NFC South: Three and Out
Three quick hits on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
1. Monte Kiffin and Derrick Brooks are gone. So are the days of Tampa Bay being an elite defense. Aside from middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, there's not a blue-chip player in his prime on this unit. Safety Tanard Jackson and cornerback Aqib Talib may be closing in on that category, but Jackson's going to miss the first four games of the regular season because of a suspension and Talib may face disciplinary action for a recent suspension. New coordinator Jim Bates is a great motivator and a strong strategist, but he hasn't been dealt a great deal of talent. Unless cornerback Ronde Barber can regain some of his youth and defensive end Gaines Adams suddenly develops pass-rush moves, Tampa Bay may be counting on its offense
to carry its defense for the first time in ... well, forever.
2. One of the trends in the NFL is having a two-headed monster at running back. Football Outsiders The Football Outsiders use their unique brand of analysis to break down each of the league's 32 teams. Tampa Bay Buccaneers I can see Tampa Bay having a three-headed monster -- maybe even a four-headed monster. The Bucs brought in Derrick Ward as a free agent and he's going to be the closest thing the Bucs have to a feature back. But Earnest Graham already has shown he can produce and he's going to eat into Ward's carries. The Bucs also have big plans to use Clifton Smith as a running back this year. Smith made the Pro Bowl as a return man as a rookie and can make things happen in open space. Then, there's Cadillac Williams, who is coming back from a major knee injury for the second straight year. If Williams is fully healthy, he's good enough to fit in a rotation with Ward and Graham.
3. There's been a lot of speculation that coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik are in over their heads. I'm not buying it. Yes, they're both young, but they're also talented. The Glazer brothers (Bryan, Joel and Ed), who run the team, are smart businessmen and they sensed the organization needed some youthful enthusiasm. They found it within their own organization and Morris has made it a point to surround himself with experienced assistants like Bates and offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski. Dominik's spent his career being groomed by the likes of Rich McKay, Jerry Angelo, Tim Ruskell and Bruce Allen. Morris and Dominik at least have a long-term plan, which is a step up over the previous regime. A long time ago, McKay and Tony Dungy were put in charge of this franchise when it was the worst in the league and a lot of people said they were in over their heads. McKay and Dungy had a plan and look how that turned out.
TAMPA, Fla. -- There could be even another element to the quarterback situation for the Buccaneers.
The team could be looking to trade one of its quarterbacks for a draft pick. Coach Raheem Morris wouldn't confirm an NFL.com report that the Bucs are shopping three of their quarterbacks for a trade, but he didn't deny it either.
"Oh, man, they're Nostradamus," Morris said when asked about the report. "Everybody in this league, all 32 teams around this time start calling front offices. I can't control who calls us. Everybody's interested in everybody's roster and everybody's looking to nit-pick off everybody's roster. Everybody has talent and you're trying to accumulate the best talent on your football team. That's just all that talk is what that is."
But it makes total sense for the Bucs to at least try to find out what the market value might be for Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown or Josh Johnson. They're not about to let go of rookie Josh Freeman, who they call their franchise quarterback.
But that's likely in the future. For now, it appears the Bucs will open the season with either Leftwich or McCown as their starter. They're about even at this point and a potential trade could play into Morris' decision, although the Bucs likely would be able to get only a late-round pick (at best) for any of their quarterbacks.
Leftwich, a former starter in Jacksonville, probably has more trade value because of his experience. McCown has only seven starts. Johnson, a second-year pro, has yet to play in an NFL game and probably wouldn't bring much in a trade.
Three quick hits on the Atlanta Falcons:
1. There's not going to be any sophomore slump for Matt Ryan. The quarterback is too good for that and he's also come back bigger and stronger than in his rookie season. His play on the field has looked even better than last year, when he was surrounded by a very good offense. Now, tight end Tony Gonzalez has been added to the mix and that means Ryan will only get better.
2. Quietly, the Falcons coaches will tell you they're seeing a completely different player in linebacker Stephen Nicholas from last year. That's a very positive thing and it's a reward for coach Mike Smith, who cut a deal with Nicholas to allow the linebacker to spend time with his seriously-ill son. Nicholas' son is healthy now. The Falcons believe Nicholas is ready to step into the starting job and thrive.
3. Running back Michael Turner had a phenomenal first season with the Falcons. But the team realizes it doesn't want him carrying anywhere close to the 376 times he did last year. They want to keep Turner fresh for the entire season. They'll try mix in Jerious Norwood a bit more, but they don't want Norwood carrying too big a load. With more pass plays to the tight ends suddenly in the playbook, the Falcons suddenly will turn to passes to Gonzalez to absorb some of Turner's carries.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
It's time to begin the NFC South portion of the Three and Out series we're running in conjunction with ESPNEWS. In this series, we take a look at three issues facing each team.
We'll start with the Carolina Panthers today and the NFC South portion of the series will continue through Friday with us touching on one team each day.
1. Perhaps the most common question that comes up about the Panthers is, how is quarterback Jake Delhomme going to recover from his disastrous performance in last year's playoff loss to Arizona. This should not even be an issue. Delhomme is a veteran and a total pro. He's shown the ability to bounce back before, and the playoff disaster wasn't entirely Delhomme's fault. With one of the league's best running games, coach John Fox never should have put Delhomme in a position where he had to go out and win a game on a rainy night in Charlotte. Besides, the Panthers showed they still are firmly behind Delhomme when they gave him a contract extension in the offseason.
2. It's natural to wonder if Julius Peppers' heart will be in it after he was unsuccessful in his attempt to get out of Carolina in the offseason. But Peppers doesn't really have any other choice than to give maximum effort. He's collecting over $1 million a game as the franchise player, and no matter how you look at it, he's playing for a new contract next year. Whether that comes in Carolina or elsewhere remains to be seen. But Peppers can drive up his value with a productive season.
3. There's a sudden surge of talk that DeAngelo Williams is one of the best running backs in the league. His production last year showed he's already there. But I think Williams will only enhance things this year. He won over the coaching staff with his play and the fact he's not a fumbler. That means a lot in Fox's eyes. Yes, Williams may be splitting carries with Jonathan Stewart, but Stewart's been banged up much of the preseason. Even if Stewart is healthy for the regular season, Williams still will get the bulk of the carries.
You may have seen some of the Three and Out series on ESPNEWS already. Well, just wanted to give you a heads-up that the NFC South portion will be running this week and we'll have three observations on each team running on the blog as part of this series.
We'll start Tuesday with the Panthers. The Falcons will come Wednesday, followed by the Bucs on Thursday and the Saints on Friday.
Do not -- I repeat, DO NOT -- read anything into that order as far as predicted finishes. This is just a random order picked by our television folks.
Predictions will be coming in early September and I'm still pondering the order.