NFL Nation: NFC South

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

August, 29, 2013
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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

August, 29, 2013
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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

August, 29, 2013
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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.

Live chats: All your #NFLNation questions

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
2:15
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NFL NationESPN IllustrationAre you ready? Chat with experts from all 32 teams starting at 1 p.m. ET.


Join 32 of our ESPN.com NFL experts as they answer any and all your questions on your favorite team's upcoming season.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. You can also ask questions of any of our 32 reporters via Twitter, by using the #NFLNation hashtag.

Here's where to find them:

NFC EAST
Dallas Cowboys chat, with Todd Archer.
New York Giants chat, with Dan Graziano.
Philadelphia Eagles chat, with Phil Sheridan.
Washington Redskins chat, with John Keim.

NFC WEST
Arizona Cardinals chat, with Steve Palazzolo.
St. Louis Rams chat, with Nick Wagoner.
San Francisco 49ers chat, with Mike Sando.
Seattle Seahawks chat, with Terry Blount.

NFC NORTH
Chicago Bears chat, with Michael Wright.
Detroit Lions chat, with Kevin Seifert.
Green Bay Packers chat, with Rob Demovsky.
Minnesota Vikings chat, with Ben Goessling.

NFC SOUTH
Atlanta Falcons chat, with Ashley Fox.
Carolina Panthers chat, with David Newton.
New Orleans Saints chat, with David Fleming.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers chat, with Pat Yasinskas.

AFC EAST
Buffalo Bills chat, with Mike Rodak.
Miami Dolphins chat, with James Walker.
New England Patriots chat, with Mike Reiss.
New York Jets chat, with Rich Cimini.

AFC WEST
Denver Broncos chat, with Jeff Legwold.
Kansas City Chiefs chat, with Adam Teicher.
Oakland Raiders chat, with Bill Williamson.
San Diego Chargers chat, with Nathan Jahnke.

AFC NORTH
Baltimore Ravens chat, with Jamison Hensley.
Cincinnati Bengals chat, with Jeffri Chadiha.
Cleveland Browns chat, with Matt Williamson.
Pittsburgh Steelers chat, with Scott Brown.

AFC SOUTH
Houston Texans chat, with Tania Ganguli.
Indianapolis Colts chat, with Mike Wells.
Jacksonville Jaguars chat, with Mike DiRocco.
Tennessee Titans chat, with Paul Kuharsky.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano said Tuesday that there’s positive news on the recoveries of guard Carl Nicks and kicker Lawrence Tynes, who have been sidelined with staph infections.

“They’re responding well,’’ Schiano said. “Carl, I know more about because he’s here. Carl’s healing up. Timeline, I don’t know. I can’t put a definite date on it. But he is healing, he’s recovering. Lawrence, he’s not in town. But everything that can be done is being done to make sure everybody recovers.’’

The team has had its facility treated twice since the discovery of MRSA. Nicks has been around the team facility in recent days, a team official said. Tynes is at his home in Kansas City.

In other medical news, Schiano said cornerback Danny Gorrer had groin surgery. Schiano said the injury is not season ending, but Gorrer at least will miss some practice time.
The latest installment of #NFLRank is out, and it includes Nos. 41-50 for offense and defense. This segment is filled with NFC South players. Let’s take a look.

Offense

43. Tampa Bay guard Carl Nicks

Stats & Info: Nicks missed nine games last season, his first with the Buccaneers after signing a five-year, $47.5 million deal as a free agent last offseason. Nicks earned more than $24 million last season, which ranked fourth in the NFL behind only Drew Brees, Vincent Jackson and Mario Williams, according to the Roster Management System.

Yasinskas comment: There is obvious concern about his health, because he has a staph infection and is coming off a major foot injury. But, when he’s healthy, Nicks might be the best guard in the league.

44. New Orleans guard Jahri Evans

Stats & Info: Evans has played 5,242 offensive snaps since 2008, ranking second in the NFL behind only Justin Blalock. A first-team All-Pro each of the past four seasons, Evans has started every game for the Saints in the Drew Brees era (since 2006).

Yasinskas comment: Evans is the anchor of an offensive line that has been good for a long time. Other players have come and gone, but Evans has been the constant.

45. Tampa Bay receiver Vincent Jackson

Stats & Info: Jackson was Tampa Bay's safety valve on third down last season, ranking fourth in the NFL in third-down targets behind only Brandon Marshall, Wes Welker and Calvin Johnson. On third down, Jackson had 20 catches resulting in a first down, ranking behind only Roddy White.

Yasinskas comment: He joined Tampa Bay last season and instantly became quarterback Josh Freeman’s favorite target. He and Freeman should be even more comfortable after a year together.

Defense

41. Tampa Bay safety Dashon Goldson

Stats & Info: Goldson defended the most passes (10) when lined up as a safety in 2012. Eight of them were thrown less than 20 yards downfield, which also led all safeties.

Yasinskas comment: The Bucs knew they were getting a talented player when they signed Goldson away from San Francisco. They also have discovered Goldson brings even more to the table. He already has emerged as a defensive leader.

NFC South to date:

Offense

43. Nicks

44. Evans

45. Jackson

51. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin

65. New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston

70. Carolina center Ryan Kalil

71. Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith

86. New Orleans guard Ben Grubbs

87. Atlanta running back Steven Jackson

98. Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross

100. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton

Defense

41. Goldson

51. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy

55. Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson

80. Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel

86. Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon

93. Atlanta safety William Moore

96. Atlanta defensive end Osi Umenyiora

97. Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron

98. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David

#NFLRank Nos. 51-60

August, 23, 2013
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The latest installment of #NFLRank (Nos. 51-60) is out and the NFC South has one player on the offense and two players on the defense. Let’s take a look.

Offense

Martin
51. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin

Stats & Info: Martin had 1,926 yards from scrimmage last season, the third-most by a rookie in NFL history behind Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James. In Week 9, Martin became the first player in NFL history with three rushing TDs of 45-plus yards in single game

Yasinskas comment: This ranking might be a little too low for Martin. He had a great rookie season and is only going to get better.

Defense

McCoy
McCoy
51. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy

Stats & Info: Since drafting McCoy in 2010, the Buccaneers defense has allowed 4 yards per rush with him on the field and 5 yards per rush when he is off the field.

Yasinskas comment: McCoy stayed healthy last year and ended up making the Pro Bowl. As long as he stays healthy, McCoy is one of the league’s best defensive tackles.

Johnson
55. Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson

Stats & Info: Johnson led all defensive linemen in the league with seven forced fumbles last season. He also had 12.5 sacks, third among defensive linemen behind J.J. Watt (20.5) and Cameron Wake (15.0).

Yasinskas comment: Johnson has made Carolina fans forget all about Julius Peppers.

NFC South showing to date:

Offense

51. Martin

65. New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston

70. Carolina center Ryan Kalil

71. Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith

86. New Orleans guard Ben Grubbs

87. Atlanta running back Steven Jackson

98. Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross

100. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton

Defense

51. McCoy

55. Johnson

80. Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel

86. Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon

93. Atlanta safety William Moore

96. Atlanta defensive end Osi Umenyiora

97. Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron

98. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David

#NFLRank and the NFC South

August, 20, 2013
8/20/13
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Three NFC South players were added Tuesday to ESPN.com's #NFLRank project, which ranks the top 100 offensive and top 100 defensive players in the NFL.

Offense

86. New Orleans Saints guard Ben Grubbs

ESPN Stats & Info: Grubbs played every offensive snap for the Saints last season. On third or fourth down with 2 yards or fewer to go, the Saints averaged 3.4 yards before contact per rush, third best in the NFL.

Yasinskas comment: The Saints couldn’t afford to re-sign Carl Nicks last season due to salary-cap issues. So they did the next best thing and signed Grubbs to a reasonable contract. Grubbs isn’t as dominating as Nicks was, but he’s very solid.
87. Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson

ESPN Stats & Info: Jackson is the only player to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of the past eight seasons. He is one of eight players in NFL history to reach 1,000 rushing yards in eight of his first nine seasons.

Yasinskas comment: Jackson might not be what he was in his heyday in St. Louis. But he still is a big upgrade over Michael Turner. We all know that Jackson can run, but I think people will be surprised by how much he’s used in the passing game.

Defense

86. Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon

ESPN Stats & Info: Since he took over as the full-time starter in 2011, Weatherspoon has defended 10 passes less than 15 yards downfield, second most among linebackers during that span.

Yasinskas comment: Weatherspoon is the closest thing the Falcons have to a star on their defense. He needs to elevate his game a bit more and start making big plays for this defense to hit its potential.

NFC South showing to date:

Offense

86. Grubbs

87. Jackson

98. Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross

100. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton

Defense

86. Weatherspoon

93. Atlanta safety William Moore

96. Atlanta defensive end Osi Umenyiora

97. Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron

98. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David

Video: Darrelle Revis on SportsCenter

August, 16, 2013
8/16/13
10:48
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers CB Darrelle Revis talks to Keyshawn Johnson about his rehab from a torn ACL and the distractions surrounding the Jets last season.
METAIRIE, La. -- The first thing I noticed when watching the New Orleans Saints practice was the silence.

There was no messing around and no coaches screaming at players. Instead, the Saints looked like a veteran team that is intensely focused -- more focused than last year, when chaos surrounded the entire season. Maybe even more focused than in 2009, when the Saints eventually won their first Super Bowl championship.

The quiet practices are a firm sign that coach Sean Payton is back in charge and that this team wants to put last season as far in the past as possible. The bounty scandal that led to the season-long suspension of Payton and a disappointing 7-9 record is over, and the Saints want to return to their winning ways.

“Last year was an apparition," quarterback Drew Brees said. “It was a different time with all the situations that had taken place. This year, just knowing that we’ve got everybody here, this is our team. Nobody’s missing. This is the team that can accomplish great things, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Here’s our window of time to bring it together. We know there’s going to be tough times. We know there’s going to be adversity. Build that attitude, build that chemistry, and get ready to make a run at it.”

Payton’s return alone should make a big difference. He’s one of the league’s best coaches and possesses a brilliant offensive mind. After watching his team from a distance last year, Payton had some strong critiques for his players, even the superstars.

Soon after Payton was reinstated, he called tight end Jimmy Graham and told him that a season in which he caught 85 passes but led the league in drops, according to ESPN Stats & Information, wasn’t good enough.

“First, he called me and I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t pick it up," Graham said. “He was pretty mad because it took like two or three days for me to call him back. The conversation was very serious, talking about his expectations for me and the things that I need to correct from last year and how he’s ready to be back. He’s ready to see my growth even more."

Payton needs to see growth from more than Graham. He’s made it clear that he wants to run the ball more often and that the Saints have to be substantially better on defense.

If the Saints can combine those things with Brees and the passing game, they should be right back in playoff contention.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The defensive overhaul. Payton is an offensive guru, but the first order of business upon his reinstatement was to replace defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Rob Ryan. Spagnuolo’s defense never caught on in New Orleans, and the Saints finished last season ranked No. 32 in total defense.

The Saints aren’t just switching coordinators. They’re switching schemes. With Payton’s blessing, Ryan is installing a 3-4 scheme. The pass rush now will have to come from the outside linebackers, particularly Junior Galette, Will Smith and Martez Wilson, a trio of guys that previously played defensive end.

The secondary also is going through some major changes. The Saints signed free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.

The defense will look a lot different because Ryan uses a lot of exotic looks. If the results are different from last season, the Saints will be in good shape.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere won't be any excuses for Mark Ingram this season, as the Saints plan to keep him involved in their running game.
Ingram’s time? Payton repeatedly has said the Saints need to get back to running the ball more efficiently. They were good in that area in their Super Bowl season but got away from the run last season.

There really is no reason the Saints shouldn’t be able to get production from the running game. They have a good offensive line and three talented running backs -- Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.

The real wild card is Ingram. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis used a first-round pick on Ingram in 2011, but he hasn’t produced a lot in his first two years. I think Payton is going to make it a point to give Ingram more carries this season.

A new age of receivers. A few years ago, the Saints had a receiving corps as deep as any in the league, which came in handy because they use so many three- and four-receiver sets. But Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson left over the past two seasons. Joe Morgan, who had been ticketed for the third receiver spot, suffered a season-ending injury in camp.

That leaves starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore as the only sure things. Beyond them, there’s a lot of uncertainty. But the Saints hope veteran Steve Breaston, who was signed this week, and second-year pro Nick Toon, who missed his rookie season with an injury, can fill the void.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Any team that has Brees as its quarterback is going to be competitive. With weapons such as Graham, Colston and Sproles, the Saints are going to score plenty of points. It would be difficult for the defense to be any worse than last season.

If the Saints can just put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they can be a dangerous team.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Rob Ryan
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsRob Ryan will bring an aggressive new 3-4 attack to New Orleans, but do the Saints have the proper personnel to run it effectively off the bat?
The Saints already have had some tough breaks when it comes to injuries. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman and outside linebacker Victor Butler, who were brought in specifically to fill important roles in Ryan’s defensive scheme, already have suffered season-ending injuries.

Ryan is an aggressive coach, and the 3-4 has had plenty of success around the league in recent years. But I’m not sure Ryan has the personnel to make this defense succeed. It could take another offseason to get this defense fully stocked.

OBSERVATION DECK

One of the brightest spots in training camp has been the play of second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. I saw him make several big plays during my visit. Hicks is going to get his chance to shine in the regular season, and with Coleman out, it looks like he'll be a starter at defensive end.

In another sign that the Saints are serious about running the ball more, Graham has bulked up. The tight end said he now weighs about 270 pounds and that he’s focusing on becoming a better blocker.

The Saints have a history of finding unheralded running backs who end up making a contribution (see Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet). They might have found another one in Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M. Robinson has flashed big-play ability in camp. The Saints have so much depth at running back that it might be tough for him to make the roster, but he could end up on the practice squad.

There was some thought that Jason Smith, a former first-round pick by the St. Louis Rams, could end up as the starting left tackle. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Charles Brown has been getting virtually all the first-team work. Smith has fallen to third on the depth chart and is working behind rookie Terron Armstead. It’s looking like Smith might not even make the roster.

In recent years, the Saints have brought rookie defensive backs along slowly. Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson didn’t play significant roles in their first seasons. But I don’t think the Saints are going to be cautious with Vaccaro. Whether it’s at one of the safety spots or as the nickelback, Vaccaro is going to play a lot this season.

Video: Sunday Conversation with Matt Ryan

July, 28, 2013
7/28/13
12:51
PM ET

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan sits down with Bob Holtzman to discuss his new contract, and being compared to Joe Flacco.

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