NFL Nation: Angelo Crowell
You can assume it’s not a real big deal because Crowell didn’t live up to the expectations the Bucs had when they signed him as a free agent last year. He couldn’t crack the starting lineup and ended up getting hurt. But Crowell had some potential, once upon a time, and the Bucs are giving him another shot.
In other news, the Bucs announced restricted free agent Mark Bradley has signed his tender offer. Generally, we don’t waste time or space reporting on the signing of tender offers because it’s basically a formality. But, as long as we had the Crowell signing, we’ll slip the Bradley note in there as well.
Potential unrestricted free agents: CB Brian Williams, WR Marty Booker, QB Chris Redman.
Potential restricted free agents: RB Jason Snelling, RB Jerious Norwood, P Michael Koenen, CB Brent Grimes, OL Quinn Ojinnaka, T Tyson Clabo, G Harvey Dahl.
Franchise player: None.
What to expect: General manager Thomas Dimitroff repeatedly has used the phrase “fiscally responsible’’ when talking about the approach to free agency. In other words, the Falcons aren’t going to go on some wild spending spree. This organization prefers to build through the draft. But history has shown the Falcons aren’t afraid to make a strategic strike or two in free agency. They have a huge need at defensive end and that’s a tough spot to get guaranteed production from when you’ve got the No. 19 overall pick in the draft. The Falcons aren’t likely to target elite free-agent DE Julius Peppers, but you could see them make a move for another pass-rusher.
Potential unrestricted free agents: DE Julius Peppers, WR Muhsin Muhammad, QB Josh McCown, QB A.J. Feeley.
Potential restricted free agents: LB Thomas Davis, QB Matt Moore, TE Jeff King, CB Richard Marshall, DT Louis Leonard, LB James Anderson, DT Tank Tyler, CB C.J. Wilson.
Franchise player: None.
What to expect: Owner Jerry Richardson is very concerned about the uncertain labor situation and that may keep him from spending big money in free agency. The Panthers avoided a $20 million hit by not placing the franchise tag on Peppers, but that doesn’t mean all of that money is going to be used in free agency. The Panthers traditionally are a team that builds through the draft and they didn’t sign a single UFA last year. But look for at least a few smaller moves because coach John Fox has to win this year and needs to improve this roster, especially on the defensive line, at wide receiver and perhaps at quarterback.
New Orleans Saints
Potential unrestricted free agents: QB Mark Brunell, S Darren Sharper, TE Dan Campbell, TE Darnell Dinkins, DT Kendrick Clancy, LB Scott Fujita, S Pierson Prioleau, LS Jason Kyle.
Potential restricted free agents: G Jahri Evans, RB Mike Bell, RB Pierre Thomas, WR Lance Moore, TE David Thomas, T Jermon Bushrod, S Roman Harper, S Usama Young, DT Remi Ayodele, DT Anthony Hargrove, T Zach Strief, S Chris Reis, WR Courtney Roby, LB Marvin Mitchell.
Franchise player: None
What to expect: As a final-four team the Saints aren’t allowed to sign any unrestricted free agents unless they lose one of their own at a similar price tag. That’s likely to keep the Saints from being big players in free agency. But the good news is they don’t have a lot of dramatic needs. They will have to keep a protective eye on some of their restricted free agents, who may draw interest from other teams.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Potential unrestricted free agents: WR Antonio Bryant, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, S Will Allen, LB Angelo Crowell, S Jermaine Phillips.
Potential restricted free agents: RB Cadillac Williams, LB Barrett Ruud, T Donald Penn, WR Maurice Stovall, T Jeremy Trueblood.
Franchise player: None.
What to expect: The Bucs haven’t spent a lot of money in free agency in recent years and they’ve been sending out signals this year won’t be much different. They’re focused on the 10 draft picks they hold. But the Bucs could pull a small surprise or two. They’ve got a restless fan base and more needs than those draft picks can handle. A couple of signings in free agency could energize the fan base and help the rebuilding process. The Bucs really need a No. 1 wide receiver and they’re not truly positioned to get that in the draft.
An early look at the free-agent situation in the NFC South.
Note: These projected lists reflect notable unrestricted free agents for each team. The NFL will not issue an official list of free agents until the signing period begins March 5.
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonDefensive end Julius Peppers says he wants to leave Carolina.
Key figures: Look for the Falcons to try to re-sign Williams before he can hit the market. He was playing well before he was injured. Keeping Williams would allow the Falcons to focus on getting a big-time pass-rusher in the draft or free agency. Redman is an experienced backup for Matt Ryan and the Falcons would like to keep him. The list of potential restricted free agents has some big names with Harvey Dahl, Tyson Clabo, Michael Koenen, Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling among the players the Falcons don’t want to lose.
Unrestricted free agents: Defensive end Julius Peppers and wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad.
Key figures: The Panthers face a monumental decision with Peppers. They have yet to place the franchise tag on him and that would cost more than $20 million. Peppers again is saying he wants out of Carolina and the Panthers just may give him his wish and let him walk. Although he was productive, Peppers was inconsistent and never became the leader the team wanted. Muhammad is the only No. 2 receiver the franchise ever had who has been able to coexist peacefully and productively with Steve Smith. Muhammad could return in a backup role, but the team needs to find a younger starter to pair with Smith. Linebacker Thomas Davis will be restricted and the team must keep him because he’s become a core player.
New Orleans Saints
Unrestricted free agents: Safety Darren Sharper and linebacker Scott Fujita
Key figures: The Super Bowl champions face a difficult call on Sharper. The veteran came in and had a fabulous season on a one-year contract. Using the franchise tag on Sharper might not be a bad move because it would guarantee him sticking around for another year. Given Sharper’s age, a long-term contract might not be a wise investment. Fujita also played at a high level last season, but he’s getting older and the Saints have some promising young linebackers. But there is something to be said for continuity when you win a Super Bowl, and the Saints will make some effort to keep their veteran leaders. They also have a slew of restricted free agents, highlighted by guard Jahri Evans, to protect.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Unrestricted free agents: Wide receiver Antonio Bryant and linebacker Angelo Crowell
Key figures: Bryant played for the franchise tag ($10 million) last season and the Bucs hoped he could show consistency and earn a long-term contract. That didn’t happen and Bryant didn’t endear himself to the organization by making some negative comments about the coaching staff and quarterback Josh Freeman. The Bucs may make some sort of offer to Bryant, but it won’t be a big one. Although they desperately need help at receiver, they won’t be crushed if Crowell walks. It’s kind of the same story for Crowell. He never really caught on before getting hurt last year and he doesn’t seem to be a big part of any future plans. The Bucs have a bunch of restricted free agents, such as running back Cadillac Williams, linebacker Barrett Ruud and left tackle Donald Penn. In other years, they would already have been locked up with long-term deals, but the restricted tags have taken away that sense of urgency.
Just build on that, hope the Saints could get knocked off once or twice and there were lots of indications that, when the teams met again in Atlanta in December, the Falcons could win and take the division race right down to the wire.
Well, it’s December now and the Saints come to the Georgia Dome on Sunday and both teams will be carrying flags. The undefeated Saints already have earned an NFC South banner. The Falcons have thrown up a white flag.
“We’re not in the NFC South anymore,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith said in a conference call with the New Orleans media. “We’re in the Wild-Card Division.’’
Yes, the Falcons have pulled out of a union that traditionally had all four teams on the map until late in the season. But this season’s dramatically different.
Tampa Bay really never was in the picture. Carolina was pretty much out after an 0-3 start and any hope the Panthers had after winning their next two games disappeared forever with that pathetic home loss to Buffalo.
So what’s happened to a division that fans were calling the “NFC Stout’’ at the start of the season?
Well, let’s first give the Saints a ton of credit for putting so much distance between themselves and everyone else. But let’s also remember the Saints finished last in the division last season. They got dramatically better.
But let’s not forget the Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers did a pretty fine job of pulling themselves out of a division that now should be called the NFC New Orleans and Nothing Else.
Let’s take a look, team-by-team, at how it came to this:
FALCONS: The Falcons still were in it after that loss in New Orleans. They were 4-3 and they went to 5-3 a week later with a blowout win against Washington. Then, the Falcons self destructed. Ryan struggled and Turner got hurt. Then, Ryan got hurt, Turner got hurt and almost the entire offensive line got hurt. And the defense, which already was shaky at best, got really shaky.
“We haven’t made plays when they’ve been presented to us and you have to make those big plays and those game-changing plays in this league if you’re going to get the outcome you want,’’ Smith said.
The outcome the Falcons wanted for this year was to get back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history, make the playoffs again and maybe even win the NFC South championship.
None of that’s going to happen. The Falcons are 6-6 and mathematically still in the playoff hunt. But let’s be realistic. With that defense and with Ryan and Turner looking like they each will miss one more game, there’s no reason why the Saints should lose this one to the Falcons. If Ryan and Turner stay out longer than this game, there’s no reason to believe the Falcons win anything until they’re back and, even then, the defense is capable of keeping any opponent in the game.
I still like Atlanta’s nucleus, but I like it for next year when it’s healthy again and there’s been time to fix that defense. For right now, though, seeing backup quarterback Chris Redman starting is like watching the Falcons wave a surrender flag.
PANTHERS: Call it overconfidence, complacency or a comedy of errors. Whatever you want to call it the Panthers have gone from 12-4 to one of the league’s most disappointing teams, and that’s probably going to cost coach John Fox his job.
He has no one to blame but himself and possibly general manager Marty Hurney, although I think Hurney still could have a job when Fox is gone. Yeah, Hurney’s the one who does the deals, but Fox is the one who told him what deals he wanted done. And the decision to bring back Jake Delhomme, as well as sign him to a contract extension, ranks as one of the biggest gaffes of the past offseason. A lot of coaches would have handed Delhomme his release after his five-interception game against Arizona in last season’s playoffs and a couple of horrible games late last season.
At the very least, it might have been wise to bring in an alternative to Delhomme. As much as the Panthers were proud of the fact that they were returning 21 of 22 starters, the downside to that was they paid a fortune to offensive tackle Jordan Gross and moody defensive end Julius Peppers. That left them with no salary-cap room to sign any depth and it has cost them dearly when injuries happened, and when some of those 21 starters turned out to be less than the coaching staff thought.
Fox brought stability to this franchise, but he might have brought too much for too long. His message no longer carries the same weight in some corners of the locker room, and there’s a feeling among some players that rules aren’t the same for everybody and some guys get, or have demanded and received, star treatment. It might be the quarterback, it might be the coach or it might be both of them plus a whole bunch of others, but someone’s going to have to take the fall for this mess.
BUCCANEERS: Let’s be real honest here. The Bucs took themselves out of this year’s NFC South race in February. That’s when they cut ties with Derrick Brooks, Jeff Garcia, Warrick Dunn, Ike Hilliard, Joey Galloway, Kevin Carter and several other older players who had just enough left to keep them close to making the playoffs last year. There was some logic in all that because the Bucs weren’t going to get any better if they kept the same crew around.
Instead, they got worse. Much of that was to be expected. But if this rebuilding plan had been carried out better, the Bucs would have been respectable early on and should be showing substantial progress by now. They’re not. Rookie quarterback Josh Freeman has brought some hope since taking over at midseason, but free-agent pickups Derrick Ward and Angelo Crowell haven’t brought anything to the table.
Coach Raheem Morris fired offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski before the season started and took the reins away from defensive coordinator Jim Bates after 10 games. Morris may get another year because ownership knew from the start this was going to be a project. But Morris and general manager Mark Dominik have a lot of work to do in the coming months.
So do Smith and Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Same for Fox and Hurney, if they’re still there, or for a new regime.
Long story short and we’ll borrow from Smith’s first quote: The Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers have a lot of ground to make up just to get back into the NFC South.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
What does that mean for the Bucs' linebacker corps? Not much, really. Crowell was signed as a free agent and the early expectation was that he would be the starter on the strong side. But even before Saturday night's injury in Jacksonville, that wasn't anywhere close to happening.
Crowell had been bothered by an assortment of injuries ever since joining the Bucs and never made much progress toward claiming a starting job. The Bucs had pretty much decided on Quincy Black as their starter on the strong side even before Crowell's latest injury.
They're also very high on Adam Hayward and project him as the top backup to Black. Geno Hayes also has had a nice preseason and is the top backup to Jermaine Phillips at the moment. Given the fact that safety Tanard Jackson will be suspended for the first four games of the season, the Bucs have said Phillips could get some playing time at safety, the position he previously played before moving to linebacker this offseason. That could give Hayes a shot at significant playing time on the weak side.
|J. Meric/Getty Images|
|One of the largest questions Tampa Bay needs to answer is who will be their starting QB from among Luke McCown (12), Byron Leftwich (7) and Josh Freeman (5).|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- Take a look at any preseason magazine or watch any television show. The verdict is unanimous.
Everybody's got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked to finish fourth in the NFC South. If you want to know where they're projected in the whole league, look somewhere between No. 25 and No. 32.
When you've got a new coach, a new general manager, uncertainty at quarterback and part ways with some of the biggest names in franchise history, you're going to be anointed as one of the NFL's worst teams.
"That's not a bad thing," middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said with a laugh. "That's the mindset we have going into this year. There may be no expectations for us from the outside. But, as a group, we think we can be pretty good.''
To understand what Tampa Bay has, you have to understand what the Bucs don't have. They don't have coach Jon Gruden, linebacker Derrick Brooks, receiver Joey Galloway, running back Warrick Dunn and quarterback Jeff Garcia back from the only NFC South team that's had a winning record each of the last two years.
That's been enough to drop expectations from prognosticators and fans to the lowest level since Sam Wyche and company were piling up double-digit losses in the mid 1990s. But maybe -- just maybe -- it doesn't have to be this way.
Maybe the Bucs aren't as bad as everyone thinks. They do have some positives.
|Cliff Welch/Icon SMI|
|Barrett Ruud (right) is one of the Bucs' building blocks on defense.|
"We've got a nice core group of players,'' Ruud said. "We've got a really good offensive line. We've got four or five really good running backs. We've got two quarterbacks that are really hungry and they're battling to be the starter. And we've got a defense that kind of had our pride taken away at the end of last year and we're trying to get back to where a Tampa Bay defense is supposed to be.''
Ruud has some valid points. Forget the quarterback situation for a second. The rest of the offense looks pretty good. The offensive line is solid, Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham are quality running backs and receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton and tight end Kellen Winslow might be able to make whoever is the quarterback look good.
But, more than anything, the Bucs have new coach Raheem Morris. Yes, he's the youngest coach in the league and that's one reason for the low expectations outside the organization. But Morris is the reason the expectations are high within the organization.
"We were 9-3 last year and had a rocky ending because the atmosphere wasn't right,'' Clayton said." But the team we've put together this year is a whole lot better than last year. You know the energy is going to be in the right place because of the atmosphere. Raheem maximizes you. Raheem does a good job of maximizing everybody's effort and we didn't have that last year.''
Who will be the quarterback? Even the Bucs don't know the short-term answer to this one yet. They'll pick a starter after Saturday night's preseason game in Jacksonville. It will be either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich; they have been basically even through camp and one preseason game.
The Bucs will go with the quarterback they think can be more efficient because they believe the rest of their offense is solid. But it's no secret that the quarterback who opens the season is merely a stopgap. It's blatantly clear that Josh Freeman is the quarterback of the future.
Since drafting Freeman, Morris has gushed about the quarterback he coa
ched at Kansas State. The selection went against the wishes of many fans, who believed the Bucs should have focused on a defensive player. But that's history now because Morris and general manager Mark Dominik are committed to building this team around Freeman.
They want to bring Freeman along slowly and that's why they'll open the season with one of the veterans. But Freeman isn't going to sit forever. If McCown and/or Leftwich struggle, the same fans who booed Freeman's selection will be calling for him to start.
What's the defense going to look like without Brooks? It's going to be completely different and that's not just because the best player in franchise history is gone. Coordinator Monte Kiffin, the man who made the "Tampa Two'' scheme famous also is gone. The Bucs have a new coordinator in Jim Bates and a whole new defense.
There will be more bump coverage, but the emphasis still will be on speed. This isn't a very big defense. Former safety Jermaine Phillips has moved into Brooks' old spot on the weak side. Ruud's the only proven star in his prime and the veteran Barber will try to ease the transition.
What will the offense look like without Gruden? Again, things will be totally different. Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski brings in an offense that's focused on ball control and the Bucs have the parts in place to be a run-first team. Led by center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph, the offensive line might be the team's biggest strength.
One of the first moves Morris and Dominik made was to bring in Ward. He's going to be used in tandem with Earnest Graham. Jagodzinski's first goal is to establish the running game, but he's also got big plans for the passing game.
Gruden relied mostly on a horizontal passing game, but those days are gone. Although the Bucs may not have a true speed receiver, they'll use play action to try to create opportunities for Bryant, Winslow and Clayton down the field.
|Cliff Welch/Icon SMI|
|The Bucs took a risk in trading for Kellen Winslow and signing him to a new, long-term contract.|
Without much depth at wide receiver, camp was a golden opportunity for Dexter Jackson to redeem himself after a horrible rookie season. Jackson's been given a lot of chances, but hasn't been able to take advantage of him. A second-round pick from a year ago, there's a very real chance Jackson won't even make the roster. ...The move of Phillips to weakside linebacker is working out nicely and it comes with another component. Part of the reason the Bucs decided to move Phillips was because they wanted to get Sabby Piscitelli into the starting lineup at strong safety. He's embraced that chance and showed he can make big plays in the preseason opener.
The Bucs have known for months that they might have to go without starting guard Arron Sears, who hasn't reported to camp because of a "private matter." Sears was a very solid player the past two years, but there shouldn't be much drop off. The Bucs already were high on Jeremy Zuttah, who showed some promise as a rookie last year. He's had the entire offseason to work with the first unit. The Bucs would welcome Sears back, but they're not counting on that happening any time soon.
The Bucs knew what they were getting into when they traded for Winslow and turned around and gave him a huge contract. The tight end comes with enormous talent and baggage. Winslow had injury problems and often was the center of controversy in Cleveland. Morris is trying to light a fire under Winslow and already has criticized him. But that's all part of a plan to try to get the most out of Winslow's talents.
The Bucs also took a gamble by drafting wide receiver Sammie Stroughter in the seventh round. Stroughter has had some personal problems in the past. But all indications are he's put those behind him. Stroughter has been one of the stars in camp. At the moment, he's probably the leading candidate to be the No. 3 receiver. He's shown the ability to go across the middle and he also has return skills.
The Bucs had pictured Angelo Crowell as their starting strongside linebacker when they signed him as a free agent. But injuries have held Crowell back and Quincy Black appears to have locked up the starting job. Backup Adam Hayward also has had a strong preseason and can do a lot on special teams. Crowell no longer is a lock to make the roster. ... Defensive tackle was a big concern in the offseason because Chris Hovan is aging and Ryan Sims never has been dominant against the run. The Bucs will use those two as the starters, but they feel a lot better about this position as they prepare to break training camp. Third-round pick Roy Miller has had a strong preseason. So has Dre Moore, who did little as a rookie last year. Moore has kept himself in shape after struggling with weight issues last year. The Bucs plan to use a four-man rotation and play Miller and Moore a lot. Miller could emerge as a starter before long. ... Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson has been a backup throughout his career. But the new coaching staff penciled him in
as a starter from the very beginning and he hasn't disappointed. The coaches believe Wilkerson can play the run and rush the passer. They'll also rotate Stylez White into the lineup, but Wilkerson will get the majority of the snaps.
|How will NFC South defensive backs fare against the bevy of tight ends including Tony Gozalez, Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Shockey?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
With the NFC South suddenly becoming a hub for tight ends, a very big question rises.
Who's going to cover all these guys?
Presumably, the outside linebackers and safeties. Does the NFC South have enough talent at those positions to keep up with Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Shockey? We'll find out in the fall, but I'm thinking linebackers and safeties could have a lot more value in the NFC South in this weekend's draft.
Think about it a bit.
Let's say you're the Saints and you're sitting there at No. 14. There's been lots of talk about taking running back Chris "Beanie'' Wells, defensive back Malcolm Jenkins or maybe even a defensive tackle. But, after Thursday's trade of Gonzalez to Atlanta, you're suddenly faced with the prospect of facing him and Winslow in four games.
You've got experience at outside linebacker in Dan Morgan, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle, but do any of those guys have the legs to run with Gonzalez or Winslow? If you're the Saints, you suddenly might want to slide Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, the two USC linebackers who could be available when you pick, up a few spots on your draft board.
Same story for the Bucs, who are sitting at No. 19. They've already overhauled their linebacker corps by signing Angelo Crowell and moving safety Jermaine Phillips to weak-side linebacker. But the thought of facing Shockey and Gonzalez on a regular basis might make it difficult to pass on Matthews or Cushing. For that matter, the Bucs would have to think hard about Jenkins, if he's available.
Part of the reason for moving Phillips to linebacker was a desire to get Sabby Piscitelli into the starting lineup at strong safety. But is Piscitelli ready to line up against Shockey and Gonzalez?
The Falcons, who hold the No. 24 pick, have needs at defensive tackle, defensive end and cornerback. But they might have to put more emphasis on their needs at safety because of changing landscape of tight ends in the NFC South. Matthews, Cushing and Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas might have jumped up Atlanta's board in recent days.
Carolina doesn't pick until the second round (No. 59 overall) and the Panthers are in good shape at outside linebacker. They've got some big needs on the defensive line, but they might not be able to sit still at safety in the second or third round. Strong safety Chris Harris isn't known for his coverage skills and second-year pro Charles Godfrey still is trying to grow into the free safety job.
How NFC South defenses try to counter the upgrades at tight end is one story line to follow throughout the draft. Here are four more NFC South story lines to follow.
What happens with Julius Peppers? This situation has been simmering in Carolina for months and it could be ready to boil over. Peppers has said he wants out of Carolina and the Panthers have said they want him back.
But Peppers has strapped Carolina's cap situation with his $17 million franchise tag. If some other team steps forward with a deal that includes a first-round pick, the Panthers almost have to take it. The alternative is to hang on to Peppers at his current price and the Panthers are ready to do that.
In that situation, the common assumption is that Peppers has no choice but to put in another season with the Panthers. But don't assume anything with Peppers. This thing has never been about money and Peppers is a very unique individual. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he would hold out and pass on the $17 million.
Will Sean Payton be able to keep his hands off the offense? That's not going to be easy for the New Orleans coach. Payton's background and passion is on the offensive side, but his future is on the defensive side. As tempting as it may be to draft Wells to give the Saints a power back, Payton may have to go outside his comfort zone.
The defense is the reason the Saints haven't made the playoffs the last two seasons. They've spent the offseason overhauling the defense. Now, it's time to finish the job. Payton has switched defensive coordinators and that pulls away a layer of insulation on his own job security. If defense keeps this team out of the playoffs again, it might be Payton's turn to take the fall.
Are the Bucs really content with their quarterback situation? Kansas State's Josh Freeman is at least a consideration in the first round. But Tampa Bay has so many other needs that it might not make a lot of sense to take a quarterback who might not be ready to play right away.
The Bucs signed Byron Leftwich and he certainly is a candidate to start. But think back to one of the first moves coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik made when they took over. They re-signed Luke McCown and paid him pretty good money. There was a reason for that. Morris and Dominik want McCown to be their starter.
Can Atlanta rebuild its defense in one draft? That's pretty much what the Falcons have to do after parting ways with Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy, Grady Jackson, Domonique Foxworth and Michael Boley. The Gonzalez move means that the Falcons will focus almost their entire draft on defense, except for possibly adding a little depth on the offensive line.
Atlanta's only addition on defense was adding linebacker Mike Peterson. There's some good, young talent in place with defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Chris Houston.
But the Falcons need some more young talent on this defense. They need to walk out of this draft with at least two defensive starters.
New York Jets
- Newark Star-Ledger reporter Dave Hutchinson writes Kellen Clemens and Brett Ratliff find it refreshing not to answer Jay Cutler questions.
- Newsday's Erik Boland talks with defensive end Marques Douglas, who ranks third in tackles for loss over the past six seasons.
- New York Daily News beat writer Rich Cimini reports running back Leon Washington is confident he'll get a new contract hammered out.
- Todd Archer of the Dallas Morning News says the Cowboys can't lose restricted free-agent receiver Miles Austin, who's visiting the Jets.
- Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News reports Terrell Owens plans to be around the Bills facility more than everybody expected.
- Tampa Tribune reporter Ira Kaufman catches up with former Bills linebacker Angelo Crowell, who revisits his controversial knee surgery.
- Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote insists the Dolphins must re-sign Jason Taylor -- and now.
- South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter Shandel Richardson writes Taylor's not in a rush to find employment.
- Miami Herald columnist Armando Salguero blogs the Dolphins' needs might not match their priorities heading into the draft.
New England Patriots
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
After a rather quiet start to free agency, the NFC South suddenly is making a lot of noise.
On the heels of Tampa Bay's signing of linebacker Angelo Crowell earlier Wednesday, ESPN's John Clayton now reports the New Orleans Saints have agreed to contract terms with veteran safety Darren Sharper.
This move could go a long way in solving the secondary woes New Orleans' defense has had the last two seasons. Sharper is 33, but hasn't shown any real signs he's slowing down. He immediately gives the Saints a quality starter at free safety and a big upgrade over Kevin Kaesviharn.
Sharper's arrival comes after the Saints signed free-agent cornerback Jabari Greer. That gives the Saints two established veterans, who will step right into the starting lineup. Sharper also should help make strong safety Roman Harper better. Harper's best at playing the run and in short coverage. Because of other problems in the secondary, Harper often had to help out in deep coverage last year and that's not his strength.
New coordinator Gregg Williams suddenly has some pretty good options in the secondary. Cornerback Tracy Porter is coming back after suffering an injury near the midpoint of his rookie year. Cornerbacks Randall Gay and Usama Young also will be in the mix.
Although Sharper's arrival would suggest the Saints might now go with a defensive lineman, linebacker or running back in the first round of the draft, don't rule out possibilities like defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins and Vontae Davis with the No. 14 picks. Recent history has shown you can never have enough quality defensive backs.
Besides, Sharper's bound to slow down at some point. It might not be a bad idea to draft someone like Jenkins, who could be a cornerback or a safety. The Saints could draft him and bring him along slowly for a year.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
|Rich Kane/US Presswire|
|Ex-Bill Angelo Crowell should take Cato June's place at strongside LB.|
First impression? Nice move by the Bucs and it starts to clear up some of the clouds on their defense. Crowell was a productive strongside linebacker in Buffalo and the Bucs presumably will play him at the same spot. This also comes on a day when it became public the Bucs are going to take a look at strong safety Jermaine Phillips moving to weakside linebacker.
Barrett Ruud stays in the middle. Essentially, what the Bucs are doing is replacing Cato June with Crowell and Derrick Brooks with Phillips, although there are fallback options like Quincy Black, Adam Hayward and Geno Hayes. But those guys likely will end up as backups.
There was outrage when the Bucs let Brooks, the best player in their history, go on Feb. 25. They let June go that same day and there were at least some raised eyebrows on that move.
Well, now, the other shoes have fallen. I think Crowell can be a slight upgrade over June. As far as Phillips, it's impossible to know how he'll fare in a new spot, but he has the potential to do some good things. He'll never be the Brooks of four or five years ago, but he might be able to become as good as Brooks was the last year or two.
The Phillips move also means the Bucs can get Sabby Piscitelli onto the field as the starting strong safety. At times this offseason, it's looked like the Bucs didn't really have a plan. But, gradually, it's coming together and they're filling their needs.
They still could use a cornerback and at least one defensive tackle, but there's still time to work on that. There's also a chance the Bucs will re-sign veteran defensive end Kevin Carter. Take care of all that and that basically leaves quarterback as the only glaring need.
Anybody want to talk some more about Jay Cutler?
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Another fairly quiet day in the NFC South. But there are a few mid-level free agents making the rounds. Here's a quick roundup of the local headlines.
D. Orlando Ledbetter reports linebacker Mike Peterson will visit the Falcons at some point this week. We hear he's arriving in Atlanta tonight and the Falcons will talk to him about the possibility of switching from the middle to outside linebacker.
Bill Coats reports fullback Mike Karney, who was released by the Saints, will visit with the St. Louis Rams.
Long snapper Jason Kyle wants to stay in Carolina, but that may be difficult. The Panthers don't have much cap room and, even at the veteran minimum, Kyle will cost almost $1 million a year. Kyle's had some contact with the Cardinals and he lives in Arizona in the offseason. But the Panthers should think long and hard about letting Kyle go. He's been with them since 2001 and almost never has had a bad snap.
Roy Cummings writes the Bucs had cornerback Karl Paymah in for a visit Monday and will entertain linebacker Angelo Crowell on Tuesday.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Best match: LB Angelo Crowell
While letting linebackers Keith Brooking and Michael Boley and cornerback Domonique Foxworth walk, the Falcons have been the NFC South's quietest team in free agency. General manager Thomas Dimitroff cautioned that the Falcons won't be big players.
But Atlanta can't sit still forever. The big moves likely will come through the draft, but there are some guys out there who the Falcons could move on to start patching some holes. There are some fans calling out for Derrick Brooks. But that doesn't make a lot of sense in the plan of Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith. They just let a veteran linebacker (Brooking) go. It would make more sense to add a younger linebacker like Crowell.
Best match: WR Ike Hilliard
The saga of disgruntled franchise player Julius Peppers is the big story for Carolina, but it's likely to drag on. Peppers' $17 million franchise tender has the Panthers strapped for cap room. If Peppers gets traded, the Panthers probably will seek his replacement with the first-round pick they'd like to get in return.
But there is some other business the Panthers can take care of in free agency. They could use a little depth at wide receiver. They've got one of the best in Steve Smith, but Muhsin Muhammad is aging and Dwayne Jarrett remains an uncertainty. Again, the Panthers don't have a lot to spend, but a veteran receiver like Hilliard won't cost a lot. The Panthers had a great deal of success when they brought in Ricky Proehl a few years back. Hilliard is very similar to Proehl and could solidify the receiving corps nicely.
Best match: S Darren Sharper
Re-signing linebacker Jonathan Vilma was the first key move of free agency. But even though the Saints don't have a lot of cap room to work with, they're not sitting still. They know they still have big needs in the secondary and they're working hard in that area.
They've got an offer in to cornerback Ron Bartell and are courting Sharper and Gerald Sensabaugh, a pair of safeties. Something should play out with those players in the very near future and that could be a huge boost to a defense that's rebuilding with new coordinator Gregg Williams. Add Bartell and either of those safeties to the current roster and -- at least on paper -- the defense suddenly looks a lot better.
Best match: RB Derrick Ward
The free-agent frenzy so many expected hasn't materialized -- yet. The Bucs made a strong run at Albert Haynesworth before he landed with the Redskins and made an attempt to trade for quarterback Jay Cutler. They still may be in the market for Cutler or another quarterback.
But there are other big needs to be filled in the meantime. After trading for tight end Kellen Winslow and placing the franchise tag on receiver Joey Galloway, the Bucs still are looking to load up at the skill positions and it appears running back is the next target. The Bucs don't have much besides Earnest Graham and they know it. They've got Ward scheduled for a visit Tuesday and also are considering Kevin Jones. Look for the Bucs to make a big play for Ward. They've been cautious with the purse strings so far, but they have lots of cap room to work with. They can't afford to keep finishing second for prized fre
New England Patriots
- The Boston Herald's John Tomase reports the Patriots are working on a contract extension for defensive lineman Vince Wilfork.
- Boston Globe reporter Christopher L. Gasper takes a closer look at why quarterback Matt Cassel is in demand.
- Providence Journal reporter Shalise Manza Young wonders if Tom Brady's rehab confidence will hurt Cassel's trade value.
- The Buffalo News' Mark Gaughan talks with offensive coordinator Turk Schonert about Trent Edwards' development.
- Gaughan also reports the Bills likely will lose Jabari Greer and Angelo Crowell to free agency.
- Miami Herald columnist Armando Salguero expects the Dolphins to focus on center now that right tackle Vernon Carey is under contract.
- Brian Biggane of the Palm Beach Post takes a look at the AFC East heading into free agency and the draft.
- Andy Kent of MiamiDolphins.com catches up with some Dolphins at a charity softball game.
New York Jets
- New York Daily News reporter Rich Cimini thinks the Jets could release right guard Brandon Moore to clear extra room for free agent linebacker Ray Lewis.
- Vinny DiTrani of the Bergen Record writes about new coach Rex Ryan's unbridled confidence.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
- Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News reminds us Bills owner Ralph Wilson is known for sacrificing assistant coaches.
- Injured linebacker Angelo Crowell finally explains himself months after deciding to have surgery, and Buffalo News reporter Allen Wilson is there.
- Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reporters Sal Maiorana and Leo Roth debate how far away the Bills are from the playoffs.
- South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist Dave Hyde takes a look at Bill Parcells' role with the Dolphins and the out clause that could make him a free agent.
- Miami Herald columnist Israel Gutierrez writes, despite all the Dolphins have accomplished, they "can't seem to shake that skepticism."
- Palm Beach Post columnist Greg Stoda writes Parcells should do the responsible thing and stay two more years.
- The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports Patriots vice president of football operations Scott Pioli is interested in the Cleveland Browns' vacancy.
- Boston Globe columnist Tony Massarotti wonders what will become of quarterback Matt Cassel, whose contract is up.
- Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley tries to make heads or tails out of the conflicting Tom Brady health reports.
- The Patriots are taking a positive look at not making the playoffs: They could use the rest, writes Boston Globe reporter Christopher L. Gasper.
|Rich Kane-US PRESSWIRE|
|Will the Bills regret hastily placing LB Angelo Crowell, last year's leading tackler, on injured reserve?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
In a bizarre sequence of events, the veteran linebacker elected to have knee surgery three days before the season opener. The Bills, incensed at the timing and fuming over left tackle Jason Peters' holdout, placed Crowell on injured reserve.
Just like that, the Bills scratched last year's leading tackler for the season. They did so even though Crowell's recovery would have lasted five weeks at the longest. He could have played 11 games and the postseason.
The Bills' decision screamed of vindictiveness from emotions already inflamed by Peters' absence. Crowell was on the final year of his contract. Letting him rot will curtail his value on the free-agent market.
But who did the Bills really punish, the player or themselves?
"I'm advising Angelo to take the high road and not respond to some inaccurate comments coming out about him," Crowell's agent, Todd France, told me Friday night.
The matter essentially was brushed aside by other news. The next day, Peters agreed to report to the Bills, ending a prolonged saga that hovered over the team for weeks. Then the Bills beat the Seattle Seahawks on the same afternoon the AFC East broke wide open with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's buckled knee.
Crowell became an afterthought. The Bills moved his locker stall from a place of prominence to a corner location befitting practice squad players, and everybody went about their business in Orchard Park.
"No one is going to quit on me," Bills owner Ralph Wilson told Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan after the Seahawks victory.
Crowell won't need the locker. He went home the day the Bills ended his season. He hasn't been back since and doesn't intend to return.
Noted sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews this week performed the operation on Crowell's left knee, which had been bothering Crowell since last season. Crowell is rehabbing in Pensacola, Fla.
France said the procedure was more intensive than the one Crowell would have undergone to get him back on the field sooner. But when the Bills ended Crowell's season, he decided he might as well get the works.
While Andrews isn't the type of doctor who would cut on an athlete for no reason, the Bills claimed Crowell didn't need the surgery. The Bills felt blindsided by his decision even though he struggled through training camp and played only one preseason game.
Adding to the odd situation, though, was the fact Crowell practiced the day before he revealed his intention to have surgery and was not listed on the injury report.
"No player wants to be out any amount of time or have surgery in any season, much less his free-agency year," France said. "At this point, he's dealing with it as best he can. He's trying to stay positive and get 100 percent healthy for next season."
The Bills could have waited to see how Crowell's knee responded to the surgery. They could have kept him on the roster while he recovered, which is what they did last year with backup defensive end Ryan Denney, who broke his foot in preseason and missed the first seven games.
Instead, they banished him to the corner.
Tackles aren't an official NFL stat, which is why there's a discrepancy between the Bills' number for Crowell (140) and NFL.com's (126). Either way, he led the team last year. He also recorded two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.
Keith Ellison is a decent replacement and won't hurt the Bills' defense by being on the field, but for a team that hasn't made the playoffs a franchise-record eight straight seasons, why throw away a top player so hastily?
The only way Crowell would not have made the Bills a better defense down the homestretch would have been unforeseen complications.
The Bills have an unblemished record. But that doesn't mean that haven't already made a major mistake.