NFC South: Terrell Owens

They are three very different personalities. But put Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez together and they become one.

They form what might be the best receiving trio in the NFL.

“The big thing is that none of us are selfish,’’ Jones said in a telephone interview Thursday. “We all want to see each other go out and make big plays because the most important thing is that we want to win.’’

That might sound a little unusual coming from a wide receiver because history has shown that wide receivers often have diva personalities (think Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson, Michael Irvin, Keyshawn Johnson and Steve Smith to name just a few). Those traits also can carry over to tight ends.

I remember days when I covered the Carolina Panthers and they’d win a game but tight end Wesley Walls would be unhappy because he didn’t think he had enough passes thrown his way.

But the amazing thing in Atlanta is that Jones, White and Gonzalez now have been together for three full seasons and there never has been a complaint about the distribution of the ball. White and Jones are the wide receivers and Gonzalez is the tight end. But, at various times, they all have been quarterback Matt Ryan's favorite target.

White and Jones combined for 2,549 receiving yards this season, the most by any wide receiver tandem in the league. Gonzalez had 93 catches for 930 yards and eight touchdowns.

When all three of them have been on the field at the same time, Ryan has averaged an interception once in every 52.2 passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. When the entire trio hasn’t been on the field at the same time, Ryan has averaged an interception once in every 21.3 passes.

“We just take what a defense gives us,’’ Jones said. “If they’re doubling Roddy or me, it’s going to leave Tony open. If Tony’s doubled, Roddy and I will be open. We’ll just take what’s there.’’

Jones said the chemistry among the three has come naturally. Jones is the quiet one, White can be outspoken -- especially on Twitter -- and Gonzalez is the wise elder statesman. But their personalities have meshed nicely.

“I was very lucky to get drafted into the situation I came into,’’ Jones said. “I could have gone somewhere where other guys would resent me because they want the ball. But Roddy and Tony took me under their wings right from the start.’’

Jones entered the league under unusual circumstances. He was drafted during the 2011 lockout and he still was recovering from a college injury. But he showed up at players-only workouts and instantly formed a bond with White and Gonzalez.’’

“We’d go to the workouts, but we’d also go to the movies or just hang out to get to know each other,’’ Jones said. “It was that way in the beginning and it still is that way now.’’

Jones said he and Gonzalez hit the practice field early every day and caught 50 to 100 passes before practice even started. From White, Jones said he’s learned a lot about body control and movement.

“I think the biggest thing both of those guys have taught me is that you don’t have to try to be Superman,’’ Jones said. “You just go out and do your job and you’re going to get your share of passes.’’

That formula is working quite nicely. The Falcons don’t need a solitary Superman because they’ve got three super options in their passing game.
We’ve talked a lot about how Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez seems ageless.

At 36, he leads the NFL with 39 receptions through five games. With some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s put some historical perspective on that.

The 39 receptions through five games are the most in NFL history -- by far -- by a player 36 or older.

Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens are tied for the next spot on the list with 31 catches. Rice did that in 2002, when he was 39. Owens did it in 2010, when he was 36. The fourth-best start in history, also belongs to Rice -- 25 receptions to start the 2001 season. The top five is rounded out by Tim Brown, who had 24 catches through five games in 2002.

Gonzalez also is one touchdown short of becoming the eighth player in NFL history with 100 receiving touchdowns. He currently is tied with Don Hutson with 99 touchdown catches. The next touchdown catch by Gonzalez will put him into a tie with Brown and Steve Largent.

Headed for the Georgia Dome

September, 17, 2012
BUFORD, Ga. -- Since the traffic is probably the only thing I don’t like about Atlanta, I’m going to start making my way down toward the Georgia Dome now in hopes of getting there before the worst of rush hour gets started.

A couple of broadcast notes: First, I’m scheduled to do a phone interview with SportsCenter at approximately 4:20 p.m. ET. Then, I’ll follow that up at about 4:45 with an interview with Atlanta’s 680 (AM) The Fan.

Once I get settled into the Georgia Dome, I’ll check in to see what the other NFC South coaches had to say in their Monday media sessions. I’ll also work ahead on some stuff for Tuesday.

Heck, I might even have enough time to check the Facebook pages of all the replacement officials, just to make sure none of them are Atlanta or Denver fans.

As we get toward the evening hours, I’ll focus in on the “Monday Night Football’’ game between the Falcons and Broncos. I’ll get you the inactives about 90 minutes before kickoff and will weigh in if there is any pregame news or notes.

We’ll be doing our Countdown Live chat once the game starts and I’ll have Rapid Reaction right after the game and a full column a little bit later.

Meantime, I’ll leave you with a little suggested reading:
  • In this radio interview, Atlanta coach Mike Smith says he hasn’t noticed a change in quarterback Matt Ryan. A lot of people are talking about the “new’’ Ryan after his superb performance in Week 1. But I think Smith is right. Ryan hasn’t changed. He’s always been a hard worker, a leader and a good quarterback. People are just thinking he’s more than that now and he may be. But it’s not because he’s changed. It’s because the Falcons have surrounded Ryan with so much talent and they’ve brought in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to run a system that suits his quarterback’s skills very nicely.
  • And check out this radio interview in which Denver cornerback Champ Bailey compares Atlanta receiver Julio Jones to a young Terrell Owens. In terms of athletic ability, I think that’s a fair comparison. But I wouldn’t compare the personalities of the two. I’ve yet to see any of the “diva’’ attitude out of Jones that seems so common among Owens and many other big-name wide receivers.
There’s a perception out there that Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman relied too much on tight end Kellen Winslow last season.

Just watching the Buccaneers play last year, I shared that perception. But let’s turn to ESPN Stats & Information for some evidence that Freeman was forcing too many throws to Winslow, who was traded to Seattle on Monday night.

Freeman and Winslow formed a pretty good tandem back in 2010 and that led to some talk from Winslow about how he believed he could double his statistics in 2011. That didn’t happen.

In 2010, Winslow, when playing with Freeman, was targeted 94 times and had 66 receptions (a 70.2 completion percentage) while averaging 7.8 yards per attempt with five touchdowns and one interception. Winslow also had three drops. Freeman turned to Winslow even more frequently in 2011, targeting him 111 times. But the rest of the numbers weren’t as good as the previous season. Winslow and Freeman connected on only 64 percent of their passes last year and averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt. More importantly, Winslow caught only two touchdown passes from Freeman, but the quarterback was intercepted 10 times when targeting his tight end.

Over the past four seasons, the only quarterback-receiver tandem that combined for more interceptions when a specific receiver was targeted was Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer and Terrell Owens in 2010.
We already have talked quite a bit about players from the NFC South who are expected to become unrestricted free agents. We’re going on the assumption that players not under contract who have at least four accrued seasons can become unrestricted free agents.

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.

NFC South, Ricky Williams, Gibril Wilson, Gerald Sensabaugh, T.J.Houshmandzadeh, Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes, Terrell Owens, Steve Smith, Lawyer Milloy, Ronnie Brown, Phillip Buchanon, Jammal Brown, Billy Volek, Jason Taylor, unrestricted free agents, Mark Clayton, Chris Hovan, Rex Grossman, Tyler Thigpen, Randy Moss, Kris Jenkins, ESPN Stats & Information, Chris Houston, Alex Smith, Brandon McGowan, Danieal Manning, Bruce Gradkowski, Michael Lewis, Fred Taylor, Steve Breaston, Roy Williams, Nnamdi Asomugha, Trevor Pryce, Santana Moss, Tavaris Jackson, Pat Williams, Kellen Clemens, Julian Peterson, Donte Stallworth, Kerry Collins, Brodie Croyle, Cedric Benson, Clinton Portis, Zach Miller, Brian Westbrook, Damien Woody, Troy Smith, Marc Bulger, Kevin Faulk, Ray Edwards, Sidney Rice, Antonio Cromartie, Jamal Williams, Mathias Kiwanuka, Patrick Ramsey, Aaron Francisco, Joseph Addai, Darren Sproles, Matt Leinart, Tony Richardson, Ike Taylor, Josh Wilson, Matt Hasselbeck, Atari Bigby, Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin, Marcus Spears, Jonathan Joseph, Paul Posluszny, Matt Light, Trent Edwards, Mewelde Moore, Sammy Morris, Dominic Rhodes, Kevin Smith, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jerom Harrison, Brandon Jackson, Laurence Maroney, LeRon McClain, Malcolm Floyd, James Jones, Mike Sims-Walker, Brad Smith, Desmond Clark, Donald Lee, Randy McMichael, Kevin Boss, Owen Daniels, Daniel Fells, Ben Patrick, Matt Spaeth, David Baas, Robert Gallery, Adam Goldberg, Kyle Kosier, Olin Kreutz, Sean Locklear, Casey Rabach, Chris Spencer, Langston Walker, Casey Wiegmann, Floyd Womack, Chris Chester, Jeromey Clary, Daryn Colledge, Willie Colon, Jared Gaither, Charlie Johnson, Deuce Lutui, Samson Satele, Lyle Sendlein, Marshal Yanda, Aubrayo Franklin, Tommis Harris, Chris Hoke, Bryan Robinson, Gerard Warren, Alan Branch, Barry Cofield, John McCargo, Brandon Mebane, Raheem Brock, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Travis LaBoy, Akin Ayodele, Keith Bulluck, Kevin Burnett, Dhani Jones, Kirk Morrison, Takeo Spikes, Mike Vrabel, Stewart Bradley, Bobby Carpenter, Manny Lawson, Ernie Sims, Stephen Tulloch, Chris Carr, Drayton Florence, Ellis Hobbs, Carlos Rogers, Lito Sheppard, Fabian Washington, Drew Coleman, Demitri Patterson, Eric Wright, Ken Hamlin, Quintin Mikell, Brodney Pool, Melvin Bullitt, Abram Elam, Dashon Goldson, Michael Huff, Dawan Landry, Bernard Pollard, Eric Weedle, Donte Whitner

GonzalezAP Photo/John AmisIs Tony Gonzalez, who holds nearly every tight end record, a first-ballot Hall of Famer?
When it comes to Tony Gonzalez the question isn’t if he’ll get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There’s no doubt the man with the best tight end statistics in just about every category that can be measured will be selected.

The question is, when will it happen?

Common sense would lead you to believe Gonzalez will retire from the Atlanta Falcons and, five years later, he’ll get in on the first ballot. But recent history tells us that common sense may not apply when it comes to putting tight ends in the Hall of Fame, especially on the first ballot. Tight end is a unique position, and voters obviously view it that way.

Take a look at this list of Hall of Famers, sorted by position. You’ll see that kickers are the only group with less representation than tight ends. There are more than double the amount of “contributors’’ than there are tight ends in the Hall of Fame. Same for coaches.

There are currently just seven tight ends in the Hall of Fame. That number will increase to eight later this summer when Shannon Sharpe is inducted. The mere mention of Sharpe’s name and Hall of Fame voting shows that it’s not a slam-dunk that Gonzalez will go in on the first ballot.

A few years back, Sharpe was in pretty much the same spot Gonzalez will be in. Sharpe retired in 2003 as the holder of virtually every all-time record for tight ends. He also had three Super Bowl rings.

When Sharpe was first eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2009, he was passed over. The same thing happened in 2010. There’s a school of thought that some Hall of Fame voters wanted to make Sharpe wait for a couple of years, simply because he was a tight end.

"When Shannon retired, he was the most prolific tight end in all the categories, and if that's not a Hall of Famer, then I'm trying to figure out what the definition of the Hall of Fame is," Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson said after Sharpe came up short in his second year of eligibility. "There hasn't been a tight end ever on the first ballot, but this was his second, so I was thinking and hoping that they would do the right thing.’’

[+] EnlargeShannon Sharpe
Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIREThe Hall of Fame voters made Shannon Sharpe -- arguably the game's best tight end before Tony Gonzalez -- wait to earn induction into Canton.
I’ll make a case right now that the right thing to do with Gonzalez when the time comes is to put him in on the first ballot. Anything else would be flat-out wrong.

Gonzalez is simply the best tight end ever. Sharpe might have held that title for a while. But, within a few of years of Sharpe’s retirement, Gonzalez started breaking all of his records. The two aren’t even close in most statistical categories anymore. Gonzalez has 12,463 receiving yards. That’s almost 2,403 more than Sharpe. Gonzalez has 1,069 career receptions. That’s 254 more than Sharpe.

The gap is only going to get bigger. At 35, Gonzalez may not be what he was in his prime as he was back in 2004 with Kansas City when he set a single-season record for catches by a tight end with 102. But in an Atlanta offense that’s already good and could be even better with the addition of rookie Julio Jones, Gonzalez remains an important role player.

Let’s just say Gonzalez has another season something like last year, when he caught 70 passes for 656 yards and six touchdowns. Anything close to that, and he adds another layer of insulation between his records and what Sharpe did.

Anything close to last year and Gonzalez will have numbers that basically double what Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow did. With the San Diego Chargers back in the 1980s, Winslow revolutionized the tight end position. Tight ends used to be pretty much just blockers, but Winslow made catching passes part of the job description.

In other words, Winslow changed the game and the position. If you do that, you should be a Hall of Famer. Gonzalez has done that. He’s left Winslow and Sharpe far behind in the argument about the greatest tight end ever.

Gonzalez is the guy who opened the door for a generation of former basketball players to start becoming as important as wide receivers in many offenses. That brings us to another point about Gonzalez and why he should go in on the first ballot.

He’s a tight end, but he’s got numbers that are just as good as some Hall of Fame wide receivers. Gonzalez has more receiving yards than guys like Charlie Joiner, Don Maynard, Michael Irvin and Lance Alworth.

Yeah, those guys played in different generations when the league wasn’t as geared toward the passing game. But Gonzalez created a whole new generation of tight ends. Yeah, it sometimes takes too long even for wide receivers to get into the Hall of Fame. Guys like Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were placed on a waiting list for about two decades and there’s a backlog still sitting there.

But Gonzalez shouldn’t have to wait just because he’s a tight end. Gonzalez currently is No. 6 all-time with 1,069 receptions. The only guys ahead of him are Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter, Tim Brown and Terrell Owens.

If Gonzalez catches 34 more passes, he’ll move up to No. 2. He’ll be behind only Rice, which says a lot. When Rice was first eligible for the Hall of Fame, voters skipped over the usual ritual of making wide receivers wait. That’s because there was a universal agreement that Rice was the best wide receiver ever to play the game.

There's universal agreement Gonzalez is the best tight end ever to play the game, and he deserves the same treatment.

There’s one other argument that could be used against Gonzalez. He’s never played on a Super Bowl champion. He’s never even gone deep into the postseason. For the longest time, a lot of Hall of Fame voters seemed to think a Super Bowl ring was a requirement for selection.

That idea seems to have faded some in recent years. But there is one way Gonzalez can make sure that’s not an issue. He can go out and help the Falcons win a Super Bowl this season. Then, he could go out in a blaze of glory or he could even stick around and pad his résumé for another year or two.

But Gonzalez shouldn’t have to worry about adding much more to his résumé. He’s already done enough to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
We gave you an NFC South mailbag over the weekend. But John Clayton and Adam Schefter also answered some NFC South questions in their mailbags.

Clayton provides some interesting historical perspective on Atlanta’s trade up to get wide receiver Julio Jones in this year’s first round. Clayton compares it to 1995 when the San Francisco 49ers took a huge leap to get J.J. Stokes. Although Stokes had a decent career, he never became the player the 49ers envisioned. Part of that might have been because Terrell Owens came along and took away a lot of passes that could have gone toward Stokes.

I’ve been asked many times about the possibility of the Falcons pursuing Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards when free agency opens. In this Insider post, Schefter gets the same question and says Edwards would be logical guy to go after, but also makes the point that much will depend on the rules of free agency. We don’t know yet if Edwards will be a restricted or unrestricted free agent.

Schefter is also asked about possible landing spots for cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. He says the favorites are in the NFC East, but he also makes mention of the Buccaneers. Don’t rule this one out. If there is a salary cap, the Bucs are going to have more cap room to work with than any team in the league. Coach Raheem Morris also has thrown out a few hints that the Bucs might be more active in free agency this year than they have been in recent years.
I haven’t met Julio Jones yet and probably won’t until the lockout is lifted and I get up to Flowery Branch, Ga., for minicamp or training camp. But I’m already starting to like the wide receiver the Falcons traded up to get at No. 6 overall in last week’s draft.

I’m basing that entirely on one answer Jones gave in this radio interview with Atlanta’s 790 The Zone. Jones was asked if he’s the typical “diva’’ wide receiver.

“No, not at all,’’ Jones said. “But I didn’t grow up as no diva, either. I used to play running back, so I guess I have that mentality -- just hard-nosed.”

Hard-nosed is good and “diva" receivers can bring lots of headaches. Just look around the league and at recent history. Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco, Randy Moss, Keyshawn Johnson -- they all have come with major headaches. In the NFC South, Steve Smith and Roddy White certainly fit the profile, although White generally does it in a relatively harmless and playful way.

In fact, with the exception of New Orleans’ Marques Colston, I don’t think I’ve ever met a wide receiver who was any good that didn’t at least have a pretty strong touch of the “diva personality." I can think of two NFC South receivers in recent years, who showed no similar traits. One was former Carolina receiver Keary Colbert and he played his way right out of town.

The other is Atlanta’s Michael Jenkins. He’s a nice, unselfish role player. But that might be part of the reason the Falcons drafted Jones. Let’s be real honest here: Jenkins still will have a role with the Falcons this year. But if Jones turns out to be anything like what the Falcons envision, Jenkins will be gone in a year or two. The Falcons drafted Jones to take Jenkins’ place.

As much as I rip on “diva" wide receivers, I’ve got to be fair and honest. To be a good wide receiver in the NFL, you need at least a touch of that type of personality. If you’re going to get the ball a lot, you have to want the ball. So we’ll leave a little bit of room for Jones to develop some “diva" tendencies and White can serve as his mentor.
Yep, I know I wrote Saturday in a mailbag that I don’t see veteran tight end Jeremy Shockey joining the Carolina Panthers. And, yes, I know it was reported late Saturday night that the Panthers are bringing Shockey in for a physical.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Shockey
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireTight end Jeremy Shockey had 41 catches and three touchdowns last season with New Orleans.
I could end up being wrong, but I’m sticking with my original statement. The Panthers will bring Shockey in for a physical, but I really don’t see it turning into a contract.

I’m basing this on what I know of Shockey, who spent the past few seasons in the NFC South with the New Orleans Saints. I’m also basing this largely on what I know about how the Panthers think.

Now, I know they’ve got a new coach in Ron Rivera and a new offensive coordinator in Rob Chudzinski. Rivera has been open about saying the Panthers need a pass-catching tight end, and Chuzdkinski was an assistant at the University of Miami when Shockey was there.

Situations like that often times are reason enough for courtesy visits, and this might be nothing more than that. It also could be an exploratory physical, just to find out where Shockey’s health stands (it has been a question much of his career), so the Panthers have an idea as they go through the process of looking at all the options for a pass-catching tight end.

Shockey reportedly passed a physical with the Dolphins, and I can see him in Miami a lot easier than I can see him in Carolina. Again, I think the new-age Panthers simply might be doing some homework on a guy who at least one of their coaches has some ties to. Besides, the Panthers would have to do something before the end of the day March 3, because a lockout is expected March 4. If there is a lockout, no players, can be signed until the labor situation is resolved.

But it’s the old-school Panthers that make it tough for me to see this developing into anything of substance. I’m talking about owner Jerry Richardson and general manager Marty Hurney. Unless they’ve undergone sudden personality changes or handed total control of the team to Rivera (and I don’t think that’s the case), signing Shockey simply doesn’t fit their style.

Hurney and Richardson started a youth movement last season, and Shockey, 30, doesn’t fit that profile. He has more wear and tear on his body than most 30-year-olds, and hasn’t been as productive as he was in recent seasons. I’d even make the argument that if you took current Carolina tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario and put them in a tight-end-friendly offense, they’d be more productive than Shockey.

I think the Panthers get their tight end somewhere else in free agency or the draft. There are a lot of other reasons why Shockey doesn’t fit the profile of Richardson and Hurney. First off, he’s flamboyant, and flamboyant generally doesn’t fly with Fox and Hurney. Second, although Shockey behaved (other than some hydration issues) in New Orleans, I think that was only because he knew better than to challenge quarterback Drew Brees.

In his days with the New York Giants, Shockey flat-out abused quarterback Eli Manning, who doesn’t have the locker-room control Brees does. Shockey was constantly calling for the ball and steamrolling Manning.

In case you haven’t noticed, the Panthers don’t have any quarterbacks right now who command respect. Maybe they bring in a Donovan McNabb or a Carson Palmer and that changes. Even those veterans have been pushed around in the past, McNabb by Terrell Owens and Palmer by Chad (Ochocinco) Johnson.

But, unless the Panthers trade receiver Steve Smith, they already have one very strong-willed pass catcher. Smith openly clashed with rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen last season. Smith also doesn’t have a history of being real generous when it comes to sharing the spotlight or the ball.

The season he and equally flamboyant Keyshawn Johnson were together was a disaster on and off the field. In the locker room, Smith shot dirty looks at reporters when they talked to Johnson, and it also worked in reverse. When Smith was paired with young receivers like Dwayne Jarrett and Keary Colbert, he walked all over them and was probably part of the reason they were busts.

Putting Smith and Shockey in the same locker room and on the same field has all sorts of downside potential. Even if Smith goes in a trade, I just don’t see this happening, knowing what I know about Richardson and Hurney. At best, Shockey would be nothing more than a short-term fix. At worst, he wouldn’t add much on the field, and could be a distraction off it. Besides, I think if Shockey has any real choice between the Dolphins and Panthers, the night life in Miami and Charlotte becomes a factor, and South Beach has a big edge there.

But maybe I’ll end up being wrong. Maybe Rivera and Chudzinski have more power than previous coach John Fox, and maybe they can convince the owner and the general manager to stop being conservative and take a chance. But I seriously doubt it.

The best player not at the combine?

February, 25, 2011
Vidal HazeltonCary Edmondson/US PresswireVidal Hazelton's college career didn't go as planned, but he thinks he has a bright future in the NFL.
If it hasn’t happened already, Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff is going to hear Vidal Hazelton's name at the scouting combine at some point this weekend.

Hazelton, perhaps the biggest draft-eligible name not at the combine, has given his agent, Kelli Masters, some very specific orders.

“Get my name in front of the Falcons," Hazleton said. “Remind them that I’m out there. That would be a dream scenario to end up with the Falcons. They’re the team I always rooted for growing up."

The fact Hazelton has spent much of his life living in Georgia also is a factor. And Hazelton’s biggest fan (more on that in a bit) lives in Alpharetta, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta.

But Hazelton realizes he’s no longer in a position where dream scenarios are likely. That’s why Masters’ job is to also remind 31 other general managers that Hazelton is out there. Hazelton is proof that the NFL and college football are games that move quickly and even the brightest of stars can be forgotten.

“I have no question that, if things had gone a little differently for Vidal, you’d be hearing all about him as a first-round pick during the combine," said University of Cincinnati receivers coach T.J. Weist, who has coached 14 future NFL receivers during a lengthy career in the college ranks. “He’s got the size, he’s got the physical tools, he’s a great competitor and he’s mentally tough and a great worker."

So why wasn’t Hazelton even invited to the combine?

This is where the story veers way off that dream scenario and takes twists and turns that lead back and forth across the country. It could be a tragic story, but it’s not. At least not at this point because Hazelton is adamant that this story is far from over and he's in charge of writing the ending. Before we get to that, though, let’s go back to the beginning.

Let’s go back to 2006, when Hazelton was one of the top college receiver prospects in the nation. He signed with a football factory, the University of Southern California, which has produced plenty of NFL receivers through the years.

[+] EnlargeVidal Hazelton
Kevin Reece/Icon SMIVidal Hazelton's best season came in 2007, when he had 50 receptions for 540 yards at USC.
The plan was to go slowly and let Hazelton spend his freshman season playing behind Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith before making him the main target in the passing game. He led the Trojans with 50 receptions the next year, but things took a strange turn the following season. In the 2008 opener, Hazelton suffered a high-ankle sprain. By the time he returned, Damian Williams, Patrick Turner and Ronald Johnson had emerged and there wasn’t a lot of playing time.

While this was going on, Hazelton’s grandfather, James Hazelton, was diagnosed with cancer. Hazelton wanted to be closer geographically to his grandfather. He transferred to Cincinnati and sat out the 2009 season. In a pass-happy offense, huge things were expected of Hazelton in 2010.

“In camp last summer, he was looking better than ever,’’ Weist said. “He was just exploding off the ball and [NFL] scouts were getting all excited.’’

The buzz lasted for a little over half a game. In the season opener, Hazelton fielded a kickoff return and tore his anterior cruciate ligament.

“It happened on a Saturday," Hazelton said. “I cried on Sunday. On Monday, I woke up in good spirits and I haven’t looked back since. My father and my grandfather raised me to never look back and to only worry about the things you can control."

What Hazelton has controlled in the months in between is his knee. He made what doctors have jokingly told him was the quickest recovery ever from an ACL injury. He was even cleared for Cincinnati’s last two games, but didn’t play because there still was the possibility of him being granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA. That didn’t happen and Hazelton has moved on quickly.

He’s spent the last few months working out at Athletic Performance Institute in the Los Angeles area, along with many other prospects who are at the combine, and he’s actually happy he wasn’t invited.

“I look at it as a blessing," Hazelton said. “I’m almost 100 percent, but this gives me more time to get ready."

The target date is March 28, when Cincinnati holds its pro day workouts.

“I need to prove everything," Hazelton said. “I need to show my knee is back. I love days like that. I’m more anxious than nervous. This whole thing has humbled me and made me more motivated."

It’s Masters’ job to make sure NFL teams show up for Hazelton’s workout, and Weist said he’s been getting a lot of calls from NFL scouts recently. Weist is happy to share here the same scouting report he’s been giving to the NFL people.

“Look at how quickly he’s come back from the injury," Weist said. “That says a lot about his work ethic. You just don’t come back from an ACL in a few months. He showed he’s going to put in the work and he showed he’s got good genetics to be able to recover like he did. People ask me which NFL receiver I’d compare him to and I say T.O. [Terrell Owens]. He’s a thick, powerful and explosive player. He’s right up there with any receiver in this draft in terms of physical ability. But what sets this kid apart is his maturity. He’s been through adversity and he’s very hungry. A lot of guys going in aren’t as hungry. He’s not going to take anything for granted."

Now, let’s go back to the Falcons. Like every other team, they’re not giving away any draft plans right now. It’s obvious Hazelton’s circumstances will push him down into the later rounds or perhaps make him a potential undrafted free agent.

Any chance with the Falcons would be a dream come true for Hazelton and for someone else. James Hazelton lives in Alpharetta and is a lifelong Falcons fan. James Hazelton is still battling cancer, his grandson said.

“He’s doing all right and he’s fighting," Hazelton said. “He keeps telling me he’s not going anywhere until he sees me play in the NFL."

The Falcons have needs at wide receiver, where not much is certain after starters Roddy White and Michael Jenkins. Two other NFC South teams, Carolina and New Orleans, could be in the market for a developmental receiver in the later rounds. Even if it’s not in Atlanta or anywhere in the NFC South, Hazelton believes he’ll be in the NFL soon. He’s not showcasing his talent at the combine, but he’s hoping to, once again, grab the attention that slipped away from him when he works out in Cincinnati.

“I’m totally confident I have the ability to play in the pros," Hazelton said. “But next month my job is to go out and show the pros that I can play. I have to make sure they haven’t forgotten about me."

Sean Payton defends photo session

December, 28, 2010
When he met with the New Orleans media Tuesday, Saints coach Sean Payton defended the actions of some of his players immediately after Monday night’s win in the Georgia Dome.

Several members of the New Orleans Saints defense were seen coming out of the locker room and back on the field, where they were seen, at very least, posing for pictures near an Atlanta Falcons logo. That set off fireworks among fans and in the media. The Saints have been accused by some of rubbing it in to the Falcons and others have accused the Saints of being arrogant, which isn't the first time that claim has been made.

But Payton said he believes too much has been made of the incident and added that he understands the attention it has brought.

“It’s something the linebackers have done for a while here,’’ Payton said. “It’s always done with respect and after the game. If you go into our linebacker meeting room there’s pictures there with their families. There are pictures of the Super Bowl. There are pictures after a big win at Dallas, but it’s always after the teams leave the field and it’s never in any way, shape or form meant at all to be disrespectful. I think in light of last night, a lot’s been made that it was in more of an arrogant manner. I would disagree with that. It’s something that’s done after the fact, after the teams have left the field.”

I did not witness the incident because I was in Atlanta’s locker room after the game. But television colleague Ed Werder described what he saw and said it wasn’t anywhere near the level of Terrell Owens dancing on the Dallas Cowboys logo years ago.

I’ll just say it probably wasn’t a good idea for the Saints to do anything that even gave the appearance of showing disrespect for the Falcons. But I know Atlanta and New Orleans fans have much stronger opinions.

Falcons give up some turf to Saints

December, 28, 2010
FalconsAP Photo/Dave MartinThe Falcons were left scratching their heads after having their eight-game winning streak end.
ATLANTA -- John Abraham, just like everyone in the Atlanta Falcons' locker room, got the same speech Monday night. For a couple minutes -- right up until the media approached him -- Abraham played it by the rules.

As the first question came, though, there was something about Monday night’s 17-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints that left the defensive lineman so angry or disappointed that he no longer could follow orders.

“Coach [Mike Smith] told us to give [the Saints] their due,’’ Abraham said.

But Abraham, who usually stays pretty quiet, couldn’t do that.

“We just didn’t make the plays,’’ Abraham said. “There were so many plays left out there.’’

Make no mistake: The New Orleans Saints won the game, and Smith and the rest of the Falcons were quick to point that out and praise them. But Abraham also made valid points when he said the Falcons lost the game. They might have lost even a little more than that.

Although they are still in control of the race for the NFC South title and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, the Falcons saw some certainty disappear, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling at this time of year.

The eight-game winning streak the Falcons had been riding since October is gone. The undefeated season at home is gone. Even some of the mystique that was building at the Georgia Dome is gone and there are footprints to trace who took it away.

In the moments after the game, Saints defensive linemen and linebackers left the locker room and gathered around the Falcons’ logo at midfield. The players weren’t doing Terrell Owens dances on the Dallas Cowboys star, but it would be wrong to say the scene didn’t have a celebratory air.

New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma told ESPN’s Ed Werder the Saints weren’t trying to rub it in to the Falcons, noting that his teammates frequently have pictures taken to commemorate significant victories.

Well, this would qualify as a victory that’s probably more significant than any the Saints have had since they won the Super Bowl. It puts them at 11-4 heading into the final weekend of the season. The Falcons (12-3), who finish the season at home against 2-13 Carolina, still control their destiny. If they beat the Panthers, the Falcons will win NFC South and the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The only way the Saints can win the division for the second straight season is if Atlanta loses and New Orleans wins its final game at home against Tampa Bay and claims the title with a tiebreaker.

“We still like where we’re at,’’ Smith said.

They would have liked it a lot better if they had defeated the Saints on Monday night and made everything that happens in Week 17 moot. The Falcons certainly remain in prime position for everything that comes with what Smith called their “body of work,’’ and that’s true.

[+] EnlargeSaints Pierre Thomas
Brett Davis/US PRESSWIREPierre Thomas and the Saints' offense outgained the Falcons 368-215 on Monday night.
But then again, what happened Monday night showed that the Falcons aren’t invincible in the Georgia Dome. That little fact could come in handy if the Saints have to come back here in the playoffs or could benefit any other team that must come to Atlanta.

The Falcons didn’t collapse or anything close to that. They lost a close game to a good team.

“This is one of those games that you learn from,’’ Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “If we learn from something, then it’s not a bad thing.’’

There could be some truth in that and maybe it will make the Falcons stronger in the long run. But that learning process that Gonzalez mentioned probably should include crash courses in several topics.

A good place to start would be the importance of the running game. The Falcons gained only 75 yards on the ground, including just 48 on 17 carries from Michael Turner. He also lost his first fumble of the season, at the Saints' 2-yard line.

Smith also might want to brush up on his decision-making. With a fourth-and-6 at the Atlanta 43-yard line with 2:52 remaining, Smith elected to punt instead of going for the first down.

“I definitely thought it was the right thing to do,’’ Smith said.

I understand that the Atlanta defense had played pretty well all night until letting New Orleans march 90 yards on the previous drive to take the lead. But when you have Matt Ryan, king of the fourth-quarter comeback, you probably should let him go for it. Then there’s that little matter of handing the ball back to Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense when you have only two timeouts remaining.

The Saints took two plays to get a first down that basically allowed them to run out the clock and make sure Ryan didn’t get any chance at a miracle.

“We’re going to turn this into a positive,’’ Gonzalez said. “It was a wake-up call. We’ve got to get better in a lot of areas.’’

Time is running short, so the Falcons better cram those lessons in. Clean up those things we just mentioned, get back to some of the basics that got them this far and bring the pass rush that they did against Brees on Monday night and everything might be all right.

The Falcons sacked Brees only once, but it seemed as though they were all over him on a night when he completed 35 of 49 passes for 302 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

“That millisecond is what cost us the game,’’ Abraham said.

That millisecond might have been the difference between the Saints posing for pictures on the logo or going home quietly.

“Now they’ve got the bragging rights and that’s going to hurt me until next year,’’ Abraham said.

Maybe, and it could get even worse if the Saints come back to the Georgia Dome in the playoffs and beat the Falcons again. And it certainly would hurt if anyone else comes into the Georgia Dome and knocks off the Falcons.

But maybe Abraham’s right in not heaping credit on the Saints. With their destiny still in their control, it's all about the Falcons, and they have to get it right. Maybe Abraham and the Falcons won't have to wait a year for revenge. If they just take care of their business, the Falcons can decide who gets to celebrate on their turf.

Marques ColstonJohn David Mercer/US PresswireSaints receiver Marques Colston keeps a low profile while putting up big numbers.
NEW ORLEANS -- When he finally gets to a Pro Bowl -- and that day is coming soon -- Marques Colston may arrive in Hawaii (or wherever the game is held) in the purest, most powerful way any wide receiver ever has.

“There’s no 'throw me the ball' from Marques,’’ New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said Sunday after throwing two touchdown passes to Colston in a 31-13 victory against the St. Louis Rams.

That trait alone might set Colston apart from any wide receiver who has played the game. Talk to any quarterback who has played in the NFL, except for Brees, and they’ll tell you they never met a wide receiver who didn’t insist he was open on every play.

“The only time Marques talks is if he gets mad at himself, or coach [Sean Payton] asks him to break down the huddle,’’ defensive back Malcolm Jenkins said.

Yes, America, there really is one big-time wide receiver who genuinely lets his play do the talking. That is Colston, a fifth-year pro out of Hofstra, who moved within five yards of 5,000 receiving yards for his career Sunday.

Teammates, coaches and opponents will tell you Colston belongs in the Pro Bowl. They’ll also tell you Colston is one of the league’s top wide receivers. But Colston is not the kind of guy who is going to tell you how good he is.

In fact, when he walked into the interview room Sunday, Colston started ripping apart his game.

“From the second quarter on, I didn’t play well,’’ Colston said.

While it’s true both of Colston’s touchdowns came in the first quarter and he failed to come up with a couple of catchable balls later in the game, he did finish with five catches for 46 yards and the Saints had complete control of the game from the moment Colston pulled in his second touchdown.

Heck, even when the Saints were getting ready to play the Cincinnati Bengals in their previous game, the New Orleans media tried for two days to get Colston to talk. He avoided the locker room totally the first day. On the second day, he ran into a couple of reporters as he walked to the training room.

Very politely, he told them something like, “I know where you’re going and I respect that. But I’d rather stay out of that fray."

The fray Colston was referring to was the obvious story of the week -- Cincinnati’s attention-grabbing wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens going up against a player who is the anti-Ochocinco and the anti-Owens.

As a general rule, the better a receiver is, the more he talks. Think Randy Moss, Steve Smith, Roddy White, Brandon Marshall, Keyshawn Johnson, Michael Irvin and Mark Duper as just a few examples. Players such as Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison were generally viewed as guys who didn’t seek out attention, but those who played with them and media members who covered them said each at least had a touch of the prima donna personality so common among receivers.

“Unfortunately, people want to listen to them,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said in a conference call with the New Orleans media a couple of weeks ago.

The question specifically was about Ochocinco and Owens, but Lewis could have been talking about virtually any receiver.

“They don’t have much substance to say very often, particularly when they leave here,’’ Lewis said. “They do have an audience for some reason.”

Wide receivers love audiences. When Smith and Johnson spent the 2007 season together with the Carolina Panthers, there was one certainty when the locker room doors opened after a game or practice -- Smith and Johnson would be sitting at their lockers waiting to talk to the media. On at least one occasion one of them privately chided a reporter for using more quotes from the other receiver.

There’s even a story about a very well-known wide receiver who got an idea when Ochocinco changed his last name from Johnson. This particular receiver went to the team’s public relations department and website workers and told them he wanted to be referred to by his nickname in team record books, media guides and on the team website. Only a very stern talk -- in other words, “You are not going to do that’’ -- from a powerful owner and a once-powerful coach prevented that fiasco.

There’s absolutely none of that with Colston. He usually avoids the locker room when the media is in there during the week. If he talks at all, he doesn’t say much.

If you watched Colston’s body language as he spoke in front of the cameras and recorders Sunday, you would have thought he was drawing triple coverage in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl. He wasn’t seeking attention. He was running from it, even squirming.

“It’s just me,’’ Colston said. “I’m comfortable being me.’’

It’s not just that way with the media. Colston is the same way with coaches and teammates.

“Marques doesn’t talk around us,’’ Jenkins said. “He’s a quiet guy. He just goes out and makes plays.’’

With Colston as the clear-cut No. 1 receiver, the rest of the receiver corps follows his lead. Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson might form the quietest group of receivers in the history of the NFL.

“We are a tight-knit group,’’ Colston said. “We all had humble beginnings.’’

Other than Meachem, none of those receivers were high draft picks. Colston was a seventh-round choice, but he came into the league and instantly became New Orleans’ best receiver. It hasn’t changed.

With the Saints at 10-3 and trying to defend last season’s Super Bowl title, Colston has been consistent. At the moment, he has 76 catches for 921 yards and seven touchdowns, including five touchdowns in the past four games.

Project Colston’s numbers for three more regular-season games and you’ve got Pro Bowl numbers. Colston would be the last guy to lobby for a Pro Bowl berth, so I’ll do it, and I’ll turn to Brees for some more weighty words.

“Usually, the guys who make the most noise get the most attention,’’ Brees said. "That might not be fair, but that's kind of just the way it is.''

But it’s time for that to change. It’s time to put Colston into the Pro Bowl because he is the one wide receiver who belongs there for all the right reasons.
The final injury reports are all in, so let's take a look at the significant injuries around the NFC South.

Falcons. Atlanta coach Mike Smith said early in the week that tight end Justin Peelle and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon will miss Sunday’s game. The Falcons are listing cornerback Dunta Robinson as questionable, and he hasn’t practiced all week. We’ll see what happens Sunday, but I’m sure the Falcons will be very cautious with Robinson, who suffered a concussion last week, and won’t put him out there unless the medical is unanimous in saying he’s recovered. I’d look for Christopher Owens, Brent Grimes and Brian Williams to be the trio of cornerbacks charged with covering Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.

Buccaneers. Defensive tackle Brian Price has been declared out with a pelvis injury. Fullback Earnest Graham is listed as questionable and didn’t practice Friday. Guard Davin Joseph is listed as questionable, but he went through a full practice. Their other starting guard, Keydrick Vincent, is listed as questionable and didn’t practice. If Vincent can’t play, the Bucs will have to start rookie Ted Larsen.

Saints. We already knew running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas and cornerback Tracy Porter will be out Sunday. The Saints are listing cornerback Jabari Greer as questionable, but he hasn’t practiced all week. That could mean rookie Patrick Robinson and Leigh Torrence as the starting cornerbacks. Linebacker Scott Shanle is listed as questionable. Safety Darren Sharper remains on the physically unable to perform list at the moment, but the Saints could activate him as late as Saturday afternoon if they feel he’s ready to play.

Panthers. Looks like Carolina’s bye last week came at a good time. Receiver Steve Smith, who missed a game with an ankle sprain, was back at practice all week and is listed as probable for Sunday.

Final Word: NFC South

October, 22, 2010
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 7:

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
Kim Klement/US PresswireThrough five games this season, Josh Freeman has completed 59.1 percent of his passes and thrown for over 1,000 yards.
Air it out. There’s a lot of talk about Tampa Bay’s struggles in the running game. It’s all valid because Cadillac Williams hasn’t been able to do much of anything. People are suggesting the Bucs should turn to undrafted rookie LeGarrette Blount or move Earnest Graham from fullback to tailback. Do you really think either of those moves is going to fix the running game? I have another suggestion: Let quarterback Josh Freeman throw the heck out of the ball. This kid’s been pretty good so far and keeps getting better. He has a nice group of young wide receivers and a great tight end in Kellen Winslow. I know balance is supposed to be an important concept in an offense. But if you’re not getting anything out of the running game, why bother? At least in the short term, let Freeman throw 35 or 40 times. If he does it well enough, the Bucs can gradually sneak the running game back into the offense because defenses won’t be looking for it.

Stepping back? With Cincinnati coming to town with receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, I’m curious to see how Atlanta’s defense responds. This unit had been playing well up until last week’s loss in Philadelphia. It looks like the Falcons will be without injured cornerback Dunta Robinson and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Remember, those were the guys the Falcons added to this defense in the offseason. Their speed and aggressiveness helped during the Falcons’ four-game winning streak. Can the Falcons continue to play that way without them or do they suddenly become last year’s defense again?

Breakout game. When you think about Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, you need to think a little differently because Smith is different. There’s a lot of frustration in Carolina. But, in Smith’s case, frustration might be a good thing. He’s coming back from an ankle injury that forced him to miss one game, and the quarterback chaos limited his production before that. But Smith is one of the league’s more competitive players. He’s way overdue for a breakout game. Against a struggling San Francisco team, it could happen if Matt Moore can just get the ball into Smith’s hands a few times.

Sitting pretty. Are the Saints for real? Even though they beat up on the Bucs last week, we really don’t know because we don’t know how good the Bucs are. But here’s what we do know: The Saints are 4-2 and have Cleveland coming into the Superdome. Even though the Saints have some injuries, there is no reason they shouldn’t come out of this at 5-2. They have a Sunday night game with Pittsburgh on Oct. 31. After that, they don’t play another team that presents a serious challenge until Baltimore on Dec. 19.

Count on it. Most of you know I generally stay away from predictions. But I’m going to make one here. I’m saying New Orleans’ Marques Colston scores his first touchdown of the season Sunday. This guy is too good to stay quiet.