NFC South: The Big Question NFC

NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How will Carolina coach John Fox handle the development of rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen?

[+] EnlargeJimmy Clausen
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireJimmy Clausen is just the quarterback the Panthers need, but he might not start right away.
Under normal conditions, Clausen’s fall to the second round and into the hands of the Panthers would be considered a blessing. Under the current circumstances, though, his presence puts added pressure on Fox.

Clausen, as a quarterback prospect, is just what the Panthers have been looking for as a replacement for the departed Jake Delhomme. He’s smart, talented and comes from a big-time school in Notre Dame. But Fox doesn’t have the luxury to think long term. Despite his success, Fox is in the final year of his contract and there is a good chance he could leave after the season. Fox must win now, which can be difficult with a rookie quarterback.

Fox has spent the offseason with Matt Moore as the starter. Not trying to rush Clausen, Fox has had him working as the third-string quarterback behind Moore and Hunter Cantwell. To some degree, having Cantwell ahead of Clausen has slowed his development because Clausen has had fewer reps with the starters. With Moore, Clausen and Tony Pike on the roster, Cantwell won’t make the 53-man roster unless there is an injury.

Further complicating things is the broken arm suffered by wide receiver Steve Smith. None of the quarterbacks gets to work with their go-to wide receiver until the start of the regular season. Clausen has the benefit of knowing the offense. Jeff Davidson, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator, worked with former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis in New England and has installed the same system Clausen ran in college. The conventional thought is that Moore enters the season as a starter, but if teams figure him out and the Panthers lose some games, Clausen could get the nod. Still, the Panthers are mostly a running offense, so it could be easier to start Clausen at the beginning if Fox wanted. It’s a tricky situation to sort out this summer.

Big Question: Who are Bucs' WRs?

July, 6, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What wide receivers does Josh Freeman have to throw to this season?

[+] EnlargeMike Williams
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaFourth-round pick Mike Williams has looked sharp in minicamps.
As it was with its defensive tackle weakness, Tampa Bay was very proactive on draft day bolstering its wide receiver corps. Before the draft, the Buccaneers may have had the worst set of wideouts in the NFL. While this wideout group grows up with a very promising second-year quarterback in Freeman, there will be a learning curve, but the future is pretty bright at this position. I commend Tampa Bay for acquiring talent for Freeman to develop with. Too many teams select a quarterback in the first round but don’t do enough to help him be successful in a difficult transition to the NFL.

Fourth-round pick Mike Williams and second-round selection Arrelious Benn are obviously the players to watch. Rarely does a situation present itself so well for a pair of rookies to come in and make an immediate impact. While it wouldn’t necessarily be reason for concern if it didn’t occur, Tampa Bay would love to see Williams and Benn establish themselves as the starting wideouts. By most accounts, and obviously it is extremely early in the process -- Williams is ahead of Benn and has been very impressive. Benn also has battled an ankle injury. Williams probably offers more big-play vertical ability. Neither player is afraid of contact, but Benn is the more physical wideout in all areas of his game. These two hold the fate of the Bucs’ receiving corps in their hands. That is pretty exciting, and I can’t wait to watch them work with Freeman during the preseason.

The two talented rookies stand apart from the pack at this position, but Tampa Bay does have another youngster to pay attention to in Sammie Stroughter. I like this second-year receiver’s game. He is a pure slot guy, but he is quick, tough and reliable. His skill set probably will never translate into a starting role, but he is perfect for the slot and with Williams and Benn in the fold, Tampa should be set with their top three wideouts for years to come.

If the youngsters hit stumbling blocks, Reggie Brown would most likely pick up the slack in 2010. Brown isn’t real dynamic and quickly fell out of favor in Philadelphia, but he has been productive and can be a bridge player for the short term.

Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall are two more big-bodied wideouts who could surprise. Everyone knows Clayton’s story -- a one year wonder right out of college who hasn’t done a thing since. But now, there isn’t any pressure. Will he step up and make an impact? I doubt it, as I see little explosion and he struggles to get consistent separation. But is it possible? Sure, why not? Stovall also is talented, but has never put it all together. Injuries have played a factor, but he just hasn’t shown any level of consistency.

This season might not be pretty and surely the Bucs will feature a ball-control approach in the passing game. I also expect a lot of throws in the middle of the field to Benn, Williams, Stroughter and Kellen Winslow -- whom I also expect to be a factor in a wideout role detached from the formation. But the future is bright here and the young players will get every opportunity to succeed.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can the Atlanta Falcons have a winning record for the third straight season?

There was some minor celebrating at the end of last season when the Falcons won their final three games to finish 9-7 and record back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. It still wasn’t good enough for the Falcons to get to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time and that was mildly disappointing after a 2008 season in which rookie coach Mike Smith and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan took Atlanta to the postseason.

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Kevin Liles-US PresswireThe Falcons need a stronger season from John Abraham and the Falcons' pass rush.
Blame last year on injuries and bad luck. But maybe a season in which everything that could go wrong did is exactly what the Falcons needed to raise the bar for 2010. They were a 9-7 team when everything was working against them.

They should be much better when things are going well. Things can always change, but, right now, the schedule doesn’t look all that difficult. Injured guys like defensive tackle Peria Jerry, safety William Moore and receiver Harry Douglas are expected back at full strength. Running back Michael Turner is in much better physical condition than he was at this point a year ago and he seems to be on a mission to prove that his 2008 season wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

The Falcons took their annual one large plunge into free agency by signing cornerback Dunta Robinson and that should solidify the secondary. First-round pick Sean Weatherspoon should give Atlanta a playmaker at linebacker. The only uncertainty is the pass rush. Maybe John Abraham can bounce back from a quiet season and maybe Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury can take the next step in their development.

The pass rush and the New Orleans Saints might be the biggest obstacles the Falcons face at the moment. Even with those issues hanging out there, this looks like a team that’s on course for a third straight winning season.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can Carolina coach John Fox trust a rookie wide receiver?

He’d better. Although Fox is the ultimate creature of habit and rarely has given young wide receivers big opportunities in the past, that might not be possible this year. That’s simply because Fox really doesn’t have much choice.

[+] EnlargeBrandon LaFell
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireYoung receivers like Brandon LaFell may need to be called on this season.
The Panthers invested two early draft picks in wide receivers Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards . Beyond Steve Smith, who will miss at least part of training camp with a broken arm, the Panthers have virtually nothing else at wide receiver. Dwayne Jarrett is a guy who never has played up to his potential and Kenneth Moore might be able to be a role player.

Jarrett is a good example of Fox’s tendency to go slow with young receivers. The coach doesn’t like to play them because they’re capable of making mistakes. Aside from Keary Colbert, who had a decent rookie year before disappearing, Fox never has given a rookie receiver much playing time.

But Fox, who is in the last year of his contract, needs to think more about possible big plays than possible big mistakes by LaFell and Edwards. The Panthers desperately need someone to take some of the defensive attention off Smith.

LaFell is big and strong and has all of the tools to be an every-down receiver. Edwards is speedy and dynamic and can give the Panthers a real slot receiver for the first time in years.

Fox has been given the parts he needs at wide receiver. Now he just has to use them.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will the New Orleans Saints be better in 2010 than they were in 2009?

[+] EnlargeGregg Williams
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesIf Gregg Williams' defense improves, the Saints could have a repeat of last season's success.
We actually need to give credit to New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for creating that question. While driving over the weekend, I caught a quick clip of Williams on Sirius NFL Radio and he was talking about how the Saints could be better this year.

He’s got a point. Yeah, recent history hasn’t been kind to Super Bowl champions as they head into the next season. We’ve already addressed many times how the Saints are going to be the big target on every opponents’ schedule and about how things like legal issues and Jeremy Shockey fainting spells can be distractions. Those are all very valid points. Things like that have been the downfall for other teams and it could turn out the same way for the Saints.

But, for a change, let’s play on Williams’ statement and wonder why the Saints actually could be better. It’s hard to repeat as a Super Bowl champion, but the way the Saints are set up, I don’t think it’s impossible. With Drew Brees in his prime, the offense isn’t going to get any worse. In fact, I think the return of a healthy Heath Evans at fullback and positive contract resolutions with Pierre Thomas and Jammal Brown, the offense could be better.

The special teams already are very good. That brings us to the defense, which was the biggest question entering last season. All the Saints really lost on defense was linebacker Scott Fujita. He was a nice player, but the Saints have a lot of young legs to replace him.

With Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson, they probably have upgraded on Charles Grant at defensive end. Their collection of defensive backs is as talented as any in the league. Williams knows this defense better than anyone else.

If he’s saying the Saints could be better, it might be because he sees his defense getting even better.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can Dwayne Jarrett emerge as a successful No. 2 wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers?

[+] EnlargeDwayne Jarrett
AP Photo/Rick HavnerDwayne Jarrett hasn't lived up to expectations in Carolina so far.
It seems that question gets asked every year. But the answer really could be different this year. Jarrett’s been a bust since the Panthers used a second-round pick on him in 2007.

But let’s keep a couple of things in mind. Jarrett is still only 23 years old and came out of USC early. Carolina coach John Fox has a long history of not placing a lot of trust in the hands of young wide receivers.

But that could change in Jarrett’s fourth year in this offense. He should know the system by now and he really is the most logical candidate to start opposite Steve Smith. Yes, it’s true the Panthers used early-round picks on Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards, but it’s tough to see Fox trusting either of them enough to put them directly in the starting lineup.

Jarrett may get the first shot simply because of his experience and the Panthers still would not have him on the roster if they didn’t think there was some upside. At 6-foot-4 and 219 pounds, Jarrett is a logical choice to take over the starting job vacated by Muhsin Muhammad. Like Muhammad, Jarrett is big enough to be an effective blocker in the running game and a possession target for quarterbacks Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen.

Jarrett’s never had more than 17 catches in a season, but there are some football people in Carolina who believe he can be a quality No. 2 if he’s given a chance to play the role.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Who will the Saints bring in to back up Brees?

The New Orleans Saints are a team without a veteran backup behind quarterback Drew Brees -- at least for the moment.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesThe Saints need to bring in an insurance policy for Drew Brees.
Brees has been durable and the offensive line played so well last year that he rarely was touched. Veteran backup Mark Brunell didn’t look especially good when he got to play late last season and there are strong rumblings the New York Jets will sign him just before training camp.

I’m not ruling out a Brunell return to New Orleans. But, at the very least, I think it’s safe to say the Saints will add a quarterback with some experience at some point. The only quarterbacks they have besides Brees are Chase Daniel and rookie Sean Canfield. The Saints like them both, but they’re viewed as projects.

This is too good a team to leave in the hands of an untested quarterback if anything happens to Brees. Due to the "final eight" rules, the Saints are rather limited in their ability to sign true unrestricted free agents.

They’ve had Patrick Ramsey and Josh McCown in for visits and could do something with one of them later. The Saints did a nice job of keeping their championship roster together and put some good patches on some need areas.

They’re pretty much set at every spot, except backup quarterback. They’re not done there yet. Sometime in the coming weeks, the Saints have to bring in a backup with some experience who can handle the team in case anything happens to Brees.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Where will the pass rush come from in the NFC South?

We asked that same question back when Julius Peppers was leaving the Carolina Panthers. Although you could have argued at the start of the offseason that every team in the NFC South needed to make a dramatic move at defensive end, none of them have.

[+] EnlargeAbraham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Falcons are counting on John Abraham to rebound from a subpar 2009 season.
The Saints have the division’s top remaining defensive end in Will Smith and they need another year of double-digit sacks from him. But it remains to be seen if they can get Smith any help from the other side. Charles Grant was cut and a lot of fans say that’s addition by subtraction. The Saints did add Jimmy Wilkerson and Alex Brown. But they’re a pair of guys who have been nothing more than steady veterans.

Atlanta’s the team that talked the most about improving the pass rush in the offseason, but the Falcons haven’t made dramatic moves. They’re pretty much sticking with what they’ve got -- hoping John Abraham can bounce back from a lackluster season and gambling that Kroy Biermann or Lawrence Sidbury can step forward. Although they did little on the outside, the Falcons strongly believe that the return of defensive tackle Peria Jerry from injury will create a surge in the middle that should help free up the defensive ends.

Tampa Bay is following a similar philosophy. The Buccaneers used their first two draft picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Their primary task is to stop the run. But McCoy has the tools to give the Bucs an interior pass rush for the first time since Warren Sapp left the team.

That Panthers didn’t panic when they let Peppers walk as a free agent. They had been preparing for this situation in the past few drafts. They brought back veteran Tyler Brayton as insurance, but they believe Everette Brown, their top draft pick from 2009, and Charles Johnson are ready to step up and help fill the void left by Peppers’ departure.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ready to give up on Sabby Piscitelli as their starting strong safety?

[+] EnlargePiscitelli
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireSabby Piscitelli's future with the Bucs is a little uncertain heading into the season.
If you watched Piscitelli in Monday’s workout, you saw him line up with the first-team defense. Maybe it’s just a matter of giving Sean Jones time to learn the playbook. Or maybe the Buccaneers really are giving Piscitelli a chance to keep his job.

If you watched Piscitelli last season, it was ugly. He had all sorts of problems in coverage and his tackling was bad. That’s a pretty brutal combination for a strong safety. But the Bucs did see something last year that inspired them to move Jermaine Phillips to linebacker in an effort to get Piscitelli on the field.

In the eyes of the fans, Piscitelli quickly went from being the next John Lynch to the symbol of all that was wrong with Tampa Bay’s defense. He certainly deserved some criticism, but I’m not ready to write this guy off just yet.

Strong safety is a position like right field in Little League or softball. When you’ve got a good defense, it’s not all that important. Fact is, the Bucs had a horrible defense last year and Piscitelli went from being hidden to being exploited badly.

Maybe -- and I’m just saying maybe -- all the moves on defense will make the Bucs better and give Piscitelli a chance. In theory, their pass rush should be better and the cornerback tandem of Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib should keep the pressure off the safeties.

I think back to this time a year ago when a lot of New Orleans fans wanted to run off strong safety Roman Harper. On a bad defense in 2008, Harper was hung out in coverage a lot and he struggled. In 2009, the Saints upgraded their defense all over the place. Harper no longer got stuck in long-term coverage and turned in an excellent season. He was allowed to do what he does best, which is to make hits and sort of be an extra linebacker.

That’s kind of the ideal role for a strong safety. Maybe the improvements to Tampa Bay’s defense will prevent Piscitelli from having to do too much deep coverage and that would be a big plus. But if Piscitelli really is going to be the next Lynch, he has to start hitting like Lynch. Or, at very least, he has to make the tackles that are in front of him. If he can’t do that, Jones is waiting in the wings.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Who will be Drew Brees' backup in New Orleans this year?

Mark Brunell
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesThe Saints' backup quarterback last season, Mark Brunell, is still a free agent.
My guess is that quarterback isn’t even on the roster yet. Yes, the Saints took a long look at several quarterbacks in their recent rookie camp. They brought in Syracuse’s Greg Paulus and seventh-round pick Sean Canfield also took part. Paulus is a former Duke basketball player who played only one year of college football. At best, he’s a developmental prospect. Maybe he spends some time on the practice squad.

Canfield also is a prospect. He was a seventh-round pick and it’s unrealistic to expect him to start off as anything more than a No. 3 quarterback. But that role was held by Chase Daniel last season and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Daniel and Canfield competing for the No. 3 job this year.

Yes, the Saints like Daniel, but he’s got no real experience. It’s kind of a stretch to imagine the Saints just handing the No. 2 job to Daniel at this point.

They’ve got a Super Bowl championship team. Let’s get hypothetical for a second and say Brees twists an ankle and has to miss a couple of games. Are the Saints ready to turn it over to Daniel? Or Canfield?

I seriously doubt it. This is a veteran team and just about anything less than another Super Bowl will be a disappointment. The Saints need an insurance policy behind Brees. They need someone with experience who could come in and lead them for a couple games.

You’ve got to believe something will happen on this front, especially when you look at how the Saints have collected depth just about everywhere else. Mark Brunell, last year’s backup, is still available as a free agent and I still think he’s the leading option. Yes, Brunell is old, but he already knows the system.

Even if the Saints think Brunell is too old, they’ve got to look at other guys with experience. The list of available free agents isn’t all that impressive right now. But someone like Marc Bulger could make the Saints feel a lot more comfortable with their backup situation.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Which NFC South rookie will have the most impact from the start of the season?

[+] EnlargeArrelious Benn
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIArrelious Benn has a chance to make an immediate impact with the Bucs.
Let’s go beyond the first-round picks. Let’s go beyond the biggest name in the NFC South draft class (Jimmy Clausen) because some of those guys might not start right away and some play positions where you won’t hear a lot from them. Let’s turn to Tampa Bay receiver Arrelious Benn, a second-round draft pick. Heck, let’s also throw in Tampa Bay receiver Mike Williams, a fourth-round pick.

Barring a totally disastrous training camp from either one of these guys, I see this tandem as Tampa Bay’s starters on opening day. If Benn and Williams can even come close to grasping the playbook by September, their physical talents make them better than Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall.

Throw them out there with Sammie Stroughter as the slot receiver and you have a group of receivers that’s incredibly young. But it’s also a very talented group that could make a lot of noise.

Sure, Tampa Bay’s going to be starting two rookie defensive tackles in Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. But you don’t hear a lot about defensive tackles if they’re doing their job. The same applies for Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who might not be an immediate starter. I’m not sure we’ll hear much from New Orleans first-round pick Patrick Robinson right from the start because the Saints now have such a wealth of talent in their secondary. Clausen might end up starting in Carolina. Still, the Panthers might open the season with Matt Moore as their quarterback.

But I’m pretty sure we’re going to hear a lot from Benn and Williams right from the start. Quarterback Josh Freeman needs some guys to throw to outside of tight end Kellen Winslow. Benn and Williams quickly could become popular targets.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Besides Steve Smith, who is going to catch passes for the Carolina Panthers?

Seems we ask that same question every year, or at least every year since Muhsin Muhammad left the Panthers the first time. The Panthers have turned to guys such as Keyshawn Johnson, Keary Colbert, Drew Carter and Dwayne Jarrett and none have really worked out. Muhammad, in his second stint with Carolina, did all you could ask of an aging receiver, but still didn’t produce like a true No. 2 and wasn’t able to take defensive attention away from Smith.

[+] EnlargeBrandon LaFell
Skip Williams/Icon SMIRookie Brandon LaFell could help take some pressure off of Steve Smith.
But we’ve got a fresh set of names to look at now and there’s at least hope on the horizon. Will draft picks Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards be the combination that does what all the others couldn’t?

We won’t know for sure until the fall, but there are at least reasons for optimism. LaFell comes with good size and speed and he was productive in a program that wasn’t a passing machine on offense. Colbert and Jarrett were very productive in college too, but that might have had more to do with the fact they were playing for an offensive factory at USC than with their abilities.

Edwards was a quarterback at Appalachian State, but the Panthers plan to use him as a slot receiver. That might suggest that it may take some time for Edwards to learn a new position. Plus, the Panthers' history under John Fox shows a trend of going very slowly with young wide receivers.

But it looks like all that’s about to change, and LaFell and Edwards could get a chance at big playing time right from the start. The mere fact the Panthers used an early pick on a slot receiver means they’re serious about doing more with that position. That is long overdue and it will bring the Panthers in step with the rest of the NFL.

The days of bringing rookie receivers along at a painfully slow pace in Carolina may be over. Fox and general manager Marty Hurney know they have to win now and they drafted these two guys with the idea of playing them sooner than later. Besides, there aren’t any other real options on the roster. Jarrett’s still around, but he really hasn’t shown much of anything.

Smith is screaming for help and he just might get it. One other thing to keep in mind, and this is highly significant, is the change at quarterback. Jake Delhomme locked onto Smith way too much and used him as a crutch. That hurt all of the other receivers.

Delhomme is gone and Matt Moore or Jimmy Clausen will be the quarterback. They’ll still want to get the ball to Smith, but he no longer is going to be the only option in the passing game.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What if defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy are gone before the Buccaneers pick at No. 3?

[+] EnlargeRussell Okung
John Rieger/US PresswireIf the top defensive tackles are off the board, the Bucs could consider offensive tackle Russell Okung.
The general consensus is that the Rams will pick quarterback Sam Bradford at No. 1 and the Lions will pick one of the two defensive tackles at No. 2, leaving the other for the Buccaneers. But the Rams haven’t definitively said they’re taking Bradford. It seems as if Suh would be the likely candidate for the Rams if they do pull a surprise.

Let’s say they took Suh. Detroit almost certainly will go with McCoy because the Lions need a defensive tackle as much as the Bucs do. If that happens, the Bucs suddenly wouldn’t be in a very good spot. Their best hope then would be that someone would be anxious enough to trade up for Bradford. That would be nice because the Bucs probably could get a good player if they move back a few spots and they’d probably be adding at least one more draft pick. But draft trades are easier said than done.

If the Bucs are at No. 3 and Suh and McCoy are gone, the choice likely will come down to safety Eric Berry or offensive tackle Russell Okung. The argument there opens a whole can of worms. Do you really draft a safety that high? The Bucs certainly could use help back there, and Berry’s the best defensive back in the draft. But how many problems is a safety going to solve if you don’t upgrade your front four?

Okung would have to be intriguing. He is a franchise left tackle and could protect franchise quarterback Josh Freeman. But the Bucs already have a decent left tackle in Donald Penn. But Penn has been making some noise about wanting a new, long-term contract. If the defensive tackles are gone, the Bucs might have to switch up and get an offensive tackle.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Would the Carolina Panthers actually take quarterback Tim Tebow with their first pick in this year’s draft?

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesThe Panthers have shown interest in quarterback Tim Tebow.
There’s been a lot of buzz about this because the Panthers have shown up at Tebow’s workouts and had a private meeting with the Florida quarterback. Coach John Fox even heaped praise on Tebow during the owners meeting. But don’t read too much into that. Fox praises every potential draft pick and constantly praises players on other teams. It’s his way of making sure he never gives anyone any bulletin-board material.

Tebow might be available when the Panthers are up with the No. 48 overall pick and, at the moment, they really only have Matt Moore at quarterback. They clearly have to make a move (or two) at quarterback in the draft or free agency.

But drafting Tebow would be breaking from their history and with the way Fox and general manager Marty Hurney have thought throughout their tenure. They never have used a pick earlier than the fourth round on a quarterback and both the coach and general manager repeatedly have said that’s because they think it takes too long to develop a rookie quarterback.

Let’s face it, even if Tebow turns into a legitimate NFL quarterback, it’s going to take some time. He’s got to adjust to a pro-style offense and he just recently overhauled his entire throwing motion. He’s not going to come in and start right away. The Panthers need someone who can just in case Moore, who showed great promise at the end of last year, doesn’t work out.

Carolina has some very pressing needs and the Panthers need to use their first draft pick on a player that can help them immediately. Fox and Hurney are in a spot where they have to win this year. Drafting Tebow isn’t the kind of move that will provide immediate results. If they take Tebow, it could be their parting gift to a new regime.

The Big Question: Saints wise?

April, 6, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Are the New Orleans Saints doing the right thing by staying so quiet?

The Saints sat high atop the football world after winning the Super Bowl in February. But the future stories of recent champions hasn’t been pretty.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
Geoff Burke/US PresswireSean Payton and the Saints have remained relatively quiet during the free-agency period.
Still, the Saints pretty much have been sitting still in free agency, not adding much of anything and losing a couple of key cogs.

The truth is, they’re handling the situation perfectly and you have to keep in mind this is a unique situation. Without a labor agreement, the NFL is headed into a season without a salary cap and some special rules apply to the final eight teams left standing last season. That means the Saints can only sign an unrestricted free agent when they lose one of their own and the price tags are similar.

To date, all they’ve really lost are unrestricted free agent Scott Fujita and restricted free agent Mike Bell. They also released defensive end Charles Grant and a few others, but you can call that addition by subtraction, and the Saints may look to replace Grant with Alex Brown, who recently was cut by the Bears.

Fujita, an outside linebacker, and Bell, a running back, each played important roles last season. But neither player was part of the team’s core. They both got big money elsewhere and the Saints would have matched or bettered those offers if they truly believed Fujita and Bell were irreplaceable.

The Saints have a bevy of young linebackers and they’re hoping one of them can step forward and claim Fujita’s job. They also might pick up a linebacker in the early rounds of the draft, so the loss of Fujita isn’t devastating.

Neither is the loss of Bell. He was part of the backfield rotation with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush last year. But the Saints also have a young power runner in Lynell Hamilton. They’ve sniffed around a couple of free-agent running backs and it’s also a position they might address in the draft.

The Saints also are letting veteran safety Darren Sharper hang out there as an unrestricted free agent. They still want him back, but they’re not going to break the bank on a 34-year-old safety. From the looks of things, it doesn’t appear any other team is beating on Sharper’s deal to give him a huge contract. There are contingency plans in place if Sharper leaves.

No matter how that one plays out, the Saints are in good shape. Their real focus this offseason is to protect their core and they’ve done that by placing high tenders on restricted free agents like guard Jahri Evans. At some point, they’re going to have to give him a long-term contract. They also are likely to extend the contract of quarterback Drew Brees, who is the core of the core.

Yes, the Saints haven’t added very much, but that will change some with the draft. Besides, the Saints haven’t lost all that much. They still have the core of a team that won a Super Bowl, which is a lot more than most teams can say.