NFC South: Todd McClure

Upon Further Review: Falcons Week 1

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
1:38
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A review of the hot issues from the Atlanta Falcons23-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan & Tony Gonzalez
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe Falcons' offense, including Matt Ryan and Tony Gonzalez, got off to a disappointing start in Week 1.
Not the Greatest Show on Turf: There was a lot of offseason talk about Atlanta’s offense and how it could be among the greatest ever. That was obvious Sunday as the Falcons scored 17 points against a defense that was the worst in the league last season. When you have Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Matt Ryan and Steven Jackson, you should be scoring 17 points a quarter.

A case of the drops: When they signed Jackson, the Falcons made a lot of noise about how valuable he would be as a receiver out of the backfield. But Jackson dropped two passes, including one that could have been a game-winning touchdown.

The offensive line is a problem: The Falcons juggled their offensive line after releasing right tackle Tyson Clabo and the retirement of Todd McClure. It’s obvious this unit is going through growing pains. Ryan was under duress way more than he should have been against a defense that isn’t that talented.
Steven Jackson, Mark IngramGetty ImagesSteven Jackson and Mark Ingram will try to bring more balance to two pass-heavy offenses.
Sean Payton is back to right the wrongs of last season, when his New Orleans Saints went off the rails in his absence. The first test of the season is a fitting one: The Saints open against their hated NFC South rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, who ran away with the division last season even though they split with New Orleans.

Have Payton and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan fixed that horrid defense of a year ago? Will the Saints have much of a running game? Can the Falcons protect their franchise quarterback and give him time to find his myriad weapons?

ESPN.com NFL columnist Ashley Fox and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas discuss what Saints and Falcons fans can expect from the latest installment of this heated rivalry.

Fox: He’s back. It is redemption time for Payton after missing a year because of the bounty scandal. I’m sure, given how beloved Payton is in New Orleans, that the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be so loud it might lift off. I’ve seen different estimates for Payton’s worth. How many wins do you think he’s worth to the Saints?

Yasinskas: I think Payton's presence instantly takes the Saints from a nonplayoff team to a playoff team. His skills as an offensive guru are well known, and that certainly will help. But I think the more subtle benefit to having Payton back is his skill as a motivator. He's a master in that area, and he'll have his team ready for big games. Speaking of changes that came in the offseason, what do you think was the biggest move for the Falcons?

Fox: To me, the biggest change was the addition of Steven Jackson. As you well know, the Falcons struggled to run the ball late last season, when Michael Turner clearly had nothing left in the tank. I know Jackson has hit the age when running backs typically decline, but the Falcons don't need him to carry the load. They're going to pass to get a lead and run to win the game. As long as he can stay healthy, Jackson should be able to do that. How effective do you think the Saints' running game will be?

Yasinskas: That's a very timely question. Several times this offseason, Payton has said he wants more out of his running game. The Saints always are going to be a pass-first team. But if you look back at their Super Bowl year, their running game ranked in the top 10. Payton wants to get back to that, and I believe he has the tools to do that with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram. I think you'll see more of Ingram this year. He's a guy who needs 10 to 15 carries to get going, and he can bring more balance to the offense. Speaking of balance, the Falcons seem to have plenty of that. How potent is their offense going to be?

Fox: I think they have a chance to be as potent, if not more so, than last season. The newly signed Matt Ryan has all of his toys back -- Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez. He threw for more than 4,700 yards last season and set career highs for completion percentage, attempts and completions. He could break those again this season. It will be interesting to see if the preseason, when the Falcons were flagged for countless penalties, was an aberration. They were the least penalized team in NFL history last season. As far as setting NFL records, the Saints' defense did last season and not in a good way. Do you think it is going to be any better this season under Ryan?

Yasinskas: It's hard to imagine the New Orleans defense being any worse than it was a year ago. Things just never worked for former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. I think there will be improvement with Ryan, but I'm not sure how significant it will be. The Saints are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, and I'm not sure they have all the personnel they need to be successful. Time will tell, but it's more than fair to say the defense is the biggest question mark for the Saints. Speaking of question marks, do the Falcons have any glaring weaknesses?

Fox: It is the offensive line. If Ryan is worth his salt as a defensive coordinator, he will strike the right side of the Falcons' line. That’s where the potential problems are. After 13 seasons and 194 starts, center Todd McClure retired after last season. Peter Konz, who started nine games as a rookie at right guard, slides back to his natural position at center. Left guard Justin Blaylock and left tackle Sam Baker are veteran rocks. That’s not the problem. The Falcons let right tackle Tyson Clabo walk in free agency. His replacement, Mike Johnson, broke his leg during training camp. Johnson's replacement, Lamar Holmes, was bad enough in the preseason that the Falcons signed Jeremy Trueblood earlier this week. Right guard Garrett Reynolds missed the second half of last season with an injury. How do you think Ryan will try to exploit the weakness?

Yasinskas: I agree with what you said about Atlanta's offensive line. It potentially could be a huge problem, and I'm sure Ryan is well aware of that. I'd look for him to try to exploit the right side of the line as much as possible. But the Saints have had their share of injuries on defense, and it still isn't clear how they'll apply pressure. Defensive end Cameron Jordan really is the only proven commodity as a pass-rusher. The Saints have big hopes for outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, and those guys need to become forces in a hurry. Atlanta has so many offensive weapons that the Saints need to get some pressure on the quarterback. Speaking of Atlanta's offensive weapons, is White completely healthy?

Fox: The Falcons better hope so. And they say he is, more or less. White sprained an ankle in the second preseason game but finally returned to practice this week. He is Mr. Reliable, having started 128 straight games, and had only two drops last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald had fewer among receivers who were targeted at least 100 times. So the Falcons need White to be healthy and productive. What’s up with the Saints’ third receiver situation?

Yasinskas: The Saints just brought back Robert Meachem, who didn't work out as a free agent in San Diego. I think Meachem can get back to being an impact player as a third or fourth receiver in time. But I think the Saints will open the season with rookie Kenny Stills as their third receiver. He has big-time speed, and the Saints need a downfield weapon to go along with Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Stills is an under-the-radar player who could have a big impact on this game. Do you see any Falcons who fall into that same category?

Fox: There are two undrafted rookie free agents on defense who won’t start but should see plenty of action. One is Joplo Bartu, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker out of Texas State. The other is Paul Worrilow, a 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker out of Delaware. Both are unheralded guys who are big and strong and really caught the coaches a little by surprise. Remember those two. OK, so give me a prediction. Who wins?

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons will hold their first practice of training camp this afternoon. Here are five things I’ll be keeping a close eye on:

Steven Jackson. The Falcons signed Jackson to spice up their running game after Michael Turner ran out of gas last season. But Jackson’s not exactly young either. He turned 30 earlier this week, which isn’t always a good age for running backs. But I’m expecting to see Jackson show his legs are a good bit fresher than Turner’s.

How much Tony Gonzalez practices. Part of the reason the Falcons were able to coax Gonzalez out of retiring was because they made a deal that he could go lightly in training camp. I’m guessing Gonzalez’s participation will be extremely limited. But that’s good news because the Falcons know what they have in Gonzalez and they’ll be able to take an extended look at rookie tight end Levine Toilolo.

How the offensive line lines up. Center Todd McClure retired and right tackle Tyson Clabo was released. The Falcons are moving second-year pro Peter Konz from guard to center. Garrett Reynolds appears to be the favorite to take Konz’s spot at guard. Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes are expected to compete at right tackle.

Stephen Nicholas. The veteran linebacker took a lot of heat from fans after opposing tight ends shredded the Falcons in the playoffs. But I’m not sure Nicholas was completely healthy. The Falcons still must have confidence in him because they didn’t make any dramatic moves at linebacker.

The defensive tackles. The Falcons had some talks with free agent Richard Seymour, but he has not been signed. That means the Falcons seem likely to head into the season with Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry as their top three defensive tackles. All three are heading into the final year of their contracts and I’m curious to see who steps up.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC South team?

ATLANTA FALCONS

Offense: Reshuffled offensive line
Center Todd McClure retired and right tackle Tyson Clabo was released. The Falcons elected to go with youth and stick with guys already on their roster. Second-year pro Peter Konz should be fine at center after spending much of his rookie season at guard. But the right side is a question mark with Garrett Reynolds ticketed for guard and either Mike Johnson or Lamar Holmes at tackle. If the new starters don’t step up, this offensive line could have problems.

Defense: Pass rush
It seems reasonable to expect defensive end Osi Umenyiora to fill the shoes of John Abraham. But the Falcons need the pass rush to come from other areas, as well. Kroy Biermann likely will be used as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, and he has some pass-rushing skills. Second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi also has some potential. But defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might need to get more creative and blitz his linebackers and defensive backs more often.

Wild card: Kids have to be ready
The Falcons used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. The Falcons need one of them to start right away, and the other likely will get a fair amount of playing time. Opponents are likely to test the rookies, so safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore might have to provide a lot of help early on.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Offense: Establishing an identity
The Panthers opened last season using a lot of read-option with quarterback Cam Newton. After a 2-8 start, they switched back to a more conventional running game and had much more success. I expect that trend to continue under new coordinator Mike Shula. Newton has the skills to be a very productive passer if this offense is executed the right way.

Defense: Secondary questions
Aside from free safety Charles Godfrey, no one has a clear-cut starting position in the defensive backfield. There are lots of candidates, such as Drayton Florence, Josh Norman, Josh Thomas and Captain Munnerlyn, at cornerback. But some of those guys will have to elevate their games for the Panthers to have success in defending the pass.

Wild card: Missing links?
With defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, Carolina has the potential to have one of the league’s best front sevens. But that is largely contingent upon rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. If they live up to the hype right off the bat, this front seven could be special.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Offense: Left tackle an open competition
After letting Jermon Bushrod go in free agency, the Saints have a glaring hole at left tackle. Charles Brown and Jason Smith haven’t done much in their careers, and rookie Terron Armstead is also in the mix. The Saints are hoping one of those three can step up. If not, the Saints might have to scramble to find a left tackle elsewhere.

Defense: Unit a question mark
After finishing last in the league in overall defense last season, the Saints brought in coordinator Rob Ryan and switched to a 3-4 scheme. The changes are probably a good thing, mainly because things can’t get much worse than they were last season. But it remains to be seen whether Ryan has the type of personnel to make his defense work.

Wild card: Payton’s return
If nothing else, Sean Payton’s suspension last year illustrated the true value of a head coach. He’s back now, and that should be a major positive. Payton is great with X's and O's, but he also is an excellent motivator. I expect Payton and the Saints to use what happened last year as fuel for this season.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Offense: Franchise quarterback?
It clearly is a make-or-break year for quarterback Josh Freeman as he heads into the last year of his contract. Freeman has done some very good things, but he has struggled to deliver the kind of consistency coach Greg Schiano wants. The Bucs have a strong running game with Doug Martin and two good receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. There will be no one else to blame but Freeman if this offense doesn’t prosper.

Defense: Pass rush
The Bucs let last year’s leading sacker, Michael Bennett, walk in free agency. It was a calculated gamble because the Bucs have a lot invested in Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers and believe they can be a strong duo at defensive end. They'd better be right. If they’re not, the revamped secondary might not be as good as it looks on paper.

Wild card: Leadership void
Aside from recently retired Ronde Barber, this team hasn’t had a lot of obvious leadership in recent years. Even Barber was more of a leader-by-example type than a vocal leader. The Bucs need some other players to step up. Newcomers such as cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson seem to be the most likely candidates to fill the leadership void.

Around the NFC South

July, 17, 2013
7/17/13
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Let's take a look at some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

D. Orlando Ledbetter has left tackle Sam Baker at No. 9 on his list of the top 25 Falcons. After struggling with injuries and inconsistency in his first four seasons, Baker put it all together last year and had a breakout season. That earned him a hefty new contract. Now, the challenge is to stay at a consistently high level. Baker also will need to take on more of a leadership role after the departures of center Todd McClure and right tackle Tyson Clabo.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Scott Fowler reports that Nike has apologized for briefly marketing a T-shirt that featured the Panthers’ logo along with an image of the state of South Carolina, instead of North Carolina.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

WWLTV.com examines how Will Smith will make the transition from defensive end to linebacker as the Saints switch to a 3-4 scheme. It’s going to be a challenge. Smith is 32 and has played his entire career at defensive end. But the move could help Smith because he now will be able to start off his pass rushes standing up.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The team announced several moves in the front office. The most significant might be the addition of Scott Cohen as senior personnel adviser. Cohen spent the last five years as assistant general manager with the New York Jets.

Tickets for individual games went on sale Wednesday morning and the Bucs are optimistic that at least some of their home games will be allowed to air live on local television.
julio JonesAP Photo/Dave MartinStar WR Julio Jones helps make Atlanta's roster one of the NFL's most talented from top to bottom.
From the outside, the Atlanta Falcons might appear to be sitting on a splendid perch.

They’re coming off a 13-3 season and they have a roster stocked with extraordinary talent from veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez right down to rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant. When the preseason predictions start coming out in another month or so, the Falcons are going to be a trendy Super Bowl pick, and that’s totally logical.

From the inside, I get the sense the Falcons are confident, but not totally comfortable with where they’re sitting. That’s probably because they’ve been here before.

It’s fresh in the minds of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith because it wasn’t that long ago. In 2010, the Falcons went 13-3 and seemed to be just a player or two away from the Super Bowl.

The Falcons certainly thought so. They went out and signed free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards and made a huge trade on draft day to get receiver Julio Jones. But the Falcons quickly learned that if you spend too much time and resources on fixing what was broken in the past, you can take your eye off the present and the future.

That’s what happened in the 2011 season. The Falcons stumbled to a 2-3 start. They finished 10-6, but the New Orleans Saints ran away with the NFC South title. Atlanta got a wild-card berth in the playoffs and got thumped 24-2 by the New York Giants.

Before the dust from that loss settled, coordinators Mike Mularkey and Brian VanGorder were gone. Their replacements, Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan, came in and helped set the stage for a bounce right back to 13-3.

But now comes the next step, and that’s why the Falcons shouldn’t be feeling too comfortable.

[+] EnlargeThomas Dimitroff
AP Photo/Greg TrottCoach Mike Smith, center, and GM Thomas Dimitroff focused on making the Falcons younger in key areas this offseason.
Will history repeat itself? Will the Falcons take another step back at a time when they appear poised to take a giant leap forward?

I don’t think history will repeat itself, mainly because the Falcons learned from their mistakes of 2011 and they’re taking a different approach this time around.

The most significant quote I heard this offseason was when Smith said the Falcons were 10 yards away from the Super Bowl last year, but they’re starting at 0-0 in 2013. Smith drilled that message into his team during the offseason program.

That type of self-awareness is nothing but a good thing. It’s hard just to win a game in the NFL. The Falcons have to go out and work as hard, or harder, than last year if they expect a similar season. Actually, they need to expect more. They need to expect a Super Bowl championship.

Blowing a 17-point lead to San Francisco at home in the NFC Championship Game wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough for Smith and Dimitroff and it certainly wasn’t good enough for owner Arthur Blank.

I’m not subscribing to the theory of some who believe Smith needs to win a Super Bowl or Blank will clean house. Blank’s too smart for that. He realizes he has an excellent combination in Smith and Dimitroff. But expectations are justifiably high, and it wouldn’t reflect well on Smith or Dimitroff if the Falcons end up taking a step back.

There’s a reason why I don’t think the Falcons will take a step back. It’s because Smith and Dimitroff didn’t resort to the same gold-rush attitude that they did after the 2010 season. Blame a big part of that on Edwards, who ended up being perhaps the biggest free-agent bust in NFC South history. I think Smith and Dimitroff would make the Jones trade all over again, but that’s a once-in-a-career type of deal.

Dimitroff and Smith did go out and fix one major problem area from last year. They let aging running back Michael Turner go and replaced him with a slightly younger Steven Jackson. That alone should give a huge boost to an Atlanta offense that didn’t have even the threat of a running game last year.

But, more than that, I like the fact that Smith and Dimitroff were proactive. They let a still-productive John Abraham go and replaced him with a slightly younger Osi Umenyiora. They let veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson go and went out and drafted Trufant (yes, they traded up for him, but it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the Jones trade) and Robert Alford.

Although adding veteran defensive tackle Richard Seymour still might be a possibility (at the right price), Smith and Dimitroff avoided going for quick fixes and big names this time around. They let veteran right tackle Tyson Clabo go, and center Todd McClure retired.

Sure, it’s a little scary having two new starters on an offensive line. But the Falcons have invested draft picks in the likes of Peter Konz, Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes in recent years. It’s time to get them on the field.

That’s the way you fix things for the long term -- by making deliberate and calculated moves instead of moves that smack of desperation.

That’s how you take a step forward and not a step back.
With the release of right tackle Tyson Clabo and the retirement of center Todd McClure, the Atlanta Falcons have a lot of uncertainty on their offensive line.

Coach Mike Smith didn’t set forth any concrete plan Thursday night at the team’s State of the Franchise event.

“There’s going to be an open, big competition with our offensive line,’’ Smith said. “We’ve got some young guys that we’ve drafted and they’re ready to step in and do it. I can’t say to you right now who’s going to line up (where), but it’s going to be very, very competitive.’’

Smith did reveal that the departures of Clabo and McClure mean there likely will be three new starters on the offensive line. Smith said Peter Konz, who spent most of his rookie season at right guard, will move inside and compete with Joe Hawley for the starting spot at center.

I think it’s fair to say that Konz is the favorite to win that job. But the right guard and right tackle positions appear to be wide open.

Smith said Garrett Reynolds and Mike Johnson will compete for the starting job at right guard and Johnson will compete with Lamar Holmes for the starting spot at right tackle. Holmes and Johnson are recent draft choices who haven’t received a lot of playing time. But that appears likely to change.

“The one thing I think everyone needs to understand about our movement is that we have drafted young guys to learn and be schooled and learn along the way,’’ general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “This is the time where they need to step up. This is their time. We needed to do this. It’s time for our young guys to develop and we have faith in them.’’

Around the NFC South

May, 8, 2013
5/08/13
8:53
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Time for a morning run through the headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

With the retirement of center Todd McClure and the release of right tackle Tyson Clabo, the Falcons have to revamp their offensive line. D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that it looks like Peter Konz will move from right guard to center. That’s an obvious move since Konz was a center in college. But the other two moves aren’t quite as clear and Mike Johnson could end up being the deciding factor. He could end up challenging Lamar Holmes at right tackle or Garrett Reynolds at right guard.

Quarterback Matt Ryan, who went to Boston College, threw out the first pitch at Tuesday night’s Gwinnett Braves’ game as part of the team’s Boston Strong night.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

David Monroe, one of the few people to be employed by the Panthers longer than John Kasay, has a fine tribute to the retiring kicker. Monroe had an inside view of Kasay’s career and he knows that it was about a lot more than what the kicker did on the field. During Kasay’s time in Carolina, he might have had more of an impact on the locker room than any kicker ever has.

Quarterback Cam Newton had been bouncing back and forth between the team’s offseason program and classes at Auburn in recent weeks. But Newton recently took his final exams and is now focused solely on football.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Nakia Hogan has an in-depth profile of rookie offensive tackle Terron Armstead. The thing that stood out to me most was Armstead’s performance at the college scouting combine. His numbers were off the charts and he ran the 40-yard dash faster than any offensive lineman in the history of the event (4.71 seconds). I think Armstead is going to get a long look in training camp and could have a shot to beat out Charles Brown and Jason Smith at left tackle.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Defensive end Da’Quan Bowers said he’s focused on becoming a dominant player. He hasn’t been that in his first two seasons, but Bowers refused to blame that on injuries. He said it’s time to step up in his third season. That’s what the Bucs are counting on. They let Michael Bennett, who led the team in sacks last year, leave via free agency because they believe Bowers is ready to take the next step.

Ranking the needs: Offensive line

April, 22, 2013
4/22/13
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We continue our pre-draft rankings of position-group needs with the offensive line.

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

Carolina Panthers: A lot of people are focusing on the Panthers adding defensive help early in the draft. But Carolina can’t afford to overlook the offensive line. Byron Bell is not the answer at right tackle and left tackle Jordan Gross is nearing the end of his career. The Panthers may be wise to look for a tackle who can play on the right side for a season and then move to the left side. A little more depth at guard also wouldn’t be a bad idea.

New Orleans Saints: After the loss of Jermon Bushrod as a free agent, the Saints are dangerously thin at left tackle. They went out and signed Jason Smith, and Charles Brown already was on the roster. But Smith and Brown have had disappointing careers so far. Maybe one of them finally turns things around. But can you afford to trust Drew Brees’ blindside to either of them?

Atlanta Falcons: There will be some shuffling after the release of right tackle Tyson Clabo and the retirement of center Todd McClure. The Falcons have prepared for McClure’s departure by adding a lot of interior depth in recent years. Lamar Holmes, a third-round draft pick last year, could be the new right tackle. But the Falcons might want someone to compete with him.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: As long as guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph come back healthy (and all indications are they will), the Bucs are fine on the offensive line.
McClure
The Atlanta Falcons are giving center Todd McClure the proper sendoff, one that he deserves.

During McClure’s retirement news conference, owner Arthur Blank announced the center will get the highest honor the team can give.

“You deserve to be in that Ring of Honor, and we will get you there as soon as we can," Blank said.

McClure absolutely deserves to be in the Falcons’ Ring of Honor. He wasn’t the flashiest player and he’s not headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But, since joining the Falcons in 1999, McClure has been an institution.

He’s been a solid, dependable player and a class act.

That’s why he belongs in the Ring of Honor.

Around the NFC South

March, 22, 2013
3/22/13
9:32
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Let’s take a morning run through the headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

We’ve known for a while that center Todd McClure is retiring. But he’ll make his official retirement announcement at a news conference on Monday. If anyone deserves a news conference and all the hype that comes with it, it’s McClure. He didn’t get a lot of attention during his career, mostly due to the nature of his position. But this guy was a rock through good times and bad, and a class act. I’m going to miss having him in the NFC South.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Joseph Person writes about how the addition of Ted Ginn Jr. should help the return game. He should be an upgrade over what Carolina had last year. But I’m more curious to see if Ginn can earn some playing time as a wide receiver. He didn’t get to play much receiver the past three years in San Francisco, but he showed some ability at the position during the first three years of his career with Miami.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Nakia Hogan writes that Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, who many have projected as a possible draft pick for the Saints, had an unimpressive pro day. There also are some medical questions about Jones. But I don’t know that his stock will fall that much. The guy produced in college, coming up with 28 sacks in his final two seasons.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Although Greg Schiano recently said nobody is married to anybody in the NFL, Stephen Holder writes that the Tampa Bay coach essentially is married to quarterback Josh Freeman. He has a point. Schiano needs Freeman to have a big season. If he doesn’t, it probably means another losing season for the Bucs, and the team will have to go get a new quarterback, a process that doesn’t guarantee instant success. If Freeman doesn’t succeed this year, Schiano could move onto the hot seat in a league that doesn’t have a lot of patience.
It has to be a bittersweet time for the Atlanta Falcons with center Todd McClure saying he’s going to retire.

McClure
A formal announcement is expected after owner Arthur Blank returns from next week's NFL meetings. Let’s start this off by sending some kudos McClure’s way. Drafted by Atlanta in 1999, McClure has been a fixture on the offensive line through some very good times and some bad times. He’s been a class act all the way and still was playing at a high level last season.

But McClure said it’s time to move on.

That means it also is time for the Falcons to move on. Replacing McClure’s leadership and experience won’t be easy. But the Falcons do have some other options at center and they’ve prepared for this moment by drafting Peter Konz and Joe Hawley in recent years.

The most likely scenario is Konz, who started at guard the second half of last season, shifting to center. That’s the position Konz played in college. If Konz makes the move, it could clear the way for Garrett Reynolds to move back in as a starting guard.

Reynolds began last season as a starter. But he suffered an injury and was replaced by Konz.
Cornerback Robert McClain was one of the most pleasant surprises for the Atlanta Falcons last season, and he’s being rewarded for it.

McClain will receive an extra $269,000 as part of the NFL’s performance-based pool, which is designed to reward players with low base salaries that get significant playing time. McClain got the biggest chunk of Atlanta’s $3.46 million pool.

Other players to earn more than $100,000 in the performance pool were center Todd McClure ($251,000), guard Peter Konz ($175,000), running back Jacquizz Rodgers ($159,000), linebacker Akeem Dent ($146,000), receiver Drew Davis ($139,000), safety William Moore ($135,000) and safety Chris Hope ($125,000).

I'll get you the biggest winners in the performance-based pool for the other NFC South teams a little later.
It’s been a day of rumors in Flowery Branch, Ga., but we can tell you something with certainty now.

Left tackle Sam Baker has agreed to terms on a six-year contract that will keep him with the Atlanta Falcons, a team official said.

Baker earned the deal by turning in a 2012 season that was by far the best of his career. Baker had struggled with injuries and inconsistency through most of his first four seasons. But coach Mike Smith told Baker to spend last offseason getting his body healthy. The tackle listened and it paid dividends as Baker stayed healthy all season.

That should bring some continuity to an offensive line that might be going through some changes. That leads us back to rumors. Although one former player tweeted that center Todd McClure is retiring, there has been no official word from the team or McClure. We’ll wait until there is reason to go any further.

Same story on cornerback Brent Grimes. An Atlanta newspaper reported Grimes had re-signed with the Falcons. The newspaper later retracted the report, saying it was inaccurate.

As of late Tuesday night, a team official said no deal is in place with Grimes, who reportedly is drawing interest from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

NFC South free-agency quick hits

March, 12, 2013
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The news is coming out very rapidly. So let’s take a quick trip through some of the odds and ends:
  • Adam Schefter just reported that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have discussed a potential trade with the New York Jets for cornerback Darrelle Revis. But Schefter said the Bucs could move in another direction (there are plenty of cornerbacks on the market) if a trade isn’t worked out quickly.
  • Speaking of quarterbacks, there have been reports that the Falcons have interest in Drew Stanton. If Atlanta signs Stanton, it means Luke McCown won’t be back. McCown could be a candidate for the backup job in New Orleans. He spent the 2011 preseason with the Saints.
  • There have been some tweets saying Atlanta center Todd McClure is retiring. That may be true, but it may not. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said an announcement either way would come from McClure. As of now, McClure hasn’t said anything. We'll wait to hear from him.
  • It’s all quiet in Carolina so far. That’s probably because the Panthers’ tight salary-cap situation is prohibiting them from being players in free agency. But one thing I can tell you is that the Panthers have designated James Anderson as a June 1 release. That means his cap hit will be spread over this year and next. Also, the Panthers reportedly have re-signed backup tight end Ben Hartsock.

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