NFL Nation: Alex Brown

Previewing preseason Week 1

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
1:15
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In which we look ahead to NFC North preseason football over the next two days. (A separate post on the Green Bay Packers' Thursday night turn on ESPN is right here.)

Chicago Bears
Opponent: Denver Broncos
Location:
Soldier Field
Day/Time:
Thursday/8:30 p.m. ET
Personnel notes:
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (knee) is among those who won't play in a game most of the NFL will watch to see the return of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Urlacher has missed a week of practice because of soreness in his knee and then personal reasons, and it's possible the mystery surrounding his absence could be cleared up if he is in attendance at Soldier Field. Nick Roach will start in his place. … Defensive end Alex Brown signed a 1-year contract and will retire in an on-field ceremony before the game. … It's also worth noting that quarterback Jay Cutler, receiver Brandon Marshall and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates will be facing the team that began breaking up their nucleus in 2009.
Focal point: All eyes will be on left tackle J'Marcus Webb, who has a big lead in the competition for the starting job but still hasn't earned the full trust of offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Webb can either settle concerns with a solid performance or send the Bears back to the drawing board when camp resumes next week.

Detroit Lions
Opponent: Cleveland Browns
Location: Ford Field
Day/Time: Friday/7:30 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: The Lions' defensive secondary will have three starters who emerged in the past few days. Rookie cornerback Dwight Bentley has done well during stints with the first team in recent days and is expected to start opposite Chris Houston. The Lions' safeties likely will be Erik Coleman and John Wendling. Louis Delmas had knee surgery this week and it appears Amari Spievey hasn't had a great camp. … Expect tailback Kevin Smith to start but there should be plenty of work for Joique Bell and Keiland Williams, among others.
Focal point: This will be the first time when we'll see a completely healthy Nick Fairley on an NFL field, and the Lions are eager to see what he can do. Fairley broke his foot during training camp last summer and was clearly limited in the 10 games he did play in. The preseason should give us a better idea if Fairley is destined to be a dominant difference-maker, as the Lions hoped when they drafted him, or if he will simply be a member of defensive rotation.

Minnesota Vikings
Opponent: San Francisco 49ers
Location: Candlestick Park
Day/Time: Friday/9 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Tight end John Carlson (knee), running back Jordan Todman (ankle) and cornerback Josh Robinson (hamstring) are among the players who won't participate. Starters should see a few series, although coach Leslie Frazier implied that an early scoring drive could make it a short night for the first-team offense. … The defense could see more action in its first game environment under new defensive coordinator Alan Williams. … Rookie Blair Walsh is the only place-kicker in camp, so he will get all of the kicks this preseason. We'll see if he gets the opportunity to demonstrate the strong leg he has displayed this summer.
Focal point: The Vikings have more than a half-dozen new starters, but from now through the foreseeable future, all eyes will be on quarterback Christian Ponder to gauge the level of his progress from a rocky rookie season. Preseason performance isn't always an indicator of true development, but we have found that to be the case with other young quarterbacks in this division.

Will Smith suspension official

September, 2, 2011
9/02/11
5:00
PM ET
The NFL just made the official announcement that New Orleans defensive end Will Smith has been suspended for the first two games of this season.

Smith
Smith
He’s getting the same deal as Minnesota defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who also tested positive for the banned substance StarCaps in 2008. The NFL originally planned to suspend all players involved for four games. But the case was tied up in the legal system for more than two years and the suspension was reduced to two games.

Williams and Smith each will miss an additional two game checks. In Smith’s case, he is scheduled to make $352,941 per game, so the total for four games will come to $1,411,764.

Although the Saints have known for a long time that a Smith suspension was possible, the timing isn’t great. The Saints cut Alex Brown, last year’s other starting defensive end, earlier this week and they have to play their season opener Thursday night against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

Brown’s departure and Smith’s suspension mean it’s almost certain first-round pick Cameron Jordan will start at one defensive end spot. But there’s not another clear-cut favorite for the other job. Unless the Saints bring in a veteran from somewhere else, the choices are Jeff Charleston, Turk McBride and Junior Galette.

Will Smith suspension coming?

September, 2, 2011
9/02/11
3:35
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The Minnesota Vikings just put out a statement on their website from the NFL saying that defensive tackle Kevin Williams will be suspended for the first two games of the season.

We have not heard any word out of the New Orleans Saints yet, but I think it’s safe to assume there is similar news coming on defensive end Will Smith. He and Williams were among the players who tested positive for the banned-substance StarCaps in 2008. The NFL initially wanted to suspend all the players involved for four games.

But there were legal cases involved and the league had to wait for resolution. Assuming Smith gets the same punishment as Williams, the Saints will be without him for Thursday night’s opener against Green Bay at Lambeau Field and the Sept. 18 home game with Chicago.

The Saints cut veteran defensive end Alex Brown earlier this week. With Smith out, they’ll likely start first-round pick Cameron Jordan at one defensive end spot. The other likely will be filled by Jeff Charleston, Turk McBride or Junior Galette.

Final preseason tests for NFC South

September, 1, 2011
9/01/11
8:15
AM ET
The final preseason games for all NFC South teams are Thursday night.

Baltimore plays at Atlanta at 7:30 p.m. ET and Tampa Bay at Washington kicks off at the same time. Pittsburgh at Carolina and Tennessee at Houston start half an hour later. Since final preseason games generally don’t feature a lot of playing time for the starters, we’ll make our preview a little more comprehensive.

Instead of doing three things to watch on each team, we’ll do one.

Cam Newton’s last test. The Panthers appear to be set to go with the rookie quarterback as their starter for the regular season. He has not had a great preseason as a passer and probably won’t get a lot of playing time tonight. But it would be nice to see him complete a few passes against the Steelers. That would help his confidence and also bring some optimism to the fans.

Cameron Jordan’s role. The Saints pulled a surprise Tuesday when they cut starting defensive end Alex Brown. Conventional wisdom says that probably means they’re ready to use Jordan, a first-round draft pick, as a starter. Coach Sean Payton hasn’t committed that far and said the Saints will use a rotation at defensive end. But Jeff Charleston, Junior Galette and Turk McBride aren’t the kind of guys you expect to see in the starting lineup on a weekly basis.

Mike Johnson vs. Garrett Reynolds. This competition for Atlanta’s starting right guard job is coming down to the wire. Johnson missed some time early on with a concussion and that gave Reynolds the early edge. But coach Mike Smith has said Johnson still is a contender to start and a strong showing could be the deciding factor. No matter if it’s Johnson or Reynolds opening the regular season at Chicago on Sept. 11, the Falcons will have two new starters on the line that day. Center Todd McClure will miss the opener with a knee injury, and second-year pro Joe Hawley likely will get the start.

Rudy Carpenter in a starting role. He was Tampa Bay’s No. 3 quarterback last season. But Carpenter will get the start against the Redskins and there’s a lot riding on this one. Carpenter is in a competition with Jonathan Crompton for the No. 3 spot. But coach Raheem Morris admitted that it’s possible the Bucs may go into the regular season carrying only Josh Freeman and Josh Johnson on the active roster, which would free up a spot at another position. Carpenter needs a strong outing to prevent that from happening.
New Orleans coach Sean Payton addressed the media Tuesday evening and talked about the decision to release veteran defensive end Alex Brown.

Brown
Brown
"It was a hard decision," Payton said. "We spent a lot of time on it. A lot goes into it, and I said this to him today, [that] it wasn’t that we drafted a young player at that position. I think you try to factor in all the practice snaps and all the game film. It was something that after going through it all and looking at the timing of it, there’s still that opportunity within this next week that he’ll have a chance to sign with someone else and also that door is not totally shut if that opportunity presents itself here. Nonetheless, it was a hard decision we had to make."

What I take out of that is the Saints weren’t impressed with what they’ve seen out of Brown in preseason games and practices. I don't think they were impressed with him last season either and Brown was scheduled to make $3 million this year. The Saints also freed up $3 million in cap space with the move.

Payton also didn't rule out the possibility of bringing Brown back at some point, but I think that's a long shot. The Saints did draft defensive end Cameron Jordan in the first round this year, but Payton didn’t go ahead and name the rookie the starter.

"To some degree, we have less time this season than normal to evaluate players without the offseason," Payton said. "We’re going to have to look closely at our rotation. I think the actual starters that you guys know, especially on the defensive front and the receiver position, who lines up there to start the game is going to vary with how many starts they get. Obviously we’re going to substitute a handful of guys in there. That being said, in this time frame of a week and a half we have to look closely at who’s opposite of Will (Smith)."

Jordan, who sat out Tuesday's practice with an unspecified injury, could factor into that rotation, along with veteran Jeff Charleston. Turk McBride and Junior Galette are two other defensive ends the Saints like.

Smith is New Orleans’ top defensive end, but there’s uncertainty with him. It remains possible he could be suspended this season for testing positive for a banned substance in 2008. But Payton said the uncertainty around Smith didn’t impact the decision on Brown.

“We really tried not to because then we would be making a decision predicated on a possible suspension,’’ Payton said. “We really tried to look at it and evaluate all aspects of it but I would say that it didn’t come into play because if it had come into play more we would have gone in a different direction.”
As friend and former co-worker Scott Fowler first reported earlier Tuesday, John Kasay is staying in the NFC South.

He has signed with the New Orleans Saints. The team just sent out the official announcement. Kasay’s signing comes after kicker Garrett Hartley injured his hip in Sunday’s preseason game. We still don’t know how serious Hartley’s injury is and if Kasay’s stay will be for the short term or the long term.

Kasay hit 86.2 percent of his field-goal attempts last season and was the last remaining player from the 1995 expansion Panthers. He was released partly because the Panthers didn’t want to carry a kickoff specialist and Kasay hadn’t handled kickoffs in several years. The Panthers brought in Olindo Mare to handle place-kicking and kickoff duties. Kickoffs won’t be a problem for the Saints because punter Thomas Morstead can do that.

The Saints also confirmed the release of defensive end Alex Brown. In other moves to get down to Tuesday’s 80-man roster limit, the Saints waived the following players and designated them as injured – guard Roger Allen, linebacker Ezra Butler, receiver Jarred Fayson and running back Chris Taylor. The Saints also waived receiver John Chiles, tackle Dan Gay, fullback Kolby Hurt, safety DeAndre McDaniel, cornerback Mark Parson and center Ryan Taylor.

Camp Confidential: Saints

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
10:45
AM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- Jonathan Vilma grabbed the question and treated it much the same way he would a running back.

He grabbed it forcefully and drove it straight to the proper destination.

“It’s really very, very simple,’’ the middle linebacker for the New Orleans Saints said. “If we want to get back to being the Super Bowl champions, we have to play defense the way we played it in 2009, not the way we did in 2010. We have to go out there and start making turnovers happen again.’’

[+] EnlargeJonathan Vilma
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireJonathan Vilma, right, wants the Saints' defense to return to its 2009 playmaking form.
It's not as though the 2010 season was a complete disaster for the Saints. They went 11-5 and made the playoffs. But they went out to Seattle for the first round of the postseason and got upset by a team that didn’t even have a winning record. That ended New Orleans’ defense of its first Super Bowl championship, and Vilma puts the reason for that squarely on the defense.

“Look, we still had [quarterback] Drew Brees and all sorts of weapons on the other side of the ball,’’ Vilma said. “Last year’s problem wasn’t our offense. It was our defense. We just didn’t make things happen the way we did in 2009. We played well at times, but we also left a lot of big plays on the field because, for whatever reason, we just didn’t make the same plays we did the year before.’’

Vilma points to one statistic to demonstrate his point. In 2009, the Saints were +11 in turnover ratio. In 2010, they were -6.

They have the personnel to reverse that trend, and Vilma said a little more help from the defense could be all it takes to get back to the Super Bowl.

“You think of McDonald’s and you think of Burger King, you know what you’re going to get across the world,’’ Vilma said. “So we want people to think of Saints defense, you know what you’re going to get. You’re going to get takeaways, hitting, relentlessness, running to the ball. I think we’re starting to build that brand, we are still working toward it, and one thing we won’t do is take a step back.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Can the defense really get back to 2009 form? Yes, it’s very possible. Gregg Williams is one of the league’s best and most aggressive defensive coordinators. When I visited camp recently, the defensive players were picking up every loose ball, even well after plays were done. That’s something Williams brought when he arrived in 2009. It didn’t really stop in 2010. But you can tell the Saints are approaching loose balls with much more gusto in this camp.

That’s great, but just taking that mental approach won’t be enough. The Saints have made some personnel moves that should make the overall defense better and that should help produce turnovers. The Saints added defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin and suddenly are much bigger on the defensive line. Rotate Rogers and Franklin with a healthy Sedrick Ellis, and the Saints suddenly could be much stronger than they’ve been in the middle of the line in recent years.

That should help the pass rush, particularly Will Smith, Alex Brown and rookie Cameron Jordan. Smith and Brown didn’t get as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks as the coaches would have liked last season. Pressure is the key to a Williams defense. If the Saints can get pressure, the turnovers will come naturally.

2. Is the defense really to blame for last year? Not quite as much as Vilma claims. He’s right that the defense wasn’t the turnover machine it was in 2009. But the offense wasn’t exactly the perfectly tuned machine it was in the Super Bowl season. The Saints scored 64 touchdowns in 2009 (and five of those came on interception returns by the defense), but that number dropped to 44 last season. Maybe the defense could have helped a bit more with field position, but this offense had some flaws.

It’s tough to criticize Brees, who has carried the Saints since his arrival in 2006. But numbers don’t lie, and they’ll tell you Brees had an off year last season. His passing yardage and touchdowns were similar to 2009, but the huge difference was interceptions.

Brees threw only 11 interceptions in 2009 but had a career-high 22 last season. He never missed any playing time or complained about it, but Brees never seemed to be quite the same after injuring his knee in a Week 3 game with Atlanta. That might have had more to do with his "slump'' than we'll ever know.

But Brees has had a whole offseason to recover, and I expect him to bounce back. His cast of receivers remains largely the same, and replacing center Jonathan Goodwin with Olin Kreutz should not hurt an offensive line that already is very good.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireMark Ingram, right, should become a workhorse for the Saints right away.
3. How will the Saints use their running backs? Whether you loved him or not, Reggie Bush is gone and that’s going to have an impact. Although he never put up huge numbers, Bush was the kind of player who made defenses account for him every time he was on the field.

It’s easy to say the Saints will try to replace Bush by committee and, to some degree, that’s true. They brought in Darren Sproles to do a lot of what Bush did -- run outside, catch passes out of the backfield and work as a return man. They also have Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, who are pretty solid all-around backs.

But the biggest offensive move the Saints made this offseason was drafting Mark Ingram. He’s a running back who can do everything well, and he'll probably be used the way Deuce McAllister was in the early years of coach Sean Payton’s tenure. Sproles will inherit the packages Bush was in on, but Ingram’s going to get most of the playing time -- and carries.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Nobody got very excited when the Saints added Will Herring. That’s understandable, because he spent four seasons in Seattle as a backup linebacker and special-teams player. Herring has only seven career starts, but a coaching staff and front office that’s been known to find some steals might have another one. Herring has been getting most of the first-team work on the strong side in training camp, and the coaches have been raving about him. He’s quick and he’s smart, and the change of scenery apparently has him playing better than ever.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

When he’s healthy and on the field, Tracy Porter is a solid cornerback. But Porter hasn’t been on the field this training camp. He’s been walking around the sidelines with his left knee wrapped as he recovers from offseason surgery. There’s hope that Porter will be ready for the regular season, and there is even higher hope that he’ll be motivated to have a huge year because he can become a free agent after the season.

But there’s also some skepticism, because this isn’t the first injury for Porter. He missed four games last year and four the year before. Fellow starter Jabari Greer also has a history of injury problems. If Porter and Greer have more problems, the Saints could be thin at cornerback. They signed veteran Fabian Washington, but he’s missed some camp time with an injury.

The upside is that the absence of Porter and Washington has given second-year pro Patrick Robinson and rookie Johnny Patrick more work. Williams has been praising both of them. If either or both continue to impress and Porter’s recovery lingers, we could see a change in the lineup. That also wouldn't help Porter's chances of earning a big contract and staying with the Saints next season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Wide receiver Robert Meachem was a close runner-up for the biggest-surprise category above. Meachem is coming off ankle surgery for an injury that slowed him last year, and he's having an excellent camp. He’s caught just about every pass thrown his way and seems to be moving much better than a year ago. Meachem was a force as a deep threat in 2009, and it looks like he might be returning to that form.
  • Herring has been working on the strong side and Scott Shanle on the weak side. But nothing’s settled yet. Herring appears headed for a starting job, but Shanle is aging. The Saints have liked what they’ve seen from Clint Ingram and Jonathan Casillas, and they know what they have in Jo-Lonn Dunbar. They’ll probably go through several preseason games before deciding firmly on their starting linebackers. Even then, they could still rotate linebackers because the coaches view all of them as pretty close to equal.
  • One linebacker who is struggling a bit is third-round pick Martez Wilson. You can see he has good athleticism, but he looks lost at times during team drills. The Saints aren’t anywhere close to being ready to give up on him because he has lots of upside. But a lot of fans thought he’d be an instant starter. That’s not going to happen.
  • The Saints never have been afraid to take a shot on a reclamation project, and that’s what they did with Rogers at defensive tackle. He came into the league with a lot of hype back in 2001 but had spent his career stuck with some pretty bad teams in Detroit and Cleveland. Rogers even lost his starting job with the Browns last year, and there have been questions about his conditioning and attitude throughout his career. But this might be a perfect fit. Rogers is on a good team for perhaps the first time in his career, and Williams is a master motivator. Even if Rogers doesn’t work out, I like how the Saints hedged their bet by bringing in Franklin.
  • The Saints also took a shot on another former first-round pick. That’s offensive tackle Alex Barron. But he’s not off to a great start. He’s been sidelined by injury, and unless he comes back soon and makes a big impression, he probably won’t make the roster.
  • Since entering the league in 2009, punter Thomas Morstead has been known as a guy with a big leg. That hasn’t changed. But Morstead put in a lot of work on his directional punting in the offseason, and you can see the results in practice. That should help the defense with field position.

Observations on the Saints

August, 9, 2011
8/09/11
8:47
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints just finished a fully-padded practice on what unquestionably has been the hottest day of the 2011 NFC South Training Camp Tour.

How hot was it? Well, let’s skip the weather terms and put a different kind of number on it. Defensive end Alex Brown just tweeted that he was nine pounds lighter after he got back to the locker room. Brown said he weighed in at 243 pounds -- that’s linebacker size.

Speaking of the heat, the Saints are going to get away from it. The Saints are going to play a preseason game at Houston. After that, they’re heading to Oxnard, Calif. They’ll spend a week practicing there before playing the Oakland Raiders.

“I think we’ll benefit for a lot of reasons,’’ coach Sean Payton said. “The weather and the environment is something I’m familiar with. Going out there and playing Oakland, it will be a good week for us to finish up.’’

Payton’s familiar with Oxnard from his days with Dallas because the Cowboys have trained there. Oxnard’s known for its low humidity. Payton also said the trip sort of gives the Saints an extra week of training camp.

A few other observations from Tuesday’s practice.
  • Receivers Marques Colston, Adrian Arrington and Jarred Fayson all missed practice. Payton said he’s not worried about a shortage of receivers for Friday’s preseason opener. Payton said he expects some or all of the injured receivers to return soon.
  • Backup quarterback Chase Daniel had a very nice practice. I saw him throw three touchdown passes in team drills. The high-light was a back-shoulder touchdown to Jimmy Graham.
  • Until Tuesday, I had only seen rookie running back Mark Ingram play on television. In person, he’s even more impressive. I saw him running with power and the best thing I can say is he looked faster than I thought he was. The Saints are bringing just about all their other rookies along slowly, but Ingram’s getting all sorts of work with the starters.
  • The outside linebacker spots are still up for grabs, but Scott Shanle's working with the first team on the weak side and Will Herring's working on the strong side. But Clint Ingram got some first-team reps on the strong side on Tuesday and is very much in the mix. I like the way the Saints are handling the situation at outside linebackers. They've got a whole bunch of candidates and they're going to use the preseason to throw them all out there and see who rises up.
  • One thing that really stood out was the fact that the middle of the defensive line is a lot bigger than last year. That’s largely due to the arrival of Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin.
  • I'll have more on the Saints on Wednesday and their Camp Confidential profile is scheduled for Friday.

NFC South cap casualties?

July, 18, 2011
7/18/11
9:21
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There have been numerous reports that the NFL's salary cap will be somewhere around $120 million.

All four NFC South teams are well below that figure in what they currently have committed to the 2011 cap. But Atlanta's got some decisions to make on re-signing some of its own free agents and is likely to pursue a big-name defensive end. That could put the Falcons close to the cap. New Orleans is in a similar situation because the Saints want to re-sign a bunch of their free agents and could need to create some room.

That could lead to some cap casualties once the league year opens. Tampa Bay and Carolina both have plenty of cap room, but there are some moves those teams could make that would free up even more space. Let's take a look at some possible cap casualties around the NFC South.

Atlanta. With the addition of Julio Jones, Michael Jenkins' job as a starting wide receiver is in jeopardy. Maybe the Falcons look to keep him as a very expensive backup or maybe they look to trade him because he should have some value on the market. But maybe the Falcons simply release Jenkins, who is scheduled to count $4.1 million against the cap. The Falcons would only be on the hook for $1.2 million. In terms of true value compared to salary, defensive linemen Jamaal Anderson and Chauncey Davis are guys who don't measure up to their salary-cap space. Anderson is scheduled to count $5.8 million against the cap, but the Falcons would take a $3.1 million hit if they release him. Davis is scheduled to count $3.75 in cap space and the Falcons could free up $2.25 million by letting him go.

Tampa Bay. This first scenario might be a long shot because the Bucs don't really need to free up cap space, and Jeff Faine is viewed as a reliable veteran center. But Faine is 30 and has missed parts of the past two seasons with injuries. He's scheduled to count $4.575 against the salary cap and the Bucs wouldn't have to absorb a dime if they cut him because Faine's contract was structured in a way that his $12 million in bonus money was absorbed in the first two years of his deal. It remains to be seen if the Bucs or the NFL will take disciplinary action against cornerback Aqib Talib for an off-field incident. But if the Bucs decide they've had enough of the troubled cornerback, it would be easy and cost effective to cut him. Talib's scheduled to count $1.95 million against the cap, and the Bucs could free up $1.35 million by releasing him. Another guy to keep an eye on his fullback Earnest Graham. He's 31 and missed some time with injuries last year. More importantly, Graham is scheduled to count $3.105 million against the cap. If he were still playing tailback, that wouldn't be a bad figure. But a fullback counting more than $3 million against the cap is a luxury and the Bucs wouldn't have to absorb any cap hit if they release Graham. Long-snapper Andrew Economos tore his Achilles tendon during the offseason and may not be able to play this year. The Bucs could reach an injury settlement with Economos. But they also could cut him and free up $680,000 in cap space.

New Orleans. We all know the Reggie Bush situation. He's scheduled to count $16 million against the cap. If the Saints release him, they'd only be responsible for $3.5 million in pro-rated bonus money. But it sounds like Bush and the Saints will try to work out a new contract to keep him. It's unknown if cornerback Randall Gay has been medically cleared after suffering a concussion early last season. If he has, the Saints easily could release him. They'd free up more than $4 million in cap space and they have plenty of other cornerbacks. Wide receiver Devery Henderson also has a relatively high cap figure ($3.225 million) and the Saints could clear up $1.5 million by releasing him. Defensive end Alex Brown is probably safe because the Saints don't know yet what they have in rookie Cameron Jordan. But Brown is scheduled to count for $3 million and it wouldn't cost the Saints anything to cut him.

Carolina. The one bright spot of the youth movement the Panthers went to in recent years is that there aren't many veterans who are obvious candidates to become cap casualties. In fact, I'm looking at the roster and contract information and seeing only one possibility: defensive end Tyler Brayton. He's scheduled to take up $3.8 million in cap space and the Panthers would only take a $666,000 hit if they cut him.
Adrian Clayborn and Ryan KerriganGetty ImagesIowa's Adrian Clayborn, left, or Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan would be a nice addition to any NFC South team looking to improve its pass rush.
Let’s have a little bit of fun and play a game of NFC South word and name association.

I’ll start it off and say "franchise quarterbacks." This is where you chime in and say what pops into your head. Your venue for that generally is the comments section or the mailbag, but I’ll go ahead and read your minds. I feel safe on this.

Your answer, with only the slightest bit of room for argument, is Drew Brees, Josh Freeman and Matt Ryan. If you want to argue any of that, hold it for now, but I probably won’t listen anyway.

Now, I’ll throw out the words "elite pass-rushers."

I can’t hear you now and I can’t even read your minds. You might be saying John Abraham, Charles Johnson and Will Smith. Or you might not.

Let’s face it: The NFC South is a division with three franchise quarterbacks. Maybe four if the Carolina Panthers take Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert with the No. 1 choice in this draft and actually hit on that pick.

You stop or slow great quarterbacks by putting pressure on them. Amazingly, the NFC South isn’t really set up to do that, but that could change quickly. Although most of the attention on the April draft has centered on the Panthers and their quarterback situation, there’s another huge storyline out there.

When all is said and done, 2011 could be the year of the defensive end both for the NFC South and the draft. There at least is a possibility the Buccaneers, Saints and Falcons each could use first-round picks on defensive ends.

The time might be right because that’s a position of strength in this year’s draft. I’m looking at Mel Kiper’s Big Board and seeing seven defensive ends (when you count college outside linebackers and defensive tackles as guys who may project as NFL defensive ends) among the top 25 players.

The NFC South often is referred to as the NASCAR division, so, gentlemen and general managers, start your pass rush. Please.

It’s overdue. If things don’t change dramatically, and soon, we could be looking at somewhere close to a decade of Brees, Ryan and Freeman having all day to throw. That’s the way it was last season when the NFC South had two big flashes (Johnson in Carolina and Abraham in Atlanta) and not much else in the way of a pass rush.

We’ll leave Abraham’s 13.0 sacks and Johnson’s 11.5 in the mix because last year’s division numbers would be laughable without them. Even with them, things were pretty ugly.

Tampa Bay produced an NFC-worst 26 sacks. Carolina and Atlanta each had 31. New Orleans led the division with 33 sacks, which tied the Saints for 10th in the NFC. The NFC average was 35.9 and the league average 35.3.

If you want to throw out the old lines that “stats are for losers’’ or "sacks don't tell the whole story with defensive ends,'' go ahead. But I’ll throw this back at you: The Pittsburgh Steelers led the league with 48 sacks and the Green Bay Packers tied for second with 47. Those two teams played in the Super Bowl.

The NFC South had both its playoff representatives, Atlanta and New Orleans, bounced the first time they took the field. The Falcons and the Saints are just fine on offense and, for the first time in franchise history, so are the Buccaneers.

But no NFC South team is going to get to the Super Bowl without improving its pass rush, and that’s not going to happen without some help in the draft. This division simply does not have a ... oh, let’s just say, Julius Peppers. This division doesn’t have a sure-fire dominant pass-rusher. (Note: Carolina's Johnson could turn into that guy if he can string together more seasons like the last, and if he ends up staying with the Panthers amid some potential uncertainty about his status as a free agent in a new labor agreement. But this column's more about the need to improve the pass rush in the other three NFC South cities).

Atlanta’s got Abraham, but he’s going to be 33 in May and he’s only one season removed from a disappointing 5.5-sack year. The Falcons can’t count on Abraham to put up big numbers much longer, and guys like Kroy Biermann, Chauncey Davis and Jamaal Anderson don’t scare anybody.

Maybe someone like Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn or Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan could scare someone. But the Falcons are going to have competition within their own division for guys like that. Atlanta has the No. 27 pick. Look at the myriad mock drafts out there and you see those same names frequently tied to Tampa Bay at No. 20 or New Orleans at No. 24.

It all makes sense. The Bucs were starting Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder much of last season. If they didn’t get really good play out of their secondary, things would have been really ugly. Tampa Bay turned a corner by going 10-6 last season, but the Bucs easily could slip back to mediocrity -- or worse -- if they don’t address the pass rush.

They used their first two picks last year on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Both showed a little promise before suffering season-ending injuries. They at least have the potential to generate a surge in the middle, but McCoy and Price aren’t going to really blossom until they have some help on the outside.

In New Orleans, the need also is obvious. The Saints have Smith, but he’s nearing Abraham territory, which means uncertainty. Smith dropped to 5.5 sacks last season after having 13 in the 2009 Super Bowl season. Smith will turn 30 in July. He might be able to bounce back and have a few more good seasons, but that’s not likely to happen if the Saints don’t add a threat on the other side. They got through last season with Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson serving as functional veterans.

But a Gregg Williams defense is supposed to thrive on pressure, and the Saints need more. Kerrigan or Clayborn could fit. Throw in California’s Cameron Jordan or Missouri’s Aldon Smith. Any of them could fit in with the Saints.

Or the Bucs. Or the Falcons.

Draft Watch: NFC South

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Atlanta Falcons

Perhaps the biggest positive to come out of a 13-3 season that ended with a disappointing playoff loss to Green Bay is that it made Atlanta’s offseason needs so clear. Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have said, in no uncertain terms, the Falcons need to become more explosive on both sides of the ball, and they have established a track record of working together to get what they want.

It’s no secret that Atlanta’s biggest need is to improve the pass rush. Veteran John Abraham stepped up with 13.5 sacks last season, but there’s no guarantee that will continue. Even if Abraham produces another big season, the Falcons need another defensive end to help provide a more consistent pass rush. Although the team used its first-round pick on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon last year, another athletic outside linebacker is a possibility, because Mike Peterson is getting older and Stephen Nicholas might leave via free agency. Speed and athleticism also will be targets on offense. The Falcons have a good power running game with Michael Turner and Jason Snelling, but need a speed back to make some big plays. Roddy White is one of the game’s best receivers, but the Falcons would like to add a speedster to stretch the field.

Offensive line also is a possibility, because the Falcons have several possible free agents and it remains to be seen if the team is really sold on left tackle Sam Baker.

Carolina Panthers

New coach Ron Rivera takes over a roster that’s not as depleted as last year’s 2-14 record might suggest. There are some areas of strength -- defensive end, running back and linebacker. Some consistent play at quarterback would go a long way toward making the Panthers competitive quickly. It remains to be seen if the Panthers will take a leap on Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert in the draft, or try to get a veteran through free agency or via trade.

Whatever the Panthers decide at quarterback, there are some other big needs that will have to be addressed in the draft. The middle of the defensive line has been a problem spot the past two seasons, and Auburn’s Nick Fairley is a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick. The wild card in all this could be LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. Some say he’s the best player in the draft, and there is uncertainty about the futures of cornerbacks Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble. The rule of thumb is that you don’t take a cornerback with the top pick of the draft. But Peterson might be the most complete player in the draft, so the Panthers have to at least consider breaking the rules.

New Orleans Saints

Assuming the restricted free agent tags hold up with a new labor agreement, the Saints should be able to keep a pretty strong roster intact. That said, there are some obvious areas of need. On defense, the Saints could use another pass-rusher to team with Will Smith. Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson were adequate last season, but not dynamic. The basis of a Gregg Williams defense is to create turnovers, and that starts with a pass rush up front. An athletic outside linebacker also is high on the list. The Saints thought they had enough young guys last year to let Scott Fujita walk in free agency. But several of those young linebackers were injured, and that spot became a problem.

Offensively, the Saints are pretty well set at the skill positions, but it’s possible they could at least look to add another running back at some point. Reggie Bush's future remains uncertain and the Saints were hampered by injuries at running back last season. Although the Saints drafted Charles Brown last year, offensive tackle could be addressed again. Brown might get a shot to start ahead of Jermon Bushrod at left tackle, but the Saints might like to add one more person to that competition.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Despite a surprising 10-6 record last season, the rebuilding job is far from done in Tampa Bay. The Bucs still need to upgrade the talent level at several positions, and defensive end appears to be first on the list. Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder ended up as the starters last season and weren’t able to generate much of a pass rush. After using the first two picks of last year’s draft on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, the Bucs would like to surround them with young talent on the outside.

The Bucs could be looking for a middle linebacker if Barrett Ruud leaves via free agency, and more depth at outside linebacker also is a possibility. The uncertain future of suspended safety Tanard Jackson means the Bucs might have to look for depth at that position. The offensive needs aren’t as big, but the Bucs could use a running back to help share the load with LeGarrette Blount.

Quick Take: Seahawks at Bears

January, 9, 2011
1/09/11
9:35
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Three things to know about Sunday afternoon's Seattle Seahawks-Chicago Bears divisional-round playoff game at Soldier Field:

1. It's hard to imagine the Bears overlooking the Seahawks. In Week 6, the Seahawks pulled off a 23-20 victory at Soldier Field, sacking quarterback Jay Cutler six times and limiting him to 17 completions in 39 attempts. The Bears' defense, meanwhile, never sacked Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and didn't force a turnover. The Bears are a much different (and better) team now, but surely they're aware of how well Hasselbeck played in knocking the New Orleans Saints out of the playoffs Saturday. They aren't likely to be overconfident. Just ask former Bears defensive end Alex Brown, who was on the losing end Saturday as a member of the Saints. By the way, if you're interested, the line on this game opened at 9.5 points.

2. For what it's worth, the Bears beat every team they played twice this season at least once. That make sense? They swept the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings while splitting their season series with the Green Bay Packers. So they are 5-1 in this scenario. Does that mean they're destined to beat the Seahawks on Sunday? You decide.

3. That Week 6 loss might have been the height of Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz's hubris. Martz called 39 passing plays and only 14 runs despite the pass-protection issues his team was having. The Bears have since balanced themselves out and should have a chance at some decent success on the ground Sunday. The Seahawks allowed an average of 118.9 rushing yards per game during the regular season, the second-most among playoff teams. If Cutler needs to throw 39 passes in this game, the Bears should be worried.
Marshawn Lynch's 67-yard touchdown run to clinch Seattle's 41-36 wild-card victory against New Orleans is the play NFL fans everywhere are buzzing about. Twenty-four things to know about the run that will give Seattle's No. 24 a special place in NFL playoff lore:
    [+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
    AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenSeattle's Marshawn Lynch breaks away on his 67-yard TD run Saturday against the Saints as QB Matt Hasselbeck celebrates in the background.

  • There was nothing fancy about the personnel or formation.
  • Seattle lined up in its base offense with two backs and one tight end, John Carlson. The strong side was to the left, and that is where Lynch ran initially.
  • Seattle had been favoring zone runs all game, but this play -- "17 Power" -- featured man-on-man blocking. Players said Seattle had not run the play all game.
  • With this run, the Seahawks averaged 10.5 yards per rush on 10 carries from base personnel against New Orleans, according to my charting.
  • Lynch might never have escaped the backfield if fullback Michael Robinson, lined up in the offset-I formation, hadn't slammed into linebacker Jonathan Vilma, creating space.
  • Even so, linebacker Scott Shanle should have made the tackle about two yards into the run. No one blocked him. Count this as missed/broken tackle No. 1.
  • Receiver Ben Obomanu motioned right to left, sealing safety Roman Harper on the edge.
  • Right tackle Sean Locklear had the easiest job. He stood up and danced with defensive end Alex Brown.
  • Right guard Mike Gibson pulled across the formation, helped Carlson turn linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar outside and then rocked cornerback Tracy Porter five yards past the line of scrimmage.
  • It got worse for Porter. Much worse.
  • Center Chris Spencer and left guard Tyler Polumbus steered defensive tackle Remi Ayodele to the weak side.
  • Left tackle Russell Okung blocked defensive end Will Smith, but Smith came off the block in time to trail Lynch and get both hands on the running back's hips at the Seattle 35-yard line. This would be missed/broken tackle No. 2.
  • Spencer blocked Darren Sharper on the second level, but Sharper disengaged in time to make contact with Lynch eight yards downfield. Ayodele also made contact with Lynch at this point. These would be missed/broken tackles Nos. 3 and 4.
  • Cornerback Jabari Greer caught Lynch at midfield along the right hash, but Lynch ran right out of his grasp. Missed/broken tackle No. 5.
  • Porter caught up to Lynch at the New Orleans 36, but he made a bad mistake. Porter tried to tackle Lynch high. Lynch, cradling the ball in his right arm, discarded the 186-pound corner with a left hand straight out of a George Foreman fight. Porter tumbled nearly five yards downfield, landing on his right shoulder and rolling on the ground. This was missed/broken tackle No. 6.
  • Perhaps sensing Lynch could go all the way, multiple teammates rallied to the cause. Polumbus and receiver Mike Williams were first on the scene. Locklear and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck were gaining as Lynch crossed the 30.
  • Hasselbeck did not really block Brown, but he slightly impeded the big defensive end. Asked later if he were "looking" to block someone, Hasselbeck deadpanned that he was looking, but just looking.
  • Brown dove at Lynch's feet and just missed along the right sideline at the 16. This was missed/broken tackle No. 7.
  • Polumbus was at the 12 by now and in perfect position to shield Harper as Lynch cut back toward the middle.
  • Greer had hustled back into the play by now, but Hasselbeck seemed to know Lynch would score. The quarterback raised his right arm as Lynch crossed the 4-yard line, with Greer a step or so behind.
  • Harper had ducked under Polumbus at this point, but he dived and missed at the 2. This was missed/broken tackle No. 8. Lynch sidestepped just enough to make sure Harper would not get him.
  • Carlson, Spencer and Obomanu were also inside the 5 at this point.
  • Lynch dove onto his back in the end zone and popped to his feet as Carlson, Hasselbeck, Polumbus, Spencer, Williams and Obomanu swarmed him.
  • This was the longest run of Lynch's career by 11 yards and it gave Seattle its first 100-yard rusher of the season.

Not a bad way to punctuate one of the bigger playoff upsets in NFL history.

Saints regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
1/05/11
1:00
PM ET
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow denoting whether team is trending up or down.

Final Power Ranking: 5
Preseason Power Ranking: 2

[+] EnlargeChris Ivory
Frank Victores/US PresswireSaints rookie running back Chris Ivory stepped into a prominent role during the regular season.
Biggest surprise: Chris Ivory. The undrafted rookie running back saved the Saints from a potentially catastrophic situation. With a preseason injury to Lynell Hamilton and early-season injuries to Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, the Saints were desperate for help at running back. They brought in veterans Julius Jones and Ladell Betts, but neither did much. Instead, it was Ivory who stepped up and gave the Saints enough of a threat in the running game to keep opposing defenses from loading up on the passing game. Ivory probably has secured a spot in the running back rotation for the foreseeable future, though he will miss the playoffs with a foot injury.

Biggest disappointment: Thomas. He emerged as New Orleans’ most steady running back in last year’s Super Bowl season and turned down a contract offer to play for the restricted free-agent tender this year. Thomas injured his ankle early in the season, and it initially was thought he’d miss only a few weeks. But the injury lingered and Ivory continued to emerge. Thomas came back and contributed a bit late in the season, but the coaching staff and front office might have come to the conclusion that he’s expendable because of the presence of Ivory and the expected return of Hamilton. Those two can work with Bush in tandem in the backfield.

Biggest need: A pass-rusher to play opposite Will Smith. The Saints brought in veterans Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson after letting Charles Grant go. Neither has had much impact as a pass-rusher, and other teams have loaded up their blocking to tie up Smith. The Saints still have generated plenty of pressure because defensive coordinator Gregg Williams isn’t shy about bringing the blitz. But the Saints could be even more dangerous defensively if they had a pass-rusher to complement Smith.

Team MVP: Drew Brees. This season was not nearly close to the perfect season Brees had while leading the Saints to last season's Super Bowl victory. Brees threw a career-high 22 interceptions, double the amount he threw last year. But Brees still put up big numbers, with 33 touchdowns and 4,620 passing yards, and he carried this team through periods when other parts of the team were struggling. Brees’ leadership also was a big part of the reason why the Saints never really had problems with the “Super Bowl hangover’’ that has prevented so many Super Bowl teams from returning to the playoffs the following season.

Changing of the safeties: If there was a true breakout player in the NFC South this season, it was safety Malcolm Jenkins. With Darren Sharper out for almost the first half of the season while recovering from knee surgery, the Saints moved Jenkins to free safety after he spent his rookie year at cornerback. Jenkins stepped right up, and there was no drop-off at safety. When cornerbacks Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter and Randall Gay were injured, Jenkins briefly shifted back to cornerback. Later in the season, the Saints shifted him to nickelback in passing situations and inserted Sharper at free safety. It didn’t matter where Jenkins lined up. He made big plays all season.
NEW ORLEANS -- I’m heading downstairs for interviews and will be back with more later. But, first, a Rapid Reaction to Tampa Bay's 23-13 victory against the Saints.

What it means: At very least, the Buccaneers showed they can play with the big boys. The knock on them all season was that they couldn’t beat a good team. Well, scratch that off the list because the Saints are the defending Super Bowl champions and are headed back to the playoffs. The Bucs will have to wait to see what happens later this afternoon. They need the Giants and Packers both to lose to get into the playoffs. Even if they don’t get in, a 10-win season is far better than anyone expected from the Bucs, and a victory like this should send them into the offseason with lots of momentum.

What I liked: The decision by Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris and/or offensive coordinator Greg Olson to go for it, rather than attempt a field goal, in the third quarter. The call was for Josh Freeman to fake a quarterback sneak and, then, throw for the end zone. He did, and rookie Mike Williams went up and made the catch over Jabari Greer for a touchdown.

What I didn’t like: Even though Atlanta was blowing out Carolina and locking up the NFC South and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, the Saints kept their starters in the game. That came after safety Malcolm Jenkins, tight end Jimmy Graham, running back Chris Ivory and defensive end Alex Brown all were hurt in the first half. Brown was the only one of those three to return in the second half. The Saints had receiver Marques Colston, running back Pierre Thomas, tight end Jeremy Shockey and defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove inactive for this game due to injuries. The Saints finally pulled some of their starters in the fourth quarter, but they might have been exposed to injury longer than necessary. There might be some other bumps and bruises emerging after the fact and that could leave the Saints shorthanded for the playoffs.

What’s next: The Saints will enter the playoffs as the No. 5 seed. They’ll play on the road against the NFC West champions. The Bucs will begin the trip back to Tampa shortly, but you can bet they’ll be getting constant updates on how the Giants and Packers are faring.

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