NFC South: Thomas Decoud

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brenton Bersin can be easily found on most days by looking for the long, blond locks flowing from the back of his helmet.

He's even easier to find these days on the field.

With first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin rehabbing a bruised left knee suffered on Sunday, Bersin is lining up with starters Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant when the team goes to three-receiver sets.

[+] EnlargeBrenton Bersin
AP Photo/Chris KeaneBrenton Bersin is making the most of his chances in training camp with the Panthers.
He caught the first pass from quarterback Cam Newton out of that formation during Friday's practice, delayed from morning to afternoon because of rain.

Bersin currently is ahead of free agent acquisition Tiquan Underwood and several young receivers, including Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Keolaha Pilares. The Panthers said they wanted to get a good look at those three when they released all-time leading receiver Steve Smith.

This is the pinnacle of a journey that began with Bersin being cut early in the 2012 camp after being signed as an undrafted free agent and making the practice squad last season.

Pay attention here: Bersin is a serious threat to make the team.

This makes him one of the more intriguing stories in camp simply because of his past. He grew up in Charlotte as a neighbor of Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. He then went to Wofford College, where as a junior, his nine touchdown catches tied the school record Richardson set in 1958.

If he makes the 53-man roster, he'll be the first Wofford player to do so since Richardson played for the world champion Baltimore Colts in 1959.

For the moment, Bersin is the big man on the Wofford campus -- for the second time in his career.

“It's all surreal," Bersin said. “I've probably stayed in every single dorm on campus, from school and then camp here with the Panthers."

There's nothing surreal about what Bersin is doing on the field. At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, he's a big target for Newton. Having come from the run-oriented triple-option offense at Wofford, he's also one of the team's better blockers at wide receiver.

That's key for a team that wants to base its offense around a power running game. That's why the Panthers are giving him a look with the first team with Benjamin out.

"He's done a nice job for us," coach Ron Rivera said. "He's one of those guys we're interested to see how he plays when he plays against the other team's No. 1.

"He might be able to help us. He's going to get opportunities. He's earning these opportunities with the things he's done. We'll see how he progresses. The preseason games will be really big for his opportunity."

Confidence is the biggest difference between Bersin now and when he first tried out for the Panthers. But there's a reason the Panthers have kept him around for three years.

"Hey, y'all are taking note of Bersin right now, but we've known what he's been able to do the last couple of years," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said. "He's been the guy that has come out and competed hard. He's made plays for a long time.

"If he continues the way he's doing, he's going to get opportunities. I'm looking forward to Bersin doing great things."

Safety Thomas DeCoud called Bersin a "really good diamond in the rough."

Bersin isn't taking anything for granted. As close as he is from realizing his dream of making an NFL roster, he understands the importance each practice.

“The NFL is a cutthroat business,” Bersin said. “You can't go out there and make any mental mistakes and you only have a limited number of reps, so you have to go out and perform every day."

And stand out, which he's done.
It was clear from the outset how the Atlanta Falcons wanted to approach free agency: Get stronger up front.

The offensive and defensive lines struggled miserably last season. So if money was going to be spent on free agents, it was bound to be spent on offensive and defensive linemen, not safeties or tight ends.

Such was the case when the Falcons agreed to terms with defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and offensive guard Jon Asamoah.

Soliai
Asamoah
Starting with Soliai, the Falcons rewarded the big nose tackle with a five-year contract with a max value of $33 million with $14 million guaranteed, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. The 6-foot-4, 340-pound Soliai immediately becomes the Falcons' most intimidating defensive lineman. And he'll be counted upon to take on double teams and pave the way for the linebackers to make plays with the Falcons expected to move toward more of a 3-4-based scheme.

Jackson (6-4, 296) will be a key figure up front, too. The former third-overall pick in 2009 was drafted by Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli when Pioli was the Chiefs' general manager. Jackson reportedly received a five-year deal worth a max of $25 million.

And Asamoah, who also agreed to a five-year deal (financial terms were not immediately available), might be the guy with the biggest burden to carry. The offensive line has been horrendous, allowing Matt Ryan to be the league's most pressured quarterback last season. The Falcons hope Asamoah steps in at right guard and develops into a stabilizing force. He is known for his pass protection and should be able to provide support as a run-blocker.

"Jon is a physical, experienced offensive lineman that will add a veteran presence to our offensive line," Falcons coach Mike Smith said about Asamoah.

The Falcons got it right. They addressed the most pressing needs from the outside and also re-signed two other key figures in center Joe Hawley and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. Hawley should start in the middle with Asamoah and left guard Justin Blalock next to him. Babineaux should add depth to the defensive line rotation.

It all could equal a climb back to the top for the Falcons, although other aspects still need to take shape. The release of former Pro Bowl free safety Thomas DeCoud means the Falcons have to find a capable replacement next to strong safety William Moore. There is still a void at tight end with Tony Gonzalez retiring, although Levine Toilolo will be counted upon to elevate his game.

More importantly, the Falcons need to look at adding an offensive tackle and pass-rusher, maybe through the draft. The names that immediately come to mind are Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack. Right now, the Falcons hold the sixth-overall pick in the draft.

It will make for some interesting decisions to come. But for now, the Falcons made the right choice.

"We were focused on adding pieces along our offensive and defensive lines, and I feel we were able to accomplish that today," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

Certainly the Falcons have much more to accomplish.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith sounded cautiously optimistic about the knee injury suffered by linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, and expects free safety Thomas DeCoud back in the lineup off a concussion.

DeCoud
Weatherspoon
Weatherspoon
Weatherspoon injured his knee in Sunday’s 27-26 win against the Washington Redskins. It remains unclear whether it is the same knee injury that landed him on the injury report prior to the Green Bay game.

"I do not have an update on Sean," Smith said Monday. "We met this morning, and there was no update. I anticipate that if there’s anything that you guys need to know, we’ll let you know. If not, (then) on Wednesday, we’ll see where he’s at. (I) believe that he’ll be ready to go at some point in time this week."

The Falcons next play Dec. 23 at San Francisco on ESPN's "Monday Night Football."

If Weatherspoon is unable to go, Stephen Nicholas would return to the starting lineup alongside rookies Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. Nicholas had five tackles and a forced fumble after Weatherspoon left Sunday’s game.

As for DeCoud, he missed the Redskins game after suffering a concussion against Green Bay. DeCoud stood on the sideline Sunday.

"Thomas will go to the next step in the protocol," Smith said. "He will be participating in practice on Wednesday, but it will be non-contact. We’re anticipating that we’ll have Thomas back, barring any setbacks in practice."

Smith reiterated his stance from last week about not having any intentions of shutting DeCoud down for the season.

"The doctors will make that decision based on what they say," Smith said. "If they have cleared him to go out and play, we need to have Thomas out there on the field. It gives us the best chance to win."

The Falcons went with rookie seventh-round pick Zeke Motta in place of DeCoud on Sunday, and Motta admitted making a few mistakes in coverage.

"I thought Zeke did some good things," Smith said. "Obviously, as we mentioned, there are some learning opportunities, some learning situations on certain plays. I thought as the game went on, he played much better.

"There at the end of the ball game, I thought that he made some very physical tackles. And it was his first time starting in the National Football League, and he did a good job for us."

Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White to play

December, 15, 2013
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ATLANTA -- Tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Roddy White are active for the Atlanta Falcons, as expected, despite being listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins.

Gonzalez
Gonzalez has been dealing with a nagging toe injury, and White banged up his left knee against the Green Bay Packers last Sunday.

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (shoulder) and safety Zeke Motta (hand) are active, also, despite being listed as questionable.

Safety Thomas DeCoud (concussion) and running back Antone Smith (knee) are inactive. Also inactive: linebacker Omar Gaither, tackle Terren Jones, tackle Sean Locklear, tight end Chase Coffman, and defensive tackle Travian Robertson.

For the Redskins, quarterback Robert Griffin III is inactive, and will be replaced by Kirk Cousins. The other inactives: safety Bacarri Rambo, cornerback Chase Minnifield, linebacker Brandon Jenkins, linebacker Darryl Tapp, guard Josh LeRibeaus, and tight end Jordan Reed.
A weekly examination of the Falcons' ESPN.com Power Ranking:

Preseason: 4 | Last Week: 29 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002

The Falcons moved down a spot in the ESPN.com Power Rankings, back to No. 30, after Sunday's 22-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

At one point, the Falcons held a 21-10 edge but couldn't keep it despite creating two turnovers leading to touchdowns. They still haven't been able to string together consecutive wins this season after going 13-3 a year ago.

The Falcons did, however, get a chance to give their young players extensive playing time. Rookie cornerback Robert Alford played all the snaps at left cornerback after Asante Samuel was benched. Rookie right tackle Ryan Schraeder finished the game after Jeremy Trueblood started. And rookie safety Zeke Motta stepped in after Thomas DeCoud suffered a concussion.

The youth movement is certain to continue over the final three games as the Falcons try to establish momentum going into next season. At the same time, some of the veteran players surely want to show they deserve to stick around a little longer.

And from the standpoint of the fans, nothing would be greater than falling to the bottom of the NFL standings to secure the first overall draft pick. The Falcons current stand at the No. 3 position behind the Houston Texans and St. Louis Rams (via Washington).
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith said free safety Thomas DeCoud is going through concussion protocol after suffering the injury in Sunday’s 22-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

DeCoud
DeCoud was injured while diving at Packers running back Eddie Lacy on Lacy’s 1-yard touchdown run.

"He’ll have to go through a number of steps before he’ll be cleared to play, with the first one seeing the independent neurologist," Smith said of DeCoud. "Going through the different stages that they have in place."

If DeCoud is unable to go this week, rookie Zeke Motta would step in at safety. Motta played a season-high 55 snaps after replacing DeCoud on Sunday.

Smith also said Antone Smith is "day to day" coming off a knee injury. The running back apparently injured his patella while playing special teams and was to have an MRI.

"We do not think it’s anything significant," the coach said of Antone Smith’s injury. "We anticipate that he’ll be able to join us for practices as the week goes on."

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon injured his shoulder but finished Sunday’s game.
Marques Colston and Paul WorrilowAP PhotoPaul Worrilow, right, and the Falcons defense will try to slow down Marques Colston and the Saints.
Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith seemed annoyed by the question, but he answered it.

A reporter asked Smith this week if he is concerned about there being more New Orleans Saints fans than Falcons fans at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night.

"Absolutely not," Smith said. "Our fans, I think, are the best in the NFL. We've got a great record since we've been here in terms of winning football games. They've been very supportive. I know that they are disappointed and they are discouraged, but there's nobody more disappointed and discouraged … than us here in this building and on this football team.

"We certainly hope that they'll be out there supporting us this week. It's a big division game."

The matchup would be much more intriguing if the 2-8 Falcons were on pace with the 8-2 Saints. But that's a far-fetched scenario now.

ESPN.com Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break down the NFC South clash:

McClure: Hey Mike, I know the Saints hold a decisive edge going into this game, but this is quite a rivalry and there is much hatred between the teams. Did any of the players give any specific examples of the bad blood that exists when these rivals collide?

Triplett: No one really mentioned bad blood, but we know it exists from past examples. And no one denies the passion that exists in these annual matchups, even on these rare occasions when one of the teams is out of the playoff race. A few Saints players compared it to a college rivalry, like Stanford-Cal, insisting that the records don't matter when they square off. I think they'd also like to exorcise a few demons from their ugly Thursday night performance at Atlanta last season, so the Falcons shouldn't cling to any hopes that this might be some sort of trap game for New Orleans.

Vaughn, I haven't watched the Falcons too closely this season, but I keep being surprised that the hole gets deeper and deeper (especially after last week's loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Any signs that they're close to putting things together?

McClure: I don't see the Falcons rebounding this season, not with the Saints, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers still left on the schedule. They have to start building momentum for next season. I believe Coach Smith has already started the process by giving players such as center Joe Hawley, running back Antone Smith, tackle Ryan Schraeder and safety Zeke Motta more playing time. I wouldn't say that the Falcons are tanking it for a draft pick, but having a top-five selection has to be in their minds.

Smith talked about looking at scheme in terms of turning things around. I could see the Falcons running the ball more to balance out the offense. And defensively, they have to consider dialing up more blitzes to generate pressure, because the front four is not getting it done. They'll have a tough time contending with Drew Brees. Certainly Brees is itching for the opportunity to pick the Falcons apart, correct?

Triplett: Yes, Brees should be the Falcons' biggest concern, as usual. He's playing about as well as ever. Even when he hasn't been dominant throughout games, he's been clutch in the fourth quarter. And he's as competitive as it gets, so he certainly hasn't forgotten his shockingly bad performance at Atlanta last season (five interceptions).

I'm not sure it would do much good to blitz Brees. Three of his biggest throws this past week came when the 49ers blitzed. The best formula for slowing down the Saints passing game has been getting physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage to disrupt routes and playing solid man coverage.

The best news for Atlanta is that Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles are both a little banged up (Sproles' status is questionable). How will the Falcons match up against Graham in coverage?

McClure: In watching the last game between the teams, I saw at least three different defenders try to match up with Graham, and Graham had no problem going up against Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud. In fact, Graham scored a 7-yard touchdown after DeCoud was late getting over in coverage. It will be hard to match up one-on-one against a player as talented as Graham -- no matter if his foot and elbow are still bothering him -- so I could see some bracket coverage. But I will mention that linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who just returned to the lineup from a Lisfranc foot sprain, did an excellent job covering Graham on at least one play in Week 1. And I saw Weatherspoon working hard last week on his coverage skills coming off the injury.

Mike, I see the Saints lost cornerback Jabari Greer for the season with a torn ACL. The Falcons have Roddy White back somewhat healthy and have gotten great production from Harry Douglas. How will Greer's absence affect the Saints in terms of defending a capable receiving corps?

Triplett: That's a great question, because the Saints' play at cornerback has really been one of the underrated reasons for their success this season. Their top corner has been Keenan Lewis, who is playing at a Pro Bowl level and generally shadows the opponent's top receiver. But Greer has been very reliable as the other starter, allowing the Saints to trust those guys in single coverage quite a bit.

The Saints have decent depth behind Greer. They're going to be counting on second-year cornerback Corey White, who has shown a lot of promise but will likely face a few growing pains. His performance will be worth watching, because I'm sure the Falcons will test him out. Of course, it helps the Saints that they don't have Julio Jones to deal with, so they won't feel too sorry for themselves.

 

W2W4: Falcons vs. Saints

November, 21, 2013
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The NFC South clash between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints won't carry the same significance, with the 2-8 Falcons having a down year. But the battle is sure to be spirited regardless of records.

Here's what to watch for on Thursday night:

[+] EnlargeAntone Smith
AP Photo/Reinhold MatayThe Falcons are looking to give Antone Smith more work after he ran for 88 yards on just two carries last week.
Schraeder's time? Garrett Reynolds is expected to regain his starting role at right guard after being benched last week while Peter Konz talked as if he has been replaced by Joe Hawley at center for the immediate future. But the interesting spot to watch on the Falcons offensive line is at right tackle, where Ryan Schraeder, Jeremy Trueblood, and newcomer Sean Locklear all got first-team snaps this week. Trueblood got benched for Schraeder last week while Locklear was inactive. One of the players seems destined to be inactive Thursday, but it would make sense for the Falcons to get a longer look at the rookie Schraeder. "I feel comfortable," Schraeder said. "I'm ready to go, if I need to be called on." He played 22 offensive snaps in the last game. "I got some positive feedback," Schraeder said. "Got coached up on a few things."

Free spirit: Pro Bowl free safety Thomas DeCoud admitted he's not playing his best football right now. At the same time, he didn't appreciate all the blame being pointed his way and vented through social media about it. DeCoud has been nothing but a true professional in terms of dealing with the media, so one would expect him to handle this adversity in the same manner. He won't lose his starting job this week, but the Falcons need him to defend the deep ball better. How soon people forget that DeCoud scored the last defensive touchdown for the Falcons with a 30-yard return of a fumble recovery against the Buccaneers in Week 7.

Pressure point: Speaking of the defense, DeCoud scored his touchdown a result of a perfectly timed blitz by himself and fellow safety William Moore. In fact, the high amount of blitzes dialed up by defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was a big factor in the Falcons' last win. Would the same work against Drew Brees and the Saints? Maybe not. According to ESPN Statistics and Information, Brees completed 8 of 9 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 when the Falcons sent five or more pass rushers.

In the running: Mike Smith has said it was imperative to get Antone Smith more involved in the running game after Smith broke off a 50-yard touchdown run last week and gained 88 yards on two carries. That statement came a week after the Falcons said they needed to work their workhorse Steven Jackson more often. That's not to say that Smith will surpass Jackson as the primary ball carrier, but it will be interesting to see how the Falcons deploy Smith against the Saints. Jacquizz Rodgers was limited in practice with an ankle injury and Jason Snelling is in the doghouse following a marijuana arrest, so there will be opportunities for Smith. Plus the 5-foot-9, 192-pound special-teams ace Smith has the right approach. "I feel like I'm playing for a job every time I step in the building," he said.

Ryan's hope: Rob Ryan obviously has made an impact. The Saints had the worst defense in league history in terms of yards allowed last season. Now with Ryan coordinating the defense, the Saints boast the league's fourth-best total defense and third-best passing defense. Ryan comes at you with a variety of different looks, which will test Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's game plan. "He's really good at mixing his personnel groups," Koetter said of Ryan. "Some of how he mixes his groups is determined by the health of his guys. Whoever he's got up on game day, he uses all of his guys." The Saints lost top cornerback Jabari Greer to an ACL injury, which could benefit the Falcons.

Upon Further Review: Falcons Week 8

October, 28, 2013
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A review of five hot issues from the Atlanta Falcons' 27-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals:

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsFalcons QB Matt Ryan spent much of Sunday's game trying to avoid being hit by Cardinals defenders.
Big problem: The Falcons' defense continues to give up big plays, surrendering a backbreaking, 80-yard touchdown run to speedy Cardinals rookie running back Andre Ellington. Defensive tackle Corey Peters and linebacker Paul Worrilow missed the initial opportunity to bring Ellington down up the middle. Then Ellington bounced outside and sprinted by linebacker Joplo Bartu and safety Thomas DeCoud. Safety William Moore, who was on the other side of the play, tried to explain what happened. "Leverage is the name of the game," Moore said. "One person misses their leverage and some more people have to come put their hats on the ball. He got outside the defense, and that's going to happen nine times out of 10 when he gets outside. ... That's one of those plays where everybody could have gotten to the ball a little better." The Falcons have surrendered 11 plays of 40-plus yards this season.

No pointing fingers: Although quarterback Matt Ryan could have used much better protection -- he was sacked four times and hit 11 times -- no one in the locker room said the offensive line needed to do a better job protecting. Wide receiver Harry Douglas even seemed to take offense when it was implied that the offensive line didn't do its job. "I'm not singling anybody out," Douglas said. "We win as a team. We lose as a team. We glorify each other as a team. And we're going to fix it as a team. I think everybody across the board -- offense, defense and special teams -- we all could have did something better to win this football game and step up."

Top target: Speaking of Douglas, he finished with another stellar effort in the loss, catching 12 passes for 121 yards. He was targeted a team-high 18 times. The effort came a week after Douglas posted a career-high 149 receiving yards against Tampa Bay. With Julio Jones out for the season following foot surgery and Roddy White missing his second straight game due to hamstring and ankle injuries, Ryan looked to Douglas often. The Falcons need Douglas to continue that production when White returns to the lineup. Drew Davis, who had a career day versus the Cardinals with five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, also could be a key part of the equation when White returns.

Tight spot: Tony Gonzalez caught three passes for 26 yards to extend his streak of consecutive games with a catch to 202. But all the talk over the next two days will likely relate to whether the Falcons might consider trading Gonzalez to a contender so he can have the chance to retire with a Super Bowl ring. Gonzalez maintains he wants to finish things out in Atlanta, but he's obviously frustrated by the team's 2-5 mark. Ryan was asked if he talked to Gonzalez following Sunday's game. "Talked to him briefly and same as after we lost in the past," Ryan said. "I think everybody takes it personal. He certainly does, and I do. I think the message across the board is that we just have to get back to work."

Rotating line: When defensive coordinator Mike Nolan addresses the media on Tuesday, he's sure to be asked about his defensive line rotation. Against the Cardinals, veteran starters Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Babineaux were pulled from the lineup on a few series, including when Ellington broke loose on that 80-yard touchdown run. Cliff Matthews and Peria Jerry were on the field with Peters and Jonathan Massaquoi. Babineaux said it was just the rotation that was decided upon. We'll see how that rotation pans out for the remainder of the season.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- On Thursday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent out a letter to fans emphasizing the league’s safety programs as concussions continue to be a hot topic. In the letter, he talked about rules changes made through the decades to increase the protection for defenseless players.

DeCoud
Moore
If the league is indeed dissecting hits closer these days, then Atlanta Falcons safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud felt the effects of that increased scrutiny this week.

Both Moore and DeCoud were fined $15,750 each for plays in last week’s 30-23 loss to the Patriots. Moore was fined for unnecessarily striking defenseless Patriots receiver Kenbrell Thompkins in the head with his forearm, which resulted in a 15-yard penalty. Moore seems likely to appeal after publicly denying he did anything wrong and explaining how he tried to make the hit "as legal as I could" based on his momentum.

DeCoud was fined for hitting Patriots receiver Aaron Dobson in the end zone. DeCoud was not penalized, as he lowered his shoulder and caused Dobson's head and neck to bend awkwardly. It appeared DeCoud was simply trying to make a play, not swarm in for a head shot. Dobson has been limited in practice this week and his status for the Patriots' game on Sunday is in question.

In terms of his fine, DeCoud never mentioned it this week. But he had plenty to say about the play involving Moore.

"That was a little bit questionable,’’ DeCoud said. "It didn’t seem to me like he really made contact with the guy's head or that there was any malicious intent in his attempt to hit him. But the front office, they saw it a different way.’’

No doubt the players will continue to differ with the league about legal and illegal hits. Some have gone as far as to say the NFL is turning into flag football. Whatever the case, the rules are the rules.

Moore might have been one of the first players to be docked pay as a result of a newly implemented rule. He was fined $21,000 after Week 1 against the Saints for initiating contact with the crown of his helmet. Moore was not penalized.

The fallout surrounding that rule mostly related to running backs lowering their heads to run over defenders. But the rule, of course, applies to defensive players as well.

Since Moore has been fined at least twice already this season, one has to wonder if he might tone down his hard-hitting style a tad to avoid penalties and fines. He leads the Falcons with 39 tackles.

"The kind of football player he is and the kind of competitor he is, you can’t just turn off the way you naturally play the game,’’ DeCoud said of Moore. "You can be more mindful of it, but it’s not going to happen overnight.’’

Around the NFC South

July, 18, 2013
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Let's take a run through some headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

In his ranking of the top 25 Falcons, D. Orlando Ledbetter has William Moore and Thomas DeCoud tied at No. 8. That’s appropriate because the two starting safeties are very much on the same level and both were selected to the Pro Bowl last season.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez said there’s no doubt he’ll retire after this season. I’ll take him at his word for now, but let’s see if he changes his mind as the season goes on.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Linebacker Thomas Davis says he’s feeling better than he has at any point since 2009, when he suffered the first of three torn ACLs. Davis had a productive year last season and could be even better since he spent the offseason on the practice field instead of in the training room.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Larry Holder ranks the Nov. 21 game at Atlanta as the third most compelling game on the Saints’ schedule. The Saints will have only four days to recover from a game against San Francisco before playing this Thursday night game. The rivalry between the Saints and Falcons has become one of the best in the league in recent years and it’s pretty obvious the season opener between the two teams in New Orleans will be either No. 1 or No. 2 on Holder’s list.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Stephen Holder reports that team officials were encouraged by what they saw on the first day of ticket sales for individual games. But the Bucs haven’t sold out any games yet.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC South team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Atlanta Falcons: Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson left via free agency, but the Falcons made up for it in the draft, using their first-round pick on Desmond Trufant and their second-rounder on Robert Alford. Trufant and Alford are fine prospects, but rookie cornerbacks often struggle initially. Atlanta’s pass rush should be just average at best. Trufant is the likely starter opposite Asante Samuel. Samuel offers little against the run, but is still a very good cover man and a true ball hawk at the corner position. Another cornerback here of note is Robert McClain, who got little fanfare for his work last season but performed admirably for the Falcons. Atlanta might now have four quality options at this position. At safety, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore return as the starters. There is little behind these two, but DeCoud and Moore are a fine pairing. Moore in particular stepped up his all-around game last season and is quickly becoming a do-it-all player and a key member of this defense.

Carolina Panthers: By drafting two defensive tackles with their first two picks, the Panthers look as though they have a fantastic front seven. But their secondary still really worries me. Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore were added at cornerback, but that simply isn’t enough to elevate concerns about the back end of Carolina’s defense. Chris Gamble is out of the picture, leaving Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn as the Panthers’ starting corners, although Florence could factor into that equation. Norman had a very up-and-down -- mostly down -- 2012 season, but he does have ability and could be primed to take a step forward in 2013. Munnerlyn, who is best equipped to be a slot cornerback, is probably the Panthers’ best defensive back. Josh Thomas has been underwhelming throughout his career and will provide cornerback depth. Carolina is one of the weakest teams in the league at the safety position. Charles Godfrey will start for sure, and Haruki Nakamura is likely to be the other stating safety. Godfrey is average in coverage and isn’t much of a force in the run game, but he is the best the Panthers have right now. Nakamura should be a backup, but he will most likely be forced to log a lot of snaps. Carolina should be scouring the waiver wire for secondary help, especially at safety.

New Orleans Saints: The Saints made two prominent additions to a secondary that struggled mightily in 2012 by signing cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafting safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round. Lewis and Jabari Greer will be the Saints’ starters, with Patrick Robinson as the nickel corner, which is what suits him best. But overall, this looks like a solid trio of cornerbacks for New Orleans’ new 3-4 defense, which should stress more press man coverage, although Lewis is probably better suited to zone or off coverage. Roman Harper remains on the team right now, but his type of in-the-box safety who is a liability in coverage is starting to become a dinosaur in this league. Replacing him with Vaccaro gives the Saints much more flexibility from the position. Vaccaro is a great-looking prospect with size, range and physicality. Malcolm Jenkins also has some versatility to his game in that he can patrol the deep middle or walk up and play man coverage against a slot receiver or tight end. However, Jenkins has never quite lived up to his first-round status. Jim Leonhard also is on the roster and could provide stability in a part-time role or as a replacement if Vaccaro or Jenkins were to fall to injury. This secondary looks to be much improved from a year ago.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs made one of the biggest moves around the league this offseason by trading for Darrelle Revis. Tampa Bay featured some of the worst starting corners in the league last season. With Revis on board, that certainly will not be the case again -- even if Revis is not quite himself initially after his knee injury. Having Revis allows the Bucs to match up an elite cover man on the opposing No. 1 wide receiver and more or less leave Revis alone against the likes of Marques Colston, Steve Smith and Julio Jones or Roddy White. By doing so, the rest of the secondary obviously can manipulate coverage to better deal with other threatening weapons. That means Revis’ counterpart, most likely the disappointing Eric Wright or second-round pick Johnthan Banks, will often have safety help over the top. I would imagine Tampa Bay is hoping Banks grabs hold of that starting spot and doesn’t let go. Wright has been a liability since signing a big contract with the Buccaneers. Leonard Johnson also should factor in as a physical quality fourth corner, but he is speed-deficient. Tampa Bay also signed Dashon Goldson, giving them an excellent pairing of safeties along with last year’s first-round selection, Mark Barron. Barron is more of the strong safety type -- and Goldson more of a free safety -- but both can operate near the line of scrimmage or deep in coverage. Expect Barron to take a big step forward in his second season, especially in coverage. Barron could develop into the type of modern defender that matches up well against the new breed of athletic NFL tight ends.
It’s trendy and fun to debate which NFC South team has the best offense.

Is it Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints or Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons? Heck, you can even look at all the offensive talent Carolina and Tampa Bay have and throw the Panthers and Buccaneers into the conversation.

But trendy and fun will only get you so far. Even in this day and age, you still must play defense once in a while. Especially if you’re a team in the NFC South. The division teams must face each other twice, as well as Seattle’s Russell Wilson, New England’s Tom Brady and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick this season.

Maybe the more practical and important debate is: Which team has the best defense in the NFC South? No defense in the division was great last season. To win the division -- or do much of anything else -- this season, some NFC South defense must at least be halfway decent.

So which defense is the best?

I’m not going to even venture a guess right now because there are too many variables that must play out. I can see reasons why any of the four defenses could be the division’s best. I also can see reasons why each couldn’t.

Let’s take a look at the ceiling and the floor for each of the NFC South defenses:

ATLANTA FALCONS

[+] EnlargeUmenyiora-Rodgers
Brad Penner/US PresswireAtlanta will be counting on former Giants star Osi Umenyiora to help upgrade the team's pass rush.
Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: Coordinator Mike Nolan is one of the game’s better defensive minds. His defensive system might really take hold in Atlanta in his second season. Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is a budding star and is the centerpiece. The Falcons got a little younger at defensive end by replacing John Abraham with Osi Umenyiora.

Nolan might get a little more creative and use some more 3-4 looks. He also might be able to get more aggressive because he has fresh legs at cornerback after the Falcons drafted Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are emerging as one of the league’s best safety tandems. There’s enough talent for this defense to be very good.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: The Falcons were No. 24 in total defense (No. 21 against the run and No. 23 against the pass) last season. Umenyiora is on the downside of his career, too, and it’s not as if the Falcons have a lot of other proven pass-rushers.

The young cornerbacks could take some lumps early on. Problems covering the tight end were exposed in the playoffs last season, and the rest of the league got to watch.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: In terms of pure talent, I think Carolina has the best front seven in the division. The arrival of rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei could put the Panthers over the top. Lotulelei is the kind of wide body who’s going to make everyone around him better.

Lotulelei is going to keep blockers off linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. He also is going to take blocking away from defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, who already were pretty good at getting after the quarterback.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: As much as I can see the front seven being very good, I can see the secondary being very bad. Veteran cornerback Chris Gamble is gone, and I don’t see anything close to a true No. 1 cornerback on this roster. The picture isn’t much brighter at safety.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: New coordinator Rob Ryan is going to bring swagger and an aggressive attitude. That can only help a unit that ranked No. 32 in total defense last year.

More importantly, Ryan is going to bring a 3-4 scheme. That’s the defensive system that seems to be having leaguewide success these days. The Saints have some good individual talent on defense with players such as end Cameron Jordan and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro should make an immediate impact.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: The defense was a mess under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo last season, and I’m not sure simply changing schemes will solve everything. Outside of Vaccaro and cornerback Keenan Lewis, it’s not as if the Saints have added a lot of big-time talent this offseason.

It could take more than one season for Ryan’s defense to really turn the corner.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: On paper, I think Tampa Bay might have more talent than any other defense in the division. After ranking No. 32 against the pass last season, the Bucs went out and got cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Johnthan Banks and safety Dashon Goldson. Linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy already are very good.

If young defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers can step up, this could be a solid defense in all areas.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: It seems as if the Bucs are pinning a lot of their hopes on Clayborn and Bowers. Both have already dealt with injuries and are not that experienced.

If the pass rush isn’t effective, all those upgrades in the secondary might not matter very much.
All four NFC South general managers like to talk about the importance of building through the draft and they mean it.

But the reality is that there is only one NFC South team that ranks among the league leaders when it comes to building through the draft.

The Atlanta Falcons currently have 40 of their own draft picks on the roster. That’s the second-highest total in the league. Green Bay is No. 1 with 45, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The first step with any draft pick obviously is developing. But the next step, assuming those players develop into anything, is retaining them. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith have made it part of their core philosophy to retain their own players. They’ve backed it up recently by re-signing the likes of Sam Baker, William Moore and Thomas DeCoud and they likely will get quarterback Matt Ryan signed to a contract extension at some point this offseason.

The rest of the NFC South teams don’t have nearly as many homegrown players. The Panthers are near the league average with 31 of their own draft picks. Previous general manager Marty Hurney was big (sometimes to his own detriment) on keeping his own draft picks. New general manager Dave Gettleman is in the process of shaping the roster his way and that drove Carolina’s number down a bit.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints rank near the bottom of the league in this department. The Bucs have 28 of their own draft picks on the roster. Only five teams have fewer.

That brings us to the Saints. They’re last with only 24 of their draft picks on the roster.
We conclude our pre-draft rankings of position-group needs with the defensive backs.

Remember, the earlier the ranking, the greater the need.

Carolina Panthers: General manager Dave Gettleman has assembled a group of guys that could be decent second or third cornerbacks. But the Panthers still could be in the market for a true No. 1 cornerback. They also need to upgrade at safety.

New Orleans Saints: The pass defense was a mess last year. That’s why the Saints signed cornerback Keenan Lewis as a free agent. They’re hoping Jabari Greer can bounce back from a rough season, but they may want to upgrade from Patrick Robinson as the nickel back. The Saints also could look for a safety to challenge Roman Harper.

Atlanta Falcons: The only reason I have the Falcons third in this area is because everything is relative. The Panthers and the Saints have desperate needs in the secondary. The Falcons, who have Pro Bowl safeties in Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, aren’t desperate but they do have a significant need at cornerback. They need one more starting-caliber cornerback to go with Asante Samuel and Robert McClain.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A couple days ago, the Bucs would have topped this list. But the trade for cornerback Darrelle Revis changed everything. Tampa Bay suddenly has a pretty solid secondary with Revis joining Eric Wright and safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron. But it still is possible Tampa Bay could draft a cornerback fairly early because they’re unsettled at nickel back.

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