NFL Nation: Drayton Florence

When the calendar hits June 1, it usually means the Baltimore Ravens are preparing to making one additional move.

This is a significant date because any free-agent signing past it doesn't count against a team's compensatory picks. The Ravens love their extra picks, and they're officially in line for three in the 2015 draft after losing four unrestricted free agents and signing one.

Baltimore has had some moderate success with its June signings. The Ravens landed inside linebacker Daryl Smith, who became one of their best defensive players last season, on June 5 of last year. They signed guard Bobbie Williams, who started six games during their Super Bowl season, in 2012, and added kicker Shayne Graham in 2010.

Will this June trend continue for the Ravens?

"We’re aware of the guys that are still out there, free agents that would be more favorable to sign after June 1 and all that," coach John Harbaugh said. "We’re going to be watching the waiver wire real close. We’re going to try and get better. We had a conversation, Ozzie [Newsome] and I, and I like to think on principle that we really believe this: We want to build as strong of a 53-man roster as we possibly can, and as we do that, try to get stronger every chance we can get. We’ll be looking.”

The two biggest positions of need for the Ravens are offensive tackle and cornerback.

There has been a lot of speculation about the Ravens signing offensive tackle Eric Winston. It makes sense because Winston played six seasons under Gary Kubiak, who is now the Ravens' offensive coordinator, and fits in the zone-blocking scheme. But, based on what the Ravens are saying, the team wants to see what Rick Wagner can do at right tackle before adding a veteran like Winston. There is also no guarantee that Winston, at the age of 30, is that much of an upgrade over what the Ravens already have.

The same argument could be made at cornerback, where the Ravens have two unproven defenders (Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson) battling for the No. 3 spot. The Ravens didn't sign or draft a cornerback after losing Corey Graham in free agency.

"Ozzie knows he has two great, young guys that are coming up," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "You’ve got Asa Jackson who can play the nickel and outside, but mostly better inside. And Chykie Brown has been playing good. He’s had his chance to get out on the field, but now he gets thrown in, and it’s his. He’s going to get to show you all what he’s capable of."
The top cornerbacks available are: Terrell Thomas, Drayton Florence, Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson. Thomas is 29 and has dealt with multiple knee surgeries while with the New York Giants. Samuel, 33, was relegated to being a backup at the end of last season for the Atlanta Falcons, and Robinson, 32, lost his nickelback job to a rookie last season with the Kansas City Chiefs. The best of this group seems to be Florence, a journeyman 33-year-old defender who started five games last season for the Carolina Panthers.

Considering these options, the Ravens may wait to add a veteran cornerback at the end of the preseason, when the final major cutdown is made and a more viable defender hits the market. With only four corners with NFL experience, the Ravens will have to either sign a veteran corner or keep an undrafted rookie.
The NFL's free-agent market is suddenly being flooded with former Pro Bowl cornerbacks -- which is a great thing for the New Orleans Saints.

I think the cornerback position should rank as New Orleans' No. 1 priority in free agency -- even more than the draft, because I think they could use an experienced veteran capable of stepping right into their starting lineup along with Keenan Lewis now that Jabari Greer has been released. I still like third-year pro Corey White's potential, but think he’d be an even better fit as a nickel back.

Whether the Saints have interest in guys such as Champ Bailey, Cortland Finnegan or Brandon Browner, they should still benefit from the fact that there are more options available in a free-agent class that was already pretty deep to begin with.

[+] EnlargeTarell Brown
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezThe 49ers' Tarell Brown is considered one of the top free-agent cornerbacks available this offseason.
The Saints won’t be huge spenders in free agency because they're pretty snug against the salary cap. But I think they'll still be aggressive with one or two acquisitions -- like when they signed Lewis to a five-year, $26.3 million contract last year (after first flirting with pricier outside linebacker Paul Kruger).

Here is a glimpse of who is available in free agency, with some insight from ESPN Scouting Insider Matt Williamson:

TOP TIER: I don’t expect the Saints to be in the market for the New England Patriots' Aqib Talib or the Tennessee Titans’ Alterraun Verner. Those guys could be closer to the $8 million range, similar to what the Miami Dolphins just paid to re-sign Brent Grimes (four years, $32 million). The Indianapolis Colts’ Vontae Davis probably will be too pricey as well.

It's possible the Saints could flirt with the Green Bay Packers' Sam Shields or the Denver Broncos' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, especially if those players don’t find big offers quickly. But chances are, the Saints will be shopping in the next tier down.

SECOND TIER: This is the range I’d most expect the Saints in -- experienced starters who won’t necessarily break the bank. I like the possibility of the San Francisco 49ers' Tarell Brown (29 years old, 5-foot-10, 193 pounds, a starter for the past three years). ESPN analyst KC Joyner recently tabbed him as a good fit for the Saints Insider. And ESPN’s Free-Agent Tracker Insider, which used input from former general manager Bill Polian and analysts Williamson, Gary Horton and Field Yates, ranks Brown among the top options overall.

"[Brown’s] a good one," Williamson said. "I think he starts for just about every team out there, though it didn’t hurt that he benefited from a great supporting cast."

Or maybe the Saints should consider stealing Captain Munnerlyn from the rival Carolina Panthers after the 25-year-old just had his best year to date in 2013. Munnerlyn is just 5-8, 195 pounds, but he plays physical. And he has an uncanny knack for turning interceptions into touchdowns (all four of his picks over the past two seasons and five out of seven in his career).

"I would think maybe that’s the position you would splurge on a little bit," Williamson said. "I really like Captain Munnerlyn, and you’d steal him from a rival. He’s a slot guy who could be a starter. ... He’s really feisty, a little undersized but a slot guy, tough. He played his best football this last year; he’s peaking at the right time."

Williamson said he also likes Seattle Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond (age 26, 5-11, 190) after his best year to date as a part-time starter in 2013. But Williamson wonders if Thurmond will get overpaid after being part of that Super Bowl-winning defense.

Bailey, Finnegan, Browner and Chicago Bears standout Charles Tillman probably all fit in this same class now, too, but they all come with some question marks.

Bailey, who is being released by the Denver Broncos, is a 12-time Pro Bowler and an all-time great who might have another strong year left in him. But he's 35 years old and missed most of last season with a foot injury.

Likewise, Tillman is 33 and missed most of last season with a torn triceps.

Finnegan, 30, also landed on injured reserve last season with a fractured orbital bone. And his two years with the St. Louis Rams were disappointing after he signed a blockbuster contract there in 2012. Still, the 5-10, 179-pounder is still young enough to have a bounce-back year.

Browner, 29, is facing a four-game suspension to start the season after repeated violations of the league's substance abuse policy. But the 6-4, 221-pounder who helped define the Seahawks' physical style of pass defense should still be coveted.

THIRD TIER: I don’t think the Saints are likely to bring back Tracy Porter, but I found it interesting that he earned one of the highest grades of any corner on ESPN’s Free-Agent Tracker after a nice season with the Oakland Raiders. Health wasn't an issue for Porter last season after it was his biggest issue during his time with the Saints from 2008-2011.

Another wild-card possibility is Derek Cox (age 27, 6-1, 195). Cox was released by the San Diego Chargers after one very disappointing 2013 season (after he signed a four-year deal worth up to $19.8 million). The Saints had lined up a visit with Cox last year before signing Lewis. Maybe they’ll be glad they dodged a bullet -- or maybe they will consider taking a chance again now that he’ll come cheap.

Williamson also suggested Will Blackmon (age 29), Drayton Florence (33), and Rashean Mathis (33) as guys who have had up-and-down careers but played well last year and might be good "under-the-radar" signings on short-term deals.

Corner a concern for the Lions

February, 13, 2014
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The joke starts something like this. It is the first round of an NFL draft. The Detroit Lions, again, have a high selection. So of course, the team will take a receiver.

Never mind the team has not taken a wide receiver in the first round since Calvin Johnson in 2007. This is the way Detroit is viewed when it comes to the draft even if it is an outdated notion. And while receiver is a need in May's draft and the Lions may end up going there in the first round, there is a bigger concern with the Lions.

The team still has issues finding capable guys to defend them.

[+] EnlargeDarius Slay
AP Photo/Dave MartinDarius Slay, whom the Lions selected in the second round last year, had an up-and-down rookie season at cornerback.
The Lions are once again looking for a cornerback in May's NFL draft, potentially as a first-round selection. While the team hasn't used a first-round pick on a corner since 1998, when the team drafted Terry Fair at No. 20, it could happen in May.

This has to be part of the reason Detroit went with Teryl Austin as its new defensive coordinator. Austin coached defensive backs for the majority of his career. And new coach Jim Caldwell believes defensive backs -- and the way they see the field -- are similar to quarterbacks.

For defensive backs, everything happens in front of them and they are often the last line of protection against big plays, so they see everything. With cornerbacks, Austin has a specific type he is looking for.

"You have to try and get, if you can, a bigger cornerback," Austin said. "A guy that can match up with the big receivers, a guy who has some physical toughness to him that's not afraid to tackle and a guy that has great ball skills.

"I think because of the amount of throwing in the game, if you have a guy that can't intercept the ball, teams will attack him because they know he won't intercept it. The best he's going to do is maybe knock it down. But if you have a guy that can intercept the ball and change the game, I think that's what you want."

This has been a particular problem in Detroit. Since 2001, the Lions are tied for second-to-worst in the NFL with interceptions by defensive backs with 138.

Austin's prototype for cornerbacks has always been taller equals better. In his three years in Baltimore and then his time in Arizona before that, he only had one cornerback shorter than 6-feet tall -- Lardarius Webb. Webb, though, was the exception for Austin.

As the Lions approach corners in this draft, the potential top target -- Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert -- fits those criteria. He is a hair over 6-feet at 6-foot 1/4 and has long arms and the capability to make big plays. Darqueze Dennard from Michigan State (5-foot-11 3/4), Bradley Roby from Ohio State (5-11 1/8), Florida's Loucheiz Purifoy (6-0) and Marcus Roberson (5-11 1/2) are other corners who could get early looks from the Lions as they all possess good hands and at least decent size.

But the Lions have spent multiple picks on cornerbacks since 2010 with differing levels of success. Having good corners has been an issue for Detroit for over a decade and no matter how the team has tried to fix the problem, it hasn't worked out too well. Amari Spievey, the Iowa cornerback the team drafted in the third round in 2010, ended up at safety and is no longer with the team.

Bill Bentley, the team's third-round pick in 2012, has been inconsistent. Chris Greenwood, the team's fifth-round pick that year, barely played. Jonte Green, the team's sixth-round pick in 2012, played more as a rookie than he did in 2013.

Last season's cornerback selection, second-rounder Darius Slay, won the starting job out of camp but lost it two games into the season to Rashean Mathis. By the end of the year, Slay showed signs of progress, in part due to the veteran who replaced him.

"He did it the right way where he'll be able to take care of his family and he took care of his body and stuff he just tells me, how to stay in the league long, has always helped out," Slay said toward the end of the 2013 season. "From a rookie standpoint, he's probably the best guy I've ever been around to continue to help pushing me forward."

Mathis helped teach Slay -- and some of the other cornerbacks -- about preparation and being a pro, something those cornerbacks clung to, particularly Slay. Austin seemed particularly encouraged by the development of Slay, while saying he has a lot of "growing pains," he sees potential for a good corner in the future. Some of that has to do with Mathis, and one of the underrated parts of his signing was the work he did with them.

There is no guarantee he will return due to Detroit's cap issues, Mathis' age and his status as an unrestricted free agent next month.

This leads to the other issues Detroit has had with corners -- and why the position is again a priority.

"In the NFL," Austin said. "You can't have enough corners."

The problem for the Lions over the past decade is finding enough good enough corners at all. Dre Bly was the team's last-best free agent cornerback signing, and that was in 2003.

Chris Houston came to Detroit after the 2009 season, but after three good seasons, his production dipped in 2013 and at one point he was benched. Drayton Florence came in for one season in 2012 but was mostly injured and had a fairly unproductive season.

Eric Wright, one of the better corners to sign with Detroit in free agency, had a decent 2011 season but left for Tampa Bay following the year.

So while receiver may attract the attention and some of the drafting scorn, paying attention to what Detroit does with the guys who defend those opposing receivers could be one of the keys to the Lions' hopes in 2014.

Panthers have a 'Flair' for success

January, 3, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton may be on his way to becoming the most recognized celebrity/athlete in Charlotte, but the third-year Carolina Panthers quarterback isn't there yet.

To borrow a phrase from the person he has to surpass: "To be the man, you gotta beat the man."


Yes, Ric Flair.

[+] EnlargeRic Flair
Mark Dadswell/Getty ImagesCam Newton has a ways to go before he reaches the popularity level of Charlotte's favorite son, Ric Flair.
When you talk about institutions in the Queen City, the 16-time heavyweight wrestling champion, often described in these parts as the platinum blond deity, remains king.

So it seems only fitting that the Panthers (12-4) have adopted "The Nature Boy's" famous "WOOOOOOO" that he uses to taunt opponents.

Cornerback Drayton Florence actually came up with the idea one day in practice. He suggested that the defensive backs break with two claps and a "WOOOOOOO!"

Next thing you know the linebackers were doing it. Then the entire defense was doing it. Then the offense wanted to get involved.

Eventually, it led to whoever gets the game ball following a victory having to give two claps followed by the entire team going "WOOOOOO!"

Newton somewhere along the line began adding "and the Nature Boy" after a slight pause. Here's a sample from the website.

"It's exciting to hear," Newton said. "It's exciting to say it and exciting to do ... It's a tribute to what he does. It's kind of something of a rejoice when you say it."

And yes, Newton grew up a fan.

"Who didn't grow up watching WWF, WCW and having Ric Flair slap somebody's chest and go, 'WOOOOOOO?'" Newton said.

Flair has yet to give a pregame locker room pep talk, and it's doubtful he will be available for the Jan. 12 playoff game because of a prior engagement.

But Florence is doing his best to arrange something, if not for the 12th then the NFC championship if the second-seeded Panthers win and top-seeded Seattle loses to put the game in Charlotte.

"He's the man," Florence said of Flair. "We want the man to join us."

Flair did send a phone message via Mario Addison, who ran into him at a local Taco Mac, that the defensive end played for the team before the Monday night game against New England.

Legacy Talent and Entertainment, which represents Flair, put the message to music and pictures on the wrestler's Facebook page.

"Hey boys, it's The Nature Boy Ric Flair calling you live from Atlanta, Ga.," Flair said in the message. "Tonight's the night guys. The New England Patriots are in town. Who cares? It's Carolina Panther time guys. And remember, tonight is the night, and to be the team you've got to be the team.

"Cam Newton, athletic gifts unparalleled. Steve Smith, the baddest man in the NFL. My good buddy Mario, you guys do it tonight. Remember, to be the team, you've got to beat the team. And right now you are the team, and will be all night long. Let's do it guys. Let's have two claps and a Ric Flair WOOOOOOO! Go Panthers. WOOOOOOO!"

Flair, who once wrestled in a tag-team match with former Carolina linebacker Kevin Greene, told he is flattered the Panthers have adopted his battle cry.

"It's awesome!" he said. "I'm a champ brother, so I know a thing or two about celebrating victories! I'm humbled to have achieved that much respect by my hometown team. I really believe the Panthers have the weapons to go all the way."

Florence said he didn't realize Flair lived in Charlotte when he came up with the idea that he borrowed from his high school in Florida. He suggested the "WOOOOOOO" break after the Panthers re-signed him following the second game.

Carolina is 12-2 since.

Florence, safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn already have taped a video of them doing the "WOOOOOOO" to play for the crowd on the Jumbotron before the Panthers face Philadelphia, Green Bay or San Francisco a week from Sunday.

"If we get to do it three more times [after games], that means we're in the Super Bowl," Florence said.

It's all part of team bonding that has been key to this season. Carolina coach Ron Rivera gets a kick out of the chant.

"They really seem to get themselves fired up over that," he said. "It's kind of become their trademark. It's fun. It's good for them."

But Rivera hasn't quite gotten the courage to try it with them.

"No," he said. "I'm not quite sure I have enough rhythm to do that."

Said Florence, "We'll coach him up."

But what Florence really wants is Flair in person.

"We need him, man," he said. "He's a Charlotte great. Anything we can do to get us motivated and hyped up to play another team, man, we're all for it."

Panthers back in control of destiny

December, 15, 2013
Captain Munnerlyn AP Photo/Bob LeveronePanthers' Captain Munnerlyn celebrates his INT return for a TD in the second half Sunday.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who preaches never to look past what's in front of you, found himself looking at the scoreboard late in Sunday night's 30-20 victory over the New York Jets.

Not just once, either.

"Unfortunately, a few times too many," Rivera said with almost an embarrassed look. "To be honest with you, I did get distracted a couple of times."

What he saw was New Orleans (10-4) losing at St. Louis 27-16, making next Sunday's rematch against his Panthers (10-4) at Bank of America Stadium even bigger.

You can't blame him.

The Panthers now control their destiny in the NFC South. A win at home against a New Orleans team that embarrassed them 31-13 a week ago on prime-time television and a win the following week at Atlanta would give them the division championship and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

All the woe-is-me talk a week ago suddenly has turned into optimism.

"You can always judge a champion by how they respond," cornerback Drayton Florence said. "We got knocked on our butts last week. We came back and responded."

What this game proved: The Panthers are up to challenges -- on many levels.

Carolina answered the challenge of not letting a loss to New Orleans turn into another.

It answered the challenge that Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes issued earlier in the week, when he said the secondary was the weak link to the league's second-ranked defense.

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, in particular, answered in a big way, sacking Jets quarterback Geno Smith twice -- he had only two sacks his entire career prior to that -- and returned a fourth-quarter interception 41 yards for a touchdown to make it 30-13 with 8:17 to play.

He then rubbed it in the Jets' faces, imitating an airplane crash in the end zone that earned him a 15-yard penalty and likely a sizable fine from the league later in the week.

It was worth it, though.

As Florence said, you have to have fun when you're in Carolina's position because these situations don't happen every day. And if that means Rivera letting down his guard and checking out the scoreboard, that's OK.

He has earned as much.

"It's that time of the year," Florence said.

Few gave the Panthers a chance to be in this position after a 1-3 start. Many probably doubted it after the loss to New Orleans in which the defense gave up four touchdown passes after surrendering no more than two scores in a game all season.

That's why Rivera wasn't all that upset about Munnerlyn's celebration.

"It was huge for our secondary," he said. "For them to play the way they did and play very physical, that is going to be one of the keywords there -- physical."

[+] EnlargePanthers
AP Photo/Mike McCarnPanthers RB DeAngelo Williams had 15 carries for 81 yards against the Jets' defense.
A week ago, the Panthers weren't physical with New Orleans defenders, allowing them to roam in the secondary almost as though they were uncovered.

But this wasn't a game decided by Munnerlyn or the secondary. This game in many ways was as much a team victory as any this season. Linebacker Jason Williams, a player you seldom hear mentioned, blocked the team's first punt of the season to set up Mike Tolbert's 1-yard touchdown run with Carolina nursing a 16-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Wide receiver Brandon LaFell threw a key block allowing running back DeAngelo Williams to complete a 72-yard touchdown catch with the score tied 6-6 late in the first half. Williams also added 81 yards rushing against the league's second best run defense.

Quarterback Cam Newton didn't have a spectacular day, but he had a passer rating of 118.9 that kept the offense moving.

It's the type of effort most would be pleased with next weekend against a New Orleans team struggling on the road.

"We don't have to do anything revolutionary," tight end Greg Olsen said.

This is a team that remains extremely hungry. That's why the Panthers allowed themselves moments to check out the scoreboard, why they laughed at the mention of Rivera doing it.

Munnerlyn set the tone.

"They challenge one of us, they challenge us all," he said. "That was the mantra going in."

The Panthers never really lost confidence with the loss at New Orleans, understanding the Saints have blown out a lot of teams at the Superdome.

But, Carolina still has a chip on its shoulders.

"A very big chip," said defensive end Greg Hardy, who had one of Carolina's four sacks. "Not as big as the one I normally have, but a big one. I don't like losing ... to anyone."

Indeed, the Panthers' only loss in their past 10 games is to the Saints. And with another win comfortably at hand against the Jets on Sunday, Rivera allowed himself to look at the big screen.

"We control our own destiny right now," Newton said. "We've just got to continue to do things that we've been doing up until this point."

How to cure a football hangover

December, 14, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If you've spent 24 hours in New Orleans, you've probably experienced that morning-after side effect that comes from downing one too many hurricanes.

It's called the hangover.

They're so prominent that they actually have remedies, from something called the hair-of-the-dog cocktail to a hot bowl of Yakamein soup, otherwise known as "Old Sober" concocted by somebody known simply as Ms. Linda.

[+] EnlargeMike Mitchell
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsMike Mitchell and the Panthers are eager to erase the memory of Sunday's 31-13 loss to the Saints.
Unfortunately for the Carolina Panthers, there is no food or beverage for the hangover the Saints left them with in a 31-13 drubbing Sunday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

So, it got me to thinking. What is the best cure for the football hangover? Here's what I got in an informal survey of Carolina players as they prepare to face the New York Jets (6-7) on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

"We had a rough night, for sure," safety Mike Mitchell said as he recalled the game. "It just takes the next game. Get the reps and get the last game out of your system."

Center Ryan Kalil took it one step further.

"Wins," he said. "Wins are the best cure. That's it. More football. That's the thing about it. You get another opportunity to right the wrongs from the week before. It's not always a terrible thing."

Cornerback Drayton Florence doesn't believe there are hangovers in football. At least not with good teams, and he believes the Panthers (9-4) are a good team.

"Be a professional," he said. "No matter if you win or lose, you're always on to the next opponent. I don't think it will be a problem for our team. You win or lose, you get over it in a 24-hour period. If you're still worried about last week, obviously, you're not going to be as prepared as you should be this week.

"One game doesn't make our season. One game doesn't spoil our season."

So, if you were mixing a concoction for Carolina's football hangover, it would be pretty much like this:

Time: Coach Ron Rivera gave his players Monday to dwell on the loss, then turned the focus to the Jets. He still was concerned after Wednesday's practice, sensing players were disappointed. He made sure everyone understood a second straight loss with the Arizona Cardinals (8-5) breathing down their necks in the wild-card chase would not be good for their playoff chances.

A win: Nothing cures the sick feeling that comes from losing like a win. The Panthers have a chance to do that against a team that -- before Sunday's 37-27 win over Oakland -- had lost three straight and four of five. The Jets also are 1-5 on the road.

Secret ingredient: A Carolina win and losses by Arizona and San Francisco, plus a Dallas loss or tie; or a Carolina win and losses by Arizona and San Francisco, plus a Philadelphia loss or tie. Hey, it could happen. Not likely, but it could. And if it does, the Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

That would cure any hangover.

The biggest task is to make sure there is no Hangover Part II.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- So the New Orleans Saints showed the rest of the NFL the blueprint for beating the Carolina Panthers' second-ranked defense. They exposed a unit that until Sunday night had not given up more than two touchdowns in a game this season.

The Panthers aren't buying it.

There's no reason to.

If the 31-13 victory that ended Carolina's eight-game winning streak was the blueprint, then Seattle's 34-7 victory against New Orleans six days earlier should have been the blueprint for beating the Saints. That certainly wasn't the case for the Panthers.

[+] EnlargeMarques Colston
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsNot every team has receivers like the Saints' Marques Colston who can exploit Carolina's secondary.
That probably won't be the case on Sunday when the New York Jets face Carolina, no matter how many secrets New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan shares with his brother Rex, the head coach of the Jets.

"We didn't do anything that Seattle did, or tried to do,'' Carolina safety Mike Mitchell said. "I don't think the league works like that. The league is about matchups and personnel. The Jets have a completely different personnel group, different players, so they can't do what the Saints do.

"Whatever their strengths are, they're going to try to do that to beat us. They're not going to try to run the Saints' offense, because they don't have the Saints' players.''


Last I looked, Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith ranked last in the NFL in passer rating at 62.4, having thrown nine touchdown passes and 20 interceptions. New Orleans' Drew Brees ranks sixth with a rating of 106.5, having thrown 33 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.

That says all you need to know.

Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes can call Carolina's secondary the weak link of the defense -- which it is because the front four and seven are so strong -- but that doesn't change that he has only 16 catches for 381 yards and one touchdown in 13 games.

He's not going to all of a sudden become Marques Colston and catch nine passes for 125 yards as the New Orleans receiver did on Sunday.

A blueprint only works if you've got the personnel to do the same things, and very few teams have the personnel New Orleans does. A blueprint only works if the Panthers play the same way they did against the Saints, and that isn't likely to happen.

"It was more us beating ourselves,'' Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said of Sunday' loss. "Not taking anything away from them at all, because they're a fine, fine football team. But really, it was us beating ourselves, fundamentally and technique wise.''

McDermott recalled the 2004 season at Philadelphia when he was the secondary/safeties coach. The Eagles won their first seven games, allowing more than 17 points in a game only once.

They were blown out 27-3 the next week at Pittsburgh.

Blueprint? Hardly. Philadelphia won its next six games, holding all but one opponent to 17 points or less. That team went on to the Super Bowl, where it lost to New England 24-21.

This isn't to suggest the Panthers (9-4) are going to end up in the Super Bowl. But it is a reminder that one loss doesn't provide the rest of the league with all the secrets to beating you.

"If they think that's the blueprint to beat us, then let them try to do that same thing again,'' linebacker Thomas Davis said. "Let a different team try to do that. It came down to us not executing like we needed to, like we had the previous weeks.

"When you have a good football team like the Saints and you don't execute against them, you're going to get beat.''

So what did the Carolina defense learn from the loss to New Orleans? Basically, that if you don't play fundamentally sound football anybody is beatable.

"Attacking the ball in the air, identifying receivers in different locations they're trying to get the ball to, just things we've been on top off all year and we just let slide,'' cornerback Drayton Florence said.

"We've only been beaten four times, so if there's a blueprint, obviously everybody is not buying into it. You know how it is in this league. Anybody can win any given Sunday.''

Now that is a proven blueprint.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton leaned into the microphone on Sunday after leading the Carolina Panthers to a franchise-record eighth straight victory and whispered, "War Eagle."

Then he did it again.

And again.

"War dang Eagle!" the Carolina quarterback said, in what one could only hope was his final moment of gloating about Auburn's dramatic victory against top-ranked Alabama before moving on to the Panthers' 27-6 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Panthers have a pretty big game for the NFC South lead coming up next Sunday night in New Orleans, but you couldn't tell it the way Newton kept referencing his alma mater's upset victory.

You really couldn't tell it by the demeanor of anybody in the locker room. This team is focused on more than the New Orleans Saints and a division title.

"We know it will be a challenge," cornerback Drayton Florence said of the prime-time game against the Saints (9-2), who have a half-game lead over Carolina (9-3) heading into their Monday night game at Seattle. "But they're just in our way to get to that bowl."

That would be the Super Bowl.

Yes, the Panthers are becoming serious contenders to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, which would have been hard to imagine when they were 1-3.

That they handily defeated the Buccaneers (3-9), winners of three straight, despite two interceptions from Newton shows just how focused they are.

And confident.

"There's no roof," defensive end Greg Hardy said. "[Just] the sky. We're going up. We're going up. Every person on this team, every person in this building, has the same mentality right now. I feel like it's contagious. They feel like they can't be beat."

There is a sense of invincibility building here, but it's not something anybody takes for granted. After going 2-14, 6-10 and 7-9 the past three seasons, there's more of an appreciation for what is taking place and what it has taken to make it happen.

[+] EnlargeByron Bell, Cam Newton and Nate Chandler.
AP Photo/Mike McCarnByron Bell, Cam Newton and Nate Chandler had fun Sunday, but don't get them wrong. Their goal for this season is serious business.
"All the work we put in, the blood and sweat and tears … trying to figure out how to win, was for this," said Hardy, who had a sack and two quarterback hurries against Tampa Bay. "We've had this talent for years. We just didn't have the 'want to.' Now it's there."

Sunday's win was an example of how deep the talent is. Sack leader Charles Johnson (knee) missed his second straight start, but the defense held the Bucs to two field goals and shut out its opponent in the second half for the third time in four games.

Leading rusher DeAngelo Williams sat out with a quadriceps injury, yet the Panthers rushed for 163 yards behind Newton, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart.

They won with the same formula that has gotten them this far. Newton dove for a 1-yard touchdown on fourth down and passed for two more scores. The defense shut down the Buccaneers' running game (66 yards) and then came down on quarterback Mike Glennon for five sacks.

"Efficient," coach Ron Rivera said of the effort.

Rivera expects to have both Johnson and Williams back for the Saints game, but even he's more interested in long term because he understands the potential this team has.

"It is very satisfying because of where we came from," the third-year coach said of the winning streak. "As I have said before, it's been a hard four years for a lot of guys in that locker room. It is very satisfying to be on a nice little roll, but again there is a lot of work to do."

That begins with preparation for the first of two games against New Orleans during a three-game stretch that likely will decide the division title and a first-round bye for the playoffs, based on the way things are going in the other divisions.

"Ready, man," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "It's a game all of y'all [media] have been waiting for. It's a game y'all have been getting us to talk about. Now it's here. The showdown. I'm excited for it. It's prime-time football again."

But Munnerlyn isn't any more excited to talk about the Saints than he was the Buccaneers a week ago.

"Not really," he said. "It's just the next game."

That's a theme that won't go away.

"It's great to be a part of," Newton said of the winning streak. "But we're not done yet. I don't think there is a sense of entitlement in the locker room with these guys. Everyone continues to know what we have to do in the upcoming weeks, starting off with this."

Newton leaned back into the microphone. You got it. He wasn't done gloating.

"Did I say War Eagle?" asked Newton, who led Auburn to the national championship in 2010. "War Eagle!"

One play aside, secondary passes test

December, 1, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cornerback Drayton Florence smiled when asked about the 60-yard completion to Vincent Jackson in the second quarter of the Carolina Panthers' 27-6 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday.

He wasn't smiling because he was happy Jackson made him look silly on the deep pass, or because he was able to trip the three-time Pro Bowl receiver at the 4-yard line.

He wasn't smiling because quarterback Mike Glennon lost a fumble three plays later, even though he was happy the defense took him off the hook.

[+] EnlargeDrayton Florence and Chris Owusu
AP Photo/Mike McCarnDrayton Florence and the Panthers' secondary limited the Buccaneers' passing attack to 180 yards and no scores.
He was smiling because Jackson didn't catch another pass on him the rest of the game.

"You can't let one play worry you,'' Florence said. "You have to move on to the next play and make sure it doesn't happen again.''

A week ago, the Panthers didn't do that. Miami wide receiver Mike Wallace beat cornerback Captain Munnerlyn for completions of 53 and 57 yards. He had another where he was overthrown and he ended the game getting behind the secondary for what ultimately was an incompletion near the end zone.

Those plays were so scary that coach Ron Rivera opened the competition at both corners this past week, not naming his starters until Sunday.

Not even Munnerlyn, the senior member of the secondary, was guaranteed a spot outside the nickel position.

Florence was the benefactor, replacing rookie Melvin White at right corner in the base defense.

One play aside, Rivera was pleased.

"I thought our secondary did a nice job disguising,'' he said. "They did a nice job jamming and being physical when they had to. We did it again -- bite on the double move -- but it was a great effort by Drayton Florence to get him down.''

Still, he admitted, "There are some things that need to be cleaned up.''

The Panthers (9-3) can't afford such mistakes against New Orleans (9-2), which with quarterback Drew Brees and his stable full of talented receivers has the second-best passing attack in the NFL.

But Sunday's performance was a step in the right direction because the Panthers did a nice job of keeping plays in front of them as this defense requires.

Munnerlyn says the secondary passed whatever test Rivera and the coaching staff had for it. Florence agreed, saying competition makes everyone better.

Both like the way the defense is playing as a whole heading to New Orleans.

"The only way teams are going to beat us is if we beat ourselves,'' Florence said.

That almost happened at Miami, so Rivera adjusted. Other than the 60-yarder to Jackson, the adjustments worked.

That's why Florence was smiling.

"We responded like we've been responding all year,'' he said. "When teams get down in the red zone we come up with big plays, getting the turnover or holding them to three.

"It's big for our defense to keep playing like that. That's what's going to separate us once we get into the playoffs.''

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

December, 1, 2013

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 27-6 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

What it means: The Sunday night (Dec. 8) showdown with the New Orleans Saints for the NFC South lead is now a reality. The Panthers won a franchise-record eighth straight game, improving to 9-3. They moved within half a game of the Saints (9-2), who play at Seattle on Monday night. It will be the first of two games between Carolina and New Orleans during a three-week stretch that likely will decide the division and possibly a first-round playoff bye. That the Panthers were able to defeat Tampa, which had won three straight, with such a workmanlike performance shows their focus.

Stock watch: This seems like a weekly segment here, but it's hard to ignore what Cam Newton is doing. He dove for a touchdown on fourth-and-1 and passed for two more. His 56-yard scramble in the first half got the offense going early. He did make a horrible throw that was intercepted late in the third quarter with Carolina leading 24-6, but otherwise this was another solid performance.

Riverboat Ron: This seems like a weekly segment as well, mainly because coach Ron Rivera takes a chance on fourth-and-1 almost every game now. Newton rewarded his coach's confidence with a 1-yard touchdown dive with 25 seconds left in the half to make it 17-6 and pretty much end the suspense in this one. Carolina made one more fourth-and-1 late, improving to 8-for-10 on the season. It is 9-for-11 on fourth down overall.

Bowling ball: Running back Mike Tolbert, aka the "Bowling Ball," doesn't get enough credit for all he does as a leader, runner, blocker and receiver. But with leading rusher DeAngelo Williams (quad) out, perhaps a few took notice. He rushed nine times for 48 yards and caught three passes for 41 yards. His second effort was impossible to miss.

Secondary woes: The secondary was under the magnifying glass after Rivera opened the competition at both cornerback spots this week. New starter Drayton Florence allowed a 60-yard reception in the first half, but otherwise this group held its own.

What's next? The Panthers travel to New Orleans for an NFC South showdown against the New Orleans Saints. Carolina swept the two-game series last season.

Panthers could have two new corners

November, 29, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Despite a seven-game winning streak and an 8-3 record, the Carolina Panthers are auditioning for starters at both cornerback spots heading into Sunday's home game against Tampa Bay.

Not that anybody should be surprised after the way they were burned deep in a 20-16 victory at Miami.

Coach Ron Rivera said on Friday the only members of the secondary guaranteed a starting spot are safeties Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell.

That means Captain Munnerlyn, who is only guaranteed a role as the starting nickel back, is in danger of losing his left cornerback spot and Melvin White his right corner position.

Munnerlyn was beaten by Miami receiver Mike Wallace for a 53-yard touchdown pass and a 57-yarder that resulted in a field goal in the first half. He also was beaten deep later in the game, but Wallace was overthrown.

White struggled in the 24-20 victory against New England two weeks ago and was inconsistent against the Dolphins.

“Your job is to keep it [play] in front of you and you have to,'' Rivera said after the game. "And we’re going to address that and make sure that it gets corrected. We’re going to play the guy that will do the things we ask him to do and do them the right way.”

He obviously meant it.

While Rivera didn't name starters, he spoke well of veteran Drayton Florence, who rejoined the team in Week 3 after a rash of injuries in a 24-23 loss at Buffalo.

He also was complimentary of Josh Thomas, who started five of the first six games before being replaced after getting beaten deep in a win over St. Louis.

Rivera said the more players are pushed into opportunities the more they've taken advantage of them.

"Ever since Drayton Florence has gotten back he's made a difference,'' he said.

Reading between the lines, you could see Florence at one corner spot and Thomas at the other against the Bucs.

The fallout from cut-down day

September, 1, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The decision to release veteran cornerback Drayton Florence on Saturday was a good thing if your first name is Josh and you play cornerback for the Carolina Panthers.

As in Josh Norman and Josh Thomas.

With Florence gone on the left side, one will step into the starting lineup for the Sept. 8 opener against the Seattle Seahawks. The likely and popular choice is Norman, who led the NFL in preseason interceptions with four, two more than any other player.

[+] EnlargeJosh Norman
Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT via Getty ImagesPanthers cornerback Josh Norman picked off four passes during the preseason.
While ESPN's statistics department isn't aware of an official preseason record for interceptions, it was able to determine that Norman is the only player with at least four since 2000. There have been 13 with three.

Is Norman ready to return to the position he lost after starting the first 12 games a year ago? It appears so.
Asked how he felt after the preseason finale, a 25-10 win over Pittsburgh in which he returned an interception 70 yards before being tackled, Norman said, "comfortable."

"I can sit out there now and just read stuff, just play off guys, and my eyes got a whole lot better,'' he continued. "I can see the field a lot better. Instead of hesitant to make a play, I'm going to make a play. I feel like that every time I get out on the field."

What has kept the second-year player from Coastal Carolina out of the starting lineup since his mistake-riddled performance against Kansas City last season has been little things such as discipline and reading his keys.

It didn't help that Carolina won its final four games after Norman was benched.

Norman knows all this, and believes his performance in training camp has proven he's ready to contribute. Coach Ron Rivera has been impressed, but hedges by saying Norman needs to continue to "learn to play within the confines of the defense.''

"I kind of get like sporadic out there sometimes,'' Norman admitted. "I see stuff faster than other guys and I want to pick up on it, but I [miss] my keys and what I know I'm not supposed to do. It comes with understanding and learning and getting out of my habits and ways.''

The good news is Carolina has a solid front seven that will cover up a lot of mistakes in the secondary because quarterbacks should have less time to throw. That makes getting a big playmaker such as Norman on the field more important.

"I'll just continue to do what I've been doing and I'll be in a good spot,'' Norman said.

The Panthers need Norman to help put a secondary, which gave up the highest opponent completion percentage (66.8) of any team in the league last season, in a good spot.

Preseason returns look promising. Although there remain some soft spots in the middle, Carolina's defense led the league with 10 preseason interceptions -- the most by a team since the 2000 Cardinals.

Yes, there's bad news. The Cardinals went on to a 3-13 regular-season record and intercepted only 10 passes. Only two teams had fewer.

But like Norman, the potential is there for Carolina to avoid that pitfall.

"We're good right now,'' said Norman, who began proving his point with two interceptions in the preseason opener against Chicago. "We just need to continue to do the little things to get us to where we are. We'll propel ourselves into being in a good spot at the end of the year."

Norman already has propelled himself to a better spot.

Carolina Panthers cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2013
Most significant move: In the world of perception that quarterback is the most important position, the most significant move would be cutting third-stringer Jimmy Clausen, simply because the 2010 second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame was brought in to replace Jake Delhomme. He was waived injured after hurting his shoulder in the preseason finale, but would have been waived regardless.

But in reality it's cornerback Drayton Florence. He was signed to add veteran leadership and experience to a young secondary. He worked with the first team for most of training camp. But the re-emergence of Josh Norman, who led the league with four preseason interceptions, and the solid play of Josh Thomas made the aging defensive back expendable even though he returned an interception 71 yards for a touchdown against Baltimore. Norman put himself in position to reclaim a position he lost after starting the first 12 games of his rookie season in 2012. He is an exceptional talent who just needs to refine the little things to potentially become a star. The good news is Carolina's front seven is strong, which should give quarterbacks less time to throw and cover up some of the mistakes the second-year player undoubtedly will make.

Survivor 2011: Defensive tackle Sione Fua was voted off Panther island, leaving quarterback Cam Newton as the only remaining member of Carolina's 2011 draft class on the active roster. That doesn't speak well for what the staff thought of former general manager Marty Hurney's selections.

The others from that class were: DT Terrell McClain, third round pick, released in 2012; CB Brandon Hogan, fourth-round pick, waived from IR in 2012; WR Kealoha Pilares, fifth-round pick, on injured reserve; LB Lawrence Wilson, sixth-round pick, released in 2011; G Zack Willliams, sixth-round pick, released 2013.

Team moves: Waived injured -- QB Jimmy Clausen, S D.J. Campbell, WR David Gettis, S Anderson Russell. Waived -- OT Garrett Chisolm, DT Sione Fua, TE Zack Pianalto, WR James Shaw, WR Brenton Bersin, G Hayword Hicks, LB Doug Hogue, S Robert Lester, LB Ben Jacobs, RB Tauren Poole, TE Dominique Curry, WR Taulib Ikharo, G Tori Mobley, DE Craig Roh, DT Casey Walker. Terminated vested veterans -- OT Patrick Brown, CB Drayton Florence, LB Jason Williams.

What's next: Depth remains an issue on the offensive line and secondary, so general manager Dave Gettleman will be scanning the waiver wire for help in both areas. Gettleman also might be on the lookout for a serviceable running back with Jonathan Stewart on PUP for at least five games. The release of Tauren Poole leaves DeAngelo Williams and fullback Mike Tolbert (hamstring) as the only experienced backs. After that you're down to rookie Kenjon Barner and second-year player Armond Smith. But to narrow this to any position might be unwise. Gettleman has a reputation of going with the best players regardless of position.

Observation deck: Panthers-Ravens

August, 22, 2013

During the pregame show before Thursday night’s game, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said he wouldn’t be surprised if Luke Kuechly wins the Defensive Player of the Year award at some point.

That point might be coming a lot sooner than even Gruden expects. If Kuechly plays all season the way he played in the Carolina Panthers' 34-27 preseason victory against the host Baltimore Ravens, he could be a shoo-in for the award.

Preseason or not, Kuechly turned in one of the most dominating defensive performances I’ve ever seen. He was all over the field from the start, which isn’t unexpected for a guy who was Defensive Rookie of the Year last season. But Kuechly turned in a second quarter that was beyond spectacular.

Kuechly forced a fumble by running back Bernard Pierce. Fellow linebacker Thomas Davis jumped on the loose ball and slid into the end zone to give the Panthers a 21-7 lead with 10:22 left in the first half.

A few minutes later, Kuechly popped the ball loose from Ravens receiver Aaron Mellette and safety Charles Godfrey seemed to intercept the pass. But Kuechly was called for a penalty and the interception was nullified.

It didn’t matter. Two plays later, Kuechly came up with an interception of his own to set up a field goal that gave the Panthers a 24-7 halftime lead.

Some other observations on the Panthers:
  • Kuechly wasn’t the only defensive star for the Panthers. Cornerback Drayton Florence returned an interception 71 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter.
  • Defensive back D.J. Moore also had an interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter.
  • Rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who were quiet in the first two preseason games, had a big impact. Short produced a sack and Lotulelei, who also recorded one, looked good as a run-stuffer.
  • The defense wasn’t the only unit that was explosive. The special teams also came through. Ted Ginn Jr. returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
  • It’s a good thing the defense and special teams were so productive because the first-team offense didn’t look very good. The Panthers had to punt the first three times they touched the ball and the first offense never got into much of a rhythm. But I don’t think fans should panic about the offense. I think the Panthers are keeping things very basic in the preseason.
  • Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn suffered an apparent hand injury in the third quarter and did not return.
  • Running back Armond Smith was ejected in the fourth quarter for kicking a Baltimore player. That's not going to help Smith's chances of making the roster.

Observation deck: Panthers-Eagles

August, 15, 2013

The Carolina Panthers better put in a hurry-up defense quickly.

That became apparent in Thursday night’s 14-9 preseason loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

With the defensive starters playing most of the first half, the Panthers struggled to stop Philadelphia’s fast-paced attack. The Eagles piled up 257 yards of total offense in the first half.

Carolina's defense was on its heels, reacting instead of being proactive, most of the night.

Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly’s scheme is unique, but the Panthers are going to face elements of it in the regular season. They have to play Atlanta (twice), a team that’s proficient in the no-huddle offense. They also have to face Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, a pair of quarterbacks who can make things happen with their ability to run.

Things could have been even worse, but Carolina’s first defense was able to produce three turnovers to stop Philadelphia drives. But it’s pretty obvious the unit isn’t a finished product.

The Panthers have some work to do in getting ready for no-huddle offenses and mobile quarterbacks.

Some other quick observations on the Panthers:
  • It wasn’t all bad news for the defense. Cornerback Josh Norman had an interception on a Hail-Mary pass just before the end of the first half and cornerback Josh Thomas picked off Nick Foles early on. Veterans Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn have been getting most of the first-team work in camp, but the interceptions by Norman and Thomas might put them in the mix for starting jobs.
  • I liked the fact the Panthers gave running back DeAngelo Williams 12 carries in the first half. I thought Williams was underutilized last season. He’s an explosive player and, if given enough chances in the regular season, Williams will make things happen.
  • Defensive end Greg Hardy produced a first-half sack. But give some of the credit to rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who got good penetration on the play.
  • Wide receiver Steve Smith is 34, but still going strong, largely because he runs such great routes.
  • Rookie Kenjon Barner might have hurt his chances at claiming future playing time as a return man by muffing a third-quarter punt return.
  • With receivers Domenik Hixon, Joe Adams and Armanti Edwards sitting out due to injuries, David Gettis and Ted Ginn Jr. made the most of increased opportunities. Gettis had five catches for 82 yards and Ginn had two catches for 39 yards.