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Monday, March 16, 2009
NFC South corners market on change


 
  Getty Images/AP Photo
  Aqib Talib, Jabari Greer and Richard Marshall are part of the changing of the guard at the cornerback position in the NFC South.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

In an otherwise-quiet offseason, the NFC South has turned the corners.

If there's one common theme in the division, it's that there will be lots of change and plenty of youth at cornerback. For better or worse, each team is going to have at least one new starter at cornerback and many familiar faces are gone.

Get used to guys like Richard Marshall, Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter, Aqib Talib and Chevis Jackson because they're going to be the new cornerback faces in the NFC South.

Yes, Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber and New Orleans' Mike McKenzie are still around, but that may be more for show and sentiment than anything. The days of big-name cornerbacks in this division are over -- at least until some of these new guys make names for themselves and they're going to get every chance.

Somebody has to step up and guard the likes of Steve Smith, Roddy White, Marques Colston and Antonio Bryant. That may seem like a big task for a bunch of young and unproven cornerbacks, but that's what it's going to come down to.

Every team in the division suddenly needs major production from young or new cornerbacks.

 
  Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
  The Saints get a healthy Tracy Porter back after injury cut short his promising rookie campaign.

Start with the Saints because they could have the most change of all. The entire secondary has been a mess the last couple of years, but the problems have been particularly bad at cornerback. McKenzie's gone down with major injuries in each of the last two seasons and the Saints have been forced to go with the likes of the undersized Jason David and the antiquated Aaron Glenn playing big roles.

It hasn't really mattered how many yards Drew Brees has thrown for the last two seasons because the New Orleans defense has given up just as many. But the plan is for that to stop. Although McKenzie, David and Randall Gay remain on the roster, there's a chance the Saints could end up with Greer and Porter as their starters.

New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams wants to bring an aggressive approach and Greer has been the highlight of New Orleans' free-agency class. He was signed away from Buffalo, where he was a starter the last two years. The four-year, $23 million deal the Saints gave Greer likely means they're counting on him being the No. 1 cornerback.

But don't rule out the possibility of Porter being just as good before all is said and done. A second-round pick last year, Porter got off to a strong start as a rookie. He showed all the physical skills and tremendous confidence before going down with an injury just before midseason.

Tampa Bay also could have two new starters as new coach Raheem Morris takes over. You can pretty much assume that Aqib Talib, last year's first-round pick, will move into a starting role. Starter Phillip Buchanon departed through free agency and Talib showed promise as the nickelback last year. He may have to become Tampa Bay's No. 1 cornerback because nobody knows what the future holds for Barber, who is nearing the end of his career.

The Bucs pursued Greer and several other free-agent cornerbacks. They likely aren't done making moves at this position and that could be a sign that they're considering moving Barber to the nickel role.

Only a year ago, a lot of people thought Carolina had the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL. But that trio is now just a duo. Chris Gamble remains as probably the division's best cornerback, but he's going to have a new starter beside him.

The Panthers whacked veteran Ken Lucas in a salary-cap move this week. Lucas' play declined late last season. There are a lot of people who believe Richard Marshall, the nickelback the last couple of years, is ready to step in and provide an upgrade over Lucas.

That may turn out to be true, but Marshall's elevation raises another question that doesn't have an obvious answer: Who's going to be the nickelback? All the Panthers have at the moment is C.J. Wilson, who barely has played and veteran Dante Wesley, who may not be much more than a special-teams player. That means there's a good chance the Panthers, who have almost no salary-cap room, will have to draft a cornerback.

 
  AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
  Chevis Jackson, a third-round pick in 2008, should have a larger role in 2009.

That's a route the Falcons may also follow because they have the division's least-defined cornerback situation at the moment. This team unloaded the talented, but troubled DeAngelo Hall before last season and made it to the playoffs with smoke, mirr
ors and luck at cornerback last season. But some of that luck already is gone.

Domonique Foxworth, who emerged as a pleasant surprise last season, went to Baltimore after getting a massive deal in free agency. But the Falcons don't seem too worried. They could have made a stronger attempt to keep Foxworth, but didn't.

That makes you wonder whether coach Mike Smith has a higher opinion of his cornerbacks than the rest of us do. Chris Houston returns as a starter, but he hasn't yet shown he can be a true No. 1 cornerback. Smith must be thinking Houston can grow into that role because there aren't any other options on the roster.

In fact, it's far from clear who the other starter will be. Von Hutchins will be back after missing last season with an injury and Brent Grimes, who was a part-time starter last year, also remains a possibility.

But keep an eye on Jackson, a third-round pick last year, who started to show some big-play capability at the end of last season. The Falcons may be looking for Jackson to start or, at very least, be the nickelback.

If Jackson can do that, he'll fill a big void. He'll also be one of the faces of change at cornerback in the NFC South.