NFC South: Roy Williams
A team-by-team look at the players I expect to be the most dominant in the NFC South from 2014 to 2016.
The rules on our Dream Team of Tomorrow are simple. We’re not looking at the best players of today.
We’re looking for the rising stars -- the guys who will be dominant from 2014 through 2016 and maybe beyond that. We’re looking for the next generation.
Matt Ryan, Falcons quarterback: You can make a case that Ryan already is considered a star. He came into the league in 2008 and has led the Falcons to a winning record in each of his three seasons and two playoff berths.
But Ryan’s not a superstar just yet. He’s right on the cusp and I’m willing to predict he’ll be fully in his prime by 2014. For Ryan truly to be considered an “elite’’ quarterback, he’s got to win a playoff game. He’ll be winning playoff games soon enough because the Falcons continue to do what they have since Ryan joined them.
They continue to look at every possible way to make him great and that process is nearing completion. They surrounded Ryan with a running game (Michael Turner) as a rookie and Roddy White blossomed as a receiver. The Falcons threw Tony Gonzalez into the mix as a safety valve at tight end.
But they took their biggest step yet this year when they made a daring move up in the draft to get Julio Jones. Line him up at wide receiver across from White and the Falcons should have two guys who can stretch the field.
White’s made some noise this offseason about how Atlanta’s offense can be somewhat like the St. Louis Rams when they were “The Greatest Show on Turf.’’ He just might be right. If he is, Ryan will be one of the greatest quarterbacks on earth.
Josh Freeman, Buccaneers quarterback: The ceiling is unlimited on this kid. Last year was his first full season as a starter and he almost single-handedly carried the Bucs to a 10-6 record, a season after they went 3-13.
Freeman threw 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions while surrounded with a cast of offensive players that was very young in some areas and not all that talented in some others. A lot of people say the Bucs had an easy schedule last season and that they overachieved.
That might be true, but I’m not buying into the theory that the Bucs are going to take a step back. They found the first true franchise quarterback they’ve ever had. As long as he’s around, the Bucs are going to be competitive.
Freeman’s much more than just a physical specimen. He’s grown into the role of the leader of this franchise faster than anyone ever expected.
Malcolm Jenkins, Saints free safety. With Brees and Jonathan Vilma, the Saints have the best natural leadership in the NFC South at the moment. Wherever Brees and Vilma are in 2014 through 2016, the Saints will be near the top of the heap.
That’s because they have a superstar in the making in Jenkins, who comes with the same kind of intangibles as Brees and Vilma. At its core, football comes down to making big plays and winning games. As a first-year starter last season, Jenkins showed he can do that.
Remember the Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas? The Saints were on the verge of losing when Jenkins came from behind and stripped the ball from receiver Roy Williams. The Saints ended up winning and coach Sean Payton said Jenkins made “one of those plays that inspires everybody on the team.’’ Two weeks later, he did it again, intercepting St. Louis’ Sam Bradford twice and returning one of them for a touchdown.
Jenkins came out of college with all the physical tools, but people around the Saints will tell you they’re even more impressed with his work on the practice field and in the film room. There should be a lot more inspiring plays from Jenkins in the future.
Ryan Kalil, Panthers center. He’s only 26 and he’s been to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons, despite playing on bad teams. Scouts, coaches and players around the league will tell you he’s one of the two or three best centers in the league and his reputation will grow rapidly if Carolina can make some improvements after last year’s 2-14 season.
The Panthers already placed the franchise tag on Kalil for this year in an effort to make sure he doesn’t get away. They view him as the emerging anchor of their offensive line as Jordan Gross gets older.
At some point, the Panthers will lock Kalil up to a big long-term deal. There’s a reason for that. They just drafted Cam Newton, whom they view as their franchise quarterback. They want to make sure he’s receiving snaps from and being protected by a franchise center.
With that in mind, and with some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look at some of the more prominent potential free agents from the rest of the league.
QUARTERBACKS: Marc Bulger, Kerry Collins, Rex Grossman, Matt Hasselbeck, Patrick Ramsey, Alex Smith, Billy Volek, Kellen Clemens, Brodie Croyle, Trent Edwards, Bruce Gradkowski, Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Leinart, Troy Smith and Tyler Thigpen.
RUNNING BACKS: Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown, Kevin Faulk, Mewelde Moore, Sammy Morris, Clinton Portis, Dominic Rhodes, Tony Richardson, Kevin Smith, Darren Sproles, Fred Taylor, Brian Westbrook, Ricky Williams, Joseph Addai, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jerome Harrison, Brandon Jackson, Laurence Maroney and LeRon McClain.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Mark Clayton, Braylon Edwards, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Randy Moss, Santana Moss, Terrell Owens, Donte’ Stallworth, Steve Breaston, Malcom Floyd, Santonio Holmes, James Jones, Sidney Rice, Mike Sims-Walker, Brad Smith and Steve Smith (of the New York Giants, not the Steve Smith of Carolina).
TIGHT ENDS: Desmond Clark, Donald Lee, Randy McMichael, Bo Scaife, Kevin Boss, Owen Daniels, Daniel Fells, Zach Miller, Ben Patrick and Matt Spaeth.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: David Baas, Jammal Brown, Robert Gallery, Adam Goldberg, Kyle Kosier, Olin Kreutz, Matt Light, Sean Locklear, Casey Rabach, Chris Spencer, Langston Walker, Casey Wiegmann, Floyd Womack, Damien Woody, Chris Chester, Jeromey Clary, Daryn Colledge, Willie Colon, Doug Free, Jared Gaither, Charlie Johnson, Deuce Lutui, Samson Satele, Lyle Sendlein and Marshal Yanda.
DEFENSIVE TACKLES: Aubrayo Franklin, Tommie Harris, Chris Hoke, Chris Hovan, Kris Jenkins, Bryan Robinson, Gerard Warren, Jamal Williams, Pat Williams, Alan Branch, Barry Cofield, John McCargo and Brandon Mebane.
DEFENSIVE ENDS: Jason Babin, Dave Ball, Raheem Brock, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Cullen Jenkins, Travis LaBoy, Trevor Pryce, Marcus Spears, Ray Edwards and Mathias Kiwanuka.
LINEBACKERS: Akin Ayodele, Keith Bulluck, Kevin Burnett, Dhani Jones, Kirk Morrison, Julian Peterson, Matt Roth, Takeo Spikes, Jason Taylor, Mike Vrabel, Stewart Bradley, Bobby Carpenter, Manny Lawson, Paul Posluszny, Ernie Sims and Stephen Tulloch.
CORNERBACKS: Nnamdi Asomugha, Phillip Buchanon, Chris Carr, Drayton Florence, Ellis Hobbs, Carlos Rogers, Lito Sheppard, Ike Taylor, Fabian Washington, Drew Coleman, Antonio Cromartie, Chris Houston, Johnathan Joseph, Dimitri Patterson, Josh Wilson and Eric Wright.
SAFETIES: Aaron Francisco, Ken Hamlin, Michael Lewis, Brandon McGowan, Quintin Mikell, Lawyer Milloy, Brodney Pool, Gerald Sensabaugh, Roy Williams, Gibril Wilson, Atari Bigby, Melvin Bullitt, Abram Elam, Dashon Goldson, Michael Huff, Dawan Landry, Danieal Manning, Bernard Pollard, Eric Weddle and Donte Whitner.
The safety, who made a mistake in coverage, somehow chased down Dallas Cowboys receiver Roy E. Williams and popped the ball loose deep in Saints' territory. Just moments earlier, it seemed the Saints were about to let a shot at a repeat of the NFC South title and the Super Bowl championship fade away.
"It could have been a catastrophe,'' Jenkins said.
That's no exaggeration. Jenkins' play helped the Saints defeat the Cowboys, 30-27, in a bizarre Thanksgiving game at Cowboys Stadium. Jenkins chased Williams knowing he had to make more than a tackle. He needed something close to a miracle.
After all, Jenkins was a big part of the reason why Williams was running free downfield and the Saints were about to blow a game that seemed so winnable early on.
With Dallas leading 27-23, Williams caught a slant pass from Jon Kitna. Jenkins said he took a bad angle in pursuit, and a cornerback had slipped. That left Williams running free down the middle of the field with three minutes remaining. If Williams scored, the Saints would need two possessions to have a chance. Even if he didn't score, the Cowboys might have been able to run out the clock or, at worst, kick a field goal.
"If I just tackled him there, the game is over,'' said Jenkins, a second-year pro who made the transition to safety after playing cornerback as a rookie.
With Williams running free, cornerback Tracy Porter was the only New Orleans player downfield and Williams had a lot of room to beat him. As Williams got near Porter, he tried to wrap the ball up. Jenkins was in pursuit from the blindside.
At the New Orleans 11-yard line, Jenkins caught up to Williams and somehow popped the ball free.
"It kind of fell right into my stomach,'' Jenkins said. "All I can say about that is God is good.''
Divine intervention? Well, that might be extreme, but there's no doubt Jenkins did something extraordinary.
"I think I did everything I could have done,'' Williams said. "It went through my head to just fall down, but that’s not in my repertoire. The guy just made a great play. We had it in our pocket, and I let it go.''
Jenkins fell down with the ball and Drew Brees and the offense came onto the field.
"Whenever you have No. 9 out there, you have a chance,'' Jenkins said.
Brees marched the Saints 89 yards in five plays and one minute and eight seconds. He put New Orleans ahead to stay with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore on the first play after the two-minute warning.
Even then, it wasn't over for the Saints, who spent most of the second half of the game looking like they were going to blow a game they'd led by 17 points against a 3-7 team. The Cowboys moved downfield. David Buehler's 59-yard field-goal attempt to tie the game with 31 seconds left had the distance, but was left of the goal post by just a few feet.
"To give up that lead and go home, it would have been a terrible weekend,'' Jenkins said.
An embarrassing loss after the Saints led by as much as 20-3 in the first half might have had implications beyond the weekend. It would have put the Saints two games behind the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South race and started a downward spiral for a team that's been inconsistent all season.
"It's a credit to our team's fight,'' coach Sean Payton said. "That play Malcolm makes late is a heart play. It's an effort play and that inspires a whole team. It was kind of a gut-check win.''
By popping the ball loose and having it fall into his gut, Jenkins helped the Saints get to 8-3. They now have as many wins as the Falcons, who are 8-2 heading into Sunday's showdown with Green Bay at the Georgia Dome.
"The sweet thing about winning is it gives the players an extra three days off to get their feet wet,'' Payton said.
The Saints will get Friday, Saturday and Sunday off before returning to practice next week to get ready to face Cincinnati on the road the following Sunday. They likely would have had to work at least part of the weekend had they lost, and it certainly wouldn't have been pleasant. They would have to have played the rest of the season trying desperately to catch up to the Falcons.
There's a fine line between wins and losses and heroes and goats. Jenkins' play on Williams demonstrates that better than anything.
"Our mentality for the entire fourth quarter (was) to (get the ball back) and give our offense another chance,'' Jenkins said.
His play not only gave Brees and the offense another chance. It gave the Saints a chance to compete for another NFC South title and another Super Bowl title.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:
Falcons rooting for the Saints. There’s irony in this on many levels, but the Atlanta Falcons have to root for the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night. If the Saints lose to the Cowboys, Atlanta’s playoff hopes are officially over. If New Orleans wins, the Falcons go into Sunday’s game at least mathematically still in the playoff race.
Still hope for Morris. As bad as this season has been for the Bucs, I think Raheem Morris can do wonders for his job security if his team plays well in Seattle. Going across the country is difficult for any team and a win might show some signs of hope. If the Bucs play as if they’ve got nothing to lose, which they don’t, then Morris might have a lot to gain out of a game with the Seahawks that otherwise seems meaningless.
Christmas shopping for Roy. In Friday’s NFC South chat, one of the readers asked if I was going to wear ear plugs in the Superdome on Saturday night. Not a bad idea, and I’m going to shop around to see if I can find some. In fact, I’m going to buy a second pair. Think I might be able to turn around and sell them to Dallas’ Roy Williams, who is probably going to hear plenty from New Orleans fans about the shots he took at the Saints earlier this week.
What to do about Delhomme? Matt Moore will get his third straight start against the Vikings. That’s no surprise because Jake Delhomme’s broken finger is still healing. But I’m curious to see what the Panthers do if Delhomme is ready to play the final two games. Do they stick with Moore, who hasn’t been bad? Or do they turn back to Delhomme, who’s had a miserable year and probably has no future as a starter after this season?
Where’s the pass rush? We’ve all been harping on Atlanta’s cornerbacks this season. That’s not off target. But let’s look at the bigger picture and toss some of that blame on the pass rush -– or the lack of one. Whatever happened to John Abraham? And why did we all buy into Kroy Biermann so hard after he got off to a decent start? Yes, the Falcons need to make some moves at cornerback in the offseason. But if some sort of pass rush doesn’t surface in these last few weeks, we also could be looking at a lot of new faces on the defensive line.
He said people shouldn't go crowning the Saints just because they're 13-0. He also said the Cowboys should win Saturday night in New Orleans. You can read the whole story, courtesy of ESPN Dallas.
|Kim Klement/US Presswire|
|Miles Austin and the Dallas receivers had their way with the Tampa Bay secondary.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- Hmmm, let's test our memories here. Who's the last person to be stopped by a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' secondary?
Oh, got it.
It was that cab driver who pulled over to call police back in August and allege cornerback Aqib Talib had punched him from the backseat. It sure as heck wasn't Roy Williams, Patrick Crayton or Miles Austin. They just kept catching and running ... and running.
"We just gave up too many plays on the defensive side of the ball," Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said.
It would be nice to cut Morris some slack in his first game as an NFL head coach. But that's not going to happen because what took place Sunday was about much more than Tampa Bay's defense surrendering (and we mean surrendering) 462 yards of offense in a 34-21 loss to Dallas.
What happened Sunday goes way beyond Morris being new to his role. You could give him some slack for the offense, but that unit actually played better than just about anyone expected. The defense was what let Morris down -- specifically, the defensive backs.
"We've got to stand up and take responsibility," safety-turned-linebacker-turned safety again Jermaine Phillips said. "It's nothing for us to be alarmed about or worried about."
I'll agree with the thing about taking responsibility, but I think there is plenty to worry about for Tampa Bay's secondary. These are supposed to be Morris' "guys." These are the guys he knows best and, so far, all they've done is fail him.
It goes even deeper than Tony Romo throwing for 353 yards and three touchdowns. It goes back to Talib's incident, for which he hasn't drawn any disciplinary action yet. It goes back to Tanard Jackson getting suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
It goes back to Morris' offseason decision that Sabby Piscitelli could be a starting safety in the NFL and Phillips should switch to linebacker. Maybe, if all those things hadn't happened, the Bucs might have had a smoother transition from the Cover 2 defense to the Cover Nobody defense.
"There's no secret about it," Morris said of one of the touchdown passes allowed by Piscitelli. "I looked right at Sabby. I grabbed him right next to me. He looked at me and said "plaster."
Yep, a Tampa Bay defense got plastered.
Where have you gone Monte Kiffin?
He's not here anymore. This is Morris' team and Derrick Brooks isn't coming to rescue him.
When you go from being an assistant to being a head coach and start making major changes, you've got to take all that comes with it and it would help to bring along the best part of your past. Tampa Bay's secondary was, by far, its weakest link against a Dallas passing game that -- for a day anyway -- looked better without Terrell Owens.
Everywhere you looked, the Cowboys were making big plays. Crayton's touchdown went for 80 yards, Williams' for 66 and Austin's for 42. Everywhere you looked, Tampa Bay's secondary was out of place. Piscitelli seemed to be at the center of it all, which begs you to ask if he's the one who should have made the offseason move to linebacker?
Phillips, who moved back to safety to take Jackson's place, also was a culprit. So was cornerback Elbert Mack. Even though they didn't make any noticeably horrible plays, you still have to consider Talib and Ronde Barber guilty by association.
They all used to hang out in Morris' room when he was coaching defensive backs.
"We have to watch the film and everyone has to stand up to their responsibility, including myself on a couple of plays," Piscitelli said. "We can't give up plays like that and we know that as a secondary. We will bounce back hard and learn from our mistakes."
Those mistakes will be pointed out in film sessions Monday at One Buccaneer Place and they won't be any prettier then. But shouldn't the secondary be one area where the Bucs don't have to play catch-up in the second week of the regular season?
The secondary, after all, supposedly was Morris' specialty. All the preseason questions about whether he's ready to be a head coach remain valid -- so far.
"Romo did exactly what we thought he would do," Morris said.
Oh, so the Bucs fully expected Romo to stand in the pocket all day and carve their secondary to shreds? No, that's obviously not what they wanted. But they had to know it could happen, unless Morris got totally fooled into thinking his defense was good after watching it spend months practicing against Jeff Jagodzinski's offense.
Let's be fair to the secondary and point out the Bucs didn't put any pressure on Romo. All that offseason talk about Gaines Adams developing moves and Jimmy Wilkerson being a double-digit sack guy appears to be just talk. And let's not let the linebackers off too easy. Geno Hayes, the guy who was supposed to be the first person besides Brooks to start at weakside linebacker since the early 1990s, couldn't even show up at the stadium on time Sunday morning.
Morris yanked him from the starting lineup and inserted Matt McCoy. Maybe Morris should have yanked the whole secondary. Then again, there's not much behind Piscitelli, Phillips, Barber, Talib and Mack -- and Jackson, when he comes back.
For better or worse, these are Morris' guys.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
The New Orleans Saints are the next stop in our series of team-by-team mailbags.
Cory in Dallas, TX writes: Pat, here we go again. I emailed you last week and you posted it about the rumor of LT coming to the Saints. I initially thought it was bogus. But, a part of me was excited and quite frankly, hopeful. Now there are stories all over the web about Drew talking to LT about the possibility of him playing in New Orleans. I just want to know what your take on all this is. Obviously we would have to drop some players to make room (Jason David hopefully). Just need to know if it I should hold my breath.
Pat Yasinskas: The latest news on the LaDainian Tomlinson saga is that he still is talking to the Chargers about restructuring his contract. But, if those talks blow up, I think New Orleans is a logical landing spot. We all know about his connection to Drew Brees and the fact the Saints need some consistency in the running game. My only word of caution is that, if Tomlinson comes, he might not carry the Saints straight to the Super Bowl. He's got some mileage on him and is not the same player he was a few years ago. I think he can be a nice role player if he can be added at a reasonable price. But the bottom line is the Saints have to keep fixing up their defense if they're really going to be a contender.
Kenny in Biloxi,MS writes: What about the Saints adding a veteran receiver like M. Harrison?
Pat Yasinskas: Marvin Harrison is a great receiver, who can still bring leadership and experience wherever he goes. But I'm not sure the Saints really need him. I think New Orleans has the potential to have one of the league's best receiving corps. Marques Colston and Lance Moore are two very good starters. Devery Henderson is a nice deep threat and he made big strides with his overall game last year. The two wildcards here are the young receivers, Robert Meachem and Adrian Arrington. Meachem has struggled in his first two seasons, but still has lots of potential. Arrington was having a very nice rookie preseason before he got hurt. If those two guys can play up to their potential, the Saints have all the receivers they'll need.
Brandon in Lafayette writes: What are the chances that teams ask Roy Williams to change positions from saftie to olb and what are the chances the Saints would be interested in a move like this?
Pat Yasinskas: That's a theory that's been thrown around with Roy Williams before and I think some teams would consider it. But I think the Saints are in decent shape at linebacker. I think safety is a much bigger need and Williams, who is not good in coverage, doesn't fit that need. I think the Saints have to go out and get a free safety who can make some big plays. That's their No. 1 need right now.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Some random afternoon thoughts on the NFC South.
I said it this morning and I'll say it again: Don't look for Terrell Owens to end up in the NFC South. Go ahead and totally scratch Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans off the list for the reasons I mentioned this morning. The only NFC South spot that even has a remote chance for Owens to land is Tampa Bay, and I really don't see that one happening either.
In related news for those imagining things that will never happen, this just in: Michael Vick will not play for the Atlanta Falcons again.
I'm getting a lot of questions about Roy Williams (the safety) perhaps landing in Tampa Bay, Atlanta or New Orleans. All three need safety help, but I don't think the Saints would be a good fit. Their glaring need is at free safety and Williams is not a cover guy.
Just a thought here, and I know Tampa Bay's defense is changing, but John Lynch, another guy who could hit but wasn't all that good in coverage, had a very nice career with the Bucs.
Now, here's another thought for Saints fans: What if Williams put on about 10 pounds and moved to linebacker?
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
|Scott A. Miller/US Presswire|
|Joey Galloway has been dependable for Tampa Bay.|
Around these parts, that leads to the obvious question: What's the best receiving duo in the NFC South? It's a tough question because there's a flaw or potential flaw for each of the four teams.
If this were four or five years ago, I'd go with Carolina's Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad in a heartbeat. But I can't really do that now. Smith is the division's best receiver, but he's suspended for the first two games. Muhammad was very good in his previous stint with Carolina, but he was quiet in Chicago last season (although the quarterback situation probably had a lot to do with that). Plus, Muhammad is 35 and he's got to slow down at some point. At this moment, we don't even know who will start opposite Muhammad in the first two games. It could be D.J. Hackett, who's missed a lot of time with injury or it could be Dwayne Jarrett, who has had a nice preseason, but didn't do anything as a rookie last year.
New Orleans' Marques Colston is an elite receiver, but he's dragged down by his supporting cast. It looks like Devery Henderson is the favorite to be the No. 2 receiver right now, but he's got a history of dropping passes. I know Colston and Jeremy Shockey might be the division's best 1-2 punch, but Shockey is a tight end and that eliminates him from this conversation.
Atlanta has a rising star in Roddy White, but uncertainty at the No. 2 spot. Laurent Robinson fell out of favor and it looks like Michael Jenkins will start. Jenkins isn't a bad receiver, but he's probably best suited to be a No. 3 or No. 4 guy.
That leaves Tampa Bay, where Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard combine to be about 312 years old. The issue of age aside, I'm going to give this duo the nod simply because it's the safest in the division. Although Galloway has missed just about all of the preseason, he'll be rested and ready on opening day. Galloway is still a 1,000-yard receiver and Hilliard is dependable.
That's more than any other duo in the division can say. Again, that is my pick right this moment and the receiving corps are very much in flux in this division. We'll revisit this and probably have a totally different answer a month or two into the season.