NFL Nation: Jeff Davidson

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Jeff Davidson hadn't traveled to Lehigh University to see Brandon Fusco.

A couple months after he started as the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line coach, Davidson had made the trip to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the spring of 2011 primarily to watch Lehigh guard Will Rackley workout. Rackley was drafted in the third round that year by the Jacksonville Jaguars and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. Fusco happened to be there, having traveled five hours across Pennsylvania from Slippery Rock University for the workout, and the more Davidson saw of the pugnacious lineman, the more time he wanted to spend seeing if Fusco could handle the nuances of a NFL scheme. The more he did that, the more convinced he became that Fusco could make the leap from Division II college football to the NFL.

"We were fairly excited about the guy," Davidson said. "We thought he had a chance to develop into an interior player for us. Every day, he's a guy that's continued to come in and work and find ways to improve. We ask our guys, each day, to come in and find one thing to work on, and try to get better at one thing each day. He has truly done that."

[+] EnlargeBrandon Fusco
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Fusco has become a fixture on the Vikings' offensive line.
It's how Fusco has quietly transformed himself from a sixth-round pick to an integral member of the Vikings' offensive line. He and right tackle Phil Loadholt have made the starboard side of the Vikings' line one of the game's most effective run-blocking units, and Fusco -- who started 32 of 33 games the last two seasons -- has outplayed his modest rookie contract, earning a team-high $237,060.74 from the NFL's performance bonus pool last season and triggering wage escalators that will leave him making $1.431 million this season. He'll be a free agent after this year, but a long-term deal before then seems like a definite possibility for the 25-year-old.

Not bad for a kid from a small school who had to work just to catch the Vikings' eye.

"[When I got here], I didn't know anything about the game of football like I do know," Fusco said. "It's just amazing. My whole game has changed."

Fusco arrived in Minnesota with only a rudimentary knowledge of good blocking technique: How to use leverage, what to look for in an opponent and where to put his hands. He played center at Slippery Rock, and was often strong enough to overpower defensive linemen without having to pay much attention to how he did it. He got a year to sit behind Anthony Herrera and work with Davidson -- who'd played five years in the league, worked as an assistant coach on the New England Patriots' three championship teams and arrived in Minnesota after a stint as the Carolina Panthers' offensive coordinator.

Davidson quickly found an eager pupil in Fusco, and with every drill, every mundane repetition, the guard began to improve.

"I like to say that's actually the way you do improve," Davidson said. "There's detailed work that we try to work with each of our drills, and we try to aid them to find that one thing they're working on each day. Sometimes the drills aren't exactly like a play against a defense, necessarily, but we'll try to work on hand placement and break down the block, where everything happens by step. People probably don't realize, and I don't realize, how much guys work on something as simple as tightening your elbow back down to your body when you're striking with your hands. He still works on it every day.

"If anything, you had to slow him down on the speed with which he tried to work some of the drills. He's the one guy who will come down here and try to knock somebody silly when we're going half-speed. The guy has a burning desire to get better each day, and that's what makes him a good football player."

Fusco struggled in his first year as a starter in 2012, as he was still learning the position and rotating with Geoff Schwartz early in the season, but he and Loadholt paved one of Adrian Peterson's most-traveled highways during his MVP season. Peterson gained 688 of his 2,097 yards running toward right guard or right tackle, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and a whopping 1,563 of his yards came on runs up the middle or toward the right side of the line.

The guard said he and Loadholt sometimes spend two to three nights a week together golfing, playing cards or watching TV, and their chemistry has carried over onto the field.

"[Him and Phil] click pretty well together, but more importantly than that, they communicate very well together," Davidson said. "I'm going up to correct them, and they're already correcting the thing that just happened on the previous play. There's very few things that get lost in translation with those guys, because they are excellent communicators with each other."

And last season, things really started to click for Fusco. Pro Football Focus rated him the ninth-best guard in the game in 2013, grading him as the fifth-best run blocker at the position. He's still got room to improve in pass protection, but he's carved out a niche as a road grader on the Vikings' line.

Like the rest of the group, Fusco is immersed in a new offensive scheme, which Davidson said changes the team's pass protection concepts more than it alters their run scheme. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner's downfield passing game will likely require linemen to protect quarterbacks longer, and the group could get tested early in the season.

But if Fusco keeps improving, there could be a reward waiting for him. He didn't think the Vikings had talked with his agent, Jared Fox, about a new contract yet, and didn't seem worried about it happening soon. "That's why I've got an agent," he said. "I'm just going to play, and we'll worry about that later down the road. I've still got a lot to prove."

The reason he could end up with a new deal at all, though, is because he's proven plenty already.

"The guy has truly taken it by the reins each day," Davidson said. "To this day, he's the guy that's the first one out here to go over there, trying to find something each day he's going to be able to work on."

 
MINNEAPOLIS -- Now that the Minnesota Vikings have finally announced their coaching staff for the 2014 season, we can take a look at the list of assistants and see what trends emerge with the group new coach Mike Zimmer has put together. And as it turns out, it won't take quite as long to peruse the list as it did with predecessor Leslie Frazier's staff.

The Vikings currently have just 17 coordinators and assistants on their staff, down from the 20 they carried last season under Frazier. As ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky pointed out this morning, that makes the Vikings' staff the smallest in the division and one of the smallest in the NFL.

That's not to say a leaner staff is good or bad -- it's simply a different way of doing business -- but it does offer some insight into how Zimmer might conduct business. In Cincinnati last season, he had five position coaches under him while he was the Bengals' defensive coordinator (former Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams had six).

It could also help Zimmer that he has offensive and defensive coordinators in Norv Turner and George Edwards who have done those jobs before. Frazier, on the other hand, was working with first-time coordinators Bill Musgrave and Alan Williams, who both seemed to struggle at times in Minnesota. Turner also has 13 seasons of NFL head coaching experience on his resume.

"We already talked a little bit about things. Scheduling, how we did things," Turner said. "He’s an extremely experienced coach. He's been with some outstanding people. I’m sure he has strong opinions of how he wants to do things and if there’s something he wants to lean on me, I’ll give him my opinion."

It's always possible the Vikings could add another coach or two, but assuming the staff is set for now, here are some factoids about each group:

The 17 coordinators and assistants on Zimmer's staff have a combined 278 years of coaching experience, for an average of 16.35 years per coach. Five coaches -- Turner, Edwards, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, defensive backs coach Jerry Gray and offensive line coach Jeff Davidson -- have at least been coordinators for other teams before joining Zimmer's staff.

Frazier's 2013 staff had 336 years of experience across 20 coaches, or an average of 16.8 years per coach. Three coaches -- Priefer, Davidson and assistant linebackers coach Mike Singletary -- had at least been coordinators before coming to the Vikings. A fourth, assistant linebackers coach Fred Pagac, was the Vikings' defensive coordinator in 2010-11 until Frazier demoted him to assistant linebackers coach.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings will announce all of Mike Zimmer's coaching staff once it's finished, but we're starting to get some sense of how the group will look.

We know it will not include former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave; Fox Sports reported on Tuesday that Musgrave has accepted a job as the Eagles' quarterbacks coach. That's not a big surprise, considering the Vikings had already replaced Musgrave with Norv Turner, but Tuesday's news rules out any chance of Musgrave returning to the Vikings in a smaller role.

The Vikings have defensive coordinator George Edwards reportedly in place, as well, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Master Tesfatsion, who's at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., reports he saw Turner's son Scott conducting the Vikings' meetings with quarterbacks -- which is a likely indicator the younger Turner, who was the Browns' wide receivers coach last season, will be on his father's offensive staff for a second season in a row. Cincinnati Bengals defensive backs coach Adam Zimmer, who worked for his father last season, is also expected to join the Vikings' staff.

How many of former coach Leslie Frazier's assistants could stay on with Zimmer? According to a NFL source, wide receivers coach George Stewart and offensive line coach Jeff Davidson both have decent chances. Stewart, who is at the Senior Bowl this week, had developed a bond with rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson dating to last year's scouting combine, and he has worked with Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens in the past. The Vikings blocked Davidson from interviewing for a job with the Atlanta Falcons, which would seem to indicate they would like to keep him on Zimmer's staff.

There are bound to be plenty of questions about special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who was accused by former punter Chris Kluwe of making homophobic remarks during the 2012 season. The Vikings are investigating the matter, and that investigation could help delay an announcement of the Vikings' coaching staff. Priefer is well-respected as a coach, but the Vikings might want to get the situation resolved before announcing a staff with or without Priefer on it.

The rest of the group is still waiting to see what decisions Zimmer makes, but the Musgrave move is at least an indication that the Vikings have given some coaches the chance to accept jobs elsewhere.
MANKATO, Minn. -- A youngster approached while I spoke this week to Matt Kalil. As Kalil discussed the challenges of his first training camp with the Minnesota Vikings, the youngster grabbed hold of his right leg and held on for dear life.

No, the young man wasn't Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder. He was the son of a team employee who got lost in a sea of players. But if all goes according to plan -- and to this point of the summer, there is no reason to believe otherwise -- Kalil will provide Ponder and the entire Vikings offense comfort and security for years to come.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kalil
AP Photo/Genevieve RossProtecting QB Christian Ponder in the regular season should be easier for rookie Matt Kalil after having to work against Jared Allen during training camp.
A few days here at Minnesota State University, Mankato, revealed that Kalil has not been overwhelmed by the task of opening the season as the Vikings' left tackle. He has had his hands full during team drills against All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen, but what has the Vikings most encouraged is that Kalil has set aside individual defeats in the name of progress.

"He's had his moments where it's been a little bit tougher against Jared," coach Leslie Frazier said, "but he's won some battles as well. He has not backed down. … He comes back well … and doesn't hold his head down. He doesn't pout. He ends up responding in the right way. That lets you know this guy is going to be a pro. He's not going to be sulking and forgetting about another play coming up."

Kalil's arrival is part of a stabilization of the Vikings' offensive line, one that has allowed them to practice almost exclusively with the five players who now almost certainly will open the season against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The only competition was at right guard, between second-year player Brandon Fusco and veteran Geoff Schwartz, but Schwartz reportedly has been set back by the development of a sports hernia.

So rather than spend time rotating competitors in and out of the lineup, the Vikings have the opportunity to develop some continuity as the preseason begins next week. It wouldn't be possible without Kalil, whose time against Allen this summer has at least given him a look at almost everything he'll see from opponents this season.

"Jared is a real explosive guy but he's also good with his hands and good with all of his different moves that he does," Kalil said. "It's just better for me to face a guy like that and try to see everything. Bull rush, inside move, outside move. He does it all. There's nothing I won't see in games that I haven't done against Jared."

If anything has stood out to me, it's Kalil's energy and athleticism. Perhaps it's rookie naïveté, but Kalil takes his practice blocks as far downfield as he can, often ending 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage on a run. You'll also notice him chasing plays aggressively as the ultimate security blanket.

"It's definitely an emphasis for me to finish downfield," Kalil said. "[Offensive line coach Jeff] Davidson makes a good point. You never know what can happen. You can grab a fumble or be there if something bad happens. It's always good to get downfield to be there or try to make that last block. Basically, the more effort, the better."

Mike Tolbert plans to do it all

June, 13, 2012
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There seems to be a lot of confusion among fans of the Carolina Panthers about what position Mike Tolbert will play.

The Panthers keep saying he is a fullback and then rave about his versatility. Throw in the fact that Tolbert carried the ball 121 times for San Diego last season and it’s understandable where the confusion stems from.

[+] EnlargeMike Tolbert
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonMike Tolbert prides himself on his versatility.
Carolina still is a relatively new franchise. For much of its existence, Brad Hoover lined up at fullback and blocked for a variety of runners including Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster, Williams and Nick Goings. The roles were clear. The running backs ran the ball and Hoover blocked. Hoover was a fan favorite and it’s a little difficult to imagine the Panthers using a fullback any way other than they used Hoover.

But the days of Hoover and former coach John Fox are long gone. This is the second year for coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who never will be confused with former coordinators Dan Henning or Jeff Davidson. One of the first things Rivera and Chudzinski did this offseason was reach back into their past. Both previously were assistants in San Diego and they went out and lured Tolbert to Carolina.

Rivera and Chudzinski know Tolbert well and they have a clear vision of how they want to use him. He’ll block for Williams and Stewart at times, but that’s not all Tolbert will be asked to do.

“I think the different things 'Chud' has him incorporated in as far as running the ball and catching the ball and blocking, splitting him out and moving him around and those types of things, I think those are positives,’’ Rivera said. “When you have a guy that versatile, it helps your football team.’’

That still may sound a bit vague, so I asked Tolbert to describe the role he expects to play for the Panthers.

“Just a versatile player that helps in any way I can -- special teams, fullback and running back," Tolbert said. “I pride myself on being able to do it all. Letting my game evolve over the last four years in San Diego has really helped me to get to where I’m at today.’’

You could make a case that Carolina’s backfield already was overcrowded before Tolbert arrived. Williams and Stewart, who each have been 1,000-yard rushers in the past, had to share carries last year in an offense that suddenly turned pass happy with rookie quarterback Cam Newton. Stewart was on the field for 55.2 percent of the offensive plays, while Williams took part in 42.7 percent of the plays. In San Diego, Tolbert took part in 44.4 percent of the Chargers’ offensive plays.

But Tolbert insists there is enough room for all three backs to get plenty of playing time and he throws out some scenarios that Carolina fans might have trouble picturing right now.

“I think we mesh well together,’’ Tolbert said. “They are different types of backs. DeAngelo is more the slicer and Jonathan is more of the power guy and I kind of fit in between. It’s going to be fun for all of us to get in the backfield at the same time or myself with DeAngelo or with Jonathan or just one out of there at times. It’s going to be fun to put it all together and see what happens.’’

All three of them in the backfield at the same time? Tolbert playing tailback in a single-back set?

Yeah, it’s all possible. We’ll have to wait until the fall to really see it. But you’re going to see some unique things out of the Carolina backfield in 2012. Don’t believe me? Think back to last year when Chudzinski first arrived. Did anybody really expect to see Newton throwing for 400 yards in each of his first two games?

Of course not. But this is a different Carolina team and as we move into the second year of Chudzinski’s offense, we’re going to see it evolve even more.

I’m heading out to the practice field shortly to catch another session of Carolina’s minicamp. I’ll be back with more this afternoon.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- It's not often when an NFL coach introduces a draft pick "as our starter" for "many, many years to come." Usually you at least see a charade of making the rookie "win" the job.

Kalil
Kalil
But the Minnesota Vikings have too many immediate plans for Matt Kalil, and so that's how coach Leslie Frazier described Kalil on Friday, in the process giving us a clear picture of how the Vikings plan to stack their rebuilt offensive line in 2012.

As suspected, Frazier said Kalil's arrival will push 2011 left tackle Charlie Johnson to left guard. (In fact, offensive line coach Jeff Davidson told reporters he discussed that likelihood with Johnson early last season.) Frazier said there will be a "battle" between veteran newcomer Geoff Schwartz, 2011 draft pick Brandon Fusco at right guard and possibly others.

That leaves center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt, who is entering the final year of his contract, as the only holdovers from the group expected to start for the Vikings when training camp opened in 2011.

The key, of course, was getting Kalil in place to begin the process.

"It gives us more flexibility on the offensive line now," Frazier said, "because once you solidify that spot, it's a little bit easier to try and move other people around."

Panthers have added dimensions

August, 15, 2011
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We got our first glimpse of coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s offensive system Saturday night when the Carolina Panthers opened their preseason against the New York Giants.

It didn’t look much like schemes previous coordinators Jeff Davidson and Dan Henning ran under former coach John Fox. There were passes to the tight ends, a reverse to Armanti Edwards and some downfield throws.

And that was just a first glimpse. There are other nuances we haven’t seen yet. The Panthers still will run the ball a fair amount because DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are quality running backs, but there’s going to be more balance in the offense.

That’s a refreshing change for the players, even the offensive linemen, who generally pride themselves on run blocking.

“We got in a situation the last year or two where we were very much a one-dimensional offense,’’ Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said during my recent visit to Carolina’s training camp. “Teams were putting eight or nine men in the box. We were still running the ball pretty well. But you can’t do just that and win in this league.’’

The Panthers didn’t win very often last year. They went 2-14 and replaced Fox with Ron Rivera. Although Rivera comes with a defensive background, he realized Carolina needed to change its offensive philosophy. That’s why he brought in Chudzinski, who had been the tight ends coach in San Diego. The plan is to run an offense similar to what the Chargers use.

“There are dynamics to our offense that we haven’t had in a while,’’ Kalil said. “I’ve always felt we’ve been one-dimensional with the running game. That whole aspect of the offense is going to completely change now.’’

Panthers don't need gimmicks

August, 11, 2011
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I really like the fact the Carolina Panthers are trying to be creative with their offense.

They weren’t even close to being creative when John Fox and Jeff Davidson were running the show. I’d say the last time the Panthers showed any creativity on offense was back when Dan Henning was the coordinator, but I know there are plenty of Carolina fans that wouldn’t go along with that. They’d say the last time the Panthers had an interesting offense was in George Seifert’s first two seasons.

However, there’s one thing I don’t like about what the Panthers are doing. They recently spent 30 minutes of practice letting Armanti Edwards work at quarterback. Yes, Edwards is a former college quarterback, but he was drafted to be a return man and a wide receiver.

The Panthers still think his future is at those two positions, but they’re inserting a Wildcat package in which Edwards will sometimes line up at quarterback. The team talked about shifting quarterback Cam Newton out wide in those situations.

Great, you’ll have an undersized quarterback who hasn’t passed since college throwing to a quarterback, who is not a receiver. Yeah, it might be flashy, but it makes less sense than most of what Fox and Davidson did the last couple of years.

I’m not saying it’s a bad idea for the Panthers to use Edwards in the Wildcat for a couple plays a game, but no more than that, when the regular season rolls around. And I’m also saying it’s a waste of valuable training-camp practice time to give Edwards a lot of work at quarterback.

Newton and Jimmy Clausen need all the work they can get after not having an offseason program to learn a new offense. They need all that work at quarterback, not wide receiver.

And Edwards needs to get his work as a receiver and a return man. Let guys do what they do best.

There’s a theory subscribed to by New Orleans’ Sean Payton and Atlanta’s Mike Smith. It goes something like this: If you have a real quarterback, you don’t resort to gimmicks and take the ball out of his hands.

The Panthers still don’t know for sure what they have in Newton. But they think he can be a franchise quarterback. Let him be the quarterback.

Camp Confidential: Panthers

August, 4, 2011
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- You’ve heard plenty about the lockout over the past few months, but it actually was in effect in Charlotte since 2008.

The moment owners opted out of the previous labor agreement, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson realized there were tough financial times ahead. He immediately decided he wasn’t going to spend big money on long-term deals for players or coaches (the Panthers didn’t add a single unrestricted free agent in 2009 or 2010) because Richardson wanted to protect everyone else who worked for his franchise during the tough times.

That’s why defensive end Julius Peppers was allowed to walk in free agency last year. That’s why John Fox was allowed to be a lame-duck coach entering a 2010 season that turned into a nightmare. Despite having a roster filled with a reasonable amount of individual talent, the Panthers went 2-14 and fan apathy reached an all-time high.

But Richardson’s entire philosophy changed the moment the labor situation was resolved. He took the lock off his checkbook and began paying huge money to keep players such as defensive end Charles Johnson, running back DeAngelo Williams, linebackers Jon Beason, James Anderson and Thomas Davis, add free agents such as kicker Olindo Mare and trade for tight end Greg Olsen. Including rookies, Richardson already has written checks for more than $100 million in signing bonuses.

Throw in the fact that Ron Rivera has replaced Fox and the Panthers chose quarterback Cam Newton with the first pick of the draft and there suddenly is optimism the Panthers can quickly escape the label of being one of the league’s worst teams.

“That’s the one thing I’ve learned from being a Carolina Panther for going on nine years is that you never know what kind of a team we’re going to field from year to year,’’ veteran left tackle Jordan Gross said. “Things can change dramatically, and I think they are going to here. I love Coach Rivera’s philosophy and the staff he’s put together. They’re committed to winning, and the organization has shown that as well with what it has done with getting new guys and re-signing our own guys. I think we can be as good as we want to be.’’

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Cam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAs the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft, it is inevitable that Cam Newton will at some point start for the Panthers at quarterback.
THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Will Newton be savior of this franchise? It’s way too early to even have a clue if the guy who only played one full season at Auburn will succeed in the NFL. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that the Panthers aren’t asking Newton to be their savior -- at least not right away.

The hope in Carolina is that Newton will get a reasonable grasp of the offense in training camp and show it in the preseason games. If he does, he’ll be the opening-day starter. The Panthers don’t want to prolong the inevitable and start the season with Jimmy Clausen because Newton clearly is their future.

The playbook can expand as time goes on, but the organization believes that Newton can step right in behind an offensive line that should be good and can take advantage of a strong running game, very good tight ends and wide receiver Steve Smith.

2. What will the new offense look like? The popular thing to do in Carolina is assume that the departure of Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson means the Panthers are suddenly going to start throwing the ball all over the field.

They will throw more, but the Panthers won't pass as often as people think. That would be foolish with a rookie quarterback and it would border on insanity to keep the ball out of the hands of running backs Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Under new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, there will be significant differences from the Fox/Davidson era.

Chudzinski came from San Diego and plans to use an offensive scheme that’s based on what the Chargers do. You’ll see more passes to the tight ends, a big reason the Panthers brought in Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. You’ll see plays designed to get Smith away from double coverage. But don’t expect Newton to step right in and immediately be Philip Rivers.

3. What will the defense look like? Rivera has a defensive background. His coordinator is Sean McDermott, who spent time in Philadelphia. Some personnel changes in the middle of the defensive line will allow Beason, Anderson and Davis to again become play-making linebackers. That’s going to make this defense look a little like Fox’s defense of a few years back. But the real change will be a new philosophy that involves taking risks and being aggressive. The Panthers didn’t blitz much last year and didn’t have much success when they did. That’s going to change. McDermott’s going to use those athletic linebackers as blitzers and, with Johnson and Greg Hardy already up front, Carolina suddenly could have a dynamic and disruptive pass rush. The secondary is not loaded with big-time talent, but it could look a lot better if quarterbacks are forced into mistakes.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Armanti Edwards
Joshua S. Kelly/US PRESSWIREArmanti Edwards reached out to punter Jason Baker during the offseason to work on fielding punts.
Granted, it’s early, but the Panthers are hopeful receiver/return man Armanti Edwards will make an impact. A second-round pick last year, Edwards was a non-factor as a rookie. That was largely because Fox believed the former college quarterback did not belong in the NFL. He barely let Edwards on the field as he made a statement to an owner and front office that wanted the lame-duck coach to embrace a youth movement. But Fox is gone and there’s sudden optimism about Edwards. The team didn’t know it until after the lockout ended, but it was delighted to find out that Edwards reached out to veteran punter Jason Baker during the offseason. The two worked out together frequently and Edwards made dramatic improvement in his ability to catch punts. There’s a good chance he could be the main punt and kickoff returner this season. He also could be involved in certain packages as a wide receiver.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

The perception is the Panthers have done just about everything they’ve wanted to in free agency. But that’s not quite reality. According to a league source, the team made a strong play for free-agent receiver Santana Moss, offering him a three-year deal worth $15 million. Moss took the deal back to the Redskins, who matched it, so he elected to stay in Washington. That one shook the Panthers a bit. Although they have high hopes for young receivers Brandon LaFell and David Gettis, they want to pair a proven veteran with Smith to start the season. Look for them to bring in another veteran at some point before the start of the regular season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Keep your eye on the cornerbacks who remain on the market or come available over the next few weeks. The Panthers let Richard Marshall leave via free agency. They still have Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn, but a team that has been so aggressive this offseason isn’t going to sit still at this position. The Panthers will sign a cornerback with starting experience at some point. They’re just waiting for the right guy at the right price.
  • The Panthers pushed veteran kicker John Kasay out the door and handed Mare a $4 million signing bonus. Kasay, 41, remained accurate on field goals, but the feeling was that he no longer had the leg strength to make long kicks. Mare’s 38 and still can make long field goals. But the biggest reason the change was made wasn’t about field goals. It was about kickoffs. The Panthers carried a kickoff specialist the past few years and didn’t want to waste a roster spot by doing that again. With the league moving kickoffs up 5 yards this year, the team believes Mare can produce a lot of touchbacks.
  • Don’t overlook running back Mike Goodson. As long as Williams and Stewart are healthy, he’s not going to get a bunch of carries. But Goodson was one of the few bright spots from last season and the new coaching staff noticed him on film. He can do a lot out of different things out of the backfield, and the coaching staff believes there's a role for Goodson. Think of a scaled-down version of what New Orleans did with Reggie Bush and plans to do with Darren Sproles.
  • Perhaps the most unsung move the Panthers made all offseason was hiring Mike Shula, the son of legendary coach Don Shula, as quarterbacks coach. He's had ups and downs as an NFL coordinator and college head coach at Alabama. But Shula has grown from it all and is a very good quarterbacks coach and teacher. If Shula can develop Newton or Clausen into a big-time quarterback, the world finally might give this guy his due.
  • The return of right tackle Jeff Otah is more significant than many realize. Otah missed all last season with a knee injury but is fully healthy now. That’s going to have a huge impact on the running game.
  • Ryan Kalil signed his $10 million franchise tender and the team hasn’t talked to him about a long-term deal. But that’s simply because the front office has been so tied up making other moves. This team realizes Kalil is still young and already considered one of the best centers in the game. As soon as things settle down a bit, expect Kalil to be offered a big long-term deal.
Cam NewtonAP Photo/Bob LeveroneCam Newton was all smiles during his introduction in Charlotte. The smiles may continue into the season.
At a kickball game in Charlotte on Sunday, Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen were on common ground for perhaps the first and last time in their lives.

The future and current quarterbacks of the Carolina Panthers (or is it already the current and past quarterbacks?) got together for a charity event that included some other players. It's kind of ironic, because Newton and Clausen have virtually nothing else in common, and, despite the fact they’re going to be teammates, things already are setting up for them to be competitors, maybe even rivals.

You could see that building last Friday as Newton was introduced to the Charlotte media and asked what jersey number he wants to wear. At Auburn, Newton wore No. 2. Clausen picked that number when he was drafted by the Panthers last year. In the world of the NFL, the veteran usually gets to keep his number, unless some sort of financial agreement can be worked out.

Newton didn’t concede the number to Clausen and made some reference like "we’ll see." That might lead you to believe the man taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft might flex his muscle to wear No. 2.

It might not come with a bad ending for the Panthers, but you can see Clausen and Newton, two guys with entirely different backgrounds and personalities, already lining up on a collision course. The ending won’t be happy for both, because they’re playing for one job as the long-term starting quarterback.

It can only be coincidence, but the kickball game came precisely one year to the day that Clausen threw his first NFL minicamp pass and many people thought the Panthers finally had found their franchise quarterback. A year later, the Panthers turned around and drafted Newton to fill that role.

That’s the role Clausen has been groomed for all his life, while Newton's grooming process was far less traditional.

Let’s start with Clausen. Chances are pretty good you first heard of Clausen when Sports Illustrated ran this story, titled "The Kid with the Golden Arm."

In it, the writer talks about how people viewed Clausen as the next great quarterback: "Others see the arm of John Elway, the composure of Tom Brady and the quick release of Joe Namath."

Former NFL quarterback Brian Sipe said, "I’ve never seen anyone with a quicker release than Jimmy has."

The story was written when Clausen was a junior in high school. It goes on to reveal details of his grooming -- how he worked with a private quarterbacks coach since junior high, how his brothers, Rick and Casey, made it as college quarterbacks at the University of Tennessee -- and the recruiting wars that were being fought over him.

Skip ahead a little more than a year. If you somehow hadn’t heard of Clausen by then, well, that changed. He showed up in a white limousine at the College Football Hall of Fame to announce he would attend Notre Dame. Notre Dame, the school with Charlie Weis (the man who developed Brady) and all sorts of quarterback pedigree (forget Brady Quinn, we're talking the days of Joe Montana and Joe Theismann).

Weis didn’t really win big, but Clausen had a respectable career. Although some thought he might go in the first round of last year’s draft, he slid to the second and the Panthers grabbed him. For the first time in his life, Clausen wasn’t in a position where success was assured, and it showed. Former coach John Fox -- fighting the youth movement imposed by management and throwing farewell gestures on his way out the door -- refused to play Clausen until injuries left him no choice. In the offense of Fox and coordinator Jeff Davidson, which looked like it was created for a 1950s high school team, Clausen struggled mightily and the Panthers finished 2-14.

Clausen clashed with volatile receiver Steve Smith. Media and teammates described Clausen as self-centered, aloof and not the kind of guy who commands respect in a locker room or a huddle. The Panthers swear they haven’t given up on Clausen and still think he can turn into a decent NFL quarterback.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Jimmy Clausen
Geoff Burke/Getty ImagesJimmy Clausen could find himself watching from the bench again this season.
But they were saying that after they had drafted Newton, and logic says you don’t go out and use an early pick on a quarterback if you think you have one on your roster.

Newton suddenly is the chosen one, and he’s coming at it on a completely different track than Clausen. At his press conference the day after the draft, Newton was engaging and cracking smile after smile.

The Panthers talked about his charismatic personality and the passionate halftime speech that sparked Auburn to a win over Alabama last season. They talked of how Newton’s teammates spoke about his leadership skills, and no one ever has questioned his physical skills. It's the kind of stuff Clausen can only dream about.

It’s not as though Newton comes with a résumé that’s empty compared to Clausen’s. Newton won a national title and a Heisman Trophy at Auburn. He won a junior college national title at Blinn College. But he played only one year at each place, and neither program ran a Notre Dame offense, the kind of offense people said made Clausen the most NFL-ready quarterback in last year’s draft.

Newton’s résumé also included a brief stop at the University of Florida, which doesn’t recruit quarterbacks from the bargain basement. But Tim Tebow already was there. Newton was involved in an incident in which a computer was stolen. There were reports of academic improprieties, reports Newton disputes. Newton left, went to Blinn, and, as he was looking to transfer back to a big-time school, things got murky.

There have been reports Newton’s father, Cecil, sought money for the rights to his son, and the NCAA is investigating the matter.

The Panthers did all sorts of homework on Newton’s background and decided that none of it suggests future problems. They put him under a microscope on and off the field and decided they loved what they saw.

If it means pushing aside the kid who grew up in a quarterback laboratory, the Panthers appear fine with that. In a best-case scenario, maybe Clausen rallies and pulls off something like Drew Brees did when he was in San Diego. Brees, at least temporarily, did a nice job of keeping Philip Rivers on the sideline.

But that’s far fetched. The Panthers didn’t draft Newton to sit, and, listening to them talk last week, you could read between the lines and see that they’d like nothing more than to open the season with their franchise quarterback as their franchise quarterback.

The labor situation could complicate things a bit. If there are no offseason workouts and a limited training camp, the Panthers might be forced to open the season with Clausen as the starter. But, seriously, how long is that going to last? Four games? Six, tops?

The smiles and relaxed atmosphere from the kickball game are over. Whenever the Panthers do get back to the practice field, Newton just has to show he’s getting a grasp of the playbook and then he’ll be the one on the playing field.

Really, it’s all about pedigree. He might have taken an unconventional route through college, but Newton’s got the upper hand now. Clausen, because he's had so much coaching already, might be as good as he's ever going to get.

Newton's the guy who has won championships and won over huddles. He's the one with potential that seems limitless. He’s the one the Panthers picked in the spot that gives him the ultimate pedigree.
I’ve written several times in recent weeks that the Carolina Panthers are giving strong consideration to using the first pick in the upcoming draft on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton.

One of the reasons I’m saying that is because I believe the departure of former coach John Fox and his offensive philosophy (control the ball with the running game, rely on the occasional pass and win with strong defense) have cause the organization to re-evaluate things. One of the reasons, Newton is getting this kind of consideration is because the Panthers believe that the league has changed and is now, more than ever, driven by quarterbacks.

What’s that mean? Well, it’s not too hard to visualize. Guys like Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have been having lots of success and so have their teams. Rules have changed and so have trends in play-calling, scheme and personnel in the past three years.

Want proof? Let’s turn to ESPN Stats & Information for some pretty strong evidence. Starting with the 2008 season (gee, that’s the last year Fox and the Panthers had a winning record) there has been a noticeable league-wide shift from the running game.

Last season, the pass/run ratio (based on play design) was 59 percent to 41 percent. In 2009, it was 58 percent to 42 percent. In 2008, it was 57.2 percent to 42.8 percent. Play design for passes includes plays that resulted in a pass attempt, a sack or a scramble.

The percentage shift might not seem like that big a deal, but let’s explore it a little further. The shift has been very pronounced when you look only at the pass/run ratio of playoff teams over the past three seasons. In 2010, the playoff teams passed on 58.9 of their regular-season plays while running on 41.1 percent of their plays. In 2009, the margin was 57.8 percent to 42.2 percent. In 2008, it was 54.6 percent to 45.4 percent.

A lot of critics are down on Newton and Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who also is in the mix to be Carolina’s choice, because both of them lined up in the shotgun formation frequently in college. Well, guess what? That might not be such a bad thing.

Lining up under center is still far more common in the NFL, but the shotgun formation has been used a lot more the past three seasons. In 2010, 38.3 percent of league-wide snaps came out of the shotgun formation, while 61.7 percent came from under center. In 2009, 37 percent of snaps came out of the shotgun formation and the figure was 32.3 percent in 2008.

Another trend has been for offenses to line up in empty-backfield sets and spread out defenses with five receivers. In 2010, the league average was 6.4 snaps per game with just a quarterback in the backfield. In 2009, that average was 4.8. In 2008, it was 4.7.

Bottom line: If the Panthers want to compete in the modern NFL, they’re going to have to scrap the offense Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson ran and new coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Rob Chudzinski need to use a more creative offensive scheme. It would help if they have a quarterback that allows them to be creative.
The Minnesota Vikings' 2011 home stadium remains in doubt, but their plans for the draft are not. In reviewing comments Thursday from coach Leslie Frazier and new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, it seems clear they intend to draft a quarterback who could jump in as a near-immediate starter when the season begins.

The Vikings hold the No. 12 overall pick, and as we noted Wednesday, early mock drafts suggest anywhere from two to four quarterbacks could already be off the board by that point. But past decisions have put the Vikings in an unenviable position this spring: They have little choice but to force a pick. The only question is whether the rookie will be ready to play right away or if the Vikings will also have to acquire a veteran option.

"I guess it depends on that young guy," Frazier said. "Ideally, you'd like to find the Matt Ryans of the world, the Joe Flaccos of the world and ride with one of those guys. But it doesn't always happen that way. We just kind of have to see where things fall. If we find someone like that, you'd like to build around him. That really gives you a chance for the long term. But as I mentioned it doesn't always happen that way. If we have to go with a veteran guy while we're developing that young guy, I'm not opposed to that either. But ideally, find a young guy, build around him and know you're going to have him for that next nine or 10 years as your starting quarterback. But those guys are sometimes hard to find."

Said Musgrave: "Ideally, you would like to find a young guy that has a bunch of promise and potential and you would hand him the keys and let him make his mistakes and learn and but also know that he would be there for you in the long term. That's ideal. I believe that will be one of our goals to identify any candidates that can fit that role but at the same time be ready to find some other fellows that may have some experience, that can come in and be effective and also have some upside to them as well."

Frazier announced most of the additions he has made to the coaching staff Thursday, acknowledging Musgrave along with Mike Priefer (special teams), Fred Pagac (defensive coordinator), Jeff Davidson (offensive line), Craig Johnson (quarterbacks) and Mike Singletary (linebackers). Holdovers will include George Stewart (receivers), Jimmie Johnson (tight ends), Karl Dunbar (defensive line) and Joe Woods (defensive backs).

Where that staff is working on game days next season is anyone's guess. Ted Mondale, the new chairman of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, said Thursday it could take up to six months to replace the damaged roof of the Metrodome, if engineers determine a total replacement is necessary. That timetable could threaten the Vikings' preseason schedule if a lockout doesn't do the trick first.

As we've noted before, the Vikings have already questioned whether they will be able to play next season in the Metrodome. It's possible they'll move to TCF Bank Stadium, at least for 2011, while awaiting approval for a new stadium to replace the Metrodome. Stay tuned.
Just got a call from AFC West colleague Bill Williamson with some pretty big news. John Fox will be the new head coach of the Denver Broncos.

It’s a bigger story for Williamson than for us, but it still is a big deal in the NFC South world. After all, Fox spent nine years coaching the Carolina Panthers and was the dean of NFC South coaches -- a title now held by New Orleans’ Sean Payton.

I think Denver fans should be excited by this move. Yeah, I know Fox went 2-14 in his final season with the Panthers, but I still think he was the best candidate on the market. Say what you want about the end of Fox’s tenure in Carolina.

But the guy did a good job for a long time. His message might have gotten stale in the later years and his relationship with ownership deteriorated. But Fox can flat-out coach and he’ll bring some instant energy to the Broncos.

Fox needs to take a couple of lessons from his early Carolina days to make things work in Denver. First, he needs to go out and get a top-notch offensive coordinator and Fox might want to give that guy a little more flexibility than he ever gave Dan Henning or Jeff Davidson.

As soon as he hires a coordinator, Fox needs to decide on a quarterback. It doesn’t matter if it’s Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow. Let the coordinator and whoever the quarterbacks coach is handle the quarterback.

The best thing Fox can do is focus on the defense and the overall running of the team and keep his hands off the offense.

By the way, Fox already is in the process of filling his coaching staff. That could mean he'll bring in some guys who were with him in Carolina. I'd keep an eye on running backs coach Jim Skipper and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks.
Ron RiveraAP Photo/Chuck BurtonNew Carolina coach Ron Rivera said he's willing to employ a more "balanced offense."
Watching Ron Rivera’s first news conference as coach of the Carolina Panthers was a lot like watching John Fox’s introduction back in 2002.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Although Fox’s time with the Panthers didn’t end well, his overall tenure was a success. Rivera’s can be even better if he learns some lessons from what went right and what went wrong for Fox.

“I’d like to be an aggressive, physical football team,’’ Rivera said Tuesday afternoon as he met with the media in Charlotte.

That was Fox’s message coming in and pretty much throughout his entire tenure. That style worked, especially in Fox’s early years. In those days, Fox built his team around his defensive line and the Panthers truly were an aggressive and physical team. They went to the Super Bowl in Fox’s second year and it wasn’t really until a trip to the NFC Championship Game in the 2005 season that Fox’s flaws started to show.

Back in the early years, Fox stuck to what he knew: defense. One of his first hires was Dan Henning as offensive coordinator -- Fox viewed that as a coup at the time. Early on, Fox trusted the veteran Henning with his offense and the Panthers won with ball control and the occasional big play.

Things began to fall apart in the 2006 season when the Panthers got too conservative on offense. Henning took the fall for that and was fired at the end of that season. In hindsight, Fox was the guy to blame. He insisted on sticking with his style even when it obviously wasn’t working. Fox brought in Jeff Davidson as the replacement and the Panthers haven’t had much of a passing game since.

That’s why I’m saying Rivera could end up being better than Fox. When Rivera uttered the words “balanced offense," I could almost hear fans in the Carolinas cheering.

I almost cheered when someone asked Rivera to describe himself for people who don’t know him.

“A listener, someone who understands,’’ Rivera said.

That’s a great thing because Fox refused to change or adapt and that's why he's gone. I’m certain general manager Marty Hurney, team president Danny Morrison and owner Jerry Richardson made it clear the Panthers must be much better and much more open minded when it comes to offense.

Rivera said he’s going to stick mostly with the defense and let the assistants he hires handle the offense.

“I’m looking for guys that are going to coach and teach," Rivera said.

That’s a good thing because the Carolina brain trust didn’t feel there was enough teaching or coaching going on at the end of Fox’s tenure. That was needed because the team had gone to a full-blown youth movement. You can bet that Rivera has already given some names of potential offensive coaches to Hurney, Morrison and Richardson. They probably wouldn’t have offered him the job if they didn’t like those names.

Ron Turner, Rob Chudzinski and Marc Trestman are coaches Rivera might target and that’s a good start. Rivera ran through his offensive roster and sounded very satisfied with the offensive line and the running backs. That’s usually as far as Fox’s eyes went on offense.

But Rivera kept going. He talked about the three tight ends -- Jeff King, Dante Rosario and Gary Barnidge -- and said he liked them all and the Panthers could upgrade in the draft or free agency. Rivera also praised young receivers Brandon LaFell and David Gettis. Then he saluted wide receiver Steve Smith's career and said he’d “love to visit with him and see how he’s doing."

That’s important. Smith might be the best player in franchise history. He’s been frustrated by the losing and the team's offensive struggles. Smith has not asked to be traded or released, but team officials have told him to think about his future. They’ve made it clear to him that he’s welcome back if he’s satisfied with the new direction of the team. If not, they’ll accommodate him and trade him.

Smith still has some good years left and Rivera can do himself a favor by winning over the receiver. But that might have to be done over time because Rivera must take care of some other challenges first.

“We need to see if there is a quarterback on this roster that can be that franchise guy that you need,’’ Rivera said.

In other words, Rivera and whoever he hires as his offensive coaches must decide if Jimmy Clausen can be a franchise quarterback. Fox never really gave Clausen a chance in his rookie season. He made Clausen spend much of training camp working behind Hunter Cantwell, who didn’t even make the team.

Fox only turned to Clausen after Matt Moore got off to a disastrous start. Fox benched Clausen twice after that and the offensive system made it impossible to tell if the rookie has any upside.

At the very least, Rivera made it sound like he’s at least open to giving Clausen a chance. The Panthers took a hit when Stanford’s Andrew Luck decided not to enter the draft. The Carolina brass realizes the franchise's hopes can’t be put entirely on Clausen, and it’s certain that another quarterback will be added through the draft or free agency.

That puts Rivera one up on Fox. He’s coming in with an open mind about the offense. He’s not coming in hell bent on using square pegs when you’ve got a bunch of round ones.

How I See It: NFC South Stock Watch

December, 15, 2010
12/15/10
8:13
AM ET
» NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Jeff Davidson, Panthers offensive coordinator. It's kind of tough to come up with guys whose stock is falling when three NFC South teams are coming off victories and virtually everybody with the Panthers has been used in this category at one point or another. So we're going to be creative -- in other words, something Davidson is not. I know the head coach sets the tone for what his coordinators do and there's no question John Fox has limited his offense for virtually his entire tenure. But Davidson deserves some heavy blame. I mean, at least try to come up with ways to get Steve Smith the ball. As Fox's time in Carolina comes to an end and I reflect on it, I think one of the worst moves was making Dan Henning the scapegoat for a disappointing 2006 season. Fans thought Henning lacked imagination. After four years of watching Davidson's offense, Henning's offense, in hindsight, looks like the Tampa Bay Bandits of Steve Spurrier in the United States Football League. Fox's staff will be scrambling for jobs. Davidson might have to return to his roots as an offensive line coach because his coordinator résumé isn't looking too good.

2. Geno Hayes, Buccaneers linebacker. He's doing fine on the field, but he got into trouble in the wee hours of Monday morning. If the Bucs really are a playoff team, they should be focused entirely on football at this time of year.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Pierre Thomas
AP Photo/Bill HaberPierre Thomas accounted for 68 yards of offense in his first action since Week 3.
3. Charter flights for the Falcons. They have to cross the country to Seattle this weekend after playing road games at Carolina and Tampa Bay. But if the Falcons keep doing what they're doing, they won't have to get on a plane again this season -- unless it's to Texas for the Super Bowl.

RISING

1. Pierre Thomas, Saints running back. Thomas, who injured his ankle in late September, returned to the playing field Sunday when the Saints defeated the Rams. He wound up probably getting even more playing time than the Saints envisioned. The logical thing to do would have been to ease Thomas back into a rotation with Chris Ivory and Reggie Bush. But that plan went out the window when Ivory started experiencing hamstring issues early in the game. Thomas ended up carrying 12 times and catching four passes. His numbers weren't overhelming (39 rushing yards and 29 receiving yards), but he held up well. Thomas' long-term future in New Orleans might not be all that bright because of Ivory's emergence. But a strong finish could help Thomas get a nice contract somewhere else.

2. Michael Turner, Falcons running back. With backup Jason Snelling banged up, the Falcons have been riding Turner even more than usual. He carried 28 times in Sunday's victory against Carolina and produced 112 yards and three touchdowns. Turner has rushed for more than 100 yards in three of the past four games and five times in Atlanta's seven-game winning streak. He has scored at least one touchdown in four straight games.

3. Arrelious Benn, Buccaneers wide receiver. He was chosen in the second round of this year's draft and fellow receiver Mike Williams was picked in the fourth round. But Williams emerged instantly as the No. 1 receiver and Benn wasn't much of a factor early on. But Benn had a huge game in Sunday's victory at Washington. He had a career-high four catches for a career-high 122 yards.
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