NFC South: 2012 NFL Free Agency

Around the NFC South

April, 24, 2012
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Let's take a quick look at the early-Tuesday-morning headlines from around the NFC South. As you might expect, many of them include the New Orleans Saints and their various problems.
  • Free-agent defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who spent last season with New Orleans, visited the Falcons on Monday. I’d say this one is just due diligence and, if anything is going to happen, it will come after the draft. Atlanta needs some depth in the middle of the defensive line, but isn't desperate. The Falcons have Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry. Peters has had a very nice first two seasons. Babineaux had a quiet 2011; Jerry has never come close to his potential since suffering a knee injury early in his rookie season. Franklin has some history with new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, so he could be an option if the Falcons aren’t satisfied with their situation at defensive tackle after the draft.
  • The Saints and general manager Mickey Loomis are denying a report that he had the ability to eavesdrop on opposing coaches from 2002 through 2004. But, John DeShazier writes, the news causes another distraction for a franchise that already has plenty of them as a result of what the NFL says was a three-year bounty program.
  • Here’s a statement from Loomis in which he emphatically denies the report.
  • Jim Haslett, who coached the Saints during the period in which Loomis allegedly had the ability to listen to opposing coaches, said he had no knowledge of Loomis actually doing so.
  • Mike Triplett writes that the news on Loomis probably won’t get the general manager fired. He might be right. Saints owner Tom Benson has stood by Loomis through the Vicodin scandal a couple years ago and through the bounty program that’s dominated the headlines for more than a month. There haven’t been any indications the latest allegations will change Benson’s mind.
  • Ron Green Jr. writes that Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly could make an instant impact if the Panthers take him at No. 9 in the NFL draft. No argument here. Kuechly had a highly productive college career and comes with very few questions. It’s rare that you can say that about a prospect near the end of the top 10. Plus, Carolina owner Jerry Richardson and general manager Marty Hurney really like guys that come with no obvious questions.
  • Tampa Bay’s coaching change affected more than the Bucs. It also affected the football team at Tampa’s Plant High School, which has been a state and national power in recent years. With former tight ends coach Alfredo Roberts joining the Colts, his son, Austin Roberts, a top college prospect at tight end, is leaving Plant’s program. But the Panthers are getting receiver/defensive back Tristan Cooper. His father, Ron Cooper, is the new defensive defensive backs coach for the Bucs.

Saints bring back John Kasay

April, 23, 2012
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A little bit of news on the Saints and, this time, it’s not controversial.

Kasay
The Saints have re-signed veteran kicker John Kasay to a one-year contract. Kasay, who spent much of his career with the Carolina Panthers, joined the Saints last season after Garrett Hartley suffered a preseason injury. Kasay, 42, went on to set franchise records with 147 total points and 63 extra points last season. He connected on 82.4 percent of his field-goal attempts.

Hartley injured his hip last year and all indications have been that he’ll be ready for this season. The Saints may have brought Kasay back as insurance or they might want to put Hartley in a competitive situation during training camp.
In his latter days with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, linebacker Barrett Ruud made it clear he wanted a long-term, high-paying contract.

Ruud
A fan favorite, Ruud had a lot of support from the public. But general manager Mark Dominik wasn’t willing to pay Ruud the kind of money he wanted. After playing for the top restricted-free-agent tender ($3.268 million) in 2010, Ruud left to sign with the Tennessee Titans. He got a one-year deal worth $4 million ($2 million in base salary and $2 million in a signing bonus).

But it’s starting to look like Dominik made the right move in not paying Ruud big money. Ruud recently signed a one-year deal with the Seattle Seahawks at a relatively low price. According to contract numbers obtained by ESPN.com, Ruud will earn just $825,000 in base salary and can collect a $65,000 roster bonus. Ruud battled shoulder and groin injuries last season and appeared in only nine games for the Titans.

Yeah, the Bucs still have uncertainty at middle linebacker. They started rookie Mason Foster there last season and new coach Greg Schiano has indicated Foster may stay inside or may move outside. The Bucs are likely to add several linebackers in the draft or later in free agency.

But it’s now looking like the Bucs clearly made the right decision on Ruud, who was solid with the Bucs, but never made a lot of big plays. He’ll turn 29 in May and it appears he’s on the downside of his career. Ruud is playing for the veteran minimum in Seattle. That’s a lot less than the Bucs would be on the hook for if they had given Ruud the big deal he wanted.

Offseason programs kicking off

April, 16, 2012
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Most of the NFC South gets back to work Monday, but not the division’s best player.

Barring a sudden turn in contract talks that didn’t appear to be heating up recently, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is not expected to be in Metairie, La., as his teammates begin their offseason program. The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers also begin their offseason programs Monday.

Brees
The three teams will begin with conditioning and meetings, but the Saints begin their offseason program with perhaps the most intrigue ever surrounding an offseason program. Coach Sean Payton begins his season-long suspension Monday, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt takes over. But Payton won’t be the only leader missing for the Saints.

Brees has been hit with the franchise tag, and has not signed his tender. Brees has said throughout the offseason that he was optimistic a long-term contract would be agreed to, but that hasn’t happened. Brees could take part in the offseason workout if he signs a waiver, but franchise players almost never do that.

As much as it would appear to hurt the Saints that they’re opening the offseason program without their leader, it’s mostly just a symbolic thing. The Saints won’t hit the practice field for a couple of weeks. It’s a virtual certainty that Brees, who always has taken good care of himself, will work on conditioning on his own.

Brees’ absence isn’t that big a deal right now. But it would be in the best interest of the Saints and Brees to get a contract done before the team holds its minicamp. The exact date for that hasn’t been announced, but it’s likely to be in mid-May.

Speaking of minicamps, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin one on Tuesday. The Bucs got to start their offseason program two weeks earlier than the other NFC South teams because they had a coaching change. New coach Greg Schiano will get his first real on-field look at his team in a minicamp that starts Tuesday and continues through Thursday.

Is the door open in NFC South?

April, 12, 2012
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Greg Schiano, Vincent JacksonCliff Welch/Icon SMIA free-agent class led by Vincent Jackson, right, could push Greg Schiano and the Bucs into contention.


The best thing about living in much of the South is that you can leave the door open in December and January. The flip side is, you never know who’s going to walk in.

That’s been demonstrated repeatedly throughout most of the decade the NFC South has been in existence. Worst to first isn’t just a hokey slogan in this division. It’s been a reality.

Not counting the inaugural season (because there was no defending champion or reigning last-place team in a division that didn’t exist before 2002), there have been six NFC South teams that finished fourth in the division one season and ended up winning it the following year. The trend started with the Carolina Panthers and their miraculous run to the Super Bowl in the 2003 season.

The Atlanta Falcons pulled off worst to first in 2004. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did it twice -- in 2005 and 2007. So did the New Orleans Saints. They did it in 2006 and again in 2009, the season after which they won their only Super Bowl.

But the worst-to-first trend has stopped since then. The Saints and Falcons have stayed consistently good and managed only to flip back and forth between first and second place.

This could be the season in which things get back to normal. Let’s be clear that I’m not ready to write off the Saints, as long as they have Drew Brees at quarterback, or an Atlanta roster that’s loaded with talent and has the potential to click at any moment.

But you look at what has happened in New Orleans and what hasn’t happened in Atlanta this offseason and you have to wonder if it’s at least possible that new Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano is about to pull off a miracle on Dale Mabry Highway or if Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis knew what he was talking about when he said the Panthers are headed for the Super Bowl.

The Saints’ bounty program has left them without coach Sean Payton for the entire season and they have little chance of pulling anything off in the draft because they don’t have a pick until the third round. They lost some free agents, like Carl Nicks and Tracy Porter. Plus, there’s the very real possibility that multiple players could face suspensions for their roles in the bounty program. Maybe adversity becomes a rallying cry for the Saints and they stay atop the division. Or maybe the bottom falls out of what was a great three-year run.

If that happens, the Falcons would seem the logical choice to step up. They did go 10-6 last season, although you could say they underachieved slightly throughout the regular season and tremendously in their playoff loss to the New York Giants. And what have the Falcons done to improve their roster this offseason?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present linebacker Lofa Tatupu and guard Vince Manuwai, two guys who didn’t play in the NFL last season.

Yeah, I know how the Falcons like to point to their roster continuity and changes at offensive and defensive coordinator as reasons they’ll be better this season. Those are valid points. But, still, the way last season ended, you have to at least wonder if the Falcons have already started their downhill slide.

[+] EnlargeThomas Davis
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneThe return of linebacker Thomas Davis should provide an immediate boost for Carolina's defense.
Then, you look at the Buccaneers and Panthers and you see two teams that almost have to be on the rise. In the case of the Bucs, that’s mainly because they can’t go any lower.

Tampa Bay ended last season on a 10-game losing streak. Raheem Morris left for London at 4-2 last October, looking like the NFL’s next great coach. That guy hasn’t been seen since. But Schiano is in his office now and he seems to be saying and doing all the right things. He got rid of safety Tanard Jackson and coaxed safety Ronde Barber into coming back for one more year. Plus, Schiano has one luxury Morris didn’t last year -- a free-agent class.

A year after punter Michael Koenen was their big addition in free agency, the Bucs went out and made one of the league’s biggest splashes. They signed receiver Vincent Jackson, Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright.

Mix those guys in with some young talent (Josh Freeman, Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn and some others), let Schiano restore a little order in the locker room and on the practice fields and worst to first at least seems like a possibility.

But, even if the Saints and Falcons slip, the Panthers could be ahead of the Bucs. They only won six games last season, but it might have been the most positive six-win season in NFL history. With Ron Rivera taking over for John Fox, the Panthers suddenly realized the NFL became a passing league a few years ago and started playing catch-up. They used the No. 1 overall draft pick on Cam Newton and suddenly had one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses.

The problem was the Panthers couldn’t do the one thing they always did under Fox -- play defense. That was largely because defensive tackle Ron Edwards was lost to injury in training camp and linebackers Jon Beason and Davis quickly followed. All three are expected back and that instantly should give Carolina a better defense. It only needs to be a little better, because Newton and that offense are going to score enough points for the Panthers to stay in the game with anyone.

Can the Panthers and/or the Bucs pass the Saints and Falcons?

We’ll see. It’s only April and the NFC South door looks to be wide open. Let’s see if it's still ajar -- or maybe even off the hinges -- in December.

Falcons master art of retention

April, 10, 2012
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In this recent column, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank talked quite a bit about the importance of continuity.

He cited it as a reason why the Falcons didn’t make a big splash in free agency. That pretty much backs up the philosophy that’s been recited by the Falcons since the arrival of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith in 2008 -- draft well, keep your core players for the long term, and supplement them with free agents when necessary.

You’ve got to give the Falcons credit for practicing what they preach. This offseason marked the first time that a big portion of a Dimitroff/Smith draft class became eligible for free agency, and the Falcons did a good job of keeping the players they wanted. They re-signed receiver Harry Douglas, safety Thomas DeCoud, and defensive end Kroy Biermann. Quarterback Matt Ryan and offensive tackle Sam Baker, the top two Atlanta picks from 2008, remain under contract. The Falcons did lose middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, a player they had interest in keeping.

The Falcons gave Lofton an offer before free agency, but he had a different figure in mind. Lofton ended up signing with New Orleans for a lot less than his original asking price, and the Falcons are prepared to move on with either veteran Lofa Tatupu or second-year pro Akeem Dent in his place. Ryan is likely to get a contract extension at some point, and the Falcons might use the final year of Baker’s contract to make a decision on if he’s a long-term answer.

I just got some numbers that back up what the Falcons have been saying. When it comes to retaining drafted players, the Falcons are among the league leaders in the Smith/Dimitroff era.

Of the 32 players drafted by the Falcons since 2008, 26 are on the roster. That’s 81.3 percent, which puts the Falcons second only to the Minnesota Vikings, who have an 82.1 percent retention rate in that same time frame (the percentages were current as of early Tuesday afternoon). For the sake of comparison, Denver ranks last in the league by retaining only 48.6 percent of the players drafted since 2008. For more context, Tennessee (77.8 percent) and Houston (75 percent) are the only other teams with a retention rate of 75 percent or better.

Most of the rest of the NFC South also has fared well in retaining draft picks since 2008. Tampa Bay, which has been preaching a philosophy similar to Atlanta’s, ranks No. 7 in the NFL at 70 percent. Of the 31 players the Buccaneers have drafted since 2008, 21 remain on the team.

Although the Saints have had the second-fewest number of picks since 2008, their retention percentage is fairly high at 68.2 percent. Of the 22 players New Orleans has picked, 15 remain on the roster.

Carolina is the only NFC South team in the bottom half of the league in retention. The Panthers are No. 21 at 61.8 percent. They’ve had 34 picks, and 21 remain on the roster.

Tampa Bay reunion in Washington?

April, 10, 2012
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers released Tanard Jackson on Tuesday, but I have little doubt he’ll end up with a new job very shortly.

Yes, Jackson’s had some off-field issues, and they might have factored in as Tampa Bay goes through a housecleaning with the arrival of new coach Greg Schiano. But Jackson has talent, and the rest of the NFL knows it.

Some teams might be scared off by the off-field issues, but some teams might be willing to take a shot on Jackson. As NFC East colleague Dan Graziano points out, the Washington Redskins might be at the top of that list.

Washington defensive backs coach Raheem Morris was Jackson’s head coach in Tampa Bay the past three seasons, and his secondary coach before that. The two have a strong relationship, and Morris has stood by Jackson in the past.

Jackson also has another strong tie to the Redskins. Washington general manager Bruce Allen was Tampa Bay’s general manager when Jackson was drafted.
The New Orleans Saints have added a lot at linebacker this offseason.

They’ve signed free agents Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. Now, they could be on the verge of losing one of their holdovers. Jonathan Casillas reportedly is visiting the Tennessee Titans as a restricted free agent Monday. The market for restricted free agents has been a very soft one, but that could be changing as teams get things in order before the draft. A player like Casillas is a logical target because he’s carrying the low tender ($1.26 million) and signing him would not require any draft-pick compensation because Casillas came into the league undrafted.

He’s also a young player with some upside. Although the Saints like Casillas’ athleticism and upside, it might be difficult to keep him, even though they have the right of first refusal on any contract offer Casillas receives. The Saints are barely under the salary cap and they’re also trying to find a way to get quarterback Drew Brees signed to a new deal that will fit under the cap. If Tennessee offers Casillas decent money, the Saints may have to let him walk.

But they appear to be prepared for that. The Saints have added three free agents and they’re high on second-year pro Martez Wilson. They still have veteran Scott Shanle as a returning starter and veteran backup Will Herring remains on the roster. There’s uncertainty about veteran middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. He’s been named by the NFL as a player involved in the Saints’ bounty program and could face a suspension.

But the Saints have done enough with linebackers in free agency that they should be able to absorb any possible suspension for Vilma and should be able to go on if Casillas leaves.
The Atlanta Falcons shocked more than a few of their fans when they didn’t go after defensive end Mario Williams in free agency.

As owner Arthur Blank explained in this column from Saturday, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff chose to stick with continuity instead of making splashy moves. Salary-cap considerations factored into that.

[+] EnlargeRay Edwards
Kim Klement/US PresswireThe Falcons signed Ray Edwards to a big contract last offseason, but he had just 3.5 sacks in 2011.
There was speculation that the Falcons would let veteran defensive end John Abraham leave when he revealed before the start of free agency that he wanted a deal worth $12 million per season. Abraham didn’t get that kind of money on the open market and he’s back with the Falcons on a three-year contract that averages $5.5 million.

Abraham will turn 34 next month, but the Falcons still believe he can be the key to their pass rush. He had 9.5 sacks last season and 13 in 2010.

“John has been our most productive pass-rusher since we’ve been here,’’ Smith said at the recent NFL owners meeting. Chronologically, his age may say one thing, but his body says another. John will still command how they’re going to block him and that’s going to open other options for (new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan) and what we want to do schematically.’’

The Falcons don’t have a first-round draft pick and may pursue another pass-rusher at some point in the draft. But they still view Abraham as their top threat up front. Defensive end Ray Edwards, Atlanta’s big free-agent signing last year, had just 3.5 sacks last season. The Falcons are expecting more out of Edwards, as well as rotation players Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury. They also want more production out of the middle of their defensive line. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux had just one sack after producing a combined 10 sacks in 2009 and 2010.

“You don’t want to have just one guy that’s getting all the production,’’ Smith said. “You want other defensive linemen and linebackers being productive pass-rushers. If you look at Coach Nolan’s 14 years as a defensive coordinator, he’s been one of the most productive on third down. You want to have a scheme that puts added pressure on the quarterback on third downs."
Arthur BlankAP Photo/Nell RedmondArthur Blank contends the Falcons failed to maximize their talent last season.
Given the way Atlanta Falcons fans have reacted to what the team has done (or, more accurately, not done) this offseason, I was expecting Arthur Blank to pull out earmuffs as he reached into his pocket just before the start of an interview last week.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the owner of the Falcons pulled out a pair of sunglasses. This was a rare step outside during the NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. He slipped on the shades, surveyed the Atlantic Ocean, sat down on a bench and started explaining, in great detail, the course his team has chosen.

Maybe this will, once and for all, stop all the screaming in Atlanta about how the Falcons didn’t pursue LB Mario Williams and didn’t really do much of anything in free agency. Blank has a detailed answer for that and, when you listen, it should all start to make sense.

There was a moment when I looked directly at Blank, but could have sworn I was seeing and hearing Gene Hackman. It was almost exactly like the scene in “Hoosiers," where the basketball coach played by Hackman firmly tells a referee “my team is on the court" after a player fouls out and the coach elects to go with four players instead of turning back to a player who had defied orders.

Blank has said, “My team is on the field."

[+] EnlargeJones
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireFans should expect to see bigger plays from Julio Jones in 2012.
Yeah, the marquee free-agent signings have been linebacker Lofa Tatupu and guard Vince Manuwai. And Atlanta fans aren’t exactly jumping up and down about the fact that the Falcons re-signed defensive end John Abraham and center Todd McClure; it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if they decided to retire. Throw in the re-signing of role players Thomas DeCoud, Jason Snelling and Harry Douglas, and it’s easy to see why a lot of Atlanta fans believe the Falcons haven’t done a single thing to get better after ending last season with an embarrassing playoff loss to the New York Giants.

But Blank has an explanation, so let’s hear it.

“I feel good about where we are,’’ Blank said. “I know we didn’t make a big splash going into free agency. But that really wasn’t our intention going into this year. We really felt we had a lot of talent. We were fortunate that we had the opportunity to bring in the two new coordinators and a few other coaches. At some point, it’s not even a matter of if the contents are correct. Sometimes, it’s a matter of who is delivering the message and whether the players are hearing it or not.’’

The man makes a good point. The 2011 Falcons team that went 10-6 (and didn't play with much consistency) was essentially the same team that went 13-3 and played with a great deal of consistency in 2010. The 2012 Falcons have largely the same roster as the previous two teams. In the eyes of Blank, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, the problem last season and the reason this team hasn’t won a playoff game under the current administration isn’t about the roster.

Maybe the roster was just fine, but the coaching staff and the schemes were holding back the Falcons. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey left after the season to become head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left after the season to become the defensive coordinator at Auburn. Both men left on their own, but I get the impression that if they hadn’t, they might have been shown the door.

Let’s be honest here. Mularkey’s offensive system reached its peak in 2010 and didn’t get any better even with the addition of talented rookie receiver Julio Jones last season. VanGorder’s defense was solid but never dominant, which was a disappointment because the Falcons have some individual talent on defense. Mularkey has been replaced by Dirk Koetter, and VanGorder has been replaced by Mike Nolan.

“I love the selections that Smitty and Thomas made,’’ Blank said.

I get the sense that the days of QB Matt Ryan rolling out and almost always checking down are over. I get the sense that the days of sitting back in the Cover 2 are long gone.

“Dirk and I have had numerous discussions in terms of what our players are capable of doing,’’ Smith said during the meetings. “I think, first and foremost, you have to design your schemes toward what the players are capable of doing. We’ve spent a lot of time identifying the strengths and weakness of all our guys and what they do well and what they don’t do well, and we want to put together an offense that accentuates their strengths.’’

In other words, the Falcons aren’t going to be handing the ball to Michael Turner 300-plus times a season. They’re going to try to take some shots downfield with Jones and Roddy White, and they’re going to get versatile second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers more involved in the offense. They also will try to put Ryan in a position where he can go from being a good quarterback to an elite one.

Smith said he’s had similar discussions with Nolan, the former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers who has had success as a defensive coordinator elsewhere. Nolan is noted for producing aggressive defenses. Some minor tweaks to attitude and scheme could provide an upgrade over the VanGorder units that never were able to establish any sort of identity.

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireBy re-signing John Abraham, the Falcons are valuing continuity over flash.
Blank made quite a bit of noise after the loss to the Giants about how simply getting to the playoffs wasn’t good enough. He wants his team to win playoff games and contend for the Super Bowl.

That really hasn’t changed. But after the heat of the moment cooled a bit, Blank, Smith and Dimitroff sat back and realized they weren’t all that far from where they wanted to be. Early in his days as an owner, Blank was portrayed as hands-on and reactionary. I don’t think those descriptions really fit him anymore and I think he’s learned from his past. I think Blank is at a stage where he remains plugged in but trusts Smith and Dimitroff to make the football decisions.

“I went back and studied this over a long period of time in the NFL and studied the great teams,’’ Blank said. “Consistency is very important in terms of leadership with coaches and players. The great teams, what they have done is they’ve kept their head coaches for a longer period of time, kept their general managers for a longer period of time, and they identified early enough their core players and they extended them. The football staff has done a great job of identifying the players that can help us and keep them.’’

The salary cap also was a factor in the Falcons’ approach to the offseason. Pursuing Williams or some other big names in free agency would have meant sacrificing continuity. The only key player the Falcons lost was middle linebacker Curtis Lofton -- and that was a calculated loss. Lofton wanted a lot of money and Atlanta placed a limit on his value. If the Falcons had made just one or two big free-agency moves and kept Lofton, guys like Abraham, McClure, DeCoud, Douglas and Snelling wouldn’t be on the roster. The team would have had to cut other players to free up cap room. The Falcons could have made a splash, but it would have left them with all sorts of holes.

“What you have to look at is, this is not like baseball,’’ Blank said. “There are limits. This is real money and not monopoly money … one of the beauties in the NFL is that in July and August fans of every team think their team has a chance to go to the playoffs or to go to the Super Bowl and win it. The salary-cap system forces you to make some tough choices. Thomas and Smitty and their staffs made these choices because they believe they were the ones that will give us the biggest bang for the buck going forward. I certainly tested their logic and asked questions, but I think their plan was all very sound and well-formulated.’’

Like it or not, Blank is putting his team (the one chosen by Smith and Dimitroff) on the field this fall. You might not like it now and that’s fine with Blank. He thinks you’ll like it a lot more as the season goes along.
We’ve talked a lot this offseason about how the salary cap has prevented the Falcons, Panthers and Saints from doing everything they would like in free agency.

Well, guess what? The 2013 free-agency period is pretty much guaranteed to be even quieter than this year. Even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who made a huge splash in free agency, are likely to join the club.

I got a look at what all NFL teams currently have committed toward the 2013 salary cap and the picture isn’t very pretty. The Saints have been back-loading contracts, the Bucs have been front-loading them and the Falcons and Panthers have done some restructuring that takes up more 2013 cap room.

ESPN’s John Clayton previously reported that the cap is supposed to go from $120.6 million to roughly $120.9 million in 2013. That’s an increase of only $300,000 -- not good news for any NFC South team.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireHowever Drew Brees' contract works out, the Saints will be well over the salary cap in 2013.
The Carolina Panthers already have $118 million committed toward the 2013 salary cap and that’s with only 42 players under contract. Only four teams have more cap room committed to 2013 than the Panthers; Philadelphia leads the league with $134 million committed to 45 players. And remember: The Panthers haven’t even drafted their 2012 rookies yet. Once they draft and sign those guys, they’ll be over the projected salary cap.

The rest of the NFC South isn’t in much better shape for 2013. Tampa Bay fans can stop griping about ownership being cheap. The Bucs already have $112.2 million committed to 45 players and this year’s draft class likely will put them very close to next year’s cap.

The Falcons have $108.7 million committed to 42 players in 2013. Throw in this year’s rookie class and a possible contract extension for quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons aren’t likely to have much room to work with.

The Saints currently are fourth in 2013 in the NFC South with $108 million committed to 42 players. But that number is extremely misleading. Quarterback Drew Brees isn’t one of those 42 players. Brees currently is carrying the $16 million franchise tag for 2012. Brees and the Saints want to work out a long-term deal. If they do that this year, it’s unlikely they could structure a contract in which Brees' 2013 cap figure could be less than about $18 million, which would put the Saints well over the projected cap.

Clayton has reported that the bump in the 2014 cap will be similar to the increase from 2012 to 2013. So let’s say the 2014 cap is a little over $121 million. I also got a look at what each team has committed toward the 2014 cap, and that’s when things should get a little better for NFC South teams, with one big exception: Carolina. The Panthers already have $117.2 million committed to 26 players. Only Philadelphia ($117.3 million) has more committed to the 2014 cap.

The Saints have $83.3 million committed toward 19 players. Again, Brees isn’t one of them. If he does get a new contract, his 2014 cap figure easily will put the Saints over $100 million.

The Buccaneers and Falcons are in much better shape for 2014. The Buccaneers have $79.8 million committed to 21 players and the Falcons have $75.6 million committed to 18 players.
Very quietly, the Carolina Panthers have restructured the contract of tight end Greg Olsen.

The deal was done several weeks ago, but I haven’t seen it reported anywhere. The Panthers have made other moves since Olsen’s restructure and they currently are the only team in the NFL with less than $1 million in salary-cap space.

The Panthers dropped Olsen’s salary-cap figure from $4.125 million to $2.4 million by converting $2.3 million of his scheduled base salary into a signing bonus that will be pro-rated over the life of his contract. The Panthers also converted a $2.5 million option bonus into a signing bonus that also will be pro-rated over the rest of Olsen’s contract.
Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff hasn’t had a lot of salary-cap room to work with this offseason, but that hasn’t stopped him from using creative ways to maximize every penny.

While recently re-signing veteran center Todd McClure and veteran long-snapper Joe Zelenka, Dimitroff took advantage of the veteran minimum salary benefit. That’s a rule that basically was put in so that veterans aren’t priced out of the league. Zelenka’s a 12-year veteran and McClure has been in the NFL for 13 seasons. At that level of experience, the minimum salary is $925,000.

That’s the salary Zelenka and McClure will receive this season, but the benefit allows their base salary to count only $540,000 against the salary cap. McClure got a $65,000 signing bonus, so his cap figure is $605,000, even though the total cash value of his one-year contract is $990,000. Zelenka didn’t get a signing bonus so his cap figure is $540,000.

The Falcons currently have $1.66 million in cap space.

Dimitroff isn’t the only NFC South general manager taking advantage of the benefit. The Carolina Panthers' Marty Hurney used it when he recently re-signed defensive end Antwan Applewhite. As a four-year veteran, Applewhite’s minimum salary is $700,000. That’s what he’ll get, but only $540,000 of his base salary counts toward the cap. Applewhite also has a $65,000 workout bonus, which bring his cap figure up to $605,000.

In other contract and cap news, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Preston Parker has signed his exclusive-free-agent tender. He’s scheduled to make $540,000 this year. Running back LeGarrette Blount also is an exclusive-rights free agent, but has yet to sign his tender.

Update: The Bucs announced later on Wednesday that Blount has signed his tender and confirmed the Parker signing.
The Carolina Panthers just announced a move that might not sound like much, but it has the potential to have some implications in the defensive secondary.

The Panthers have signed safety Reggie Smith, who spent the last four seasons with San Francisco. Smith primarily was a backup and special-teams player, but he did start the final seven games of the 2010 season.

Carolina still has last year’s starting safeties, Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin, on the roster. But Martin didn’t have a great 2011 season.

Maybe Smith will end up simply being a backup and special-teams player. But the third-round pick in 2008 appears to have some upside in the Panthers' eyes.

“Reggie has been on our radar since the beginning of free agency and is a player we think can come in and compete at safety,” general manager Marty Hurney said. “We brought him in for a visit Tuesday and it worked out. He is another player we’ve added to increase the competition.”

Sounds like Martin will have some competition in camp. This is a no-lose situation for the Panthers. In a best-case scenario, Smith can come in, outplay Martin and win the job. Or Smith’s presence might light a fire under Martin and his play could improve.
We’ve been talking a lot about the Buccaneers and Panthers and what they may do in the draft and that’s mainly because they’re the only two NFC South teams with a first-round pick.

The Saints don’t pick until the third round, but now that we’re into April, it’s a good time to start talking about the Falcons and what they might do in the second round (at No. 55 overall).

A lot of people are talking about Atlanta getting a left tackle. But you don’t usually find future All-Pro tackles deep in the second round. The Falcons could take a tackle somewhere in this draft, but coach Mike Smith recently made it sound like the team will give Sam Baker one more chance.

When asked about tackles that might be available in the second round, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ticked off a group (Florida State’s Zebrie Sanders, Cal’s Mitchell Schwartz and Mississippi’s Bobby Massie) that he referred to as "third-tier offensive tackles."

“Bobby Massie would probably be the best available and maybe best case scenario coming out of Mississippi,’’ McShay said in a recent conference call with the national media. “I don't know that he's going to fall all the way there, but if he does it's a possibility. Zebrie Sanders from Florida State, there is a good chance he'll be there. He kind of fits what they want to do. He fits that Florida State zone-blocking scheme, and I think he has the athleticism to play left tackle, but I'm not necessarily convinced of it. It's always hard to plug your left tackle, and it's not going to be easy to do.’’

I’m not sure it makes sense for the Falcons to take a “third-tier offensive tackle’’ with their first draft pick. They were reluctant to play interior linemen Joe Hawley and Mike Johnson right away when they drafted them in the middle rounds in 2010. I don’t see them being more willing to play a rookie right away at left tackle.

McShay brought up another interesting scenario for the Falcons with their second-round pick and this guy should be familiar to Atlanta fans. McShay mentioned Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin as a possibility and he did it enthusiastically.

“He's just so fast,’’ McShay. “Everything he does is fast. I think his instincts need to improve. I know his instincts need to improve. He's late diagnosing some throws. When they put him in the zone, he can get lost a little bit, and that's not really his strength. But he's such a good athlete. He can absolutely fly. His vertical leap is just insane. He's just so physically gifted. You see the suddenness, the explosiveness. To me, maybe he's just a nickel corner, but maybe you get production out of him on the offensive side if you're creative enough. You definitely get production out of him and potentially some big plays in the return game.’’

Hmm, I have a tough time seeing Smith, who usually is viewed as a conservative type, letting someone play offense and defense. But, then again, maybe owner Arthur Blank can get in Smith’s ear about that possibility. Blank has developed a pretty strong relationship with Deion Sanders, who once played a little offense in addition to cornerback. Sanders also was a top-notch return man.

That’s a skill that could make Boykin particularly attractive to the Falcons. They recently let return man Eric Weems leave via free agency.

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