NFC South: Richard Marshall

Observation deck: Bucs-Dolphins

August, 10, 2012
8/10/12
10:29
PM ET

For the first time since October, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won a football game, defeating the Miami Dolphins on Friday night, 20-7.

So what if it doesn’t count in the standings because it’s just a preseason game? We might look back on it in the future and remember it fondly as the start of a successful Greg Schiano era. Heck, even if Schiano’s overall tenure doesn’t go well, what happened in Miami sure was a lot better than what happened in the final 10 games that Raheem Morris coached this team.

Although the starters played only briefly, it’s obvious Schiano has brought some order to a team that desperately needed it. The first-team offense opened with a long scoring drive, the second team followed with an even longer one and the defense got the Dolphins off the field.

Let’s take a look at some observations on the Bucs:
  • Running back LeGarrette Blount, who is trying to hold onto his starting job, got off to a good start. Blount got the start and played well. Blount carried seven times for 30 yards and even caught a pass. Blount also scored the game’s first touchdown, hurdling over a pile at the goal line, but you could make the case Blount should have gotten in on third down if he had followed Carl Nicks with more authority.
  • Doug Martin, the rookie Blount is trying to hold off, also fared well. Martin scored the game’s second touchdown on a short run and did it behind a second-team offensive line that’s not nearly as good as the first unit. Martin’s highlight play came on a run in which it looked like he was tackled. He then spun free and never hit the ground. Martin also did a nice job blocking Cameron Wake on a key pass play to Luke Stocker on the offense’s first drive.
  • Speaking of rookie running backs, Michael Smith, a seventh-round draft pick, had a 74-yard kickoff return in the third quarter.
  • Quarterback Josh Freeman completed 4 of 5 passes for 41 yards while playing only one series. Freeman didn’t do anything spectacular, but he looked calmer than last year. Maybe that was because he had some help from the running game as the Bucs drove 59 yards on 13 plays in seven minutes and 17 seconds.
  • Top draft pick Mark Barron was held out due to a slight injury. Cody Grimm, who had been working with the third team early in camp, ran with the first team.
  • Wide receiver Preston Parker has had a nice camp. But he probably had a few points deducted by Schiano after drawing a 15-yard penalty for slapping Miami’s Richard Marshall after a play ended. Things got worse for Parker in the second quarter when he fumbled a punt return. Yeah, it was raining and the ball was wet, but those same conditions can be present in the regular season.
  • Second-year linebacker Mason Foster and second-year defensive end Adrian Clayborn both put big hits on a Miami back on a running play near the end of the first quarter.
  • Rookie linebacker Lavonte David was drafted in the second round because the Bucs believe he can make big plays. He did. David intercepted a tipped pass in the second quarter.
  • Backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky completed all eight of his passes for 91 yards, but it wasn’t as spectacular as it sounds. Receiver Tiquan Underwood bailed Orlovsky out with a catch on a 44-yard pass that a Miami safety had the angle on but failed to reach out for the ball.

Camp Confidential: Panthers

August, 4, 2011
8/04/11
8:49
AM ET
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- You’ve heard plenty about the lockout over the past few months, but it actually was in effect in Charlotte since 2008.

The moment owners opted out of the previous labor agreement, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson realized there were tough financial times ahead. He immediately decided he wasn’t going to spend big money on long-term deals for players or coaches (the Panthers didn’t add a single unrestricted free agent in 2009 or 2010) because Richardson wanted to protect everyone else who worked for his franchise during these tough times.

That’s why defensive end Julius Peppers was allowed to walk in free agency last year. That’s why John Fox was allowed to be a lame-duck coach entering a 2010 season that turned into a nightmare. Despite having a roster filled with a reasonable amount of individual talent, the Panthers went 2-14 and fan apathy reached an all-time high.

But Richardson’s entire philosophy changed the moment the labor situation was resolved. He took the lock off his checkbook and began paying huge money to keep players such as defensive end Charles Johnson, running back DeAngelo Williams and linebackers Jon Beason, James Anderson and Thomas Davis. He added free agents such as kicker Olindo Mare and traded for tight end Greg Olsen. Including rookies, Richardson already has written checks for more than $100 million in signing bonuses.

Throw in the fact that Ron Rivera has replaced Fox and the Panthers chose quarterback Cam Newton with the first pick of the draft, and there suddenly is optimism the Panthers can quickly escape the label of being one of the league’s worst teams.

“That’s the one thing I’ve learned from being a Carolina Panther for going on nine years is that you never know what kind of a team we’re going to field from year to year,’’ veteran left tackle Jordan Gross said. “Things can change dramatically, and I think they are going to here. I love Coach Rivera’s philosophy and the staff he’s put together. They’re committed to winning, and the organization has shown that as well with what it has done with getting new guys and re-signing our own guys. I think we can be as good as we want to be.’’

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Cam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAs the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft, it is inevitable that Cam Newton will at some point start for the Panthers at quarterback.
THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Will Newton be the savior of this franchise? It’s way too early to even have a clue if the guy who played only one full season at Auburn will succeed in the NFL. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that the Panthers aren’t asking Newton to be their savior -- at least not right away.

The hope in Carolina is that Newton will get a reasonable grasp of the offense in training camp and show it in preseason games. If he does, he’ll be the opening-day starter. The Panthers don’t want to prolong the inevitable and start the season with Jimmy Clausen because Newton clearly is their future.

The playbook can expand as time goes on, but the organization believes that Newton can step right in behind an offensive line that should be good and can take advantage of a strong running game, very good tight ends and wide receiver Steve Smith.

2. What will the new offense look like? The popular thing to do in Carolina is assume that the departure of Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson means the Panthers are suddenly going to start throwing the ball all over the field.

They will throw more, but the Panthers won't pass as often as people think. That would be foolish with a rookie quarterback and it would border on insanity to keep the ball out of the hands of running backs Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Under new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, there will be significant differences from the Fox/Davidson era.

Chudzinski came from San Diego and plans to use an offensive scheme that’s based on what the Chargers do. You’ll see more passes to the tight ends, a big reason the Panthers brought in Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. You’ll see plays designed to get Smith away from double coverage. But don’t expect Newton to step right in and immediately be Philip Rivers.

3. What will the defense look like? Rivera has a defensive background. His coordinator is Sean McDermott, who spent time in Philadelphia. Some personnel changes in the middle of the defensive line will allow Beason, Anderson and Davis to again become play-making linebackers. That’s going to make this defense look a little like Fox’s defense of a few years back. But the real change will be a new philosophy that involves taking risks and being aggressive. The Panthers didn’t blitz much last year and didn’t have much success when they did. That’s going to change. McDermott’s going to use those athletic linebackers as blitzers, and with Johnson and Greg Hardy already up front, Carolina suddenly could have a dynamic and disruptive pass rush. The secondary is not loaded with big-time talent, but it could look a lot better if quarterbacks are forced into mistakes.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Armanti Edwards
Joshua S. Kelly/US PRESSWIREArmanti Edwards reached out to punter Jason Baker during the offseason to work on fielding punts.
Granted, it’s early, but the Panthers are hopeful receiver/return man Armanti Edwards will make an impact. A second-round pick last year, Edwards was a nonfactor as a rookie. That was largely because Fox believed the former college quarterback did not belong in the NFL. He barely let Edwards on the field as he made a statement to an owner and front office that wanted the lame-duck coach to embrace a youth movement. But Fox is gone and there’s sudden optimism about Edwards. The team didn’t know it until after the lockout ended, but it was delighted to find out that Edwards reached out to veteran punter Jason Baker during the offseason. The two worked out together frequently and Edwards made dramatic improvement in his ability to catch punts. There’s a good chance he could be the main punt and kickoff returner this season. He also could be involved in certain packages as a wide receiver.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

The perception is the Panthers have done just about everything they’ve wanted to in free agency. But that’s not quite reality. According to a league source, the team made a strong play for free-agent receiver Santana Moss, offering him a three-year deal worth $15 million. Moss took the deal back to the Redskins, who matched it, so he elected to stay in Washington. That one shook the Panthers a bit. Although they have high hopes for young receivers Brandon LaFell and David Gettis, they want to pair a proven veteran with Smith to start the season. Look for them to bring in another veteran at some point before the start of the regular season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Keep your eye on the cornerbacks who remain on the market or come available over the next few weeks. The Panthers let Richard Marshall leave via free agency. They still have Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn, but a team that has been so aggressive this offseason isn’t going to sit still at this position. The Panthers will sign a cornerback with starting experience at some point. They’re just waiting for the right guy at the right price.
  • The Panthers pushed veteran kicker John Kasay out the door and handed Mare a $4 million signing bonus. Kasay, 41, remained accurate on field goals, but the feeling was that he no longer had the leg strength to make long kicks. Mare’s 38 and still can make long field goals. But the biggest reason the change was made wasn’t about field goals. It was about kickoffs. The Panthers carried a kickoff specialist the past few years and didn’t want to waste a roster spot by doing that again. With the league moving kickoffs up 5 yards this year, the team believes Mare can produce a lot of touchbacks.
  • Don’t overlook running back Mike Goodson. As long as Williams and Stewart are healthy, he’s not going to get a bunch of carries. But Goodson was one of the few bright spots from last season and the new coaching staff noticed him on film. He can do a lot out of different things out of the backfield, and the coaching staff believes there's a role for Goodson. Think of a scaled-down version of what New Orleans did with Reggie Bush and plans to do with Darren Sproles.
  • Perhaps the most unsung move the Panthers made all offseason was hiring Mike Shula, the son of legendary coach Don Shula, as quarterbacks coach. He's had ups and downs as an NFL coordinator and college head coach at Alabama. But Shula has grown from it all and is a very good quarterbacks coach and teacher. If Shula can develop Newton or Clausen into a big-time quarterback, the world finally might give this guy his due.
  • The return of right tackle Jeff Otah is more significant than many realize. Otah missed all of last season with a knee injury but is fully healthy now. That’s going to have a huge impact on the running game.
  • Ryan Kalil signed his $10 million franchise tender and the team hasn’t talked to him about a long-term deal. But that’s simply because the front office has been so tied up making other moves. This team realizes Kalil is still young and already considered one of the best centers in the game. As soon as things settle down a bit, expect Kalil to be offered a big long-term deal.

Panthers looking at veteran QB, CB

August, 1, 2011
8/01/11
10:07
AM ET
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The Carolina Panthers don’t practice until late Monday, but they’re already making news.

One potential move might excite you and the other will probably come as a bit of a disappointment. Let’s start a Monday morning by getting the news that’s not likely to be well received by fans out of the way.

The Panthers are bringing in free-agent quarterback Derek Anderson for a visit and probably will sign him, barring any problems with a physical exam or contract talks. The Panthers had said they were looking for a veteran to help mentor Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen.

They’re about to give you Anderson, who didn’t do all that much in his Cleveland days. Not sure about you, but I think the Panthers would have been just as well off keeping Matt Moore and I don’t even think Moore’s that good. I think they would have been even better off bringing back Jake Delhomme, who recently was released by Cleveland.

But, as often is the case, you have to look at ties to the coaching staff when a player is brought in. Anderson had his one decent season (2007) in Cleveland, when Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was with the Browns.

Now, onto the news that probably will go over well with fans. The Panthers are showing interest in veteran cornerback Carlos Rogers, who has spent his entire career with the Washington Redskins and been a starter most of that time.

After letting Richard Marshall go in free agency, the Panthers are looking for a cornerback to start opposite Chris Gamble.
ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio just reported that the Carolina Panthers have not shown any interest in trading for Philadelphia cornerback Asante Samuel, despite reports to the contrary.

Samuel seemingly is on the trading block after the Eagles signed free-agent Nnamdi Asomugha and traded for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. A league source said the Panthers are not interested in taking on Samuel's large contract and the Eagles are looking for at least a third-round draft pick or a starting offensive lineman as compensation.

The Panthers are a bit thin at cornerback after losing Richard Marshall via free agency. Chris Gamble was benched by former coach John Fox last season, but is looking for a fresh start under new coach Ron Rivera.

Captain Munnerlyn has nine starts in his first two seasons and could be the top candidate to start opposite Gamble. But the Panthers still could target a free agent with a cheaper price tag than Samuel's.
TAMPA, Fla. -- A couple of very quick notes because the Bucs are heading out to the practice field and I need to join them.

Former Carolina cornerback Richard Marshall has signed a one-year deal with Arizona.

The Buccaneers unanimously voted to recertify the National Football League Players Association as a union.

New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter said he’ll miss a few weeks of training camp as he recovers from a knee injury, but expects to be ready for the season opener.

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said he’s not bothered by the fact the new rookie wage scale means his contract is worth about half what other recent No. 1 overall picks have received.

NFC South free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
3:27
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC South team:

Atlanta Falcons

1. Sign a pass-rushing defensive end: This move has been telegraphed since the draft, when the Falcons jumped up to add an explosive offensive player in wide receiver Julio Jones rather than a pass-rusher. It’s no secret the Falcons want to add an edge rusher who can complement John Abraham in the short term and replace him in the long term. The Falcons showed last year when they signed cornerback Dunta Robinson that they’re not afraid to spend big money in free agency. They’re poised to do it again, and Minnesota’s Ray Edwards and Carolina’s Charles Johnson are two pass-rushers just entering their prime who will be on the market. The Falcons can offer big money and the chance to be the last piece of a Super Bowl puzzle. That should be attractive.

2. Figure out what the offensive line will look like: The Falcons have three starters on the offensive line who are likely to be free agents, and they’ll allow one or two of them to walk. That’s not as scary as it may sound, because none of those free agents is dominant, and the Falcons have stockpiled some promising linemen in the last few drafts. But center Todd McClure is near the end of his career, and left tackle Sam Baker is still a question mark. That means the Falcons can’t afford to let all their free-agent linemen walk. They need to maintain some continuity on the line to make sure quarterback Matt Ryan stays upright. Keeping right tackle Tyson Clabo is the major priority.

3. Re-sign kicker Matt Bryant: The veteran has revitalized his career since coming to Atlanta. He’s come through consistently in the clutch. The Falcons are a team on the verge of great things, and they don’t need to suddenly go young or cheap at kicker. They need a veteran who can help them win some big games.

Top five free agents: Bryant, LB Mike Peterson, T Tyson Clabo, G Harvey Dahl and G Justin Blalock.

Carolina Panthers

1. Re-sign DeAngelo Williams: The running back is sure to be a hot commodity on the open market, but the Panthers can’t afford to let him get away. Yes, Jonathan Stewart looked very good at times last season, and Mike Goodson made the most of his playing time after Williams was injured. But the Panthers don't want to put too much pressure on a young starting quarterback, whether it's Cam Newton or Jimmy Clausen. They need to have two or three strong running backs, and Williams is the most versatile member of the backfield.

2. Make a decision on Steve Smith: Other than the drafting of Newton, speculation about Smith’s future has been the dominant story out of Carolina this offseason. There have been conflicting reports about whether the veteran wide receiver wants to be traded from the only team he’s ever played for. The speculation was a moot point because no trades could be made during the lockout. Now, Smith and the Panthers will have to show their hand. If he truly wants out, the Panthers will try to trade Smith. But they’re not simply going to give him away. Even if he’s unhappy, Smith still might be the best player on the roster. The Panthers aren’t letting him go without getting a good draft pick or a decent player in return.

3. Sign a veteran quarterback: New coach Ron Rivera has said several times that he wants to add a veteran quarterback to serve as a mentor to Newton and Clausen. Heck, he might even need that veteran to start the first few games of the season so Newton and Clausen can catch up on all the missed offseason work. The Panthers want someone who can help the development of the two young quarterbacks. Someone like Marc Bulger or Jake Delhomme could fit, if either is willing to accept a backup role.

Top five free agents: Williams, DE Charles Johnson, LB James Anderson, LB Thomas Davis and CB Richard Marshall.

New Orleans Saints

1. Decide what to do with Reggie Bush. The running back/return man is scheduled to make almost $12 million and count $16 million against the cap. That’s not going to happen, but the Saints have indicated they’d like to keep Bush if they can work out a contract extension that would spread money around. The Saints drafted running back Mark Ingram in the first round, but Bush still could play plenty of roles with this team. Sean Payton has been creative with the ways he’s used Bush, who has been productive when healthy. Last year’s injury problems at running back showed the Saints can’t have enough depth at the position.

2. Make some key secondary decisions. Safeties Darren Sharper and Roman Harper are both potential unrestricted free agents, so the Saints have to make some choices. Sharper’s past his prime and is a free safety. That position now belongs to Malcolm Jenkins. Harper has been the starting strong safety and has been solid. Harper shouldn’t command huge money on the open market, and the Saints would be wise to re-sign him. If they do, they should have one of the league’s better secondaries.

3. Shore up the outside linebacker spots. Scott Shanle is an unrestricted free agent and may or may not return. The other position is up for grabs. Martez Wilson was drafted in the third round, and the Saints have a few other promising prospects at outside linebacker. But this is a veteran team with a realistic chance to contend for the Super Bowl, so it might be wise to go out and get a proven veteran and let the young linebackers develop behind him.

Top five free agents: Sharper, Harper, WR Lance Moore, FB Heath Evans and TE David Thomas.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1. Re-sign Davin Joseph. The guard is very much in his prime and is strong as a run blocker and pass blocker. Along with Donald Penn, he’s the anchor of an offensive line that may be working in some young players. Quarterback Josh Freeman is the franchise in Tampa Bay, and the Bucs need to do whatever it takes to keep him protected.

2. Decide on a defensive leader. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud is an unrestricted free agent and may bolt if a decent offer comes from elsewhere. Ruud’s been asking for a new contract for about two years, and the Bucs haven’t given it to him. They drafted Mason Foster in the third round and are high on his potential. But this is a very young defense, and putting a rookie at middle linebacker could be a risky move. Buffalo’s Paul Posluszny is a free agent, and there are reports that Green Bay could be looking to trade or release Nick Barnett. Either of those guys could come in and be an immediate leader on this defense.

3. Spend some money. The Bucs have had one of the league’s lowest payrolls in recent years. Still, they’ve made progress in a youth movement that won’t be abandoned. It might be time to start locking up some young players to longer deals. It might also be time to go out and get just a few free agents to keep the youth movement headed in the right direction.

Top five free agents: G Davin Joseph, LB Barrett Ruud, RB Cadillac Williams, DE Stylez G. White and Maurice Stovall.

Panthers in free-agent danger?

July, 20, 2011
7/20/11
6:49
PM ET
They were 2-14 last season, so the Carolina Panthers can’t have much talent, right?

Actually, that’s quite wrong. Last year’s debacle had a lot more to do with John Fox’s status as a lame-duck coach and failure to embrace a youth movement than the talent level. The Panthers had guys like Jon Beason, Jordan Gross and Steve Smith on their roster.

They also had guys like Charles Johnson, DeAngelo Williams, James Anderson and Richard Marshall. Those last four guys are potential unrestricted free agents and they’re a big part of the reason why this Insider postInsider ranks the Panthers as one of five teams with the most to lose in free agency. All four of those guys could get significant interest from other teams because they all have talent.

Carolina fans shouldn’t get too frantic about that. The Panthers should have more than $40 million in salary-cap space and they’re going to make a hard push to keep their own players. They could let Marshall walk.

But they’re going to do everything in their power to try to keep Johnson, Williams and Anderson. Talks were held with all of their agents before the lockout and they know the Panthers want to keep them.

NFC South top 10 free agents

July, 20, 2011
7/20/11
7:52
AM ET
With all signs continuing to point to a labor agreement coming soon, free agency can’t be far behind.

[+] EnlargeCharles Johnson
Bob Donnan/US PresswirePanthers defensive end Charles Johnson, left, had 11.5 sacks last season.
It’s going to be a very condensed and rapid process, so let’s start getting ready. Let’s take a look at the top free agents in the NFC South -- and we’re going on the assumption any player without a current contract and with four accrued seasons will be an unrestricted free agent.

1. Charles Johnson, defensive end, Panthers. Johnson is likely to be one of the most coveted free agents. He’s coming off a breakthrough season in which he had 11.5 sacks, and there always is a premium on good pass-rushers. Atlanta might try to bring Johnson, who is from Georgia, home. But the Panthers let Julius Peppers walk away. I don’t think they’re going to let the same thing happen with his replacement without putting up a strong fight.

2. DeAngelo Williams, running back, Panthers. His name gets thrown out by Miami and Denver fans, and Williams is the kind of back that could help any team. Carolina also has Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson, but Williams is the most complete running back the Panthers have. Stewart’s had durability issues since college. It would be disastrous if Williams left and Stewart got hurt early in the season.

3. Davin Joseph, guard, Buccaneers. Along with left tackle Donald Penn, Joseph is the anchor of this offensive line. The Bucs have all sorts of salary-cap money, and their first move should be locking up Joseph for the long term.

4. James Anderson, linebacker, Panthers. Scouts and coaches will tell you this guy is on the rise. He’s quick and athletic and, if you combine him with Jon Beason, Thomas Davis and Dan Connor, Carolina has a very strong group of linebackers.

5. Roman Harper, safety, Saints. I still say this guy is one of the more underrated players in the NFC South. He might not be great in deep coverage, but that’s not the primary job of a strong safety. Harper plays the run very well and is adequate in short and medium coverage. With him, the Saints have a very strong secondary. Without him, there suddenly is a hole.

6. Tyson Clabo, tackle, Falcons. Clabo and guards Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock all can be free agents. None is a star, but Clabo is probably the best of the bunch. The right tackle made his first Pro Bowl last season and has started every game since coach Mike Smith arrived in Atlanta. The Falcons might let a lineman or two walk, but keeping Clabo seems to be the priority.

7. Lance Moore, wide receiver, Saints. He’s one of several strong performers in a receiving corps that relies on strength in numbers. Could Moore be featured more elsewhere? Perhaps. But not every team throws as often as the Saints. Plus, Moore is a favorite of Drew Brees and we know how much influence the quarterback has in New Orleans.

8. Jonathan Goodwin, center, Saints. Yeah, he’s 32 and that’s a concern. But Goodwin played at a high level last season and hasn’t missed a game in the past two seasons. He's worthy of a decent contract, even if it's just for the short term. New Orleans takes a different approach to the offensive line than most teams, who build around the tackles. The Saints place a premium on the interior and they have two outstanding young guards in Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. If you take Goodwin out of the middle, Evans and Nicks might not be quite so dominant.

9. Barrett Ruud, linebacker, Buccaneers. A solid all-around player, but the one knock on him is that he doesn’t make splash plays. Part of the reason for that might be that Tampa Bay hasn’t had a very good defensive line in front of him the past couple of years. Although Ruud has asked for a contract extension in the past, the Bucs have been hesitant to give him one. It might be time for the Bucs to step up or else they’ll risk being in a situation in which they haven’t had a normal offseason to prepare the guy who will call their defensive signals.

10. Matt Bryant, kicker, Falcons. It looks like a mere formality that the Falcons will let punter Michael Koenen leave via free agency. You don’t want to be going with a new punter and a new place-kicker when you’re a team that believes you have a shot at the Super Bowl. Bryant’s an experienced guy who has made some clutch kicks throughout his career.

Honorable mention: There were a few close calls on some bigger names, so let’s at least mention them. For reasons that included age, injury history or talent level, these guys didn’t quite make it. New Orleans’ Darren Sharper and Scott Shanle, Atlanta’s Dahl, Blalock, Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas, Carolina’s Richard Marshall, and Tampa Bay’s Cadillac Williams.
If you’re one of those Atlanta fans who believes all the Falcons need to do to win a Super Bowl is add defensive end Ray Edwards, one potential hurdle might be out of the way.

According to this report, a new labor agreement (it’s not done yet and we're still in a lockout) would allow any players with four accrued seasons to become unrestricted free agents if they don’t have a contract for this season. That’s significant because Edwards, who has been playing for the Minnesota Vikings, has five accrued seasons.

There has been some uncertainty about whether guys with four or five accrued seasons would be unrestricted free agents or if they might end up as restricted free agents. If this holds up, Edwards instantly jumps to the top of just about any list of free-agent defensive ends you’re going to see available when the lockout ends.

It’s been obvious since the Falcons jumped up in the draft to get Julio Jones that they’re in a “win-now’’ mode. If the scouting department and coaches feel as strongly about Edwards as many fans do, owner Arthur Blank will be waiting with his check book.

Let’s take a look around the division to see how this would impact some potential free agents.

Buccaneers: If four seasons turns players free, guard Davin Joseph and defensive end Stylez G. White would be added to a list of unrestricted free agents that already was going to include linebacker Barrett Ruud and running back Cadillac Williams.

Falcons: It might be time to break up the offensive line. Under these rules, guards Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo would be unrestricted. The Falcons began preparing for this in 2010, when they drafted two offensive linemen.

Panthers: This news might impact the Panthers most of all when it comes to the guys they currently have. Running back DeAngelo Williams, defensive end Charles Johnson (another possible candidate for the Falcons), linebacker James Anderson and cornerback Richard Marshall all would be unrestricted free agents. I expect the Panthers to make strong plays to keep Williams, Johnson and Anderson, but any of those three could command big money on the open market.

Saints: Safety Roman Harper, tight end David Thomas and tackle Jermon Bushrod were the guys there was uncertainty about and they’d be unrestricted in this setting. The good news is guard Carl Nicks has only three seasons and would be a restricted free agent.
We still don’t know the exact structure of any potential labor agreement. But with talks continuing and cautious optimism from both sides, it’s time to at least begin looking ahead to the start of free agency.

We can safely assume that players with at least six accrued seasons will be unrestricted free agents in any scenario. Players with four or five seasons could be unrestricted or restricted free agents, depending on the terms of a potential new deal and if they received qualifying tenders prior to the start of the lockout.

Players with three seasons will be restricted free agents unless they did not receive a qualifying offer. With some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look at the notable potential free agents from NFC South team. We’ll list the players, followed by their number of accrued seasons.

Buccaneers: RB Cadillac Williams 6; LB Barrett Ruud 6; G Davin Joseph 5; DE Stylez G. White 4.

Falcons: LB Mike Peterson 12; T Tyson Clabo 5; G Harvey Dahl 5; G Justin Blalock 4; CB Brent Grimes 3.

Panthers: LB Thomas Davis 6; RB DeAngelo Williams 5; LB James Anderson 5; CB Richard Marshall 5; QB Matt Moore 4; TE Dante Rosario 4; DE Charles Johnson 4.

Saints: S Darren Sharper 14; FB Heath Evans 10; RB LaDell Betts 9; RB Julius Jones 7; TE David Thomas 5; S Roman Harper 5; T Jermon Bushrod 4; G Carl Nicks 3.

Dream free agents for NFC South

May, 12, 2011
5/12/11
12:00
PM ET
The NFL draft is long over and all we have to look forward to now is free agency, though we don't know when or how it will come or exactly what it will look like.

But if there is a 2011 season, it will have to be preceded by some sort of free-agency period, one last window for teams to fine-tune their rosters with what they couldn't get in the draft.

We’ll spare you most of the boring details of the labor negotiations, but we do have to point out that the rules for a potential free-agency period aren’t set. They could be determined if a new labor agreement is reached and that probably would include some tweaks to past rules. It has long been assumed that if the lockout is lifted before an agreement that free agency rules will be the same as they were in 2010. But word has started to trickle out in the past few days that might not be the case.

At this point, we only can look at hypothetical situations -- all you can do is dream and you might as well dream big. With that in mind, let’s take a look at one free-agency dream scenario for each NFC South franchise.

Atlanta Falcons -- This is the easiest call in the division because you can see it coming like a slow-moving storm or Arthur Blank strolling to the sideline late in a game. Let’s go ahead and make Atlanta’s dream move signing Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards.

Some of our coming moves are pie-in-the-sky scenarios that probably won’t happen, but this one has serious potential. Edwards has five seasons in the league, which could make him a restricted or unrestricted free agent, depending on the rules of free agency. If at all possible, I think the Falcons will pursue a player who had eight sacks in 14 games last season and 8.5 the season before that.

Edwards is just hitting his prime and sure looks like the one missing link between the Falcons being a team that exits the playoffs early and one that can challenge for the Super Bowl. Blank and general manager Thomas Dimitroff already put most of their chips on the table when they traded up on draft night to get wide receiver Julio Jones. He’s the explosive player they wanted on offense.

Edwards can be the explosive guy on defense. Carolina’s Charles Johnson, a probable restricted free agent, and Green Bay’s Cullen Jenkins could be fall-back options. But the Falcons already have shown strong signs this offseason they’re not interested in falling back.

Carolina Panthers -- Let’s imagine for a moment that Carolina owner Jerry Richardson opens his free-agent checkbook for the first time in several years to bring in cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who has been playing with Cincinnati and is another five-year player.

If Joseph is a free agent, this move would make all sorts of sense. He's a local product, from just over the border in Rock Hill, S.C. He also has nine interceptions the past two seasons. Carolina has Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble, but their futures are very uncertain.

Richardson has had some success in the past bringing local products home -- Stephen Davis, Kevin Donnalley, Ricky Proehl -- and Carolina has invested a lot in its young defensive line and has a good group of linebackers. Joseph could solidify the secondary and new coach Ron Rivera suddenly could have a nice defense. By the way, I know there’s speculation about defensive tackle Tommie Harris ending up with the Panthers because of his Chicago ties to Rivera. That could happen. But I don’t view Harris as a dream scenario. I view him as a guy with questions about his knees, who could be a decent pickup if he can stay healthy.

New Orleans Saints -- This one’s tough because the Saints have a bunch of young and talented, but totally unproven players at outside linebacker. Plus, veteran outside linebacker Scott Shanle can become an unrestricted free agent. The list of players at outside linebacker who definitely will be unrestricted is pretty thin. You could take a veteran such as Detroit’s Julian Peterson and gamble that he’ll regain some of his early-career magic the way some other veterans have with the Saints in recent years. The Saints have shown willingness to gamble on injured guys in the past and Carolina’s Thomas Davis has huge upside.

But Peterson’s no long-term solution and Davis is a total unknown because he’s had two major knee injuries. In a best-case scenario, the Saints will re-sign Shanle. Then, they’ll go after Buffalo’s Paul Posluszny. He’s a four-year player and could end up being restricted. But hey, we can dream.

Put Posluszny with Shanle and Jonathan Vilma and the Saints would be better off at linebacker than they were in 2009, when Shanle and Vilma were joined by Scott Fujita.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- The Bucs spending big money in free agency? Well, they haven’t done it in some time unless you count Derrick Ward, and that didn’t work out. But there’s one sure-fire move that could excite a fan base that wasn’t buying tickets during a 10-6 season in 2010 and put this team over the top: sign cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Asomugha’s the one true gem we know will be in this free-agent class and his price tag is going to be astronomical. But if there is a salary cap, the Bucs will have more room under it than any team in the league. The Bucs showed a willingness to spend big money once before, offering more to defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth than the Redskins did before Haynesworth went to Washington. There are strong rumors Asomugha will end up in the NFC East, but Tampa Bay can use the lack of a state income tax in Florida, a great natural-grass field, the weather, a team on the rise and coach Raheem Morris (a former defensive backs coach) as selling points.

The future of Aqib Talib is unsure because of off-field problems. Sign Asomugha and the Bucs have a corner more talented than Talib who doesn’t come with the headaches. Put him out there with veteran Ronde Barber, who still plays at a high level, and younger players such as E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis. If the pass-rushers taken in the draft (Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers) work out, Tampa Bay’s corners suddenly could be dominant.

Remember, it’s all hypothetical. But wouldn’t the NFC South be a better and more exciting place if these dream scenarios actually came true?

Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson makes the huge money, Tampa Bay’s Ronde Barber gets talked about as a potential Hall of Famer while teammate Aqib Talib is often mentioned as a rising star. New Orleans’ Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter are in the conversation when it comes to best cornerback tandems.

But the NFC South has far more to offer than just that when it comes to strong cornerback play. Let’s turn to Football Outsiders for a look at some unique statistics that put some NFC South cornerbacks in a very positive light.

Let’s start with Tampa Bay’s E.J. Biggers. He plays in the shadows of Talib and Barber. He’s also a seventh-round draft choice from 2009, who missed his entire rookie season with an injury. So you might as well say Biggers was a rookie in 2010.

Turns out he had a heck of a rookie season in at least one category: success rate. That’s the percentage of passes in which a cornerback is targeted that don’t manage to get 45 percent of the yards needed on first down, 60 percent of the needed yards on second down or 100 percent of the needed yards on third downs.

Biggers tied for No. 6 in the league with a 63 percent success rate. Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets is widely recognized as the best cornerback in the league. He led in this category with a 70 percent success rate, so Biggers is in excellent company.

Now, let’s look at another category: yards allowed per pass. Atlanta’s Brent Grimes tied for third, allowing five yards per pass while being targeted 111 times. Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield led the league in this category at 4.2 yards per pass. Barber, who still has yet to show any real signs of slowing down, tied for seventh in the league at 5.5 yards per pass.

Grimes also fared well when it came to yards allowed after the catch (YAC). Grimes tied for fourth in the league, allowing an average of just two yards after the catch. Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn, who sometimes has been overshadowed by Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall was No. 3 at 1.9 yards after the catch.
Patrick PetersonBrian Spurlock/US PresswirePatrick Peterson is regarded by some draft gurus as the best player in this year's pool of players.
Let’s go ahead and agree on the expert witnesses' credentials and swear them in as we begin the case of Patrick Peterson vs. the National Football League draft.

Peterson is challenging the age-old law that you simply don’t take a cornerback with the first pick in the NFL draft. It’s never been done before, at least not in the modern era. In fact, case law shows that a cornerback never has been chosen earlier than Shawn Springs when Seattle picked him at No. 3 in 1997.

But the people at Peterson’s table can put any number of guys on the stand and make a case that it’s time to change the law.

“I honestly think he’s the best player in the draft,’’ said Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson, a former NFL front-office worker. “He’s as clean a prospect as there is coming out in this draft. There are no character flaws or physical problems. I don’t know that there is a single thing you can put down about him that’s a negative.’’

“Peterson is the best player in this draft, period,’’ said Tony Softli, who worked as a high-ranking personnel official for the Carolina Panthers and the St. Louis Rams. “There’s nobody who’s even close.’’

Plenty of draft gurus agree and consider Peterson the best player in the draft. But those same guys are putting out mock drafts, and almost none of them puts Peterson as the first pick.

That pick belongs to the Panthers, and they’ll be the ultimate judge on whether it’s time to rewrite the draft rules to say it’s not a crime to draft a cornerback first -- especially one with the ability to return kickoffs and punts.

Will they do it? That’s anybody’s guess. The Panthers, coming off a 2-14 season and beginning the tenure of Ron Rivera as coach, are methodically working their way through the process. Rivera has said there are as many as eight players being looked at as options with the pick.

It’s safe to assume that defensive linemen Da’Quan Bowers, Nick Fairley and Marcell Dareus are under Carolina’s microscope. Same goes for quarterbacks Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert, and they’re being examined under a more powerful lens. But what about Peterson, the guy you can look at from 50 yards away and see is basically flawless?

That’s where Rivera, general manager Marty Hurney and even owner Jerry Richardson are going to have to make one of the most interesting calls in recent draft history. There’s no doubt the Panthers need a quarterback, but Newton and Gabbert come with questions. There’s a big need for help in the middle of the defensive line, and Fairley or Dareus could fix that. Even though the Panthers have talent at defensive end, they almost have to give some consideration to Bowers, who is a game changer at a position where teams aren’t afraid to use high draft picks. But each of the defensive linemen comes with some questions.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireRon Rivera said as many as eight players are serious candidates to be the No. 1 overall pick.
Peterson doesn’t.

“Why would you not take this kid?’’ Softli said.

Well, that answer is buried deep in minds around the NFL, and traditions can be hard to break.

“The logic is that if you have one of those guys at one corner, he’s going to be marginalized because people are just going to attack the other corner all day,’’ Williamson said.

Softli echoes that and points to baseball, where the theory is you build up the middle with good pitching, a catcher, shortstop and center fielder. In other words, you don’t build a baseball team around a left fielder or a first baseman.

“The philosophy is that you build from the inside,’’ Softli said. “On defense, you build around the defensive line or the linebackers. On offense, you start with the quarterback or the running backs or the guys that block for them. The last piece you put in an offense is a wide receiver or a tight end. The last piece you put on a defense is a cornerback. It’s because those guys are on the outside.’’

We’ve heard all the glowing testimony on Peterson, and we’ve heard why the current law is in place. Everyone seems to agree on all of that. But ask what the Panthers should do with the first pick, and that’s where reasonable minds disagree.

“They have to get a quarterback,’’ Williamson said. “I take Gabbert over Newton because there’s less downside. Look at the rest of Carolina’s roster. They’ve got running backs and I like their young wide receivers, Brandon LaFell and David Gettis. They’ve got a good offensive line. This isn’t the Houston offensive line when David Carr was coming in. They need a quarterback and this is an exceedingly friendly time to do it. Apologies to Patrick Peterson, who I think the world of, but they have to go with a quarterback.’’

Richardson and Hurney are traditional guys, but Softli has some advice for his former bosses.

“They can get a transition guy at quarterback,’’ Softli said as he pointed to quarterbacks such as Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb, who might be available via trade or free agency. “They can get their quarterback in another year or two when there’s more of a can’t-miss guy. Why not just take the best player in the draft? You can’t go wrong on that.’’

Carolina already has cornerbacks Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble, who have played at high levels in the past. Captain Munnerlyn also has shown signs he can be a solid starting cornerback. Marshall got into the bad graces of the front office last year, and Gamble fell out of favor with former coach John Fox last season. It’s possible one of those guys could go, but the other could stay and team with Peterson as the starters and Munnerlyn as the nickel. That would leave the Panthers with second and third cornerbacks who aren’t all that easy to pick on.

That might help bend the law in the Panthers’ eyes, and Softli points to the franchise’s past for more support. He remembers 2002, when defensive end Julius Peppers was in a draft class that featured Carr and Joey Harrington. The Panthers held the second pick in that draft and Softli remembers sitting in pre-draft meeting rooms with Hurney, Fox and college personnel director Jack Bushofsky.

“We were all sitting there hoping that Houston wouldn’t take the best player,’’ Softli said. “They took Carr and we could have had Harrington, but we wanted the best player. Peppers was the best player, and history has shown that. Harrington’s out of the league and Carr’s a third-string quarterback.’’

The verdict won’t come until the Panthers make their pick in late April. But they have to at least look at Peterson and wonder whether the guy with no questions would make it worthwhile to break the law.

Draft Watch: NFC South

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Atlanta Falcons

Perhaps the biggest positive to come out of a 13-3 season that ended with a disappointing playoff loss to Green Bay is that it made Atlanta’s offseason needs so clear. Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have said, in no uncertain terms, the Falcons need to become more explosive on both sides of the ball, and they have established a track record of working together to get what they want.

It’s no secret that Atlanta’s biggest need is to improve the pass rush. Veteran John Abraham stepped up with 13.5 sacks last season, but there’s no guarantee that will continue. Even if Abraham produces another big season, the Falcons need another defensive end to help provide a more consistent pass rush. Although the team used its first-round pick on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon last year, another athletic outside linebacker is a possibility, because Mike Peterson is getting older and Stephen Nicholas might leave via free agency. Speed and athleticism also will be targets on offense. The Falcons have a good power running game with Michael Turner and Jason Snelling, but need a speed back to make some big plays. Roddy White is one of the game’s best receivers, but the Falcons would like to add a speedster to stretch the field.

Offensive line also is a possibility, because the Falcons have several possible free agents and it remains to be seen if the team is really sold on left tackle Sam Baker.

Carolina Panthers

New coach Ron Rivera takes over a roster that’s not as depleted as last year’s 2-14 record might suggest. There are some areas of strength -- defensive end, running back and linebacker. Some consistent play at quarterback would go a long way toward making the Panthers competitive quickly. It remains to be seen if the Panthers will take a leap on Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert in the draft, or try to get a veteran through free agency or via trade.

Whatever the Panthers decide at quarterback, there are some other big needs that will have to be addressed in the draft. The middle of the defensive line has been a problem spot the past two seasons, and Auburn’s Nick Fairley is a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick. The wild card in all this could be LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. Some say he’s the best player in the draft, and there is uncertainty about the futures of cornerbacks Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble. The rule of thumb is that you don’t take a cornerback with the top pick of the draft. But Peterson might be the most complete player in the draft, so the Panthers have to at least consider breaking the rules.

New Orleans Saints

Assuming the restricted free agent tags hold up with a new labor agreement, the Saints should be able to keep a pretty strong roster intact. That said, there are some obvious areas of need. On defense, the Saints could use another pass-rusher to team with Will Smith. Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson were adequate last season, but not dynamic. The basis of a Gregg Williams defense is to create turnovers, and that starts with a pass rush up front. An athletic outside linebacker also is high on the list. The Saints thought they had enough young guys last year to let Scott Fujita walk in free agency. But several of those young linebackers were injured, and that spot became a problem.

Offensively, the Saints are pretty well set at the skill positions, but it’s possible they could at least look to add another running back at some point. Reggie Bush's future remains uncertain and the Saints were hampered by injuries at running back last season. Although the Saints drafted Charles Brown last year, offensive tackle could be addressed again. Brown might get a shot to start ahead of Jermon Bushrod at left tackle, but the Saints might like to add one more person to that competition.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Despite a surprising 10-6 record last season, the rebuilding job is far from done in Tampa Bay. The Bucs still need to upgrade the talent level at several positions, and defensive end appears to be first on the list. Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder ended up as the starters last season and weren’t able to generate much of a pass rush. After using the first two picks of last year’s draft on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, the Bucs would like to surround them with young talent on the outside.

The Bucs could be looking for a middle linebacker if Barrett Ruud leaves via free agency, and more depth at outside linebacker also is a possibility. The uncertain future of suspended safety Tanard Jackson means the Bucs might have to look for depth at that position. The offensive needs aren’t as big, but the Bucs could use a running back to help share the load with LeGarrette Blount.

Draft needs: Carolina Panthers

February, 23, 2011
2/23/11
3:40
PM ET
We continue our series of NFC South team-by-team draft needs with the Carolina Panthers.
  1. Quarterback. There is not a bigger need on this team than at the game’s most important position. It’s been a huge problem spot the last two seasons and new coach Ron Rivera knows he has to find a quarterback in order to have any chance at success. Could the Panthers take Auburn’s Cam Newton or Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert with the first overall pick? It’s possible and either of those prospects could help their chances with a big combine. But the Panthers are a conservative franchise and Newton and Gabbert each have upside and downside. The Panthers may look to free agency or a trade to find their quarterback.
  2. Defensive tackle. This also has been a problem spot the last couple of seasons. There generally is a much lower bust factor for a defensive tackle than a quarterback and that’s why I’m thinking Auburn’s Nick Fairley might be the guy Carolina goes with as the No. 1 pick.
  3. Cornerback. This remains up in the air because we don’t know what will happen with Richard Marshall in free agency or if Chris Gamble can get back into good graces with Rivera after falling out of favor with John Fox last year. But it’s likely at least one of them will be gone.
  4. Tight end. Rivera has made it clear he wants the tight end more involved in the passing game. I’m not sure any of Carolina’s current tight ends really fit the profile. It might be time for Carolina to go out and get the first true pass-catching tight end the franchise has had since Wesley Walls.
  5. Defensive end. On the surface, it’s not that huge a need if the Panthers can re-sign Charles Johnson. But a lot of people think Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers is the best player in the draft. If the Panthers agree, they have to at least consider taking him even if Johnson is back.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider