NFC South: Shaun Rogers

Around the NFC South

July, 10, 2012
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Let’s take a quick run through the morning headlines from around the NFC South.
  • Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is a good player who can be better. Weatherspoon certainly has flashed promise in his first two seasons, but Nolan better be right on this. Based largely on Nolan’s belief that Weatherspoon is ready to be a star, the Falcons let middle linebacker Curtis Lofton leave in free agency.
  • The Times-Picayune continues its countdown of the top 25 players on the Saints with No. 16 -- defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley. Not a bad call. All indications are he should help as a run stopper and should provide more than Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers did last year.
  • Tampa Bay quarterbacks coach Ron Turner said Josh Freeman has a “burning desire to be great." He’s going to need all of that to bounce back from last year’s debacle. I’ve always thought Freeman has the physical tools and intangibles to be one of the best in the league, but I worry that the previous coaching staff might have left him with a permanent case of David Carr Syndrome.
  • The Oct. 25 game between the Buccaneers and Vikings will be aired on NFL Network. But MOR-TV (Channel 32) already has secured the rights to broadcast the game in the Tampa Bay area.

NFC South evening update

June, 13, 2012
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I’ve been tied up with the Carolina Panthers' minicamp all afternoon and am working ahead on some stuff for Thursday. But let’s take a quick minute to run through some other things going on around the division.
  • Although the bounty scandal has made former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams an unpopular figure with a lot of people, New Orleans Saints safety Roman Harper said he still thinks highly of his former coach. He said he’ll always remember Williams as someone who helped the Saints win a Super Bowl and as a friend.
  • So far, it sounds like defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley is fitting in nicely with the Saints. I like the signing of Bunkley much more than I liked last year’s additions of Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers. In other words, I think Bunkley can have a significant impact on this defensive line.
  • The Atlanta Falcons just announced they have released long-snapper Corey Adams.
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano said he likes what he’s seen out of cornerback Eric Wright in minicamp. Wright missed much of the offseason with an undisclosed health issue. Schiano said he hopes the issue is behind Wright.

Around the NFC South

March, 18, 2012
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It appears we’ve hit a little lull after a fast start to free agency through most of the NFC South. But I’m not expecting it to last. I expect another wave of signings in the coming days. They might not be as big as the early ones, but several NFC South teams are hosting free-agent visitors this weekend and deals could be worked out soon. Let’s take a look at the headlines from around the division.

The New Orleans Saints had free-agent defensive tackle Broderick Bunkley in for a visit. Aubrayo Franklin and Shau Rogers are free agents and the Saints need to add a run-stuffing tackle to play next to Sedrick Ellis. The Saints also are looking at several linebackers. They don’t have much salary-cap room to work with, but could release players or restructure contracts to clear some room.

The Panthers hosted a visit with San Diego running back Mike Tolbert. Presumably, he would replace Mike Goodson as Carolina’s third back behind DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but it’s also possible the Panthers could look to trade one of the two if Tolbert is added. Stewart is more likely to be used as trade bait because Williams signed a huge contract last season and other teams aren’t likely to want to take on his deal. Coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski also are familiar with Tolbert from their time together in San Diego. There also have been some reports that Tampa Bay might have interest in Tolbert.

The Bucs still have issues in the front seven of their defense, particularly at linebacker. Although the team says it is focusing in on the April draft after an early splash in free agency, I still would be surprised if there is some movement at linebacker. The Bucs are monitoring the situation with Curtis Lofton and could get more involved if his price tag drops. The Bucs also could look for help at outside linebacker.

Around the NFC South

February, 12, 2012
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Let's take a look at the Sunday headlines from around the NFC South.

It’s almost a certainty the Atlanta Falcons will be looking for a left tackle. Sam Baker has not worked out and could be released and Will Svitek might be better off as a backup. The expectations are that Marcus McNeil will be released by San Diego and he could be a good fit for the Falcons if healthy. McNeil has had some neck problems, but is one of the best in the game when he is healthy. The Falcons need to make serious upgrades to their pass blocking and it would be hard for the team get an elite left tackle in the draft because they are without a first-round pick.

The Panthers will host the defending Super Bowl champions for the second straight season. They hosted Green Bay last season and the New York Giants are scheduled to play at Bank of America Stadium in 2012.

The Bucs looked at several candidates, including some they weren’t allowed to interview, before hiring Mike Sullivan as the offensive coordinator. As it turns out, they might have landed the perfect fit. As Stephen Holder points out, there’s a feeling inside One Buccaneer Place that getting quarterback Josh Freeman back on track is critical for the franchise. Working with Eli Manning the last two seasons, Sullivan has shown he can get positive results from a quarterback.

UCLA coach Jim Mora has been recruiting heavily in the Georgia area. He seems proud to remind recruits that he was the Atlanta coach the last time the Falcons won a playoff game. He might want to leave out the fact the Falcons were an incredibly unstable franchise throughout his tenure and much of that had to do with Mora’s up-and-down demeanor.

Saints defensive tackle Tom Johnson feels confident enough about his future with the Saints that he went ahead and recently bought a house in New Orleans. Probably a good move. After struggling with an early-season injury, Johnson worked his way into the rotation and seemed to score points with the coaching staff. Sedrick Ellis is a lock to stay in that rotation, but veterans Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin are not. Both are potential free agents and there is no guarantee the Saints want them back.

Tampa Bay veteran cornerback Ronde Barber, who is a free agent and also could choose to retire, said he hasn’t made any decision about what he wants to do in 2012.
The NFC South is a division without a dominant defensive tackle.

But I think it’s fair to say Atlanta’s Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux, New Orleans’ Sedrick Ellis and Tampa Bay’s Brian Price were the best the NFC South had to offer in 2011. Apparently, their coaches agreed.

According to playing-time numbers obtained by ESPN.com, Ellis led all NFC South tackles by taking part in 66.3 percent of New Orleans’ 1,061 defensive plays. That percentage ranked Ellis No. 16 in the NFL and he was the only NFC South player in the top 20.

Peters was next at 60.4 percent, which ranked No. 23 in the league. Babineaux was No. 30 at 54.1 percent. Price, who was somewhat limited by injuries and was sent home early from one game by former coach Raheem Morris, took part in 47.1 percent of Tampa Bay’s defensive plays. That tied him at No. 37 in the league with teammate Roy Miller.

Carolina rookie Terrell McClain was one spot behind them, taking part in 46 percent of his team’s defensive plays. After that, there was a big drop off among the rest of the division’s tackles and we should note that Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy probably would have finished in the top four or five in the NFC South if he hadn’t suffered a season-ending injury.

Let’s take a look at the percentage of playing time for the rest of the NFC South defensive tackles:

Saints: First look at free agency

January, 31, 2012
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No NFC South team faces a more challenging period between now and the start of free agency than the New Orleans Saints.

They have to find a way to re-sign quarterback Drew Brees, and there are at least a couple other players that it’s essential the Saints retain. They’ve also got some important role players and will need to find ways to keep several of them despite a difficult salary-cap situation.

Let’s take a look at New Orleans’ potential free agents. They’re all unrestricted, unless noted otherwise:

Brees, defensive end Jeff Charleston, receiver Marques Colston, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, tight end John Gilmore, tight end Tory Humphrey, kicker John Kasay, defensive end Turk McBride, offensive lineman Pat McQuistan, receiver Robert Meachem, guard Carl Nicks, cornerback Tracy Porter, receiver/return man Courtney Roby, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, cornerback Leigh Torrence, safety Jonathon Amaya (exclusive rights), receiver Adrian Arrington (exclusive rights), center Brian de la Puente (exclusive rights), offensive lineman Justin Drescher (exclusive rights), linebacker Jonathan Casillas (restricted), quarterback Chase Daniel (restricted) and linebacker Ramon Humber (restricted).

Whatever deal Brees signs, it’s likely he’ll take up somewhere around $15 million of the 2012 salary cap. But the Saints will have to continue to spend big money. It’s imperative they keep Nicks. He might be the best guard in the league and he’s Brees’ top protector. Keeping Colston also would seem to be a top priority because he’s one of Brees’ favorite targets.

Once the accounting is done on Brees, Nicks and Colston, the Saints will have to make some tough financial decisions. Porter and Meachem are important role players. But they could have market value elsewhere. The Saints might not be able to afford to keep them. That would hurt, but it might not be disastrous because the Saints have good depth at receiver and cornerback.

Saints' cap situation not that dire

January, 16, 2012
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It’s been a rough couple days for fans of the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans was eliminated from the playoffs by San Francisco on Saturday and the gloom is going to linger for a bit.

But I’ve got a little news that might help it begin to lift.

New Orleans’ salary-cap situation for 2012 isn’t quite as bad as early reports made it sound. League-wide cap figures had the Saints listed with about $106 million already committed toward the 2012 salary cap.

It turns out that number is about $12 million too high. That’s because the figure was including a charge of almost $12 million for quarterback Drew Brees. But 2012 was voided out of Brees’ contract, so the Saints are, for the moment, sitting at about $94 million.

That will change and you can add that $12 million — and then some — right back onto the Saints’ total. They almost certainly will sign Brees to a new contract. I just looked at the cap figures for the NFL’s top quarterbacks and it is likely Brees’ new deal will give him a cap figure somewhere around $15 million for 2012, unless the Saints really get creative in spreading out his money.

Still, that would only put the Saints up to around $109 million. That would leave them some room to re-sign some other key players and they have several. Receiver Marques Colston, guard Carl Nicks, receiver Robert Meachem, defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, cornerback Tracy Porter, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar are among those players not under contract for 2012.

Here’s the complete list of players not under contract for 2012 for the Saints and the rest of the NFC South teams.

Anyway, the bottom line is the Saints aren’t as bad off as we thought in terms of the salary cap. Brees undoubtedly will eat up a good chunk of that, but there still will be some room to work with. Keeping Nicks and Colston probably would get the Saints pretty close to the cap, but they also could restructure some existing contracts or release players to create more room.

NFC South players not signed for 2012

December, 22, 2011
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A lot can change between now and the start of free agency and I sure don’t see any way the New Orleans Saints let quarterback/King Drew Brees walk away. I also think there’s a pretty good chance tight end Tony Gonzalez can return to the Atlanta Falcons if he chooses. Same for cornerback Ronde Barber with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and maybe even Jeremy Shockey with the Carolina Panthers.

But all we know about those guys at the moment is they’re not under contract for 2012. We’ll do much more on free agency as it gets closer but I’ve got the complete list of every NFC South player presently not under contract for 2012.

I’ll list them by team here and we’ll only go with the guys who have at least four years of service and can become unrestricted free agents. We’ll deal with restricted and exclusive-rights free agents at another time.

Atlanta Falcons: Tony Gonzalez, tight end; Reggie Kelly, tight end; Todd McClure, center; Mike Peterson, linebacker; John Abraham, defensive end; Joe Zelenka, long-snapper; Chris Redman, quarterback; Kirk Chambers, offensive line; Kelvin Hayden, cornerback; Brett Romberg, offensive line; James Sanders, safety; Jason Snelling, running back; Kroy Biermann, defensive end; Thomas DeCoud, safety; Harry Douglas, receiver; Brent Grimes, cornerback; Curtis Lofton, linebacker; Eric Weems, receiver.

Carolina Panthers: Jeremy Shockey, tight end; Reggie Wells, offensive line; Derek Anderson, quarterback; Geoff Hangartner, center/guard; Omar Gaither, linebacker; Cletis Gordon, cornerback; Legedu Naanee, receiver; Antwan Applewhite, linebacker; Mackenzy Beranadeau, offensive line; Dan Connor, linebacker; J.J. Jansen, long-snapper; Jerome Felton, fullback; Jordan Senn, linebacker.

New Orleans Saints: John Kasay, kicker; Drew Brees, quarterback; Shaun Rogers, defensive tackle; John Gilmore, tight end; Aubrayo Franklin, defensive tackle; Marques Colston, receiver; Pat McQuistan, offensive line; Courtney Roby, receiver; Leigh Torrence, cornerback; Jeff Charleston, defensive end; Turk McBride, defensive end; Robert Meachem, receiver; Jo-Lonn Dunbar, linebacker; Carl Nicks, guard; Tracy Porter, cornerback.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronde Barber, cornerback; Earnest Graham, running back; Sean Jones, safety; Connor Barth, kicker; Geno Hayes, linebacker; Josh Johnson, quarterback; James Lee, offensive line; Corey Lynch, safety; Elbert Mack, cornerback; Frank Okam, defensive tackle; Micheal Spurlock, receiver; Jeremy Zuttah, offensive line.

Around the NFC South

November, 16, 2011
11/16/11
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Time for a look at the top Wednesday morning headlines around the NFC South.

The Atlanta Falcons entered the season with a chance to become the first team in history to win back-to-back NFC South titles. They still have a chance, but, by one calculation, it’s down to 15.4 percent, D. Orlando Ledbetter writes.

The Panthers begin a series of three road games and, more than ever, they’re going to be taking a look at young players. Makes sense because this team has no shot at the playoffs. It’s time to start looking toward next season.

Stephen Holder takes a look at what’s been going wrong for the Bucs. One of the things he mentions is a lack of leadership. This is a much bigger issue than the average fan realizes. This team has virtually no veteran leadership, in large part because there aren’t a lot of veterans. The only guys who have really shown leadership qualities on this team are quarterback Josh Freeman and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Freeman’s still very young and McCoy is out for the season with an injury.

Jeff Duncan has his weekly film study on the Saints and he makes a very big observation. Duncan says that it was free safety Malcolm Jenkins, not defensive linemen Will Smith and Shaun Rogers, who made the initial contact on Michael Turner on the key fourth-down play in overtime. Smith and Rogers originally were credited with the tackle, but Duncan said it’s clear Jenkins anticipated the play and jumped right into the hole where Turner was supposed to go.

NFC South Stock Watch

November, 15, 2011
11/15/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

[+] EnlargeRaheem Morris
AP Photo/Brian BlancoRaheem Morris' Bucs have now dropped their past three games.
1. Raheem Morris, Buccaneers coach. There’s a strong perception by some members of media and fans that the Bucs “quit’’ on Morris in Sunday’s loss. When you’re considered the ultimate players’ coach, that’s a horrible sign. The Bucs already have picked up Morris’ contract option for 2012. But it’s tough to see them extending him if things continue going the way they are. Ask the Carolina Panthers how well it works when you let a coach go into a season as a lame duck. Morris bristles when there’s talk about him being on the hot seat. But guess what? He just might be on the hot seat if things don’t improve dramatically in a hurry.

2. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers quarterback. I still think he is an enormous talent. But the Bucs are running the risk of ruining him. Freeman already has thrown 13 interceptions, which is more than he threw all of last season. There’s no doubt Freeman deserves some of the blame. But I think he has been hurt by a supporting cast that has been more than disappointing, and the coaches haven’t put Freeman in positions where he can succeed.

3. Roddy White, Falcons receiver. I’m trying really hard to figure out how White has gone from being perhaps the best receiver in the league last season to a mistake machine this season. He had a pass go off his hands that turned into an interception and was called for two key penalties Sunday. When Julio Jones went down with an injury, the Falcons didn’t even look to White as their go-to guy. Instead, they went to Harry Douglas.

RISING

1. Marques Colston, Saints receiver. Colston was incredible on third downs Sunday. He caught four passes on third downs and turned each of them into a first down. He doesn’t get the full credit he deserves because the Saints have so many other weapons on offense and they use them all nicely. But there’s no question the Saints wouldn’t have won Sunday if they didn’t have Colston.

2. Will Smith and Shaun Rogers, Saints defensive linemen. They’re the two players who were the first to get to Michael Turner on the infamous fourth-down play that won the game in overtime for the Saints. Rogers hasn’t had a huge impact most of the season. But he seemed to get a good jump on the snap count and moved right into the hole where Turner was supposed to go.

3. Roman Harper, Saints safety. Yeah, I know people like to say Harper is a liability in coverage and there probably is some truth to that. But Harper is a strong safety, and they often are the weakest member of the secondary when it comes to coverage. He also dropped what should have been an easy interception against Atlanta. But hey, at least he was in the right place in coverage for once. Harper compensates for his shortcomings in other ways. He had a sack and was in on 10 tackles Sunday. Harper has a team-high 6.5 sacks. When’s the last time you saw a safety with 6.5 sacks through 10 games?

Blame begins, ends with Mike Smith

November, 13, 2011
11/13/11
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Mike SmithScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesCoach Mike Smith is taking the blame for the Falcons' 26-23 overtime loss to the Saints.
ATLANTA – When he walks into a postgame news conference, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith typically gives an opening statement. Sometimes he will go on for several minutes and the media must wait to ask questions.

On Sunday, it was different. Smith made a few quick remarks before making his most daring decision of the day.

“With that, I’ll open it up,’’ Smith said. “I know there are probably lots of questions that you guys have. I’m ready for them.’’

The avalanche was on. For the next 9 minutes, 20 seconds, Smith basically fielded the same question about a dozen times and gave the same answer repeatedly.

That’s what happens when you make a call like Smith did in Sunday’s 26-23 overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints. With a fourth-and-inches at his own 29-yard line and 10:52 remaining in overtime, Smith elected to go for the first down instead of punting. The play wasn't even close to being successful.

“It’s something that I take full responsibility for,’’ Smith said. “It is my decision and my decision solely.’’

Point the fingers at Smith and keep them there the rest of the season if the Falcons (5-4) don’t catch up to the Saints (7-3) in the NFC South.

“I know it will be scrutinized all week long,’’ Smith said. “And again, I want everybody to understand, I take full responsibility for that.’’

It should be noted Smith slowly emphasized each of the last six words of that quote. He also used some form of “I take full responsibility’’ at least four times.

That might end up being the title of this Falcons’ season if this team somehow misses the playoffs. In general, you can say that one play doesn’t decide a game and a handful of plays don’t decide a season.

But what happened Sunday was an exception to generalizations. Smith’s decision cost the Falcons a very big game – and, in the long run, maybe a lot more.

For the record, let’s review the series of events that led to a decision that will be talked about for a very long time in Atlanta. After falling behind 23-13 with 7:13 remaining in regulation, the Falcons rallied with a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Tony Gonzalez and a 27-yard field goal by Matt Bryant as the clock on the fourth quarter ran out.

In overtime, the Falcons ran three plays and punted. Then, the Saints ran three plays and punted. The Falcons ran three more plays and, at first, it looked like fullback Mike Cox had a first down after catching a short pass. But the play was reviewed and the ball was placed just short of the first-down marker.

That’s when Smith sent his punting team onto the field. Then, he called a timeout. Then, he suddenly put his offense back onto the field and the Saints called a timeout.

Then came, what could end up being a historic moment.

The Falcons handed the ball to Michael Turner, who was met by defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and defensive end Will Smith. Instead of gaining a few inches, Turner lost a few feet and the Falcons lost the game. Well, that actually came four plays later when John Kasay booted a 26-yard field goal that was more a formality.

The game was decided the second Smith decided to put his offense back on the field. So let’s hear his thought process.

“We were going to punt the football, then had a change of heart,’’ Smith said. “I wanted us to go for it. I thought the ball was inside half a yard and we could get it. Did not want to give the ball back to the Saints. In previous games, close games that we’ve played them, we’ve punted the ball with three minutes to go in the ballgame. We never saw it again and they ended up winning the ballgame. That was the decision-making process that I went through.’’

You can make the case that maybe the Falcons should have had Ryan run a quarterback keeper. But it wasn’t the play call, so much as it was the decision to go for it with poor field position. New Orleans’ offense had cooled off, not scoring a touchdown on its three-fourth quarter possessions or its first possession of overtime.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t have faith in the defense,’’ Smith said. “That’s a very good quarterback (Drew Brees). By no means is that a lack of faith in the defense. It’s a matter of what has happened when we’ve played them in the past that is always a part of the decision-making process.’’

Smith’s decision was universally supported in the Atlanta locker room.

“As a player, you’ve got to love the confidence he has in the offense,’’ Ryan said.

“That’s what you’ve got to do in these types of games -- be aggressive,’’ linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said.

It also drew high praise in one corner of the New Orleans locker room.

“It takes some steel you- know-what to make that call,’’ Brees said.

In another corner of the locker room came the wisest words anyone said all day. Those words came from Will Smith when asked what kind of a message the Falcons sent when they put their offense back on the field.

“We’re big, bad and stronger than you guys,’’ Will Smith said. “And we stood up and said, 'No, you’re not.'’’

Someone then mentioned that it’s not uncommon for a team to go for it on fourth down and inches.

“Yeah, but not on the 30,’’ Will Smith said. “In overtime. If they don’t get it, that’s game over.’’

In between taking “full responsibility,’’ Mike Smith repeatedly tried to explain his decision was part of his plan to be aggressive throughout the game.

“When you get the ball, you want to go ahead and try to end it,’’ Smith said. “I felt that we had been very aggressive in everything we did throughout the day in what we did offensively, defensively and on special teams, and we wanted to stay that way through the end of the ballgame.’’

Being aggressive can be a wonderful thing, especially when it’s the smart thing. But the sad reality is Smith’s decision was neither aggressive nor smart. The smart and aggressive thing would have been to punt, trust his defense, and put his offense in a better position to win the game. The smart and aggressive thing would have been for Smith to do the first thing that popped into his mind -- not the second thing.

You have to wonder if anything else was running through Smith’s mind during the timeout before he sent the offense out. Did he hear the noise from the crowd and his offensive players, begging him to go for it? Did he feel pressure from a front office and ownership that seemingly was shooting for Super Bowl or bust this season?

“It’s my responsibility as the head football coach and you have to make tough decisions,’’ Smith said. “I take full responsibility for it.’’

It’s good that Smith is blaming himself for this one. Because there’s absolutely no one else to blame on this one.
SaintsDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireAubrayo Franklin (left), Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram will all be role players to start the season.
What had been suspected for a month or so became official when the New Orleans Saints made their roster cuts last week. They now have the deepest roster in franchise history.

Deeper than the 2009 team that won the Super Bowl?

By far. Let’s start with two prime examples -- Chris Reis and Pierson Prioleau -- and work our way back up to the top of the roster. On that 2009 team, they were bottom-of-the-roster guys, but they were still important. Both were backup safeties, but they made their real impact on special teams. Although Jonathan Casillas officially was credited with recovering the famous onside kick in the Super Bowl, Casillas and others involved in the play said Reis actually made the recovery. Reis and Prioleau made lots of other important plays on special teams that season and also helped last year when the Saints went 11-5.

They’re gone now. Both were released in moves that demonstrated the Saints have upgraded the bottom of their roster.

They’ve also upgraded the middle and the top by adding guys like running back Mark Ingram, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, running back Darren Sproles, center Olin Kreutz, defensive end Cameron Jordan and defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Sproles was the franchise player for the Chargers last year, and Franklin held the same tag with the 49ers.

On the Saints, they’re going to be role players. Same with Ingram and Jordan, a pair of first-round picks, at least at first. This roster is jammed with talent that runs from established stars such as quarterback Drew Brees and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, to rising stars such as safety Malcolm Jenkins and tight end Jimmy Graham, and right on down to rookies Martez Wilson and Johnny Patrick.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Patrick
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere's so much depth in the New Orleans secondary that rookie cornerback Johnny Patrick may only see playing time with special teams.
Wilson and Patrick are third-round picks, and the Saints have high hopes for Wilson as a linebacker and Patrick as a cornerback. But that’s down the road. The Saints are so loaded at those positions -- and everywhere else -- that Wilson and Patrick will probably be nothing more than special-teams players this season.

Think of them for the moment as replacements for Reis and Prioleau. A pair of journeymen have been replaced by third-round picks with the possibility of big futures. That’s called upgrading.

“I’d like to think we’re a little deeper in our roster,’’ coach Sean Payton said. “We were able to, during that brief free-agency period, pick up a couple players. Each year is different, but I feel like we’re a little deeper right now.’’

Maybe that’s why observers repeatedly said Payton seemed slightly more relaxed during training camp this year compared to his five previous camps. He’s still intense, like just about every head coach in the league, but those who’ve watched him throughout his tenure say he showed signs that he knows he has the deepest team he’s had and one of the best rosters in the league.

Does that automatically translate into the Saints winning another Super Bowl? Of course not. The 2009 Saints were good but, like most Super Bowl champions, they also were a bit lucky at various times throughout the season.

There’s also the matter of a very well-stocked NFC; the Atlanta Falcons are loaded with talent in the same division, and many consider the Philadelphia Eagles the conference favorite. Oh, and there are the Green Bay Packers, the defending Super Bowl champions whom the Saints open their season against Thursday night at Lambeau Field.

The past two Super Bowl champions kicking off the season in an historic venue -- it’s the stuff movie-script writers come up with, not NFL schedule makers. But the Packers might be carrying more of a burden than the Saints. They’ll carry the title of defending Super Bowl champions, a load the Saints toted last season.

“You’ve got to answer all the questions about the hangover, and you feel like you’re being scrutinized every step of the way,’’ Brees said. “You lose a game and people are, like, waiting for something bad to happen to your team so they can say, 'I told you so.' There’s pressure with that and obviously the expectation level after winning a Super Bowl.’’

The Saints don’t have to worry about that this year. And the fact that their roster is so deep and talented could open the door for them to step right back into Super Bowl form. At least on paper, it shouldn’t be that difficult.

The Saints are so much better than they were in 2009 in many ways. Guys like Jenkins, guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis were all very young players on that 2009 team. Now, they’re just hitting their prime.

The offensive backfield should be dramatically better. In 2009, the Saints used a combination of runners that included Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell. Thomas was the best of the bunch that year, but he should be just a role player this season.

Ingram might be better than the Saints have let on. He might be the most complete back this franchise has had since Deuce McAllister was young and healthy.

“He’s a really talented back,’’ Brees said. “He’s just got great instincts and he’s a pure runner. You watch him run and you say, 'Man, this guy was born to be a running back.'"

Throw in Sproles, who should be able to do everything Bush did, except get injured often, and the backfield should be much better. So should the run defense.

Rogers and Franklin are proven run-stoppers, and both made it clear they wanted to finally play on a team that has a chance to win big. That’s going to make life easier for Ellis, who was pretty good even when he was playing next to a very ordinary Remi Ayodele the last couple of seasons.

[+] Enlarge Jonathan Casillas
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Saints got younger at outside linebacker by giving Jonathan Casillas increased playing time.
That’s also going to make things easier for Vilma and a linebacker corps that should be better than it was in 2009 and last season. The Saints won the Super Bowl with Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle as their starting outside linebackers. They were nice complementary players, but not big playmakers. It looks like the Saints will go with Casillas and Will Herring on the outside this year. They’re younger, and fresh legs could lead to more big plays.

The secondary should be better than 2009. Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter are firmly established as the starting corners, and the Saints have high hopes for Patrick Robinson, a 2010 first-round pick, as the nickelback. I know free safety Darren Sharper was a fan favorite in 2009, and there’s no question he was an important part of that team’s success. But he wore down at the end of that season and is gone now. For those who don’t believe me when I say Jenkins is now better than Sharper was early in 2009, let’s talk at the end of the season.

The receiving corps -- Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem -- is pretty much the same as it was in 2009. But Graham has replaced Jeremy Shockey as the pass-catching tight end. Graham is younger and more athletic than Shockey. Consider that another upgrade on a team that has plenty of them.

A lot of teams like to intentionally sell themselves short as they enter a season. The Saints aren’t doing that, and that’s probably because they’re looking at their roster and seeing what they have.

“We all know the potential here,’’ Brees said. “But we’re not going to take anything for granted and assume that we can walk out there with the talent that we have and we’re going to scare people away with our talent. That’s not the way it works. You’ve got to go out and make plays and prove it every time out. I like what we have. I think we have the opportunity to be great. But we still have a lot of work to do.’’

Previewing and predicting the Saints

September, 1, 2011
9/01/11
3:26
PM ET
For those who have been following as we’ve rolled out the predictions for the NFC South, you know by now that I’ve picked the New Orleans Saints to win the division.

It was a close call over Atlanta, and I suspect the race will be close throughout the season. I think both teams are going to be very good. But there are two reasons I chose the Saints. One is Drew Brees. The other is that I think they have a more talented roster than in the 2009 season when they won the Super Bowl.

Here’s the link to the complete preview page on the Saints. And here’s what I wrote about them.

Five things you need to know about the Saints:

1. Coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis don't sit still: They recognized the main reasons why they got beat by Seattle in the first round of last season's playoffs and went out and addressed those areas heavily. The price wasn't cheap. After drafting defensive end Cameron Jordan, the Saints traded back into the first round to get running back Mark Ingram. That led to the departure of Reggie Bush and the arrival of Darren Sproles, who will be used as a speed back. But the real key was adding Ingram. He should give the Saints the kind of consistency they've lacked in the running game since Deuce McAllister was still going strong. On the defensive side, the Saints knew they had to get better at stopping the run, so they went out and spent big money to get defensive tackles Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers.

2. Drew Brees isn't going to have a two-season "slump": Brees threw a career-high 22 interceptions last season and that was totally out of character for a guy who has been the model of efficiency since his arrival in New Orleans. Brees had a knee issue surface early last season. It never sidelined him and the Saints never talked much about it. But you have to assume the knee played some role in Brees having an off year by his lofty standards. The knee has had time to recover and the arrival of Ingram and Sproles should bring new dimensions out of the backfield. Brees should bounce back to his old form.

3. The defense isn't going to sit on its heels: One of the other major reasons the Saints weren't able to repeat as Super Bowl champions was because last year's defense wasn't the turnover machine it was in 2009. Coordinator Gregg Williams knows that and he's not the type to sit back and let it happen again. Williams is a big believer that the best way to create turnovers is to apply more pressure. Defensive ends Will Smith and the rookie Jordan need to produce a consistent pass rush, but Williams will supplement them with plenty of blitzes. The Saints want to get younger at linebacker, and Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas could play bigger roles. They have fresh legs and will be asked to blitz and drop into coverage, which sometimes will allow members of the secondary to blitz.

4. There's a new star on defense: Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is still the unquestioned leader of this defense, but the best player on the unit down the stretch last season was free safety Malcolm Jenkins. He was in his first season as a starter, after playing cornerback as a rookie. He took over for Darren Sharper, who was a catalyst for the 2009 team, and took a little time to get comfortable. But Jenkins is a student of the game and has young, fresh legs. He should start off this season as an upgrade over what Sharper was in 2009.

5. Change can be good: It wasn't easy to let center Jonathan Goodwin leave via free agency and release veteran right tackle Jon Stinchcomb. They were part of an offensive line that was great in 2009 and Goodwin still played at a high level last season. But the Saints didn't want to sign Goodwin, 32, to a long-term deal. Instead, they signed Olin Kreutz, 34, and plan to use him as a bridge until Matt Tennant is ready to be the center. Stinchcomb's level of play dropped dramatically last year as he played with a quadriceps injury. The Saints decided it was time to get younger at that position and they probably will go with Zach Strief. He has been a backup most of his career, but there's hope he can step up. If not, second-year pro Charles Brown could be an option.

DIVISION FINISH: 1 I'm picking the Saints for one reason -- on paper, they have more talent than they did in 2009. We know Sean Payton and Gregg Williams can coach and the roster is loaded. Plus, Brees is the only NFC South starting QB ever to win a playoff game.

NFC South Stock Watch

August, 30, 2011
8/30/11
3:27
PM ET
We won't officially start our Stock Watch feature until the regular season. But there's plenty going on right now, so let's give you an unofficial preseason version of Stock Watch.

FALLING

Aubrayo Franklin, defensive tackle, Saints. There was a buzz early in camp about Franklin and Shaun Rogers, who both were added to help the Saints get stronger in the middle. Hopes remain high that Franklin will have a big impact, but those hopes might have to wait a bit. Franklin has a sprained knee and could miss a little time at the start of the season.

The Falcons and their Super Bowl chances. Veteran Sports Illustrated writer Peter King has picked the Falcons to win the Super Bowl. That may be music to the ears of fans. But, believe me, it’s not what coach Mike Smith wants to hear. Like a lot of coaches, the guy is very superstitious and probably thinks his team has been jinxed. I've seen and heard Smith plead with writers not to pick his team to win the Super Bowl or the division. On the bright side, King was right last year when he picked Green Bay and Pittsburgh to reach the Super Bowl.

Corvey Irvin, defensive tackle, Panthers. A third-round draft pick in 2009, Irvin continues to be listed as a starter on the depth chart the Panthers sent out for their final preseason game. But Irvin is in jeopardy of not even making the 53-man roster. The Panthers thought they had improved themselves a lot at defensive tackle when they signed free-agent Ron Edwards. But he’s going to miss the season with an injury. The team also used a pair of third-round picks to get Terrell McClain and Sione Fua. The rookies could end up starting right away. The Panthers recently picked up Kentwan Balmer and they’re probably not done yet. They’ll keep an eye on who becomes available elsewhere because they’re not sold on Irvin.

RISING

Michael Bennett, defensive end, Buccaneers. The team used its top two draft picks on defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. The Bucs remain high on both, but Bennett has been a star this preseason. He likely will start opposite Clayborn and Bowers and will be used as a situational pass rusher at the start of the season.

Joe Hawley, center, Falcons. Veteran Todd McClure had what the team called a minor procedure on his knee. It’s unknown if McClure will be ready for the opener. If he’s not, the Falcons likely will have to start Hawley, a second-year pro. Hawley hasn’t looked great in preseason games, but he was drafted last year to be McClure’s eventual replacement. The Falcons haven’t gone out and added a veteran, so they must believe Hawley can step up if given the chance.

Cameron Jordan, defensive end, Saints. New Orleans had been bringing the first-round pick along slowly. But the coaching staff must have liked what it saw out of Jordan in practice. The team made a bold move Tuesday by releasing veteran starter Alex Brown. He was a dependable player with plenty of experience, but the Saints must believe Jordan has more upside.

Hot Button: Where's the NFC South?

August, 30, 2011
8/30/11
12:20
PM ET
In their latest Hot Button debate, John Clayton and Ashley Fox argue about who will win the NFC.

Clayton takes the Green Bay Packers and Fox says it will be the Philadelphia Eagles. I’d say both are legitimate contenders, but what about the NFC South?

Atlanta’s coming off a 13-3 season and added Julio Jones and Ray Edwards. New Orleans won the Super Bowl in the 2009 season. Sure, the Saints slipped a bit last year when they lost to Seattle in the playoffs.

But their two biggest flaws were exposed in that game. They worked hard this offseason to correct those problems, drafting Mark Ingram and signing Darren Sproles to make sure they have depth at running back, and they added defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin to help solidify the run defense.

I think either the Saints or Falcons could overtake the Packers and Eagles. By the way, if you click the Hot Button link above, there’s an attached poll where you can vote for who you think will win the NFC. The Saints and Falcons are on there, but they’re not getting a lot of votes. Maybe you can change that.

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