NFL Nation: Clifton Smith

Observations on the Buccaneers

August, 28, 2010
8/28/10
11:09
PM ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- Time for some observations on the Bucs from their 19-13 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

  • [+] EnlargeJosh Johnson
    Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesBackup quarterback Josh Johnson had a decent start in place of injured Bucs starter Josh Freeman.
    The Bucs showed some signs of having a bend-but-don’t-break defense. That’s super. But let’s keep it in perspective. Jacksonville’s offense, minus Maurice Jones-Drew, isn’t going to break any defense.
  • Rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy looked pretty good. He got good pressure on David Garrard on an incompletion in the second quarter. Right after that, McCoy did a nice job running Garrard out of bounds after a snap sailed over the quarterback’s head. That play resulted in a 10-yard loss.
  • Where else might the Bucs get a pass rush from? Believe it or not, Kyle Moore was in Garrard’s face as he threw a second-quarter interception (more on that in just a second). Looks like Moore’s going to have a starting job.
  • On to the previously-mentioned interception. It was made by (drum roll please) … Barrett Ruud. Yep, the middle linebacker made the kind of big play he needs to make to get himself that big contract he wants. Ruud even ran 80 yards after making the grab. Do that in the regular season a few times and Ruud's wish will come true.
  • Return man Clifton Smith, who missed a chunk of last season after concussion problems, fumbled the first time he touched the ball this preseason. Not really a good sign for Smith because the Bucs have other options in the return game.
  • Josh Johnson had decent numbers (9 of 14 for 122 yards) while starting in place of injured starting quarterback Josh Freeman. But I still don’t think it would be a bad idea for the Bucs to pluck a legitimate backup quarterback off the waiver wire before the season starts.
  • Then again, maybe the Bucs are just like the Vikings. After all, they’ve got a quarterback who spent virtually all of training camp hanging out in Mississippi. That’s Jevan Snead, the guy they cut on the first day of training camp and re-signed when Freeman got hurt.
  • I thought the biggest positive for the Bucs was rookie receiver Mike Williams. He’s been making big plays since he arrived in Tampa Bay. It’s great when he can do that with Freeman, but it’s even more impressive that he’s still making big plays when he’s catching passes from another quarterback.
  • The Bucs just gave an injury update on Sabby Piscitelli, who went down in the fourth quarter. The team said he has a mild concussion.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 30

TAMPA, Fla. -- New construction in these parts largely has halted due to the economic situation over the past couple of years. So what’s that structure going up on the practice fields right behind One Buccaneer Place?

It’s the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There still is a lot of work to be done. But, unlike last year, you can see a foundation. Just look at the quarterback, Josh Freeman. When it comes right down to it, he really is all the Buccaneers are looking at. Yeah, guys like Gerald McCoy, Donald Penn, Barrett Ruud and Aqib Talib might also be viewed as possible cornerstones in the blueprints. But Freeman is the 6-foot-6 beam the Bucs are counting on to support this entire franchise.

Count last year as a redshirt season for Freeman and the Bucs. The team went 3-13 and Freeman really didn’t get to play until the second half of the season. Now, he’s been through an entire offseason. Now, the offense is his. Now, it’s time for Freeman and the Bucs to grow and make some sense out of the youth movement the franchise decided to begin last year.

“The most obvious thing that I hope people are noticing is we are giving Josh Freeman tools around him that he can grow with,’’ general manager Mark Dominik said. “We have Kellen Winslow and the tight end is important whether you have a young quarterback or an experienced one. And we wanted to put in a receiving corps that can grow together so their timing can be consistent. When you look back through NFL history, you see that consistently with the successful teams. You put two or three receivers together with the same quarterback for five, six or seven years and they become a timing machine and that’s what we wanted to do.’’

To that end, the Bucs drafted receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams in the first four rounds. They also traded for receiver Reggie Brown and they still have Sammie Stroughter, who might have been the steal of last year’s draft class.

Yeah, the Bucs also did some work on the defense. They used their top two draft picks on defensive tackles McCoy and Brian Price in an attempt to stop getting abused by running games. Their linebackers aren’t bad and the secondary has some potential. This defense isn’t anything close to the defense of Tampa Bay’s glory days, but it has possibilities.

The offense isn’t anything like in the glory days and that’s the way the Bucs want it. With Freeman, the Bucs believe the offense can be better than it ever has been. The belief is Freeman can be the first true franchise quarterback this team has had since Doug Williams.

The potential is there and the Bucs have put some parts around Freeman. Now it’s time for him to put this franchise on his back.

“Nothing can replace game time,’’ Dominik said. "But I will say, for an offseason, for a young quarterback, I could not have asked for more. He did everything we expected and more. I don’t remember him missing an offseason day and he was a sponge in the meeting rooms. His leadership has come through in that way. He’s got a natural charisma that you see guys want to bond with him and follow him.’’

THREE HOT ISSUES

Mike Williams
Gary Rothstein/Icon SMIRookie Mike Williams appears to be on track to earn a starting job.
1. What’s the receiving corps going to look like? That still is being sorted out, but Williams, the fourth-round draft pick, appears to be on his way to a starting job. He’s shown a knack for big plays ever since his arrival and seems to have developed a quick chemistry with Freeman. Benn started a little slower, but has come on of late. But Brown might open the season as the other starter.

Pair Williams and Brown with Winslow and Freeman suddenly might have a better cast of receivers than he did late last year when No. 1 receiver Antonio Bryant was pouting his way out of Tampa Bay. The Bucs have been cautious with Winslow and his knee throughout camp, but the belief is he’ll be ready for the regular season and that will provide Freeman with a go-to guy.

But the Bucs aren’t going to be running the West Coast offense they did with Jon Gruden and they certainly aren’t going to use the ball-control system that Tony Dungy ran. They’ve got a quarterback with big-play ability and they’re going to take their shots down the field. Williams, Brown and Benn all can go downfield and make catches in the possession game. But the real downfield threat might be Stroughter. He had an excellent rookie season, already has a rapport with Freeman and can make a lot of things happen as the slot receiver.

2. How much will the arrival of the two rookie defensive tackles help? McCoy and Price should be an instant upgrade over former starters Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims, who got pushed all over the field last year. The Bucs also plan to use Roy Miller in the rotation. That’s a pretty promising trio of young defensive tackles.

But it remains to be seen if this group can be dominant right from the start. The standard for defensive tackles in Tampa Bay is Warren Sapp. He might be ticketed for the Hall of Fame, but the fact is Sapp struggled as a rookie and took time to develop into a force.

The Bucs think McCoy should be fine from the start. Price got off to a great start in camp, but an injury has forced him to miss some time and that may set him back a bit. The Bucs are going to ask a lot of McCoy, Price and Miller. They want them to clog things up against the run and free up Ruud to make plays. They also need a strong interior pass rush because there’s no real force on the outside. Ready or not, McCoy and Price will have the opportunity to shine right from the start.

Raheem Morris
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIThings have been quieter in Raheem Morris' second offseason as the Bucs head coach.
3. Is this team headed in the right direction with coach Raheem Morris? The Bucs were in a state of chaos through much of last year. Morris fired coordinators Jeff Jagodzinski and Jim Bates early, changed defensive schemes early in the year and ran a quarterback competition that’s only real purpose was to make sure Freeman didn’t get on the field too soon. The results weren’t pretty.

But Morris’ second offseason has been one of peace and quiet and it only takes a few brief glances out at the practice field to see that the Bucs are much more organized than last year. Morris knows he made mistakes last season and he’s learned from that.

He’s running the defense now and believes he put Freeman in good hands with offensive coordinator Greg Olson and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. The Bucs still may need another offseason to get the talent level to where they really want it, but there are some parts in place and Morris needs to start showing some progress.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Aqib Talib, cornerback. The physical talent always has been there with Talib. But his first two seasons were rocky because of off-field issues and a feeling that he wasn’t always focused on football. However, the coaching staff is quietly buzzing because a new side of Talib has emerged throughout the offseason and carried over into camp. He’s more focused and more mature. The Bucs are keeping their fingers crossed on this one, but there is a belief that Talib can become a Pro Bowler very quickly if he stays on his current path.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Stylez G. White, defensive end. The Bucs know White never has been a very good practice player. But they thought he might come in with some inspiration this camp because he has a chance to be the top pass-rusher on team that doesn’t have any proven star in that area. That hasn’t happened. White’s been very ordinary in practice and doesn’t seem interested in being a leader for a young defensive line. Is that enough to cost him a starting job? Probably not because the Bucs really don’t have much behind him. They’re hoping White steps things up when the regular season arrives, but they’re a little worried that might not happen.

[+] EnlargeWard
Steve Dykes/US PresswireDerrick Ward has struggled to make an impact since his arrival in Tampa.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Bucs signed running back Derrick Ward to a big contract last year, but that move hasn’t worked out at all. Cadillac Williams has a firm grip on the No. 1 spot on the depth chart and is a favorite with the coaching staff. Ward is not. He’s been unimpressive throughout his time with the Buccaneers and could not hold onto the ball in the first preseason game. Kareem Huggins has outperformed Ward in camp and probably will earn a roster spot. That’s something that’s no longer a guarantee for Ward. But Huggins is undersized and the Bucs may have to hold onto Ward as insurance because Williams has a long history of injuries.
  • If you’re looking for the strongest unit Tampa Bay has, look at the linebackers. Geno Hayes and Quincy Black have had fantastic camps. Ruud already was pretty good and should be helped by the arrival of the young defensive tackles.
  • The competition for the job at nickelback is ongoing. Elbert Mack held that role last year, but the Bucs would like to find an upgrade. E.J. Biggers has shown some flashes and could unseat Mack. Rookie Myron Lewis is the guy the Bucs really hoped would claim that spot. But he’s been sidelined with an injury and the lack of practice time might prevent him from getting immediate playing time.
  • Michael Clayton and Sims are two veterans on the bubble when it comes to roster spots. Sims has gone from being a starter to fighting for the fourth spot at defensive tackle. He might hang on just to give the team some experience in the interior and he’s not going to cost the Bucs a fortune because he’s scheduled to make $1.2 million. Clayton clearly isn’t going to be a starter. He’s got $3 million in guaranteed salary this year, so the Bucs may keep him and hope to get something out of their investment. But it won’t be much more than a fourth or fifth receiver and special-teams player.
  • With all of the buzz about Huggins, Clifton Smith has been somewhat forgotten. But don’t rule out the possibility of Smith getting some time in the backfield, mainly as a situational player. Smith has the ability to make things happen in the open field and the Bucs may use him as a receiver out of the backfield. Smith is coming back from concussion problems last season and he should solidify the return game. Smith made the Pro Bowl as a return man as a rookie in the 2008 season.
  • Look for Keydrick Vincent to claim a starting guard spot from Jeremy Zuttah. Vincent started in Carolina last year and is a solid run blocker. Put him with center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph and the Bucs can be very good in the interior of the line. Zuttah might be best suited to serving as the top backup at both guard spots and center.

NFC South training camp preview

July, 23, 2010
7/23/10
11:57
AM ET
The good news for the New Orleans Saints is they are defending Super Bowl champions. The bad news is that’s not a great spot to be in in the NFC South.

The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl, and the 2003 Carolina Panthers, who lost it, didn’t even make the playoffs the following year. Since the division came into existence in 2002, there has been no such thing as a dynasty in the NFC South. No team has won the division crown in back-to-back seasons.

The Saints, who already have re-written history, will have to do it again if they want to stay on top. But the Atlanta Falcons might not be far behind, the Panthers have enough talent to be dangerous and the Buccaneers almost have to be better than last season.

We’ll find out soon enough if anyone can challenge the Saints. The test begins next week when all four NFC South teams report to training camp.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

Falcons: What does John Abraham have left?

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Falcons are confident defensive end John Abraham still has something left in the tank.
For the past couple of years, the 32-year-old defensive end has been one of those guys who doesn’t practice all the time because the Falcons go out of their way to keep him healthy and fresh. That plan isn’t likely to change this season, but the Falcons will be keeping a very close eye on Abraham in camp.

His sack total dipped from 16.5 in 2008 to 5.5 last season. The obvious question is if Abraham is on the last legs of his career. Despite the statistical evidence, the Falcons believe there’s something left. After closely watching film of Abraham from last season, the coaches firmly believe Abraham can get back to double-digit sacks. Part of their thinking is he’ll benefit from improved play from the interior of the defensive line and that Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury are ready to generate pressure from the other side. Recent history has shown the Falcons are willing to make deals late in the preseason (trading for cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Tye Hill) if they feel they have a weakness. But they’re hoping Abraham shows enough in camp to convince them the pass rush will be adequate.

Panthers: What must Matt Moore do to win the starting quarterback job?

A lot of people believe this training camp will be highlighted by a battle between Moore and rookie Jimmy Clausen. That’s not really the case -- or at least not how Carolina’s brass views the situation. The truth is the Panthers are going to camp with every intention of Moore being the starter. He earned that much by playing well at the end of last season.

Coach John Fox isn’t about to open the season with a rookie starting at quarterback. He could turn to Clausen later in the season if things aren’t going well. But the immediate starting job is Moore’s, and the only way he can lose it is to have a disastrous training camp and preseason.

Saints: Are the Saints ready for a return to the “real’’ world?

Rightfully so, the Saints spent a lot of time this offseason celebrating their first Super Bowl title. Great for them and great for their fans. But all that’s about to end. Coach Sean Payton runs what I think is easily the toughest camp in the NFC South, and I don’t anticipate that changing. If anything, camp might be tougher this year.

Payton is an excellent motivator and he’s well aware the Saints now are the jewel on the schedule of every opposing team. The track record of Super Bowl champions in the following season hasn’t been all that impressive in recent years. Payton knows that, and you can bet that message is going to be conveyed to his team. A big part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season is because they had such a tough and productive camp.

Buccaneers: Who are the starting wide receivers?

The Bucs truly don’t know the answer to that question right now and that’s not a bad thing. The plan is to throw all the receivers out there in camp, let them compete and see who rises up. A lot of fans were frustrated and puzzled when the Bucs let Antonio Bryant walk in free agency, leaving the team without a clear-cut No. 1 receiver. But the Bucs believe they’re better off without Bryant, who wasn’t all that productive last season and didn’t endear himself to the front office or coaching staff when he made public comments about the coaches and quarterback Josh Freeman that were far from flattering.

The Bucs used early draft picks on Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. It’s likely at least one of them will start right away. Veterans Reggie Brown, Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall will compete for the other job. If both rookies look good in camp, it’s possible they could be the starters because there isn’t much upside with Brown, Clayton or Stovall. Second-year pro Sammie Stroughter also is in the mix. But, ideally, the Bucs would like to use him as the slot receiver.

HOTTEST SEATS

Falcons: Brian VanGorder. The defensive coordinator has done a nice job of working with the talent he’s had the past two seasons. The Falcons haven’t always had the talent to play the kind of defense coach Mike Smith and Van Gorder want and they’ve gotten by with patchwork. But those days are over. Last year’s top picks, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, return after missing almost all their rookie seasons with injuries and the Falcons used their top two picks this year on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters. They also spent a fortune signing cornerback Dunta Robinson. Although questions remain about the pass rush, the Falcons have the talent to play their scheme. That means the defense must take a big step forward.

Panthers: Dwayne Jarrett. A former second-round pick, Jarrett has not had much of an impact. With Muhsin Muhammad retired and Steve Smith expected to miss most of training camp with a broken arm, Jarrett is going to get a very long look in training camp. In a best-case scenario, Jarrett finally reaches his potential and earns the starting wide receiver job across from Smith. For that to happen, Jarrett must show an attention to detail and consistency; both have been lacking from his game. The Panthers drafted Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards early because they’re not sure if Jarrett ever will blossom.

Darren Sharper
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIIf Darren Sharper isn't 100 percent healthy, he might not be the starter for the Saints.
Saints: Darren Sharper. The safety had a brilliant 2009 season. Sharper instantly became a fan favorite, but his lock on the starting job at free safety isn’t nearly as secure as many people think. Sharper is 34 and coming off knee surgery. We don’t even know if he physically will be able to do much during training camp. The Saints have moved Malcolm Jenkins, a first-round pick a year ago, from cornerback to safety. A lot of fans view Sharper as the Drew Brees of the defense, but I’m not so sure the coaching staff ever has seen it that way, and the Saints didn’t break the bank to re-sign Sharper in the offseason. If he’s 100 percent healthy, Sharper could stay in the starting lineup. Anything less and the Saints won’t hesitate to go with Jenkins.

Buccaneers: Ryan Sims. He was a starter with Chris Hovan at defensive tackle the past few years. The Bucs got rid of Hovan as soon as they could after last season. With the team using its top two picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, Sims can’t be feeling too secure. With Roy Miller also in the mix and the Bucs in a full-blown youth movement, Sims needs a strong camp just to secure a roster spot.

SECRET WEAPON

Under-the-radar player to keep an eye out for in camp: Clifton Smith, return man/running back, Buccaneers. It may seem like a stretch to call a guy who has been to a Pro Bowl an under-the-radar player, but Smith fits the profile. After missing most of the second half of last season with concussion problems, Smith has sort of been forgotten. That might be a mistake. Smith established himself as a top-notch return man when he made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season two years ago and helped ease the colossal mistake in which the Bucs drafted Dexter Jackson in the second round. When the new coaching staff took over last season, there was some talk about getting Smith more involved on offense. That got derailed by his injuries, but the plan could get back on track this year. Cadillac Williams is the main running back in Tampa Bay, but you could start to see Smith get some action as a situational player. With his speed, he could be an explosive receiver out of the backfield and also might be able to handle a few carries a game.

BEST POSITION BATTLE

It’s not an offensive skill position, so it won’t be flashy. But the best position battle in the NFC South will be sorted out in Spartanburg, S.C., as the Carolina Panthers try to figure what to do with their linebackers. This was supposed to be a spot with enormous strength, but an offseason knee injury to Thomas Davis has turned this into a huge question. Davis probably will miss the entire season, throwing the linebacker corps into a state of uncertainty.

The only thing that’s certain is that Jon Beason remains one of the best linebackers in the league and the unquestioned leader of this defense. But the Panthers aren’t even sure where Beason will line up. He has been fantastic in the middle, but he may move to Davis’ spot on the weak side. In what essentially amounts to a game of musical chairs, the Panthers are looking at four linebackers and trying to figure out the strongest starting trio. One reason they’re considering moving Beason is because they believe Dan Connor can be solid in the middle. He’ll get a chance to prove that in camp.

But the Panthers also will be keeping a close eye on outside linebackers Jamar Williams and James Anderson. If they both rise up, Beason could remain in the middle. If Connor rises up and the Panthers aren’t comfortable with Williams and Anderson as their starters on the outside, they won’t hesitate to move Beason.

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

Time for a quick run through the most significant injuries in the NFC South. Surprisingly, as we approach midseason, there aren’t that many of note.

As expected Tampa Bay return man/running back Clifton Smith was out after suffering a concussion during Sunday’s big hit by Carolina’s Dante Wesley. Look for Smith to be out at least one game and look for rookie Sammie Stroughter to handle return duties. The other injury of note is that defensive tackle Chris Hovan sat out with an ankle injury. Not sure how significant the injury is and Hovan’s nearing the end of the road, but the possibility of being without a starter is not good news as the Bucs get ready for the Patriots.

The Falcons may have to do some shuffling in the backfield as they prepare for Dallas. Jerious Norwood (hip) and Ovie Mughelli (calf) sat out practice and starting running back Michael Turner (chest) was limited. We’ll assume Turner will be ready to go, but the Falcons may have to start Verron Haynes at fullback and let Jason Snelling be the top backup at both running back and fullback.

No surprise that New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita (calf) sat out. The injury looked somewhat serious when it happened Sunday. Troy Evans filled in for Fujita on Sunday and it looks like he’ll get the start against Miami on Sunday. Tight end Jeremy Shockey (shoulder) was limited, but the veteran might have been just getting a little rest.

Carolina remained relatively healthy, but kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd (ankle) did not practice. If he can’t kick, punter Jason Baker or field goal kicker John Kasay would have to handle kickoffs.
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

Falling

Turner
1. Michael Turner, running back, Falcons. Yes, he did score the go-ahead touchdown on a very nice run. But he didn’t put up big numbers. There’s also a disturbing trend emerging.

Turner suddenly has started to have problems with fumbles. Not sure why that’s happening because that wasn’t a problem last year. He’s got to hold on to the ball.

Wesley
2. Dante Wesley, defensive back, Panthers. His hit on Tampa Bay punt returner Clifton Smith was simply vicious and stupid. Smith was setting up to return a punt and Wesley hit him long before the ball arrived.

Wesley drew a one-game suspension from the NFL and also was ejected as soon as the incident happened. He’s lucky the suspension was only one game. That might be because Wesley had no prior history of anything along these lines. He’ll spend the rest of his career under a microscope.

Ward
3. Derrick Ward, running back, Buccaneers. This guy was supposed to be the feature back when the Bucs gave him a big contract and signed him away from the Giants. Ward has been nothing but disappointing.

He couldn’t even win the starting job. He lost it to Cadillac Williams, who was coming off his second major knee injury. Williams has played well. Ward hasn’t. His carries will continue to dwindle.

Rising

Colston
1. Marques Colston, wide receiver, Saints. Did you see him against the Giants on Sunday? Colston was a man among boys. He repeatedly outmuscled New York defensive backs. We all knew Colston was a good receiver from his first two years, but last season’s injuries knocked him down a couple of notches.

He’s back at full force now. No, wait, he’s actually significantly better than he was before. I'm also going to throw in an honorable mention for Colston's fellow receiver Lance Moore. He's healthy now and provided a reminder of his talents Sunday. This receiver corps is getting scary good.

DeCoud
2. Thomas DeCoud, safety, Falcons. DeCoud had two interceptions against the Bears in the best game of his career. DeCoud has played pretty well since taking over as a starter at the beginning of the season and he seems to be steadily improving.

This is a bit of a surprise because the Falcons drafted William Moore in April and thought he would start. But Moore had some injury problems in the preseason and DeCoud made the most of his opportunity. He’s going to remain a starter for a long time.

Williams
3. DeAngelo Williams, running back, Carolina. We had his stock falling last week, so it’s only fair it rises after he ran for 152 yards against the Buccaneers.

Williams is the same player he was a year ago. His slow start was because he wasn’t getting good blocking when he did get carries. And he wasn’t getting a lot of carries early on because the Panthers were always falling behind. Sunday was a reminder of what Williams and fellow running back Jonathan Stewart can do. But let’s remember one thing before we get too excited about Carolina’s running game. This outburst did happen against the Buccaneers.

Pro Bowl analysis: NFC South

December, 16, 2008
12/16/08
4:41
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Players and coaches brought a bit more fairness than fans to the Pro Bowl balloting. Rosters were just released and the official NFC squad has better representation than it did in the fan voting.

The division had nine players selected to the all-star game, but only three as starters. Two of those starters were major coups for the NFC South because they'll be in their first Pro Bowl and, in both cases, it's well deserved. It's a whole lot better than last year when the NFC South didn't have any players elected (although Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia did slide in as an alternate).

Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross, who has performed at a Pro Bowl level for much of his career, finally got recognized. That's a tribute to coaches and players because Gross wasn't among the top five tackles in the fan voting and he's having the best year of his career.

Tampa Bay's Clifton Smith might be the best story in the whole Pro Bowl. He was selected as the NFC's return man. Not bad for a guy who wasn't drafted and wasn't even promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster until October. But Smith has been dynamic and has made the world forget about second-round pick Dexter Jackson.

Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers is the NFC South's other starter.

Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks made the squad as a reserve outside linebacker. Say what you want about this being a case of Brooks making the team based on his reputation. So what? It's happened before and it's happened to guys who didn't have reputations as good as Brooks'. Yeah, Brooks might not be what he was a few years ago, but he's still playing at a high level.

Atlanta running back Michael Turner and receiver Roddy White made the team as reserves and New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is on the roster as a backup. Carolina middle linebacker Jon Beason and receiver Steve Smith also made the roster as reserves.

Not bad, overall. But there are a few guys who got slighted. Start with Tampa Bay's Jeff Faine, who might be the best center in the NFL. The NFC South didn't get any centers or guards on the roster and Gross is the only offensive lineman.

Two other snubs for Tampa Bay include middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and receiver Antonio Bryant. But you can't argue either one too long because Patrick Willis and Beason are worthy at middle linebacker and Smith and White give the division two of the four receivers on the roster.

Two Atlanta players stand out for not making the roster. That's defensive end John Abraham, who has 15.5 sacks and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. Abraham might have victimized because he's not an every-down player, but his stats speak for themselves. I'll make a strong case that Ryan should be in the Pro Bowl. No argument with Kurt Warner as the starter and Brees as a backup, but Eli Manning did make the roster. Yes, Manning's got a Super Bowl, but has he really been as important to the Giants as Ryan has been to the Falcons this year?

NFC Pro Bowlers
Offense
PositionStarter(s)Reserves
QuarterbackKurt Warner, ArizonaDrew Brees, New Orleans
Eli Manning, New York Giants
Running backAdrian Peterson, MinnesotaMichael Turner, Atlanta
Clinton Portis, Washington
FullbackMike Sellers, Washington
Wide receiverLarry Fitzgerald, Arizona
Anquan Boldin, Arizona
Steve Smith, Carolina
Roddy White, Atlanta
Tight endJason Witten, DallasChris Cooley, Washington
TackleJordan Gross, Carolina
Walter Jones, Seattle
Chris Samuels, Washington
GuardSteve Hutchinson, Minnesota
Chris Snee, New York Giants
Leonard Davis, Dallas
CenterAndre Gurode, DallasShaun O'Hara, New York Giants
Defense
Defensive endJulius Peppers, Carolina
Justin Tuck, New York Giants
Jared Allen, Minnesota
Defensive tackleKevin Williams, Minnesota
Jay Ratliff, Dallas
Pat Williams, Minnesota
Outside linebackerDeMarcus Ware, Dallas
Lance Briggs, Chicago
Derrick Brooks, Tampa Bay
Inside linebackerPatrick Willis, San FranciscoJon Beason, Carolina
CornerbackCharles Woodson, Green Bay
Antoine Winfield, Minnesota
Asante Samuel, Philadelphia
Free safetyNick Collins, Green BayBrian Dawkins, Philadelphia
Strong safetyAdrian Wilson, Arizona
Special teams
PunterJeff Feagles, New York Giants
Place-kickerJohn Carney, New York Giants
Kick returnerClifton Smith, Tampa Bay
Special-teamerSean Morey, Arizona

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- Now that he has the qualifications, it's time for Clifton Smith to reveal the secret of how to make it big in the NFL as an undrafted free agent.

 
 Cliff Welch/Icon SMI
 Tampa Bay Bucs return man Clifton Smith is slowly lifting the Dorito off his shoulder.

"You've just got to come in with a Dorito on your shoulder,'' Smith said Wednesday.

That's a different -- and very creative -- way of saying you need to have a chip on your shoulder. It's worked perfectly for the Tampa Bay return man, who wasn't even on the roster until Oct. 25, but suddenly has become one of the biggest rookie sensations in the league.

In just four games, Smith has made history and erased it. The Bucs long had one of the worst return games in the NFL. That suddenly has changed as Smith has become the first player in franchise history to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown.

His 70-yard punt return for a touchdown helped the Bucs take control of Sunday's game in Detroit. Smith already set a franchise record with a 97-yard kickoff return against Kansas City in Week 9. He's averaging 18.1 yards on punt returns and 30.3 yards on kickoff returns.

That's exactly the kind of explosive return man the Bucs were looking for back before this year's draft. But they weren't looking at Smith.

They used a second-round draft pick on Appalachian State receiver/return man Dexter Jackson and some people in the organization said he'd become the second coming of Carolina's Steve Smith. But Jackson struggled mightily in that role.

That's why the Bucs elevated Smith from the practice squad in October and threw him into the return role. The fact Smith was even on Tampa Bay's practice squad (on any practice squad, really) can be traced back to that big Dorito.

Back in college at Fresno State, Smith's career almost ended. Smith, also a running back, tore up his knee while trying to catch a pass in a 2005 game. Along with his ACL, Smith also tore his lateral collateral ligament and a hamstring tendon.

He couldn't walk for two months, couldn't run for a year and was out of football for almost two full years.

"My knee was swollen up so bad that it looked like I had two knees in one,'' Smith said. "I couldn't walk for about two months. The rehab was terrible. You wouldn't wish that upon anybody.''

Although Smith returned to rush for more than 600 yards in 2007, the knee injury and concerns about his size (5-foot-8 and 190 pounds) made him a forgotten man in the draft.

He wasn't even one of those free agents who gets calls from a bunch of teams the moment the draft ends.

"Nobody called the first two days,'' Smith said. "On the third day, I got the call from Tampa Bay. They were the first to call and I was like, "I'm not turning down anything. I'm just trying to make my dream come true''. As soon as I landed here in Tampa, the 49ers actually called and I was like, "Man, it's too late. I'm already here''.''

Despite Smith showing some promise in training camp and the preseason, the Bucs had a full stable of running backs and seemed committed to Jackson in the return game. They released Smith and brought him back to the practice squad.

You know the rest of the story from there. But Smith said it's too early to say he's made it after only four games. He doesn't even have a nameplate on his locker yet and that means the Dorito still can fit.

"It just means it's got to get even bigger,'' Smith said. "You've got to super-size it now. Now, you've got to show everybody what you're capable of doing.''

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Here's my take on the morning headlines from the local newspapers.

SAINTS

Jeff Duncan writes the unthinkable: Monday could be Deuce McAllister's last game ever with the Saints in the Superdome. That thought may be troubling to Saints fans because McAllister might be the most popular player in franchise history. But Duncan relies on solid logic. He points out McAllister could be suspended as early as next week if his appeal for violating the league's rules on banned substances isn't won. McAllister could face a four-game suspension and that, effectively, could end his time with the Saints. It's become painfully obvious this season that McAllister is no longer a feature back. He still is making feature back money and that probably won't bode well when the Saints look at their roster (and salary cap) after the season.

PANTHERS

Whatever happened to former running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka? He's running a restaurant in Georgia.

The old "under the radar'' question came Monday. I truly don't think anybody's overlooking the 8-2 Panthers. But the fact is John Fox kind of prefers that perception. His team has been at its best in years when expectations weren't real high and has had some big letdowns in years when it was the trendy Super Bowl pick.

FALCONS

It looks like Todd Weiner against Julius Peppers on Sunday. Although rookie left tackle Sam Baker is making some progress in his recovery from back surgery, coach Mike Smith said he doesn't expect him to be ready for the Panthers.

BUCCANEERS

Undrafted rookie Clifton Smith has done a nice job as a return man and had a few bright moments as a running back. But Smith is likely to play a bigger role in the backfield rotation with Earnest Graham likely lost for the year. That's a scary thought because Smith has lost a fumble in each of his last three games. Coach Jon Gruden pledged to work with Smith on ball security.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

The good thing about not having a lot of offensive stars is that the Bucs won't be crippled by the loss of one player. But the bad news is it looks like they've lost the guy they least can afford to lose.

Graham

That's running back Earnest Graham. Coach Jon Gruden confirmed Monday what was suspected. Graham's ankle injury is serious and he's likely to miss the rest of the season.

That leaves the Bucs dangerously thin at running back. They've got veteran Warrick Dunn, who at this point in his career should be nothing more than a role player. They've got undrafted rookie Clifton Smith, who has a chance to someday be a role player.

And they've got Cadillac Williams, who is a total wild card after just returning from a major knee injury. The Bucs might be able to scrape through upcoming games against Detroit and New Orleans with a combination of Dunn and Smith and, perhaps, a gradual increase in Williams' role.

But, like it or not, Williams is going to play a major role in December. I still think the smart approach would have been to sit Williams until 2009. But that no longer matters. Fact is, Williams may have to carry this team starting with a Dec. 8 Monday night game against Carolina.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- Cadillac Williams didn't play a down Sunday, but I've got a hunch that the running back suddenly is going to be in "football shape."

He has to be.

It's looking like the Bucs may not have much choice other than to move up the timetable on Williams' return from a major knee injury last year. Earnest Graham, who carried so much of the load in the first half of the season, appears to be wearing out. Graham, who already was dealing with a knee injury, went out with an ankle injury after one series against the Vikings and didn't return.

Graham might not return any time soon and the Bucs are in the middle of a tight NFC South race. There aren't many other options. Veteran Warrick Dunn still can give the Bucs some carries here and there, but you don't want him as the featured back. Undrafted free agent Clifton Smith is a promising player, but not yet the kind of guy who you want having the season in his hands.

More than ever -- and sooner than they really wanted -- the Bucs have to turn to Williams. Maybe it's a gradual start because the Bucs play at Detroit next week and can probably get through the Lions without much difficulty. But they've got a division game with the Saints the following week and a December stretch drive after that.

Ready or not, Williams is going to have a chance to play a big role.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Graham

TAMPA, Fla. -- Although running back Earnest Graham started the game, he might be done for the rest of the day.

Immediately after Tampa Bay's first drive stalled, the Bucs announced Graham has an ankle injury and his return is questionable. Graham had missed some practice time last week because of a knee injury.

If Graham can't return, veteran Warrick Dunn is likely to get most of the carries. Undrafted rookie Clifton Smith is the only other active running back.

Graham's active, Cadillac's not

November, 16, 2008
11/16/08
11:46
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- Apparently, Earnest Graham will start at running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Graham has been bothered by a knee injury and there was uncertainty if he'd be able to play against the Minnesota Vikings today. But Graham wasn't placed on the inactive list. Cadillac Williams, who was just added to the regular roster, will be inactive as the Bucs bring him a long slowly.

If Graham's number of carries are limited, Warrick Dunn and Clifton Smith could get more playing time.

Also, Tampa Bay's offense is taking a hit with tight end Alex Smith (ankle) on the inactive list. John Gilmore, a blocking specialist, will start in Smith's place. Look for Jerramy Stevens to replace Gilmore in passing situations.

NFC South midseason awards

November, 5, 2008
11/05/08
12:09
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

With the season at its halfway point -- or pretty close to it -- it's time for the midseason NFC South awards.

 
 Getty Images
 Drew Brees has completed 69 percent of his passes and thrown 15 touchdowns so far.

Most valuable player (offense): New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. There's really no one else to consider here. Brees has been putting up numbers that could make him a candidate for the league's overall MVP. The bottom line here is that the injury-plagued Saints are 4-4 almost entirely because of Brees. Take him away and they'd be 0-8.

Most valuable player (defense): Atlanta defensive end John Abraham. Some people (mainly Carolina coach John Fox when he's defending Julius Peppers) like to say it's not all about sacks. Point taken. But Abraham has 10 sacks and has had a huge impact even with the Falcons wisely limiting his number of snaps.

Most valuable player (off the field): Carolina cornerback Ken Lucas. He might have made the biggest play of the entire season back in August. After getting punched out by teammate Steve Smith, Lucas instantly forgave the wide receiver -- and truly meant it. In the process, Lucas might have saved Smith's career, the jobs of coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney and set up the Panthers for a big season.

Best rookie: Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. No need for an explanation.

Best rookie not named Matt Ryan and not taken in the first round: Atlanta middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. Carolina's Charles Godfrey and Tampa Bay's Jeremy Zuttah deserve mention, but Lofton has taken over as the quarterback of Atlanta's defense.

Most disappointing rookie: Tampa Bay receiver Dexter Jackson. The Bucs got their backs up right after the draft when some in the media suggested Jackson would be nothing more than a return man in his rookie season. Guess what? Jackson now doesn't even have that job, losing it to undrafted rookie Clifton Smith.

Best comeback: Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme. His name has become synonymous with Tommy John, and that's a good thing.

Best individual performance that amounted to nothing: New Orleans' Reggie Bush against Minnesota. In a Monday night game at the Superdome, Bush returned two punts for touchdowns and the Saints still squandered the game.

Worst-laid plans: New Orleans' overhaul of its defense looked brilliant back in the offseason. But even though linebacker Jonathan Vilma has helped, injuries have made this defense look too much like last year.

Best reclamation project: Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Bryant. The guy was out of football last year and has become the team's No. 1 receiver. The Bucs have taken some grief for giving players too many chances. This is one case they can point to as a success story.

Best coaching job: Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden. Seriously. Yeah, you can say all you want about Gruden's offense and its inability to go downfield. But Gruden's found a way to win six games with rotating quarterbacks and Joey Galloway out for much of the time.

Best performance by an assistant coach: Atlanta offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. He doesn't have a lot of talent to work with, but Boudreau has been able to keep Ryan upright and allow Michael Turner to run for a bunch of yards.

Best unsung player: Carolina strong safety Chris Harris. He seems to force a fumble every week and he's been a big help to rookie Charles Godfrey at free safety. Harris has put himself in place for Pro Bowl consideration.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Their defense was dismal and the offense was characteristically inconstant. The biggest thing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had going for them Sunday was that they were playing the Kansas City Chiefs.

In the end, reality set in and the Bucs won. At 6-3, they've got the same win total as NFC South leader Carolina (6-2 and on bye this week). The win sure beats the alternative, but it continued to show the Bucs have flaws. When you're a good coach, like Jon Gruden is, you can find ways to win with flaws -- some of the time. But you can't go on forever and you won't get far playing the way the Bucs have the last two weeks.

They've got Joey Galloway back, but that hasn't helped the offense much. And there may be more trouble brewing. Did you notice at the end of the game that starting tailback Earnest Graham, who fumbled twice, wasn't the field? He was on the sideline and undrafted rookie Clifton Smith was in the game.

Gruden sometimes puts players into the doghouse and Graham could be there. Makes you nervous though because backup Warrick Dunn is hurt and this may force the Bucs to rush Cadillac Williams back from his recovery from knee surgery. Don't be surprised if Williams, who probably should sit out the rest of the season, is back on the field very soon. The Bucs have tried just about everything else on offense and it hasn't worked.

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