NFC South: Ryan Sims

McCoy/PriceKim Klement/US PresswireTampa Bay is hoping it has found an interior tandem in Brian Price (92) and Gerald McCoy (93).
There was a time in the early years of the NFC South when top-notch defensive tackles roamed and controlled the division.

Tampa Bay’s Warren Sapp and Carolina’s Kris Jenkins were making Pro Bowl rosters and All-Pro teams and publicly arguing that each was the best defensive tackle in the game. They were rare talents, but there were other members of the species in the division in those days. Guys like Brentson Buckner and Anthony McFarland weren’t bad, and Carolina’s defensive line once refused to pose for a four-person picture unless the frame was expanded to five to include super-sub Shane Burton.

But then, sometime in recent years, the last of the space-eating dinosaurs disappeared. Defensive tackles became a non-factor, even an embarrassment around the NFC South.

Take the game in Charlotte near the end of the 2008 season when Tampa Bay, featuring journeymen Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims in the middle, looked like it was giving Carolina’s running backs a 7-yard head start. Or think back to 2007 and 2008 when New Orleans was scoring all those points and Drew Brees was throwing for all those yards. At the same time, the Saints were turning in mediocre records. That was because of the defense’s poor play all around, particularly in the middle of the defensive line.

Things have started to change in recent years with NFC South teams realizing they need to get back to their roots. They’ve been investing early-round draft picks and big money in defensive linemen and it's about to pay off.

Let’s go ahead and make a prediction now. If there is a 2011 season, it will be the year of the defensive tackle in the NFC South. Everywhere you look there’s a defensive tackle -- in some places, two defensive tackles -- poised to emerge as a force. It could be the year when the NFC South gets back to having Pro Bowlers or All-Pros at defensive tackle.

Let’s survey the landscape of who’s on the verge of emerging.

Buccaneers. After Hovan and Sims contributed to Jon Gruden losing his job, the Bucs weren’t able to do much right away at defensive tackle because they were too busy landing franchise quarterback Josh Freeman. But in 2010, they used their first two draft picks on Gerald McCoy and Brian Price and they also discovered Roy Miller, a valuable role player.

This is still a project because McCoy and Price suffered season-ending injuries in their rookie years. But these are two extremely talented players and the Tampa Bay coaching staff is convinced they’ll emerge.

Price, a second-round pick, looked like he was going to be an instant star when he showed up for his first minicamp and training camp. There was a buzz that he might be better than McCoy, a first-round pick. But Price got banged up in camp, never got completely healthy and appeared in only five games before the Bucs sat him down and he had surgery that included the insertion of four screws into his pelvis.

When the lockout ended very briefly in late April, Price showed up at One Buccaneer Place and indications were that he’s well on the way to being ready for this season. Same for McCoy, who had arm surgery. After a slow start, McCoy had come on with several strong games in a row right before the injury.

[+] EnlargeShaun Rogers
Matt Sullivan/Getty ImagesThe Saints are hoping Shaun Rogers can be a disruptive force in the NFC South this season.
McCoy is completely healthy and has spent much of the offseason in San Diego working to add upper-body strength. Throw a healthy McCoy and Price out there with newly drafted defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers and the Bucs suddenly could have a star -- or two -- in the middle.

Saints. Sedrick Ellis was drafted in the first round in 2008 and his first two seasons were interrupted by injuries. He played a full season in 2010 and responded with a career-high six sacks while playing the run well.

At the end of last season, the only thing between Ellis and greatness was having another strong defensive tackle next to him. That’s why the Saints signed Shaun Rogers just before the lockout started. Rogers is coming off three mediocre seasons in Cleveland, but he had some big years before that in Detroit.

New Orleans is a place where there’s a track record of veterans getting their careers going again. If Rogers can bring anything to the table, Ellis has a chance to emerge as the division’s best defensive tackle.

Falcons. For the past two years, Jonathan Babineaux has been the division’s best defensive tackle. But that’s sort of like putting a kid on a Little League baseball all-star team even though he came from the league’s worst team because every team has to be represented. Babineaux is solid, but he has been the best by default.

Babineaux probably is going to stay solid for the next few years, but the player the Falcons think really has a chance to become a force this year is Peria Jerry. He was their top draft pick in 2009 and his career has been kind of a sad story. He got hurt early as a rookie, suffering a major knee injury that the Falcons have never fully described.

Jerry returned last season, but ended up playing behind rookie Corey Peters, a third-round draft pick. Just when it looked like you could go ahead and declare Jerry a bust, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff stepped up and shed a little more light on his situation.

They still wouldn’t go into exactly what his surgery entailed, but at the NFL owners meeting in March, Smith and Dimitroff independently admitted last year was something of a “recovery’’ season for Jerry. They said their plan was to play him sparingly because his knee was not 100 percent.

They went on to say people with Jerry’s type of injury usually take two full years to recover and said they have high hopes for him. If Jerry can somehow get back to being the kind of player the Falcons thought he was when they drafted him, they could plug him in next to Babineaux and Atlanta suddenly could have a new face as its best defensive tackle.

Panthers. You can make a case that this position has been the weakest unit for any NFC South team since the moment Jenkins finally was granted his two-year request for a trade after the 2008 season. Yeah, Maake Kemoeatu could fill as much space as Jenkins, but he couldn’t move.

With Kemoeatu gone last year, the Panthers used a collection of journeymen, got pushed all over the field and went 2-14. Carolina has a major rebuilding program and they started it by using the first pick in this year’s draft on quarterback Cam Newton. But right after that, it instantly became obvious where new coach Ron Rivera was turning his attention.

The Panthers didn’t have a second-round pick, but had two in the third round. They used them to take defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain. Both could start right away. After they were drafted, Rivera kept talking about how Fua and McClain would allow the linebackers to play "downhill." That’s a start.

It’s hard to say right now that a third-round draft pick is going to be a star. But if either or both of those players can allow linebacker Jon Beason to run free or make plays, Carolina’s defense instantly will be better than it has been in several seasons.
Already the NFL's youngest team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers continue to get younger.

The team just announced that defensive tackle Frank Okam has been added to the regular roster. That comes after the Bucs released veteran defensive tackle Ryan Sims. Okam came into the league and appeared in 13 games over three seasons for the Houston Texans.

Sims, a former first-round draft pick, spent a couple of seasons as a starter for Tampa Bay, but was not very productive. He moved into a backup role this season after the Bucs used their top two draft choices on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price.

McCoy's been coming on strong in recent weeks. Price is out for the season with an injury. Roy Miller has been starting next to McCoy and has been adequate. Recent pickup Al Woods, also a rookie, has showed some potential. This move reflects how committed Tampa Bay is to its youth movement. Although the Bucs are in the playoff race, they're still seeking out young guys who can help them in the future.

The Bucs also signed cornerback D.J. Johnson to the practice squad. Johnson appeared in seven games for the New York Giants before his release earlier this week.
Some good news on the injury front for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and fullback Earnest Graham will be back in the starting lineup when the Bucs take on the San Francisco 49ers later this afternoon.

Trueblood missed the past three games with a knee injury, while Graham sat out the past two games with a hamstring injury.

Linebacker Quincy Black (ankle) and defensive end Kyle Moore (shoulder) each will miss their second straight game. Adam Hayward is expected to start in Black’s place while Tim Crowder will start for Moore.

The other inactives for the Bucs are fullback Erik Lorig, tackle Will Barker, tackle Derek Hardman, wide receiver Preston Parker and defensive tackle Ryan Sims. Rudy Carpenter will be the third quarterback.

Bucs minus three starters

November, 14, 2010
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TAMPA, Fla. – No major surprises among Tampa Bay’s inactives, but the Bucs will be without several injured starters.

Defensive end Kyle Moore, linebacker Quincy Black and fullback Earnest Graham are inactive. Injured defensive tackle Ryan Sims also is inactive. Receiver Sammie Stroughter, defensive back Myron Lewis and offensive lineman Will Barker also are inactive.

Rudy Carpenter has been designated as the third quarterback.

Bucs without three starters

November, 7, 2010
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ATLANTA – As expected, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be without several injured starters for today’s game.

Center Jeff Faine, tackle Jeremy Trueblood and fullback Earnest Graham are all on the inactive list. Defensive tackle Ryan Sims, defensive end Alex Magee, cornerback Myron Lewis and receiver Sammie Stroughter also are inactive. Rudy Carpenter is the third quarterback.

Cornerback Dominique Franks, linebacker Spencer Adkins, tackle Garrett Reynolds, guard Mike Johnson, tight end Justin Peelle, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury and defensive tackle Trey Lewis are inactive for the Falcons. John Parker Wilson is the third quarterback.
I’ve spent much of Tuesday (and a large chunk of Monday) working on season previews for all NFC South teams. They’ve been shipped off to my editors and they’ll run as we get a little closer to the start of the regular season. My predictions for how the division will play out also are included in that package and I’m not giving any hints right now.

Anyway, it’s time to jump back into the daily mode and I thought a good first step would be to hit you with a few key dates that are fast approaching.

Roster cuts are not far away. Teams have to trim their rosters to 75 players on Aug. 31. That’s usually a pretty painless process. But the more important date is Sept. 4: That’s when teams have to get their rosters down to 53 players.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with some bigger names that are on the bubble around the NFC South. Among the guys I’m going to be keeping a close eye on are New Orleans’ Darren Sharper and Bobby McCray and Tampa Bay’s Michael Clayton, Derrick Ward and Ryan Sims. Not sure there are any real “names’’ on the bubble in Carolina (unless you count Dexter Jackson) or Atlanta.

At one point, I thought defensive end Jamaal Anderson and receiver Brian Finneran could be possible casualties by the Falcons. But I think Anderson’s safe in his role moving between end and tackle, and the loss of rookie receiver Kerry Meier to injury means Finneran is likely to stick around.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 30

TAMPA, Fla. -- New construction in these parts largely has halted due to the economic situation over the past couple of years. So what’s that structure going up on the practice fields right behind One Buccaneer Place?

It’s the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There still is a lot of work to be done. But, unlike last year, you can see a foundation. Just look at the quarterback, Josh Freeman. When it comes right down to it, he really is all the Buccaneers are looking at. Yeah, guys like Gerald McCoy, Donald Penn, Barrett Ruud and Aqib Talib might also be viewed as possible cornerstones in the blueprints. But Freeman is the 6-foot-6 beam the Bucs are counting on to support this entire franchise.

Count last year as a redshirt season for Freeman and the Bucs. The team went 3-13 and Freeman really didn’t get to play until the second half of the season. Now, he’s been through an entire offseason. Now, the offense is his. Now, it’s time for Freeman and the Bucs to grow and make some sense out of the youth movement the franchise decided to begin last year.

“The most obvious thing that I hope people are noticing is we are giving Josh Freeman tools around him that he can grow with,’’ general manager Mark Dominik said. “We have Kellen Winslow and the tight end is important whether you have a young quarterback or an experienced one. And we wanted to put in a receiving corps that can grow together so their timing can be consistent. When you look back through NFL history, you see that consistently with the successful teams. You put two or three receivers together with the same quarterback for five, six or seven years and they become a timing machine and that’s what we wanted to do.’’

To that end, the Bucs drafted receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams in the first four rounds. They also traded for receiver Reggie Brown and they still have Sammie Stroughter, who might have been the steal of last year’s draft class.

Yeah, the Bucs also did some work on the defense. They used their top two draft picks on defensive tackles McCoy and Brian Price in an attempt to stop getting abused by running games. Their linebackers aren’t bad and the secondary has some potential. This defense isn’t anything close to the defense of Tampa Bay’s glory days, but it has possibilities.

The offense isn’t anything like in the glory days and that’s the way the Bucs want it. With Freeman, the Bucs believe the offense can be better than it ever has been. The belief is Freeman can be the first true franchise quarterback this team has had since Doug Williams.

The potential is there and the Bucs have put some parts around Freeman. Now it’s time for him to put this franchise on his back.

“Nothing can replace game time,’’ Dominik said. "But I will say, for an offseason, for a young quarterback, I could not have asked for more. He did everything we expected and more. I don’t remember him missing an offseason day and he was a sponge in the meeting rooms. His leadership has come through in that way. He’s got a natural charisma that you see guys want to bond with him and follow him.’’

THREE HOT ISSUES

Mike Williams
Gary Rothstein/Icon SMIRookie Mike Williams appears to be on track to earn a starting job.
1. What’s the receiving corps going to look like? That still is being sorted out, but Williams, the fourth-round draft pick, appears to be on his way to a starting job. He’s shown a knack for big plays ever since his arrival and seems to have developed a quick chemistry with Freeman. Benn started a little slower, but has come on of late. But Brown might open the season as the other starter.

Pair Williams and Brown with Winslow and Freeman suddenly might have a better cast of receivers than he did late last year when No. 1 receiver Antonio Bryant was pouting his way out of Tampa Bay. The Bucs have been cautious with Winslow and his knee throughout camp, but the belief is he’ll be ready for the regular season and that will provide Freeman with a go-to guy.

But the Bucs aren’t going to be running the West Coast offense they did with Jon Gruden and they certainly aren’t going to use the ball-control system that Tony Dungy ran. They’ve got a quarterback with big-play ability and they’re going to take their shots down the field. Williams, Brown and Benn all can go downfield and make catches in the possession game. But the real downfield threat might be Stroughter. He had an excellent rookie season, already has a rapport with Freeman and can make a lot of things happen as the slot receiver.

2. How much will the arrival of the two rookie defensive tackles help? McCoy and Price should be an instant upgrade over former starters Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims, who got pushed all over the field last year. The Bucs also plan to use Roy Miller in the rotation. That’s a pretty promising trio of young defensive tackles.

But it remains to be seen if this group can be dominant right from the start. The standard for defensive tackles in Tampa Bay is Warren Sapp. He might be ticketed for the Hall of Fame, but the fact is Sapp struggled as a rookie and took time to develop into a force.

The Bucs think McCoy should be fine from the start. Price got off to a great start in camp, but an injury has forced him to miss some time and that may set him back a bit. The Bucs are going to ask a lot of McCoy, Price and Miller. They want them to clog things up against the run and free up Ruud to make plays. They also need a strong interior pass rush because there’s no real force on the outside. Ready or not, McCoy and Price will have the opportunity to shine right from the start.

Raheem Morris
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIThings have been quieter in Raheem Morris' second offseason as the Bucs head coach.
3. Is this team headed in the right direction with coach Raheem Morris? The Bucs were in a state of chaos through much of last year. Morris fired coordinators Jeff Jagodzinski and Jim Bates early, changed defensive schemes early in the year and ran a quarterback competition that’s only real purpose was to make sure Freeman didn’t get on the field too soon. The results weren’t pretty.

But Morris’ second offseason has been one of peace and quiet and it only takes a few brief glances out at the practice field to see that the Bucs are much more organized than last year. Morris knows he made mistakes last season and he’s learned from that.

He’s running the defense now and believes he put Freeman in good hands with offensive coordinator Greg Olson and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. The Bucs still may need another offseason to get the talent level to where they really want it, but there are some parts in place and Morris needs to start showing some progress.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Aqib Talib, cornerback. The physical talent always has been there with Talib. But his first two seasons were rocky because of off-field issues and a feeling that he wasn’t always focused on football. However, the coaching staff is quietly buzzing because a new side of Talib has emerged throughout the offseason and carried over into camp. He’s more focused and more mature. The Bucs are keeping their fingers crossed on this one, but there is a belief that Talib can become a Pro Bowler very quickly if he stays on his current path.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Stylez G. White, defensive end. The Bucs know White never has been a very good practice player. But they thought he might come in with some inspiration this camp because he has a chance to be the top pass-rusher on team that doesn’t have any proven star in that area. That hasn’t happened. White’s been very ordinary in practice and doesn’t seem interested in being a leader for a young defensive line. Is that enough to cost him a starting job? Probably not because the Bucs really don’t have much behind him. They’re hoping White steps things up when the regular season arrives, but they’re a little worried that might not happen.

[+] EnlargeWard
Steve Dykes/US PresswireDerrick Ward has struggled to make an impact since his arrival in Tampa.
OBSERVATION DECK
  • The Bucs signed running back Derrick Ward to a big contract last year, but that move hasn’t worked out at all. Cadillac Williams has a firm grip on the No. 1 spot on the depth chart and is a favorite with the coaching staff. Ward is not. He’s been unimpressive throughout his time with the Buccaneers and could not hold onto the ball in the first preseason game. Kareem Huggins has outperformed Ward in camp and probably will earn a roster spot. That’s something that’s no longer a guarantee for Ward. But Huggins is undersized and the Bucs may have to hold onto Ward as insurance because Williams has a long history of injuries.
  • If you’re looking for the strongest unit Tampa Bay has, look at the linebackers. Geno Hayes and Quincy Black have had fantastic camps. Ruud already was pretty good and should be helped by the arrival of the young defensive tackles.
  • The competition for the job at nickelback is ongoing. Elbert Mack held that role last year, but the Bucs would like to find an upgrade. E.J. Biggers has shown some flashes and could unseat Mack. Rookie Myron Lewis is the guy the Bucs really hoped would claim that spot. But he’s been sidelined with an injury and the lack of practice time might prevent him from getting immediate playing time.
  • Michael Clayton and Sims are two veterans on the bubble when it comes to roster spots. Sims has gone from being a starter to fighting for the fourth spot at defensive tackle. He might hang on just to give the team some experience in the interior and he’s not going to cost the Bucs a fortune because he’s scheduled to make $1.2 million. Clayton clearly isn’t going to be a starter. He’s got $3 million in guaranteed salary this year, so the Bucs may keep him and hope to get something out of their investment. But it won’t be much more than a fourth or fifth receiver and special-teams player.
  • With all of the buzz about Huggins, Clifton Smith has been somewhat forgotten. But don’t rule out the possibility of Smith getting some time in the backfield, mainly as a situational player. Smith has the ability to make things happen in the open field and the Bucs may use him as a receiver out of the backfield. Smith is coming back from concussion problems last season and he should solidify the return game. Smith made the Pro Bowl as a return man as a rookie in the 2008 season.
  • Look for Keydrick Vincent to claim a starting guard spot from Jeremy Zuttah. Vincent started in Carolina last year and is a solid run blocker. Put him with center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph and the Bucs can be very good in the interior of the line. Zuttah might be best suited to serving as the top backup at both guard spots and center.

Around the NFC South

August, 5, 2010
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Time for a few quick links across the NFC South that I thought might be of interest.

New Orleans tight end Jeremy Shockey returned to practice after missing a few days with a sore knee.

Ken Daube says the presence of Jimmy Clausen shouldn’t scare fantasy football players away from drafting Steve Smith.

In a radio interview, Atlanta coach Mike Smith said he had a little chat with rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon about the meaning of the word “thud’’ as it applies to practice protocol.

Atlanta fans might be interested to hear that tight end O.J. Santiago is making a comeback – in the Canadian Football League.

The Bucs are singing the praises of defensive tackle Dre Moore, who has been a bust to this point in his career. If this is all true, veteran Ryan Sims might want to be a bit concerned about a roster spot, because rookies Gerald McCoy, Brian Price and second-year pro Roy Miller already are penciled into spots in the rotation.
As training camps get rolling, here’s a list of five guys to keep an eye on.

As names go, they’re not the biggest, but you’ve heard of them. They’re all veterans and some of them have been starters. They also have one other thing in common: Due to age, upcoming prospects and salaries, they might not make it to the opening-day roster:

Michael Clayton, Buccaneers. This time, Clayton really is down to his last chance. Seems like we’ve said that every year since he’s bombed after a great rookie season. But it’s more true than ever. When a team goes out and uses two picks in the first four rounds to take wide receivers, that’s not a sign they’re really happy with the veterans.

Ryan Sims, Buccaneers. Very similar situation to Clayton’s. The Bucs went out and drafted defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two picks, and they’ve got high hopes for Roy Miller. Sims could stick as a situational guy, but there’s no way the Bucs want him starting again.

Jason Kyle, Saints. This guy is as good a long-snapper as there has ever been, and a great guy to have in the locker room. He’s solid and dependable, but he’s also scheduled to make more than $1 million. The Saints have Clint Gresham who is scheduled to make about one third of what Kyle is to earn. It really comes down to the Saints deciding if Kyle is a necessity or a luxury.

Brian Finneran, Falcons. Another guy who always seems to be on the bubble. He has stayed around because he’s a dependable backup receiver, can do a lot on special teams and has even lined up at safety. But, when the Falcons drafted Kerry Meier in the fifth round, it made me wonder if they were picking the next Finneran.

Tyler Brayton, Panthers. Brayton is probably the least likely on the list to be cut, and it’s entirely possible that he keeps his starting job. But, with the Panthers going through a youth movement, it wouldn’t be a total surprise if something strange happens at defensive end. The Panthers have high hopes for Charles Johnson and Everette Brown and a few other young defensive ends. If those guys come along quickly, Brayton could become expendable.

NFC South training camp preview

July, 23, 2010
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The good news for the New Orleans Saints is they are defending Super Bowl champions. The bad news is that’s not a great spot to be in in the NFC South.

The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl, and the 2003 Carolina Panthers, who lost it, didn’t even make the playoffs the following year. Since the division came into existence in 2002, there has been no such thing as a dynasty in the NFC South. No team has won the division crown in back-to-back seasons.

The Saints, who already have re-written history, will have to do it again if they want to stay on top. But the Atlanta Falcons might not be far behind, the Panthers have enough talent to be dangerous and the Buccaneers almost have to be better than last season.

We’ll find out soon enough if anyone can challenge the Saints. The test begins next week when all four NFC South teams report to training camp.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

Falcons: What does John Abraham have left?

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Falcons are confident defensive end John Abraham still has something left in the tank.
For the past couple of years, the 32-year-old defensive end has been one of those guys who doesn’t practice all the time because the Falcons go out of their way to keep him healthy and fresh. That plan isn’t likely to change this season, but the Falcons will be keeping a very close eye on Abraham in camp.

His sack total dipped from 16.5 in 2008 to 5.5 last season. The obvious question is if Abraham is on the last legs of his career. Despite the statistical evidence, the Falcons believe there’s something left. After closely watching film of Abraham from last season, the coaches firmly believe Abraham can get back to double-digit sacks. Part of their thinking is he’ll benefit from improved play from the interior of the defensive line and that Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury are ready to generate pressure from the other side. Recent history has shown the Falcons are willing to make deals late in the preseason (trading for cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Tye Hill) if they feel they have a weakness. But they’re hoping Abraham shows enough in camp to convince them the pass rush will be adequate.

Panthers: What must Matt Moore do to win the starting quarterback job?

A lot of people believe this training camp will be highlighted by a battle between Moore and rookie Jimmy Clausen. That’s not really the case -- or at least not how Carolina’s brass views the situation. The truth is the Panthers are going to camp with every intention of Moore being the starter. He earned that much by playing well at the end of last season.

Coach John Fox isn’t about to open the season with a rookie starting at quarterback. He could turn to Clausen later in the season if things aren’t going well. But the immediate starting job is Moore’s, and the only way he can lose it is to have a disastrous training camp and preseason.

Saints: Are the Saints ready for a return to the “real’’ world?

Rightfully so, the Saints spent a lot of time this offseason celebrating their first Super Bowl title. Great for them and great for their fans. But all that’s about to end. Coach Sean Payton runs what I think is easily the toughest camp in the NFC South, and I don’t anticipate that changing. If anything, camp might be tougher this year.

Payton is an excellent motivator and he’s well aware the Saints now are the jewel on the schedule of every opposing team. The track record of Super Bowl champions in the following season hasn’t been all that impressive in recent years. Payton knows that, and you can bet that message is going to be conveyed to his team. A big part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season is because they had such a tough and productive camp.

Buccaneers: Who are the starting wide receivers?

The Bucs truly don’t know the answer to that question right now and that’s not a bad thing. The plan is to throw all the receivers out there in camp, let them compete and see who rises up. A lot of fans were frustrated and puzzled when the Bucs let Antonio Bryant walk in free agency, leaving the team without a clear-cut No. 1 receiver. But the Bucs believe they’re better off without Bryant, who wasn’t all that productive last season and didn’t endear himself to the front office or coaching staff when he made public comments about the coaches and quarterback Josh Freeman that were far from flattering.

The Bucs used early draft picks on Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. It’s likely at least one of them will start right away. Veterans Reggie Brown, Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall will compete for the other job. If both rookies look good in camp, it’s possible they could be the starters because there isn’t much upside with Brown, Clayton or Stovall. Second-year pro Sammie Stroughter also is in the mix. But, ideally, the Bucs would like to use him as the slot receiver.

HOTTEST SEATS

Falcons: Brian VanGorder. The defensive coordinator has done a nice job of working with the talent he’s had the past two seasons. The Falcons haven’t always had the talent to play the kind of defense coach Mike Smith and Van Gorder want and they’ve gotten by with patchwork. But those days are over. Last year’s top picks, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, return after missing almost all their rookie seasons with injuries and the Falcons used their top two picks this year on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters. They also spent a fortune signing cornerback Dunta Robinson. Although questions remain about the pass rush, the Falcons have the talent to play their scheme. That means the defense must take a big step forward.

Panthers: Dwayne Jarrett. A former second-round pick, Jarrett has not had much of an impact. With Muhsin Muhammad retired and Steve Smith expected to miss most of training camp with a broken arm, Jarrett is going to get a very long look in training camp. In a best-case scenario, Jarrett finally reaches his potential and earns the starting wide receiver job across from Smith. For that to happen, Jarrett must show an attention to detail and consistency; both have been lacking from his game. The Panthers drafted Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards early because they’re not sure if Jarrett ever will blossom.

Darren Sharper
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIIf Darren Sharper isn't 100 percent healthy, he might not be the starter for the Saints.
Saints: Darren Sharper. The safety had a brilliant 2009 season. Sharper instantly became a fan favorite, but his lock on the starting job at free safety isn’t nearly as secure as many people think. Sharper is 34 and coming off knee surgery. We don’t even know if he physically will be able to do much during training camp. The Saints have moved Malcolm Jenkins, a first-round pick a year ago, from cornerback to safety. A lot of fans view Sharper as the Drew Brees of the defense, but I’m not so sure the coaching staff ever has seen it that way, and the Saints didn’t break the bank to re-sign Sharper in the offseason. If he’s 100 percent healthy, Sharper could stay in the starting lineup. Anything less and the Saints won’t hesitate to go with Jenkins.

Buccaneers: Ryan Sims. He was a starter with Chris Hovan at defensive tackle the past few years. The Bucs got rid of Hovan as soon as they could after last season. With the team using its top two picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, Sims can’t be feeling too secure. With Roy Miller also in the mix and the Bucs in a full-blown youth movement, Sims needs a strong camp just to secure a roster spot.

SECRET WEAPON

Under-the-radar player to keep an eye out for in camp: Clifton Smith, return man/running back, Buccaneers. It may seem like a stretch to call a guy who has been to a Pro Bowl an under-the-radar player, but Smith fits the profile. After missing most of the second half of last season with concussion problems, Smith has sort of been forgotten. That might be a mistake. Smith established himself as a top-notch return man when he made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season two years ago and helped ease the colossal mistake in which the Bucs drafted Dexter Jackson in the second round. When the new coaching staff took over last season, there was some talk about getting Smith more involved on offense. That got derailed by his injuries, but the plan could get back on track this year. Cadillac Williams is the main running back in Tampa Bay, but you could start to see Smith get some action as a situational player. With his speed, he could be an explosive receiver out of the backfield and also might be able to handle a few carries a game.

BEST POSITION BATTLE

It’s not an offensive skill position, so it won’t be flashy. But the best position battle in the NFC South will be sorted out in Spartanburg, S.C., as the Carolina Panthers try to figure what to do with their linebackers. This was supposed to be a spot with enormous strength, but an offseason knee injury to Thomas Davis has turned this into a huge question. Davis probably will miss the entire season, throwing the linebacker corps into a state of uncertainty.

The only thing that’s certain is that Jon Beason remains one of the best linebackers in the league and the unquestioned leader of this defense. But the Panthers aren’t even sure where Beason will line up. He has been fantastic in the middle, but he may move to Davis’ spot on the weak side. In what essentially amounts to a game of musical chairs, the Panthers are looking at four linebackers and trying to figure out the strongest starting trio. One reason they’re considering moving Beason is because they believe Dan Connor can be solid in the middle. He’ll get a chance to prove that in camp.

But the Panthers also will be keeping a close eye on outside linebackers Jamar Williams and James Anderson. If they both rise up, Beason could remain in the middle. If Connor rises up and the Panthers aren’t comfortable with Williams and Anderson as their starters on the outside, they won’t hesitate to move Beason.

Tampa Bay weakness: Run defense

July, 2, 2010
7/02/10
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NFC South Weaknesses: Falcons (6/29) | Panthers (6/30) | Saints (7/1) | Bucs (7/2)

Only a few defenses were as poor as Tampa Bay in defending the run in 2009. But to their credit, the Bucs attacked the problem head on with the drafting of Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two selections. Both youngsters are fine prospects -- especially McCoy -- but defensive tackles can take time to mature as they adjust to the NFL, and until we see glimpses of improvement, I have to say that the Bucs’ run defense is a weakness.

[+] EnlargeGerald McCoy
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaThe Bucs are counting on Gerald McCoy to help shore up their run defense.
McCoy is a tremendous fit in this Tampa 2 scheme. He is extremely explosive and has the makings of a wonderful upfield disruptor. Price also is impressively physically, but is more suited for the one-technique role. He has more girth and should be able to handle the interior run a little better. But both players are very promising and you have to commend the Buccaneers for being so proactive in their approach to correcting this problem. Surely, playmaking middle linebacker Barrett Ruud is excited about the two rookies’ arrival, but again, how much of an impact will these two youngsters have right out of the starting gate?

Tampa Bay also used a third-round pick in the 2009 draft on Roy Miller. Miller better fits the Price mold than the McCoy mold, but he found out last season that transitioning to the NFL isn’t a walk in the park. Ideally, he progresses in Year 2 and rotates into the game with regularity. I could see that happening, especially because he reportedly lost some weight to better fit this system. While the position could be a liability in 2010, it probably won’t be long before these three youngsters are the envy of the league at defensive tackle.

Dre Moore is yet another talented, young defensive tackle. He too has yet to excel since entering the league, but he could be primed to at least take a step forward. These four youngsters should give Bucs fans an awful lot of hope at defensive tackle, but the production just hasn’t been there as of yet.

Ryan Sims started every game last season, but in doing so proved once again that he was not worth the very high selection that Kansas City used on him. He is a depth player at best.

But defensive tackle is not the only problem spot with Tampa’s run defense. Stylez White is one of the more underrated players in this league and was excellent at one end spot in 2009. That level of play should continue, but he will soon be getting a reputation, and without anyone formidable at the other end spot, opposing offenses will concentrate more on slowing him down both as a run defender and especially as a pass-rusher.

This brings us to the combination of Tim Crowder and Kyle Moore. Like the tackles on the roster, these two have some upside and could improve, but overall, they are good-sized base ends who just do not have enough dynamic playmaking ability to make much of a difference. Although this is especially true from a pass-rushing standpoint, their run-stopping prowess is far from overwhelming either.

In the Tampa 2 system, speed at linebacker is preferred over bulk. That makes the defensive line extremely important. As teams like Indianapolis have shown, you don’t have to be massive up front to be potent, but there must be threatening defensive linemen to help free up the faster linebackers. Along with Ruud, Tampa has two little-known outside linebackers in Geno Hayes and Quincy Black. Both are excellent young playmakers, and if the youngsters up front can progress as the Bucs hope, Hayes and Black will be household names before long.

Lastly, Sean Jones was signed to challenge Sabby Piscitelli at strong safety. If Jones stays healthy, he also will help this ailing run defense.

Tampa Bay’s run defense should be better in 2010. It almost has to be. And obviously the franchise dedicated serious resources to its improvement. But until I see it, run defense has to be considered a weakness, and I worry that massive improvement will not come overnight.
Smith, Douglas & RuddUS Presswire, US Presswire, Icon SMISteve Smith, Barrett Ruud and Harry Douglas are all in line to have a big 2010 season.
The theme of this column, as I first pitched it to my editor, was going to be comeback players.

As I thought more about that, going the traditional route on that one would have limited us to guys who were injured last season. That’s why I decided to stretch the parameters on this one a bit. Yes, we’re going to include some guys who were injured last season. But we’re also going to include some guys who were limited by other things.

Whatever the circumstances, and we’ll detail them when we get to them, I wanted to examine five NFC South players who I think will be much more productive in 2010 than they were in 2009.

Smith
Steve Smith, wide receiver, Carolina Panthers. It may seem strange to include a guy who came up 18 yards short of what would have been a fifth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season in a conversation about comeback players. But, again, we’re stretching the parameters here.

I truly expect Smith to have a much bigger season than he did last year and there are several reasons for this. First off, we all know Carolina had major problems at quarterback last season as Jake Delhomme played his way out of a job. Smith still managed 65 catches and seven touchdowns, and his numbers could have been better if he hadn’t missed the final game with an injury.

With Matt Moore or Jimmy Clausen, Carolina is making a fresh start on offense and the running game always will be the backbone of a John Fox team. But Smith is still the best player on this offense. He’s made some noise in the offseason about how he’s not sure he still wants to be a No. 1 receiver and might be ready to step into a secondary role.

If you believe that, call me because I’ve got 10 acres of swamp land in Florida I’d love to sell you. More than anything else, Smith is a competitor. I don’t think he has it in him to be a second or third receiver right now. Besides, who do the Panthers have who could move ahead of him?

Smith’s mind operates in unique ways. He’s also made references to people saying he's “losing a step’’ because he’s 31. I haven’t seen or heard anyone say that and I’ve seen no evidence of that. Part of the reason Smith has had such a great career is because he’s found ways to motivate himself with perceived slights.

He’s played his entire career with a chip on his shoulder and that’s worked well for him. It may be totally by his own doing, but it looks like Smith has added a couple chips this year. That’s why the little guy might come up bigger than ever in 2010.

Ruud
Barrett Ruud, linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Remember in coach Jon Gruden’s last season in Tampa Bay when he kept saying Ruud should be included in talk about the NFL’s best middle linebackers? Gruden had a point. Ruud was making plays and seemed to be ascending as fast as any player in the league.

Ruud seemed on the verge of being a true star and the face of the franchise when Gruden left and the new regime cut ties with Derrick Brooks and a bunch of older players. But Ruud never emerged as a difference-maker last season. He produced a career-best 142 tackles last season, but can you recall him making a single big play?

Not really. But let’s not put all of the blame on Ruud. There was chaos for most of Raheem Morris’ first year as Tampa Bay’s head coach. The Bucs tried to switch to a different defense under coordinator Jim Bates, who got fired midway through the season. Tampa Bay switched back to the old Monte Kiffin defense and things got a little better at the end of the year.

The Bucs went out and drafted defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two picks. That should make Ruud the happiest guy in town. He still doesn’t have that long-term contract he’s been seeking for more than a year. But his plays no longer will start with Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims getting blown 5 yards off the ball. McCoy and Price should fill some space and keep blockers off Ruud.

That should allow him to start making the kind of plays that will get him a big contract.

Douglas
Douglas
Harry Douglas, wide receiver, Atlanta Falcons. We’re getting back to the true formula for a comeback player here. Douglas missed all of last season after suffering an injury early in the preseason.

I still don’t think a lot of people realize how significant this injury was to the Falcons. They had huge plans for Douglas in his second season. He was going to be the third receiver in this offense. The Falcons were planning on using him in the slot and bringing a whole new dynamic to their offense.

The injury prevented that and really kept Atlanta’s offense from ever hitting its stride last season. But Douglas should be back at full strength and that alone could change the complexion of an offense that’s loaded just about everywhere else.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Roddy White already are very good and wide receiver Michael Jenkins is dependable. Throw Douglas’ speed into the slot and Gonzalez, White and Jenkins immediately become even better. Quarterback Matt Ryan might even become great.

Ellis
Sedrick Ellis, defensive tackle, New Orleans Saints. On a roster where a lot of guys had career seasons last year, it’s kind of difficult to find a guy who might be markedly better this year. But Ellis fits the profile. He didn’t have a bad year last season or as a rookie in 2008.

But Ellis is one of those guys who you look at and keep thinking there’s more than we’ve seen. He’s been very good at times, but not quite dominant. That’s mainly because injuries kept him out of six games last season and three in his rookie year. When he’s on the field, the New Orleans defense is noticeably better than when he’s not.

The only thing separating Ellis from the Pro Bowl might be staying on the field for a full season.

Davis
Thomas Davis, linebacker, Carolina Panthers. Ask scouts, coaches and players who is the best linebacker in the NFC South and the consensus is Carolina’s Jon Beason. If you talk to those same people, they’ll tell you Davis was having an even better season than Beason through the first seven games of last year.

But Davis went down with a season-ending injury that stopped what seemed to be a true breakout year. Davis switched to linebacker after playing safety in college and it took him a few years to adjust. But Davis had been pretty good the past couple of years and he was playing at an All-Pro level before the injury.

He’s expected back at full strength this year. With defensive end Julius Peppers gone, the Panthers need Davis and Beason to take over this defense.

Report: Chris Hovan to be released

April, 26, 2010
4/26/10
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ESPN's Adam Schefter reports Chris Hovan will be released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today.

This is not a surprise because the Bucs tried to shop Hovan for a draft pick after they drafted defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price in the first two rounds. They also have high hopes for second-year pro Roy Miller.

Fellow starter Ryan Sims was also shopped for a trade, but the Bucs weren’t able to get anything for either of them. Wide receiver Michael Clayton also has been offered for trade. The Bucs may hold onto Sims and Clayton for the time being, but it’s obvious the Bucs no longer have big plans for them.

Hovan had been a quality starter for the Bucs when he first joined them. But he and Sims have struggled the last two seasons were a big part of the reason why the Bucs ranked last in run defense last year.

NFC South draft analysis

April, 24, 2010
4/24/10
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Let's break down the highlights in a memorable draft for the division:

Best move

Tampa Bay Buccaneers doubling up on defensive tackles and wide receivers. The Bucs used their first two picks on defensive tackles, taking Gerald McCoy in the first round and Brian Price early in the second. They are instant starters and the Bucs picture second-year pro Roy Miller joining them in the rotation. That probably means the end for last year’s starters Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims, but that’s a good thing. The Bucs ranked last in the league in run defense last season and they got no pass rush from the interior. McCoy and Price can stuff the run and create a surge in the middle. That’s going to free up middle linebacker Barrett Ruud to make plays and help the defensive ends generate a better pass rush.

The Bucs also followed a similar theme at wide receiver, taking Arrelious Benn in the second round and Mike Williams in the fourth. It may be a lot to expect two rookies to instantly start at wide receiver, but it could happen here. That’s mainly because the Bucs have very little other talent at the position. At worst, Benn’s an instant starter. Williams is a bit of a gamble because he’s had some off-field issues, but Tampa Bay was willing to take a chance because of his physical skills. There’s risk involved, but Williams has better upside than any of Tampa Bay’s receivers, including Benn. Quarterback Josh Freeman needed some new targets and the Bucs went out and got them.

Riskiest move

The Carolina Panthers traded away their second-round pick in 2011 to take Armanti Edwards in the third round. This is a curious move by a regime that has to win this year because Edwards is a project. He was a quarterback at Appalachian State, but the Panthers plan to use him as a receiver and a return man. Edwards might be able to make a quick impact as a return man.

But he’s going to need time to develop as a receiver. That’s time coach John Fox and Marty Hurney might not have.

Most surprising move

[+] EnlargeJimmy Clausen
Matt Cashore/US PresswireWill Clausen be able to succeed in Carolina's system?
It’s not all that surprising the Panthers took a quarterback because we all knew that was coming somewhere in this draft. But it’s a huge surprise that they got Jimmy Clausen in the middle of the second round. He’s a guy that many thought would go in the first round or very early in the second. Clausen tumbled in part because some view him as a “me-first" guy and a passer who takes too many chances.

Those are traits the Panthers generally stay away from, but Carolina is desperate. Besides, the Panthers have a locker room filled with strong leaders (Jon Beason, Jordan Gross, etc.) and there’s no room for “me-first" guys, except for receiver Steve Smith. Clausen will have to conform to have a chance. Carolina’s offensive system also will limit Clausen’s opportunities to take chances. Fox and coordinator Jeff Davidson want a guy who is mainly a game manager, but who also can make a play here and there.

File it away

Technically, Kerry Meier was drafted as a wide receiver by the Atlanta Falcons with a compensatory pick at the end of the first round. Realistically, Meier is a flat-out football player. He started off his career as a quarterback at Kansas and had some early success. But an injury cost him his starting job and he moved to wide receiver in 2007. All Meier did was go out and set a school record for career receptions. He played all three receiver positions, got some work as a fullback and H-back, served as the holder on place kicks and even still got some time as a backup quarterback. If Meier sounds a bit like Brian Finneran, he should. Finneran’s done a little bit of everything for the Falcons throughout his career. With Finneran getting older, Meier has the potential to help the Falcons in a lot of different areas.
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Bucs made a bit of a surprise decision by taking UCLA defensive tackle Brian Price with the No. 35 overall pick.

It’s surprising because the Bucs already took defensive tackle Gerald McCoy with their first-round pick and a lot of people were expecting them to go with a receiver here. It is clear they desperately need a receiver, but I kind of like the Price pick. He was graded as a first-round talent by a lot of teams.

Take him and McCoy and make them the starters from the start. Throw Roy Miller into the rotation and the Bucs are much better in this area than they were last year when Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims got pushed all over the field.

Speaking of Hovan and Sims, don’t be surprised if one of them isn’t on the roster on opening day. Heck, don’t be surprised if both of them aren’t on the roster on opening day.

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