NFL Nation: Dexter Jackson
But Jets starting quarterback Mark Sanchez looked unfazed by Tebow's big reception and huge cheers. Instead, Sanchez did the talking with his arm.
Sanchez had a very good outing, completing 11-of-16 passes and a touchdown in New York's first team-wide scrimmage. Sanchez was decisive and accurate. One of his five incompletions was a drop by receiver Santonio Holmes, who injured his ribs during the scrimmage.
The performance creates separation and some breathing room for Sanchez, who can definitely use it. Sanchez clearly looked like the better quarterback on this day, as the Jets prepare for next week's preseason opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"It was good for us to get moving again and see things full speed. ... It was more like a game and we keep inching closer to that," said Sanchez, who felt good about his performance.
Meanwhile, Tebow struggled. He was 0-for-3 with two bobbled snaps. Tebow did put together a couple of nice runs. But overall New York’s offense looked shaky when Tebow was under center. To be fair, Tebow played with the second-team offense, while Sanchez played for the first team.
But Tebow didn't show much during this scrimmage to worry Sanchez. He didn't complete a pass, although his first deep ball was a good one that just missed backup receiver Dexter Jackson.
Still, no player received more cheers on the night than Tebow. After Sanchez's first drive ended and Tebow's second-team offense entered the game, Tebow received the loudest ovation of the night.
"It felt great," Tebow said after the scrimmage. "You have a lot of great, passionate fans out here."
Sanchez is not the people's champ, but he was by far the better quarterback in this scrimmage. Sanchez needs more outings like Saturday's to prevent a quarterback controversy and keep Tebow Nation at bay.
Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: draft rewind -- examining the past five drafts.
Best choice: Taking Matt Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick in 2008. Yeah, he was the third pick and you should hit when you’re drafting in that territory. But look at how many quarterbacks, including some No. 1 overall picks, haven’t hit. The Falcons did their homework and were totally convinced Ryan was a franchise quarterback when they drafted him. He’s backed it up. You can still debate whether Ryan is an “elite quarterback,’’ whatever that means. But he came to a franchise that probably had hit a lower point than any franchise at any time in NFC South history and has produced nothing but winning seasons. Sure sounds like a franchise quarterback to me.
Worst choice: Jamaal Anderson. He has become a serviceable defensive tackle in the past year or so, but this guy was drafted as a defensive end in the top 10 in a draft where teams were reaching for pass-rushers (see Tampa Bay and Gaines Adams). This falls on a past regime and is part of the reason that regime failed. In four seasons, Anderson has produced 4.5 sacks and, as they head into the 2011 draft, the Falcons are, once again looking for a pass-rusher.
On the bubble: Peria Jerry. The Falcons thought they had a solid pick when they took Jerry in the first round in the 2009 draft. Jerry injured his knee early in his rookie season. He came back last year, but wound up as a backup to 2010 third-round pick Corey Peters. The Falcons are saying they expect a fully healthy Jerry to emerge in 2011. If that happens, there will be vindication. If not, Jerry will go down as a bust.
Best choice: Ryan Kalil. Center didn’t seem like a huge need when the Panthers used a second-round pick on Kalil in 2007, and he did very little as a rookie. But the guy has turned into a consistent Pro Bowler. We won’t weigh this down by going into the labor situation, although the Panthers placed a franchise tag on Kalil. They’re still looking for the first true franchise quarterback in their short history. But they’ve got a franchise center to snap the ball.
Worst choice: Dwayne Jarrett. We’re only going back five years, so Keary Colbert is not eligible and he at least had a few productive moments. But the Panthers compounded that mistake by taking another USC receiver in the second round in 2007. Colbert should have been a major warning sign.
On the bubble: We’ll go with a tie between quarterback Jimmy Clausen and receiver Armanti Edwards. It’s tough to call anyone a bust after just one year, but the production of Clausen and Edwards as rookies makes that very tempting. We’ll give them a pass for the moment because they were emblematic of former coach John Fox’s refusal to embrace a youth movement. They get a fresh start with new coach Ron Rivera, and we’ll see how that works out.
New Orleans Saints
Best choice: Marques Colston. Yep, we’ll go all the way back to the first draft class of coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis as a team. They used the second of two seventh-round picks (No. 252) on the little-known receiver out of Hofstra. All they got was a guy who instantly became a very good No. 1 receiver. His numbers would be spectacular if Payton and quarterback Drew Brees weren’t so good at spreading the ball around. Colston is the definition of a value pick, and guys like guards Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans aren’t far off.
Worst choice: Al Woods. It’s hard to find any flaws in the way Payton and Loomis have drafted. They haven’t totally missed on any early picks. Woods was a fourth-round pick in 2010, but he ended up getting cut in the preseason. You generally expect a fourth-round pick to at least make the roster.
On the bubble: Reggie Bush. Yes, five drafts into this regime, you can still say the first pick Payton and Loomis made is on the bubble. Bush might stay there for his entire career because opinions are widely divided, and that’s understandable. He was the second overall pick in the 2006 draft. He never has produced the kind of numbers you would expect from a running back taken so early, and injuries have slowed him. But the flip side is that Bush is much more than a running back. He’s also a receiver and a return man. When you factor all that in and remember the role Bush played in the Saints' first Super Bowl title in franchise history, it’s tough to say categorically he’s been a bust.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Best choice: Josh Freeman in a landslide. He wasn’t a popular pick when the Bucs traded up to get him in the middle of the first round in 2009. That was only because the Tampa Bay fan base had been schooled from the beginning that defense is most important. But general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris departed from that philosophy in their first draft. They landed a franchise quarterback who might not even be close to hitting his full potential.
Worst choice: Dexter Jackson. He was the modern-day Tampa Bay version of Booker Reese, which says a lot. But I’ll say even more and anoint Jackson as the worst draft pick any NFC South team has made in the past five years. In their last draft, former coach Jon Gruden and former general manager Bruce Allen used a second-round pick (No. 58) on the receiver/return man from Appalachian State. They made matters even worse moments after the pick by walking into the media room and saying they had found the second coming of Carolina receiver Steve Smith. It turned out the only things Smith and Jackson had in common were their size and the fact that both had spent some time in North Carolina. The Bucs quickly found out Jackson had no business being in the NFL. Maybe somebody should tell Jackson there's an opening in that flag-football league at the Siskey YMCA in Charlotte.
On the bubble: Gerald McCoy. Again, it’s tough to declare anything about a player after just one season. But McCoy was the No. 3 overall pick in last year’s draft. With a weak supporting cast, he got off to a slow start and probably didn’t do himself any favors by talking so much about it. McCoy started to come on as the season progressed but suffered a season-ending injury. Throw in the instant success of Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh and that places lots of pressure on McCoy to become a star in his second season.
Bruce Allen is Washington’s general manager. He held that job in Tampa Bay from 2004 until he (and coach Jon Gruden) got fired after the 2008 season. That made me wonder a bit about how much Allen’s drafting has contributed to Tampa Bay’s surprising turnaround.
Allen did draft safety Tanard Jackson, who is suspended until at least next September for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. He also drafted cornerback Aqib Talib and Davin Joseph, who currently are on injured reserve.
That leaves Allen’s draft haul as center Jeremy Zuttah, backup quarterback Josh Johnson, linebackers Quincy Black, Geno Hayes and Adam Hayward, tackle Jeremy Trueblood, receiver Maurice Stovall, running back Cadillac Williams and linebacker Barrett Ruud.
That’s a less-than-stellar cast. We’ll give Allen credit for drafting the starting linebacker corps, even though Ruud is probably on his way out of Tampa Bay. Trueblood was average for a few years, but he’s now playing behind James Lee. Zuttah’s a decent guy to have swinging between center and guard, but he’s nothing special. Williams had a nice rookie year and has made a couple of inspirational comebacks from major knee injuries, but he could be on the way out as the Bucs look for a younger pair of legs to go with LeGarrette Blount next year. It’s a minor miracle Stovall’s still on the roster and the Bucs would be in deep trouble if they ever had to start Johnson at quarterback.
Joseph’s a free agent next year and there’s no guarantee Jackson will be back. Talib’s a great natural talent, but he’s come with trouble.
Oh, and let’s talk about some of Allen’s other greatest hits. We’re going to leave tragic figures Gaines Adams and Arron Sears alone. But how about receiver Michael Clayton? The Bucs could have had St. Louis running back Steven Jackson or Atlanta receiver Michael Jenkins (a Tampa kid) or New Orleans defensive end Will Smith with that pick.
And who can remember Chris Colmer? Yeah, he’s the offensive tackle Allen drafted in the third round, despite a history of shoulder problems. The injury resurfaced as soon as Colmer joined the Bucs and he never played a down in the NFL.
At least with Clayton the Bucs got one productive season. But Allen’s history with other receivers was even worse. There was fifth-round choice Larry Brackens out of that football factory that sometimes is called Pearl River Community college and, then there was Allen’s all-time worst draft pick.
Yep, Allen saved it for his last draft. He and Gruden used a second-round pick on Dexter Jackson and walked into the media room a bit later and claimed he was going to be the second coming of Carolina’s Steve Smith. Turns out the only thing Jackson and Smith had in common was they were both short and since Jackson had gone to school at Appalachian State, he had spent some time in North Carolina.
But, hey, maybe Allen’s drafts did the current Bucs a favor, after all. If Allen hadn’t botched things at wide receiver the way he did, Mark Dominik never would have had to draft Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and Sammie Stroughter.
You’re going to see a whole bunch of rookie wide receivers starting or playing a lot. That’s rare because there’s a school of thought, and most NFC South teams have backed it up through the years, that you shouldn’t ask too much of rookie receivers too soon.
We’re almost certainly going to see at least three rookies start at receiver for NFC South teams on Sunday and a fourth will get considerable playing time. A fifth might even be active for the first time in his career. In Week 5 of the NFL season, it’s kind of amazing that NFC South teams are leaning so heavily on rookie wide receivers, especially when not a single one of them was a first-round draft pick.
Tampa Bay’s been starting Mike Williams, a fourth-round pick, since the start of the season. Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris hinted strongly during the bye week that second-round pick Arrelious Benn will get increased playing time going forward, probably splitting time with second-year pro Sammie Stroughter. The Bucs play at Cincinnati on Sunday.
In Carolina, it appears highly likely the Panthers will start two rookies at receiver on Sunday against Chicago. They likely will go with third-round pick Brandon LaFell and sixth-round pick David Gettis as the starters. Armanti Edwards, who is converting from playing quarterback in college, might be on the game-day active list for the first time this season.
In Carolina, this wasn’t exactly the plan. The Panthers, who traditionally have been very patient in playing young receivers, wanted LaFell starting as a rookie, but they thought Gettis and Edwards would have time to develop. But that’s all changed because the Panthers are likely to be without Steve Smith due to an ankle injury. They cut veteran Dwayne Jarrett after he was charged with driving while impaired Tuesday morning. The rookie receivers will be working with rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen.
While putting rookie receivers around a young quarterback might sound like a formula for disaster, that’s actually the plan the Buccaneers have had since draft day.
“We made the conscious decision to draft these young guys and let [quarterback] Josh [Freeman] grow with them," Morris said.
Morris then pointed to the New Orleans Saints and how they let a young crew of receivers grow up around Drew Brees. Not a bad example, although Brees had been a starter in San Diego before coming to New Orleans in 2006. Freeman’s only been starting since the second half of last season.
“They, and I’m talking the wide receivers and Josh, always talk about growing up together," Tampa Bay receivers coach Eric Yarber said. “We talk about that as a staff. We’ve got a lot of young guys, but eventually these guys are going to become big-time players in this league."
Williams already has shown promise. In three games, he has 12 catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns. Although Benn was the higher draft pick, he hasn’t been much of a factor so far after missing some preseason time with an injury. But the Bucs are saying that’s about to change.
Still, is it wise or even productive to rely on rookie receivers so early? History has shown it’s a position that often takes time to grow into. Atlanta’s Roddy White, now the best receiver in the NFC South, didn’t really produce until his third year and he was a first-round pick. Smith spent a year as a kick returner before even getting a chance at wide receiver. Then, there’s a pretty lengthy list of guys who never really developed.
Carolina drafted Jarrett, Keary Colbert and Drew Carter and got very little from them. Tampa Bay used early picks on Michael Clayton and Dexter Jackson. Clayton had a big rookie year, but did nothing after that. Jackson never even made an impact and couldn’t make Carolina’s roster in the preseason.
Yarber admits there are challenges to playing rookie receivers right away.
“It is difficult because of the physicality on the outside against bump and run," Yarber said. “The guys in college are going against maybe one good DB that’s physical. On this level, every DB they face is physical and good at rerouting you. They’ve got to get used to the physicality on the outside.’’
But it’s far from just being a physical thing. The Panthers have been historically hesitant to play rookie receivers too much because they believe the mental adjustment takes time. In four seasons, Jarrett never was able to grasp the playbook. They don’t have much choice but to go with rookies now.
In Tampa Bay, the choice was made deliberately. The Buccaneers let veterans Antonio Bryant and Mark Bradley go to clear the way for Williams and Benn. They held onto Clayton through the preseason, but cut him once they were comfortable with the way the rookies were progressing.
Still, the Bucs admit their receiving corps is very much a work in progress and that affects the entire offense.
“You have to scale back a little bit," Yarber said. “You want to get them out there, but you don’t want to give them too much. That’s when you get to paralysis by analysis. They’re thinking so much that they can’t play fast. You need a happy medium that you don’t taper the offense down too much, but you don’t want to put too much in so that they’re thinking too much and they don’t play fast.
“One thing that can be a detriment to young guys early on is if you give them too much, they can lose confidence. You don’t want to give them too much too soon. You want them to have some success that they can build on and develop confidence and play better."
For better or worse, much of the NFC South is turning to rookie wide receivers.
The exceptions: Lawrence Jackson, selected 28th overall by the Seattle Seahawks, and Kentwan Balmer, chosen one pick later by the San Francisco 49ers.
And with Glen Coffee retiring from the 49ers, San Francisco joined the New England Patriots as the only NFL teams to have parted with more than one player drafted among the first three rounds over the past two seasons.
That makes it easier to waive the usual disclaimers about waiting three or four years before assessing draft classes. We already know the 49ers and Seahawks will never realize a return on their 2008 first-round investments.
The first chart lists the nine draft choices from 2008 or 2009 who are no longer with their original teams (Brad Cottam, a third-round choice of the Kansas City Chiefs, landed on the reserve/physically unable to perform list after clearing waivers).
The second chart shows how many 2008 and 2009 draft choices selected in the first three rounds are no longer with their original teams.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
No matter who Smith was playing with, this isn’t good news for the Panthers in any way. Their best player won’t be available for the start of training camp. All indications are Smith should be ready for the start of the regular season. But he’s going to miss some valuable practice time with quarterbacks Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen. That’s going to hurt Moore and Clausen more than it will Smith.
If you’re looking for some sort of bright spot, here’s a small one. Smith’s injury means the rest of the receivers will get more work in camp. That’s a good thing because the rest of the receiving corps needs all the work it can get.
Carolina drafted Brandon LaFell, Armanti Edwards and David Gettis this year. The Panthers also have Dwayne Jarrett, who’s been a bust since coming into the league. Other than that, the roster looks like this: Trent Guy, Dexter Jackson, Charly Martin, Kenneth Moore, Wallace Wright and Oliver Young.
Maybe the Panthers will go out and sign another receiver or two before camp, but don’t expect anything big from a team that’s not making any big moves right now. It’s more likely the Panthers will just throw all those young guys out there in camp and see who rises up.
Right now, it’s WDAE’s Whitney Johnson and me. We’re peeking through the windows and trying to see if we can get a glimpse at the Bucs’ draft board. Whitney and I are getting a little older and our eyes aren’t as sharp as they once were. But we’re pretty sure we were able to make out the words “Charles McRae’’ and “Eric Curry’’ at the top of the draft board.
Whitney also keeps a pair of binoculars handy and I borrowed them and caught a glimpse of Raheem Morris. I’m not an expert, but I can lip read a little and I’m pretty sure I saw Morris, after breaking out in laughter, saying something like, “Mike [Tomlin], you’re my buddy, but I wouldn’t even give you Dexter Jackson, if I still had him, for Ben Roethlisberger right now.’’
Anyway, I’m set up now and we’ll be bringing you much more from around the NFC South as the afternoon and evening go on.
» Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)
Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Busts and late-round gems.
Some people called Thomas Dimitroff a genius after his first draft. Some called him an idiot after his second. I still lean toward the genius tag because we truly haven’t seen enough of Peria Jerry and William Moore, who got hurt early last year. It’s way too early to call any pick Dimitroff has made a bust. To find a true bust, all you have to do is go back to the year before Dimitroff and Mike Smith took over. Bobby Petrino and Rich McKay were so locked in on getting a pass-rusher that they reached for Jamaal Anderson, who has become a mediocre defensive tackle after Smith moved him inside.
The jury’s still out on defensive end Everette Brown, last year’s top pick. But the Panthers have pretty much nailed it on every top pick since John Fox and Marty Hurney have been in power. Problem is they haven’t hit on much beyond the first round. Remember Dwayne Jarrett, Rashad Butler, Keary Colbert and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Eric Shelton? But, hey, if Shelton hadn't been such a tremendous bust, the Panthers never would have drafted DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
New Orleans Saints
Jahri Evans, Marques Colston, Tracy Porter and Thomas Morstead have all been gems found beyond the first round. General manager Mickey Loomis hasn’t had anything approaching a bust since the days when Jim Haslett was coaching. There were a fair amount back then. But they’re gone now and that’s part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Let’s be nice and start by giving the Bucs credit for finding a franchise quarterback in Josh Freeman last year. And for getting receiver Sammie Stroughter in the seventh round. Everybody likes to rip general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris. But part of the reason the Bucs are in the shape they’re in is because Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen were busy using early picks on guys like Gaines Adams and Dexter Jackson. They somehow thought Jackson could be the second coming of Carolina’s Steve Smith.
|J. Meric/Getty Images|
|One of the largest questions Tampa Bay needs to answer is who will be their starting QB from among Luke McCown (12), Byron Leftwich (7) and Josh Freeman (5).|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- Take a look at any preseason magazine or watch any television show. The verdict is unanimous.
Everybody's got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked to finish fourth in the NFC South. If you want to know where they're projected in the whole league, look somewhere between No. 25 and No. 32.
When you've got a new coach, a new general manager, uncertainty at quarterback and part ways with some of the biggest names in franchise history, you're going to be anointed as one of the NFL's worst teams.
"That's not a bad thing," middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said with a laugh. "That's the mindset we have going into this year. There may be no expectations for us from the outside. But, as a group, we think we can be pretty good.''
To understand what Tampa Bay has, you have to understand what the Bucs don't have. They don't have coach Jon Gruden, linebacker Derrick Brooks, receiver Joey Galloway, running back Warrick Dunn and quarterback Jeff Garcia back from the only NFC South team that's had a winning record each of the last two years.
That's been enough to drop expectations from prognosticators and fans to the lowest level since Sam Wyche and company were piling up double-digit losses in the mid 1990s. But maybe -- just maybe -- it doesn't have to be this way.
Maybe the Bucs aren't as bad as everyone thinks. They do have some positives.
|Cliff Welch/Icon SMI|
|Barrett Ruud (right) is one of the Bucs' building blocks on defense.|
"We've got a nice core group of players,'' Ruud said. "We've got a really good offensive line. We've got four or five really good running backs. We've got two quarterbacks that are really hungry and they're battling to be the starter. And we've got a defense that kind of had our pride taken away at the end of last year and we're trying to get back to where a Tampa Bay defense is supposed to be.''
Ruud has some valid points. Forget the quarterback situation for a second. The rest of the offense looks pretty good. The offensive line is solid, Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham are quality running backs and receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton and tight end Kellen Winslow might be able to make whoever is the quarterback look good.
But, more than anything, the Bucs have new coach Raheem Morris. Yes, he's the youngest coach in the league and that's one reason for the low expectations outside the organization. But Morris is the reason the expectations are high within the organization.
"We were 9-3 last year and had a rocky ending because the atmosphere wasn't right,'' Clayton said." But the team we've put together this year is a whole lot better than last year. You know the energy is going to be in the right place because of the atmosphere. Raheem maximizes you. Raheem does a good job of maximizing everybody's effort and we didn't have that last year.''
Who will be the quarterback? Even the Bucs don't know the short-term answer to this one yet. They'll pick a starter after Saturday night's preseason game in Jacksonville. It will be either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich; they have been basically even through camp and one preseason game.
The Bucs will go with the quarterback they think can be more efficient because they believe the rest of their offense is solid. But it's no secret that the quarterback who opens the season is merely a stopgap. It's blatantly clear that Josh Freeman is the quarterback of the future.
Since drafting Freeman, Morris has gushed about the quarterback he coa
ched at Kansas State. The selection went against the wishes of many fans, who believed the Bucs should have focused on a defensive player. But that's history now because Morris and general manager Mark Dominik are committed to building this team around Freeman.
They want to bring Freeman along slowly and that's why they'll open the season with one of the veterans. But Freeman isn't going to sit forever. If McCown and/or Leftwich struggle, the same fans who booed Freeman's selection will be calling for him to start.
What's the defense going to look like without Brooks? It's going to be completely different and that's not just because the best player in franchise history is gone. Coordinator Monte Kiffin, the man who made the "Tampa Two'' scheme famous also is gone. The Bucs have a new coordinator in Jim Bates and a whole new defense.
There will be more bump coverage, but the emphasis still will be on speed. This isn't a very big defense. Former safety Jermaine Phillips has moved into Brooks' old spot on the weak side. Ruud's the only proven star in his prime and the veteran Barber will try to ease the transition.
What will the offense look like without Gruden? Again, things will be totally different. Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski brings in an offense that's focused on ball control and the Bucs have the parts in place to be a run-first team. Led by center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph, the offensive line might be the team's biggest strength.
One of the first moves Morris and Dominik made was to bring in Ward. He's going to be used in tandem with Earnest Graham. Jagodzinski's first goal is to establish the running game, but he's also got big plans for the passing game.
Gruden relied mostly on a horizontal passing game, but those days are gone. Although the Bucs may not have a true speed receiver, they'll use play action to try to create opportunities for Bryant, Winslow and Clayton down the field.
|Cliff Welch/Icon SMI|
|The Bucs took a risk in trading for Kellen Winslow and signing him to a new, long-term contract.|
Without much depth at wide receiver, camp was a golden opportunity for Dexter Jackson to redeem himself after a horrible rookie season. Jackson's been given a lot of chances, but hasn't been able to take advantage of him. A second-round pick from a year ago, there's a very real chance Jackson won't even make the roster. ...The move of Phillips to weakside linebacker is working out nicely and it comes with another component. Part of the reason the Bucs decided to move Phillips was because they wanted to get Sabby Piscitelli into the starting lineup at strong safety. He's embraced that chance and showed he can make big plays in the preseason opener.
The Bucs have known for months that they might have to go without starting guard Arron Sears, who hasn't reported to camp because of a "private matter." Sears was a very solid player the past two years, but there shouldn't be much drop off. The Bucs already were high on Jeremy Zuttah, who showed some promise as a rookie last year. He's had the entire offseason to work with the first unit. The Bucs would welcome Sears back, but they're not counting on that happening any time soon.
The Bucs knew what they were getting into when they traded for Winslow and turned around and gave him a huge contract. The tight end comes with enormous talent and baggage. Winslow had injury problems and often was the center of controversy in Cleveland. Morris is trying to light a fire under Winslow and already has criticized him. But that's all part of a plan to try to get the most out of Winslow's talents.
The Bucs also took a gamble by drafting wide receiver Sammie Stroughter in the seventh round. Stroughter has had some personal problems in the past. But all indications are he's put those behind him. Stroughter has been one of the stars in camp. At the moment, he's probably the leading candidate to be the No. 3 receiver. He's shown the ability to go across the middle and he also has return skills.
The Bucs had pictured Angelo Crowell as their starting strongside linebacker when they signed him as a free agent. But injuries have held Crowell back and Quincy Black appears to have locked up the starting job. Backup Adam Hayward also has had a strong preseason and can do a lot on special teams. Crowell no longer is a lock to make the roster. ... Defensive tackle was a big concern in the offseason because Chris Hovan is aging and Ryan Sims never has been dominant against the run. The Bucs will use those two as the starters, but they feel a lot better about this position as they prepare to break training camp. Third-round pick Roy Miller has had a strong preseason. So has Dre Moore, who did little as a rookie last year. Moore has kept himself in shape after struggling with weight issues last year. The Bucs plan to use a four-man rotation and play Miller and Moore a lot. Miller could emerge as a starter before long. ... Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson has been a backup throughout his career. But the new coaching staff penciled him in
as a starter from the very beginning and he hasn't disappointed. The coaches believe Wilkerson can play the run and rush the passer. They'll also rotate Stylez White into the lineup, but Wilkerson will get the majority of the snaps.
If you haven't had a chance to read the compelling Super Bowl MVPs feature ESPN.com unveiled Monday morning, do yourself a favor and check it out.
With that in mind, and with no reason other than history to write about the AFC East in the Super Bowl, I was inspired to take a look back at the division's six MVPs from the big game and rank them in order of their performance.
Seven AFC East teams have won a Super Bowl, but when the Baltimore Colts did it, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley won the award -- the lone player from a losing team to pull it off.
|Andy Lyons/Getty Images|
|Tom Brady has a pair of Super Bowl MVP trophies, including one following Super Bowl XXXVIII.|
1. Larry Csonka, Super Bowl VIII
In one of the Super Bowl's most dominant rushing performances, Csonka trudged for a then-record 145 yards and two touchdowns to power the Miami Dolphins past the Minnesota Vikings, 24-7, at Rice Stadium.
Csonka's relentlessness -- his 33 attempts still rank third in Super Bowl history -- didn't leave much else to do. Bob Griese threw seven passes to complete back-to-back championship seasons.
2. Tom Brady, Super Bowl XXXVIII
For the second straight Super Bowl, with the score tied and with a little more than a minute to play, Brady deftly guided the New England Patriots to a game-winning field goal, this time to beat the Carolina Panthers, 32-29, in Houston.
Brady's 32 completions are a Super Bowl record. His 354 yards rank fifth. He threw three touchdowns and one interception.
3. Tom Brady, Super Bowl XXXVI
Brady's heroics hold special meaning for Patriot Nation, helping to secure the team's first championship after so many years of futility. He took over with the score tied and no timeouts with 1:21 to play and completed 5 of 6 passes -- the incompletion was a spike to bring Adam Vinatieri onto the field for a 48-yard field goal to beat the St. Louis Rams.
But this MVP takes a back seat to XXXVIII because Brady's numbers were pedestrian by comparison: 16 of 27 for 145 yards and one touchdown. That 8-yard scoring toss to David Patten was the only touchdown New England's offense produced.
4. Deion Branch, Super Bowl XXXIX
A rarity for offensive players, Branch earned Super Bowl MVP honors without scoring a touchdown in the Patriots' 24-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Branch, who was limited to 35 catches in the regular season because of injury, became one of only five receivers to win the MVP. He tied a Super Bowl record with 11 receptions (Jerry Rice, Dan Ross, Wes Welker) and 133 yards. Branch's 21 catches in two Super Bowls stand alone.
Only 103 of Brady's passing yards went to other receivers. On one third-quarter touchdown drive, Branch caught four passes for 71 yards.
5. Joe Namath, Super Bowl III
The AFC East was two years from formation then, but we're going to include this seminal game anyway.
I'm not ranking these based on historic symbolism. Had Broadway Joe not uttered his famous guarantee beforehand, he would not have been the MVP of the New York Jets' 16-7 upset of the Colts.
The lasting image from the AFL's momentous victory is Namath wagging his finger No. 1 as he ran off the Orange Bowl field, but the only special aspect of his stats was that he didn't throw an interception. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 206 and zero touchdowns. Yawn.
Matt Snell should have been the MVP. He ran 30 times for 121 yards and the Jets' lone touchdown and caught three passes for another 40 yards. The Jets' defense also recorded five takeaways.
Namath was a supporting player that day.
6. Jake Scott, Super Bowl VII
Appropriately enough, a defensive player was selected for the lowest-scoring Super Bowl, a 14-7 Dolphins victory over the Washington Redskins in the L.A. Coliseum. The Dolphins would have recorded a shutout if not for kicker Garo Yepremian's absurd fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
Scott is one of only two safeties (Dexter Jackson) to be honored. He had two interceptions, including one in the end zone he returned 55 yards in the fourth quarter to lock down the championship.
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
With the season at its halfway point -- or pretty close to it -- it's time for the midseason NFC South awards.
|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
A look at the morning headlines around the NFC South.
Defensive end John Abraham hopes to regain his position as the NFL's sack leader after losing it during the bye week.
For about the 256th time since last year, defensive end Julius Peppers talked about being more of a leader. The difference is, this time, it's actually showing on the field.
Rookie return man Dexter Jackson, who some fans in Tampa say has looked soft, disputed that perception. Coach Jon Gruden said he continues to evaluate the return game, but made it a point to say the Bucs aren't giving up on Jackson. Still don't be surprised if someone else is handling returns Sunday against the Cowboys.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories in the AFC North:
- Cleveland Plain Dealer beat writers Mary Kay Cabot and Tony Grossi both picked the Browns to upend the Pittsburgh Steelers this year and take the division.
Morning take: Combined, the pair have seen more consecutive Browns games than anyone in the local and national media. Perhaps they feel the tide changing in this rivalry.
- Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes that Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich is accepting his backup role.
Morning take: Letfwich learned his lesson from last year when he desperately wanted to be a starter. But being a backup in a solid offense in Pittsburgh is much better than getting the stuffing beat out of you as a starter with the awful Atlanta Falcons.
- With locker room leader Willie Anderson gone, Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com wonders who will take the leadership role in Cincinnati?
Morning take: It's a legitimate question. Safety Dexter Jackson and offensive tackle Levi Jones would be our first two guesses.
- As expected, rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was officially named the starter Monday by Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
Morning take: Flacco has been taking first-team snaps for the past week and now has his peace of mind. Check back for more on Flacco's first career start later.
1:00 PM ET New Orleans Atlanta 1:00 PM ET Minnesota St. Louis 1:00 PM ET Cleveland Pittsburgh 1:00 PM ET Jacksonville Philadelphia 1:00 PM ET Oakland New York 1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Baltimore 1:00 PM ET Buffalo Chicago 1:00 PM ET Washington Houston 1:00 PM ET Tennessee Kansas City 1:00 PM ET New England Miami 4:25 PM ET Carolina Tampa Bay 4:25 PM ET San Francisco Dallas 8:30 PM ET Indianapolis Denver