NFL Nation: NFC South

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?

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    60%
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    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
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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.
NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

TAMPA, Fla. -- The All-NFC South team is out, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fared about as well as you'd expect from a 4-12 team.

Five members of the Buccaneers were chosen to the team, which was chosen by the four writers who cover the division's teams. Let's start with the offense because that will be short.

Wide receiver Vincent Jackson was the only member of the Bucs' offense selected. He deserved it because he put up solid numbers despite drawing constant double-teams after No. 2 receiver Mike Williams went out with an injury just before midseason.

Now, let's flip over to the defense, where the Bucs fared pretty well. They placed four players on the defense, and none of them is a surprise. Gerald McCoy might be the best all-around defensive tackle in the game right now. Second-year linebacker Lavonte David had a breakthrough season and established himself as one of the top players in the league at his position.

Darrelle Revis brought the Bucs exactly what they were expecting -- a shutdown cornerback. The final member of the Bucs to make the All-NFC South team might come as a surprise to some but shouldn't be a shock to those who watched closely. In the eyes of the coaching staff and front office, strong safety Mark Barron really blossomed in his second season.

 
Geno Smith and Matt RyanUSA TODAY SportsGeno Smith's Jets and Matt Ryan's Falcons will try to bounce back from a disappointing Week 4.
If the Atlanta Falcons were in desperation mode last week against the Patriots, now they're in an all-out panic as they prepare to face the New York Jets on ESPN's "Monday Night Football."

The Falcons limp into the matchup at 1-3 despite being touted as a Super Bowl favorite. Quarterback Matt Ryan admitted not being as sharp as he wanted to be the last time out. Now, Ryan has to keep the locker room together as the Falcons try to stay afloat against the always-entertaining Rex Ryan and his Jets (2-2).

ESPN.com Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and his Jets counterpart, Rich Cimini, discuss the matchup.

McClure: I was talking to Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux the other day about the mindset when facing a rookie quarterback. He admitted Geno Smith was somewhat similar to Carolina's Cam Newton, a player the Falcons have had trouble containing. Can Smith cause problems for the Falcons or is his confidence shaken?

Cimini: Smith and Newton are different because Smith isn't nearly as dangerous as Newton in terms of making plays outside the pocket. He'll scramble on occasion, and they might call a read-option play here and there, but he's a pure pocket passer. I'd say, yes, his confidence has to be shaken. He's coming off a bad day against the Titans -- four turnovers, bringing his total to 11. He's making bad decisions and being careless with the football. Ryan said he's not considering a change at quarterback -- with Mark Sanchez out, there's no viable option -- but there will come a point where he'll have to do something if the turnovers continue. What's up with Matt Ryan? This hasn't been a vintage Ryan season so far.

McClure: No, not by any means. And fans around here are starting to turn on him, for some reason. I understand their passion, but I wouldn't give up on Ryan. I actually give him credit for owning up to his mistakes against the Patriots. He threw a few bad passes on the Falcons' last desperation drive and missed Roddy White wide open for at least a first down on a fourth-and-2 from the Patriots' 7-yard line. Ryan ranks 23rd in the NFL in fourth-quarter passing with a 75.3 QB rating. Maybe he's rushing his throws as a result of protection issues. It doesn't help when your receivers drop a handful of passes, either. At least Ryan seems to have established a rhythm with tight end Tony Gonzalez. So, how will the Jets approach defending Gonzalez based on his 149-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Patriots?

Cimini: I think Rex Ryan is asking himself that same question, Vaughn. He joked about Gonzalez this week, saying, "Quite honestly, I wish he would've retired." The Jets have done a good job defending tight ends, but they haven't faced anyone close to his caliber. I think a lot of the responsibility will fall to second-year safety Antonio Allen, but that would be trouble waiting to happen. Allen is a "box" safety, not known for his coverage skills. In years past, Ryan put cornerback Antonio Cromartie on athletic tight ends for a few plays here and there, but he needs Cromartie on Julio Jones or Roddy White. In other words, I could see Gonzalez having another monster game. A lot will depend on how they defend the running game. What's the latest on Steven Jackson?

McClure: Although Jackson was on the field Tuesday talking with the trainers, he still hasn't practiced since suffering a hamstring injury in the first quarter of the Rams game (Week 2). It was initially called a three-week injury and with the bye following the Jets game, I see no reason why the Falcons would rush Jackson back out there Monday night. In fact, Jackson recently went on his personal blog to update fans on his status and said he wanted to be 100 percent before returning. Not being on the field with his teammates might be hurting him more than the pain from the injury. I see the Jets are banged up at receiver. How will they compensate?

Cimini: You're right, they're banged up. Santonio Holmes (hamstring) won't play, and I'd be stunned if Stephen Hill (concussion) plays. So we're talking about Jeremy Kerley and Clyde Gates as the starting wideouts, with seldom-used rookie Ryan Spadola as the No. 3 and David Nelson (signed Tuesday) as the No. 4. This is the definition of "patchwork." They can compensate by leaning more on the running game, which has been reasonably effective. Bilal Powell is tied for the AFC lead with 292 rushing yards. I think you'll also see more two-tight end sets with Kellen Winslow and Jeff Cumberland. Ryan said he might install the wishbone. He was joking -- I think. What's wrong with the Falcons' defense? I see they've been giving up some big pass plays.

McClure: Yes, they've given up seven plays of 40-plus yards, including four Sunday. Against the Patriots, the Falcons actually allowed Tom Brady to convert a third-and-19 from his 12 because they failed to get the proper depth on their drops. Such mental errors seem inexcusable, but defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is doing some "patchwork" of his own without Kroy Biermann (Achilles) or Sean Weatherspoon (foot) available and with Asante Samuel (thigh) still ailing. Three rookies -- cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Robert Alford as well as linebacker Joplo Bartu -- are being asked to come of age rather quickly. And the pass rush has been pretty much non-existent even with the addition of Osi Umenyiora, who leads the way with two sacks. Speaking of the rush, what type of pressure will the Jets bring at Matt Ryan?

Cimini: The Jets aren't the defense we thought they'd be. By that, I mean they're blitzing less than expected, and the reason is because they've been getting good pressure from their front three/four. In fact, they've sent five or more rushers on only 33.1 percent of the opponents' dropbacks, which ranks 17th in the league. With Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples and rookie Sheldon Richardson up front, I think they'll be able to pressure Ryan without having to dial up exotic blitzes. Rex Ryan's defense has evolved. When he had Darrelle Revis, the secondary was the strength of the unit, but now the strength is up front with the big boys. The Falcons can counter by running an up-tempo offense with quick throws -- that style causes problems for the Jets. Frankly, it blows my mind the Falcons, with all that skill-position talent, are struggling in the red zone. Most Jets would be happy with one of those weapons, let alone three. What's the deal?

McClure: Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and Matt Ryan are trying to figure that out as we speak. The Falcons managed only one touchdown in six red-zone trips against the Patriots. For the season, they rank 29th in the league in terms of red-zone efficiency. Koetter took the blame for some bad play calls and vowed to cut one or two plays out of game plan. The fact that White has recovered slowly from a high ankle sprain hasn't helped. And the blocking has been abysmal, at times, in goal-line situations. Once everyone gets healthy, I expect more production and high-scoring games for the Falcons. If Monday night becomes a shootout, can the Jets compete?

Cimini: They're a pass-oriented offense under Marty Mornhinweg, but it would be hard for them to win a shootout, especially on the road. I know the Falcons have their own issues on defense, so I think the Jets can score points on them. But Smith is too mistake-prone, and the receiving corps is too banged-up for me to think they can walk into Atlanta and outscore the Falcons. Their best chance is to shorten the game, playing ball control with Powell and the running game. I'd be surprised if the Jets win a game in the 30s.

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Cam Newton, Russell WilsonAP Photo, USA TODAY SportsCarolina puts Cam Newton's athleticism on the line versus confident Seattle QB Russell Wilson.
The Seattle Seahawks are the sexy pick to win the Super Bowl, with the hot quarterback featured in GQ magazine. The Carolina Panthers are the wannabe team with the once-hot quarterback who has lost some of the luster off his cover-boy status.

But there's one thing these teams have in common as they prepare to open the 2013 NFL season on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

Slow starts.

Carolina has the worst opening-day record in the league at 6-12. Seattle ranks 30th, with only the New Orleans Saints and Panthers behind them. The winner will at least emerge with a chance to change that.

So how do they stack up in what appears a mismatch? Panthers team reporter David Newton and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount are here to tell you.

Let's get right to the question most people are asking: Who is the better quarterback? Carolina's Cam Newton or Seattle's Russell Wilson?

Newton: I know Wilson and the Seahawks are the sweethearts of the league after making the playoffs last season. But if I were starting a team, I'd take Newton, and not because we share the same last name. I know the Panthers would. They talked last season about drafting Wilson to back up the first pick of the 2011 draft before Seattle got him in the third round. Backup! Look, Wilson is a solid player who is surrounded by a better supporting cast than Newton has had in his first two seasons and has again this year. Wilson does some great things with his arm and legs. He makes good decisions. Newton would kill for his completion percentage of 64.1 last season. But Newton is one of those special players who, at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, can do things the 5-11, 206-pound Wilson can only dream of. Go back and look at the 72-yard touchdown run Newton capped with a flip into the end zone in a 30-20 victory against a one-loss Atlanta team last season and you'll see what I'm talking about. Wilson's biggest edge comes in leadership, and I believe you'll see Newton step it up in that department this year. I see his stock on the rise. Of all the first-year quarterbacks who made the playoffs last year, Wilson is my choice to have a sophomore slump.

Blount: Newt, I honestly tell you that the Seahawks coaches and players would take Wilson every day of the week, and frankly, I think so would most NFL coaches. In the more than 30 years I've covered sports, I've never met a more impressive young man than Wilson. He's just one of those once-in-a-generation-type athletes who you look at him and listen to him, then you say, "This guy is going places in life." Yes, Cam has more experience, and, obviously, more size. He's an exceptional athlete, a man that Seattle coach Pete Carroll called "a phenomenal talent." But he isn't the team leader that Wilson is, and won't make as many good decisions at key moments as Wilson will.

Let's turn to a team question. Which team will show more improvement this season? Not the better record, but bigger step forward? The Seahawks, who were 11-5 and a playoff team? Or the Panthers, who were 7-9?

Blount: That's a tough one. I think Carolina could finish with a winning record this season and possibly make the playoffs, which would be a nice improvement over 2012. But since I picked Seattle to go 12-4 and reach the Super Bowl this year, I'll have to go with the Seahawks.

Newton: Definitely a tough one. I don't see Carolina making the playoffs, but I do see the Panthers coming close to a winning record. And they will improve on defense with the return of Jon Beason at linebacker and more talent at tackle. How much they improve overall depends on the progression of the offensive line, which didn't look good during the preseason. Seattle has all the pieces to make a Super Bowl run, but I still think the Seahawks are the second-best team in their division, behind San Francisco. They did so many good things last year it's hard to see them making a substantial improvement. If they do, it really will be Super Bowl or bust.

Now to the game. Last year, Seattle won 16-12 in a defensive struggle in Week 5. Do you see this game being similar?

Newton: Definitely. And if it's not, Seattle could make it ugly, because Carolina can't win a shootout. The strength of both teams is defense. We're probably looking at two of the top 10 units in the league. Both are used to practicing against the run-option that Newton and Wilson ran well at the end of last season, so they'll be prepared to handle it. The key for Carolina to make this a defensive battle will be the secondary. Will it be the unit that had a league-high 10 interceptions during the preseason, or the one that was soft most of last season?

Blount: The defenses typically are ahead of the offenses at the start of the season, so that could play into a matchup with two strong defensive units. However, I do expect this game to have a little more scoring than the one last year, because I think both quarterbacks will play better than they did in that game. You're spot-on about the secondary, Newt. I think both secondaries are the key. Seattle might have the best defensive backs in the league and the Panthers looked much improved. But no secondary can cover these receivers forever. What this could come down to is which defensive unit does a better job rushing the passer and which is better able to contain two of the best running quarterbacks in the league.

Observation deck: Falcons-Jaguars

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Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 20-16 loss to Jacksonville on Thursday night:

What it means: The Falcons finished their preseason without a win, but that doesn’t mean much. Coach Mike Smith has a history of playing possum in the preseason and being ready for the regular season.

Strong push: Running back Josh Vaughan made a last-gasp push for a roster spot by rushing for 83 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown, on five carries.

What to do at backup QB: I think the Falcons have a bit of a dilemma at backup quarterback. Dominique Davis again got extensive play and his performance again was mixed. He completed 18 of 32 passes for 175 yards with one interception. I think Davis has tremendous upside. But I think the Falcons, who view themselves as a Super Bowl contender, need to think long and hard about bringing in a veteran backup just in case Matt Ryan goes down for a game or two with an injury.

What’s next: The Falcons open their regular season Sept. 8 against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Observation deck: Panthers-Steelers

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Starting quarterback Cam Newton wore some form of skull cap instead of his signature towel Thursday night as he played spectator in the Carolina Panthers' 25-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Well, it was terribly humid for a towel.

Otherwise, here are my thoughts on the preseason finale.
  • Two quarterbacks enough. Derek Anderson proved why he is the easy choice to back up Newton and why third-stringer Jimmy Clausen is expendable. Anderson completed his first five passes and finished an efficient 10-for-15 for 220 yards and two touchdowns. He even had an ill-advised scramble for 9 yards.
  • Who are these guys? There may be more depth at wide receiver than expected. Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon made good cases to be the third receiver behind Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell. Ginn caught five passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns, including an 87-yarder in which he blistered the Pittsburgh secondary. Hixon caught four passes for 44 yards, including a nice 23-yard third-down grab on the sideline.
  • Secondary question. Carolina needs its front seven, most of whom barely played, to have a big season to cover up soft spots in the secondary. Most of those spots are in the middle, where reserve Steelers tight end David Paulson looked like a Pro Bowler in the first half.
  • Who needs camp? Travelle Wharton moved right into the lineup at left guard after only three practices and held his own. Not bad for the former and now current Panther who hadn't played in more than a year while recovering from a knee injury.
  • Playmaker: Corner Josh Norman needs to be on the field. He had his fourth interception of the preseason, returning this one 70 yards.
  • What it all means: Absolutely nothing. Except Carolina has its first winning preseason record (3-1) since 2006.
  • What's next: Roster cuts to 53 on Saturday, but don't expect a major surprise -- unless you consider Clausen a surprise. Time to get ready for the Sept. 8 opener against the Seattle Seahawks, who will give Carolina a big test on both sides of the ball right away.

#NFLRank on Atlanta's triplets

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The Atlanta Falcons were strongly represented in the latest installment of #NFLRank for players No. 11 through No. 20 on offense.

The Falcons didn’t have any defensive representatives in this segment, but they did have three offensive players. Let’s take a look:

Jones
No. 13 Julio Jones, wide receiver

ESPN Stats & Information: Jones has five touchdown catches of 50 or more yards since beginning his career in 2011. The only players with more over that span are Victor Cruz (seven) and Jordy Nelson (six).

Yasinskas comment: Jones already has turned in two very good seasons. But, if you listen to the people within the Falcons’ building and scouts around the league, they believe Jones is poised for a breakout season that firmly will place him among the league’s best wide receivers.

White
White
No. 19 Roddy White, wide receiver

ESPN Stats & Information: White has 7,773 receiving yards since 2007, second only to Calvin Johnson. White ranks fourth over this span with 563 receptions, trailing only Wes Welker, Brandon Marshall and Reggie Wayne.

Yasinskas comment: I was part of the voting for this project and I put Jones a little ahead of White. That’s not meant to be any slight on White. He’s been a great receiver for a long time and he still is going strong. I just think this is the year Jones moves slightly ahead of White.

Gonzalez
No. 20 Tony Gonzalez, tight end

ESPN Stats & Information: In 2012, Gonzalez joined Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history to record at least 90 receptions in a season in which they were 36 or older. Rice is the only player in NFL history with more receptions than Gonzalez.

Yasinskas comment: Gonzalez is the best pass-catching tight end ever. You could make a case that his ranking is more of a lifetime achievement award than anything else. But Gonzalez still caught 93 balls last season and I think that means he still is a top-20 player.

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