NFC South: United Football League

The New Orleans Saints turned a few heads when they drafted a player from a Canadian university Friday night.

They used a third-round pick No. 89 overall on Regina defensive tackle Akiem Hicks.

ESPN Stats & Information passed along a great trivia nugget. Hicks became the highest-drafted player from Canadian Interuniversity Sports since offensive lineman Mike Schad went No. 23 overall to the Los Angeles Rams in 1986.

Schad, a native of Canada, stayed with the Rams through 1988. He then went on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1989 through 1993.

Hicks took a different route. He’s a native of Elk Grove, Calif. He played at Sacramento City College before transferring to LSU. But Hicks didn’t stay in Louisiana for long. He transferred to Regina in 2010 and played two eight-game seasons at Regina where he had eight career sacks and 56 tackles, including 12 for a loss.

This isn’t the first time Hicks has been drafted. He was selected by the Omaha Nighthawks in the United Football League’s 2011 draft, but chose to return to Regina.

Around the NFC South

March, 28, 2011
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Time for a trip through some Monday morning headlines around the NFC South.

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank sent out another letter to fans Sunday. He said the league worked hard on the labor situation at the recent NFL owners meeting and said there’s no reason the sides can’t go back to the negotiating table.

Raheem Morris hints that the Buccaneers may be a little more active than in recent years when free agency opens, but I’ll believe that when I see it. Yeah, the Bucs might sign a complementary player or two, but they’re committed to building with youth. At the NFL owners meeting, Morris said the team was in a spot similar back in 2001 and 2002 and he pointed to free agents like Simeon Rice who helped push the Bucs over the top. Hey, there’s an idea, Rice was playing in the United Football League the last I heard. He’s still better than any pass-rusher currently on the roster.

Dennis Dillon lists five teams that could be impacted negatively by a lengthy lockout and the Carolina Panthers are one of them. No argument here and we’ve made similar statements before. The Panthers have a new coach, Ron Rivera, and new systems on offense and defense. Every missed workout will hurt. But you can also throw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into the mix on this one. They didn’t have a coaching change, but they were the league’s youngest team last year and they can use all the practice time they can get.

Some of the Panthers are getting in some of their workout time at a local high school.

New Orleans running back Chris Ivory is walking again after lisfranc surgery on his foot following the season. But he admitted he still has a long way to go before he’s 100 percent. Ivory said he expects to continue his rehabilitation in Pensacola, Fla.

Doug Williams rips Buccaneers

February, 21, 2011
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Doug Williams, who is returning for a second stint as head coach at Grambling State University, took some strong shots at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, particularly general manager Mark Dominik, in this story by The St. Petersburg Times.

Williams had spent six years working in Tampa Bay’s personal department before he was pushed out last offseason. The Bucs hired him away from Grambling and, at the time, that move was celebrated by Tampa Bay fans. Williams was Tampa Bay’s quarterback in the early years and was a fan favorite. When Williams left the Bucs for a contract in the United States Football League, former Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse was portrayed as the villain for not paying Williams enough money.

His more recent departure from the Bucs wasn’t nearly as public, but Williams apparently views it as a situation where he was treated unfairly, similar to when he left as a player.

"The good ol' boy network is alive and well,'' Williams, who most recently was working as a general manager in the United Football League, told The Times. "But it's changed from the good ol' boy network to the fraternity. I always find a way to overcome and just keep going forward.

"I look at it this way, you've got guys sitting in the front office that never coached. I just didn’t coach college, I coached high school. If you've got the patience and time to coach high school, you can do other jobs. There are guys who learned the (football) language and never got their hands dirty, per se. They can’t go back and get their hands dirty again.’’

It doesn’t take much to figure out Williams is talking about Dominik, who has spent his entire adult life working on the personnel side. It’s been well known in Tampa Bay that Dominik and Williams didn’t get along and that led to the departure.

Williams won the battle of public opinion in a landslide in his first departure. Maybe that was an accurate portrayal of what happened at the time. Maybe Williams has some points this time, too.

But, just remember, there are two sides to every story.

Hitting the NFC South links

January, 15, 2011
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ATLANTA -- We’re just about seven hours from kickoff for tonight’s game between the Falcons and Packers. NFC North colleague Kevin Seifert and I will begin our trek to the Georgia Dome in a couple of hours, and the snow and ice are thawing nicely on a sunny day in Atlanta.

But, as we wait for tonight’s playoff game, let’s take a look at some headlines from around the NFC South.

Jay Gruden reportedly could be headed for Carolina’s coaching staff. Gruden, the younger brother of former NFL coach Jon Gruden, has been coaching in the United Football League. He previously worked on his brother’s staff in Tampa Bay and as a coach in the Arena Football League.

D. Orlando Ledbetter has a list of things that could go right for the Falcons tonight and a list of things that could go wrong.

Jason Wilde has his keys to the game from a Green Bay point of view.

Steve Reed reports the Panthers are expected to retain defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, although he likely will become a position coach.

Charlie Campbell has his first mock draft and it follows logic on the NFC South picks. He has the Panthers taking defensive tackle Nick Fairley with the No. 1 overall pick. He has the Bucs taking defensive end Adrian Clayborn, which would fill a huge need. He has New Orleans taking offensive tackle Derek Sherrod and the Falcons settling for a cornerback after a run on defensive ends, which looks to be their top position of need.

Mike Triplett has a detailed analysis of the contract issues the Saints face this offseason.

Hitting the NFC South links

January, 3, 2011
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Time for a quick afternoon trip through some headlines around the NFC South.

Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman said he plans to spend a lot of time working with young teammates Arrelious Benn, Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount in the offseason. That sounds great in theory. But here’s one thing to keep in mind. If there is a lockout, there will be no official offseason program. That could hurt a young team like the Bucs a lot more than some veteran teams.

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes about how Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson is looking forward to playing in the postseason for the first time in his career.

Jeff Jagodzinski, who was offensive coordinator for Tampa Bay for a few minutes, has been fired by a United Football League franchise.

The Panthers reportedly have requested permission to talk to New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell about their head-coaching position. Makes sense because Fewell is a hot name and he grew up near Charlotte. Fewell also is getting some interest from Cleveland. It’s likely the Panthers are in the process of setting up interviews with several other candidates. General manager Marty Hurney, who will lead the search, is generally very thorough and doesn’t rush into decisions.

Bucs continue shuffling roster

December, 8, 2010
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who seem to have to re-shape their roster because of injuries every week, are at it again.

In sticking with their youth movement, the Bucs just promoted cornerback D.J. Johnson from the practice squad to take the roster spot of Aqib Talib, who was placed on injured reserve earlier this week.

Johnson had spent some time with the New York Giants earlier this season before being signed to Tampa Bay’s practice squad Nov. 24. To fill Johnson’s spot on the practice squad, the Bucs signed fullback Rendrick Taylor.

He had been with the Bucs in the preseason before being released. Most recently, Taylor had been with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League.
The Atlanta Falcons held onto the No. 1 spot in the ESPN.com Power Rankings for the fourth straight week -- but just barely.

With Paul Kuharsky continuing to refuse to vote for an NFC team at the top and Mike Sando jumping on the New England bandwagon, there actually was a tie at the top between the Falcons and Patriots. It should be noted that John Clayton and James Walker had the Falcons at No. 1.

Anyway, that forced Sando, who does all of the math on the Power Rankings, to pull out the tiebreaker rules and that’s how the Falcons won. It came down to the fourth tiebreaker and the Falcons got the edge because they were ranked higher than the Patriots last week.

We have two NFC South teams in the top five, which is appropriate for the best division in the NFL (in my eyes, anyway). The New Orleans Saints moved up a spot to No. 5. If they were in the AFC, Kuharsky would have voted them second.

Tampa Bay stayed put at No. 13, which seems fair because the Bucs lost a close game to Atlanta. Finally, the Carolina Panthers kept their lock on No. 32.

But I’ll fill you in on a little behind-the-scenes stuff on the voting. Kuharsky, in his wisest vote of the day, initially had the Omaha franchise of the United Football League at No. 32 and the Panthers at No. 33. When told he couldn’t vote for a UFL team, Kuharsky did the only thing he could do and elevated the Panthers to No. 32.
Some random NFC South thoughts that I jotted down on the plane and spoke into my recorder on the drive home from the airport.
  • Caught a little bit of Adam Schein and Rich Gannon on SIRIUS NFL Radio and they were talking about the Atlanta Falcons being the best team in the NFC. I’m with them. That was already one of the thoughts I wrote down on the plane as I looked at the NFC standings this morning. No, I’m not ready to fully write off the Saints, but they’ve got some issues right now. I look around the rest of the NFC and I don’t see a team that’s more well-rounded or better coached than the Falcons right now.
  • Speaking of airports, I ran into a personnel executive from an NFL team in an airport a few weeks ago and we started chatting about Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman. After watching the highlights of Freeman’s performance in Sunday’s victory against Cleveland, that conversation came back to me. I asked the personnel guy to compare Freeman to another quarterback and I threw out the name Donovan McNabb. The personnel man said there are some similarities, but said Freeman’s size makes him different than McNabb. He thought a little more and came up with an observation I thought was pretty strong. He said Freeman is on the way to becoming what Daunte Culpepper "could have been''. He then added that Freeman is a more “cerebral and mature’’ version of Culpepper and is getting better coaching than Culpepper did through much of his short-lived career that now has him in the United Football League.
  • As I flew out of Charlotte this morning, I was pondering Carolina’s quarterback situation. Are the Panthers better off starting Jimmy Clausen or Matt Moore when they come back from the bye? I really couldn’t come to a conclusion. I think Clausen can develop into a decent NFL starter in time, but I worry that throwing him out there with the current supporting cast might ruin him forever.

NFC South mailbag

August, 23, 2010
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Michael in Orlando writes: With the injury to Josh Freeman over the weekend, do you see the Bucs maybe trying to make a move for Sage Rosenfels. I think that’s one of the best veteran options available. Either that or call Jeff Garcia? Your thoughts?

Pat Yasinskas: If the Vikings end up cutting Rosenfels, yeah, I think the Bucs should be all over him. But I wouldn’t go trading for him. There are going to be other veteran quarterbacks getting cut by other teams. I think the Bucs need to get some veteran insurance. Garcia’s not your answer. He’s signed by the United Football League and he doesn’t have the personality to come in and be content as a backup. In the short term, the Bucs might sign another of the few available quarterbacks just to help them get through practices while Freeman can’t work. But I think they should bring in a veteran when other teams make their roster cuts.


Hunter in Atlanta writes: Any Chance the falcons make a move for Vincent Jackson? He has some slight character issues but would make the falcons a championship contender immediately.

Pat Yasinskas: From what I hear, the Falcons are going to stick with what they’ve got at wide receiver. They’re expecting Michael Jenkins back for the start of the season and he, Roddy White and Harry Douglas will be the top three receivers. Eric Weems and Brian Finneran also are pretty safe bets to be on the roster. The loss of rookie Kerry Meier to injury hurts because the Falcons liked him as a receiver and special-teams player. But the fact is Meier wasn’t going to be anything more than a No. 5 receiver as a rookie.


Brian in Emerald Isle, NC writes: Remember when Steve Smith breaking his arm the second time was supposed to be a good thing for all these young receivers? What happened there? It’s been 2 rough preseason games so far and we are yet to see anyone emerge as a No. 2 guy.

Pat Yasinskas: True, there haven’t been many bright spots by the receivers in Carolina’s two preseason games. But I still think the Smith injury allowed a bunch of young receivers to get more practice time in training camp and that can only help when they get to the regular season.


Carlos in Panama writes: We all saw Michael Spurlock's TD. Is Spurlock making a very strong case to keep him as the 5th receiver and cut Michael Clayton to save up some cap for next year?

Pat Yasinskas: Spurlock is making a strong bid to make the roster. As far as saving cap money for next year by cutting Clayton, that’s not a factor. If there is a cap next year, the Bucs would still take a hit for some of Clayton’s pro-rated bonus money. Clayton also is guaranteed $3 million in base salary this year. But the Bucs may simply elect to cut Clayton now if they feel they’re better off without him.


Scott in Tampa writes: Is Jevan Snead still on the Bucs' roster? I remember hearing about that Bucs signing him, but haven't heard any news since. I was looking forward to seeing how he would do in preseason.

Pat Yasinskas: No, although the Bucs signed Snead as an undrafted free agent and he went through much of the offseason with him, they cut him on the day training camp started to make roster room for first-round draft pick Gerald McCoy, once he signed his contract.

The Omaha Buccaneers?

August, 18, 2010
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I just received a press release that’s not really relevant to the current NFC South. But it’s kind of interesting, on many levels.

The Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League are going to hold a press conference in Council Bluffs, Iowa Wednesday night. There, Omaha coach Jeff Jagodzinski will announce he’s signed quarterback Jeff Garcia.

For those with short memories, Garcia and Jagodzinski had stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, although Garcia’s stint was a bit longer than Jagodzinski’s. Garcia, now 40, was a fairly competent quarterback for the Buccaneers for two seasons.

Jagodzinski joined the Buccaneers after Garcia left and didn’t last long. Raheem Morris hired Jagodzinski to be the offensive coordinator, but was fired before the season even started.

Not sure the Nighthawks are ready to cough up huge salaries, but my UFL sources tell me they’ve had some talks with Scott Milanovich, Casey Weldon, Jim Pyne, Marcus Jones and Tyji Armstrong.
Matt BryantAP Photo/Bill KostrounAfter regaining his kicking stroke in the UFL last season, Matt Bryant found a home with the Falcons.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- He kicked them to victory at a time when his heart was broken. In return, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicked Matt Bryant to the curb.

He’s been through more tragedy and a very humbling experience since that 2008 weekend when he buried his infant son and booted the Buccaneers to victory. But if you thought all those off-field sorrows were going to relegate Bryant to a spot in the minor leagues and send him on a path out of football, think again.

Bryant, 34, is back in the NFL, back in the NFC South and doing just fine. He’s the kicker for the Atlanta Falcons and, in some ways, he’s stronger now than he was before the sudden death of his infant son, Tryson, and the slow and painful death of his father.

“There’s never a day that goes by that I don’t think about my son and now my dad," Bryant said after a recent workout with the Falcons. "That just never goes away. It doesn’t change and it probably never will. That’s all right because that’s my life. But when I step out on the field, no matter what has happened off the field, I go out there with the mentality of trying to be the best.''

That’s Bryant’s mindset these days and he’s in a good spot. The Falcons have some younger kickers on the roster, but all indications are they’ll go with Bryant as long as he kicks well in training camp and the preseason.

“Right now, Matt Bryant is our kicker, but we have a very competitive situation,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “Matt’s advantage is he has done it in this league. He’s had some tough times personally, but he’s a very strong man.’’

Probably stronger than any of us realize. After going undrafted out of Baylor, Bryant had to scratch and claw his way to the NFL. He worked in a pawn shop and as a personal trainer for several years before catching on with the New York Giants in 2002. He bounced around with the Colts and Dolphins, too, before finally finding what seemed like a home in Tampa Bay in 2005.

[+] EnlargeMatt Bryant
AP Photo/Reinhold MatayMatt Bryant blew a kiss as a tribute to his son during a game against the Packers on Sept. 28, 2008.
That’s where Bryant thrived for four seasons. In 2006, he made a game-winning 62-yard field goal and the city declared a day in Bryant’s honor. He firmly grabbed the city’s heart in September 2008, when just days after his infant son, Tryson, died in his sleep, Bryant kicked a game-winning field goal.

But a strange thing happened when coach Jon Gruden was fired after the 2008 season. Even though Bryant temporarily survived the purge of veterans such as Derrick Brooks that started soon after coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik took over, it quickly became obvious he also was on the way out.

The Bucs spent $2.4 million (more than double Bryant’s salary) to bring in kicker Mike Nugent.

“That was their guy," Bryant said. “It was very clear and obvious. I’d love to tell you the whole story and if I do it would actually accomplish something. If I thought it would do any good, I would. But it would probably actually hurt me. Let’s just say it was a very frustrating situation that could have been easily resolved. All the way from the top, from the owners to the GM, it was a frustrating situation that I wish I never had to have been a part of it. My family and I loved Tampa and the fans were absolutely great. But there are some situations you can’t pick and choose."

The Bucs kept Bryant through training camp as he dealt with a hamstring injury. He said he was healthy enough to kick by the final preseason game, but the Bucs didn’t let him. The Bucs never really have commented on Bryant's departure, only saying they brought in Nugent for competition. But the Bucs later released Nugent who struggled with consistency. The Bucs released Bryant in the final cut and the perception around the league was he still had hamstring issues.

He got a tryout in Cleveland last September.

“It was exactly a year from the day Tryson had passed,’’ Bryant said. “Going into it, I didn’t feel very good and I hadn’t kicked with a snapper and a holder in two months. I didn’t have a great workout.’’

That left Bryant with only one option -- taking a big step back from the NFL. He signed a contract with the Orlando Tuskers of the United Football League. That’s where Bryant’s kicking stroke firmly returned and the Falcons kept an eye on him from a distance. With veteran Jason Elam struggling with accuracy, the Falcons signed Bryant on Dec. 1, 2009.

“Going to the UFL was good,’’ Bryant said. “The pay was considerably less, but it still was football. It was good football. Everybody was there for their own reasons. I want to publicly thank them for letting me come into their league.’’

Bryant finished the season with Atlanta, but not without another tragedy. After a lengthy battle with ALS, Bryant’s father passed away late last season. Bryant had another funeral to attend, but didn’t miss any game time.

Painful as it may be, Bryant is trying to put distance on the tragedies. He’s spent much of his offseason in Atlanta and his family recently moved into the area. Wife Melissa’s been busy getting the children involved in sports and school and Bryant’s been focusing on football.

They once thought they had a long-term home in Tampa. That’s what they now are trying to build in Atlanta.

“It’s been a tough couple of years," Bryant said. “I’ve had some big losses and I’ve been very humbled professionally. But I’m coming in here and starting over. I’m approaching it with the mindset of going out there every day and doing my best and letting whatever happens happen."

Falcons sign punter as backup plan

January, 1, 2010
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The Falcons just announced they have signed punter Danny Baugher to their practice squad.

Take this as a precautionary move in case punter Michael Koenen can’t play Sunday at Tampa Bay. Koenen suffered a concussion last week and the Falcons are hoping he’s cleared to play. But having Baugher on the practice squad gives them a backup plan if Koenen can’t go. The Falcons would have to elevate Baugher to the 53-man roster in order for him to be eligible to play.

Baugher spent this season with the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League. Baugher, who played at the University of Arizona, has spent time with three other NFL teams, but has not played in a regular-season game.

The next Brees? Apparently not

December, 9, 2009
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So much for the theory, held by some New Orleans fans, that practice-squad quarterback Chase Daniel was a project with the potential to develop into the next Drew Brees.

Obviously, the Saints didn’t see it that way as they released Daniel from the practice squad Wednesday. Don’t rule out the possibility of Daniel returning to the practice squad at some point to help run the scout team. But leaving Daniel out there for any other team to grab isn’t exactly a sign that the Saints have any real plans for the young quarterback.

Daniel’s release was one of a series of minor transactions the Saints made Wednesday. To fill Daniel’s spot on the practice squad, the Saints signed linebacker Prince Kwateng. He’s a rookie from Northwestern, who spent the last few months in the United Football League.

In other moves, the Saints signed fullback Marcus Mailei off Philadelphia’s practice squad and linebacker Anthony Waters from Buffalo’s practice squad. Both players go straight on New Orleans’ 53-man roster. The Saints also released fullback Kyle Eckel.

Haslett takes shots at Bucs

October, 28, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

One thing I always admired about Jim Haslett when he coached the New Orleans Saints was his willingness to truly say what was on his mind.

It sometimes got Haslett in trouble, but you have to appreciate his confidence and his honesty. Those qualities surfaced again as Haslett, now coaching the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League, took what seemed to be a few shots at the Buccaneers.

Talking about former Bucs kicker Matt Bryant, Haslett said "I don't understand why he's not still playing with the Bucs.''

Haslett continued with a few more shots.

"I think he's an excellent kicker, but there's a lot of things that go on in the NFL,'' Haslett said. "Why did the Rams trade Will Witherspoon? Why do you hire Raheem Morris? It's endless in the NFL right now. I'd like to have our team play a couple of those teams, to be honest with you.''

Rice says he'll legitimize UFL

October, 9, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


The United Football League just sent out a press release that has some pretty strong quotes from former Buccaneer Simeon Rice.

He opens the season Saturday night as a member of the Florida Tuskers, based in Orlando. Rice, 33, had been away from football for two years with a shoulder injury and has repeatedly said he thinks he still can play in the NFL.

“I can legitimize this league,” Rice said. “This would be looked at as an amateur or junior league, but I’m going to make it what it’s supposed to be. I’m going to give the rare talent of elite football to the UFL. Someone who has done the things I’ve done wouldn’t normally be in this situation, but I don’t mind taking one step back to take 10 steps forward.”

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