NFC South: Rod Coleman

In a column I wrote about New Orleans guard Jahri Evans a few weeks ago, I pointed out how inner-city Philadelphia isn’t a real hotbed for big-time college recruits and future NFL players.

Basically, there are two reasons for that. Philadelphia is, and always has been, a basketball town. Plus, for most of his half century or so at Penn State, Joe Paterno pretty much has avoided recruiting the inner city.

But Paterno does dip into the suburbs of Philadelphia, an area that’s ripe with talent. I had never thought about how many ties Southeastern Pennsylvania has to the NFC South until I read The Philadelphia Inquirer this morning. The newspaper picked its all-decade team for the region and there’s some pretty strong NFC South representation.

Start with the player of the decade. That’s Carolina linebacker Dan Connor, who grew up in the suburbs and went on to have a stellar career at Penn State.

Tampa Bay receiver Maurice Stovall also made the first-team offense. The next one may sound a little shocking.

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan didn’t even make the first-team offense. Ryan was chosen to the second team. The team was picked based only what the players did in high school. Ryan had a great career, but Pat Devlin, who went to Penn State before transferring to Delaware, had a better high school career and was the first-team selection.

Although Evans has become the best guard in the NFL, he didn’t make the team. That’s largely because he missed his senior season with a broken leg and most of the all-decade team came from the suburbs and the city’s private schools. Atlanta cornerback Brent Grimes, another inner-city product, also did not make the team.

Off the top of my head, there are a few other inner-city Philadelphia ties to the NFC South. Former Atlanta defensive tackle Rod Coleman grew up there. Carolina’s Jackie Miles, the best equipment manager in the history of the NFL, is a proud native of Philadelphia.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

So much for the comeback attempt by defensive tackle Rod Coleman in New Orleans. It's over before it ever really got going. The Saints just announced they released Coleman as they trimmed their roster to 75 players.

It was an admirable attempt by Coleman, who spent last year out of football and thought he had something left in the tank. And it was nice of defensive line coach Bill Johnson, who was with Coleman in Atlanta, to clear the way for another try.

If Coleman had anything left, it would have been a win-win situation for the player and the team. But Coleman never was able to flash the form that once made him a Pro Bowler. The Saints would have been thrilled if he did, but they weren't counting on a lot from Coleman and have plenty of alternatives on the defensive line.

The Saints also waived cornerback Greg Fassitt and receiver D'Juan Woods.
 
  AP Photo/Bill Haber
  Jonathan Vilma is excited about playing for new coordinator Gregg Williams.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

METAIRIE, La. -- By all accounts, Jonathan Vilma resurrected his career with the New Orleans Saints last season. After clashing with coach Eric Mangini with the Jets and enduring an injury, Vilma found a home in the middle of New Orleans' 4-3 defense.

He got back to playing middle linebacker the way he was used to playing it and instantly became the leader of the defense. By Vilma's account, that wasn't nearly good enough.

Personal satisfaction has a way of getting watered down when you're playing on a defense that's not very good. Vilma might have been a bright spot, but the rest of the defense was a dark hole. Nine different times the Saints allowed opponents to score at least 27 points and they lost seven of those games.

Camp Confidential: NFC South
Panthers: Thurs., Aug. 6
Saints: Mon., Aug. 10
Falcons: Sat., Aug. 15
Buccaneers: Tues., Aug. 18
Training camp index

In the process, the defense helped squander a brilliant season by quarterback Drew Brees and the offense. Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards, but it didn't mean much because the defense didn't stop anyone and the Saints finished out of the playoffs for the second straight year.

It's critical the streak doesn't reach three seasons because that would put coach Sean Payton very much on the hot seat. That's why Payton brought in coordinator Gregg Williams to run the defense and encouraged general manager Mickey Loomis to reshuffle the defensive personnel.

Williams' impact has been felt from the first moment he entered the building and it's been obvious out on the practice field.

"The X's and O's are pretty much the same," Vilma said. "But it's a different mindset. It's about letting us play. Coach Williams lets us know it's all right to go out there and make mistakes. It's all right to go out there and be wrong. As long as you're doing it 100 miles per hour, as long as you're hitting somebody, it's all right. We'll go into the meetings and make our corrections there."

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Basically, what the Saints are doing is trading a cautious defensive approach for an aggressive one.

"Everybody's playing with swagger," defensive end Bobby McCray said. "We've got 160-pound cornerbacks looking to knock your head off."

That should be a welcome sight in New Orleans, where there wasn't a lot of hitting last season, and cornerbacks (and safeties) spent most of their time chasing receivers who already had caught the ball. The roles will be different this season.

"It's a lot more man-on-man," said veteran safety Darren Sharper, who was brought in as a free agent to help stabilize the secondary. "You're doing some zone. You're blitzing guys from different directions. That shouldn't be a problem for us. We have no excuses as far as getting to the quarterback. It's a state of mind. You attack the ball. You have 11 guys being aggressive and you make aggressive calls. We're going to be an aggressive, attacking defense."

It's been said that even an average defense might be good enough to get the Saints to the playoffs. But the Saints aren't looking for an average defense. They want more.

"We can be as good as we want to be," Vilma said. "We have the talent. We had the talent last year, but we just didn't make plays. This year, we're focusing on making those plays. The talent is there. It's just a matter of going out and doing it."

Key Questions

Even with all of the defensive changes, isn't the expected loss of starting defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith to suspensions for the first four games going to be very difficult to overcome?

 Grant
 Smith

It's never good to be without your starting defensive ends. But the Saints have had the entire offseason to prepare for this situation.

They brought in veterans Paul Spicer and Anthony Hargrove, and they still have McCray, who might have outplayed the underachieving Grant and Smith last season. The Saints would like to use McCray as a pass-rush specialist once Grant and Smith return, but they believe he can fill a starting role in the short term. They're also very fired up about Hargrove, who appears very focused after having some problems that interrupted his career.

There's even hope that Grant and Smith might be better off in the long run because of the suspensions. Both are very talented, but haven't played up to their ability the past couple of years. The Saints are hoping they'll come back from the suspensions with more motivation than ever.

Can the No. 1 offense be as good as last year?

 
  Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
  Quarterback Drew Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards for the Saints last season.

Heck, it could be even better. Brees' season was remarkable under any circumstances. But a lot of people tend to forget he did all of that with the top three offensive weapons banged up for most of the year. Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards, but didn't have a 1,000-yard receiver or any consistency in the running game.

The 1,000-yard receiver shouldn't be an issue this year. Marques Colston is back at full health and looking absolutely spectacular in training camp. He's the kind of big receiver who should be good for somewhere around 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns. Throw in tight end Jeremy Shockey, who never was at full strength last year, but is healthy now.

Shockey and Brees look to be developing a strong chemistry in camp. When healthy, Shockey can be one of the league's best tight ends. He didn't catch a touchdown pass last year. He's painfully aware of that and wants to prove he still can find the end zone.

Then there's Reggie Bush. He was off to a very good start as a multi-purpose running back last year, but he got sidetracked by injuries and missed six games.

Can Bush ever live up to the hype he carried coming out of college?

If he stays healthy, yes. Bush will never be the kind of back who runs between the tackles 25 times a game. But that's not what the Saints are looking for. They'll let Pierre Thomas handle most of the carries between the tackles. Bush is a threat to score any time he touches the ball and the Saints will look to get him the ball in space as a runner, receiver and a return man.

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The Saints really were hoping that Dan Morgan or Stanley Arnoux could take over as the starter at weakside linebacker. But Morgan retired in June and Arnoux tore his Achilles tendon in offseason workouts and will miss the season. That means the Saints appear destined to stick with veteran Scott Shanle in a linebacking corps with Vilma and Scott Fujita. Shanle's experienced, but he doesn't make any big plays and lacks great speed. The Saints have been very impressed with young linebackers Anthony Waters and Jonathan Casillas so far in camp. They're raw, but Williams wants aggressiveness and he may take a chance on one of these guys.

 Henderson
 Meachem

Receiver Devery Henderson, who struggled with drops through much of his career, suddenly started catching the ball last season. But the drops have resurfaced during camp and that's not a good sign. With Colston healthy and third-year pro Robert Meachem showing some signs he might live up to his status as a first-round pick in 2007, Henderson could end up as the fourth receiver.

Former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Rod Coleman ended a one-year retirement to make a comeback with the Saints. Coleman hasn't stood out in camp so far, but the Saints will use the preseason games to determine if Coleman has anything left. They'd like to use him as a part-time player on passing downs because he used to be one of the league's top interior rushers.

Newcomer to watch

 
  Crystal LoGiudice/US Presswire
  Rookie Malcolm Jenkins has to make up for lost time now that he has agreed to terms on a contract.

Top draft pick Malcolm Jenkins ended his holdout late Sunday night. Jenkins is a unique talent, but the holdout could have cost him a shot at a starting cornerback spot. The Saints paid big money to Jabari Greer in free agency and he's set at one starting spot. Tracy Porter has picked up where he left off when an injury ended a promising rookie season and has the edge for the other starting role. Jenkins isn't even guaranteed to land as the nickelback because veterans Randall Gay and Jason David have been playing well in camp.

Observation deck

There still are a lot of fans calling for the Saints to bring in veteran Edgerrin James to be the short-yardage running back, but that doesn't appear likely. First off, James isn't the prototypical short-yardage runner. Second, the Saints might already have their answer. They've been letting undrafted free agents P.J. Hill and Herb Donaldson compete with Mike Bell for this role. All three are true power backs and all three have looked good at times. ... Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis showed some promise as a rookie, but injuries kept him from being on the field all the time. Ellis is quietly having a very nice camp and the Saints believe he's ready to really become a force in the middle. ... The Saints used a fifth-round draft pick on punter Thomas Morstead, but there's no guarantee he'll win the job. He's in a battle with Glenn Pakulak and, so far, it's a dead heat. ... Williams' base defense is the 4-3, but he started installing a 3-4 package last week. Don't look for the Saints to use the 3-4 a lot. But you could see a fair amount of it early in the season when Smith and Grant are out and the Saints will deal with a shortage of quality defensive linemen.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

METAIRIE, La. -- To find the one New Orleans Saints' defensive tackle who's been to the Pro Bowl, you need to look at the roster, instead of the practice field.

Look closely because Rod Coleman is surrounded by a bunch of other names on that roster. You see his name on there and you look out on the field for the guy who used to roll up double-digit sacks and you don't really see him yet. He's very quiet on the field, which isn't really Coleman's nature.

 
  Scott Boehm/Getty Images
  Rod Coleman spent a year away from football. The Saints hope he has something left in the tank.

But talk to him and you quickly realize Coleman might still be Coleman before all is said and done. He still likes to talk and he still has that confidence that carried him through nine very productive seasons with the Oakland Raiders and Atlanta Falcons.

After a year out of football -- a year in which Coleman thought he was retired -- he still has the gift of gab. The Saints, and Coleman, are hoping he's still got the gift of being able to terrorize quarterbacks. Nobody is sure what Coleman, who turns 33 on Aug. 16, has left. But his comeback story is intriguing and it's certainly not dull. That's something Coleman has never been.

"Few players can do what I'm trying to do,'' Coleman said after Thursday afternoon's practice in temperatures above 90 degrees. "I want to be the exception to that because it seems like I've always been the exception. I came into the league and I was undersized and always had knocks against me. My whole career was all about proving people wrong, so this should be no different.''

This is really a no-lose situation. If Coleman can give the Saints, who are trying to rebuild a defense that has been putty the last two seasons, anything, he'll be happy and they'll be happy.

For now, Coleman is just happy being back on a football field. That's a location where he hasn't been for a while and, even when he was last there, he wasn't even close to happy.

Coleman's last season was 2007. It was in Atlanta, where the sky was falling. Michael Vick's legal troubles were just starting to play out. Coleman was so banged up that he played in only five games. Around him, the Falcons were crumbling. Losses were piling up and Bobby Petrino's ill-fated tenure as coach was wearing heavily on Coleman.

"I just wasn't ready to play after that because of all the stuff that happened in Atlanta, unheard of stuff with the coach quitting on you,'' Coleman said. "They hired a college guy to coach men and he just quit and left us hanging. It was just a stressful situation. A few teams called me last year, but I just didn't have it in me.''

The Falcons officially cut ties with Coleman, releasing him in February 2008, after new coach Mike Smith took over. Coleman thought that was the end and focused on spending his time on business ventures and with his sons.

"I was done,'' Coleman said. "I wanted to put my retirement papers in, but my agent told me to hold off and wait. I wasn't even watching games. I was busy with my sons and was just completely away from the game. Then around Christmas time, around playoff time, I watched a few games and I started getting the itch again.''

Was there one particular moment that brought the itch back and prompted Coleman to start working out and working toward a comeback? Not really. It's better than that.

"Just watching games did it,'' Coleman said. "Watching the interior play, it seemed like the sacks were down. Warren Sapp was gone and John Randle and all the great interior linemen. There were no more left. It was like the whole league just wanted big body guys, like it all disappeared within one year. That was part of motivation to come back and show that some guys still can make plays on the inside.''

Coleman got in touch with the Saints, who had just hired Bill Johnson as their defensive line coach. They had Sedrick Ellis and Kendrick Clancy as their starters, but not a lot beyond that, and they remembered the guy who put up 22 sacks between 2004 and 2005 and agreed to give him a shot.

It's still too early to tell if Coleman can be a starter, a situational player or even make the roster. But it's definitely worth a look.

"I think he's doing well,'' coach Sean Payton said. "He's getting in shape. He's a guy that played at a high level in Atlanta. Bill Johnson had some experience in coaching him at Atlanta and we felt like he was worth the opportunity to look at and see if he can get his body back and get in the shape we think he can. We think he still has some miles left. So far, he's been able to battle through it. I think he's handling things well. We'll get a chance to see in the preseason how he's doing."

The preseason games are going to be Coleman's real chance to see if he can still play.

"We're just trying to see what I've got left,'' Coleman said. "I mean, 10 years, it's supposed to be over. But I'm not ready for it to be over.''

It's not over yet and don't bet against Coleman because you just might lose.

"I've got to prove it to myself, the organization and the whole NFL,'' Coleman said. "Everybody's like, 'He's done. He's washed up.' My mindset is that I'm going to go out there and prove them wrong.''

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

METAIRIE, La. -- The NFC South tour of training camps continues today with the Saints. I caught their morning practice and will be back out there this afternoon. I'll be gathering stuff for our Camp Confidential profile on the Saints for Monday.

As a matter of fact, I'm going to spend the next few hours working on Carolina's Camp Confidential for Thursday. But, before I jump into that, I wanted to share some quick observations on what I saw this morning.

  • All this talk about the Saints being more aggressive on defense isn't just talk. It's real. You can see it instantly on the practice field. We'll have much more on that in the Camp Confidential segment.
  • The nicest play I saw Wednesday morning was a fully extended Marques Colston making a catch in the back of the end zone. A lot of people tend to forget how good Colston is because injuries kept him somewhat quiet last year. At full health, Colston can be as productive as just about any receiver in the league.
  • Defensive tackle Rod Coleman now is wearing the No. 75 jersey he wanted. He had been wearing No. 72 and Tim Duckworth had No. 75. Not sure yet how it all transpired, but Duckworth probably made a profit on this deal.
  • A couple of young linebackers jumped out at me. Anthony Waters and Jonathan Casillas seemed to be around the ball constantly.
  • With Colston, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson, the Saints have an impressive group of receivers. Courtney Roby could be in that mix, too. Saw him make a couple of nice catches this morning.
  • I know Joey Harrington is considered a bust because of his status as a high draft pick. But forget all that and view him as just another guy competing for a job. Through that lens, Harrington looks pretty good. He was throwing the ball well and he could end up moving ahead of Mark Brunell as Drew Brees' backup. You could do a lot worse than Harrington as a backup. He's still got first-round physical talent and he's never been on a team with this kind of offensive talent and he's never been around an offensive coach as good as Sean Payton.
  • Malcolm Jenkins is a great talent and the Saints have big plans for him. But the rookie is holding out of camp in a contract squabble and you can't help but wonder how that might impact his career. Starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter are looking very good. Randall Gay and Jason David aren't bad backups and Jenkins falls further behind them with each practice he misses.

NFC South afternoon mailbag

July, 29, 2009
7/29/09
3:44
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

We'll start this afternoon's NFC South mailbag with a pair of differing opinions on my comment that former Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott was overrated.

Mitch in Orlando writes: Pat, I have to agree with Ricky in Naples on his assessment of Mike Alstott. Your number one argument has always been that Alstott was a fullback, and therefore, should have been a better blocker. The problem with that argument is that Alstott was rarely used as a fullback until his final season with the Bucs. He was used as a complementary tailback for years, and rarely called upon to block. If you remember, the team used Jameel Cook and even Michael Pittman to block FOR Alstott. Alstott was always listed as a fullback for Pro Bowl reasons because people always wanted to see him there, just as Tim Duncan was listed as a power forward last year because he couldn't beat out Yao Ming to start at center. In Alstott's final season, he actually was moved to the starter at fullback for the Bucs, and he did rather well there. As a diehard Bucs fan, I would love to see Alstott in the Hall of Fame, but I can't really say he deserves it; however, he certainly does not deserve to be called over-rated.

Brian in Oldsmar, Fla. writes: Just have to say I agree with you about Alstott being overrated. I've been a Bucs fan since the late 80's, and have loved the A-Train from when he came to the team in 96 (If I remember right) to his retirement a few years back. He was a great teammate, person, and player. He had the respect of his peers across the league and was one of the toughest runners the NFL's seen since Csonka and Riggins. Some of the runs he made, especially the goal line carries, were staples of sports highlights for many years. All that said, Mike Alstott was a sub-par blocker. Always was, even in his days at Purdue. As much as I love what Mike did for the Bucs and the Bay area, I think many fans blow his accomplishments out of proportion. Sure his running style could electrify a stadium, and he was perfect as a change of pace back to compliment Dunn, Pittman, or whoever else was carrying the majority of the load. But, is he Canton material? I don't think so at all.

Pat Yasinskas: Both of your points are noted. Again, I'm not saying Alstott was a bad player. He was a very good one. But I think some Tampa Bay fans get carried away and call him the best fullback ever. He wasn't really a fullback -- at least not if you judge the position by the modern era.


Brett in Dallas, Ga. writes: I am surprised that no one voted for Rod Coleman for the all decade team, he was a dominant pass rushing DT for the falcons and most certainly one of the best in the division when healthy.

Pat Yasinskas: Yeah, as much as I agree Warren Sapp and Kris Jenkins deserved to be the defensive tackles on the NFC South all-decade team, it is a bit surprising that Coleman didn't even get a vote. He spent four seasons with the Falcons and had double-digit sacks in 2004 and '05. After a year out of the league, I'm very curious to see what Coleman can do for the Saints this year.


Corey in Charlotte writes: I was wondering what you think the chances of Mike Goodson showing up in the slot or even wildcat formations are this year. I've been getting pretty pumped about seeing him on the field because I believe he's the type of player that can have some immediate impact.

Pat Yasinskas: I'm also curious about what the Panthers will do with Goodson. The fourth-round pick from Texas A&M gives them some flexibility behind DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. You know any John Fox team is going to use the running backs plenty and I think Goodson could fill several roles. With Nick Goings gone, Goodson could get significant time on passing downs. He caught 37 passes in his final year of college. I also think Goodson will get a look in the return game. Not sure the Panthers will use the Wildcat much, if at all. But Goodson certainly gives them some options.


Derek in Atlanta writes: Which Falcons backup do you expect to be cut? John Parker Wilson, Chris Redman, or D.J. Shockley?

Pat Yasinskas: Redman is pretty much set as Matt Ryan's backup. That means it will come down to Wilson or Shockley for the final roster spot. I give Shockley a slight edge entering camp because he's been in this offense for a year. I also thought he looked good when I visited Atlanta's minicamp. Wilson could be a candidate for the practice squad.


Carlos in Panama City writes: It has been kind of quiet on the status of Arron Sears and I was wondering if you could tell me what is wrong with him? He is one of our young, marquee players and I hate to see him not playing.

Pat Yasinskas: This is a very real concern because Sears has been a solid starter his first two seasons. The Bucs have said Sears is dealing with a personal issue and been very careful not to discuss the matter further. Unless Sears or the Bucs come out and say something definitive, that's about all that can be reported right now. The team has spent most of the offseason working with Jeremy Zuttah in Sears' place at left guard. We'll see if Sears comes to camp. The Bucs may end up placing him on a reserve list if he's not ready to play.

Saints' weakness: Physicality

May, 28, 2009
5/28/09
9:30
AM ET
Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

The New Orleans Saints are a finesse football team. That needs to change -- and it can -- if they are to become true contenders.

 
  Scott Boehm/Getty Images
  Darren Sharper helps make the Saints more physical on defense.

Led by Drew Brees, the Saints are very well equipped to play their home games in the Superdome and three other road games at warm-weathered divisional foes Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. And with the exception of a Dec. 6 game in Washington, the Saints may not face a real cold-weather game during the 2009 regular season. But, do you think even the most loyal Saints' fans are comfortable with their favorite team traveling to New York, Philadelphia or Chicago to play in the NFC Championship Game? Historically, the Colts and Rams won it all under similar circumstances, but ideally, a team structured like these almost needs to avoid poor weather in the playoffs, which is tough to pull off.

The Saints are excellent in pass protection and Brees deserves a great deal of the credit for that, as does the offensive line, obviously, but New Orleans also has an underrated run-blocking group. The Saints presently lack a big power running back, but I can live with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush toting the rock, even in Philadelphia in the playoffs. Also, fullback Heath Evans could be a pounder in short-yardage situations. However, adding a bruiser certainly should be considered.

The Saints need to stay more dedicated to their run game overall. The allure of throwing the ball all over the field is clear to anyone considering the wealth of weapons that Brees has to distribute the ball to. But that generally does not put teams away late in games and makes it difficult to keep the Saints' defense fresh and aggressive. Even in fair weather, you need to be able to run the ball consistently to win on the road in this league.

Scouts Inc.: Weaknesses
• AFC: South | East
• NFC: North | South

The Saints can be -- and have been -- successful with their ground attack, but they need to increase the percentage they call run plays. Only six teams ran the ball less often than New Orleans in 2008. The Saints' offense did lead the league in yards per game by a substantial margin and criticizing them on that side of the ball is, in all honesty, difficult to justify, but eating some more clock and adding a more physical presence on that side of the ball would make New Orleans a better overall football team and surely would have aided them in winning more close games.

Being critical of the Saints' defense isn't nearly as difficult. New Orleans' secondary looks to be noticeably improved after adding Darren Sharper, Jabari Greer and first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins. Its pass defense should be better and I expect New Orleans to allow fewer big plays while generating more of its own. That is a great start.

But the Saints must be tougher at the point of attack. Their front seven was disappointing last season. They are thin at defensive tackle and linebacker. Sedrick Ellis could still develop into an excellent defensive tackle, and I do realize that defensive linemen often struggle in their rookie season, but he needs to step up in a big way as the other defensive tackles are quite ordinary.

Rod Coleman should be a fine upfield pass-rusher, but I have my doubts as to his overall physical presence in the run game anymore. Kendrick Clancy is better than many realize, but overall, I worry as to how well New Orleans can protect Jonathan Vilma. Vilma is an excellent run-and-hit linebacker but doesn't excel when the defensive tackles do not do their job. Do not overlook just how potent -- and physical -- the Panthers', Falcons' and Bucs' ground games should be next season.

Adding Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator should help the run-stopping ability and defense in general, but his squad in Jacksonville last year was far from overwhelming. But last year's Jaguars also did not have a running game from the offense to make life easier.

This is a talented team that can excel in shootout situations, but New Orleans' last three losses in 2008 came by just a combined eight points. Being a more physical football team could have been the difference.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

Thursday morning mailbag

May, 14, 2009
5/14/09
9:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Lots of great questions sitting in the mailbag already and I like to try to stay ahead on them. We'll do another series of team-by-team mailbags sometime next week. But I thought we'd do one large mailbag for the entire NFC South today. Here we go.


Mike B. in Baton Rouge writes: If you would, rather than talk about how aggressive the new defense is going to be with Gregg Williams at the helm, can you comment on who you see having a breakout year in his system? I'm thinking Porter and Harper have a good shot, praying for Ellis, and I'll be irritated if Grant or Smith don't earn some money this year. Your thoughts?

Pat Yasinskas: I agree with you on Roman Harper and Tracy Porter. Some fans got down on Harper last season and I don't think that was fair. The guy got dragged down by poor secondary play around him, but he's a good football player. With an improved secondary around him, he'll be able to do what a strong safety is supposed to do and what he does best. That's hit people. Harper's not a great cover guy, but strong safeties usually aren't. If he's allowed to play the role he's supposed to, he'll be fine. Porter's a guy who showed flashes of brilliance before getting injured as a rookie. I like the way he plays and the confidence he has. That should come in handy because he'll be competing with Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins for a starting job. Sedrick Ellis had a nice rookie year and is going to keep getting better. Charles Grant and Will Smith still have enormous untapped potential. Not sure if Williams will be able to tap it or not, but he certainly is going to try. I also think defensive end Bobby McCray can be very effective if he's allowed to be a situational pass rusher.


Gary in Charlotte writes: Pat why does it seem like so many people are down on the Panthers this year? I read Peter Kings power rankings and he had them 18 and Matt Williamson said the Panthers would have one of the biggest drop offs of any of the top teams in 08. Now I know these predictions mean nothing but I think it is a little ridiculous to be down on a team that went 12-4 and is returning 21 of 22 starters. The two main arguments against the Panthers seem to be how tough the schedule is, which to me is a null point because essentialy the Panthers have the same schedule as the rest of the the NFC South. The other argument seems to be Jake Delhomme but that didnt keep the Panthers from going 12-4 last year so why should one terrible game all of the sudden change that? Also you should know this covering the Panthers for years but people seem to be underestimating the fierce competitiveness of Jake and I dont think he wants that Arizona game to be what he is known for.

Pat Yasinskas: Like you said, predictions mean nothing. I think I had the Seahawks and the Colts going to the Super Bowl last year, but I did nail it when I had the Cowboys third in the NFC East and out of the playoffs (strangely, I never heard back from the Dallas fans who sent death wishes when I made that pick). Anyway, I think a lot of the picks you're seeing are from people who are basing their choices largely on that playoff loss to Arizona. That's understandable because it was beyond ugly. But, you're right, the Panthers were 12-4 last year and have most of their team back. One other positive note for you to ponder on predictions. Maybe it's a good thing some seem to be taking the Panthers lightly. In John Fox's tenure, there have been a couple years where the Panthers were a trendy Super Bowl pick. They disappointed in those years. Yet, they've seemed to rise up in the years when the expectations haven't been that high. So maybe the low rankings right now will turn out to be a good thing.


Mookie From Snellville Ga. writes: How good do you think Rod Coleman will be ? Do you think he will get the start ? I figure Coleman and Ellis would be one of the better interior linemen tandems in the league if Coleman is completely healthy like he said he is. Your thoughts ?

Pat Yasinskas: I'm not sure Coleman will be the same player for the Saints as he was for the Falcons and I'm not sure his age will allow him to be a starter. But I think Coleman still can be a very nice role player. He's got a history with defensive line coach Bill Johnson. When they were together in Atlanta, Coleman produced 28 sacks, the most in the league by a defensive tackle in that time period. I look for Johnson to use Coleman on passing downs to try to get a rush from the interior.


Bill in laplace, la writes: Hey Pat, enjoy your chats, and updates. I know you are high on Dan Morgan if he can stay healthy. My question to you is, is he a better middle lb, or outside lb, and if its outside do you see him taking a starting role over Shanle or Fujita?

Pat Yasinskas: Morgan was a natural middle linebacker and played the position throughout his time in Carolina. But the Saints are planning to use him on the weak side and keep Jonathan Vilma in the middle. Morgan has the skills to easily make this switch. Assuming he's healthy, he's definitely a starter. Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle are solid veterans, but neither is in the class of a healthy Morgan.


Rem in Tampa writes: Hey Pat, the quarterback situation here in Tampa is a big question. But, who do you think ends up winning the starting postion in week 1? Does Freeman have a chance?

Pat Yasinskas: Here's my best guess: Luke McCown opens the season as the starter. Unless the Bucs get off to a miraculous start, I think the team will feel pressure to get Josh Freeman on the field. They've got a Week 8 game against the Patriots in London, followed by a bye week. My guess is Freeman will be starting the ninth game.


Nathan in NC writes: Great story on Hoover, one of the most unheralded players in the NFL in my opinion. I am curious, as he probably, at best, has 2 or 3 more years left, if he has made any inquiries into coaching? Would the Panthers be interested in bringing him into the franchise after retirement? Thanks

Pat Yasinskas: Brad Hoover is a Carolina Panther through and through and one of the classiest guys I've ever had the chance to cover. If he's interested in coaching or doing something else with the Panthers, I'd guess they'd be happy to have him when his career is over. But we're not there yet. Hoover's still
a big part of this team and he'll play as long as his body holds up.


Atljbo in parts unknown writes: In your opinion who was the 5 most impressive players at the Falcons mini-camp ?

Pat Yasinskas: You didn't set any parameters, but I'll go off the beaten path and try to point out some guys beyond the obvious because I think you and fans want to hear more than "Matt Ryan had a great camp'', which he did. Some lesser names that stood out to me: receiver Harry Douglas (he made some downfield plays out of the slot), linebacker Stephan Nicholas (pencil him as the strong-side starter), defensive end Jamaal Anderson (say what you want about his first two seasons, but the guy is working hard to get better), Jerious Norwood (I think this is the year he actually gets some more carries) and safety Thomas DeCoud (the Falcons draft William Moore to start, but DeCoud's not going to give up without a fight).

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Ray Hamilton, Brian Baker, Bill Johnson, Todd Wash and Robert Nunn have more in common than being defensive line coaches in the NFC South.

They also might face the biggest challenges of any coach on their individual staffs this season. There's a common theme through all the NFC South teams this year -- the defensive lines have to get better.

That's going to be largely up to the guys in charge of the defensive lines. Here's a look at the NFC South defensive line coaches and the challenges they face.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Ray Hamilton. He's a veteran and has long been recognized as being one of the best in the business. Hamilton did a fine job last year as veteran end John Abraham had a huge season and the Falcons were able to get by with the aging Grady Jackson in the middle of their line. But the Falcons had almost no pass rush outside of Abraham and Jackson is now gone. That brings new challenges for Hamilton. He's worked very hard this offseason with underachieving end Jamaal Anderson and there's hope Anderson can emerge in his third year. But the Falcons have Chauncey Davis as an insurance policy and drafted a project in Lawrence Sidbury. In a perfect world, Anderson steps up, Davis plays a role and Sidbury can be groomed as an eventual replacement for Abraham. Hamilton's also got a lot of work to do in the interior. Jonathan Babineaux has emerged as a very solid tackle, but Hamilton will have to break in rookie Peria Jerry next to him.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Brian Baker. He's new to the Panthers and so is most of the defensive staff. Baker has a fine resume and has gotten big results out of Leonard Little, Robert Porcher, Luther Elliss and Kevin Williams in his previous stops. That's a good start because the coaching of the defensive line has been a controversial issue for the Panthers for most of John Fox's tenure. Once upon a time, the Panthers had Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner up front and they were coached by Mike Trgovac, who was regarded as one of the best defensive line coaches in the game. But Trgovac moved up to coordinator in his second season. That led to the hiring of Sal Sunseri as defensive line coach and some raised eyebrows around the league. A lot of people thought Sunseri, who was new to the NFL and had a background with linebackers, wasn't ready for the position and was hired because he was Fox's friend. Some players on the defensive line also held that view and the perception never went away. For reasons that haven't been fully explained, Jenkins asked out and got traded to the Jets, and Peppers still is asking out. Sunseri left after the season to coach at Alabama. Baker inherits a group that doesn't have nearly the talent level the Panthers once did, even if Peppers stays. He's going to have to coach up rookie Everette Brown very quickly and get some role players to overachieve. In the old days, Fox's teams were built around the defensive line. That's no longer the reality, but Baker has to bring this unit up to a respectable level.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Bill Johnson. This was a critical hire as the Saints, once again, overhauled their defense and brought in coordinator Gregg Williams and a bunch of new personnel. Johnson's inheriting a group with lots of talent, but some players who haven't consistently lived up to their potential. It's Johnson's job to draw that from them and he'll start with defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. In his first season with Denver, Johnson helped second-year pro Elvis Dumervil get 12.5 sacks. There's no reason why Smith and Grant both shouldn't be around the double-digit mark in sacks. One way Johnson will try to help those two is to give them some help from the inside, and the Saints have the potential to get that from second-year pro Sedrick Ellis, who had a solid rookie season. But Johnson's not counting on just Ellis. He helped bring veteran Rod Coleman out of retirement. There's history with Johnson and Coleman. They worked together in Atlanta and Coleman produced 28 sacks in their time together. Coleman's age may prevent him from being the force he once was, but he gives Johnson another guy who can make things happen up front.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Todd Wash and Robert Nunn. Wash is coaching the defensive ends and Nunn is handling the defensive tackles. That combo approach is probably a good thing because the Bucs need all the help they can get up front. The defensive line was a major player in last year's late-season collapse, and there will be at least two new starters as end Kevin Carter and tackle Jovan Haye have left the team. Wash's main task is to get third-year end Gaines Adams to be more productive. There's talent there, but Adams needs to add some moves to go with his physical skills. Nunn's got to get young tackles Roy Miller and Dre Moore ready quickly because Chris Hovan didn't look like he had a lot left at the end of last season, and Ryan Sims and Jimmy Wilkerson are role players. New coordinator Jim Bates is bringing a whole new scheme to the Bucs, but that transition should be helped by the fact that Nunn worked with Bates in Miami and Green Bay.

Saints part ways with DT Thomas

April, 29, 2009
4/29/09
11:23
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

 Thomas

For the second time in two days, the Saints have parted ways with a veteran defensive tackle. This time, it's Hollis Thomas, Mike Triplett reports.

The release comes a day after the Saints let Brian Young go. This could just be a routine post-draft cleaning process because Young and Thomas were aging and have had some injury problems. They've got plenty at defensive tackle with Sedrick Ellis, Kendrick Clancy, Rod Coleman and DeMario Pressley.

But it also makes you wonder if the Saints, who no longer have to pay Thomas the $1.4 million he was supposed to make this season, are up to something? Edgerrin James is out there and the Saints still could use a power runner.

Saints release DT Young

April, 28, 2009
4/28/09
10:33
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Rather quietly, the Saints have parted ways with veteran defensive tackle Brian Young. The team hasn't announced the move, but it passed through the league office Monday afternoon.

Young's release saves the Saints a little more than $3 million in salary-cap room. Young, who like the rest of the team's defensive tackles had injury problems last year, was expendable because the team previously signed veteran Rod Coleman and has a bunch of young defensive tackles.

Second-year pro Sedrick Ellis is the guy the Saints want to build their defensive line around and the other starting spot will be determined in camp. Coleman is likely to be a situational player and the Saints will let Kendrick Clancy, Hollis Thomas and DeMario Pressley compete for the other starting job.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

The New Orleans Saints on our team-by-team mailbag tour.

Hendrik in Koblenz, Germany writes: Hey Pat, it's great to have the opportunity to ask some questions.. I wonder wether the Saints are going to give Jahri Evans a contract extension. Hes is arguably the best young guard in the NfL and should be kept around to keep Drew upright. And i too wonder why there are so many experts expecting Beanie Wells to be the pick because i think Pierre Thomas did a great job and showed he can deliver and i think the Saints just need a better option at Sam or Will and they will be a Superbowl contender.. WHO DAT NATION!!!!

Pat Yasinskas: I know the Saints were at least talking about the possibility of a long-term deal with Jahri Evans during the season last year and I strongly suspect they'd still like to do that. They've got a good offensive line in place and it makes sense to keep it together. As for the running back question -- and I'm getting that one from lots of readers -- my gut says the Saints can make better use of the No. 14 by drafting a defensive player. That's not a knock on Beanie Wells. But I like Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush has his positives. I don't think it makes sense to use a first-round pick on a guy you're going to use as a short-yardage back. I think the Saints can find that later in the draft. Or maybe they've already got that in Mike Bell.

KC in parts unknown writes: I think one of the most under the radar signings was the signing of Rod Coleman. He was a BEAST during his career before the last two season with the Falcons. Now that he is on a team with depth at the DT position and he should stay healthy due to the rotation, do you think this could be the sleeper pick up of the year for the Saints?

Pat Yasinskas: I like the move as well. Not sure that Rod Coleman will be the player he was with the Falcons, but I don't think the Saints are expecting him to be that. He's getting up there in age and could be a nice part of the rotation. Coleman said his body needed a year off from football. In a situational role, I think he could help the interior pass rush. Putting him and Sedrick Ellis together in the middle could also help defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant become more productive as pass rushers.


EddieC Cape Coral Fl writes: Since everyone believes we are taking Malcom Jenkins or Beanie Wells. What would you think the best fit is? Our defense is or biggest problem down the stretch and running game isn't to impressive with Reggie Bush being a dud.

Pat Yasinskas: I'm with you. I say the Saints should take Malcolm Jenkins. He can play cornerback or safety. I know the Saints already have made some moves to their secondary with Jabari Greer and Darren Sharper. But I think last year showed the importance of having depth in the defensive backfield.


Sam in Lafayette writes: Pat, after hearing all the news about the Saints meeting with Rashad Jennings, I'm compelled to believe that the Saints will try to trade down for more picks with hopes of picking him up in the 2nd or 3rd rounds. Do you see this happening, and which teams do you think would make the trade?

Pat Yasinskas: I like your idea about trading down and perhaps getting Rashad Jennings -- or some other power runner -- in the second or third round. As far as what teams might be interested in trading for New Orleans' first pick (No. 14 overall), we probably won't know until the Saints are on the clock. But I think it's a realistic possibility that the Saints could trade down to somewhere in the 20s, get one of the defensive players they like and add an extra pick.

Saints add veteran DT Coleman

March, 27, 2009
3/27/09
8:24
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Rod Coleman is back in the NFC South.

The Saints agreed to terms with the former Atlanta defensive tackle Friday. Coleman, 32, spent last season out of the NFL, but has decided to rejoin New Orleans defensive line coach Bill Johnson.

Coleman was coached by Johnson when the two were in Atlanta. Coleman played for the Falcons from 2004 through 2007 and led all defensive tackles in sacks in 2004 and 2005. Coleman spent the first four seasons of his career with Oakland.

The Saints also released safety Kevin Kaesviharn.

Second-year pro Sedrick Ellis is set as one starter at defensive tackle. Coleman likely will compete with Hollis Thomas, Kendrick Clancy and Brian Young for the other spot.

Saturday morning mailbag

September, 20, 2008
9/20/08
7:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Lots of good questions, including one from Baghdad. Here they are:

SaintsFanIn_Iraq, from Anacoco, LA, writes: Pat, I write this from Baghdad, but my hometown is Anacoco, Louisiana. I have been a Saints fan ever since I can remember watching football. Right now we have a few injuries to key defensive players (Gay, MM, Fujita, Harper). To me, the coaching staff looks like they are just preparing players for a game, and not an opponent. Is this due to a lack of experience. I am a firm believer in preparing against the opponent, and not just preparing for Sunday. I might be mistaken, but they looked very sloppy against Washington. Injured or not, we need backups that are ready, and I just don't see that yet.

Pat Yasinskas: Very interesting theory. I know the Saints scout just like every other team and I'm sure Sean Payton will tell you he and his staff devise game plans for other teams. But, after the Washington game, you have to wonder if they're doing a good enough job of it. Sure, there were injuries, but that's not an excuse because the replacements are pros, too. If they didn't prepare well enough for Jim Zorn and Washington last week, they could have their hands full with Mike Shanahan and Denver on Sunday.


Michael in Syracuse, NY, writes: Hi, Pat, thanks for the great Carolina/NFC South coverage. You just wrote, "...while waiting for Peppers to be spectacular". What if he isn't? What if he goes through the season a bit better than last, but basically mundane? That would be two seasons, plus the last quarter of 2006 in which he's pretty much disappeared. I know the Panthers are in negotiations with him now. But...could you please expound upon the various options? Such as, if he's a free agent, would there be compensation...how losing him might impact...possible replacements (free agency, draft, etc.)? I know that's a mouthful to ask, but in any event, thanks for the writing!

Pat Yasinskas: All sorts of possibilities if it plays out that way. The Panthers, starting with owner Jerry Richardson, are very fond of Peppers. Richardson previously has said he hopes Peppers spends his entire career in Carolina. If he doesn't produce, though, I could see things changing. It would be difficult (and perhaps foolish) to pay Peppers huge money if he has another season like last year. There's no immediate compensation if he signs elsewhere and it's not like the Panthers are stockpiled at defensive end. John Fox puts a premium on the pass rush. If Peppers walks as a free agent, the Panthers would probably have to go out and get another high-profile defensive end (or two) through the draft. But I don't think it will come to that. Just a gut feeling, but I think Peppers will stay in Carolina.

(Read full post)

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