NFC South: John Abraham

Pro Bowl selections: Buccaneers

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
9:12
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Gerald McCoy and Darrelle Revis made the Pro Bowl. Lavonte David didn’t.

Something’s right with this picture and something is very wrong. McCoy and Revis belong in the Pro Bowl. But so does David. Shockingly, the second-year linebacker did not make the Pro Bowl roster.

John Abraham, Ahmad Brooks, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Robert Mathis and Terrell Suggs are the outside linebackers to make the Pro Bowl. Let’s not take anything away from any of those guys. But David deserved to be selected.

David had a breakout season and became only the seventh player in NFL history to record five sacks and five interceptions in the same season. But that wasn’t enough to get David to the Pro Bowl. Blame it on Tampa Bay’s 4-11 record, but this is a pretty major oversight.

McCoy and Revis both belong in the Pro Bowl, but David should be there with them.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.
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.
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.

Links: Tiki claims Sapp 'is an idiot'

June, 25, 2013
6/25/13
10:30
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Atlanta Falcons

Defensive end John Abraham is still a free agent, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Schultz says the Falcons could use the veteran's help.

Running back Steven Jackson "has always been among the most impressive physical specimens in the league, and now he’ll have a chance to show off the well-rounded game that comes with it," writes Robert Mays of Grantland's Triangle blog.

Here are five under-the-radar battles that will determine if the Falcons will have some quality depth in 2013, courtesy of the AJC's D. Orlando Ledbetter.

Falcons rookies are getting pumped up for training camp -- and it's only June. Linebacker Brian Banks tells the team's website, "To finally put on pads, to finally get physical out here -- Steven Jackson is the same size as me. It makes no sense how big he is, but I can’t wait to go against him and everybody else."

Carolina Panthers

Who is the most overrated player in Panthers' franchise history? If you immediately blurt out Sean Gilbert, NFL.com has a different suggestion.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula tells the National Football Post that the Panthers are streamlining the game plan for QB Cam Newton. Shula: "We're looking at different ways for him to think faster and play faster on the field.”

Contrary to one online report, running back Jonathan Stewart does not have cancer.

Linebacker Chase Blackburn doesn't hesitate when asked why he wants to be a Carolina Panther: "I've won two championships; I want to win more."

New Orleans Saints

Marques Colston is now one of 14 players on the Saints' 90-man roster over 30, and one of the 14 left of the dwindling numbers from the 2009 Super Bowl team, but Katherine Terrell of NOLA.com reports the wide receiver is showing no signs of slowing down.

Athlon Sports analyzes the Saints' 2013 schedule, including a "3-1 mark to start the year is a very real possibility."

The Times-Picayune continues its series on the Saints' top 25 players, including No. 19 center Brian de la Puente.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Can the Bucs afford to have the NFL's highest paid punter in Michael Koenen?

More from the former NFL players gossip mill, Tiki Barber responds to former Buccaneer Warren Sapp's comments on Michael Strahan. "Warren’s an idiot. He just wants to say things to be idiotic. I played with Stray for my whole career. He is the greatest of the great. He is a great teammate, he kept things light, but on game day he was as serious as a heart attack and it showed in his play."
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The major question facing each team in the NFC South as summer break looms.

Atlanta Falcons. Is the pass rush good enough? The Falcons replaced John Abraham with Osi Umenyiora. That might end up being something close to an even trade. But, just like when the Falcons had Abraham, you have to wonder who else might be able to generate a pass rush. Kroy Biermann is versatile and could bring some pressure from either defensive end or outside linebacker. But the Falcons really need one of their young defensive ends to step up. Second-year pro Jonathan Massaquoi appears to be the leading candidate for that.

Carolina Panthers. Who will be the starters in the defensive backfield? Aside from Charles Godfrey at one safety spot, that question remains wide open. The Panthers don’t have a clear starter at the other safety spot or at either cornerback spot. Veteran Mike Mitchell is one option at safety, but the team has been very impressed by rookie Robert Lester. The cornerback situation is even less clear. Captain Munnerlyn is a lock to be among the top three corners, but Drayton Florence, Josh Thomas, Josh Norman and D.J. Campbell appear to be competing for the other spots. The winners will have to distinguish themselves in training camp and the preseason.

New Orleans Saints. Where’s the pass rush going to come from? Just when it seemed like we were getting some clarity on this, it’s become a bigger question than ever before. Outside linebacker Victor Butler, who had a strong minicamp and played for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Dallas, went down with a torn ACL this week. The Saints firmly believed Butler was going to be a force. Now, they have to look at alternatives. Martez Wilson, Junior Galette and rookie Rufus Johnson all have some potential. But none of them are a sure thing. The Saints could end up bringing in a veteran that’s released somewhere else in the preseason if they don’t like what they’re seeing from the young linebackers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Are they really set at tight end? All indications are the Bucs are planning on going with Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree as their top two tight ends. That sounds a little dicey because Stocker hasn’t distinguished himself to this point of his career and Crabtree was used sparingly in Green Bay. But the Bucs appear to believe Stocker might be ready to elevate his game and they seem to think Crabtree has upside as a pass-catcher. It still is possible the Bucs could bring in a tight end, but that position doesn’t appear to be all that important in their passing game.
Check out this Insider postInsider in which Matt Williamson grades the offseason for every NFC team. The NFC South didn’t fare very well in Williamson’s eyes.

The exception is the New Orleans Saints, who got a B-plus. A lot of people are concerned about the pass rush, but Williamson thinks the Saints will be fine in that area with outside linebackers Victor Butler, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson possessing the ability to get after the passer. That’s a bit of a leap of faith because none of those guys are proven pass-rushers. But all three do have some potential. Williamson also acknowledges left tackle is a concern. But he thinks the strong interior of the line will help compensate for that.

The grades drop significantly after the Saints.

Although the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a huge trade for cornerback Darrelle Revis and signed safety Dashon Goldson to a big free-agent contract, Williamson only gave the Bucs a C. His major concern is the pass rush. But the Bucs seem to be fairly convinced that defensive end Da’Quan Bowers is ready for a breakout season. Williamson was also critical of the Bucs for not doing more on the offensive side of the ball. I see his point. The Bucs have plenty of salary-cap room and they could have done more to surround quarterback Josh Freeman with talent.

Williamson gave the Atlanta Falcons a C-minus, which I think is a little harsh. I think the Falcons upgraded significantly at running back by replacing Michael Turner with Steven Jackson and they got a little younger at defensive end by bringing in Osi Umenyiora to take John Abraham’s place. Williamson seems to think the Falcons will have problems getting a pass rush from anyone beside Umenyiora, but I think the Falcons are confident at least one of their young defensive ends will step up. Williamson also has doubts about the offensive line. I won’t dispute that one because it remains to be seen if Lamar Holmes is ready to be the starting right tackle.

Williamson also gave the Carolina Panthers a C-minus. His major complaint is that the Panthers didn’t do enough to improve their secondary. It’s hard to argue with that. But I do think the Panthers have assembled what could be one of the league’s best front sevens and that could take some heat off the secondary.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player entering a contract year on each NFC South team who must deliver in 2013:

Atlanta Falcons: Let’s skip the easy way out and not go with quarterback Matt Ryan, because he would be only a temporary answer. You know as well as I do that Ryan is going to get signed to a huge contract extension before the season ever gets here. The Falcons don’t have a lot of other players not under contract through at least 2014, but one position group jumped out at me when I looked at guys heading into contract years. That’s defensive tackle, where Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry all are headed into the final year of their deals. I think Peters is the most significant one. If he can produce a solid season, I think the Falcons will want to keep him around to anchor the interior of their defensive line. Babineaux is aging, and some scouts will tell you he’s in decline. The Falcons don’t hold on to aging players too long (see John Abraham and Michael Turner), so this could be the last year with the Falcons for Babineaux. Same for Jerry, but for a different reason. A major injury as a rookie has kept him from reaching his potential, and it’s unlikely he’ll get a second contract with the Falcons. Peters is the one guy in his prime with starter ability, and a strong season could secure his future.

Carolina Panthers: Defensive end Greg Hardy isn’t fighting for a job as much as he is competing to earn a fortune. Hardy hit double-digit sacks last season, and he and Charles Johnson arguably are one of the league’s best defensive end tandems. If Hardy can hit double digits or close again, he’s going to earn a huge payday with the Panthers or someone else. Although Carolina has salary-cap issues well into the future, I think the Panthers will find a way to pay Hardy if he delivers another big season.

New Orleans Saints: Safety Malcolm Jenkins’ rookie contract initially was scheduled to run through 2014, but it was structured in a way that allowed the final year to void. That means this is a contract year for Jenkins, and the pressure is on the former first-round pick. He seems to have all the physical and intellectual skills, but he has yet to put it all together and become the player the Saints had hoped for. There is at least some reason to believe it all might come together for Jenkins. But the use of this year’s first-round draft pick on safety Kenny Vaccaro means the Saints are prepared to move on if Jenkins doesn’t step up.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: No player fits this category more firmly than quarterback Josh Freeman. When the Bucs were 6-4 and Freeman was playing well last season, it seemed certain that Tampa Bay would lock up Freeman for the long term this offseason. But Freeman stumbled down the stretch, raising concerns about whether he really is a franchise quarterback. The Bucs decided to hold off on the extension and let Freeman go into this season needing to prove he’s worth a long-term commitment. I don’t see third-round draft pick Mike Glennon as an immediate threat to beat out Freeman for the starting job. But the Bucs have started the process of trying to find an answer in case Freeman isn’t it.

NFC South afternoon update

May, 28, 2013
5/28/13
5:16
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Time for an afternoon run through some news and notes from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Former Atlanta defensive end John Abraham reportedly told at least one of the teams he visited with as a free agent that he wants to play on 60 percent of the defensive downs. Abraham is 35. It’s nice that he still is so competitive. But Abraham is going to have to accept reality and lower his expectations, or else he’ll end up retired.

John Clayton has a column on how the draft class of 2009 has been underwhelming. That’s particularly true in the NFC South (although Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman has a chance to rescue things with a big season) and it might hold more true in Atlanta than anywhere. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry’s career has been a sad saga. I think this guy would have been a big-time player, but he tore up his knee in his second NFL game. He’s been reduced to being a role player and is heading into the final year of his contract -- assuming he still is on the roster at the end of the preseason.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Defensive end Greg Hardy talks about the challenges of playing with asthma.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

WalterFootball.com already has a 2014 mock draft out. The bad news is they think the Saints still will be looking for a pass-rusher. The good news is the Saints don’t pick until No. 27, which, if it comes true, would mean that their defense can’t be all that horrible in 2013.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

With some help from hockey’s Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin ranks highly on this list of young, franchise-caliber duos from 26 cities. Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Carolina’s Cam Newton also are a part of top-20 duos. New Orleans isn’t represented, but I think it’s fair to assume that’s because Drew Brees doesn’t qualify as “young."
Football Outsiders is doing a league-wide series of posts called "Red Flags," which take a look at the biggest remaining issue facing each team. Today’s Insider postInsider is on the NFC South and I’ll break it up into four smaller posts to explore the red flags for each team.

We’ll start it off with the Atlanta Falcons. Football Outsiders chose defensive end as Atlanta’s red flag and here’s the crux of their rationale:

“The Falcons addressed this by releasing John Abraham and signing Osi Umenyiora in free agency, but it's hard to call that an upgrade. Since missing all of 2008 with a knee injury, Umenyiora has 33.5 sacks. In the same four seasons, Abraham has 38.0 sacks, and he has had more sacks than Umenyiora in each of the past three years. Umenyiora is three years younger than Abraham, which is significant, but this still looks like a lateral move at best.’’

Maybe so, but the Falcons are simply counting on Umenyiora to be what Abraham was last year. They’re counting on generating more of a pass rush from elsewhere. Kroy Biermann is the other starter and he only has been average as a pass-rusher.

But I think those that think the Falcons are going to bring in another pass-rusher from outside are mistaken. They drafted Stansly Maponga and Malliciah Goodman this year. They have two other young ends in Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews.

The Falcons don’t have the cap room to add high-priced veterans. They’re going to throw their young defensive ends out there and see if someone steps up.
It’s trendy and fun to debate which NFC South team has the best offense.

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

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

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

So which defense is the best?

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

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

ATLANTA FALCONS

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

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

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

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

CAROLINA PANTHERS

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

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

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

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

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

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

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

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

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

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

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

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

If the pass rush isn’t effective, all those upgrades in the secondary might not matter very much.

NFC South evening update

May, 8, 2013
5/08/13
7:17
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Let's take a look at some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

John Manasso throws out the possibility of defensive end Kroy Biermann getting some playing time at outside linebacker, particularly when the Falcons use a 3-4 set. The coaching staff hasn’t mentioned anything about this yet. But it makes plenty of sense. Biermann is very versatile and could bring the threat of a pass rush from an outside linebacker spot.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Cam Newton said he’s not envious that Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick took the spotlight off him. Instead, Newton said the success of the other young quarterbacks helps to motivate him. Newton is as talented as any of those guys. If the Panthers can figure out the right way to use him, Newton will be back in the spotlight in a hurry.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

In this lengthy feature on rookie John Jenkins, Larry Holder points out that the defensive tackle’s weight has fluctuated to as high as 360 pounds. Coach Sean Payton already has said he wants Jenkins to play at about 340 pounds. That could provide a very nice anchor to the middle of the Saints’ new 3-4 scheme.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The big news here, of course, is that defensive back Ronde Barber has decided to retire. But, in other news, Mark Cook reports that the Bucs are not interested in veteran defensive ends Dwight Freeney or John Abraham. I think there was a lot of wishful thinking about those two from fans. But bringing in veterans doesn’t fit the Bucs’ profile, especially at defensive end where they have high draft picks invested in Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers.

NFC South afternoon update

May, 6, 2013
5/06/13
5:14
PM ET
Time for a run through some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

The Tennessee Titans reportedly could sign defensive end John Abraham this week. As I keep saying, I don’t think Abraham is going to end up re-signing with the Falcons. Atlanta now has a bunch of young defensive ends and needs to start getting them on the field.

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford looked good in the weekend minicamp. That’s a good thing because I don’t get the sense the Falcons used their first two draft picks on these guys to bring them along slowly. The hope is one of them can start opening day opposite Asante Samuel and the other can compete with Robert McClain for the job at nickel back.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Max Henson writes that cornerbacks D.J. Moore and Captain Munnerlyn have a friendly rivalry that goes back to their college days. That’s a good thing because the Panthers need all the competitive spirit they can get at cornerback. They don’t have any blue-chip players at that position, but the competition may help some of the cornerbacks to step up.

Former Carolina and New Orleans kicker John Kasay will be the featured speaker at Wingate University’s graduation.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Speaking of colleges and graduations, coach Sean Payton received an honorary doctorate degree from his alma mater, Eastern Illinois University.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Joe Smith has a nice feature on rookie running back Mike James and the relationship he shared with his late mother. The Bucs drafted James because he’s an all-purpose back and could end up being the top backup to Doug Martin.
The Atlanta Falcons let go of John Abraham before the start of free agency. It might be time for their fans to finally let Abraham go.

Abraham
The veteran defensive end remains an unsigned free agent. Recent tweets suggesting he was retiring were quickly deleted and a source said Abraham wants to continue playing. But that latest twist shouldn’t fuel the group of fans that think Abraham should re-sign with the Falcons.

That probably isn’t going to happen. The Falcons didn’t release Abraham with the intention of bringing back. When you release a player of Abraham’s magnitude, it’s not something you do lightly. The Falcons looked at Abraham’s age and salary and decided it was time to part ways. If they wanted to keep Abraham at a reduced salary, they probably would have asked him to take a cut in pay before releasing him.

Instead, the Falcons have moved forward. They signed Osi Umenyiora to replace Abraham as their main pass rusher. Then, they went out and drafted Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga. They already had two other young defensive ends in Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith believe in having a mixture of experience and youth on their roster. They want to start getting some of those young defensive ends on the field. Bringing back Abraham wouldn’t help that process.

The Falcons are looking to take a step forward. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to take a step back.

NFC South Stock Watch

April, 30, 2013
4/30/13
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RISING

Matt Ryan. With Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers signing a huge contract extension, Ryan and his agent have stepped out of the on-deck circle and are walking toward the plate. Ryan’s going to get money similar to what Rodgers and Joe Flacco got. I wouldn’t look for a drawn-out negotiating period. The market value has been set and the Falcons and Ryan know they want to be together for the long haul.

Lamar Holmes. The fact the Falcons didn’t draft a single offensive lineman is a good indication of how they feel about Holmes, a third-round pick last year. It now is looking like Holmes is the heir apparent to right tackle Tyson Clabo, who was released.

Eric Washington. He’s the defensive line coach for the Carolina Panthers and already was a rising star after Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy each produced double-digit sacks last year. Now, Washington will get a chance to really bolster his reputation (and perhaps eventually become a defensive coordinator after the Panthers used their top two picks on defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. On paper at least, Washington has enough talent to whip up one of the league’s best defensive lines.

FALLING

Ronde Barber. The Buccaneers say they still want the veteran defensive back to return for another year. But in what capacity? He’s not going to start at free safety because the Bucs signed Dashon Goldson. A return to cornerback is possible, but Barber likely would be behind Darrelle Revis, Eric Wright and rookie Johnthan Banks. Backup safeties and fourth cornerbacks almost always have to play special teams. Do you honestly see Barber doing that at this point in his career? If he wants to keep playing, there might be a place or two where he can still be a starter and that could mean he won’t play his entire career with the Bucs.

Charles Brown and Jason Smith. The New Orleans Saints used a third-round draft pick on offensive tackle Terron Armstead. That means they aren’t sold on Brown or Smith as their left tackle. Armstead won’t be handed the job, but he’ll compete with Brown and Smith in training camp.

John Abraham. There has been a lot of talk from Atlanta fans about the Falcons perhaps re-signing the veteran defensive end. I’ve said all along that’s a long shot. After the draft, I think it’s an even longer shot. The Falcons drafted defensive ends Malliciah Goodman (fourth round) and Stansly Maponga (fifth round). They also have a couple of other young defensive ends on the roster in Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews. It doesn’t look like there’s room on the roster to bring back an aging player who already was released.

Ranking the needs: Defensive line

April, 23, 2013
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We continue our pre-draft rankings of position-group needs with the defensive line.

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

Carolina Panthers: They’re in good shape with Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson as the starting defensive ends and Dwan Edwards as one of the defensive tackles. But the Panthers could use another starting defensive tackle. Plus, Edwards’ age makes it even more imperative that the Panthers address the middle of the defensive line.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: As it stands right now, either Derek Landri or Gary Gibson would start next to Gerald McCoy at defensive tackle. The Bucs might want an upgrade at that spot. Tampa Bay also could use a little more depth at defensive end.

Atlanta Falcons: Osi Umenyiora was brought in to replace John Abraham. But the Falcons still might want to add another pass-rusher to complement Umenyiora. For too long Atlanta has relied too much on only one strong pass-rusher. The Falcons also could use some depth at defensive tackle after Vance Walker departed through free agency.

New Orleans Saints: Don’t be fooled by the ranking. The Saints don’t have a great defensive line. But ends Will Smith and Cameron Jordan and Brodrick Bunkley could fit nicely in the new 3-4 scheme. The Saints are likely to look for linebackers to rush from the edge. The Saints could use someone to rotate with Bunkley.

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