NFC South: Steve Breaston
Coach Mike Smith said Lamar Holmes has done a nice job so far as he tries to win the right tackle position. But Holmes will face another big test Saturday when he’ll have to block Tennessee defensive end Derrick Morgan.
Jon Beason, who is coming off knee surgery, made his preseason debut Thursday night. If Beason can get back to being anything close to what he was before injuries ruined his past two seasons, the Panthers could have one of the league’s top linebacker groups.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Wide receiver Preston Parker puts his chances of making the final roster at 50 percent. I think Parker has a better chance than that. He’s had a productive preseason, and his chances of sticking grew recently when the Saints released veterans Steve Breaston and Patrick Crayton.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
If guard Carl Nicks (staph infection) is out for an extended period, Jeremy Zuttah hopes to stay at center. Zuttah moved to guard when Nicks was injured last season. But center is Zuttah’s natural position. The Bucs also could turn to Ted Larsen, or move backup tackle Gabe Carimi to guard. Carimi was working at guard with the first team in the portion of practice that was open to the media Thursday.
The team released veterans Steve Breaston and Patrick Crayton. Those two were brought in as insurance after Joe Morgan, who was ticketed for the third receiver spot, suffered a season-ending injury. But Toon and Stills have fared well in training camp and the preseason.
The Saints also released linebacker Chase Thomas, cornerbacks A.J. Davis and Dion Turner, guard Ricky Henry and receiver Jarred Fayson. As previously reported, the Saints also released quarterback Seneca Wallace.
As expected, defensive end Kenyon Coleman was placed on injured reserve.
The team reportedly has signed veteran Patrick Crayton. That comes a week after the team signed another veteran, Steve Breaston. Rookie Kenny Stills and second-year pro Nick Toon also are in the mix for the backup jobs behind Marques Colston and Lance Moore.
Crayton, 34, hasn’t played in the NFL since the 2011 season. But he has some history with coach Sean Payton, who was an assistant in Dallas for the first two seasons of Crayton’s career.
There was no messing around and no coaches screaming at players. Instead, the Saints looked like a veteran team that is intensely focused -- more focused than last year, when chaos surrounded the entire season. Maybe even more focused than in 2009, when the Saints eventually won their first Super Bowl championship.
The quiet practices are a firm sign that coach Sean Payton is back in charge and that this team wants to put last season as far in the past as possible. The bounty scandal that led to the season-long suspension of Payton and a disappointing 7-9 record is over, and the Saints want to return to their winning ways.
“Last year was an apparition," quarterback Drew Brees said. “It was a different time with all the situations that had taken place. This year, just knowing that we’ve got everybody here, this is our team. Nobody’s missing. This is the team that can accomplish great things, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Here’s our window of time to bring it together. We know there’s going to be tough times. We know there’s going to be adversity. Build that attitude, build that chemistry, and get ready to make a run at it.”
Payton’s return alone should make a big difference. He’s one of the league’s best coaches and possesses a brilliant offensive mind. After watching his team from a distance last year, Payton had some strong critiques for his players, even the superstars.
Soon after Payton was reinstated, he called tight end Jimmy Graham and told him that a season in which he caught 85 passes but led the league in drops, according to ESPN Stats & Information, wasn’t good enough.
“First, he called me and I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t pick it up," Graham said. “He was pretty mad because it took like two or three days for me to call him back. The conversation was very serious, talking about his expectations for me and the things that I need to correct from last year and how he’s ready to be back. He’s ready to see my growth even more."
Payton needs to see growth from more than Graham. He’s made it clear that he wants to run the ball more often and that the Saints have to be substantially better on defense.
If the Saints can combine those things with Brees and the passing game, they should be right back in playoff contention.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. The defensive overhaul. Payton is an offensive guru, but the first order of business upon his reinstatement was to replace defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Rob Ryan. Spagnuolo’s defense never caught on in New Orleans, and the Saints finished last season ranked No. 32 in total defense.
The Saints aren’t just switching coordinators. They’re switching schemes. With Payton’s blessing, Ryan is installing a 3-4 scheme. The pass rush now will have to come from the outside linebackers, particularly Junior Galette, Will Smith and Martez Wilson, a trio of guys that previously played defensive end.
The secondary also is going through some major changes. The Saints signed free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.
The defense will look a lot different because Ryan uses a lot of exotic looks. If the results are different from last season, the Saints will be in good shape.
There really is no reason the Saints shouldn’t be able to get production from the running game. They have a good offensive line and three talented running backs -- Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.
The real wild card is Ingram. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis used a first-round pick on Ingram in 2011, but he hasn’t produced a lot in his first two years. I think Payton is going to make it a point to give Ingram more carries this season.
A new age of receivers. A few years ago, the Saints had a receiving corps as deep as any in the league, which came in handy because they use so many three- and four-receiver sets. But Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson left over the past two seasons. Joe Morgan, who had been ticketed for the third receiver spot, suffered a season-ending injury in camp.
That leaves starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore as the only sure things. Beyond them, there’s a lot of uncertainty. But the Saints hope veteran Steve Breaston, who was signed this week, and second-year pro Nick Toon, who missed his rookie season with an injury, can fill the void.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Any team that has Brees as its quarterback is going to be competitive. With weapons such as Graham, Colston and Sproles, the Saints are going to score plenty of points. It would be difficult for the defense to be any worse than last season.
If the Saints can just put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they can be a dangerous team.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
Ryan is an aggressive coach, and the 3-4 has had plenty of success around the league in recent years. But I’m not sure Ryan has the personnel to make this defense succeed. It could take another offseason to get this defense fully stocked.
One of the brightest spots in training camp has been the play of second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. I saw him make several big plays during my visit. Hicks is going to get his chance to shine in the regular season, and with Coleman out, it looks like he'll be a starter at defensive end.
In another sign that the Saints are serious about running the ball more, Graham has bulked up. The tight end said he now weighs about 270 pounds and that he’s focusing on becoming a better blocker.
The Saints have a history of finding unheralded running backs who end up making a contribution (see Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet). They might have found another one in Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M. Robinson has flashed big-play ability in camp. The Saints have so much depth at running back that it might be tough for him to make the roster, but he could end up on the practice squad.
There was some thought that Jason Smith, a former first-round pick by the St. Louis Rams, could end up as the starting left tackle. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Charles Brown has been getting virtually all the first-team work. Smith has fallen to third on the depth chart and is working behind rookie Terron Armstead. It’s looking like Smith might not even make the roster.
In recent years, the Saints have brought rookie defensive backs along slowly. Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson didn’t play significant roles in their first seasons. But I don’t think the Saints are going to be cautious with Vaccaro. Whether it’s at one of the safety spots or as the nickelback, Vaccaro is going to play a lot this season.
1. The wide receivers. With Joe Morgan lost for the season, the competition for the third wide receiver spot is wide open. Veteran Steve Breaston was brought in, but the Saints want to take an extended look at some of their young receivers, including Nick Toon and Kenny Stills.
2. The backup quarterbacks. Drew Brees likely will make only a quick appearance because the Saints are well aware of what he can do. But they need to get a look at Luke McCown and Seneca Wallace in game conditions. McCown might have a slight edge because Wallace missed some practice time with an injury, but this competition remains wide open.
3. The left tackles. Charles Brown has gotten virtually all of the first-team work in training camp. But he doesn’t have the starting job locked down just yet. Brown needs to perform well under game conditions and the Saints also want to take a look at rookie Terron Armstead.
Jay Adams writes that Cliff Matthews, who spent last year at defensive end, also has been getting some work at defensive tackle so far in camp. That versatility should lead to increased playing time for Matthews because I think we’re going to see the Falcons rotate defensive linemen more than they have in the past.
Kudos to the Panthers and the Make-A-Wish Foundation for making it possible for 8-year-old Jack Bolton to serve as honorary coach for a day.
Joseph Person writes that defensive end Charles Johnson has bulked up in an effort to play better against the run. Johnson already is a prolific pass-rusher. Making his game more well-rounded could help the unheralded Johnson get more national recognition.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
With Joe Morgan out for the season, Jeff Duncan writes that Steve Breaston, who joined the team this week, has a shot to become the No. 3 receiver. Breaston is a possibility, but I’d also keep an eye on second-year receiver Nick Toon as a candidate to fill that role.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Rick Stroud writes that the Bucs need to determine if rookie quarterback Mike Glennon will be merely a backup to Josh Freeman or if he can be an alternative as a starter if Freeman struggles. That’s why you’ll see a lot of Glennon in Thursday’s preseason opener.
Receiver Joe Morgan will miss the season with a knee injury, coach Sean Payton said. Payton also said it’s likely defensive end Kenyon Coleman will miss the season with a pectoral injury. Payton said Morgan was scheduled for surgery Wednesday, and Coleman likely will have surgery Thursday.
The loss of Coleman is substantial. He was expected to start at defensive end. Coleman is the second projected starter to suffer a season-ending injury. Outside linebacker Victor Butler suffered a season-ending injury during offseason workouts.
With Coleman out, the Saints are likely to take a long look at second-year pro Akiem Hicks, who has been working at both defensive end spots and defensive tackle.
Morgan had appeared to be the leader in the competition for the No. 3 receiver spot. Veteran Steve Breaston and second-year pro Nick Toon are likely to be next in line to compete for the third spot.
Starter Marques Colston has yet to practice this camp. Joe Morgan, who appeared to have the lead for the No. 3 receiver spot, went down with an unspecified injury in a scrimmage Saturday.
Breaston, 29, has spent six seasons in the league with Arizona and Kansas City, but was limited to only seven receptions with the Chiefs last year. Still, Breaston provides some insurance, even if it’s only temporary.
If Colston and Morgan get healthy, Breaston may not make the roster.
With that in mind, and with some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look at some of the more prominent potential free agents from the rest of the league.
QUARTERBACKS: Marc Bulger, Kerry Collins, Rex Grossman, Matt Hasselbeck, Patrick Ramsey, Alex Smith, Billy Volek, Kellen Clemens, Brodie Croyle, Trent Edwards, Bruce Gradkowski, Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Leinart, Troy Smith and Tyler Thigpen.
RUNNING BACKS: Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown, Kevin Faulk, Mewelde Moore, Sammy Morris, Clinton Portis, Dominic Rhodes, Tony Richardson, Kevin Smith, Darren Sproles, Fred Taylor, Brian Westbrook, Ricky Williams, Joseph Addai, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jerome Harrison, Brandon Jackson, Laurence Maroney and LeRon McClain.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Mark Clayton, Braylon Edwards, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Randy Moss, Santana Moss, Terrell Owens, Donte’ Stallworth, Steve Breaston, Malcom Floyd, Santonio Holmes, James Jones, Sidney Rice, Mike Sims-Walker, Brad Smith and Steve Smith (of the New York Giants, not the Steve Smith of Carolina).
TIGHT ENDS: Desmond Clark, Donald Lee, Randy McMichael, Bo Scaife, Kevin Boss, Owen Daniels, Daniel Fells, Zach Miller, Ben Patrick and Matt Spaeth.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: David Baas, Jammal Brown, Robert Gallery, Adam Goldberg, Kyle Kosier, Olin Kreutz, Matt Light, Sean Locklear, Casey Rabach, Chris Spencer, Langston Walker, Casey Wiegmann, Floyd Womack, Damien Woody, Chris Chester, Jeromey Clary, Daryn Colledge, Willie Colon, Doug Free, Jared Gaither, Charlie Johnson, Deuce Lutui, Samson Satele, Lyle Sendlein and Marshal Yanda.
DEFENSIVE TACKLES: Aubrayo Franklin, Tommie Harris, Chris Hoke, Chris Hovan, Kris Jenkins, Bryan Robinson, Gerard Warren, Jamal Williams, Pat Williams, Alan Branch, Barry Cofield, John McCargo and Brandon Mebane.
DEFENSIVE ENDS: Jason Babin, Dave Ball, Raheem Brock, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Cullen Jenkins, Travis LaBoy, Trevor Pryce, Marcus Spears, Ray Edwards and Mathias Kiwanuka.
LINEBACKERS: Akin Ayodele, Keith Bulluck, Kevin Burnett, Dhani Jones, Kirk Morrison, Julian Peterson, Matt Roth, Takeo Spikes, Jason Taylor, Mike Vrabel, Stewart Bradley, Bobby Carpenter, Manny Lawson, Paul Posluszny, Ernie Sims and Stephen Tulloch.
CORNERBACKS: Nnamdi Asomugha, Phillip Buchanon, Chris Carr, Drayton Florence, Ellis Hobbs, Carlos Rogers, Lito Sheppard, Ike Taylor, Fabian Washington, Drew Coleman, Antonio Cromartie, Chris Houston, Johnathan Joseph, Dimitri Patterson, Josh Wilson and Eric Wright.
SAFETIES: Aaron Francisco, Ken Hamlin, Michael Lewis, Brandon McGowan, Quintin Mikell, Lawyer Milloy, Brodney Pool, Gerald Sensabaugh, Roy Williams, Gibril Wilson, Atari Bigby, Melvin Bullitt, Abram Elam, Dashon Goldson, Michael Huff, Dawan Landry, Danieal Manning, Bernard Pollard, Eric Weddle and Donte Whitner.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- No big surprises on Carolina's list of inactives, but the Panthers are catching a break from Arizona.
Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin, whose injury status had been uncertain, has been declared inactive tonight. That means Steve Breaston will start in Boldin's place and lighten an Arizona receiving corps that's highlighted by Larry Fitzgerald.
Carolina's inactive list wasn't impacted much by injuries, but Carolina will start Jeremy Bridges at right guard in place of Geoff Hangartner. Carolina's inactives are D.J. Hackett, Quinton Teal, Adam Seward, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Kenneth Moore, Darwin Walker and J'Vonne Parker. Matt Moore is the third quarterback.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
If there's one position that stands out in Saturday's matchup between Carolina and Arizona, it's wide receiver.
Arizona's trio of Anquan Boldin, Steve Breaston and Larry Fitzgerald and Carolina's Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad are among the best combinations in the league -- and it doesn't matter if you're talking trios or duos.
Fitzgerald, Breaston and Boldin (whose status is uncertain because of injury) have been targeted a total of 385 times this season. That's the most of any receiver trio in the playoffs:
Smith and Muhammad have combined to be the targets on 56 percent of Carolina's pass attempts. That's the most for any two teammates in the playoffs: