NFC South: Stock Watch NFC

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Falling

Peria Jerry, defensive tackle, Falcons. Watching Jerry exercising on the sidelines and listening to people talk at Atlanta’s minicamp last weekend, I got the sense he still has a long road ahead as he tries to recover from his knee injury. The Falcons, like most teams, don’t reveal timetables for their injured guys and speak only in vague terms about their statuses. But my gut tells me Jerry still has a lengthy process ahead. Even if he’s ready for the start of training camp or the start of the regular season, I’m guessing the Falcons are going to proceed very cautiously with last year’s first-round pick. When Jerry does get on the field, I’d look for the Falcons to use a rotation at defensive tackle and limit his snaps significantly.

Rising

Jon Beason, linebacker, Panthers. This guy’s been a leader since the first day he stepped on the field in Carolina. But, after watching Beason in minicamp a couple weeks ago, I’m guessing we’re about to see his leadership skills become much more prominent – and that’s a good thing. Beason is a high-energy guy who totally buys into John Fox’s system. He’s already had the résumé and the personality to lead, but he might have been holding back just a little bit out of respect to veterans. Julius Peppers, who had the résumé, but didn’t want to lead, and Chris Harris, who wanted to lead, but didn’t really have the résumé, are gone now. No matter what happens at quarterback, the Panthers already have their leader. This is Beason’s team.
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Falling

Darren Sharper, safety, New Orleans Saints. New Orleans re-signed the veteran who helped guide the franchise to its first Super Bowl win. In the process, it was revealed that Sharper could have received more money elsewhere, but wanted to stay with the Saints. That’s nice, but something significant also came out in the process.

Sharper reportedly had micro-fracture knee surgery after the season and that may be why he wasn’t drawing a lot of interest. A lot of guys who have micro-fracture surgery never get back to their original form. Sharper’s 34 and that means his road back could be even more difficult. The Saints started preparing for this when they drafted Malcolm Jenkins last year and reinforced it when they took Patrick Robinson with their first-round pick this year.

Jenkins spent last year at cornerback, but has the size and skills to play safety. Robinson and Randall Gay can be the top backups behind starting cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer. Jenkins almost certainly will be getting work at safety soon. He’s a first-round pick heading into his second season and guys like that need to be on the field.

Rising

William Moore, safety, Atlanta Falcons. After missing almost all of his rookie season with an injury, Moore has been cleared to practice when the Falcons start their minicamp Friday. This guy was a second-round draft pick last year and the Falcons have big plans for him as they touch up their secondary.

Thomas DeCoud and Erik Coleman were the starting safeties last year. DeCoud played pretty well, but the Falcons weren’t thrilled with Coleman’s performance. They’ve kept Coleman around because he’s a good locker-room guy and can play either safety position, which gives them nice depth. But the coaching staff really would like to see Moore start stepping toward a starting job.
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Falling

Darren Sharper, safety, Saints. He’s been dangling out there in free agency and it doesn’t sound as if the Saints have budged from their initial offer. There were rumblings they had a plan in place to slide cornerback Malcolm Jenkins to free safety.

Those rumblings grew a lot stronger when the Saints drafted cornerback Patrick Robinson with their first-round pick. That pick cleared the way for Jenkins to make a move. This one was a tough call because Sharper had nine interceptions last year. But the fact he’s 34 was something the Saints never lost sight of. They wanted Sharper back, but only if the price was right. Now, Sharper’s making his free-agent tour. Kind of ironic how the guy who was the last piece in New Orleans’ championship puzzle is now up for grabs. But it’s another reminder that this is a business, not a game.

Rising

Josh Freeman, quarterback, Buccaneers. The guy who is supposed to be the franchise in Tampa Bay got what he needed most -- some help. The Bucs drafted receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. It might take a little time to learn the system, but they come in instantly with better physical skills than any of the receivers the Bucs had on the roster before the draft.
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Falling

New Orleans offensive tackle Jammal Brown. He reportedly will stay away from offseason workouts and we can only assume that’s Brown’s way of stating he wants a big, long-term contract. That’s a bit of a risky move. Brown is an above average left tackle, but he’s not dominant. He missed last year with an injury and the Saints got by with Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief. That wasn’t an ideal situation, but it showed the Saints can function without Brown. That could turn out to be a sign of things to come. Take a look around the league. Teams aren't rushing to give out long-term deals because they don't know what's going to happen with the labor situation. Brown's not exactly playing from a position of strength right now.

Rising

Restricted free agents in New Orleans. Back when free agency started, there was a little fear that other teams might raid the roster of the Super Bowl champions. The Saints had a whole bunch of restricted free agents, including big names like Jahri Evans, Brown and Pierre Thomas. But the deadline for other teams to make offers is tonight and it looks as if the Saints will make it through pretty much unscathed. Restricted free agents didn’t draw nearly as much action as many expected in an uncertain labor climate. The only guy the Saints have lost is running back Mike Bell. They had the chance to match his offer and they declined. Basically, the Saints have kept every restricted free agent they wanted.
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Falling

Carolina’s expected interest in Jason Campbell. Once the Redskins traded for Donovan McNabb, it became apparent that Campbell has no future in Washington. Just about every media outlet in the world began throwing out possible landing spots for Campbell. That was based on logic. After all, the Panthers want to have some sort of alternative in case Matt Moore doesn’t work out and Campbell is a guy who has some experience, still has upside and probably won’t cost a lot. Carolina pursuing Campbell makes sense to just about everybody, except the Panthers. For whatever reason, the Panthers have done nothing to get involved in this one and it doesn’t sound like that’s going to change. Yes, the Panthers still are going to get another quarterback, but all indications are that it’s not going to be Campbell.

Rising

New Orleans’ defensive line. In the course of just a few days, the Saints have done a nice job of solidifying their defensive front. They signed defensive end Alex Brown to a relatively reasonable (two years for roughly $6 million) deal and defensive tackle/end Anthony Hargrove, whom the Saints feared losing as a restricted free agent, signed his tender. The Saints still might add a defensive lineman or two in the draft, but that’s no longer a big priority. Brown gives the Saints a defensive end who is more consistent than former starter Charles Grant. Hargrove probably could challenge for a starting job next to defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and he also could probably challenge Brown if the Saints let him focus totally on playing defensive end. But Hargrove might be best as a super sub. His versatility and talent basically gives the Saints a fifth starter on the defensive line.
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Falling

Muhsin Muhammad, wide receiver, free agent. A lot of Carolina fans think one of the best players in franchise history will re-sign with the team. It’s a nice thought, but it’s probably not going to happen at a time when loyalty, which the Panthers have preached about so much, has disappeared. They cut Jake Delhomme, Brad Hoover and others because they were old.

Muhammad’s going to be 37 in May. He was somewhat productive last season and the Panthers have no other proven receivers on their roster beyond Steve Smith. Muhammad’s a good locker room guy, wants to stay in Carolina and probably would sign there for a very reasonable rate. But I wouldn’t anticipate any offer from the Panthers. That would be a complete reversal of all they’ve done this offseason. They’re intent on getting younger, and will be looking for wide receivers in the draft and maybe a young and cheap receiver in what’s left of free agency.

Muhammad probably will get signed by someone after the draft because he still wants to play and probably still has the skills to contribute somewhere. But it won’t be in Carolina.

Rising

Tampa Bay’s chances of getting one of the top-two defensive tackles in the draft. By all accounts, quarterback Sam Bradford had a great workout this week. That improves the chances of the St. Louis Rams taking him with the No. 1 overall pick. If that happens, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy won’t go No. 1 and at least one of them will be available at No. 3.

You can argue all you want about which defensive tackle would be a better fit for the Bucs, and there are strong cases for each of them. But if one of them is available at No. 3, the Bucs are in a no-lose situation. Either way, they’ll get a quality defensive tackle, which would be a major upgrade over what they currently have.
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Falling

Jamaal Anderson, Falcons defensive end: For those who thought Anderson might be making a full-time switch to defensive tackle, think again. At the owners meeting Wednesday, Atlanta coach Mike Smith said the current plan is to have Anderson do the same thing he did last year -- play defensive end in the base package and slide over to defensive tackle in the sub package. It has been pretty well established in the past few years that Anderson really doesn’t bring much as a defensive end. He did fairly well as a defensive tackle last season, but the Falcons aren’t ready to put him there on a regular basis. Part of that is because they have good starters in Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry and they’re also a little thin at defensive end at the moment. That’s not going to stay that way. The Falcons are going to get a defensive end somewhere early in the draft. I’m not convinced Anderson will be on this roster when all is said and done. Anderson might get one final chance in training camp, but he better use it to show the light has come on.

Rising

Lynell Hamilton, Saints running back: Part of the reason the Saints decided not to match the offer the Eagles gave restricted free agent Mike Bell was Hamilton. He’s not a household name, but he’s well known and well thought of within the Saints' building. Hamilton was New Orleans’ fourth running back last year and he got some playing time. He also has the size (235 pounds) to handle Bell’s short-yardage carries and he comes with very low mileage. His performance in the final game of the season against Carolina might have helped the Saints make their decision. The game was meaningless, but Hamilton averaged 4.8 yards a carry. In a trio with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, Hamilton could end up being a very important part of the New Orleans backfield.

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