NFL Nation: NFC South

METAIRIE, La. –- The New Orleans Saints remain confident after their 0-2 start. But they aren’t ignoring the very real problems that need to be corrected.

Coach Sean Payton highlighted on Wednesday the Saints' last 15 games (including playoffs), in which they are 7-8 (and 2-8 on the road). And the biggest problem has been their inability to finish.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Karlos Dansby
AP Photo/David RichardDrew Brees and the Saints look for their first win of the season on Sunday against Minnesota.
 During that stretch, the Saints have surrendered late leads to the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers in 2012, as well as the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns in the first two weeks this year. They also had late rallies fall short last season at the New York Jets and at the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs.

“Sean put up a statistic today, going back to last year, we started 5-0. And looking at the rest of the games since then, we haven’t been finishing in the fourth quarter, whether it’s on offense or defense,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “He kind of came at us in the team meeting like, ‘Look at this guys, this is our last 15 games.’”

Payton also mentioned Wednesday that turnovers were a “major topic” in Wednesday’s morning meeting.

After making that a huge emphasis this offseason, the Saints’ defense has only forced one takeaway during the first two games, giving them a turnover ratio of minus-3 on the season.

The Saints have now forced only five turnovers over their past 13 games.

Although Payton preached that the Saints need to keep an even keel and not fall into the “crisis” that will be created from the outside, he also stressed that they can’t overlook the specific reasons for their losses.

“I think you have to pay attention. There’s a way we lost those two games,” Payton said. “It’s in the details and the preparation. It’s on us as coaches, everyone collectively, the players. I thought our practice [Wednesday] was outstanding.

“I think you can’t bury them under the rug and pretend it never happened. You have to look at it. I think we’re trying to make sure we uncover every stone and look closely at how we can find ways to make the corrections, and hopefully we can get that done this weekend.”

As Payton and players pointed out after last Sunday’s 26-24 loss to the Browns, the areas that most need to be corrected are “situational” errors -- like the missed assignments that plagued them on both sides of the ball late in the game and some costly penalties.

In some ways, the defensive performance was encouraging in Week 2 because the Saints’ defense proved they were able to clean up the issues that cost them in Week 1 (namely missed tackles and a few big plays over the top).

But as Vaccaro said, “That’s encouraging. But when you fix one problem, you can’t let other problems [replace them]. You can’t let communication become the next problem.”

“I don’t know, man, we’ve just gotta put a game together,” Vaccaro said – though when asked what his message would be to Saints fans, he said, “We’re working, and just ride with us.”

Quarterback Drew Brees was among several others who expressed that combination of frustration and confidence.

“For us right now, despite the fact that we have a lot of veteran guys, a lot of guys who have been here for a long time and won a lot of games, this is a new team. So it’s kind of reestablishing and recreating your identity and it’s like ‘Ok, who are we, who are we trying to be?’” Brees said. “We’re certainly a lot better than what we’ve shown. But you are what your record says you are. So we have to go out and get a win so we can start feeling better about ourselves so that we can start gaining some momentum.”
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan typically is brutally honest. Such was the case Wednesday when he was asked to single out a defense player who has performed at a high level through two games.

"We don't have anybody on defense, to this point, that's playing at a high level," Nolan said. "I think they all would say that they want to play better than they've played. Some have played better than others, don't get me wrong. But I think, to a man, I think they would think, 'Hey, I want to play a little bit better than that, at least.'"

The Falcons enter Thursday night's NFC South game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked last in the league in four defensive categories: yards per game (472), yards per play (6.79), passing yards per play (9.62), and sacks per pass attempt (0.0). They ranked 29th out of 32 teams in third-down percentage defense, allowing opponents to convert 51.85 percent of the time. And the Falcons rank 26th against the run, allowing 154.5 rushing yards per game.

Trufant
 Although Nolan didn't mention him specifically, cornerback Desmond Trufant certainly appears to be performing at a high level. One opposing coach said this about Trufant: "He knows how to play, and he knows how to irritate receivers. He really stands out to me. The other guy [Robert Alford] is a pretty good player, too. But No. 21 is the guy I look at because he has pretty good technique."

Two players who haven't played up to standard have been outside linebackers Jonathan Massaquoi and Kroy Biermann. Massaquoi hasn't taken that next step as a pass-rusher just yet, and neither Massaquoi nor Biermann has been effective against the run. Most of the big runs surrendered have come from opposing running backs bouncing outside rather than up the middle against big nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson.

"Well, their job -- some of the time but not all of the time -- is to set the edges," Nolan said of Massaquoi and Biermann. "We gave up the edge in the game the other day far too many times. It's not just their jobs. Sometimes, it's the safety's and the corner's job, as well. But, that would be one of their jobs as far as the run goes.

"Outside of that, sometimes they have an interior responsibility; maybe not all the way inside, but the next gap inside to the exterior. That's where the outside 'backer would be. For example, if there's a safety outside of them or a corner, they would be inside of them there."

The defense, as a whole, has to put together a strong run-stopping effort Thursday night against Tampa Bay's Bobby Rainey, who rushed for 163 yards and had three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) against the Falcons last season. Rainey had 144 rushing yards against St. Louis last week.

As far as the pass rush goes, no sacks and one quarterback hit through two games tells the story for the Falcons. Nolan expected his outside linebackers to contribute more with the rush by now. Osi Umenyiora hasn't fared well as the designated pass-rusher, either.

"Obviously the pass rush is an area where those players, whether it's [Massaquoi] or [Stansly] Maponga or anyone that plays the end pass-rusher, we need to get more production out of that," Nolan said.

"As was obvious our first two games, we've had low production. We've got to get our production up. We've got to come up with plays. We can't have people on the screen jumping over the top of us, or a guy catching the ball right over the middle and us not making the tackle."

Despite the drops, Benjamin improved

September, 16, 2014
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The numbers don't always tell the complete story, and there's no better example on the Carolina Panthers than rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in his first two NFL games.

From a fantasy football standpoint, Benjamin had a solid opener with six catches for 92 yards and an amazing 26-yard touchdown in a 20-14 victory over Tampa Bay.

He graded out a 70.

From a team standpoint, Benjamin was better in Week 2 despite having only two catches on eight targets for 46 yards, two dropped passes and a holding penalty in a 24-7 victory over Detroit.

He graded out a 93.

As Benjamin noted, "At the end of the day, it's all about the team.''

Despite the praise Benjamin got for his production in Week 1, his overall play was lacking when it came to the so-called little things. He didn't block well, and he wasn't always engaged in the play when it wasn't a pass to him.

"That was my main focus coming into this game,'' Benjamin said on Monday. "I knew they were going to have a lot of double coverage on me, so my main focus was just playing fast with plays to open it up for [other] guys and just blocking downfield for my running backs. I just tried to play real physical on the running.''

Carolina's other wide receivers responded. Jason Avant had five catches for 54 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown, after having one catch for no yards in the opener. Jerricho Cotchery had four catches for 46 yards, including a 2-point conversion catch.

Benjamin responded with better blocks. One of his best came in the second quarter when he held up the defender for quarterback Cam Newton to run 13 yards to the Detroit 12 on the read option.

"I was pleased with it,'' Benjamin said as he began preparing for Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh. "I didn't get a holding call, so that's always great.''

Benjamin was referring to his holding call in the second quarter that negated an 11-yard run on the end-around by wide receiver Philly Brown.

Newton and Benjamin almost connected for a touchdown a few plays after the above block, but the 6-foot-5, 240-pound receiver was pushed out of bounds while making the catch in the left corner of the end zone.

As for the drops, Benjamin didn't have a good explanation other than he didn't bring the ball into his body. One in particular could have gone for big yardage as Newton hit him in the hands over the middle.

But Newton came right to Benjamin, who made a spectacular one-handed, 24-yard grab with a defender tight on him down the left side line.

"It just shows the relationship between us, the trust issue,'' Benjamin said. "I hold myself to a higher standard. I've just got to move on from [the two drops]. I can't let that hold me back.''

Roddy White (knee) ready to go

September, 11, 2014
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, who was on the practice field Thursday, reiterated he'll be ready to go against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday despite dealing with a knee injury.

 White was limited during Wednesday's practice after banging his left knee in his team's 37-34 overtime win against the New Orleans Saints. He fell on the knee near the end of the first half but was back in the lineup after halftime and finished the game.

White told ESPN.com he had the same knee drained this offseason, which led to him being excused from minicamp. Falling on the knee again caused him a little panic.

``I'm feeling really good,'' White said Thursday. ``It did kind of scare me. But after that, my adrenaline started pumping, got back in there and caught some passes. Got back on Monday and felt a little sore but now, I'm ready to go.''

Although White is not going to be overly cautious just because he returned too quickly from a high ankle sprain last season, he did indicate a scaled back practice plan might be in play, at times.

``Me and [Coach Mike Smith], we're on a good program,'' White said. ``He wants me to do certain things on Wednesdays and go out there and run around and get a little bit done and then Thursday, practice as hard as I can. And Friday, be as fast as I can because we have to do timing things. We have things in the game plan that we have to get done. And me and Matt [Ryan] have to be on the same page.''

Also Thursday, rookie offensive tackle Jake Matthews was not on the field for the start of practice after missing Wednesday's practice with a left ankle injury. Matthews is not expected to play Sunday.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- At 6-foot-3 and more than 250 pounds, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is an imposing figure in any room. He exudes power.

But Wednesday night, as he stood in the McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square to receive the Echo Award Against Indifference, he broke down and cried.

Richardson, 78, had to stop several times to gather himself as he addressed critics who have accused him of being too lenient on Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who has been playing for the Panthers while appealing a guilty verdict on domestic violence charges.

For months, Richardson and the Panthers seemed to keep Hardy's legal situation from becoming a distraction to the team.

That has changed.

On Monday, video emerged of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out Janay Palmer -- then his fiancée, now his wife -- during an altercation in an Atlantic City casino elevator. The Ravens responded to the video by releasing Rice. The NFL, which had previously suspended Rice two games for the incident, made the suspension indefinite.

This put the spotlight on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who was scheduled to attend Wednesday's Echo Award ceremony in Charlotte before a change of plans.

It put the spotlight back on Hardy, who missed Wednesday's practice to meet with the attorney representing him in his domestic violence case.

It put the spotlight on Richardson, who has been criticized for letting the legal process play out instead of punishing Hardy.

"Standing before you tonight, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge an issue weighing heavily on our sport and our society," Richardson said as he struggled to breathe and maintain his composure. "When it comes to domestic violence, my stance is not one of indifference. I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple.

"To those who would suggest that we've been too slow to act, I ask that you consider not to be too quick to judge. Over the course of our 20 years, we have worked extremely hard to build an organization of integrity. ... I will work hard to continue to earn your trust."

Earlier in the day, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was terse with his answers to questions regarding Hardy's whereabouts. It came to a head when Rivera was asked what his focal points would be in preparation for the Detroit Lions' upcoming visit.

"Beating them," Rivera said. "And that's it. This is football. This is what we're doing here. We're trying to prepare for a football game against a very good football team.

"There's a lot of things going on. I get that. I understand that. But at the same time, we're going to continue about the business. It's a very tragic situation that's going on [with Rice and his wife]. I have a tremendous amount of empathy and respect for the people who are in this situation. It's very difficult. But I'm going to only talk about football from this point on. Just understand that. OK?"

Panthers players did a good job of avoiding the topic by basically choosing not to talk about it. But it won't go away. When Hardy returns Thursday, the focus will be his meeting with his attorney.

In the meantime, Greg Hardy will keep practicing. He’ll keep playing. The Panthers will continue to face criticism. And some critics want Hardy punished just like Rice was, even though Rice admitted guilt by entering into a pretrial intervention program. Hardy hasn't admitted to anything and his appeal is pending.

Jerry Richardson likes to be in control. He doesn't mind making hard decisions. He fired his owns sons to make the Panthers organization stronger.

But on this, he apparently feels powerless. It has left him in tears.

And the tears are a sign that neither he nor the organization can keep Hardy from being a distraction any longer.

Lovie Smith remains optimistic

September, 9, 2014
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Apparently, the film projectors at One Buccaneer Place have rose-colored lenses.

While acknowledging some mistakes, coach Lovie Smith was optimistic Monday as he discussed Sunday’s season-opening loss to Carolina.

“As I told our football team after the game, we can’t go undefeated, and we’re one game out of first place,’’ Smith said.

The Bucs lost, 20-14. They trailed 17-0 at one point but scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to make the game close.

“We’re going to build on some of the positive things that we saw late in the game,’’ Smith said. “I’m talking about scoring 14 points and having the ball in position to score more.’’

There’s nothing wrong with Smith’s positive attitude. In fact, it’s healthy. The Bucs started off badly, but it happened against a good Carolina team. What happened in the fourth quarter was encouraging.

And Smith is right that the Bucs are only a game out of first place. This was only one loss for a team with a new coaching staff and a lot of new players.

There still is a long season ahead.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- While Stephen Hill was blaming New York media for getting cut by the Jets, media covering the Carolina Panthers debated how long it would take the wide receiver to be activated to the 53-man roster.

Popular opinion? It won't be long.

Hill
 The Panthers signed the Jets' 2012 second-round pick to the practice squad on Tuesday. Practice squads typically are filled by undrafted players, not the 43rd overall selection.

To Hill's credit, he has taken the demotion well.

"It's just a step back, but I can take some more steps forward," he said Wednesday. "I'm just going to take this and run with it. I'm ready to try my best to get on that 53-man roster."

The Panthers were familiar with the former Georgia Tech star long before he was cut. They used one of their 30 visits for draft-eligible players to work him out in Charlotte two years ago.

What's not to like? At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Hill has all the physical attributes Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman looks for. Hill is also fast. His 4.36 time in the 40-yard dash tied for the fastest among wide receivers at the 2012 combine.

If there's one thing Carolina's rebuilt wide-receiver corps lacks, it's elite speed.

Hill's issue in New York was inconsistency. To be specific, he dropped too many passes.

Hill was quick to remind there are receivers on other NFL rosters with more drops than him. Count Brandon LaFell, Carolina's No. 2 receiver last season and now a member of the New England Patriots, among those.

LaFell had a team-best eight drops last season and 15 in four years.

Hill's agent, Alan Herman, said his client didn't get a fair shake in New York, saying the inconsistencies the team had at quarterback were the biggest issue. Hill didn't blame the quarterbacks as much as he did the media.

He says he's ready to move on. Having the opportunity to work with Carolina wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl, one of the best technicians in the game during his 17 years as a player, should be a plus.

Proehl helped turn around Ted Ginn Jr.'s career last season. Ginn, now at Arizona, went from two catches with San Francisco in 2012 to 36 for 556 yards and five touchdowns at Carolina last season.

Hill doesn't have that far to go. In his two seasons with the Jets, he caught 45 passes for 594 yards and four touchdowns.

He can be the deep threat Ginn was. Only undrafted rookie Philly Brown has elite speed among the five receivers on Carolina's current 53-man roster. And Brown is there more for his abilities as a kick returner than a receiver. He has troubles with drops, too.

"He can run -- 4.3 is pretty fast -- and he's a big, physical guy," backup quarterback Derek Anderson said of Hill. "Now we'll teach him and get out of him what we can."

Hill won't be moved to the 53-man roster for Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay. Coach Ron Rivera made that clear, reminding Hill has a lot to learn about his new scheme.

But it wouldn't be a reach to suggest Hill could move up by the second or third week. You don't sign a second-round pick to leave him on the practice squad.

"We were really the only ones who showed interest in him," Rivera said. "So hopefully, that means we’ll get a nice long look at him. We'll work him and see how he'll potentially fit us. And if the opportunity arises to bring him up, we will."
TAMPA, Fla. -- With the start of the regular season just around the corner, Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith talked about his offensive and defensive lines Friday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bucs cut kicker Connor Barth

August, 29, 2014
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TAMPA, Fla. -- The Buccaneers pulled a bit of a surprise on Friday afternoon by releasing kicker Connor Barth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's obvious,'' he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the Panthers are preparing him for everything.

Bucs should trade for Alex Boone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RUNNING BACKS (5)

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

RECEIVERS (6)

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

TIGHT ENDS (3)

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

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)

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

DEFENSIVE LINE (7)

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

LINEBACKERS (10)

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

CORNERBACKS (5)

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

SAFETIES (4)

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

SPECIALISTS (3)

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

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

RUNNING BACKS (6)

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

RECEIVERS (5)

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

TIGHT ENDS (3)

Veteran Luke Stocker is very much on the bubble.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

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

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

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

LINEBACKERS (6)

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

CORNERBACKS (6)

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

SAFETIES (4)

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

SPECIALISTS (3)

This won’t change unless there’s an injury.

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