NFL Nation: NFC South

TAMPA, Fla. -- With the start of the regular season just around the corner, Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith talked about his offensive and defensive lines Friday.

You might be a little surprised with what he had to say. Smith had plenty of praise for an offensive line that has been criticized and has undergone a lot of changes. On the flip side, he had a challenge for a defensive line that many consider one of the team’s strengths.

Let’s start with the offensive line. Right tackle Demar Dotson is the only remaining starter from a line that wasn’t very good a year ago. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith and left tackle Anthony Collins were brought in as free agents. After some early struggles on the interior in the preseason, the Bucs made a big trade this week to bring in six-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins.

Smith said he’s not concerned about the chemistry of the offensive line even though Mankins has yet to practice with the team.

“It’s been talked an awful lot about “the offensive line, they have to play together’’,’’ Smith said. “I don’t buy that at all. I think you get the best possible guys you can, and you make moves when you have to.’’

“He knows how to get himself ready. He’ll have to change a little bit of terminology but not as much as you would assume. He’ll fit in right away and I don’t think that will be a big issue. Some of our other offensive linemen haven’t played a lot together. But these three preseason games, they’ve come together. Based on the way they played the last time they were together [in the third preseason game], we like where we’re at going into the Carolina game [to open the regular season].’’

The defensive line is supposed to be a strength. The Bucs haven’t gotten some pressure from their starters, but the team plans to use a rotation. Smith said he hasn’t been impressed with the play of some of his backup defensive linemen.

“Very concerned about it,’’ Smith said. “It’s disappointing, the pressure we weren’t able to get. It’s been documented how we want to play football. As we look at it, the challenge for our defensive line this week will be to outplay Carolina’s defensive line. They have an excellent front seven. We need to play better than them up front. That isn’t just four guys. A couple other players have to step up. We’ll normally dress seven defensive linemen. All of them will play and we need production from all of them.’’

Bucs cut kicker Connor Barth

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
3:26
PM ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Buccaneers pulled a bit of a surprise on Friday afternoon by releasing kicker Connor Barth.

Barth
 Presumably, the kicking job now belongs to Patrick Murray, who had a strong training camp. Barth had been with the Buccaneers since 2009. But he missed all of last season after tearing his Achilles tendon in a charity basketball game.

The decision also might have been influenced by economics. Barth was scheduled to earn $2 million in base salary. Plus, he was slated to earn $1.15 million in weekly bonuses if he made the 53-man roster. The Bucs take no cap hit for releasing Barth.

Murray is scheduled to make $420,000 this season.
Most significant move: Carolina thought so much of wide receiver Tiquan Underwood in free agency that it gave him a two-year deal that included a $300,000 signing bonus. The hope was he would replace Ted Ginn Jr. as the speed receiver and possibly double as a return specialist. It never happened. Underwood continued to show the inconsistencies as a receiver that have plagued him throughout his career. For every good catch he made in practice, he had at least one drop, and he was cut for the ninth time in his career.

Wild card: Wide receiver Marvin McNutt was mentioned as a young player the Panthers wanted to get a good look at when they released Steve Smith in March. He never was a factor in being among the top six. Kealoha Pilares was listed as the No. 1 kickoff returner halfway through training camp in Spartanburg, but he never did anything as a receiver to justify wasting a spot on the roster.

What's next: You'd think the Panthers would scour the waiver wires looking for a return specialist who also can play wide receiver. Not so quick. Coach Ron Rivera says he likes undrafted rookie Philly Brown as a returner and sees potential in the former Ohio State star as a receiver. Brown has the speed the Panthers were looking for in Underwood, and he'll cost a lot less. That being said, I still wouldn't be surprised to see the Panthers take a shot at somebody when final cuts are made.

Panthers moves: Released -- WR Tiquan Underwood, WR Toney Clemons, P Jordan Gay, DT Linden Gaydosh, DE Alex Hall, T Oscar Johnson, WR Marvin McNutt, LB Anthony Morales, WR Kealoha Pilares, DE Craig Roh. PUP -- WR De'Andre Presley. IR -- QB Matt Blanchard, TE D.C. Jefferson, C Kevin Matthews.

 
INDIANAPOLIS -- Champ Bailey is a future Hall of Famer. But he’s also a realist.

So the New Orleans Saints cornerback knows full well that he has to show his new team enough reason to put him in the lineup on Week 1.

Bailey hopes he finally started to do that this week after recovering from what he described as a minor foot injury.

Bailey
 “Yeah, I do have to prove what I can do,” Bailey said. “Even though I’ve played 15 years, it doesn’t matter. Man, this is a production business. I think every guy going into training camp has to show what he can do. And, you know, I feel good. If they like what I do, then I’ll play a lot on Sundays. Plain and simple.”

So far, so good, after Bailey played about 15-20 snaps in his preseason debut on Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts. He entered the game in the second quarter, working with a mix of starters and backups. And he wasn’t targeted once by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, finishing with one assisted tackle on a short pass to a tight end.

I mentioned to Bailey that I barely noticed him Saturday since the ball never seemed to be thrown near his side of the field. When I suggested that’s probably a good thing, Bailey said, “Hell, yeah. You know, that’s always good. Unless I’m making big plays.”

It’s worth noting that Patrick Robinson got the starting nod over Bailey on Saturday, even though both players were coming back from injuries. They’re battling for snaps opposite No. 1 starter Keenan Lewis. And so far, Robinson may be ahead in that battle, both because he has been in New Orleans longer and because he has shown more throughout training camp.

It’s still a pretty even competition, though, and both guys could wind up seeing the field in certain packages, along with physical corner Corey White.

Bailey, who signed an incentive-laden deal with the Saints this offseason after being released by the Denver Broncos, said he’s felt good about his performance when he’s been on the field this summer -- including a solid stretch during OTAs, minicamp and the first few days of training camp before he suffered the injury.

Bailey said it’s been tough to be out of action for so long. But he said it was the best thing long-term.

When I asked him if the long hiatus was a “play it safe and smart kind of thing,” Bailey said it was “a get healthy kind of thing.”

“It was just one of those things where I’ve just gotta make sure I’m right before I go out there,” Bailey said. “And the good thing was the timing of it was probably good because I had time to get right. I want to be out there with the guys, but obviously this is preseason. So we want to make sure we got all our bullets when it comes to the first game.”

That wound up being the Saints’ approach with a number of veteran players, even though coach Sean Payton said some of that was coincidental because of the timing and nature of certain injuries.

Quarterback Drew Brees, safety Jairus Byrd, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and receiver Kenny Stills also made their preseason debuts on Saturday night -- though Stills exited after re-injuring his quadriceps.

Byrd, who only began full-contact work this week after having summer back surgery, also said he felt good in his return to the lineup. Although he didn’t snag any interceptions like the two he picked in practice Wednesday night, Byrd did shown nice burst and physicality on one open-field tackle, in particular.

"I'm just thankful to finally be out there, dust the rust off a little bit and just get with my teammates," Byrd told the media after the game.

When asked if he felt any rust, Byrd said not much.

"Obviously you want to get the hits out of the way. Everything felt real smooth,” Byrd said.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If you need more proof that the Carolina Panthers have found a true No. 1 receiver in rookie Kelvin Benjamin, recent practices are a good indication.

The Panthers are putting the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin in more situations that No. 1 receivers expect on game day in terms of the coverage he will receive.

"We've done some things defensively to put him in situations where he's being jammed, where he's being pressed, he's being doubled, he's being rolled to,'' coach Ron Rivera said on Friday. "He's going to have to get used to it.''

Benjamin showed what he can do against single coverage in last week's preseason opener against Buffalo. He caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Derek Anderson in which he stumbled on the heel of the defender, gathered himself and made a spectacular diving catch in the end zone as he rolled to the ground.

Now that opponents are seeing what the Carolina coaches are seeing in practice, Benjamin is sure to attract more attention. That's why the Panthers are throwing more at him in practice.

"He's done pretty well,'' Rivera said. "It's probably a little different from what he experienced in college. But still, in this game, it really is a matter of how you handle it and he's done well.''

The Panthers selected Benjamin with the hope that he could replace Steve Smith as the team's top receiver. Smith, 35, was released in March and subsequently signed with Baltimore.

Some questioned whether Benjamin ran good enough routes or had enough big-time experience as a college junior to step right into the No. 1 role. Wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl recently told ESPN.com that Benjamin was more than capable.

"It's obvious,'' he said.

Benjamin has accepted the challenge. He expects more press and double-team coverage in Sunday night's exhibition game against Kansas City, when he'll work with starting quarterback Cam Newton for the first time.

Newton and Benjamin have developed a bond off the field and in practice they hope carries over to big catches in games. If teams try to take him away, Benjamin isn't worried.

"Oh, yeah,'' he said. "If that happens, I just need my others receivers to step it up, and I'll clear it out for them.''

That's what Benjamin brings to this offense. If defenses focus on him, that opens the field not only for the other wide receivers but for tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson.

"Listen, I will never complain about having wide receivers [who] can get down the field and keep those safeties wide,'' said Olsen, who led the team in catches last season. "The tighter those safeties get, my day gets harder and harder. There's a lot of guys sometimes in the middle of the field.''

And if teams double down on Olsen, that opens man coverage for Benjamin.

"It's going to be interesting when we're all out there together,'' Olsen said. "It's hard to predict what other teams are going to want to do.''

So the Panthers are preparing him for everything.

Bucs should trade for Alex Boone

August, 10, 2014
Aug 10
10:34
AM ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- Since taking over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht have made a lot of noise about wanting to win now.

 They backed that up with the most aggressive free-agent period in team history. No expense was spared as the Bucs brought in what could be as many as eight starters.

But it’s time to get a ninth starter. It’s time for the Bucs to trade with the San Francisco 49ers for guard Alex Boone. He’s in a contract holdout, and it doesn’t look like the cap-strapped 49ers are willing to give Boone a raise.

The Bucs easily could afford Boone. They have $13.71 million in salary-cap room and could sign Boone to a bigger contract than he already has. The price tag for such a trade likely would be a mid-round draft pick.

That’s not too steep a price to pay for a guy who could straighten out the offensive line. And the offensive line certainly needs some help. That became very apparent during Friday night’s preseason opener with Jacksonville.

The Bucs are looking at four guards (Oniel Cousins, Jamon Meredith, Patrick Omameh and Kadeem Edwards) to fill two starting spots. Smith has said it’s not time to panic about the guard situation, but it might be time to do something.

Boone would be an upgrade over any of the guards currently on the roster. He could handle one starting spot. Then, the other four guards could compete for one starting job instead of two.
Examining the New Orleans Saints' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)
As I said during my first roster projection, it’s not easy to cut veteran Luke McCown, who has been a great fit in the Saints locker room. And it's still a neck-and-neck battle for the backup job so far. But McCown will have to clearly outshine Griffin in the preseason, since Griffin is younger, has more long-term potential and would allow the Saints the luxury of only keeping two quarterbacks.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

No changes here. It's gonna be very difficult for undrafted rookies Timothy Flanders and Derrick Strozier to crack the roster since the Saints are so deep. I'll never say never, though, when it comes to the Saints and undrafted rookie running backs. ... Backup fullback Austin Johnson is also a dark horse possibility.

RECEIVERS (6)

I still think it will be tough for all six of these guys to make the roster since the Saints typically keep only four receivers active on game days. But they have all shown enough in the past to earn the benefit of doubt for now. Morgan has been competing as a punt and kickoff returner (along with fellow receivers Cooks, Andy Tanner and Charles Hawkins). That's another possible path to the roster. ... Undrafted rookie Brandon Coleman is a possibility to crack the roster in a "redshirt" capacity. He's off to a nice start in camp after struggling in organized team activities and minicamp.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

I was very tempted to add undrafted rookie Nic Jacobs to my latest 53-man roster projection since I think the Saints could have room for a fourth tight end (they've kept four often in the past). And Jacobs has turned my head by showing some athleticism to go with his massive 6-5, 269-pound frame. But I haven't seen or heard enough yet to know how the coaches feel about him -- or if he's ahead of fellow undrafted rookie Je'Ron Hamm at this point.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)

Rooks, a sixth-round draft pick, hasn't practiced yet because of a minor back issue. Obviously he'll have to get back on the field soon to keep from getting passed over. But his potential gives him the edge over several other candidates for those last one or two backup jobs for now. I'll also be keeping an eye on young guys like third-year guard Marcel Jones and undrafted rookie center Matt Armstrong, among others. ... I think the top seven on this list are pretty safe.

DEFENSIVE LINE (7)

Johnson is the biggest question mark on this list, but the second-year pro has shown some versatility to go with his athletic potential after being moved to defensive end this year. Veteran Brandon Deaderick is a more experienced possibility who has shown his own versatility by lining up as the second-string nose tackle while Jenkins is out with an injury.

LINEBACKERS (10)

This is the one change I made from the previous projection -- adding in veteran outside linebacker Keyunta Dawson (and cutting cornerback Rod Sweeting). It will be very difficult for 10 linebackers to make the roster. But Dawson, who impressed the Saints as a backup last year, hasn't done anything to deserve the axe. He has continued to make plays with the second-string defense during camp. ... I also like pass-rusher Kyle Knox as a dark horse. But this is such a crowded group with the return of Butler from injury and the arrival of enticing rookies Fortt and Powell.

CORNERBACKS (5)

I hate to cut Sweeting, who showed potential last year as an undrafted rookie and stuck with the team all year. But he's been buried on the depth chart so far in camp, and the Saints have a lot of depth now with the additions of Bailey and Jean-Baptiste and Robinson coming back strong from a knee injury. Another possibility is Trevin Wade, who joined the Saints last year and has actually lined up ahead of Sweeting so far in the practice rotation.

SAFETIES (4)

This is another spot where I was very tempted to add undrafted rookie Pierre Warren, who has made some big plays already during training camp (including a forced fumble and a handful of pass break-ups). Warren has lined up with the second-string unit all summer (next to Sunseri) while Byrd has been out with injury. So obviously the Saints have seen something they like from the Jacksonville State product. ... A ton of people have asked me about former CFL standout Marcus Ball. He remains a possibility, too, and made a nice play on Sunday. But he's been behind Sunseri and Warren in the pecking order so far this summer.

SPECIALISTS (3)

I still like Graham over younger kicker Derek Dimke -- especially after coach Sean Payton spoke highly of Graham on Sunday. Neither one has done anything to win or lose the job yet, though.
Examining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)
McCown is getting all the first-team work and has looked sharp. The Bucs aren't likely to keep a third quarterback on the 53-man roster.

RUNNING BACKS (6)

The Bucs are infatuated with Demps' speed, but it remains to be seen if he can do enough to earn a roster spot.

RECEIVERS (5)

The slot receiver position is wide open and can be claimed by whoever has the best camp.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

Veteran Luke Stocker is very much on the bubble.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

The departure of Carl Nicks leaves the team short at guard. The Bucs may look for help from the outside.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

Bowers, who never has lived up to his potential, is on the hot seat. He needs a strong camp to secure a roster spot.

LINEBACKERS (6)

The Bucs still could use a little stronger depth at this position.

CORNERBACKS (6)

Leonard Johnson looks like the early favorite to claim the nickelback job.

SAFETIES (4)

Goldson's looking to bounce back after a rough first year with the Bucs. Wright and Tandy provide solid depth.

SPECIALISTS (3)

This won’t change unless there’s an injury.
Examining the Atlanta Falcons' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)
The Falcons are counting on Ryan to play like an elite quarterback with a full complement of receivers and better protection. They feel like they upgraded the backup quarterback position by trading for Yates, the former Houston Texan who has a playoff win under his belt.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

Jackson, who just turned 31, still has a good year left in him if he remains healthy. He looks rejuvenated. Freeman, a rookie fourth-round pick, will get a chance to push for touches and has been impressive to start training camp. Rodgers can't be forgotten because of his elusiveness. Smith is a valuable special-teamer, as is Josh Vaughan, who could sneak in.

RECEIVERS (6)

Jones looked good during his first practice since last year's season-ending foot fracture while White came to camp with a new four-year contract extension in hand. Coach Mike Smith said he'll have a decision to keep five or six receivers, and Davis (foot surgery) might not be ready to start the regular season. Roby has value on special teams as a gunner. Undrafted rookie Bernard Reedy still has a serious chance.

TIGHT ENDS (2)

No one is expecting another Tony Gonzalez out of this group, but the Falcons do expect Toilolo to make significant strides this season. Pascoe will be kept for his blocking.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

The Falcons believe they have a solid starting five after signing the veteran Asamoah to play right guard and drafting the rookie Matthews in the first round to play right tackle. Both have looked the part at the start of camp. Baker also looks healthy coming off major left knee injury. Lamar Holmes has showed some fight at the start of camp but remains on the bubble.

DEFENSIVE LINE (7)

As long as Soliai and Jackson do their jobs up front in the 3-4 in terms of stuffing the run and freeing up the linebackers to make plays, they'll be well worth the combined $25 million guaranteed despite not playing every down. Hageman, the second-round draft pick, is a mad man on the field and could find himself up front with Soliai and Jackson sooner than later. Peters is the wild card in the rotation depending on his health coming off an Achilles tear. Umenyiora, who has slimmed down and improved his speed, definitely has a spot as a designated pass-rusher.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (4)

The Falcons are counting on Massaquoi to be a consistent pass-rusher. Biermann looks healthy coming off an Achilles tear but the Falcons have him on a schedule of two days on, one day off. Starr, a seventh-round draft pick, hasn't really stood out to start training camp like he did during rookie minicamp.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (6)

The group will sorely miss Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles), who was lost for the season. Worrilow can tackle while Bartu can cover. The coaches are really counting on the fourth-round draft pick Shembo to step in and have an immediate impact. The late addition of Angerer could really pay off, provided he's healthy.

CORNERBACKS (5)

Trufant and Alford could make up one of the best cornerback tandems in the league in the future if Alford continues to mature. Trufant is there already. The high-powered, multi-receiver offenses around the league only increased the need for solid cornerbacks, and the Falcons have a battle for the third corner with McClain, Wilson and Javier Arenas, with Arenas likely the odd man out.

SAFETIES (4)

Moore has to take on more of a leadership role with his buddy Weatherspoon done for the season. Newcomer Lowery could be an upgrade over Thomas DeCoud at free safety provided the offseason was indicative of Lowery's ability. Zeke Motta (neck surgery) won't play this season.

SPECIALISTS (3)

Bosher is one of the best in the league, and Bryant is consistent. They just need to keep it going.
The Atlanta Falcons begin training Friday afternoon, which means the return of wide receiver Julio Jones for the first time since a season-ending foot fracture last October.

Although Jones will be on a limited schedule during camp, fellow receiver Roddy White isn't overly concerned about his tag-team partner's practice routine.

Jones
"I'm worried about him in a sense that I just want him to play football," White said. "Being with Julio for the last few years, I know how great of a player he is. I know how great of a player he can be. And I just want him to be the best he can be. That's all I care about. If he's the best he can be, we're going to win. There's no doubt about it.

"I don't have any other concerns with him because we're like brothers. I want to see him be on the field throughout the whole season and just watch him destroy the NFL."

The Falcons held Jones out the entire offseason while he continued to recover from a second surgery on his right foot. He played in just five games last season and was on pace for 130 catches and more than 1,800 yards. In June, Jones expressed confidence in a full recovery without any lingering issues.

The precautionary approach with Jones this training camp is something White believes is necessary.

"I'd go with it every year to get to [the season opener] with everybody as healthy as possible and everybody rolling on all cylinders," White said. "Whatever it takes for him to get to Sept. 7 and be healthy, that's what I want to do."

White had his own health issues last year in dealing with a high ankle sprain and hamstring injury. He was held out a good portion of the offseason, in large part to grieve the loss of his younger brother, who was murdered back home in South Carolina.

In terms of how his body is feeling going into camp, White was asked if he expected to be limited at all.

"I don't know," he said. "I haven't gone over the schedule or anything yet. But probably not, because I didn't do too many OTAs [organized team activities]. We've got to work on timing."
Steve SmithAlbert Dickson/Sporting News/Icon SMI 
Score: Panthers 29, Rams 23, 2 OT
Date: Jan. 10, 2004. Site: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis

It's hard to argue with the voters on this one. Steve Smith's 69-yard touchdown catch from Jake Delhomme on the first play of the second overtime ended one of the most exciting playoff games not only in Carolina history but in NFL history.

The Rams overcame an 11-point deficit to force overtime, and both teams blew opportunities to win in the first extra period. I actually went to the sideline with an early story filed, awaiting the final score with Carolina leading 23-12. I've never felt so helpless. With no cell phone coverage and not being allowed to return to the press box, I had no way to rewrite the drama as it unfolded. And there was plenty.

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Panthers' history?

  •  
    60%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    27%

Discuss (Total votes: 27,415)

One could argue the most memorable play came from cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. a few plays before Smith's catch. The Rams had a first down at the Carolina 38 and appeared poised to win before Manning ripped an apparent catch from the hands of wide receiver Torry Holt for an interception. Were it not for that play, Smith's catch never would have happened. But because Smith's play won the game and sent Carolina to the NFC Championship Game and ultimately the Super Bowl, it is the one etched in the minds of most fans.

The scene at the Edward Jones Dome went from complete pandemonium to stunned silence as Smith caught the pass in stride over the middle between two defenders and raced untouched into the end zone. In a matter of seconds, St. Louis' 14-game home winning streak was over.

"I've never seen a game quite like that," then-Carolina coach John Fox said afterward.

There haven't been many like it since. As much as I'd say linebacker Sam Mills intercepting a shovel pass and returning it for a touchdown to secure Carolina's first franchise victory in 1995 was more memorable, that play or any other really isn't close when you consider what Smith's catch meant and the emotion it brought.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC South

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
10:00
AM ET
video
The NFC South too shall pass.

Three of the division's first-round picks in May were wide receivers: Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at No. 7), Brandin Cooks of the New Orleans Saints (No. 20) and Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers (No. 28). And offensive tackle Jake Matthews, drafted sixth overall by the Atlanta Falcons, should give quarterback Matt Ryan more time to throw to his star wideouts.

 The Bucs had a void opposite Pro Bowl veteran Vincent Jackson and filled it with Evans, giving the team a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers. The Saints parted with Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, two key components in their pass-happy offense. In steps versatile Cooks, who hauled in 128 receptions for 1,730 yards last season at Oregon State. The Panthers released their No. 1 receiver -- diminutive, 35-year-old Steve Smith -- and replaced him with 6-5 Benjamin.

First-round picks aren't the only NFC South rookies with a chance to make some noise. Keep an eye on Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman and Saints cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

The four writers who cover the division -- Vaughn McClure in Atlanta, David Newton for Carolina, Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Pat Yasinskas for Tampa Bay -- offered their insights on the division's rookies, among other topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out whether they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which NFC South rookie will make the biggest impact this season?



Vaughn McClure: Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans should get plenty of chances to show he was worthy of a top-10 selection. His size (6-5, 230 pounds) is enough to give opponents fits. Having a proven big receiver such as Vincent Jackson on the other side should help Evans make a smooth transition. Josh McCown is a smart quarterback who won't put Evans in bad situations. And Lovie Smith is the right head coach in terms of helping a rookie adjust to new surroundings. Evans has to overcome some of the knocks on him, including that he's too stiff and doesn't have great speed. It still will be hard to match up against him one-on-one, though, because the former basketball player will win the jump balls. And he has already impressed coaches with his range.

David Newton: This is a tough one because I really like the first-round picks for all four division teams. Each will make his team significantly better. But for me, it comes down to New Orleans' Brandin Cooks and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin because both receivers will get plenty of opportunities. I'm going with Cooks because he has quarterback Drew Brees and a veteran unit around him. Rookie receivers often struggle. Cooks will break that trend with 60-plus catches.

Mike Triplett: I'll go with Saints receiver Brandin Cooks because I think he'll have the flashiest season. You could make a great case for all four first-round picks, and Jake Matthews will probably play the most vital role because of the Falcons' need at offensive tackle. But I think Cooks will make the biggest splash -- and even be a strong contender for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Even though New Orleans spreads the ball around so much, I expect Cooks to catch a high volume of passes and hit some home runs with deep balls and a punt return or two.

Pat Yasinskas: That's an easy one. I'm going with Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans. He's going to be an instant starter, and he's going to be active in the passing game. Vincent Jackson remains the top receiver, but Evans will be a nice No. 2 to start his career. Evans someday will be a No. 1 receiver, but for now he'll be a complement to Jackson. Evans and Jackson, both 6-5, will form one of the league's largest starting receiver tandems, and that's going to cause problems for opposing defenses.


Second Down

What is your team's top position battle to monitor in training camp?



McClure: Although there will be plenty of competition among Falcons linebackers, I'm turning my attention to the running backs. Steven Jackson is the starter. He turns 31 next month and probably has one good season left in him -- but if he is slowed by nagging injuries, the Falcons will turn to someone else. They drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round with thoughts of grooming him as the three-down back of the future. If he looks as good in pads as he did in shorts, Jackson might have a battle on his hands. Even the battle for the third running back will be interesting with Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith in the mix. The running backs, as a whole, have an improved offensive line to run behind. Let's see whether that helps them.

Newton: Most might say the left tackle battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler. And although finding a replacement for retired Jordan Gross is key, the Carolina competition that intrigues me the most will be between Charles Godfrey and Melvin White at cornerback. Godfrey is making the transition from safety to corner after missing most of last season with an Achilles injury. It's a homecoming of sorts, since Godfrey played cornerback for most of his college career at Iowa before the former Panthers coaching staff moved him to safety in 2008. Although White was adequate last season, Godfrey is a more physical player with the potential to be a shutdown corner. If he can win that battle, it's a huge upgrade for the league's No. 2 defense.

Triplett: The battle at cornerback is by far the most compelling on the Saints' roster. For one thing, it's a vital position in today's NFL. For another thing, the Saints are loaded with fascinating candidates behind No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis. Does surefire Hall of Famer Champ Bailey have enough left in the tank? Can former first-round pick Patrick Robinson bounce back from injury? Can third-year pro Corey White take that next step? Can rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste make an instant impact? Can second-year pro Rod Sweeting or someone else emerge as a dark horse? And did I mention this is an important position?

Yasinskas: The best competition will be at tight end. The fact Austin Seferian-Jenkins was drafted in the second round probably means he'll get the first shot at the starting position, but don't overlook his competition -- theoretically, the Bucs have four guys who could end up as the starter. Free-agent pickup Brandon Myers can catch and block. Tim Wright had 54 catches last season and has worked to improve his blocking. Veteran Luke Stocker is returning from injury; he isn't a huge threat as a receiver, but he could play a big role as a blocker.


Third Down

Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?




McClure: I like safety William Moore taking on more of a leadership role and sparking the Falcons' defense, and I like receiver Roddy White rebounding from last year's injury-plagued campaign. But the guy I'm going to single out is return man Devin Hester. After his role diminished in Chicago, people forgot he was the greatest return man of all time. All Hester needed was a change of scenery: In watching him during organized team activities, it was evident he still has his quickness. With special-teams mastermind Keith Armstrong drawing up the blocking scheme, Hester could be the X factor in the Falcons' quest to return to playoff contention. Whatever Hester accomplishes on offense would be a bonus.

Newton: It feels strange calling wide receiver Tiquan Underwood a veteran since this is his first season with the Panthers, but the sixth-year player out of Rutgers was the first to come to mind with this question. Underwood was brought in to replace Ted Ginn Jr. as the speed receiver. Ginn went from two catches with San Francisco in 2012 to 36 for five touchdowns with the Panthers last season before moving on to Arizona. Underwood had 24 catches for four touchdowns in Tampa Bay last season. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was high on him when they worked together in Jacksonville. Throw in what wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl will teach Underwood, I could see him doubling his production in 2014.

Triplett: I've been touting Saints defensive end/tackle Akiem Hicks all offseason. He's a third-year guy who's big and really powerful at 6-5, 324 pounds, but athletic for his size. A former third-round pick out of the University of Regina in Canada, he had 4.5 sacks last year in his first stint as a full-time starter. I'm not sure Hicks will post 10-plus sacks as an interior guy, which means he might not crack the Pro Bowl. But that's the level of impact he can have as someone who can both push the pocket and stuff the run. Opposing offensive linemen in the NFC South certainly know who he is.

Yasinskas: Middle linebacker Mason Foster is set up for a big season. Foster has had a decent career to this point, but he's about to get a lot better. Hardy Nickerson and Brian Urlacher excelled as middle linebackers in coach Lovie Smith's defense, and now it might be Foster's turn. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David is the star of this unit, but Foster has a chance to be a nice complementary player. Smith likes to have his middle linebackers call the defensive plays, and that means Foster will be putting on the radio helmet this year.


Fourth Down

What is your predicted order of finish in the NFC South standings?



McClure: That's a tough one. I see a lot of parity within the division, and the Buccaneers really have a chance to close the gap based on their offseason moves, including the hiring of Smith as coach. But I'm going to go with New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina. As long as the Saints have Drew Brees in the lineup, they have a chance to be contenders. The Falcons bulked up on both sides of the line, which should bode well for them in terms of putting up points on offense and preventing big plays on defense. The Bucs' defense could be devastating. Carolina will sorely miss Jordan Gross and Steve Smith -- and it will show.

Newton: Since nobody has repeated as NFC South champion since the division was formed in 2002, it would seem a bit crazy to pick the Panthers, who edged New Orleans for the title last season. The Saints are considered the favorites by most, and it's hard to argue otherwise with Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham on offense. But I'm a believer that defense wins, and even with changes to the secondary, there's not a better defense in the division than Carolina's. I like what Atlanta has done in free agency and the draft, so I look for the Falcons to finish second with the Saints third and Tampa Bay fourth. Having said that, I could see the division winner going 9-7 or 10-6. It's going to be tight.

Triplett: I'm confident the Saints will finish first with at least 11 wins. Although their offense lost some key pieces, it's still one of the NFL's elite, and their defense is legit. After that it's a virtual three-way tie. I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the others flirt with a playoff run or finish last. I'll go with the Buccaneers second because they're on the rise. They have a great defense and run game and now seem to have a solid coach and quarterback. I'll pick Carolina third because it lost so much in the receiving corps and secondary. As much as I like the Falcons' passing attack, there are questions everywhere else.

Yasinskas: Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers. This was a tough call because all four teams have a chance to be good. I gave the nod to the Saints because they have Brees, the best quarterback in the division. I think Atlanta will have a dramatic turnaround after last season's debacle. Tampa Bay is going to be much more competitive than last year. Carolina might have taken a step back with some of its offseason moves, but I still wouldn't count the Panthers out.

 
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons' emphasis on having more of a blocking tight end in the lineup shouldn't prevent Levine Toilolo from having an impact this season.

In fact, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter bristled when it was implied that Toilolo wouldn't be best suited for blocking situations.

"Well, I think Levine is that blocking tight end,'' Koetter said. "There are a couple different types of tight ends in the league right now. There are the Tony Gonzalez-Jimmy Graham-type tight ends. The other tight ends in the league right now are guys that are jack-of-all-trades. They do everything. They run block, they pass block, they run routes, they run after the catch and they block like a fullback at times.

"All of our tight ends, starting with Levine, they fall more into that role.''

The 6-foot-8, 265-pound Toilolo obviously provides a big target for quarterback Matt Ryan, particularly in the red zone. The former fourth-round draft pick out of Stanford grew as a player last season while taking some of the first-team practice reps, with Gonzalez preserving his aching body during his last NFL season. His game reps were limited, but Toilolo still managed two touchdowns among his 11 catches.

And although the Falcons added a veteran blocking tight end in Bear Pascoe, have faith in the development of Mickey Shuler, and added an intriguing rookie in Jacob Pedersen, Toilolo remains the primary guy in the tight end group. He simply wasn't featured during Wednesday's open session of organized team activities because he was nursing an undisclosed injury -- one minor in nature and not expected to keep him sidelined long.

Toilolo understands he needs to take advantage of as many offseason reps as possible as he continues to mature into his role and enhance his blocking skills.

"It's a world of difference,'' Toilolo said, referring to his overall development from his first year going into the second. "Coming in, this is my second time around as far as going through the playbook and all of our installs. Things are clicking a little bit faster and I'm able to play a little bit faster. I just kind of focus on technique work. So it takes a little bit off my plate as far as mental-wise. I think that helps.''

Tight end coach Chris Scelfo has plenty of faith of Toilolo without putting unrealistic expectations on him.

"Nobody's going to replace Tony,'' Scelfo said, referring to Gonzalez. "Matt doesn't expect that. Mike Smith doesn't expect that. ... We're always caught up in this statistical world. It's so easy to say, `Well, he had 90 catches for 1,200 yards.' At the end of the day, how will you help our team win?

"With Levine, he needs to work on everything. He's a second-year player. He's going to grow and develop. The one thing about him is, he's ascending. He's going to be a good player.''
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons rookie running back Devonta Freeman almost couldn't believe his ears.

The wide smile on the rookie's face showed how much he appreciated coach Mike Smith referring to him as an every-down back rather than just a change-of-pace back. Such is why the Falcons believe the fourth-round draft pick from Florida State could be the go-to back of the future, as long as he blocks well.

Catching the ball out of the backfield won't be an issue. Freeman showed that ability as he hauled in pass after pass during Saturday's session.

"I've got tremendous hands, but I feel like I need to work on blocking, running, my reads, being patient,'' Freeman said. "I feel like it's everything I need to work on. But the passing, I know I can catch very well. But I want to work on it."

Here are 10 others observations from the second day of rookie minicamp:

1) Prince Shembo, the outside linebacker from Notre Dame and the team's second fourth-round pick, showed tremendous explosiveness throughout the day. Smith talked about Shembo having the ability to play defensive end, outside linebacker, and inside linebacker in a multiple defense.

2) It appeared as if second-round pick Ra'Shede Hageman, the defensive end from Minnesota, knocked down a pass during one drill. The Falcons hope Hageman makes a habit of batting down balls at the line of scrimmage.

3) Seventh-round pick Tyler Starr, the outside linebacker from South Dakota, showed some speed on his rush during full-team drills.

4) Undrafted quarterback Jeff Mathews again threw some nice balls, but his receivers had a lot of drops throughout the day. Mathews did overthrow a couple.

5) Receiver Julian Jones almost lost an eyeball after making a catch over the middle. A defender scraped him across the face.

6) Cornerback Ricardo Allen, the fifth-round pick from Purdue, was very conscious about working on his backpedal and footwork in between drills.

7) Freeman showed some speed in outracing Allen and fellow cornerback L.J. Jones to the end zone on one play. Jones is a tryout player from Fresno State.

8) Shembo, Starr, and undrafted signee Jacques Smith from Tennessee -- all outside linebackers -- were the last ones off the field as they stayed to get in some extra work. Don't be surprised if all three are contributors this coming season.

9) Speaking of Shembo, he was forced to do some up-downs midway through practice, although it was unclear what the punishment was for. Defensive line coach Bryan Cox also had defensive lineman Ryan Isaac doing the same at the end of practice. Isaac is a tryout player from Purdue.

10) In news unrelated to the rookies, Smith didn't seem too concerned about the status of receiver Julio Jones (foot surgery) and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (knee sprain) coming off injuries as Smith again emphasized taking it slow with those players this offseason. In other words, don't expect to see Jones or Weatherspoon do much activity until training camp.
The top two free agents (Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy) in the NFC South have been hit with the franchise tag. But plenty of division talent is on the market -- and that doesn't even include Darren Sproles, who will be either traded or released by the Saints. The four writers who cover the NFC South (Pat Yasinskas in Tampa Bay, Mike Triplett in New Orleans, David Newton in Carolina and Vaughn McClure in Atlanta) got together and picked the top 15 free agents in the division.

1. Jimmy Graham, Saints TE: Whether he's a tight end or receiver, he has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, leading the league with 36 TD catches over the past three years.

2. Greg Hardy, Panthers DE: The Panthers had no choice but to place the franchise tag on Hardy. He played both defensive end spots, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback hurries.

3. Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons DT: Aging veteran Babineaux still has a knack for getting in the backfield, although he would admit his sack numbers need to be better.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsZach Strief, a seventh-round pick in 2006, has spent his entire eight-year career in New Orleans.
4. Mike Mitchell, Panthers S: He brought an attitude to the league's second-ranked defense with his aggressiveness.

5. Zach Strief, Saints OT: Strief is a solid veteran starter coming off his best season to date. He's not a dominator, but versatile and experienced enough to start for just about any NFL team.

6. Brian de la Puente, Saints C: He has been another solid starter over the past three years and finished strong in 2013 after a slow start.

7. Lance Moore, Saints WR: Moore's role diminished in the Saints' offense last year, but the sure-handed slot receiver is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season and can still be an asset at age 30.

8. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints S: He is a full-time starter who shows flashes of big-play potential every year, but the former first-round pick has never consistently met lofty expectations.

9. Captain Munnerlyn, Panthers CB: He may be undersized at 5-foot-9, but he proved he could be an every-down corner for the first time in his career.

10. Ted Ginn Jr., Panthers WR: Not only did he give quarterback Cam Newton the deep threat that he needed, he led the team in kickoff and punt returns.

11. Jabari Greer, Saints CB: Greer was one of the most underrated corners in the NFL over the past five years, but now he’s 32 and recovering from a major knee injury.

12. Peria Jerry, Falcons DT: The former first-round pick hasn't lived up to expectations in part due to injury, but he has shown a few flashes.

13. Erik Lorig, Buccaneers FB: Lorig is a versatile fullback who can make an impact as a lead blocker in the running game and also has some ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

14. Bruce Campbell, Panthers OT: With the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross there's at least an opportunity for Campbell to be in the mix for a starting position.

15. Adam Hayward, Buccaneers LB: Hayward is one of the league’s better players on special teams. He also has value as a backup because he can play inside and outside linebacker.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider