NFL Nation: Brad Hoover
The Panthers keep saying he is a fullback and then rave about his versatility. Throw in the fact that Tolbert carried the ball 121 times for San Diego last season and it’s understandable where the confusion stems from.
But the days of Hoover and former coach John Fox are long gone. This is the second year for coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who never will be confused with former coordinators Dan Henning or Jeff Davidson. One of the first things Rivera and Chudzinski did this offseason was reach back into their past. Both previously were assistants in San Diego and they went out and lured Tolbert to Carolina.
Rivera and Chudzinski know Tolbert well and they have a clear vision of how they want to use him. He’ll block for Williams and Stewart at times, but that’s not all Tolbert will be asked to do.
“I think the different things 'Chud' has him incorporated in as far as running the ball and catching the ball and blocking, splitting him out and moving him around and those types of things, I think those are positives,’’ Rivera said. “When you have a guy that versatile, it helps your football team.’’
That still may sound a bit vague, so I asked Tolbert to describe the role he expects to play for the Panthers.
“Just a versatile player that helps in any way I can -- special teams, fullback and running back," Tolbert said. “I pride myself on being able to do it all. Letting my game evolve over the last four years in San Diego has really helped me to get to where I’m at today.’’
You could make a case that Carolina’s backfield already was overcrowded before Tolbert arrived. Williams and Stewart, who each have been 1,000-yard rushers in the past, had to share carries last year in an offense that suddenly turned pass happy with rookie quarterback Cam Newton. Stewart was on the field for 55.2 percent of the offensive plays, while Williams took part in 42.7 percent of the plays. In San Diego, Tolbert took part in 44.4 percent of the Chargers’ offensive plays.
But Tolbert insists there is enough room for all three backs to get plenty of playing time and he throws out some scenarios that Carolina fans might have trouble picturing right now.
“I think we mesh well together,’’ Tolbert said. “They are different types of backs. DeAngelo is more the slicer and Jonathan is more of the power guy and I kind of fit in between. It’s going to be fun for all of us to get in the backfield at the same time or myself with DeAngelo or with Jonathan or just one out of there at times. It’s going to be fun to put it all together and see what happens.’’
All three of them in the backfield at the same time? Tolbert playing tailback in a single-back set?
Yeah, it’s all possible. We’ll have to wait until the fall to really see it. But you’re going to see some unique things out of the Carolina backfield in 2012. Don’t believe me? Think back to last year when Chudzinski first arrived. Did anybody really expect to see Newton throwing for 400 yards in each of his first two games?
Of course not. But this is a different Carolina team and as we move into the second year of Chudzinski’s offense, we’re going to see it evolve even more.
I’m heading out to the practice field shortly to catch another session of Carolina’s minicamp. I’ll be back with more this afternoon.
Surprise move: The Panthers waived fullback Tony Fiammetta, their starter last season and the man who had the misfortune to replace fan favorite Brad Hoover. Fiammetta didn’t do a lot to endear himself to the old coaching staff and that didn’t change after Ron Rivera took over.
The Panthers recently went out and signed Jerome Felton. Presumably, Felton will move right into the starting lineup. Being the lead blocker for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart could make him look pretty good.
No-brainers: The Panthers released defensive tackles Nick Hayden and Corvey Irvin, who had gotten a fair amount of playing time in recent years. That leaves them with only three defensive tackles, which was the weakest spot on the roster the last few years. There was no sense holding onto Hayden or Irvin because the Panthers already knew they weren’t the answer. This is a position where the Panthers are far from done. Although they have high hopes for rookies Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, they’ll take a look at who else around the league is available. It’s a safe bet they’ll sign a defensive tackle -- maybe two.
What’s next: In addition to defensive tackle, there’s still work to do on this roster. General manager Marty Hurney was very aggressive coming out of the lockout. Look for him to jump back into that mode quickly. The Panthers need a starting right guard after placing Garry Williams on the injured-reserve list. They could also use help at cornerback and wide receiver.
Walking into the stadium, I came past Al’s Caps & More, a souvenir stand on College Ave. They had a pretty good selection of Peppers jerseys, and they’re only $29, roughly a third of what more current jerseys are going for. Also on the clearance rack, were a bunch of Jake Delhomme jerseys, also $29 each. Apparently former Carolina fullback Brad Hoover still is a good bit more popular than his former teammates.
Hoover jerseys also were on the clearance rack, but they were priced at $45. on a side note, the owners of the souvenir stand were happy to report they sold their last Maake Kemoeatu Carolina jersey this morning.
All right, I’ll be back in a bit with today’s inactives.
You might have already read my thoughts on this topic here and here. So I won’t run through that again. I’ll just summarize and say Fox made the only choice he really could have and let’s all be thankful he announced it today, instead of dragging it out all week.
Now, a few more thoughts on Clausen and the Panthers. Don’t expect Clausen to just come in and make everything better in Carolina. That doesn’t happen with rookie quarterbacks. Besides, the Panthers have lots of other issues that have to be fixed and we’ll touch on a few of those a bit later.
But it’s the right move to go ahead and get Clausen on the field, because the Panthers are in an all-out youth movement and it’s time to find out if he’s the guy they want to build around. Honestly, if you told me to name one person who will be in Carolina’s building next year (and I’m talking coaches, players and front-office workers), I’m thinking Clausen is the safest bet. Go ahead and roll him out there and see what you’ve got.
However, it might be nice to give the kid some help, and that goes to the other issues I mentioned above. Did you happen to notice Carolina had only three receivers active in Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay? One of them was Steve Smith, who is an elite receiver. The other starter was rookie David Gettis, a sixth-round draft pick. The third receiver was Dwayne Jarrett and "active"’ is a relative term for one of the biggest busts in Carolina draft history.
Jarrett actually played, but the Panthers didn’t even throw a pass his way -– and I’m not disagreeing with that choice. But now that the Panthers are fully into this youth movement, they might as well go ahead and throw rookie Armanti Edwards on the game-day roster. Yeah, I know Edwards is a project because he was a college quarterback at this time a year ago. But let’s face it, this whole team is a project.
Speaking of other issues, how about the running game? It hasn’t been horrid, but it has been far from dominant. Has the absence of injured right tackle Jeff Otah or the departure of veteran fullback Brad Hoover really made that much of a difference?
Oh, and that defensive line that was so stellar in the preseason? It still hasn’t produced a sack. The Panthers have only one sack, and that came from linebacker Dan Connor in the opener.
Does that add up to a sudden quarterback controversy for the Carolina Panthers? Not just yet. I’ll explain why as we run through seven observations from Thursday night’s preseason game between the Panthers and Baltimore Ravens. By the way, for those who actually track preseason results, the final was Baltimore 17, Carolina 12.
1. Clausen looked very NFL ready, at least until the rain started. He made some nice throws and seemed to have a good sense of awareness. But let’s remember a few things. Clausen was playing against Baltimore’s backups and the Panthers pretty much decided Moore’s performance at the end of last season earned him the right to open this regular season as the starter. Clausen landed some jabs, but nothing close to a knockout punch.
2. Moore was far from horrible. He wasn’t spectacular, but he did some nice things. Something else to keep this in perspective -- Moore was playing against a very good Baltimore first-team defense. He also was doing it without receiver Steve Smith, right tackle Jeff Otah and running back Jonathan Stewart. All three are expected to be ready for the start of the regular season and they will make Moore a much better quarterback. Moore would have to absolutely bomb to lose the job now and he didn't do that.
3. What was the deal with Jordan Gross? The left tackle got called for three penalties in the first 12 minutes and that didn’t help Moore. I wouldn’t be too concerned with this and I doubt the Panthers are. Gross is one of the best left tackles in the league. He’s not going to have games like that in the regular season.
4. The pass rush is very much a work in progress. When it mattered with the first and second teams, the Panthers had stretches when they didn’t generate any pressure on Joe Flacco and Marc Bulger. But they also had a few flash plays where they did. The good news is veteran Tyler Brayton had two sacks on Flacco. The bad news is Brayton suffered some sort of ankle injury on his second sack. We don’t know the extent of that injury yet. The most encouraging news is rookies Greg Hardy and Eric Norwood showed some real flashes. If I’m John Fox, I let Brayton sit for most (or all) of the rest of the preseason. The Panthers know what they can get out of Brayton. They need to find out more about what they can get from Hardy, Norwood, Charles Johnson and Everette Brown.
5. Whoov? Like a lot of Carolina fans, I was more than a little concerned when the Panthers let fullback Brad Hoover go after last season. It was hard to find a fullback more dependable than Hoover. But I liked what I saw of replacement Anthony Fiammetta. He blocked well and looked good as a receiver out of the backfield.
6. Backup running back Tyrell Sutton had a few nice plays. But I wouldn’t go drafting him for your fantasy team. As long as DeAngelo Williams and Stewart are healthy, they’re going to get almost all of the carries. Besides, Sutton fumbled at the goal line and Fox isn’t big on giving the ball to guys who fumble.
7. Rookie Armanti Edwards will be a factor on offense, but not immediately. Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski both talked about how the former college quarterback is adjusting to playing wide receiver and implied it might take until about midseason for him to have much of a role in the offense. That’s the exact word I got from the Carolina brass when I visited training camp. But don’t be surprised if Edwards is handling punt returns sooner than that. That’s a new task for Edwards, too. But he showed he can catch punts, even in the rain, and the guy has the dynamics to make things happen in the open field.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In the kindest of terms, fans and media are referring to the Carolina Panthers as a team in a youth movement.
There’s some basis for that as they opened camp with the league’s third-youngest roster after saying farewell to popular veterans such as Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme and Brad Hoover.
In the harshest of terms, fans and media have referred to those departures as a “bloodletting’’ and are talking about the Panthers as a team without an identity, a team that’s not going to be very good.
Now, let’s turn to two guys who beg to differ.
“How do you say we’re going through a youth movement, when we beat those teams late in the season using the same key components?’’ running back DeAngelo Williams said. “People can say what they want to say. But we know what it takes to win and we have what it takes to win.’’
“The way I look at it is, I like our core guys,’’ linebacker Jon Beason said. “I think we have a great nucleus. Now we’re looking for a few good men, a few young guys who are talented. For those young guys, it’s an opportunity to come in and do great things.’’
Maybe Beason and Williams have valid points. They’re two team leaders with a pretty good feel for the pulse of the locker room. They also have impressive résumés. Williams was one of two Carolina running backs (Jonathan Stewart was the other) to run for 1,100 yards last season. Scouts, coaches and players everywhere will tell you Beason is one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
Can you really call the Panthers a team without a face?
That’s kind of a difficult statement to make when you look at Carolina’s roster and see Beason and Williams. Then, keep looking and you see Stewart, left tackle Jordan Gross, center Ryan Kalil, right tackle Jeff Otah, receiver Steve Smith and cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall. Those are all guys the Panthers view as core players. Look around the league and see how many teams have that many core players in place.
“There are question marks, sure,’’ coach John Fox said. “Anytime you have question marks, the expectations on the outside might not be that high. But on the inside, we know we’ve got some very good core players and those core players are going to have to have big seasons.
THREE HOT ISSUES
Sure, that’s not the longest of track records and the Panthers did draft Jimmy Clausen in the second round. But this isn’t the Carolina camp of 2001, where the Panthers were kind of expecting Jeff Lewis to fail and to hand the job to rookie Chris Weinke.
Williams’ point about the youth movement taking place last year might be right. Moore won this job with his play down the stretch and, so far in camp, the team’s confidence in him is only growing.
“Matt Moore is a gamer,’’ Williams said. “When he mentally locks in, the game comes easy for him. All quarterbacks in the league are pretty much the same. They can all throw the ball or they wouldn’t be here. The thing that separates the good ones from the bad ones is decision making. Matt Moore can make decisions. Matt’s going to be fine.’’
Let’s keep one other thing in mind. With an excellent offensive line, two very good running backs and Smith at wide receiver, Moore has a pretty strong supporting cast. He doesn’t need to be Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. He just needs to keep mistakes to a minimum and the job can be his as long as he wants.
2. Can the defensive line be any good? For much of Fox’s tenure, the defensive line has been the foundation of the team. But Peppers was the last in a line of supernovas that used to include Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner. There are no current stars on this defensive front.
But Fox and the Panthers don’t appear to view that as a bad thing. They’re not expecting any single guy to come in and replace Peppers. They believe they can get quality out of quantity and are hoping the defensive front can attack in waves. They’ve got high hopes for Charles Johnson and Everette Brown, and rookies Eric Norwood and Greg Hardy have been very impressive in camp. They brought back Tyler Brayton for a bit of continuity, but they feel they’ve got some pass-rushers who can emerge.
They also have a better feeling about defensive tackles Louis Leonard, Tank Tyler and Ed Johnson than a lot of people realize. This might not be the traditional Fox defensive front with a huge run-stuffer in the middle and a big name on the outside. But, keep in mind, the Panthers brought in Ron Meeks as defensive coordinator last year and his system is based more on speed than power up front.
“We were eighth in the league in defense a year ago with a new scheme,’’ Fox said. “It’s kind of early to tell, but we should be better with our scheme the second time around.’’
He’s a confident guy with a pretty solid résumé. He’s not losing sleep because he knows he can get another job if it comes to that. But he wants to make it work in Carolina, a place where his family has set down roots. Keep in mind, Fox never has had a truly bad season. There have been some disappointing years, but the record’s always been close to or above .500. He’s sometimes stumbled a bit when expectations were high, but he always has done his best job when people weren’t counting on much out of the Panthers.
Greg Hardy. The defensive end was a sixth-round draft pick because his college career didn’t end all that well. But the Panthers took a shot because they thought there was uncommon physical talent sitting out there late in the draft. So far, they feel as if they might have hit a home run. Hardy has looked great in camp. Coaches are noticing him and so are other players. There were some questions about Hardy’s ability to focus on football at the pro level. But so far, so good on that end. Brayton, Johnson and Brown are competing for the starting jobs, but Hardy appears to be carving out some playing time.
Dwayne Jarrett. As they’ve been doing for his entire career, the Panthers are hoping the light suddenly comes on for this wide receiver. He’s still running with the first team, but all indications are it’s just not happening for Jarrett. There’s still some work to be done and polish to be added, but the Panthers are starting to think rookie Brandon LaFell is their best option at the starting position opposite Smith. Jarrett basically is fighting for a roster spot at this point. The fact he’s still making mental mistakes this far into his career means there’s a good chance he’s gone before the preseason is over.
- As mentioned above, the Panthers are singing Moore’s praises and that’s all very legitimate. But behind the scenes, the Panthers also are thrilled with what they’ve seen from Clausen. His physical skills and mechanics are as solid as expected and Clausen’s doing everything right on and off the field. There’s not a sense of urgency to play him because Moore has looked so solid. But the Panthers believe they got a steal when they took Clausen in the second round.
- There’s been a lot of hype about third-round draft pick Armanti Edwards. Understandable because he was a college quarterback and came from Appalachian State, which automatically makes him popular in the Carolinas. The Panthers aren’t disappointed with Edwards by any means, but the reality is he’s just feeling his way as a receiver and a return man. Don’t look for him to be a huge contributor instantly. There’s big upside here because Edwards is so dynamic and he might be in a few packages early on. But it’s going to take some time for him to become a staple in this offense.
- The Panthers let go of Keydrick Vincent, who played every snap at right guard last season, for a reason. He was older and they had Duke Robinson waiting in the wings. Coaches, players and the front office believe Robinson can be a punishing run-blocker. Put him on the right side with Otah and the Panthers believe that side of the line can be just as good as the left, where Gross and Travelle Wharton are outstanding.
- If you’re looking for a long shot to make the roster, I’ll throw out Trent Guy’s name. This is a tiny wide receiver, but every time I looked up during my visit to Wofford College, Guy seemed to be making a play. He’s got rare speed and good hands, and also could be a factor in the return game.
- Thomas Davis, who had major knee surgery in June, has been hanging around at camp and working hard at his rehab. The Panthers haven’t ruled out a possible return for him later this season, but I don't see that happening for a guy who has torn his ACL twice in less than a year. The Panthers wouldn’t have moved Beason from the middle to the weak side unless they thought he’d stay there for the long haul. At the moment, they’re happy with what they’ve seen from Dan Connor in the middle and James Anderson on the strong side. That better stay that way because, aside from Jamar Williams, there’s no real depth at linebacker.
- A lot of people have questioned why the Panthers would take Beason out of the middle where he’s been such a dominant player. The answer is simple. Under Meeks, the Panthers run the “Tampa 2’’ defense. In that scheme, everything goes through the Will linebacker. Think Derrick Brooks.
I just looked at how many snaps each running back in the NFC South got last year and the results were interesting. In the case of the most used running back in the division, the result was surprising.
Let’s take a look at last year’s numbers on playing time for the running backs on all four teams (we’ll only delve into the significant ones), translate what that meant in 2009 and analyze what it could mean in 2010.
Tampa Bay: The Bucs ran a division-low 999 offensive plays and Williams was on the field for 593 of them. Derrick Ward, who was signed as a free agent, was out there for 34.7 percent of the plays and Earnest Graham, who made the transition to fullback, participated on 23.1 percent of the snaps. Ward really didn’t have the impact the Bucs hoped for, but they haven’t given up on him. Williams is firmly established as Raheem Morris’ No. 1 back, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bucs let Ward take away some of his snaps (but not carries) just to preserve Williams.
New Orleans: This might be the most interesting running back corps in the division because everyone talked so much about the three-headed backfield last year. That was true as Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell got relatively equal playing time. Of New Orleans’ 1,067 offensive plays, Bush was on the field for 389. Thomas was out there for 372 and Bell got 262 snaps. Bell is gone and you might see playing time for Bush and Thomas go up a bit, but only slightly because Lynell Hamilton, who played 5.9 percent of last year’s snaps, is likely to take on some of Bell’s load. One other interesting note here is that fullback Heath Evans took part in 23.1 of the offensive plays, despite missing almost half the season with injury. Evans is healthy now and I’d look for him to be on the field about 40 percent of the time.
Carolina: The Panthers have one of the league’s most dynamic combination in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The playing time numbers pretty much back up coach John Fox’s view that these two guys are equal. Williams was on the field for 46.5 percent of Carolina’s 1,053 plays and Stewart participated in 40.3 percent. That breakdown should be pretty similar in 2010, barring injury. The Panthers let veteran fullback Brad Hoover go in the offseason and that’s significant because he took part in 31.2 percent of the plays. Tony Fiammetta took only 10.3 percent of the snaps as a rookie last year and he’s going to have to step into Hoover’s role.
Atlanta: The Falcons ran 1,093 offensive plays this past season and their participation got really out of whack because of injuries to Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood. Jason Snelling wound up leading Atlanta’s backs with 497 (45.5 percent) plays. Turner was on the field for 335 (30.7 percent) and Norwood for 284 (26 percent). The Falcons don’t want to overuse Turner, who carried 385 times in 2008. But I think it’s a safe bet a healthy Turner will stay on the field for more than 30 percent of the plays in 2010. His mere presence brings a threat that should make things easier for the passing game. Snelling earned a role in this backfield, but if Turner and Norwood stay healthy, his playing time should dwindle. Turner and Norwood both are home run threats. Snelling is a big back, who is best suited as a blocker in passing situations and as a short-yardage runner.
Muhsin Muhammad, wide receiver, free agent. A lot of Carolina fans think one of the best players in franchise history will re-sign with the team. It’s a nice thought, but it’s probably not going to happen at a time when loyalty, which the Panthers have preached about so much, has disappeared. They cut Jake Delhomme, Brad Hoover and others because they were old.
Muhammad’s going to be 37 in May. He was somewhat productive last season and the Panthers have no other proven receivers on their roster beyond Steve Smith. Muhammad’s a good locker room guy, wants to stay in Carolina and probably would sign there for a very reasonable rate. But I wouldn’t anticipate any offer from the Panthers. That would be a complete reversal of all they’ve done this offseason. They’re intent on getting younger, and will be looking for wide receivers in the draft and maybe a young and cheap receiver in what’s left of free agency.
Muhammad probably will get signed by someone after the draft because he still wants to play and probably still has the skills to contribute somewhere. But it won’t be in Carolina.
Tampa Bay’s chances of getting one of the top-two defensive tackles in the draft. By all accounts, quarterback Sam Bradford had a great workout this week. That improves the chances of the St. Louis Rams taking him with the No. 1 overall pick. If that happens, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy won’t go No. 1 and at least one of them will be available at No. 3.
You can argue all you want about which defensive tackle would be a better fit for the Bucs, and there are strong cases for each of them. But if one of them is available at No. 3, the Bucs are in a no-lose situation. Either way, they’ll get a quality defensive tackle, which would be a major upgrade over what they currently have.
Guess what? There's no big bang coming. The plan already is in place. It's already playing out. No matter how much you want to scream about the departures of Jake Delhomme, Brad Hoover and all the rest and yell for flashy and fresh new troops, this really is nothing out of the ordinary for Carolina.
"Being heroes in March, April and May doesn't matter," general manager Marty Hurney said during a break at the NFL owners meetings. "It's during the season and what you're judged by is winning games. We have to see if we can win games and be successful. But I think we have a lot of confidence in our young players and that's what we're doing in our approach."
There, the hand that Hurney and coach John Fox are playing is on the table. There are no huge free-agency signings coming. There are no blockbuster trades on the horizon and chances are slim the Panthers are going to be jumping up into the first round of the draft.
Like it or not, the Panthers are going with what they have. Seriously. And, really, when you think about it, it's not all that much different than what Fox and Hurney have done throughout their tenure. What happened a few weeks back when Delhomme, Hoover, Maake Kemoeatu, Damione Lewis and Na'il Diggs were released, and Julius Peppers was allowed to walk into free agency, was not the "fire sale" many fans have called it.
"Whatever words you want to use, I think we have a philosophy that's been in place for several years," Hurney said. "I think our nucleus or our identity fits our formula of how we win games and have an identity for our football team. I think the key is to make the necessary changes year in and year out to not lose that identity or that winning formula."
Hurney's got a good point. If you really thought a quarterback who threw way too many interceptions, a couple of ordinary and aging defensive tackles and linebackers and a veteran fullback were the face of the franchise, you're missing the point completely.
"We feel we still possess that identity and that winning formula," Hurney said. "We have good depth on the offensive line. We have good depth at running back. We believe we have one of the best receivers in the National Football League. Yes, we do have a young quarterback. On defense, we lost a very productive defensive end, but we feel like we have young players ready to step in and we feel like our identity on defense still stands."
But Hurney admits there are questions with that young quarterback and at certain spots on defense. Let's start with the quarterback. I specifically asked Hurney if the Panthers really, truly, right hand in the air, are planning on going to training camp with Matt Moore as their starting quarterback.
Even though Hurney admitted the Panthers may do some things to solidify the position in what remains of free agency and the draft, the answer was a strong yes.
"We've seen enough to know he's taken care of the opportunities he's had," Hurney said. "Joe Gibbs always said at the quarterback position, when the lights go on, guys only get a few chances. When a guy gets that chance, he has to step up and take advantage of the opportunities. Matt Moore has done that in the opportunities he's had. That's the gauge for quarterbacks. They have to take advantage of the limited opportunities they have.''
Personally, this one’s kind of sad. I was covering the Panthers on a daily basis back when Hoover first made the team as an undrafted free agent. The guy carved out a very nice career for himself and did it with class.
As we reported at the end of the season, Hoover won the inaugural Tom Berry Good Guy Award, for being the Panther who was most helpful to the media doing its job. I recently nominated Hoover for the Pro Football Writers of America Good Guy Award, which will go to one player from all around the league.
» Draft class lists: Atlanta | Carolina | New Orleans | Tampa Bay
Examining the draft classes of each division team.
Tough luck department: Peria Jerry, defensive tackle and William Moore, safety. By the time October rolled around, Atlanta’s top two draft picks were already out for the season with injuries. The Jerry injury really set the defense back because the rookie was off to a good start. Without him, the Falcons haven’t been able to get much pressure on quarterbacks, and the cornerbacks have been hung out in coverage longer than the Falcons would like.
Mr. Upside: Lawrence Sidbury, defensive end. We’ve started to see a bit more of him in recent weeks and that trend will continue in the final two games. The Falcons knew Sidbury was an undersized project when they drafted him in the first round. But he’s started to show some progress in practice and the coaches believe he could be a factor in the future.
Jury’s still out: Christopher Owens, cornerback. The Falcons have had problems at cornerback most of the season and Owens wasn’t ready to be a savior right off the bat. But he’s getting more playing time recently. He has upside, but is another offseason away from truly being a factor.
Biggest surprise: Captain Munnerlyn, defensive back. He’s turned out to be one of the best choices of the seventh round. Munnerlyn has contributed in the secondary and as a return man.
Jury’s still out: Mike Goodson, running back. Remember all that preseason talk about the speedy runner from Texas A&M? Well, it hasn’t carried over into the regular season. The Panthers now are higher on undrafted rookie Tyrell Sutton.
Bust alert: Tony Fiammetta, fullback. If it seems like the Panthers have been drafting fullbacks ever since Brad Hoover arrived as an undrafted free agent early in the decade, it’s only because they have. But none of them have been able to get the steady Hoover off the field. Fiammetta got some playing time when Hoover was hurt, but didn’t show any signs he’s ready to take the job.
New Orleans Saints
Biggest surprise: Punter Thomas Morstead. The Saints took a beating from their fans when they traded up in the fifth round to take a punter. As it turns out, this was a brilliant move. Morstead has been excellent on punts and kickoffs. In fact, he might be the NFC South’s Rookie of the Year.
Jury's still out: Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins. The Saints took him with the 14th overall pick and there have been times when Jenkins has flashed first-round potential. Jenkins has been forced to play a lot lately because of injuries and he’s had ups and downs. His long-term future could be at safety.
Tough luck department: Defensive back Chip Vaughn and Stanley Arnoux. The Saints took the former Wake Forest teammates two picks apart in the fourth round and thought they’d be contributors on special teams at the very least. Unfortunately, both suffered season-ending injuries before they even got to the regular season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Biggest surprise: Wide receiver Sammie Stroughter. The Bucs took a shot on a kid who had some personal problems in college, but came with lots of upside. They hit this one out of the park. Although Stroughter will miss the final two games of the season with injury, he emerged as Tampa Bay’s most reliable receiver and also has return abilities.
Franchise man: Quarterback Josh Freeman. The Bucs declared him their franchise quarterback on draft day. Then, they sat Freeman for the first half of the season, which was wise because the rest of the team has been so bad. Since Freeman has been starting, he’s taken some lumps, but he’s also shown big-play ability, poise and a ray of hope for a franchise that hasn’t had many bright spots.
Keep an eye on: Defensive tackle Roy Miller. The third-round pick out of Texas was rotated in as a backup at first. But he’s been starting recently and the coaching staff is very high on him. The Bucs will rebuild their defensive line in the offseason, but Miller will be a big part of those plans.
The list of inactive players for Carolina includes receiver Kenneth Moore, defensive end Charles Johnson, safety Charles Godfrey, running back Mike Goodson, fullback Brad Hoover, guard Duke Robinson and defensive end Hilee Taylor. A.J. Feeley is the third quarterback.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Cowboys coach Wade Phillips didn't provide any further details regarding Marion Barber's left quadriceps injury, but as we reported Friday, it's unlikely he'll play against the Panthers on Monday. Meanwhile, Carolina will be without starting linebacker Na'il Diggs (rib), who missed his third straight practice Saturday.
The Panthers will also be without fullback Brad Hoover, strong safety Chris Harris and defensive end Everette Brown. I think Harris' injury is the most worrisome to coach John Fox. He's one of the smartest players on the team and he would've been responsible for keeping track of the Cowboys' talented tight ends, Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett. Obviously the Panthers will do everything they can to keep the Cowboys' offense off the field Monday. The best way to do that is to run the ball with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
The Cowboys were gashed in the running game by the Bucs for 174 yards in Week 1. Williams is one of those rare talents who can beat you inside or outside. The Cowboys have done a poor job on run blitzes at times. Players such as safety Ken Hamlin have to be under control when they blitz. Sometimes Hamlin comes too wide on the blitz, allowing big gains.
Everyone in the Cowboys' secondary has to do a better job of tackling this week. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh had a decent game. Everyone else really struggled. If you let Williams break a tackle, he's capable of taking it the distance on you. The Cowboys can't be quite as aggressive as they were in defending Brandon Jacobs last Sunday. Williams has a lot more wiggle, so you have to play under control.
I'm anxious to see the Steve Smith vs. Terence Newman battle. Smith burned Newman repeatedly in a 2003 playoff game, but Newman's come back and played well against Smith since then. I'm sure the Cowboys will roll coverage toward Smith in an effort to slow him down.
|G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images|
|After recording 14.5 sacks last season, Julius Peppers said he wanted out of Carolina. The defensive end eventually agreed to play for the franchise tender.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The good news is the Carolina Panthers were 12-4 last year and return 20 of 22 starters.
"We don't have any reason to be bad," All-Pro offensive tackle Jordan Gross said.
The bad news is coming off a winning season has never led to good things for the Panthers. In their short existence (the franchise began play in 1995), the Panthers never have been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons. That's a fact that weighs heavily on the minds of owner Jerry Richardson, head coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney.
The Panthers have won big at times -- making the Super Bowl in the 2003 season and the NFC Championship Game in the 2005 season -- but they've also followed up with some massive flops. Take the 2006 season, when they were the trendy pick to win the Super Bowl after adding the supposed missing link (Keyshawn Johnson). Instead, with injuries and locker-room dysfunction playing big roles, they were one of the NFL's most disappointing teams.
Preventing that kind of downturn this year is a big theme in Carolina's camp. Like Gross said, there really is no reason for the Panthers to be bad. The only starters they're missing from last year are cornerback Ken Lucas, who was getting older and was released in a salary-cap move, and defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu, who went out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon on the first day of camp.
Other than that, the Panthers look a lot like the NFC South champions of last year.
"There's no doubt that back-to-back winning seasons is on the front burner for us this year," Hurney said. "We've always said we wanted to be consistently competitive and we have been. But the next step is to win in back-to-back years. We started this in '02 by saying we wanted to draft well, develop young players and keep your core players. That philosophy is probably more evident now than at any time since we started this in 2002. We were able to keep the core players we identified over the past year and, now, as a result, I think we need our young players to step up and fill those holes as far as backups and depth."
The Panthers have kept the nucleus of last year's team together, re-signing Gross to a huge new contract, extending the contract for quarterback Jake Delhomme and forcing defensive end Julius Peppers to play for the franchise tender. But those moves have come at a high cost.
With almost no salary-cap room, the Panthers didn't sign a single player in free agency and they watched as some key backups walked away. Depth is a question mark almost everywhere. Carolina has a very good starting lineup. But is that enough to give the Panthers back-to-back winning seasons?
"It starts with having enough depth to sustain," Hurney said. "Different things happened in different seasons in the past. But drafting well and having a young base is really important as far as staying ahead of the game and not having to go out in free agency and bring in guys a lot. If you draft well and bring those guys up, you have a continuity in there that should keep you competitive. Continuity is a result of bringing in the right guys from the start."
At the 10-year anniversary of the ESPN The Magazine cover of Mike Ditka and Ricky Williams posing as bride and groom, the NFC South -- which didn't even exist back in 1999 -- has another wedding.
"I am married to him,'' Morris said when he was asked if drafting the quarterback meant the two were going to be married. "There's no 'going to be.'''
That's only a slight stretch. At very least, Morris and Freeman are going to be linked to each other for eternity and they hope this union ends up better than the Ditka-Williams nuptials.
The Saints, who have spent much of the past decade trying to recover from that, didn't have nearly as big a ceremony. They took the methodical approach and, just like the Falcons and Panthers, focused heavily on defensive needs.
The Saints took defensive back Malcolm Jenkins in the first round and the Falcons selected defensive tackle Peria Jerry. The Panthers didn't have a first-round pick in this draft, but they traded next year's choice away to get Florida State defensive end Everette Brown in the second round.
In a way, all four teams now are wed to their top picks.
|Matthew Sharpe/Getty Images|
|Drafting Ole Miss tackle Peria Jerry was a safe bet for the Falcons.|
He may not have the kind of upside that Freeman, Brown and Jenkins do, but there is little or no downside. Jerry already is what he is. He's a run stopper and a player whom every other team in the NFC South would have been happy with if they had drafted him.
The Falcons got him by patiently waiting for Jerry to come to them. His job will be simple. He'll be expected to come in and take up space in the middle of the defensive line. That's something the Falcons needed after letting veteran Grady Jackson leave.
Coach Mike Smith, who built much of his resumé with Marcus Stroud and John Henderson in the middle of Jacksonville's defensive line, wasn't able to completely build the type of front four he wanted in his first season. This is a big step in getting there because Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux, who was signed to a contract extension midway through last season, have the skills to make Atlanta solid in the middle for a long time to come.
Nothing else is even remotely close to the Freeman selection when it comes to risk. When you draft a franchise quarterback, something the Bucs hadn't done since Trent Dilfer in 1994, you're obligated to try to build your team around him.
The result almost always is either great or terrible. I'm not doing the math here, but it seems like for every Matt Ryan, there are two or three Joey Harringtons or David Carrs. Tampa Bay's own history with first-round quarterbacks isn't spectacular. Doug Williams worked out for a short stay, but Vinny Testaverde and Dilfer never really prospered in Tampa.
At a time when patience isn't a strong point for most NFL owners, Morris is staking his future on a quarterback who came out of college a year early and is viewed as a raw prospect by a lot of personnel people.
Most surprising move
Carolina trading its 2010 first-round pick to get Brown in the second round this year. That's a gutsy move, but it also is risky. It worked out well last year when the Panthers traded this year's first-round pick to get offensive tackle Jeff Otah. But you can't go without first-round picks for too long without sacrificing talent. But there still is a lot of time between now and next year's draft and I'm guessing the Panthers probably will try to parlay defensive end Julius Peppers into a first-round pick (and more) after this season.
File this away
How many guys does it take to replace Nick Goings? Apparently, two. Goings wasn't a name, but he had a very nice run with the Panthers as a role player, getting time at running back, fullback and on special teams. The Panthers released him in a salary-cap move after last season, but they recognized that created several voids.
That's why they went out and used fourth-round picks on Texas A&M's Mike Goodson and Syracuse fullback Tony Fiammetta. Goodson has some return skills and, like Goings, can catch the ball out of the backfield and provide some depth behind DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Fiammetta is a blocker and might be able to provide some relief for Brad Hoover.