NFL Nation: Dwayne Jarrett

What happened with the Carolina Panthers on Monday morning is a reminder that the NFL is a cold, hard business and the win-loss record is all that really matters.

The Panthers fired general manager Marty Hurney. It was inevitable. Carolina came into the season with very high expectations but is off to a 1-5 start. The Panthers haven’t had a winning season since 2008.

Fans are getting restless, and so is team owner Jerry Richardson, a man who spent a ton of money coming out of this past summer’s lockout.

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneMarty Hurney had been the Panthers' GM since 2002.
Someone had to take the fall, and Hurney was the choice. You can question whether Hurney was the right guy to sacrifice, and some already are doing that.

“Marty wasn't the reason we are losing!" Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson said on his Twitter account. “That's bs! Unbelievable! Marty might be the realist GM that I know #InMyMind BS BS BS BS!"

You can wonder if maybe head coach Ron Rivera, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski or defensive coordinator Sean McDermott should have been ousted. At least to me, it looks as though the Panthers have a talented roster that is not being coached very well.

And you can certainly question the timing of Hurney’s firing. Does it really make sense to fire the guy who runs the personnel department after Week 7?

No, it doesn’t. The Panthers will bring in someone from outside or elevate director of pro scouting Mark Koncz, but either way, they’re not going to right the ship in the middle of the season. Any personnel moves that can help this team will have to come in the offseason.

But this wasn’t just a football move. It went much deeper than that.

To understand what I mean by that, you have to know a bit about Hurney and Richardson. They were -- and even now probably will remain -- exceptionally close. After saying he’d never have a general manager again after Bill Polian’s ugly departure, Richardson hired Hurney to manage the salary cap in 1998.

The two hit it off, and Hurney quickly gained Richardson’s trust. When former coach George Seifert ran the franchise into the ground in 2001, Richardson reversed course and promoted Hurney to general manager. He also essentially let Hurney hire John Fox as coach.

The Panthers reached the Super Bowl in Hurney and Fox's second season together, 2003. Two seasons later, they were back in the NFC Championship Game.

But soon after that, Richardson started to see cracks. He wanted to see back-to-back winning seasons, and he was starting to worry about growing egos.

Richardson’s worries eventually turned into realities. Fox never produced consecutive winning seasons, and the level of trust between the coach and Richardson seemed to erode to a point where things became downright hostile in Fox’s final season, 2010.

But the Richardson-Hurney relationship survived all that, and Richardson let Hurney hire Rivera to replace Fox. Part of the reason is Hurney is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet in football or anywhere else. He’s the kind of guy who picked up the phone to offer condolences to a reporter whose father had died the moment he heard about it.

Hurney is the kind of guy who would call a reporter on draft night just to exchange thoughts on what happened around the league. He’s the kind of guy who would never lie to you and always try to steer a reporter in the right direction, even if it wasn’t necessarily in his best interest.

On the job, Hurney made some brilliant moves through the years -- signing Jake Delhomme and Stephen Davis as free agents, drafting the likes of Julius Peppers, Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil. His drafting of quarterback Cam Newton looked brilliant last year, but not so much this season.

He also made some very questionable moves -- signing Delhomme to a big contract extension after the quarterback had flamed out, drafting Armanti Edwards, Jimmy Clausen, Dwayne Jarrett, Terrell McClain, Eric Norwood, Everette Brown, Jeff Otah and some other busts. He also committed $80 million of Richardson’s money to running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.

But for some reason, the coaching staff isn’t making much use out of Williams, Stewart and Tolbert. Is that Hurney’s fault?

I don’t think so. And I don’t think Richardson totally believes that, either.

Still, it really doesn’t matter. Richardson needed a scapegoat, and it had to be hard for him to decide on Hurney. But keep in mind, Richardson once fired his two sons (Mark as team president and Jon as stadium president). His logic on that move was that their dysfunctional relationship was taking a toll on the other 300 people who worked in the building and on fans.

The logic on Hurney was similar. Things weren’t going well, and fans were giving up on the Panthers.

When I spoke to Hurney last week, he seemed resigned to the idea that his time was running out, but it seemed he thought the move would come more toward the end of the season.

That might have been more logical. But Richardson had to send a message now to his fans that he still cares about winning and that the current product is unsatisfactory. It would be difficult to fire the entire coaching staff or fire Rivera and elevate one of his assistants in the middle of the season.

Someone had to go now, and that was Hurney. But I think it should be clear to Rivera, every assistant coach in the building and every player that if Richardson is willing to get rid of Hurney, no one is sacred.

There’s going to be a lot more housecleaning in Carolina after the season. This was just the first step.

NFC South breakout players

June, 12, 2012
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As we get ready for Tuesday night’s "SportsCenter" NFC South preview (ESPN2 at 7 p.m. ET), let’s take a look at four players from around the division that I expect to have breakout seasons in 2012.

Atlanta running back Jacquizz Rodgers: He had a minimal impact as a rookie, but the normally-quiet Falcons have talked openly about Rodgers taking on a bigger role. Michael Turner still will be the main ball carrier, but the Falcons have said they want to limit his number of carries. That’s where Rodgers can fit in. He’s an entirely different type of runner than the powerful Turner. Rodgers is about speed and elusiveness, and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will try to utilize those skills as he attempts to add more explosiveness to Atlanta’s attack. Rodgers is at his best when running on the outside. He also has pass-catching skills and can make things happen in the open field. That’s why it’s a virtual certainty the Falcons won’t finish last in the league in screen passes attempted like they did the past two years. Rodgers has the perfect skills to make things happen on screen passes.

Carolina wide receiver Brandon LaFell: It seems like the Panthers have been trying to find a solid No. 2 receiver in the second round of the draft. They tried and failed miserably with Keary Colbert and Dwayne Jarrett. I blame much of that on former coach John Fox and his staff. They were conservative in every way -- from their offensive scheme to their hesitation in allowing young receivers much of a chance to do anything. But Fox only had LaFell for one season and it’s time for Ron Rivera and his staff to turn LaFell loose. He seemed to slowly gain trust from Rivera’s staff last year. If those coaches put even more trust in LaFell in 2012, they could be rewarded in a big way. In a lot of ways, LaFell is similar to Muhsin Muhammad, the only wide receiver that ever has worked successfully in tandem with No. 1 receiver Steve Smith. LaFell is big and strong and could provide a nice target over the middle for Cam Newton.

New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins: The New Orleans defense had a lot of unflattering statistics last season, but this one might be the worst: neither starting safety had an interception. Yes, Jenkins and Roman Harper went through the entire season without coming up with an interception. Harper’s never been known for his pass-coverage skills. He plays the run like a linebacker and was a productive pass-rusher in the scheme used by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. But the fact Jenkins went through an entire season without an interception was shocking. He has all the skills of a free safety that can be a true centerfielder, but he didn’t really have the chance to do that with Williams. Now that Steve Spagnuolo has taken over as coordinator, Jenkins should be allowed to sit back in coverage and use his intellect and physical skills to take advantage of mistakes by quarterbacks.

Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron: I’m going out on a limb and including a rookie as a breakout player. That’s because I’m very confident Barron will step in and have an instant impact. You don’t take a safety at No. 7 in the draft unless you’re pretty sure he’s going to be something like an Ed Reed or a Ronnie Lott. New Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano obviously has huge plans for Barron. A coach’s first draft pick is supposed to be a cornerstone of the team and Schiano has said the NFL’s transition to more passing in recent years has added value to quality safeties. Schiano has made it clear that Barron will be expected to play man coverage against wide receivers at times. But Barron’s biggest value could come in matching up with tight ends. In the NFC South, Barron will have to go against New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, Carolina’s Greg Olsen and Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez on a regular basis. A lot of linebackers and safeties have struggled against those guys. But Barron might have the right combination of size and speed to at least keep some tight ends in check.

Draft Watch: NFC South

March, 17, 2011
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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.

Atlanta Falcons

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.

Carolina Panthers

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.
Yep, I know I wrote Saturday in a mailbag that I don’t see veteran tight end Jeremy Shockey joining the Carolina Panthers. And, yes, I know it was reported late Saturday night that the Panthers are bringing Shockey in for a physical.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Shockey
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireTight end Jeremy Shockey had 41 catches and three touchdowns last season with New Orleans.
I could end up being wrong, but I’m sticking with my original statement. The Panthers will bring Shockey in for a physical, but I really don’t see it turning into a contract.

I’m basing this on what I know of Shockey, who spent the past few seasons in the NFC South with the New Orleans Saints. I’m also basing this largely on what I know about how the Panthers think.

Now, I know they’ve got a new coach in Ron Rivera and a new offensive coordinator in Rob Chudzinski. Rivera has been open about saying the Panthers need a pass-catching tight end, and Chuzdkinski was an assistant at the University of Miami when Shockey was there.

Situations like that often times are reason enough for courtesy visits, and this might be nothing more than that. It also could be an exploratory physical, just to find out where Shockey’s health stands (it has been a question much of his career), so the Panthers have an idea as they go through the process of looking at all the options for a pass-catching tight end.

Shockey reportedly passed a physical with the Dolphins, and I can see him in Miami a lot easier than I can see him in Carolina. Again, I think the new-age Panthers simply might be doing some homework on a guy who at least one of their coaches has some ties to. Besides, the Panthers would have to do something before the end of the day March 3, because a lockout is expected March 4. If there is a lockout, no players, can be signed until the labor situation is resolved.

But it’s the old-school Panthers that make it tough for me to see this developing into anything of substance. I’m talking about owner Jerry Richardson and general manager Marty Hurney. Unless they’ve undergone sudden personality changes or handed total control of the team to Rivera (and I don’t think that’s the case), signing Shockey simply doesn’t fit their style.

Hurney and Richardson started a youth movement last season, and Shockey, 30, doesn’t fit that profile. He has more wear and tear on his body than most 30-year-olds, and hasn’t been as productive as he was in recent seasons. I’d even make the argument that if you took current Carolina tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario and put them in a tight-end-friendly offense, they’d be more productive than Shockey.

I think the Panthers get their tight end somewhere else in free agency or the draft. There are a lot of other reasons why Shockey doesn’t fit the profile of Richardson and Hurney. First off, he’s flamboyant, and flamboyant generally doesn’t fly with Fox and Hurney. Second, although Shockey behaved (other than some hydration issues) in New Orleans, I think that was only because he knew better than to challenge quarterback Drew Brees.

In his days with the New York Giants, Shockey flat-out abused quarterback Eli Manning, who doesn’t have the locker-room control Brees does. Shockey was constantly calling for the ball and steamrolling Manning.

In case you haven’t noticed, the Panthers don’t have any quarterbacks right now who command respect. Maybe they bring in a Donovan McNabb or a Carson Palmer and that changes. Even those veterans have been pushed around in the past, McNabb by Terrell Owens and Palmer by Chad (Ochocinco) Johnson.

But, unless the Panthers trade receiver Steve Smith, they already have one very strong-willed pass catcher. Smith openly clashed with rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen last season. Smith also doesn’t have a history of being real generous when it comes to sharing the spotlight or the ball.

The season he and equally flamboyant Keyshawn Johnson were together was a disaster on and off the field. In the locker room, Smith shot dirty looks at reporters when they talked to Johnson, and it also worked in reverse. When Smith was paired with young receivers like Dwayne Jarrett and Keary Colbert, he walked all over them and was probably part of the reason they were busts.

Putting Smith and Shockey in the same locker room and on the same field has all sorts of downside potential. Even if Smith goes in a trade, I just don’t see this happening, knowing what I know about Richardson and Hurney. At best, Shockey would be nothing more than a short-term fix. At worst, he wouldn’t add much on the field, and could be a distraction off it. Besides, I think if Shockey has any real choice between the Dolphins and Panthers, the night life in Miami and Charlotte becomes a factor, and South Beach has a big edge there.

But maybe I’ll end up being wrong. Maybe Rivera and Chudzinski have more power than previous coach John Fox, and maybe they can convince the owner and the general manager to stop being conservative and take a chance. But I seriously doubt it.

The best player not at the combine?

February, 25, 2011
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Vidal HazeltonCary Edmondson/US PresswireVidal Hazelton's college career didn't go as planned, but he thinks he has a bright future in the NFL.
If it hasn’t happened already, Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff is going to hear Vidal Hazelton's name at the scouting combine at some point this weekend.

Hazelton, perhaps the biggest draft-eligible name not at the combine, has given his agent, Kelli Masters, some very specific orders.

“Get my name in front of the Falcons," Hazleton said. “Remind them that I’m out there. That would be a dream scenario to end up with the Falcons. They’re the team I always rooted for growing up."

The fact Hazelton has spent much of his life living in Georgia also is a factor. And Hazelton’s biggest fan (more on that in a bit) lives in Alpharetta, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta.

But Hazelton realizes he’s no longer in a position where dream scenarios are likely. That’s why Masters’ job is to also remind 31 other general managers that Hazelton is out there. Hazelton is proof that the NFL and college football are games that move quickly and even the brightest of stars can be forgotten.

“I have no question that, if things had gone a little differently for Vidal, you’d be hearing all about him as a first-round pick during the combine," said University of Cincinnati receivers coach T.J. Weist, who has coached 14 future NFL receivers during a lengthy career in the college ranks. “He’s got the size, he’s got the physical tools, he’s a great competitor and he’s mentally tough and a great worker."

So why wasn’t Hazelton even invited to the combine?

This is where the story veers way off that dream scenario and takes twists and turns that lead back and forth across the country. It could be a tragic story, but it’s not. At least not at this point because Hazelton is adamant that this story is far from over and he's in charge of writing the ending. Before we get to that, though, let’s go back to the beginning.

Let’s go back to 2006, when Hazelton was one of the top college receiver prospects in the nation. He signed with a football factory, the University of Southern California, which has produced plenty of NFL receivers through the years.

[+] EnlargeVidal Hazelton
Kevin Reece/Icon SMIVidal Hazelton's best season came in 2007, when he had 50 receptions for 540 yards at USC.
The plan was to go slowly and let Hazelton spend his freshman season playing behind Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith before making him the main target in the passing game. He led the Trojans with 50 receptions the next year, but things took a strange turn the following season. In the 2008 opener, Hazelton suffered a high-ankle sprain. By the time he returned, Damian Williams, Patrick Turner and Ronald Johnson had emerged and there wasn’t a lot of playing time.

While this was going on, Hazelton’s grandfather, James Hazelton, was diagnosed with cancer. Hazelton wanted to be closer geographically to his grandfather. He transferred to Cincinnati and sat out the 2009 season. In a pass-happy offense, huge things were expected of Hazelton in 2010.

“In camp last summer, he was looking better than ever,’’ Weist said. “He was just exploding off the ball and [NFL] scouts were getting all excited.’’

The buzz lasted for a little over half a game. In the season opener, Hazelton fielded a kickoff return and tore his anterior cruciate ligament.

“It happened on a Saturday," Hazelton said. “I cried on Sunday. On Monday, I woke up in good spirits and I haven’t looked back since. My father and my grandfather raised me to never look back and to only worry about the things you can control."

What Hazelton has controlled in the months in between is his knee. He made what doctors have jokingly told him was the quickest recovery ever from an ACL injury. He was even cleared for Cincinnati’s last two games, but didn’t play because there still was the possibility of him being granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA. That didn’t happen and Hazelton has moved on quickly.

He’s spent the last few months working out at Athletic Performance Institute in the Los Angeles area, along with many other prospects who are at the combine, and he’s actually happy he wasn’t invited.

“I look at it as a blessing," Hazelton said. “I’m almost 100 percent, but this gives me more time to get ready."

The target date is March 28, when Cincinnati holds its pro day workouts.

“I need to prove everything," Hazelton said. “I need to show my knee is back. I love days like that. I’m more anxious than nervous. This whole thing has humbled me and made me more motivated."

It’s Masters’ job to make sure NFL teams show up for Hazelton’s workout, and Weist said he’s been getting a lot of calls from NFL scouts recently. Weist is happy to share here the same scouting report he’s been giving to the NFL people.

“Look at how quickly he’s come back from the injury," Weist said. “That says a lot about his work ethic. You just don’t come back from an ACL in a few months. He showed he’s going to put in the work and he showed he’s got good genetics to be able to recover like he did. People ask me which NFL receiver I’d compare him to and I say T.O. [Terrell Owens]. He’s a thick, powerful and explosive player. He’s right up there with any receiver in this draft in terms of physical ability. But what sets this kid apart is his maturity. He’s been through adversity and he’s very hungry. A lot of guys going in aren’t as hungry. He’s not going to take anything for granted."

Now, let’s go back to the Falcons. Like every other team, they’re not giving away any draft plans right now. It’s obvious Hazelton’s circumstances will push him down into the later rounds or perhaps make him a potential undrafted free agent.

Any chance with the Falcons would be a dream come true for Hazelton and for someone else. James Hazelton lives in Alpharetta and is a lifelong Falcons fan. James Hazelton is still battling cancer, his grandson said.

“He’s doing all right and he’s fighting," Hazelton said. “He keeps telling me he’s not going anywhere until he sees me play in the NFL."

The Falcons have needs at wide receiver, where not much is certain after starters Roddy White and Michael Jenkins. Two other NFC South teams, Carolina and New Orleans, could be in the market for a developmental receiver in the later rounds. Even if it’s not in Atlanta or anywhere in the NFC South, Hazelton believes he’ll be in the NFL soon. He’s not showcasing his talent at the combine, but he’s hoping to, once again, grab the attention that slipped away from him when he works out in Cincinnati.

“I’m totally confident I have the ability to play in the pros," Hazelton said. “But next month my job is to go out and show the pros that I can play. I have to make sure they haven’t forgotten about me."

NFC South turning to rookie WRs

October, 8, 2010
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LaFell/Williams/Gettis Icon SMI, AP PhotoRookie receivers Brandon LaFell, Mike Williams and David Gettis are expected to start this Sunday.
TAMPA, Fla. -- When you’re watching NFC South teams this Sunday, keep an eye on the wide receivers. By choice and by circumstance, you’re going to see something rare.

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.

[+] EnlargeArrelious Benn
AP Photo/Paul AbellSecond-round pick Arrelious Benn is expected to see more playing time for the Bucs.
“Arrelious is coming on very well," Yarber said. “Early on, he had to spend a lot of time in the playbook. But now that he’s got the plays down, he’s playing much faster and we’re seeing the real Arrelious Benn now."

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.

How I See It: NFC South Stock Watch

October, 6, 2010
10/06/10
10:19
AM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

[+] EnlargeSmith
AP Photo/Bill HaberSteve Smith's injury leaves the Carolina Panthers with no established big-play threats at wide receiver.
1. Cadillac Williams, running back, Tampa Bay. One thing about coach Raheem Morris that sets him apart from most other coaches is he’s not afraid to telegraph his moves. During the bye week, he made it pretty clear that the Bucs are going to cut down on Williams’ carries and try to insert LeGarrette Blount and Kareem Huggins more often.

2. Carolina’s wide receivers. With Steve Smith likely out with an ankle injury and Dwayne Jarrett released after he was charged with driving while impaired, the Panthers are down to rookie receivers Brandon LaFell, David Gettis and Armanti Edwards. They also claimed David Clowney off waivers Tuesday. Edwards has yet to be active on game day. Rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen doesn’t exactly have a stellar cast to throw to.

3. New Orleans’ offensive line. It’s not what it was a year ago. That’s a little disappointing because the line returned intact, but it hasn’t been dominant. Drew Brees is getting pressured more than usual, the running game’s been only ordinary and All-Pro guard Jahri Evans has developed a sudden knack for getting called for holding penalties.

RISING

1. Curtis Lofton, linebacker, Falcons. He’s been a pretty good middle linebacker in his first two seasons. But the knock on Lofton was that he didn’t make big plays, and he talked this summer about how he wanted to change that. It’s happening. In Sunday’s victory against San Francisco, Lofton had nine tackles, a sack and an interception. A few more big plays and Lofton could be a strong candidate for the Pro Bowl.

2. Roddy White, receiver, Falcons. It’s hard to put White’s stock much higher than it already was. We declared him the best receiver in the NFC South last week. But White went out and took his game to a higher level Sunday. He made one of the most incredible plays of his career and it didn’t even involve him catching the ball. After Nate Clements had a late interception, White ran him down from behind and popped the ball loose to cause a fumble that the Falcons recovered. Atlanta then went on a drive and kicked the game-winning field goal.

3. Usama Young, safety, Saints. He’s usually just a special-teams player. But a series of injuries forced him into the strong safety spot in Sunday’s victory against Carolina. With the Panthers close to the range where they could kick a game-winning field goal, Young stepped up and had a tackle where he dropped DeAngelo Williams for a four-yard loss. That and a sack by free safety Malcolm Jenkins on the next play took the Panthers definitively out of field-goal range.
Jerry Richardson, who has been conspicuously silent as fans wonder what direction the Carolina Panthers are headed in, just made a very strong statement.

It was done silently and didn’t get into the whole youth movement or the future of coach John Fox. But Richardson sent a loud-and-clear message that he still is very much in control of the Panthers.

The team just announced it has waived receiver Dwayne Jarrett, who reportedly was arrested Tuesday morning for driving while impaired. Jarrett also was arrested on a similar charge in 2008.

In these situations, a lot of teams around the NFL wait for the legal system to play out. But Richardson has been known for not putting up with much when it comes to off-field troubles. The Panthers have released multiple players as soon as they’ve gotten into trouble and they also generally stay away from players with trouble in their past.

Jarrett, a second-round pick in 2007, had been a huge bust. He never came close to his potential and was playing behind rookies Brandon LaFell and David Gettis on Sunday.

“I talked to Dwayne and told him the situation here is just not working out for either side,” says general manager Marty Hurney. “We had a chance to pick up off waivers a receiver we considered claiming when he became available four weeks ago. We wish Dwayne the best.”

The Panthers claimed receiver David Clowney off waivers from the New York Jets to fill Jarrett’s roster spot.

Dwayne Jarrett's troubles get worse

October, 5, 2010
10/05/10
10:33
AM ET
The troubled career of Carolina wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett has grown even more troubled.

Jarrett
Jarrett
The Charlotte Observer reports that Jarrett was arrested Tuesday morning and charged with driving while intoxicated. Jarrett was arrested on a similar charge in 2008 and that likely meant he already was in the league’s substance abuse program.

That means this arrest could lead to a suspension. Although many teams wait for the legal system to play out, this could signal the end of Jarrett’s career in Carolina. Owner Jerry Richardson doesn’t always wait for the legal system and has cut players before there have been court decisions.

Cutting Jarrett wasn’t out of the realm of possibility even before this arrest. Jarrett was a second-round pick in 2007. Despite numerous chances to land a starting job, Jarrett never has been able to earn one and has played only sparingly this year. He has fallen behind rookies Brandon LaFell and David Gettis on the depth chart.

With Steve Smith likely to miss at least a game with an ankle injury, the Panthers are thin at wide receiver. But that might not stop them from making a move with Jarrett.

Panthers likely to be without Smith

October, 4, 2010
10/04/10
10:55
AM ET
Carolina Panthers coach John Fox will be meeting with the media in a little over an hour and he’ll likely provide some sort of update on wide receiver Steve Smith's ankle injury.

Fox is known to be vague on injuries, so we might not get any definitive answers. But it sure appears likely Smith will miss at least one game. The Panthers host Chicago on Sunday. After that they’ve got a bye week.

If Smith can’t go, the Panthers likely will start rookies Brandon LaFell and David Gettis. They also have Dwayne Jarrett, who has not been a factor. Rookie Armanti Edwards has yet to be active for a game.

But Edwards may make his debut this week if Smith is out. By the way, I’ll try to get ESPN Stats & Information to check to see how infrequently this has happened. But it looks like we’ll have two teams in the division starting two rookie receivers this week.

Tampa Bay has been starting Mike Williams since the start of the season and fellow rookie Arrelious Benn was getting work with the first team this week.

Late-game mettle serves Saints well

October, 3, 2010
10/03/10
7:42
PM ET
Lance MooreChris Graythen/Getty ImagesLance Moore and the Saints made the plays they needed to late in the game.
NEW ORLEANS -- The question was about one specific play and one specific drive in Sunday’s game between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. The answer Lance Moore gave addressed the question, then went way beyond it.

“We’ve been there before,’’ the New Orleans receiver said. “We’ve had those kinds of drives before.’’

Maybe Moore was only talking about the final drive the Saints went on to set up a John Carney field goal for a 16-14 victory Sunday at the Superdome. But you could take Moore’s words and make them the story for the Saints so far this season. And last season.

For the first time in franchise history, you truly can say the Saints have been there before, and now they’re acting like it. That’s the beauty of a team that has tan lines on its fingers when the Super Bowl rings come off on Sundays.

Even when they’re playing a lousy game against a lousy team, the Saints still can turn on the look of a winner when they need to. That’s what the Saints did for the final 13 minutes and 20 seconds against the Panthers.

First, the offense went on an 18-play, 86-yard drive to set up a 25-yard field goal by Carney that put the Saints ahead with 3:55 remaining. Then the defense, led by big plays from safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Usama Young, shut down the Carolina offense.

Is it something to celebrate when you beat a winless team that is starting a rookie quarterback (Jimmy Clausen) and has its best player (Steve Smith) sitting in the locker room with an air cast on his ankle in the final minutes of the game?

“To me, if we’re 3-1 and not playing our best football, we’re in a good spot,’’ said defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who played perhaps the best game of his career while recording a sack, a tackle for a loss, a quarterback hurry and knocking down two of Clausen’s passes at the line.

Ellis might be the only member of the Saints playing his best these days. Before the ugly win against the Panthers, the Saints had lost to the Falcons and preceded that with ugly wins against San Francisco and Minnesota.

The offense that was best in the league last year has looked ordinary. The defense, which was a turnover and scoring machine for much of last season, hasn’t been nearly as opportunistic. The Saints even lost the turnover battle (two to one) Sunday, but all that really matters is they won.

They’re 3-1 and so are the Atlanta Falcons. At 2-1 and with a bye this week, Tampa Bay is still in the NFC South race. Carolina is not. At 0-4, the Panthers have reached the point of no return with John Fox as a lame-duck coach and the possibility of having to play a few weeks without Smith.

No, New Orleans hasn’t been great in its first four games, but the Saints are far from being Carolina. Four games into a season, that’s good enough for the Saints. There is still plenty of time to be great.

“Although it wasn’t always perfect, it was a good win,’’ New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “We are just trying to win each week. If you look back on the back end of last season, you will see a lot of hard-fought games also.’’

Don’t underestimate the importance of winning those games last season as it relates to the present. The Saints know how to win.

They did it without their top two running backs (Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas were sidelined with injuries) and starting strong safety Roman Harper, who also sat out with an injury. Harper’s replacement, Pierson Prioleau, had to leave the game with an injury and his replacement, Chris Reis, also had to leave after getting hurt.

[+] EnlargeJohn Carney
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesClutch field goals from John Carney proved vital for the Saints.
That left Young, who usually is limited to special teams, and Jenkins, who is in his first year as a starting free safety, as the only two healthy safeties. Whenever there are injuries in the NFL, every coach likes to talk about how the next man has to step up and make plays.

That’s what Young and Jenkins did as Clausen tried to move the Panthers into the range where a John Kasay field goal could win it for Carolina. With the ball at the New Orleans 36-yard line, Young came up to tackle running back DeAngelo Williams for a four-yard loss. The Saints blitzed Jenkins on the next play and he sacked Clausen for a four-yard loss. That left the ball at the 44-yard line, out of Kasay’s range, and created the exact kind of last-gasp play every defense dreams of.

Yep, the Panthers had Clausen throwing for Dwayne Jarrett, who hasn’t made a play that matters in his four-year career. That’s about as pure as desperation can get. Jabari Greer just knocked the ball away from Jarrett to end any chance Carolina had.

No, the Saints aren’t great right now. But they’re good enough.

“We definitely still have a killer instinct,’’ quarterback Drew Brees said. “We’re just making stupid mistakes. We’re getting that stuff corrected, slowly but surely. Obviously, you look at us and I can speak for the offense, we haven’t scored like we’re used to scoring and we’re 3-1 and a field goal away from being 4-0. That’s a good thing.’’

It definitely beats the alternative, but the real benefit of the fact the Saints have been here before is they know the way they’re playing isn’t good enough to take them deep into the postseason.

“We left some points on the field,’’ Moore said. “We have to make sure that stops. If a team makes one more play, we lose.’’

The Panthers didn’t make that play. Other teams ahead on the schedule might be capable of making those plays and that’s why the Saints have to get better. Maybe getting some injured players back will help, and there is time for Payton to start coming up with some new magic for an offense that has been way too quiet and time for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to get his guys generating turnovers again.

“If there’s one thing about this team, it’s that we’re battle-tested,’’ Brees said. “We know how to win tight games.’’

That’s because the Saints have been there plenty of times before.

Dwayne Jarrett active for Panthers

October, 3, 2010
10/03/10
11:57
AM ET
NEW ORLEANS – Looks like the Carolina Panthers are pulling out their secret weapon against the New Orleans Saints.

At least technically, wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett is listed as active today. We’ll see how active Jarrett is, but I wouldn’t expect his career to suddenly take off or for him to get significant playing time. Jarrett, a second-round pick in 2007, was inactive last week and hasn’t been much of a factor throughout his career.

Speaking of highly-drafted receivers that haven’t done much, rookie Armanti Edwards is inactive for the fourth straight week.

Also inactive for the Panthers are running back Tyrell Sutton, linebacker Jamar Williams, offensive lineman Chris Morris, defensive tackle Andre Neblett and offensive tackle Jeff Otah.

How I See It: NFC South Stock Watch

September, 22, 2010
9/22/10
12:16
PM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

[+] EnlargeDwayne Jarrett
Chris McGrath/Getty ImagesDwayne Jarrett has been invisible in Carolina's offense.
1. Dwayne Jarrett, wide receiver, Panthers. It would be easy to call this guy a bust. But let’s not sell Jarrett short. He is a tremendous bust. A second-round pick in 2007, Jarrett has done virtually nothing, despite being given every opportunity by the Panthers. Most other teams would have cut him long ago. For some inexplicable reason, the Panthers have clung to Jarrett and there’s been no reward for that. Because of some injuries, the Panthers had only three receivers active Sunday. They started Steve Smith and rookie David Gettis, a sixth-round draft pick. Jarrett was the third receiver, but the Panthers didn’t even bother to target him.

2. Jerious Norwood, running back, Falcons. Norwood tore his ACL on Sunday and will miss the remainder of the season. This probably marks the end of Norwood’s time with the Falcons because he’s a free agent after this season. It’s a shame because this guy flashed big-play ability at various times throughout his career. There was always the sense and hope he could do it more consistently. But he’s had constant injury problems and never has been the factor the Falcons hoped for.

3. Carolina’s pass rush. Actually, the Panthers don’t have one. Despite a whole bunch of young defensive ends showing promise in the preseason, the Panthers don’t have a sack from their defensive line yet. Their only sack came in the opener and that came from middle linebacker Dan Connor. But, hey, the Panthers are better off without Julius Peppers, right?

RISING

1. Pierre Thomas, running back, Saints. Thomas already was an important part of the offense, but his role is only going to increase with Reggie Bush out for about six weeks. Thomas doesn’t have the skill set to do all the different things Bush does, but not many people in the league do. The Saints are going to have to make up for Bush’s touches in various ways and some of that will fall to Thomas. He’s not going to do what Bush did in the passing game. But Thomas, who already was New Orleans' main runner, probably will start getting more carries.

2. Josh Freeman, quarterback, Buccaneers. If you haven’t seen this guy play recently, you owe it to yourself to watch him. He’s turning into a big-time player with his arms, legs and his head. And people tend to forget that Freeman’s doing this while still dealing with a fractured thumb that’s not completely healed. Once he gets through Sunday’s game with Pittsburgh, Freeman will have a bye week to rest up and get the thumb completely healthy.

3. Atlanta’s running game. After a horrible outing in the opener against Pittsburgh, the Falcons bounced back spectacularly against Arizona. Michael Turner looked like the Michael Turner of old before having to leave with a groin injury. With Norwood also out, Jason Snelling took over and rushed for 129 yards. Turner could have returned to the game, but the Falcons already had a comfortable lead, so they rested him. If Turner can run like he did against the Cardinals, the Falcons are going to have a very real chance Sunday when they play New Orleans.

Thoughts on Jimmy Clausen decision

September, 20, 2010
9/20/10
3:00
PM ET
You probably have heard by now that Carolina coach John Fox said he will start quarterback Jimmy Clausen on Sunday against the Bengals.

Clausen

Clausen



You might have already read my thoughts on this topic here and here. So I won’t run through that again. I’ll just summarize and say Fox made the only choice he really could have and let’s all be thankful he announced it today, instead of dragging it out all week.

Now, a few more thoughts on Clausen and the Panthers. Don’t expect Clausen to just come in and make everything better in Carolina. That doesn’t happen with rookie quarterbacks. Besides, the Panthers have lots of other issues that have to be fixed and we’ll touch on a few of those a bit later.

But it’s the right move to go ahead and get Clausen on the field, because the Panthers are in an all-out youth movement and it’s time to find out if he’s the guy they want to build around. Honestly, if you told me to name one person who will be in Carolina’s building next year (and I’m talking coaches, players and front-office workers), I’m thinking Clausen is the safest bet. Go ahead and roll him out there and see what you’ve got.

However, it might be nice to give the kid some help, and that goes to the other issues I mentioned above. Did you happen to notice Carolina had only three receivers active in Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay? One of them was Steve Smith, who is an elite receiver. The other starter was rookie David Gettis, a sixth-round draft pick. The third receiver was Dwayne Jarrett and "active"’ is a relative term for one of the biggest busts in Carolina draft history.

Jarrett actually played, but the Panthers didn’t even throw a pass his way -– and I’m not disagreeing with that choice. But now that the Panthers are fully into this youth movement, they might as well go ahead and throw rookie Armanti Edwards on the game-day roster. Yeah, I know Edwards is a project because he was a college quarterback at this time a year ago. But let’s face it, this whole team is a project.

Speaking of other issues, how about the running game? It hasn’t been horrid, but it has been far from dominant. Has the absence of injured right tackle Jeff Otah or the departure of veteran fullback Brad Hoover really made that much of a difference?

Oh, and that defensive line that was so stellar in the preseason? It still hasn’t produced a sack. The Panthers have only one sack, and that came from linebacker Dan Connor in the opener.

LaFell sitting out for Panthers

September, 19, 2010
9/19/10
11:49
AM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rookie wide receiver Brandon LaFell who opened the season as a starter will not be active today, the Panthers just said.

LaFell has a hamstring injury and will sit out. The Panthers haven’t named his replacement in the starting lineup yet, but it’s likely to be Dwayne Jarrett.

Also inactive for the Panthers are receiver Armanti Edwards, linebacker Jordan Senn, tackle Jeff Otah, defensive tackle Louis Leonard, defensive end Tyler Brayton and defensive back C.J. Wilson.

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