labor peace and training camp.

As far as the Panthers, I doubt the league will be giving any prime-time games to a team that went 2-14 last season fans. Carolina fans will probably be looking at a lot of 1 p.m. ET kickoffs.

Saints announce tenders

March, 1, 2011
Reaching deals with defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and kicker Garrett Hartley weren’t the only moves the New Orleans Saints were making Tuesday night.

The Saints just sent out a news release saying they have submitted tender offers to nine players -- defensive tackle Remi Ayodele, offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod, defensive end Jeff Charleston, safeties Usama Young and Roman Harper, receiver Lance Moore, guard Carl Nicks, tight end David Thomas and running back Pierre Thomas. The Saints also announced a tender was submitted on Hartley, but that will be a moot point because ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports Hartley will sign a five-year contract Wednesday.

The terms of the individual tenders weren’t announced and it’s likely they’re at several different levels. Nicks and Harper are the biggest names on the list. With the league’s uncertain labor situation, it remains to be seen what the tenders really mean.

Without a labor agreement, the league is saying tender offers can be made and rules from past years are being followed. The NFL Players Association is saying tenders aren’t valid this year. Assuming a labor agreement is reached at some point, it remains to be seen if the new deal will include changes to the tender rules on the required length of service for restricted free agency and unrestricted free agency.
There’s a reason why the New Orleans Saints have been one of the NFL’s best teams the past couple of years.

Sure it helps that they have Drew Brees as their quarterback. But there’s more to it than that. What sets the Saints apart is their willingness to be aggressive -- on and off the field. The latest example came Tuesday night.

[+] EnlargeShaun Rogers
Jason Miller/US PRESSWIREThe New Orleans Saints signed defensive tackle Shaun Rogers to a one-year deal.
As much of the rest of the league sat around waiting for a possible labor lockout, the Saints were making some aggressive moves. They signed defensive tackle Shaun Rogers to a one-year contract worth around $4 million and they reached agreement on a five-year contract to keep kicker Garrett Hartley.

Think of the Rogers’ deal as being similar to the Saints acquiring linebacker Jonathan Vilma or tight end Jeremy Shockey in trades or signing cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Darren Sharper as free agents in the past. Those moves helped the Saints win a Super Bowl in the 2009 season.

With Vilma, Shockey, Sharper and Greer, the Saints identified players they felt they really needed. There was competition for each of those three and the cost wasn’t cheap. But none of that stopped the Saints. General manager Mickey Loomis approaches his job the same way coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams approach their jobs. Loomis goes out and makes sure he gets want he wants.

That’s what he did with Rogers, a guy who had some very good years in Detroit and Cleveland before being reduced to a role player with the Browns last season. The Saints have a definite need at defensive tackle. They have a good young player in Sedrick Ellis and not much else. They had been getting by with Remi Ayodele as the starter next to Ellis. But Ayodele was nothing more than a large body. He could help stop the run, but wasn’t capable of making big plays.

Rogers should bring that ability to the Saints. Plug him in next to Ellis and the defensive line suddenly could be very good. Even if it’s only for a year, this move could really help the Saints. Shockey and Sharper helped the Saints in the short term. Now, Shockey has been released and Sharper may retire or leave through free agency.

Rogers could be a one-year patch. Or he could be more. If he goes out and has a good season, the Saints will treat him the same way they have Vilma and Greer, who are part of their core. No matter how it works out, you can’t accuse the Saints of standing still.

The Hartley signing is slightly different because the Saints are simply retaining one of their own players. But a five-year deal for a kicker is an aggressive move. I’d expect nothing less from the Saints. They’ve had some kicking issues in recent years. But they feel Hartley has solidified that position, so they’re going ahead and locking him up for the long term.
Even if there is a labor lockout and no free-agency period or a delayed signing period, the New Orleans Saints could make a key free-agent pickup.

They’re in the market for defensive tackle Shaun Rogers. He has visited New Orleans after also making visits to the Redskins and Chiefs. Rogers is available to sign now because he was released by the Cleveland Browns last week and isn’t subject to the rules of free agency.

Rogers, 31, became more of a role player with Cleveland last year, but he was a strong inside force earlier in his career. At 6-foot-4 and 350 pounds, Rogers could give the Saints a run-stuffer in the middle, and he also has shown some ability as a pass-rusher.

The Saints started Sedrick Ellis and Remi Ayodele at defensive tackle last season and Anthony Hargrove rotated in frequently. Ellis is a player on the rise, but Ayodele hasn’t had a big impact. Ayodele and Hargrove both could be free agents.

Rogers has had some off-field troubles, and his practice habits have been criticized at times. But the Saints could be a good fit. They’ve taken on troubled players like Hargrove and tight end Jeremy Shockey in the past and both worked out. That’s largely because coach Sean Payton has a tight grip on his locker room and the Saints have strong veteran leadership that seems to keep most players in line.
As with just about everything else in the NFL, there is huge uncertainty when it comes to the use of franchise tags.

Get ready to start hearing a lot more about this. According to the league and its teams, franchise tags can be assigned starting Thursday. According to the NFL Players Association, franchise tags cannot be used – at least until there is a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in place, which could take months.

DeAngelo Williams
Rich Kane/Icon SMIWould Carolina keep running back DeAngelo Williams by using the franchise tag?
You’re probably going to see the two sides fight this one out and some teams will probably cast the first stone by announcing Thursday, or soon after, that they are assigning franchise tags. We’ll see how that plays out in the long run. But, at very least, we can take a look at guys who could get franchise tags in the NFC South.

I just went through all my contract stuff and I’m seeing three prime candidates. Again, there is some uncertainty here because there is no labor agreement and the way any potential deal is structured could play a big role in deciding if some players are restricted or unrestricted free agents.

But the three guys that could come into play are Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams, Tampa Bay offensive guard Davin Joseph and Tampa Bay linebacker Barrett Ruud. Each team can only use a franchise tag on one player, if they chose to use it at all.

We don’t know the price of 2011 franchise tags, but we can look back to 2010 as a reference point. The tag for a running back was $8.2 million. For an offensive lineman, it was $10.7 million. For a linebacker, it was $9.7 million.

Let’s take a look at the significant players for each team who currently are not under contract for 2011 and see how this might play into the situation with franchise tags. Again, some players may fall into the category of restricted free agents, depending on how a potential labor agreement is structured.

Atlanta: Mike Peterson, Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl, Jerious Norwood, Jason Snelling, Brian Williams, Justin Blalock, Brian Finneran, Matt Bryant, Michael Koenen, Stephen Nicholas, Brent Grimes and Eric Weems.

Summary: Grimes is coming off a breakout season and likely will be classified as a restricted free agent. Most of the veterans on this list are role players and wouldn’t be considered for the franchise tag. The two long-shot exceptions could be kicker Bryant and punter Koenen. The Falcons used the franchise tag on Koenen in 2009 and let him play for the restricted free agent tender last year. The 2010 franchise tag for punters and kickers was $2.8 million. I have a tough time seeing general manager Thomas Dimitroff using a franchise tag on a punter or kicker. The Falcons don’t really have any need to use the tag.

Tampa Bay: Ronde Barber, Barrett Ruud, Cadillac Williams, Davin Joseph, Stylez G. White, John Gilmore, Maurice Stovall, Jeremy Trueblood, Quincy Black, Tim Crowder and Adam Hayward.

Summary: The Bucs should have a ton of cap room to work with, so they should be able to handle a franchise tag easily. But it remains to be seen if they want to use it on either of the two realistic candidates: Joseph or Ruud. Joseph is a guy they want to keep in the middle of their offensive line, but they might be able to work a long-term deal that would be a lot more cap friendly. Ruud has made it clear to the Bucs for two years that he would like a long-term contract. That’s never happened. Maybe he’s just not in their long-range plans.

New Orleans: Jonathan Goodwin, Scott Shanle, Roman Harper, Darren Sharper, Jimmy Wilkerson, Lance Moore, Jermon Bushrod, Pierre Thomas, Anthony Hargrove, Courtney Roby, David Thomas, Remi Ayodele, Heath Evans and Carl Nicks.

Summary: The Saints have more than 20 potential free agents and even the guys I singled out above aren’t huge stars. Nicks is probably the best player on the list. But he has three years of service in and almost certainly would qualify as a restricted free agent in any new agreement. Goodwin’s a good player, but I think the Saints would rather take their chances on working a new deal with him than using the franchise tag on a center.

Carolina: Thomas Davis, Matt Moore, DeAngelo Williams, Jeff King, Richard Marshall, James Anderson, Ryan Kalil, Charles Johnson and Dante Rosario.

Summary: Kalil and Johnson are key players, but they could end up as restricted free agents. Williams is the key guy. The Panthers have depth at running back with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson. But Stewart has had durability issues and Williams is a playmaker on a team that needs all the offense it can get. Maybe the Panthers try to work a long-term deal with Williams, but they might try to protect him in the short term by using the franchise tag.

Hitting the NFC South hot spots

December, 30, 2010
I just jumped into the mailbag for the first time in several days due to the fact I was a bit tied up covering the Monday Night Football game between the Saints and Falcons, flying back home and taking care of some other assignments. But the mailbag was overflowing, mostly from the Atlanta and New Orleans precincts, but I also included questions on Carolina and Tampa Bay. So let's look at what's on the minds of fans around the NFC South.

Numerous New Orleans fans wrote to ask why I’m making such a “big deal’’ out of some Saints posing for pictures on the Falcons logo after Monday night’s game.

Pat Yasinskas: It’s part of my job description. Perhaps New Orleans fans have been a bit spoiled because just about every word written about the Saints over the past year has been justifiably glowing. This was an incident that angered a lot of people outside of New Orleans, and it had to be mentioned because it is a big deal in Atlanta and other places. I don’t think I really ripped the Saints -- although I did say what they did might not have been a great idea -- nearly as much as some other media members. I’ve had several follow-up items because the Saints and Falcons continue to talk about it.

Numerous Atlanta fans wrote to ask why I didn’t use a certain vulgar quote that was used by a New Orleans player to describe what the Saints were doing.

Pat Yasinskas: I wasn’t there to hear Remi Ayodele’s quote, so I couldn’t use it. But, if I had tried, I don’t think our editors would have run it. We have some pretty strict rules on that sort of thing. In fairness to Ayodele, I believe he was talking only in a figurative sense.

Numerous New Orleans fans said I gave Roddy White a pass on his Twitter comments.

Pat Yasinskas: Final word, for now, on this shouting match between the Saints and Falcons fans, although I'm sure it will continue in the comments section. Look at Wednesday’s NFC South Stock Watch. In the first two items, I was critical of the Saints and White. Both teams were at fault and that’s been pointed out. This spat isn’t about me. It’s about the Saints and Falcons. They were going back and forth before the game and they’re still doing it. That is part of the beauty of a rivalry. And, hey, it’s not a stretch to think New Orleans and Atlanta will meet again in the playoffs, so all this stuff could come up again.

Harris in Weaverville, N.C., writes: Do you have any insight on how Carolina’s process for looking for a new coach will go and how long that process might take.

Pat Yasinskas: As I’ve written several times, general manager Marty Hurney will stay with the team as coach John Fox leaves. Hurney will join with team president Danny Morrison to spearhead the search. That’s kind of the same approach the Panthers took in 2002 when they hired Fox. At that time, Hurney and former team president Mark Richardson led the search and owner Jerry Richardson had the final say. It will be the same thing this time, except Morrison will take over the Mark Richardson role. Jerry Richardson is more tied up in the league’s labor situation than most people realize. He’ll let Hurney and Morrison do the groundwork and he’ll get involved when the list is narrowed down. Knowing how Hurney operates, I’d expect this to be a very methodical search with the Panthers looking at several candidates and perhaps bringing several back for a second round of interviews. I still suspect the winner will be someone that hasn’t been a head coach in the NFL before and probably will be a current NFL assistant. But the Panthers aren’t closing any doors and it’s possible they will at least look at a college coach or two. As far as a time frame, my best guess is it will take a couple of weeks. When Fox was hired, the process took about three weeks.

Victor in Texas writes: Will Tampa Bay’s success this year translate into some prime-time television games next season.

Pat Yasinskas: Yes, I expect that will happen. The Bucs are a team on the rise and they’ve got some potential big names in Josh Freeman, Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount. That gives them a bit of star power, but I don’t think you’ll see more than one or two prime-time games next season. For the Bucs to get four or five prime-time games, they need to continue winning, Freeman, Williams and Blount need to continue building their star power, and it wouldn’t hurt if Raymond James Stadium starts selling out again. I don’t think the NFL wants to show many prime-time games with a half-empty stadium in the background.

Checking in on Saints' injuries

December, 24, 2010
Just like their "Monday Night Football" opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, the New Orleans Saints aren’t required to put out the traditional Friday injury report that includes player statuses until Saturday.

But I just got the Saints’ post-practice injury report for Friday and it’s fairly lengthy. There are 12 players on the list, but the good news is that eight of them fully participated in Friday’s practice. Those eight are linebacker Danny Clark (hamstring), defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (wrist), cornerback Jabari Greer (knee), defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (knee), receiver Robert Meachem (toe), linebacker Kawika Mitchell (hamstring), receiver Courtney Roby (concussion) and linebacker Jonathan Vilma (quadriceps).

Defensive tackle Remi Ayodele (ankle), offensive tackle Charles Brown (back) and running back Chris Ivory (hamstring) each participated on a limited basis. Tight end David Thomas (knee) did not participate.
I already had a pretty good idea that defensive line isn’t strong overall in the NFC South. But that’s been reinforced over the past few days as I’ve worked my way up to the front four in our series of position rankings.

We looked at the defensive ends on Monday and saw that the list was topped by Will Smith and an aging John Abraham, and filled out with a bunch of prospects and role players. We’re looking at defensive tackles today and the pickings might be even more slender.

  1. [+] EnlargeJonathan Babineaux
    Dale Zanine/US PresswireJonathan Babineaux had 47 tackles, including six sacks for the Falcons last season.
    Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons.
    This one was easy. Babineaux is by no means an All-Pro, but he’s proven over time he’s a very solid defensive tackle, which might make him the only one in the division. Babineaux should be helped by having Peria Jerry and Corey Peters joining the rotation this year. Last season, Babineaux led the Falcons with 6 sacks.
  2. Sedrick Ellis, Saints. No, he hasn’t dominated like a lot of people thought he would coming into the league two years ago. But the main reasons for that have been injuries. When he’s healthy, Ellis isn’t far from the same level as Babineaux, and, eventually, could turn out to be better.
  3. Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers. Yep, I’m going with a rookie this high. Part of it is because there’s not a lot to choose from. But part of it is because I think McCoy’s going to be really good right from the start. Don’t be surprised if he’s at the top of this list a year from now. I’ve had two general managers from other teams with early picks that they had McCoy ranked ahead of Ndamukong Suh, who went one pick ahead of McCoy to Detroit.
  4. Anthony Hargrove, Saints. Like a lot of NFL teams, the Saints rotate their defensive tackles a lot and Hargrove technically might not be a starter. But Hargrove’s going to play a lot. He straightened his life around as he joined the Saints last year and it looks like the arrow continues to point up on this guy.
  5. Peria Jerry, Falcons. We’ll see if this one ends up being a reach or not. There are big questions about Jerry’s health as he comes back from a major knee injury that sidelined him for most of his rookie year. But the guy was a first-round pick. The Falcons are going to rotate their tackles heavily and may be a little cautious with Jerry at first, but they’re hoping he can emerge as a force as the season goes on.
  6. Roy Miller, Buccaneers. McCoy and second-round pick Brian Price are getting all the attention, but Miller’s another young defensive tackle the Bucs are expecting big things from. He’ll probably start next to McCoy. Miller’s not the kind of guy who will put up big stats, but he’s a “plugger’’ and should be a big boast for the run defense.
  7. Brian Price, Buccaneers. He’s more explosive than Miller and although McCoy’s been drawing all the comparisons to Warren Sapp, Price is the guy that actually is built like Sapp, and, theoretically, should be able to play like Sapp did. But a preseason injury set back Price just enough to probably keep him out of the starting lineup. That doesn’t really matter. He’ll rotate in a lot.
  8. Corey Peters, Falcons. If Jerry’s not healthy, the Falcons are going to have to rely on Peters a lot. Either way, Peters will have a prominent role in the rotation. He showed more polish in camp than the Falcons expected from a third-round choice.
  9. Louis Leonard, Panthers. His health remains a question. But, if Leonard is on the field, he’s the best defensive tackle the Panthers have.
  10. Remi Ayodele, Saints. Yeah, I know this guy started 13 games for the Super Bowl champions last year and he could start again. But Ayodele is more role player than anything else. He’s all right against the run, but doesn’t bring anything special to the table.
  11. Ed Johnson, Panthers. If he keeps dropping weight like he has throughout the preseason, Johnson probably will end up starting or getting significant playing time. The Panthers took a chance on this guy because he played under defensive coordinator Ron Meeks with the Colts before running into some trouble. But Johnson appears to be getting his career back on track.
  12. Trey Lewis, Falcons. Again, much will depend on Jerry’s health. But with Babineaux suspended for the first game, Lewis might have some role in a rotation.

New Orleans weakness: Defensive tackle

July, 1, 2010
NFC South Weaknesses: Falcons (6/29) | Panthers (6/30) | Saints (7/1) | Bucs (7/2)

Let’s preface this by noting that the Saints did win the Super Bowl with more or less this same group of defensive tackles, but I viewed it as a problem spot then and I firmly believe it remains an area of weakness. Outside linebacker also concerns me, but not as much as the interior of New Orleans’ defensive front.

[+] EnlargeSedrick Ellis
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Saints need more consistency from Sedrick Ellis.
Much like Indianapolis over the years, the Saints are surely going to score a ton of points and they often force their opponent into a shootout situation -- which, of course, favors New Orleans. In this situation, the Saints in 2009 and the Colts in recent history have been able to get away with subpar defensive tackle play. But there is no way around it, New Orleans’ run defense was a clear weakness last season -- and the team did nothing to correct it. In fact, the Saints could be slightly weaker at linebacker. But to me, the real culprits here are the defensive tackles.

Young players at this position often take time to really get adjusted to the NFL. I think that is the case with Sedrick Ellis, whom I remain high on as a long-term prospect, but frankly, he has not been very good since entering the league as the seventh overall selection in 2008. He hasn’t shown the production on a play-to-play basis to confirm he is a foundation-type player. Again, he very well could turn into such a player -- and I am not writing him off -- but the film doesn’t lie. Injuries have been a problem for Ellis as well.

Remi Ayodele is penciled in at nose tackle. He is a big body who is built to stop the run, but he offers zero as a pass-rusher. To me, he isn’t a good enough run-stuffer to be happy with the total package when considering how little he brings against the pass. The Saints did use their fourth-round pick on Al Woods, a rookie I am excited about. But as I said, rookie defensive tackles often have a large learning curve. Still, it wouldn’t shock me at all if Woods began to really push Ayodele for playing time and eventually for a starting job.

Anthony Hargrove is the final prominent member of this group. He does little to excite, but has been a pretty consistent producer at either end or tackle. He does offer much more than Ayodele against the pass and should see plenty of snaps inside on throwing downs when the Saints do get into their shootouts. But he is rather underwhelming … as is this entire unit.