NFL Nation: Chris Gamble

It’s trendy and fun to debate which NFC South team has the best offense.

Is it Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints or Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons? Heck, you can even look at all the offensive talent Carolina and Tampa Bay have and throw the Panthers and Buccaneers into the conversation.

But trendy and fun will only get you so far. Even in this day and age, you still must play defense once in a while. Especially if you’re a team in the NFC South. The division teams must face each other twice, as well as Seattle’s Russell Wilson, New England’s Tom Brady and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick this season.

Maybe the more practical and important debate is: Which team has the best defense in the NFC South? No defense in the division was great last season. To win the division -- or do much of anything else -- this season, some NFC South defense must at least be halfway decent.

So which defense is the best?

I’m not going to even venture a guess right now because there are too many variables that must play out. I can see reasons why any of the four defenses could be the division’s best. I also can see reasons why each couldn’t.

Let’s take a look at the ceiling and the floor for each of the NFC South defenses:

ATLANTA FALCONS

[+] EnlargeUmenyiora-Rodgers
Brad Penner/US PresswireAtlanta will be counting on former Giants star Osi Umenyiora to help upgrade the team's pass rush.
Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: Coordinator Mike Nolan is one of the game’s better defensive minds. His defensive system might really take hold in Atlanta in his second season. Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is a budding star and is the centerpiece. The Falcons got a little younger at defensive end by replacing John Abraham with Osi Umenyiora.

Nolan might get a little more creative and use some more 3-4 looks. He also might be able to get more aggressive because he has fresh legs at cornerback after the Falcons drafted Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are emerging as one of the league’s best safety tandems. There’s enough talent for this defense to be very good.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: The Falcons were No. 24 in total defense (No. 21 against the run and No. 23 against the pass) last season. Umenyiora is on the downside of his career, too, and it’s not as if the Falcons have a lot of other proven pass-rushers.

The young cornerbacks could take some lumps early on. Problems covering the tight end were exposed in the playoffs last season, and the rest of the league got to watch.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: In terms of pure talent, I think Carolina has the best front seven in the division. The arrival of rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei could put the Panthers over the top. Lotulelei is the kind of wide body who’s going to make everyone around him better.

Lotulelei is going to keep blockers off linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. He also is going to take blocking away from defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, who already were pretty good at getting after the quarterback.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: As much as I can see the front seven being very good, I can see the secondary being very bad. Veteran cornerback Chris Gamble is gone, and I don’t see anything close to a true No. 1 cornerback on this roster. The picture isn’t much brighter at safety.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: New coordinator Rob Ryan is going to bring swagger and an aggressive attitude. That can only help a unit that ranked No. 32 in total defense last year.

More importantly, Ryan is going to bring a 3-4 scheme. That’s the defensive system that seems to be having leaguewide success these days. The Saints have some good individual talent on defense with players such as end Cameron Jordan and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro should make an immediate impact.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: The defense was a mess under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo last season, and I’m not sure simply changing schemes will solve everything. Outside of Vaccaro and cornerback Keenan Lewis, it’s not as if the Saints have added a lot of big-time talent this offseason.

It could take more than one season for Ryan’s defense to really turn the corner.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: On paper, I think Tampa Bay might have more talent than any other defense in the division. After ranking No. 32 against the pass last season, the Bucs went out and got cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Johnthan Banks and safety Dashon Goldson. Linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy already are very good.

If young defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers can step up, this could be a solid defense in all areas.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: It seems as if the Bucs are pinning a lot of their hopes on Clayborn and Bowers. Both have already dealt with injuries and are not that experienced.

If the pass rush isn’t effective, all those upgrades in the secondary might not matter very much.

Little money for NFC South CBs

April, 3, 2013
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If you want to make serious money, you probably don’t want to be a cornerback in the NFC South right now.

With the departures of Dunta Robinson and Chris Gamble, there just aren’t many highly-paid cornerbacks left in the division.

I just did a quick sampling of NFC South cornerback salaries (including bonuses) for this year and only Atlanta’s Asante Samuel ($4.95 million), New Orleans’ Keenan Lewis ($7 million), Jabari Greer ($4.15 million) and Patrick Robinson ($800,000), Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn ($1.1 million) and Tampa Bay’s Eric Wright ($7.75 million) are scheduled to make more than the minimum salary, which varies depending on the number of accrued seasons a player has. And it’s important to note that Wright is likely to either take a cut in pay or get released before long.

This is all shocking for a division that’s full of high-powered offenses. Right now, there’s no clear-cut best cornerback in the division.

That leads me to believe that all four teams might not be done making moves at cornerback. Carolina doesn’t have a No. 1 corner on its roster. Neither does Atlanta. Greer and Lewis might be all right in New Orleans, but the Saints need some insurance in case Robinson has a repeat of last year. Outside of Wright, Tampa Bay has a bunch of young, no-name corners.

That’s got to change. We’re going to see some corners taken early by NFC South teams in the upcoming draft and that could bump up the pay scale.

Of course, there’s one other scenario hanging out there that could change the cornerback pay scale. If Tampa Bay ever gets around to trading for Darrelle Revis (and I think there still is a decent chance of that), the Bucs will have to work a long-term deal to pay him more than any other cornerback.
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at whether each NFC South team has been a winner or a loser in free agency:

Atlanta Falcons: The process is far from over, but the Falcons are winners so far. They made a significant upgrade to their running game by signing Steven Jackson to replace Michael Turner. That alone made the offense instantly better than it was last season. I also like the way the Falcons have kept their own, re-signing potential free agents Sam Baker and William Moore, and coaxing tight end Tony Gonzalez back for another season. If the Falcons can re-sign cornerback Brent Grimes at a reasonable price and add a pass-rusher, this would look like a team without any holes.

Carolina Panthers: You have to call the Panthers losers in free agency so far, unless you want to give them credit for leading the league in signing mediocre defensive backs (Mike Mitchell, Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore and re-signing Captain Munnerlyn). I didn’t expect the Panthers to be big players in free agency, because their salary-cap situation prohibits that. The Panthers had to let go of No. 1 cornerback Chris Gamble because of the salary cap. That was inevitable, but replacing him with a slew of No. 3 cornerbacks doesn’t generate much hope or excitement.

New Orleans Saints: Despite a tight salary-cap situation, the Saints have been winners so far. Yes, they have a major hole to fill after losing left tackle Jermon Bushrod via free agency. But the Saints have pulled rabbits out of hats on their offensive line in the past, and they can do it again. The upside is that the Saints made themselves a lot better at cornerback by adding Keenan Lewis, and at tight end with the addition of Benjamin Watson. Lewis is a player with lots of upside, who should provide much-needed help for the secondary. The Watson signing probably hasn’t received as much praise as it deserves because people assume he’ll be nothing more than a backup to Jimmy Graham. But coach Sean Payton is crafty, and I expect Watson to play an important role in the passing game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: You have to call the Bucs winners because they got Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson right out of the gate. That was a great start, but the Bucs have been quiet since then. Can they afford to let every quality free-agent cornerback go elsewhere as they wait to see if the New York Jets blink in their talks about a trade for Darrelle Revis? It’s also somewhat bizarre that the Bucs were so willing to let defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Roy Miller leave as free agents even though they didn’t get big money. The Bucs will tell you that Bennett and Miller were “just guys" and they might have a point. But Bennett and Miller must have been doing something right, because the Bucs ranked first in the league in run defense last season.

Panthers getting deeper at CB

March, 19, 2013
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D.J. Moore wasn’t quite the magnitude of player I had in mind when I wrote earlier Tuesday that a run on big-name cornerbacks is coming in the NFC South.

But Moore, who played nickel back for Chicago last season, has been signed by the Carolina Panthers.

Along with Josh Thomas and Josh Norman, the Panthers should have some good young talent at cornerback. Moore can be the nickel back or maybe even contend for a starting job. He also should be a fan favorite because he went to high school in Spartanburg, S.C., where the Panthers hold training camp.

Moore’s signing may be an indication the Panthers aren’t expecting to re-sign Captain Munnerlyn, who has similar size and skills.

The Panthers now have some depth at cornerback and the competition among Moore, Thomas and Norman could prompt one or more of them to step up. But the Panthers, who previously released veteran Chris Gamble, don’t have a true No. 1 cornerback.

More and more, I’m thinking Carolina will use its first-round draft pick on a cornerback.

Panthers make a little noise

March, 13, 2013
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The Carolina Panthers, who began free agency quietly, finally are making some noise.

They’ve signed veteran cornerback Drayton Florence and re-signed backup quarterback Derek Anderson.

Although Florence is 32 and started only three games with Detroit last season, he at least gives the Panthers some instant experience at cornerback. The Panthers recently released veteran Chris Gamble. Florence likely will compete with youngsters Josh Norman and Josh Thomas for the No. 2 and 3 cornerback spots. But it still is likely the Panthers will look for a true No. 1 cornerback in the draft or later in free agency.

In re-signing Anderson to a one-year deal, the Panthers kept continuity in their quarterback situation. Cam Newton clearly is the franchise quarterback, but Anderson has been his backup the past two seasons. Anderson’s return probably means Jimmy Clausen is headed for his third straight year as the No. 3 quarterback after starting much of his rookie year.

NFC South free-agency primer

March, 11, 2013
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» NFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Atlanta Falcons
GENERAL MANAGER: Thomas Dimitroff
HEAD COACH: Mike Smith

Cap status: The Falcons freed up a nice chunk of cap room by releasing John Abraham, Michael Turner and Dunta Robinson. But they've used much of that to re-sign their own free agents.

Strategy: Atlanta's philosophy is to keep its core together. Still, the Falcons are usually good for one or two significant moves per offseason. There is a bit of salary-cap room to work with and more could be created with some contract restructures. The Falcons have several areas of need, most notably at defensive end and running back. It would be difficult for Atlanta to get a top-notch pass rusher with the 30th overall pick in the draft. That's why I suspect the Falcons could make a splash move to bring in someone such as a Cliff Avril, Dwight Freeney or Osi Umenyiora.

Carolina Panthers
GENERAL MANAGER: Dave Gettleman
HEAD COACH: Ron Rivera

Cap status: The Panthers had to work like crazy just to get under the salary cap. They're already facing salary-cap nightmares for 2014, so I wouldn't expect a big spending spree.

Strategy: This is Dave Gettleman's first free-agency period as a general manager, so we don't know his tendencies. But the cap situation assures that he won't be making a bunch of huge signings. Still, the Panthers have more needs than they'll be able to fill in the draft, so they may have to dabble a bit in free agency. They might not be able to get a top-notch cornerback in the middle of the first round of the draft. They need a No. 1 cornerback after releasing Chris Gamble, so they may have to look for one in free agency.

New Orleans Saints
GENERAL MANAGER: Mickey Loomis
HEAD COACH: Sean Payton

Cap status: The Saints spent the past few weeks digging out from a cap mess, so they don't have a lot of room to work with.

Strategy: Even with the cap situation, it has never been the style of general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton to be complacent. They'll be creative and aggressive in free agency. They have to retool a defense that was the worst in the league last year and they're switching to a 3-4 scheme. They need players that can fit that scheme, particularly a pass rusher or two. They also could use some help in the secondary. The Saint also may be in the market for a left tackle if they're unable to prevent Jermon Bushrod from leaving via free agency.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
GENERAL MANAGER: Mark Dominik
HEAD COACH: Greg Schiano

Cap status: The Bucs are the one team in the division that doesn't have to worry much about the cap. They're entering free agency with more than $30 million in cap room.

Strategy: The Bucs have major needs at cornerback, and I'm expecting them to do something dramatic, whether it's trading for Darrelle Revis or signing a significant free agent. The Bucs could even end up trying to get two starting cornerbacks out of free agency. And it won't stop at cornerback. The Bucs also could use help at tight end, slot receiver, outside linebacker and depth on the defensive line.

If you're hoping your NFC North teams adds a cornerback and/or safety, you'll want to review ESPN.com's redesigned and now updated Free Agent Tracker for some context on a series of moves Friday that added significantly to a marketplace that in essence opens in a matter of hours.

Our guys at Scouts Inc. now rate Chris Gamble, released by the Carolina Panthers, as the top cornerback available in free agency. Another veteran cornerback without a team is Aaron Ross, who was let go by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Meanwhile, two starting-caliber safeties were released Friday as well: The Arizona Cardinals' Adrian Wilson and the Jaguars' Dawan Landry.

With Louis Delmas set to test free agency, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, the Lions would seem to be in the market for a safety. The same could be said at cornerback if they do not re-sign Chris Houston. A safety wouldn't be a bad idea for the Minnesota Vikings or Chicago Bears, either.

Remember, teams can start negotiating with pending free agents (or, at least their agents) after midnight tonight. No deals can be official until Tuesday. We'll keep you updated.
In their Insider Offseason Playbook seriesInsider, Gary Horton and Field Yates propose a solution for Carolina’s problems in the defensive backfield.

They suggest the Panthers go out and sign free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib.

On the surface, that may sound like a big stretch. The Panthers don’t have much salary-cap room and Talib’s checkered past usually isn’t the kind of thing owner Jerry Richardson likes.

But this one is intriguing because it could fill a very big need. Veteran cornerback Chris Gamble is expected to be a salary-cap casualty. That would leave the Panthers very thin at cornerback and there’s no guarantee they can land an impact cornerback in the middle of the first round of the draft.

Despite his off-field issues, there’s no denying Talib is a talent. He might be an instant upgrade over Gamble and he’s way better than any other cornerback the Panthers have. The cap is an issue. But the Panthers should be able to restructure some contracts to create cap room for Talib -- if they really want him.

Eight in the Box: Biggest cap casualty

February, 22, 2013
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week’s topic: Who will be each team’s biggest salary-cap casualty this offseason?

Atlanta Falcons. There already have been reports that the Falcons are likely to release veteran running back Michael Turner. He is scheduled to count $8.9 million against the cap and the Falcons could free up $6.9 million by releasing him. Turner is 31 and clearly isn’t the same runner he was earlier in his career. The Falcons could put the added cap space to good use as they try to keep safety William Moore, cornerback Brent Grimes and left tackle Sam Baker from leaving via free agency.

Carolina Panthers. Chris Gamble is the team’s best cornerback, but it seems impossible for the Panthers to keep him and his $10.9 million cap figure. The Panthers could free up $7.9 million by releasing Gamble.

New Orleans Saints. Although there have been reports the Saints might try to keep defensive end Will Smith with a restructured contract, that might be impossible to do. Smith has a $14.5 million cap figure, including $9 million in base salary and his recent production doesn’t align with those numbers. In a normal restructure, numbers get moved around, but the player still ends up making the same amount of money. In Smith’s case, it’s likely he’ll have to take a big cut in pay to stick around.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs are roughly $30 million under the cap at the moment, so it’s not like they need to release anyone for cap purposes. But cornerback Eric Wright appears to be a likely casualty. His suspension last year voided his salary guarantee for this year. That means the Bucs could instantly clear $7.75 million by releasing Wright.

NFC South cap update

February, 13, 2013
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We now are less than a month away from the start of free agency, which is when all teams have to be under the salary cap.

Two NFC South teams already are under, but two are well over a salary cap that’s expected to be a little more than $120 million. No division team has made any major releases or done much in the way of restructuring contracts this offseason, but that’s going to change in the coming weeks.

So, let’s take a look at what the NFC South teams currently have committed toward the 2013 salary cap. If these numbers look slightly different than some others you’ve seen floating around, it’s only because I’m using only the top 51 salary-cap figures for each team. Only the top 51 count during the offseason.

Atlanta Falcons. They’re at $118.8 million. That’s under the cap, but not by much. The team has to clear some room if it’s going to re-sign potential free agents Brent Grimes, Sam Baker and William Moore. Michael Turner and Dunta Robinson could be candidates for release or restructuring. Oh, by the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Falcons give quarterback Matt Ryan a contract extension, which also could free up some cap room.

Carolina Panthers. They’re sitting at $135 million. New general manager Dave Gettleman is in a tough spot. Veterans like Jon Beason, DeAngelo Williams and Chris Gamble appear to be prime candidates for release, trade, or restructuring.

New Orleans Saints. They have $141.6 million committed toward the cap. Veterans Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Will Smith all have high cap figures and could be released or restructured.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They have the division’s best cap situation, thanks in large part to the restructures for Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks before last season ended. The Bucs will be players in free agency. But their first priority should be to re-sign potential free agents Michael Bennett and Roy Miller. They also might want to keep about $4 million available in case safety Ronde Barber decides he wants to return for another season.
Dave Gettleman said almost all the right things as he officially was introduced as the general manager of the Carolina Panthers on Tuesday.

He talked about how he’s confident how he can work with coach Ron Rivera and staff the team already has in place. He talked about how his philosophy is similar to that of former general manager Marty Hurney.

“You have to build through the draft," Gettleman said. “You raise your own. You fill in with unrestricted free agents."

And he talked about how his past experiences should help him with the Panthers.

“I’ve learned from some great, great people," Gettleman said. “I feel more than ever with the background I have and the different philosophies I’ve employed and learned from and the different ways there are to build a team that this is absolutely the perfect fit for me."

But the one thing Gettleman didn’t want to talk about was Carolina’s messy salary-cap situation.

“I need more information, very frankly, I’m not going to say something silly," Gettleman said.

All right, let’s give Gettleman some information. The Panthers currently have $131.7 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that’s likely to be around $120 million.

The Panthers have a bunch of veterans with high salary-cap figures. I left out guys like quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly and center Ryan Kalil, who aren’t going anywhere. But here’s a list of guys that Gettleman will have to look at and make decisions on restructuring or releasing:
Gettleman said he soon will begin the process of sitting down with Rivera, the coaching staff and personnel department and making decisions.

“The most important thing you have to do when it comes to the cap is you have to do is put the proper value on the player,’’ Gettleman said. “You get into trouble when you overpay. The litmus test on the cap is when the ink is dry and you’re not happy then you made a mistake.’’

There’s no doubt the Panthers made some mistakes in recent years. While Gettleman emphasized he’ll use a team approach, he said he’s not afraid to make the tough decisions.

“If it’s a situation where I have to make a unilateral decision, that’s part of the gig,’’ Gettleman said.

Gettleman better get used to that in a hurry because Carolina has to make some painful cap decisions between now and March.
The Carolina Panthers added plenty of scouting experience Wednesday when they hired Dave Gettleman as their new general manager.

“I was very impressed with Dave’s experience and think he will be a very good fit for our organization,” Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said. “He has an extensive background in personnel and comes from an organization in the New York Giants that I hold in high regard and he played an instrumental role in their success.”

There’s no denying Gettleman’s experience in scouting. Gettleman spent last season as the Giants’ senior pro personnel analyst after spending the previous 13 seasons as the director of pro personnel.

Gettleman, 61, also worked in the scouting departments for the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos at times when those organizations were going to Super Bowls.

That’s all great, but Gettleman is going to have to be more than a scout in this job. Gettleman is inheriting a coach (Ron Rivera) that he didn’t hire. And, as I pointed out Saturday, Rivera already is very much on the hot seat for the 2013 season.

Gettleman and Rivera have to get on the same page quickly. Just a suggestion here, but Gettleman might be wise to learn from the mistakes of predecessor Marty Hurney. If you’re going to invest a ton of money on one position (like running back), you might want to make sure Rivera and his staff plan to place some importance on that position.

But that’s not going to be the only challenge Gettleman is going to face. As I pointed out last week, the Panthers are in a brutal salary-cap situation. Gettleman is going to have to become a salary-cap wizard in a hurry because he’s going to have to trim about $15 million between now and the start of free agency in March.

He’s going to have to make some tough calls on veterans such as Jon Beason, Chris Gamble, DeAngelo Williams, Ron Edwards and Jordan Gross. Once the Panthers are under the gap, I don’t know that Gettleman’s experience with pro personnel is going to come in all that handy with free agency.

That’s only because the Panthers aren’t going to have any room to pursue free agents. They’re going to subtract some veterans from their roster and replace them through the draft.

Gettleman is going to have to be much more than a scout to get this team straightened out. He's going to have to be a jack-of-all trades and pull things together quickly because this team hasn't won since 2008 and patience is wearing very thin.

Carolina's nightmare cap situation

January, 3, 2013
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We took a look at the New Orleans Saints’ salary-cap situation. It’s far from ideal, but at least the Saints have some obvious ways to free up cap space.

But I’m now looking at the numbers for the Carolina Panthers, and it sure looks like they’re in a much worse situation than the Saints. There simply aren’t a lot of easy escape routes for the Panthers.

[+] EnlargeDeAngelo Williams
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesDeAngelo Williams' contract is among those contributing to the Panthers' salary-cap issues.
I don’t know if former general manager Marty Hurney deserves all the blame or if he was acting on orders from above, but the contracts given to guys like DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Steve Smith, Jon Beason, James Anderson and Charles Godfrey in recent years have left the Panthers in a real salary-cap mess.

Whoever ends up as the new general manager is going to have his hands tied in a lot of ways, because most of those contracts include so much guaranteed in base salaries and so much pro-rated money that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get out from under some of the team’s biggest contracts by releasing players.

The Panthers would lose cap space if they released Smith, Stewart or Godfrey. They’d basically break even on Anderson.

Beason and Williams could be candidates for release, but only if the Panthers designated them as June 1 cuts and spread their cap hit over two years, instead of one.

The Panthers currently have $136 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that is expected to be slightly more than $120 million. Let’s look at some guys who could be on the cap bubble.

Beason: The logical scenario for him is a contract restructure to knock his cap figure down. Beason currently has a $9.5 million cap figure and $3.75 million of his $5.25 base salary for this year is guaranteed. Beason also has $12 million in outstanding pro-rated money.

Williams: He has an $8.2 cap figure. He also has $9.6 million in outstanding pro-rated money. They only way the Panthers would benefit from releasing him would be to designate him as a June 1 cut and take a $4.8 million hit for him this year and the same in 2014.

Chris Gamble: It’s sad to say, but the Panthers almost have to cut their best cornerback, because he can provide more cap relief than anyone on the roster. Gamble has a $10.9 million cap figure. The Panthers could free up $7.9 million by releasing him.

Jordan Gross: The Panthers could clear up $6.7 million by releasing him, but I don’t think that’s practical. Do you really want to leave Cam Newton without a left tackle to protect his blind side. Good left tackles usually don’t hit the free-agent market, and the Panthers have too many other needs to use their first draft pick on a left tackle. They can restructure Gross and knock his $11.7 million cap figure down a good bit.

Ron Edwards: The aging and often-injured defensive tackle almost certainly will be gone. The Panthers instantly would clear $2.5 million by releasing him.

Jimmy Clausen: A lot of people assume the third-string quarterback will be gone. But there is no cap space to be gained by releasing Clausen, because his base salary ($575,000) is guaranteed and he still has $322,500 in pro-rated money. Besides, backup Derek Anderson is scheduled to become a free agent. The Panthers aren’t going to have the room to re-sign him. They might as well keep Clausen and bump him up to No. 2 on the depth chart.

Haruki Nakamura: The Panthers signed him as a free agent in 2012, and Nakamaura didn’t really work out. The Panthers could free up $1.8 million by releasing him.

The bottom line here is the Panthers are in a brutal spot. They're not going to be able to do much of anything to improve themselves in free agency. They're going to be subtracting from their roster, and the only viable way to add to it will be through the draft.

Looking at 2013 cap space

January, 1, 2013
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With the 2012 regular season over, let’s take a look at where the NFC South teams stand in relation to the 2013 salary cap.

Atlanta Falcons: They have $113 million committed toward a cap that is expected to be slightly more than $120 million. Don’t expect a free-agent frenzy from the Falcons, because they could use most of their cap room to re-sign cornerback Brent Grimes and left tackle Sam Baker. The Falcons won’t be getting much help from carry-over money, because they finished the 2012 season a league-low $425,000 under the cap.

Carolina Panthers: The new general manager will have his work cut out for him, because the Panthers have about $136 million committed to the cap. That number could be knocked down a bit, because the Panthers had $3.5 million in remaining cap space for 2012. But Carolina still is going to have to make some tough decisions on veterans like Chris Gamble, Jon Beason and DeAngelo Williams.

New Orleans Saints: The Saints have the NFL’s second-highest amount committed toward the 2013 cap at $138.5 million. Only the Jets ($142 million) are higher. The Saints can carry over about $2.4 million in space. It’s going to be a very challenging offseason, because left tackle Jermon Bushrod can become a free agent and the Saints might have to part ways with or restructure the contracts of veterans like Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Roman Harper and others.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Thanks to some shrewd moves just before the end of the 2012 season, the Bucs are in the best cap shape of any team in the NFC South. After restructuring the contracts of Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks, the Bucs are sitting at about $96.3 million. They also should add some space when carry-over amounts are factored in before free agency starts in March, because they finished the 2012 season $8.5 million under the cap. However, some of that cap space could be taken up before March, because several players are believed to have triggered escalator clauses in their contracts that have yet to be factored in, and the Bucs are likely to try to re-sign defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Roy Miller before they can depart as free agents. The Bucs also could free up $7.75 million if they release cornerback Eric Wright, whose guarantee of that amount in base salary was voided when he was suspended for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.

All-NFC South midseason team

November, 7, 2012
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NFC Midseason Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

All four division teams have played eight games, so that means it’s time for our All-NFC South midseason team.

Before we roll out the chart, let’s talk about a few significant matters that came up in choosing this team.

In recent years, the New Orleans Saints have dominated every time we’ve done any sort of midseason, postseason or preseason all-star team. That’s not the case this time, and there’s a very good reason for it. The Saints no longer are dominating the NFC South – or much of anything outside the controversial news headlines. Not even Drew Brees, the best player in NFC South history, made the team. How could he? Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is undefeated and is mentioned in every conversation for most valuable player. Also, when it comes to the rest of the team, how each team is faring factored heavily into who made the team. You’ll notice this team includes quite a few Falcons.

Speaking of the Saints, you’ll notice they don’t have a single defensive player on the team. I gave a lot of thought to including middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who has been perhaps the only bright spot on the New Orleans defense. Lofton has done his job and been as solid as he can be. But I just couldn’t bring myself to include anyone from a defense that has a shot at being -- statistically -- the worst in NFL history.

As long as we’re on the subject of linebackers, this was the toughest position to pick on the entire team. Atlanta’s Sean Weatherspoon was an automatic choice. After that, I put Lofton in a group with Tampa Bay’s Mason Foster and rookie Lavonte David and Atlanta’s Stephen Nicholas, then I agonized for a bit. I chose Nicholas, partly because the Falcons are undefeated but mostly because he’s a player who has always had good athleticism and was always in place to make big plays in the past. But, this year, Nicholas is actually making the big plays. After that, it came down to a brutal choice between David and Foster. I like everything about David and think he could be a regular Pro Bowler. But I’m going with Foster because I get the feeling the Tampa Bay coaching staff has been more than pleasantly surprised with his huge jump from a confused rookie to a second-year player who is running the defense.

Speaking of the Bucs, I included guard Carl Nicks even though he went on injured reserve after seven games. Nicks won’t be on the end-of-season All-NFC South team, but I’ll take what he did in seven games over what any other guard in the division has done in eight games.

While we’re on the topic of offensive linemen, let’s talk about center. There’s no question Carolina’s Ryan Kalil is the best center in the division, maybe in the entire NFL. But he went on injured reserve early. That’s why I’m going with Atlanta’s Todd McClure. The veteran might have seen better days, but he still is playing at a pretty high level.

When you look at the chart below and see Atlanta left tackle Sam Baker on it, don’t laugh. I know he has had his problems in the past, but he is having a very solid season and his team’s record helps. I also went with Carolina’s Jordan Gross as the other tackle. He made it by only the slightest of margins over Tampa Bay’s Donald Penn. But part of it is that Gross deserves a lifetime achievement award, plus I needed to get a little Carolina representation on the team.

Speaking of Carolina, some of you might not be happy that defensive end Charles Johnson isn’t on the team. He has decent numbers, but he hasn’t been as consistent as a guy who is making a pile of money should be. I went with Atlanta’s John Abraham because he’s flat-out better than Johnson, and I took Tampa Bay’s Michael Bennett as the other defensive end because he’s been much more consistent than Johnson and is doing that while making the NFL’s minimum salary.

Finally, let’s talk about the secondary. This one took some thought because Carolina’s Chris Gamble is on injured reserve and my policy of no Saints on the defense eliminated New Orleans’ Jabari Greer. That left me little choice at cornerback. I went with Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson, who has been better than he was the past couple of years, and teammate Asante Samuel, who might no longer be great but clearly isn’t in steep decline. Tampa Bay safety Ronde Barber is 37, but he also clearly isn't in any sort of decline in his first season after switching from cornerback. Barber was an easy choice. The other safety spot wasn’t easy. It came down to Atlanta’s William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, who both are having very nice seasons. I went with DeCoud because he has made a few more big plays.

Now, on to the NFC South midseason team:

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