NFL Nation: Heath Evans

The New York Jets’ first game of the regular season is not until Sunday. But the calls for Tim Tebow are already underway.

NFL Network analyst Heath Evans is the first to jump the Tebow bandwagon. Evans says the Jets can win 10 games this season if they don’t waste their time with starter Mark Sanchez.

Start Tebow now, Evans advises, and the Jets will make the playoffs.
"A Rex Ryan defense and a Tebow-led offense could work together to easily frustrate 10 teams on the Jets' schedule. New York's defense matches up extremely well with almost every squad the Jets play this season, except for the Patriots, Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers. If the Jets turn Tebow loose under new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, and truly play "ground and pound" football, they could make the playoffs in 2012, rather than miss out for a second consecutive season."

Are the Jets a playoff team with Tebow this year? I don't see it.

I think New York's best chance to win is with Sanchez passing well and Tebow running well. Asking Tebow to be the primary passer on the team is risky given his very bad mechanics and lacking accuracy.

The Jets would have to change their entire offense and this is a team that probably couldn't handle something so drastic. Tebow worked his magic last year as the starter with the Denver Broncos, but I can’t see a repeat of that with the Jets. New York should stick with Sanchez unless he struggles.

NFC South free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC South team:

Atlanta Falcons

1. Sign a pass-rushing defensive end: This move has been telegraphed since the draft, when the Falcons jumped up to add an explosive offensive player in wide receiver Julio Jones rather than a pass-rusher. It’s no secret the Falcons want to add an edge rusher who can complement John Abraham in the short term and replace him in the long term. The Falcons showed last year when they signed cornerback Dunta Robinson that they’re not afraid to spend big money in free agency. They’re poised to do it again, and Minnesota’s Ray Edwards and Carolina’s Charles Johnson are two pass-rushers just entering their prime who will be on the market. The Falcons can offer big money and the chance to be the last piece of a Super Bowl puzzle. That should be attractive.

2. Figure out what the offensive line will look like: The Falcons have three starters on the offensive line who are likely to be free agents, and they’ll allow one or two of them to walk. That’s not as scary as it may sound, because none of those free agents is dominant, and the Falcons have stockpiled some promising linemen in the last few drafts. But center Todd McClure is near the end of his career, and left tackle Sam Baker is still a question mark. That means the Falcons can’t afford to let all their free-agent linemen walk. They need to maintain some continuity on the line to make sure quarterback Matt Ryan stays upright. Keeping right tackle Tyson Clabo is the major priority.

3. Re-sign kicker Matt Bryant: The veteran has revitalized his career since coming to Atlanta. He’s come through consistently in the clutch. The Falcons are a team on the verge of great things, and they don’t need to suddenly go young or cheap at kicker. They need a veteran who can help them win some big games.

Top five free agents: Bryant, LB Mike Peterson, T Tyson Clabo, G Harvey Dahl and G Justin Blalock.

Carolina Panthers

1. Re-sign DeAngelo Williams: The running back is sure to be a hot commodity on the open market, but the Panthers can’t afford to let him get away. Yes, Jonathan Stewart looked very good at times last season, and Mike Goodson made the most of his playing time after Williams was injured. But the Panthers don't want to put too much pressure on a young starting quarterback, whether it's Cam Newton or Jimmy Clausen. They need to have two or three strong running backs, and Williams is the most versatile member of the backfield.

2. Make a decision on Steve Smith: Other than the drafting of Newton, speculation about Smith’s future has been the dominant story out of Carolina this offseason. There have been conflicting reports about whether the veteran wide receiver wants to be traded from the only team he’s ever played for. The speculation was a moot point because no trades could be made during the lockout. Now, Smith and the Panthers will have to show their hand. If he truly wants out, the Panthers will try to trade Smith. But they’re not simply going to give him away. Even if he’s unhappy, Smith still might be the best player on the roster. The Panthers aren’t letting him go without getting a good draft pick or a decent player in return.

3. Sign a veteran quarterback: New coach Ron Rivera has said several times that he wants to add a veteran quarterback to serve as a mentor to Newton and Clausen. Heck, he might even need that veteran to start the first few games of the season so Newton and Clausen can catch up on all the missed offseason work. The Panthers want someone who can help the development of the two young quarterbacks. Someone like Marc Bulger or Jake Delhomme could fit, if either is willing to accept a backup role.

Top five free agents: Williams, DE Charles Johnson, LB James Anderson, LB Thomas Davis and CB Richard Marshall.

New Orleans Saints

1. Decide what to do with Reggie Bush. The running back/return man is scheduled to make almost $12 million and count $16 million against the cap. That’s not going to happen, but the Saints have indicated they’d like to keep Bush if they can work out a contract extension that would spread money around. The Saints drafted running back Mark Ingram in the first round, but Bush still could play plenty of roles with this team. Sean Payton has been creative with the ways he’s used Bush, who has been productive when healthy. Last year’s injury problems at running back showed the Saints can’t have enough depth at the position.

2. Make some key secondary decisions. Safeties Darren Sharper and Roman Harper are both potential unrestricted free agents, so the Saints have to make some choices. Sharper’s past his prime and is a free safety. That position now belongs to Malcolm Jenkins. Harper has been the starting strong safety and has been solid. Harper shouldn’t command huge money on the open market, and the Saints would be wise to re-sign him. If they do, they should have one of the league’s better secondaries.

3. Shore up the outside linebacker spots. Scott Shanle is an unrestricted free agent and may or may not return. The other position is up for grabs. Martez Wilson was drafted in the third round, and the Saints have a few other promising prospects at outside linebacker. But this is a veteran team with a realistic chance to contend for the Super Bowl, so it might be wise to go out and get a proven veteran and let the young linebackers develop behind him.

Top five free agents: Sharper, Harper, WR Lance Moore, FB Heath Evans and TE David Thomas.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1. Re-sign Davin Joseph. The guard is very much in his prime and is strong as a run blocker and pass blocker. Along with Donald Penn, he’s the anchor of an offensive line that may be working in some young players. Quarterback Josh Freeman is the franchise in Tampa Bay, and the Bucs need to do whatever it takes to keep him protected.

2. Decide on a defensive leader. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud is an unrestricted free agent and may bolt if a decent offer comes from elsewhere. Ruud’s been asking for a new contract for about two years, and the Bucs haven’t given it to him. They drafted Mason Foster in the third round and are high on his potential. But this is a very young defense, and putting a rookie at middle linebacker could be a risky move. Buffalo’s Paul Posluszny is a free agent, and there are reports that Green Bay could be looking to trade or release Nick Barnett. Either of those guys could come in and be an immediate leader on this defense.

3. Spend some money. The Bucs have had one of the league’s lowest payrolls in recent years. Still, they’ve made progress in a youth movement that won’t be abandoned. It might be time to start locking up some young players to longer deals. It might also be time to go out and get just a few free agents to keep the youth movement headed in the right direction.

Top five free agents: G Davin Joseph, LB Barrett Ruud, RB Cadillac Williams, DE Stylez G. White and Maurice Stovall.

Saints back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Saints got a lot of media attention during the players-only workouts. This team did as good a job of handling the lockout as any team in the league. The workouts were well attended, and quarterback Drew Brees and linebacker Jonathan Vilma were running the offense and defense, respectively. The coaches weren’t around, but Brees and Vilma have basically been coaches on the field for the past few years, so the Saints probably weren’t getting away with too many mistakes while working on their own. It also helps that the Saints are largely a veteran team. They also have a coaching staff that’s remained mostly in place. The lockout wasn’t ideal for any team, but the Saints are probably in better shape than most as they come out of it.

Biggest challenge: That’s going to come more off the field than on it. General manager Mickey Loomis and the personnel department are going to have some busy days ahead of them. The Saints have a bunch of free agents, and they want to keep some of them. You can bet Loomis, coach Sean Payton and the rest of the staff already have a good idea of whom they want to retain and whom they might want to target in free agency. The Saints aren’t afraid to bring in guys from the outside, and even after filling some holes in the draft, the Saints still may be looking for help at outside linebacker. If they lose some free agents they want to keep, they might have some other holes to quickly address.

The Reggie Bush factor: It’s clear something has to give when it comes to the running back’s future. He’s scheduled to make nearly $12 million in base salary and count $16 million against this year’s salary cap. The Saints can’t afford to let those numbers stay the same. They either have to release Bush or try to sign him to a contract extension that would make this year’s cap figure more manageable. The presence of Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Lynell Hamilton gives the Saints plenty of alternatives at running back.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Safety Darren Sharper, linebacker Scott Shanle, fullback Heath Evans, safety Roman Harper and tight end David Thomas.
Austen LaneAP Photo/Stephen MortonAusten Lane has now been in the top-10 rankings of all four of the NFL Twindexes so far.
Show, don’t tell. We’re making it an NFL Twindex commandment.

“I usually hate when athletes tweet about how good their workout was,” Matt Hasselbeck (@Hasselbeck) tweeted Thursday in a good start, “but we had a great one today!”

Bad finish.

Plenty of NFL fans starved for morsels and insight into football and beyond would love to know what made it good.

J.J. Watt (@JJWatt) did very well with show-don’t-tell when he tweeted this picture. Yowza.

Alas, Hasselbeck and Watt are snapshot examples for us here at Twindex HQ, where we’d like to host Cleveland receiver Carlton Mitchell and Green Bay tight end Tom Crabtree. They hold the top two spots in our new poll, flip-flopping their standing from two weeks ago.

We could have a 10-event competition for the two including feats of strength and intellect and concluding with a tweet-off or a tweet-up or a tweet-meet.

They were neck and neck, and it came down to my gut feeling -- Mitchell was more consistently amusing.

Scroll through my favorites to see what was considered as we made the final cuts -- we are now trying to track 493 guys.

And hit me at @ESPN_AFCSouth and @PaulKuharsky with tweets I need to see and people I need to follow.

Welcome to the NFL Twindex

May, 26, 2011
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Shaun Phillips/Aaron RodgersGetty ImagesShaun Phillips, left, and Aaron Rodgers hold the top two spots in the debut of our NFL Twindex.
Welcome to the ESPN.com NFL Twindex. Or Twitterdex. Or Twitter Index. (Shall we vote?) No, we’re going Twindex.

This is our periodic look -- I’m thinking twice a month for now, weekly once we’re in a season -- at what players and others who work for NFL teams are saying via Twitter. Because I love being subjective and we all love lists, it’s a subjective list.

I’m following everyone I can find -- 328 people and growing -- and I hope they’ll follow me back. It’s difficult to read every tweet every day, so if you see a great one, forward it to me. I’m @ESPN_AFCSouth and @PaulKuharsky. The Twindex will be built from the best sampling I am able to do while still also fulfilling the obligations of a full-time job.

Each guy who makes the list each week will get a tweet notifying him of his status. We’re fluid. If a guy is interesting this week, he may find himself in the top five. Be boring next week and he may disappear, depending on what his competition is doing. Former players, coaches, owners, equipment guys and mascots are eligible, too. Bring it.

What gets you here? Tweets beyond the ordinary.

You’re scored down for morning greetings (sorry @MikeSimsWalker), birthday wishes, constant song lyrics (sorry @JimIrsay), weather updates and dinner reviews (unless, maybe, you are @PotRoast96).

You are rewarded for witty observations, clever lines and exchanges, smart life advice, amusing family stories, a great re-tweet or picture and, certainly, high-quality football information or commentary. A good week of tweeting can get you a spot. One outstanding tweet can, too.

As I am a positive guy, this is a positive list. Generally, we want to be a place players want to be. Like in our MVP Watch or the best restaurant in town or in unrestricted free agency after a great season. It’s an evolving concept, and whether you’re a candidate or a reader, I welcome your input.

Titans cornerback Jason McCourty and his twin brother, Patriots Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty, combined Twitter accounts and have made a big push to let fans see them.

When I told him about this during their recent ESPN car wash, Jason wasn’t ashamed to say he wanted @McCourtyTwins to get a spot on the initial Index.

“I think guys are so competitive, anything like that with a list and a top spot, guys will get some enjoyment out of it,” he said. “Somebody may post, ‘Hey, check out so-and-so, he’s No. 1 this week on the Twitter poll.’ I think it’ll probably be a cool idea. I’ll check it out.

“Hopefully that gets us to No. 1.”

Maybe next week, Jason.

Here’s the debut list.


Need to point me to a tweet? Have ideas for the NFL Twindex? Find me @ESPN_AFCSouth and @PaulKuharsky.

2011 NFL draft: Value of seventh pick

March, 14, 2011
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This is the second in a series of items revisiting relatively recent NFL trades involving first-round draft choices in the slots NFC West teams occupy this year.

The ongoing NFL lockout prevents trades involving players, but teams can still trade draft choices. Primarily for that reason, I've excluded from consideration trades involving picks and veteran players.

The seventh pick boasts a colorful recent history featuring three of the four teams currently in the NFC West. My apologies in advance if any of these trades revive painful memories.

The pick: Seventh overall

Held by: San Francisco 49ers

Most recent trade involving only picks: 2008. The New England Patriots sent the seventh and 164th choice to the New Orleans Saints for the 10th and 78th selections. This trade was close to even on paper, according to the draft-value chart. The seventh and 164th choices add up to 1,526.8 points. The 10th and 78th selections add up to 1,500. The Saints used the seventh choice, which originated with San Francisco, for defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. They drafted guard Carl Nicks with the 164th choice. New England came away with linebackers Jerod Mayo (10th) and Shawn Crable (78th).

Bill Walsh, Mike Holmgren and the 2001 draft: The Seattle Seahawks were one year away from joining the NFC West when the Walsh-run 49ers acquired the seventh overall choice from Holmgren's Seahawks. The value chart agreed with the deal. Seattle gave up picks worth 1,516 points for picks worth 1,533.6 points, a wash. The 49ers drafted defensive end Andre Carter in the seventh slot and defensive tackle Menson Holloway at No. 191. The Seahawks drafted receiver Koren Robinson ninth, fullback Heath Evans 82nd and center Dennis Norman 222nd. Carter, Evans and Norman remain active for different teams. Robinson flamed out prematurely. Holloway never played.

Mamula, Sapp and the 1995 draft: The Philadelphia Eagles moved up five spots to draft linebacker Mike Mamula seventh overall. This was bad move for the Eagles even if Tampa Bay hadn't drafted defensive tackle Warren Sapp with one of the picks from Philly. The Bucs did get Sapp, however, and Mamula didn't last. The trade-value chart says the Eagles gave up picks worth 1,946 points for picks worth 1,730 points. Philadelphia got the 72nd pick, used for defensive tackle Greg Jefferson, who became a starter. Beyond Sapp, the Bucs received the 43rd choice, used for safety Melvin Johnson, and the 63rd choice, used for guard Shane Hannah. Johnson became a starter.

The Bryant Young deal: The Los Angeles Rams were in full retreat during the 1994 draft. Having already traded back two spots into the seventh overall slot, they moved back eight more spots to No. 15 in a deal that helped the 49ers' defensive line. San Francisco used the seventh choice for Young, who became a second-team all-decade selection for the 1990s. The Rams landed the 15th choice, used for durable offensive tackle Wayne Gandy, plus the 56th (defensive end Brad Ottis) and 100th (linebacker Ernest Jones) picks. The trade chart says the Rams gave up 1,500 points for picks worth 1,490 points -- pretty much a wash. Gandy was a starter in 14 of his 15 NFL seasons.

The price of an elite cornerback: The 49ers could be in the market for a cornerback with the seventh overall choice this year. They'll be fortunate to fare as well as the Washington Redskins fared in the 1999 draft when they moved up five spots to No. 7 and drafted Champ Bailey. Chicago commanded the 12th (quarterback Cade McNown), 71st (receiver D'Wayne Bates), 106th (linebacker Warrick Holdman) and 143rd (tackle Jerry Wisne) choices, worth 51.5 points more than the seventh choice on the value chart. The Redskins also threw in a third-rounder in the 2000 draft (tight end Dustin Lyman). Quality trumped quantity in this exchange, something the 49ers will have to weigh if one of the top cornerbacks is available in the seventh slot this year.

Moving on up: Cleveland sent the seventh and 37th choices in the 2004 draft to Detroit for the sixth pick, which the Browns used for tight end Kellen Winslow. The Lions drafted receiver Roy Williams seventh and linebacker Teddy Lehman at No. 37. The value chart says the Browns spent 2,030 points to receive a pick worth 1,600 points. The 430-point difference equated to the 47th overall choice. A decade earlier, Indianapolis sent the seventh and 83rd choices to the Rams for the fifth pick, a wash on the value chart. The Colts took linebacker Trev Alberts fifth. The Rams kept dealing.
As with just about everything else in the NFL, there is huge uncertainty when it comes to the use of franchise tags.

Get ready to start hearing a lot more about this. According to the league and its teams, franchise tags can be assigned starting Thursday. According to the NFL Players Association, franchise tags cannot be used – at least until there is a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in place, which could take months.

DeAngelo Williams
Rich Kane/Icon SMIWould Carolina keep running back DeAngelo Williams by using the franchise tag?
You’re probably going to see the two sides fight this one out and some teams will probably cast the first stone by announcing Thursday, or soon after, that they are assigning franchise tags. We’ll see how that plays out in the long run. But, at very least, we can take a look at guys who could get franchise tags in the NFC South.

I just went through all my contract stuff and I’m seeing three prime candidates. Again, there is some uncertainty here because there is no labor agreement and the way any potential deal is structured could play a big role in deciding if some players are restricted or unrestricted free agents.

But the three guys that could come into play are Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams, Tampa Bay offensive guard Davin Joseph and Tampa Bay linebacker Barrett Ruud. Each team can only use a franchise tag on one player, if they chose to use it at all.

We don’t know the price of 2011 franchise tags, but we can look back to 2010 as a reference point. The tag for a running back was $8.2 million. For an offensive lineman, it was $10.7 million. For a linebacker, it was $9.7 million.

Let’s take a look at the significant players for each team who currently are not under contract for 2011 and see how this might play into the situation with franchise tags. Again, some players may fall into the category of restricted free agents, depending on how a potential labor agreement is structured.

Atlanta: Mike Peterson, Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl, Jerious Norwood, Jason Snelling, Brian Williams, Justin Blalock, Brian Finneran, Matt Bryant, Michael Koenen, Stephen Nicholas, Brent Grimes and Eric Weems.

Summary: Grimes is coming off a breakout season and likely will be classified as a restricted free agent. Most of the veterans on this list are role players and wouldn’t be considered for the franchise tag. The two long-shot exceptions could be kicker Bryant and punter Koenen. The Falcons used the franchise tag on Koenen in 2009 and let him play for the restricted free agent tender last year. The 2010 franchise tag for punters and kickers was $2.8 million. I have a tough time seeing general manager Thomas Dimitroff using a franchise tag on a punter or kicker. The Falcons don’t really have any need to use the tag.

Tampa Bay: Ronde Barber, Barrett Ruud, Cadillac Williams, Davin Joseph, Stylez G. White, John Gilmore, Maurice Stovall, Jeremy Trueblood, Quincy Black, Tim Crowder and Adam Hayward.

Summary: The Bucs should have a ton of cap room to work with, so they should be able to handle a franchise tag easily. But it remains to be seen if they want to use it on either of the two realistic candidates: Joseph or Ruud. Joseph is a guy they want to keep in the middle of their offensive line, but they might be able to work a long-term deal that would be a lot more cap friendly. Ruud has made it clear to the Bucs for two years that he would like a long-term contract. That’s never happened. Maybe he’s just not in their long-range plans.

New Orleans: Jonathan Goodwin, Scott Shanle, Roman Harper, Darren Sharper, Jimmy Wilkerson, Lance Moore, Jermon Bushrod, Pierre Thomas, Anthony Hargrove, Courtney Roby, David Thomas, Remi Ayodele, Heath Evans and Carl Nicks.

Summary: The Saints have more than 20 potential free agents and even the guys I singled out above aren’t huge stars. Nicks is probably the best player on the list. But he has three years of service in and almost certainly would qualify as a restricted free agent in any new agreement. Goodwin’s a good player, but I think the Saints would rather take their chances on working a new deal with him than using the franchise tag on a center.

Carolina: Thomas Davis, Matt Moore, DeAngelo Williams, Jeff King, Richard Marshall, James Anderson, Ryan Kalil, Charles Johnson and Dante Rosario.

Summary: Kalil and Johnson are key players, but they could end up as restricted free agents. Williams is the key guy. The Panthers have depth at running back with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson. But Stewart has had durability issues and Williams is a playmaker on a team that needs all the offense it can get. Maybe the Panthers try to work a long-term deal with Williams, but they might try to protect him in the short term by using the franchise tag.

Comparing Brees to Cutler not fair

January, 25, 2011
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Although their season has been over for a couple of weeks, the New Orleans Saints suddenly are back in the spotlight.

It comes after Sunday’s NFC Championship Game in which Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler suffered a knee injury and left the game. It also comes due to the fact that New Orleans fullback Heath Evans went on national television and claimed his quarterback, Drew Brees, played six weeks this season with a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee.

Cutler suffered an MCL injury and already was drawing criticism from some fans for leaving the game. Cutler never has been a favorite with a lot of fans. Then, when Evans made his declaration about Brees, the sparks really flew. That’s largely because Brees is one of the more beloved players in the league and generally viewed as a tough guy.

In no way do I want to diminish Brees’ reputation and that’s mainly because I think it’s well-deserved. But I think those who are comparing his injury to Cutler’s aren’t really being fair.

No offense to Evans, but he’s not a doctor and all indications are his use of the word “torn’’ was not accurate. Coach Sean Payton had more direct knowledge of the Brees’ injury and he said Monday it was a mild knee sprain.

Brees was asked about his injury and he echoed what Payton said. Brees also said it’s unfair to compare his injury to Cutler’s without knowing the exact nature of the Chicago quarterback’s injury. The Bears have said Cutler’s injury was a Grade 2 MCL sprain, which generally keeps players out for several weeks.

Brees suffered his injury in a Week 3 game against Atlanta and wasn’t listed on the injury report for the first week after the game. He wore a brace and later was on the injury report for three weeks, but never missed any playing time.

It may be admirable that Brees played through some issues. But to say he was dealing with the exact same issue that Cutler was on Sunday isn’t fair. That’s because there has been nothing to suggest the two injuries were of the exact same severity.

How I See It: NFC South Stock Watch

September, 15, 2010
9/15/10
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Sam Baker, Falcons offensive tackle. The jury’s been out on this guy pretty much since he was drafted because of health issues. But Baker was healthy Sunday and he was called for a key penalty and didn’t do much as a blocker. He’s really going to have to step up if he truly wants to be the franchise left tackle that was drafted to protect franchise quarterback Matt Ryan.

2. Matt Moore, Panthers quarterback. He threw three interceptions against the Giants. He practiced Wednesday after suffering a concussion. Just hoping he’s not risking anything by perhaps rushing to return quickly because Jimmy Clausen is waiting in the wings.

3. Mike Mularkey, Falcons offensive coordinator. Yeah, the Steelers have a great defense. But when you’ve got Ryan, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner and Roddy White, you should be able to get into the end zone.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
Kim Klement/US PresswireJosh Freeman recorded a pair of TD passes in the Buccaneers' season-opening win.
RISING

1. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers quarterback. He led the Bucs back from a 14-3 deficit by throwing two late touchdown passes. Yes, it was against Cleveland, but this was a big step for a young quarterback and a young team.

2. Heath Evans, Saints fullback. A healthy Evans is a big lift for the New Orleans offense because he can run, block and catch. Guard Carl Nicks is getting a lot of credit for throwing the key block on Pierre Thomas’ touchdown run. Nicks did throw a great block, but Evans also had a nice block on that play.

3. Ronde Barber, Buccaneers cornerback. People keep wanting to say this guy is done. But the veteran had a huge interception return against Cleveland to set up a touchdown.

NFC South Week 1 decisive moment

September, 14, 2010
9/14/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

This one wasn’t as blatantly gutsy as his onside kick in the Super Bowl, but Saints coach Sean Payton went against conventional wisdom with a play call late in the fourth quarter and it turned out to be the decisive moment in New Orleans’ victory against Minnesota on Thursday night.

With a 14-9 lead and facing a third-and-1, Payton needed a first down or else he would risk the danger of giving Brett Favre the ball back for one last-gasp drive. It’s difficult to run on the Vikings, but it sure looked like that’s what the Saints were going to do.

They came out in a formation with two tight ends and running back Pierre Thomas lined up behind fullback Heath Evans as the Vikings stacked the box. But when you’re dealing with Payton, looks can be deceiving and this one was.

The call wasn’t for a run. Instead, quarterback Drew Brees faked a handoff to Thomas. As that was happening, Evans faked, at first, as if he was going to be the lead blocker for a Thomas run. Then he quickly drifted over into the left flat.

Brees lofted a short pass to Evans in the flat. The Saints had their first down and the drive was extended while Favre stayed on the sideline.

Ranking the NFC South tight ends

September, 2, 2010
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The tight ends are the next stop on our tour of NFC South position rankings.

Let’s start with a quick overview on a position that’s got to be considered one of the division’s overall strengths. The NFC South has arguably the best tight end ever, two guys who can be very good when they’re healthy and happy and a bunch of guys that are solid role players. Let’s jump into the rankings.
  1. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons. Yes, he’s on the downside of his career and he’s even dropped some hints that this might be his last year. But none of that really shows up on the field. Gonzalez takes such good care of himself that age doesn’t really detract from his performance. He’s Matt Ryan’s favorite target and having slot receiver Harry Douglas back in the offense this year should help open more of the field for Gonzalez.
  2. Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers. Yes, you have to be concerned because the Bucs have been so cautious with Winslow’s knee throughout the camp and preseason. But there were a lot of days last season when he didn’t practice. The knee probably will remain an issue and Winslow might get days off from practice, but the important thing is that he’s on the field on Sundays. He made it through all 16 games last season and produced 77 catches in a season where the Bucs were juggling quarterbacks. With Josh Freeman now firmly in the starting role, Winslow could be even more of a force.
  3. Jeremy Shockey, Saints. Knock him all you want because he brings some of that on with his flamboyant style. But this guy still makes some pretty big plays. He’s not going to be an 80-catch guy because New Orleans has so many other targets in the passing game, but he’s an important part of that mix. Durability is a bit of a concern, but Shockey’s always a threat when he’s on the field.
  4. David Thomas, Saints. No, he’s not a starter, but he played a huge role in the New Orleans offense last year, even lining up at fullback at times. With starting fullback Heath Evans healthy and back in the lineup, Thomas should be able to focus more on just playing tight end. With Shockey’s durability issues and Sean Payton’s creative offense, Thomas will be on the field a lot. He’s a guy who could start for some other teams.
  5. Dante Rosario, Panthers. Carolina uses a rotation of three tight ends and none of them are going to put up huge numbers in an offense that doesn’t throw to the tight end often. But Rosario is the one who is the biggest threat as a receiver.
  6. Jeff King, Panthers. King’s kind of a jack-of-all trades in this offense. He’s got good hands and could put up bigger numbers in a different offensive system, but he nicely fits a role here.
  7. Justin Pelle, Falcons. A solid veteran, who gets to do some of the dirty work the Falcons try to spare Gonzalez from.
  8. Jimmy Graham, Saints. This rookie is a project with only one year of college football experience under his belt. But the former basketball player is a phenomenal athlete. Payton will include Graham in some packages to try to take advantage of his athletic ability.
  9. Gary Barnidge, Panthers. He’s the third man in the rotation with King and Rosario. He only caught 12 passes last year, but averaged better than 20 yards per catch. That statistic could convince the Panthers to throw to him a bit more often.

Camp Confidential: Saints

July, 31, 2010
7/31/10
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 2

METAIRIE, La. -- As the New Orleans Saints finished their first camp practice Friday morning, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a man known for holding back nothing on or off the field, unloaded. He wanted to get something off his chest. Heck, out of his body, out of his mouth and out into the open.

Without ever really being asked anything that would prompt the issue, Williams started talking about why the Saints can repeat as Super Bowl champions. He’s tired of hearing the reasons they can’t and the repeated reminders that the follow-up season hasn’t been good to many Super Bowl teams in recent history.

“I keep on hearing you guys talk about this Super Bowl hangover and it’s starting to chafe me a little bit,’’ Williams said. “It really is and I’m being real honest. The reason being is, if you could see behind the scenes of our offseason program from April 19 and to see every single practice we’ve had, I don’t have any qualms about the way our defense is because all they did was show up with more hunger, more fire, wanted me to be a bigger jerk and get on their (butt) more. They begged for me to get on their (butt) more. So far, I’ve seen nothing that would indicate that we can’t make another run at this.’’

Williams may be one of the organization’s more vocal figures, but you quickly get the feeling he’s not alone on this idea. Sure, the Saints spent a good portion of the offseason celebrating the first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Sure, recent history is stacked against them. No team has repeated since the 2004 Patriots.

Confidence -- some even have suggested arrogance -- was a big part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season. That hasn’t changed. Unlike a lot of recent Super Bowl teams, the Saints really didn’t lose much in free agency and they didn’t have their coaching staff picked apart. There really hasn’t been much turnover of faces or attitude.

“There was a really good locker room here before I got here,’’ Williams said. “There’s a better locker room now. The guys that we brought in this year, they fit into that locker room because Jon Vilma and Drew Brees aren’t going to let the wrong kind of people be in that locker room. They’re just not going to do that.’’

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJabari Greer
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesA healthy Jabari Greer could help the defense be more consistent.
1. Can a defense that was opportunistic but far from dominant become more consistent? Sure, there is some bravado that comes with Williams. That’s part of his nature and it’s part of what makes him a good coach. But what he’s saying isn’t just bluster.

The Saints really should be much better on defense this season. All they really lost was linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive end Charles Grant. They showed Grant the door and probably upgraded the position by signing veterans Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson. They’ll line up on the other side from Will Smith. Brown and Wilkerson aren’t dominant pass-rushers, but they’re consistent in that area and play the run very well. Fujita was a key contributor, but the Saints believe they have a group of promising linebackers (Troy Evans, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Stanley Arnoux) and believe one of them will rise up.

Plug in a healthy Sedrick Ellis in the middle of the defensive line and the Saints should have a solid front seven. But the defensive backfield is where the Saints really could be outstanding. They’ve assembled one of the best collections of secondary talent in the league. Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter might be the best cornerbacks no one outside of New Orleans has heard of. When healthy, they both can be shut-down guys. Both were banged up last season, and that’s one of the reasons the Saints drafted cornerback Patrick Robinson. That move also has allowed them to move last year’s first-round pick, Malcolm Jenkins, to free safety, where he might get the chance to beat out Darren Sharper. If you can put Sharper, a possible future Hall of Famer on the bench, that’s a pretty big statement. People talk about New Orleans’ offense being explosive, but the defense has a chance to be every bit as dynamic.

2. Can the offense live up to last year’s standards? Brees remains the quarterback and, as long as that’s the case, this offense is going to be great. Brees clearly is in his prime and his pairing with head coach/offensive genius Sean Payton makes magic possible on every play.

This is an offense that can hit you from every angle -- Brees throwing short or long, Pierre Thomas running inside and Reggie Bush outside and an offensive line filled with Pro Bowlers. Keep in mind that the Saints had some injuries at the skill positions last year, but they still were phenomenal on offense. If they can keep Bush, Thomas, Marques Colston, Heath Evans and Jeremy Shockey healthy, last year’s production could be eclipsed.

[+] EnlargeJahri Evans
Larry French/Getty ImagesJahri Evans is part of a dominant offensive line that makes up for any weakness at left tackle.
3. Is left tackle really that important? The Saints used to have a Pro Bowl left tackle. His name was Jammal Brown and they traded him to Washington in the offseason. That happened after Brown missed all last season with an injury and the Saints got by with Jermon Bushrod quite nicely.

The Saints aren’t touting Bushrod as a franchise left tackle, although he’s the favorite to be the starter. They also drafted Charles Brown, and Zach Strief, who filled in when Bushrod slumped a bit last season, also is in the mix. The Saints gave Bushrod plenty of help last season and they’re prepared to do it again for him -- or for Brown or Streif. But the lesson that came out of last year is, in this offense, it’s not a necessity to have a dominant left tackle.

But that’s partly because the Saints have the league’s best guard tandem (Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks), a Pro Bowl right tackle (Jonathan Stinchcomb) and an excellent center (Jonathan Goodwin). Throw anyone out there at left tackle and the rest of the line and Brees will make him look good.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Jimmy Graham. The Saints took what seemed like a bit of a leap when they drafted the tight end in the third round. He played basketball at the University of Miami before deciding to switch to football in his final year. The conventional wisdom was that Graham would be a bit of a project and would take a year or two to really have an impact. But there already is a buzz among the coaching staff and other offensive players about Graham. Everyone knew he had great athletic ability coming in, but he’s picked up things faster than anyone expected and he got some first-team work with Brees in June workouts. He might play a bigger role faster than anyone expected.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Clint Ingram. When the Saints signed Ingram, a lot of fans instantly thought he would be the automatic replacement for Fujita. Ingram had been a starter in Jacksonville, so the logic was solid. But Ingram was injured when the Saints signed him and he still hasn’t been on the practice field, except while riding a stationary bike. That has allowed Troy Evans, Dunbar and Arnoux time to make a good impression. Unless Ingram gets healthy very soon and makes a huge impression on the field, he might not even get a roster spot.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Darren Sharper
    James Lang/US PresswireDarren Sharper wore down toward the end of last season and had offseason microfracture surgery.
    I know this might sound like blasphemy to Saints fans because Sharper is very popular and had a huge impact last year. But the fact is he’s 34 and coming off micro-fracture knee surgery. I’ve suggested before I think there’s a good chance Jenkins takes his place in the starting lineup. But I’ll take it one step further here and say -- I’m not promising this will happen -- I can see a scenario where Sharper doesn’t even stay on the active roster. The Saints are high on Jenkins. They also like Usama Young and are hopeful about Chip Vaughn, who missed his rookie year with an injury. Ideally, the Saints would like to keep Sharper around for his leadership. But if his knee doesn’t come along, he could spend part of the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, the injured-reserve list or maybe even be released or retired. Even with all his credentials, Sharper can’t contribute if his knee isn’t right. The Saints have a lot of other safeties with young legs.
  • The Saints used a three-headed backfield with Bush, Thomas and Mike Bell last season. Bell is gone, but the playing time division should be pretty similar this year. Just plug Lynell Hamilton into Bell’s place. The Saints wouldn’t have let Bell go if they didn’t think Hamilton was ready. I don’t want to tease you and say this is the year Bush shows he can run between the tackles. But remember how well he ran in the playoffs and how he was more physical than at any time in his career? That was because he was completely healthy. That seems to still be the case, so don’t be surprised if you see Bush’s numbers go up a bit. This guy can do a little bit of everything.
  • Shockey’s always been an easy target and there’s no doubt he’s brought some of that on himself. But he appears to be in very good physical shape. Shockey hasn’t really been a distraction in New Orleans like many thought he was when he was with the Giants. He’s just been banged up for much of his time with the Saints. Maybe –- and I’m just saying maybe -- Shockey might have matured and might be taking better care of himself in an effort to stay on the field.
  • It really didn’t get much attention, but the best move the Saints made in the offseason might have been signing Patrick Ramsey to serve as Brees’ backup. Veteran Mark Brunell was a good fit in that role for a couple of years, but the Saints needed to get a little younger. The Saints hope and pray nothing ever happens to Brees. But, if he were to miss some time, the New Orleans offense might not suddenly fall apart. Ramsey’s a guy who has bounced around the league. He got messed up by Steve Spurrier early in his career in Washington, but he still has some talent. This is a quarterback-friendly offense with all sorts of weapons and Ramsey could win games for the Saints -- if that ever becomes necessary.
  • For a couple years, special teams were a bit of a question. That has changed. Kicker Garrett Hartley and punter Thomas Morstead were heroes in the Super Bowl. They’re still young and should only continue to get better.
  • It’s very early in camp, but one player who has intrigued the coaching staff is defensive end Junior Galette. He’s an undrafted rookie and very undersized at 258 pounds. But this guy is showing great speed and there’s a chance he could land a job as a pass-rush specialist. Yeah, Bobby McCray also is supposed to fit that description. But McCray had 1.5 sacks last season and actually was cut because of a high salary before he basically begged his way back (at a reduced salary). If the Saints cut McCray once, there’s no reason why they couldn’t do it again.
Thought I would take that list of 2009 playing time I mentioned yesterday and take it in another direction.

I just looked at how many snaps each running back in the NFC South got last year and the results were interesting. In the case of the most used running back in the division, the result was surprising.

[+] EnlargeCadillac Williams
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireCadillac Williams was on the field for 593 offensive plays last season -- the most of any running back in the NFC South.
Tampa Bay’s Cadillac Williams, far and away, led NFC South running backs in playing time last season. He was on the field for almost 60 percent of Tampa Bay’s offensive plays and was the only division running back to take part in more than 50 percent of his team’s offensive plays. Not bad for a guy who has endured two major knee injuries in his career.

Let’s take a look at last year’s numbers on playing time for the running backs on all four teams (we’ll only delve into the significant ones), translate what that meant in 2009 and analyze what it could mean in 2010.

Tampa Bay: The Bucs ran a division-low 999 offensive plays and Williams was on the field for 593 of them. Derrick Ward, who was signed as a free agent, was out there for 34.7 percent of the plays and Earnest Graham, who made the transition to fullback, participated on 23.1 percent of the snaps. Ward really didn’t have the impact the Bucs hoped for, but they haven’t given up on him. Williams is firmly established as Raheem Morris’ No. 1 back, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bucs let Ward take away some of his snaps (but not carries) just to preserve Williams.

New Orleans: This might be the most interesting running back corps in the division because everyone talked so much about the three-headed backfield last year. That was true as Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell got relatively equal playing time. Of New Orleans’ 1,067 offensive plays, Bush was on the field for 389. Thomas was out there for 372 and Bell got 262 snaps. Bell is gone and you might see playing time for Bush and Thomas go up a bit, but only slightly because Lynell Hamilton, who played 5.9 percent of last year’s snaps, is likely to take on some of Bell’s load. One other interesting note here is that fullback Heath Evans took part in 23.1 of the offensive plays, despite missing almost half the season with injury. Evans is healthy now and I’d look for him to be on the field about 40 percent of the time.

Carolina: The Panthers have one of the league’s most dynamic combination in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The playing time numbers pretty much back up coach John Fox’s view that these two guys are equal. Williams was on the field for 46.5 percent of Carolina’s 1,053 plays and Stewart participated in 40.3 percent. That breakdown should be pretty similar in 2010, barring injury. The Panthers let veteran fullback Brad Hoover go in the offseason and that’s significant because he took part in 31.2 percent of the plays. Tony Fiammetta took only 10.3 percent of the snaps as a rookie last year and he’s going to have to step into Hoover’s role.

Atlanta: The Falcons ran 1,093 offensive plays this past season and their participation got really out of whack because of injuries to Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood. Jason Snelling wound up leading Atlanta’s backs with 497 (45.5 percent) plays. Turner was on the field for 335 (30.7 percent) and Norwood for 284 (26 percent). The Falcons don’t want to overuse Turner, who carried 385 times in 2008. But I think it’s a safe bet a healthy Turner will stay on the field for more than 30 percent of the plays in 2010. His mere presence brings a threat that should make things easier for the passing game. Snelling earned a role in this backfield, but if Turner and Norwood stay healthy, his playing time should dwindle. Turner and Norwood both are home run threats. Snelling is a big back, who is best suited as a blocker in passing situations and as a short-yardage runner.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will the New Orleans Saints be better in 2010 than they were in 2009?

[+] EnlargeGregg Williams
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesIf Gregg Williams' defense improves, the Saints could have a repeat of last season's success.
We actually need to give credit to New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for creating that question. While driving over the weekend, I caught a quick clip of Williams on Sirius NFL Radio and he was talking about how the Saints could be better this year.

He’s got a point. Yeah, recent history hasn’t been kind to Super Bowl champions as they head into the next season. We’ve already addressed many times how the Saints are going to be the big target on every opponents’ schedule and about how things like legal issues and Jeremy Shockey fainting spells can be distractions. Those are all very valid points. Things like that have been the downfall for other teams and it could turn out the same way for the Saints.

But, for a change, let’s play on Williams’ statement and wonder why the Saints actually could be better. It’s hard to repeat as a Super Bowl champion, but the way the Saints are set up, I don’t think it’s impossible. With Drew Brees in his prime, the offense isn’t going to get any worse. In fact, I think the return of a healthy Heath Evans at fullback and positive contract resolutions with Pierre Thomas and Jammal Brown, the offense could be better.

The special teams already are very good. That brings us to the defense, which was the biggest question entering last season. All the Saints really lost on defense was linebacker Scott Fujita. He was a nice player, but the Saints have a lot of young legs to replace him.

With Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson, they probably have upgraded on Charles Grant at defensive end. Their collection of defensive backs is as talented as any in the league. Williams knows this defense better than anyone else.

If he’s saying the Saints could be better, it might be because he sees his defense getting even better.

Draft Watch: NFC South

March, 26, 2010
3/26/10
1:00
PM ET
NFC Under-The-Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each week leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Under the radar needs.

Atlanta Falcons

The talk has been all about defensive end and linebacker and those positions probably will be addressed early. Although the Falcons appear to be in good shape on offense, they’re not going to ignore that side of the ball because they need depth at several spots. The offensive line has been good, but the Falcons can’t be complacent in this area. Center Todd McClure isn’t getting any younger and it might be time to find his eventual replacement. The Falcons are content with Roddy White, Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas as their top three receivers, but it might be wise to add another weapon here. Jenkins is more of a role player than a playmaker and another receiver with some explosiveness could be a big help.

Carolina Panthers

Overhauling the defensive line and finding a No. 2 wide receiver are the early priorities. But there are needs elsewhere. Carolina’s veteran purge was designed to get young players like linebackers Dan Connor and James Anderson on the field. But someone will have to take their places on special teams and the Panthers will be looking for athletic linebackers. Also, keep a close watch on fullback because second-year player Anthony Fiammetta is all the Panthers have there. Also, don’t be surprised if the Panthers look for another receiver beyond the early rounds. They haven’t used the slot receiver much in recent years and I believe they’d like to change that.

New Orleans Saints

The big needs have been narrowed to defensive line and outside linebacker. But always remember that Sean Payton is an offensive coach and that side of the ball won’t be ignored. Payton always is looking to add new toys. Although running back and receiver appear deep, they could get even deeper. Fullback depth is also a possibility. The Saints slumped a bit after Heath Evans was injured last year and they’d be wise to have a viable alternative in case Evans gets hurt again.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It’s tough to separate big needs from smaller ones here because the Bucs need just about everything. But let’s say defensive line and wide receiver are the two biggest needs and work from there. The Bucs like to say they feel good about their offensive line and linebackers. But should they? The offensive line wasn’t all that good last year and the linebackers didn’t really make plays. These areas definitely can be improved. Veteran cornerback Ronde Barber was a bit of a bright spot last year, but how long can he go on like that? With 11 picks in this draft, the Bucs have a chance to find Barber’s successor. If they can get a good corner, they could pair him with Aqib Talib and be set at that position for several years.

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