NFL Nation: Jeremy Trueblood

A weekly examination of the Falcons' ESPN.com Power Ranking:

Preseason: 4 | Last Week: 29 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002

The Falcons moved down a spot in the ESPN.com Power Rankings, back to No. 30, after Sunday's 22-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

At one point, the Falcons held a 21-10 edge but couldn't keep it despite creating two turnovers leading to touchdowns. They still haven't been able to string together consecutive wins this season after going 13-3 a year ago.

The Falcons did, however, get a chance to give their young players extensive playing time. Rookie cornerback Robert Alford played all the snaps at left cornerback after Asante Samuel was benched. Rookie right tackle Ryan Schraeder finished the game after Jeremy Trueblood started. And rookie safety Zeke Motta stepped in after Thomas DeCoud suffered a concussion.

The youth movement is certain to continue over the final three games as the Falcons try to establish momentum going into next season. At the same time, some of the veteran players surely want to show they deserve to stick around a little longer.

And from the standpoint of the fans, nothing would be greater than falling to the bottom of the NFL standings to secure the first overall draft pick. The Falcons current stand at the No. 3 position behind the Houston Texans and St. Louis Rams (via Washington).
Roddy White and Sam ShieldsAP PhotoCan Sam Shields and the Packers snap their slump against Roddy White and Atlanta on Sunday?
Last season, the Atlanta Falcons were one quarter away from reaching the Super Bowl, and the Green Bay Packers reached the divisional round of the playoffs.

Eleven months later, the teams have a combined record of 8-15-1.

That’s why the NFL moved the game, which was originally scheduled for prime time on Sunday, to a 1 p.m. ET start.

ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure break down the matchup:

Rob Demovsky: Vaughn, it’s hard to believe the Falcons are in playing-out-the-string mode with all of the talent they have on offense. Obviously, injuries have been an issue, especially losing a talented receiver like Julio Jones. But unlike the Packers, they didn’t lose their quarterback. How come Matt Ryan hasn’t been able to be a difference-maker?

Vaughn McClure: Well, it’s been hard for Matt Ryan to be himself, playing under duress most of the season. The Falcons have ranked in the top 10 in sacks allowed per pass attempt, but that’s only because Ryan has taken shorter drops and delivered the ball quicker. He has still been sacked a career-high 30 times and has been hit countless other times. In the past two games alone -- against the Saints and Bills -- Ryan was sacked 11 times. True, being without Jones hasn’t helped Ryan’s cause. But also, Roddy White hasn’t been at full strength all season. Without Harry Douglas or Tony Gonzalez, Ryan would really be in trouble.

Speaking of quarterbacks, can you explain the different scenarios for the Packers at the position come Sunday, based on Aaron Rodgers’ injury status?

Demovsky: Well, it sure looks like Rodgers will be out for at least another week. This was the game he was really targeting to come back for, thinking he could lead them to the playoffs if he got back for the last four games. But his collarbone did not check out well enough Tuesday to be cleared. Even though he plans to practice this week, it doesn’t look good for him to play. I was a little surprised that coach Mike McCarthy appears to be going with Matt Flynn again. Flynn was completely ineffective in the Thanksgiving debacle at Detroit, and quite frankly, his arm strength does not look good. He didn’t have a lot of zip on the ball indoors against the Lions, and it sure won’t get any easier to throw in the cold, wintry conditions at Lambeau Field. I wondered if he might go back to Scott Tolzien, who looked good in a couple of his appearances but threw too many interceptions.

You mentioned pass protection -- the Packers had issues of their own against the Lions. Flynn was sacked seven times, but on at least a couple of those, he held onto the ball too long. What has been the Falcons’ biggest problem in pass protection?

McClure: The biggest problem has been the offensive line, simply. The guys up front haven’t held up their end of the bargain. They’ve been physically dominated at times, particularly in the loss to the Seahawks. The Falcons lost left tackle Sam Baker to season-ending knee surgery, and Baker wasn’t the same player he was last season before being placed on injured reserve. Left tackle Lamar Holmes, the guy trusted to protect Ryan’s blind side, admitted being out of shape at the beginning of the season and is still experiencing growing pains. Center Peter Konz, right guard Garrett Reynolds, right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and Holmes have all been benched at point during the season. Such turnover hasn’t helped the group develop any cohesion. And now, it has to face a capable Packers defense.

I know Clay Matthews was injured this season, but is he back to the dominant player he was when I covered the NFC North?

Demovsky: He’s starting to look like the player you remember, Vaughn. In his first game back from his broken thumb, he wasn’t a factor,because he had to wear that giant club cast. But the next week against the Giants, he was able to play with a much smaller cast. Ever since then, he’s been a playmaker again. In the past three games, he has three sacks and a forced fumble. The problem is he’s not getting a ton of help. And even when they make big plays like they did against the Lions last week, when they forced four turnovers, the offense can’t take advantage of them. Even with Matthews back on the field, the defense has been in a free fall over the past month.

About the only thing the Packers have been able to count on has been their running game, and even that has been a little up and down. But rookie Eddie Lacy looks like a force with 806 yards rushing in basically 10 games. I’m sure the Falcons will load up the box to stop him like most teams have tried to do since Rodgers got hurt. Do you think they can stop him?

McClure: No. Not at all. They struggled to contain speedy backs like Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller (149 rushing yards) just like they’ve struggled against powerful backs like Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (145 yards). Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan counted 28 missed tackles for his defense over the past two games, which is unacceptable, particularly when they occur in the second level and lead to explosive plays. Although rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow has been a tackling machine, he can’t do it alone. Like the offensive line, the defense has been dominated physically at times. Lacy’s bruising style is the last thing the Falcons want to see. The Falcons are tied for 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game.

Jacquizz RodgersScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe Falcons couldn't get Jacquizz Rodgers into the end zone on the final play of the first half.
ATLANTA -- One yard.

That's all that stood between the Atlanta Falcons and rebounding from a dismal 2013 start.

One yard might have given them much-needed momentum going into the bye week. One yard might have given fans hope the team would sneak right back into the playoff picture.

Instead, Monday night ended with one resounding thud.

There were a variety of reasons why the Falcons suffered their third straight defeat, falling to 1-4 with a 30-28 loss to the New York Jets, who kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired. Some folks will put the blame on head coach Mike Smith, particularly after he decided against going for a field goal with a second left before halftime.

Smith admitted, in hindsight, maybe settling for three would have been the best option. But he believed his team could get the one yard necessary for a touchdown. He expressed faith in his offense, faith in his quarterback, faith in his offensive line.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan, Quinton Coples
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan was only sacked twice, but he felt the pressure from the Jets.
Those out there not upset with Smith are certainly pointing fingers at each and every offensive lineman for not helping Jacquizz Rodgers pick up that yard on fourth-and-goal. Truth be told, there's no reason to call out the linemen on this one. They pointed fingers at themselves.

"Probably would have been better if we had gotten a better push," right guard Garrett Reynolds said. "I don't know exactly what happened. I haven't watched it. But we didn't get in there."

Based on the replay, it appeared at least two front-line Falcons got beat on the play. Joe Hawley, the backup center who lined up as an extra lineman in the tight end spot, seemed to miss his block and allow penetration to Jets defender Quinton Coples. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood appeared to get overpowered by Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who was credited with dropping Rodgers for no gain.

"What did I see? I was just trying to block my guy," Trueblood said. "I wish I would have done a better job. If I would [have gotten] my man, [Rodgers] would have scored."

Owning up to the mistakes is the first step. Correcting those errors is the next phase for the much-maligned offensive line.

The front five have been the object of much criticism since an ugly showing in the preseason. This line underwent a major facelift from last season with center Todd McClure retiring and right tackle Tyson Clabo being released, then signing with the Miami Dolphins. The Falcons were prepared to start Mike Johnson in place of Clabo until Johnson went down for the remainder of the season with a broken leg and dislocated ankle.

Then left tackle Sam Baker, who was stellar last season, went down with an injury in Week 4 against the New England Patriots, which forced demoted right tackle Lamar Holmes to take over at left tackle alongside left guard Justin Blalock, center Peter Konz, Reynolds and Trueblood.

The makeshift line has had its struggles. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter compensated by orchestrating plays to help quarterback Matt Ryan release the ball quicker to avoid pressure.

Still, Ryan has been sacked at key times this season, including against the Patriots when Holmes allowed Ryan to get sacked in the red zone. On Monday night, Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson beat Trueblood and Reynolds, swooping in for a sack-fumble play on Ryan. The turnover led to a Nick Folk field goal.

The line must have gotten a pep talk from offensive line coach Pat Hill at halftime Monday night. The performance in the second half was much better, particularly in terms of clearing holes in the running game. Rodgers had two red-zone touchdown runs in the second half. And Ryan didn't get sacked in the fourth quarter, when he completed 12 of 18 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown.

Regardless, that one yard the Falcons couldn't pick up before halftime might stick with them the entire season. Still, Ryan refused to blame the line.

"I thought they did a good job," he said. "I thought they fought the entire night. It's a good defense that we went against, specifically a very good front seven. And I thought our guys stepped up to the challenge.

"We ran the ball really effectively in the red zone. We just didn't run it effectively on that one play."

The Falcons don't have much of a choice but to ride with the offensive linemen they have now. Getting Baker back healthy might help, but he struggled when he was in the lineup. There aren't too many quality linemen sitting on the streets, and the Falcons have no current interest in recently released tackle Max Starks. Plus the organization still has high hopes for Holmes developing into a Pro Bowl-caliber tackle down the road.

Building toward the future is great, but the Falcons have to be more concerned about the present. If they have any thoughts of rebounding from this dismal 1-4 start, the line has to hold up its end. If it doesn't, the critics will continue to feast on the entire group.

"We always say we're all we got; we're all we need," Reynolds said. "All these people out here saying stuff about us. That's OK. That's their opinion. They don't know what we do. They don't know how hard we work. We have to take it on ourselves to continue to get better. We're a team. We're going to stick together."
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Though quarterback Josh Freeman's image has taken a major hit over the past few weeks, one of his former Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammates spoke up on his behalf.

Trueblood
Freeman
New Falcons starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who started 84 games for the Bucs from 2006-12, had no issues with Freeman.

"I liked him," Trueblood told ESPN.com. "I thought he was a good player. I thought he came to work; thought he was a good leader."

Freeman, a former first-round pick from Kansas State, was released Thursday after the Buccaneers failed to find a trade partner. Reports surfaced about Freeman being in the league’s substance-abuse program, and SI.com reported Freeman had been fined twice in the past month for conduct detrimental to the team.

Freeman was a team captain for the three seasons prior to this year. He was one of three quarterbacks to beat the Falcons during the 2012 regular season.

"All the things I’ve been hearing about him, I never saw," Trueblood said. "So it’s surprising to me."

Freeman was benched in favor of rookie Mike Glennon prior to last week’s loss to the Cardinals.

"I went through it last year, getting benched by that coaching staff," Trueblood explained. "I felt like they handled it all right with me. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about my time there, so I’m not too sure what went on (with Freeman)."

Trueblood reiterated the leadership skills he often saw in Freeman.

"He was always there for the guys," Trueblood said. "He’s a good dude. He’s not always about himself. He’s about the team. I enjoyed him. He never pointed fingers. And he was quick to point the finger at himself, even if it really wasn’t his fault. He was willing to accept the blame. For me, he was just a good leader."

The Falcons host the Buccaneers Oct. 20.
Steven Jackson, Mark IngramGetty ImagesSteven Jackson and Mark Ingram will try to bring more balance to two pass-heavy offenses.
Sean Payton is back to right the wrongs of last season, when his New Orleans Saints went off the rails in his absence. The first test of the season is a fitting one: The Saints open against their hated NFC South rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, who ran away with the division last season even though they split with New Orleans.

Have Payton and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan fixed that horrid defense of a year ago? Will the Saints have much of a running game? Can the Falcons protect their franchise quarterback and give him time to find his myriad weapons?

ESPN.com NFL columnist Ashley Fox and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas discuss what Saints and Falcons fans can expect from the latest installment of this heated rivalry.

Fox: He’s back. It is redemption time for Payton after missing a year because of the bounty scandal. I’m sure, given how beloved Payton is in New Orleans, that the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be so loud it might lift off. I’ve seen different estimates for Payton’s worth. How many wins do you think he’s worth to the Saints?

Yasinskas: I think Payton's presence instantly takes the Saints from a nonplayoff team to a playoff team. His skills as an offensive guru are well known, and that certainly will help. But I think the more subtle benefit to having Payton back is his skill as a motivator. He's a master in that area, and he'll have his team ready for big games. Speaking of changes that came in the offseason, what do you think was the biggest move for the Falcons?

Fox: To me, the biggest change was the addition of Steven Jackson. As you well know, the Falcons struggled to run the ball late last season, when Michael Turner clearly had nothing left in the tank. I know Jackson has hit the age when running backs typically decline, but the Falcons don't need him to carry the load. They're going to pass to get a lead and run to win the game. As long as he can stay healthy, Jackson should be able to do that. How effective do you think the Saints' running game will be?

Yasinskas: That's a very timely question. Several times this offseason, Payton has said he wants more out of his running game. The Saints always are going to be a pass-first team. But if you look back at their Super Bowl year, their running game ranked in the top 10. Payton wants to get back to that, and I believe he has the tools to do that with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram. I think you'll see more of Ingram this year. He's a guy who needs 10 to 15 carries to get going, and he can bring more balance to the offense. Speaking of balance, the Falcons seem to have plenty of that. How potent is their offense going to be?

Fox: I think they have a chance to be as potent, if not more so, than last season. The newly signed Matt Ryan has all of his toys back -- Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez. He threw for more than 4,700 yards last season and set career highs for completion percentage, attempts and completions. He could break those again this season. It will be interesting to see if the preseason, when the Falcons were flagged for countless penalties, was an aberration. They were the least penalized team in NFL history last season. As far as setting NFL records, the Saints' defense did last season and not in a good way. Do you think it is going to be any better this season under Ryan?

Yasinskas: It's hard to imagine the New Orleans defense being any worse than it was a year ago. Things just never worked for former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. I think there will be improvement with Ryan, but I'm not sure how significant it will be. The Saints are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, and I'm not sure they have all the personnel they need to be successful. Time will tell, but it's more than fair to say the defense is the biggest question mark for the Saints. Speaking of question marks, do the Falcons have any glaring weaknesses?

Fox: It is the offensive line. If Ryan is worth his salt as a defensive coordinator, he will strike the right side of the Falcons' line. That’s where the potential problems are. After 13 seasons and 194 starts, center Todd McClure retired after last season. Peter Konz, who started nine games as a rookie at right guard, slides back to his natural position at center. Left guard Justin Blaylock and left tackle Sam Baker are veteran rocks. That’s not the problem. The Falcons let right tackle Tyson Clabo walk in free agency. His replacement, Mike Johnson, broke his leg during training camp. Johnson's replacement, Lamar Holmes, was bad enough in the preseason that the Falcons signed Jeremy Trueblood earlier this week. Right guard Garrett Reynolds missed the second half of last season with an injury. How do you think Ryan will try to exploit the weakness?

Yasinskas: I agree with what you said about Atlanta's offensive line. It potentially could be a huge problem, and I'm sure Ryan is well aware of that. I'd look for him to try to exploit the right side of the line as much as possible. But the Saints have had their share of injuries on defense, and it still isn't clear how they'll apply pressure. Defensive end Cameron Jordan really is the only proven commodity as a pass-rusher. The Saints have big hopes for outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, and those guys need to become forces in a hurry. Atlanta has so many offensive weapons that the Saints need to get some pressure on the quarterback. Speaking of Atlanta's offensive weapons, is White completely healthy?

Fox: The Falcons better hope so. And they say he is, more or less. White sprained an ankle in the second preseason game but finally returned to practice this week. He is Mr. Reliable, having started 128 straight games, and had only two drops last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald had fewer among receivers who were targeted at least 100 times. So the Falcons need White to be healthy and productive. What’s up with the Saints’ third receiver situation?

Yasinskas: The Saints just brought back Robert Meachem, who didn't work out as a free agent in San Diego. I think Meachem can get back to being an impact player as a third or fourth receiver in time. But I think the Saints will open the season with rookie Kenny Stills as their third receiver. He has big-time speed, and the Saints need a downfield weapon to go along with Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Stills is an under-the-radar player who could have a big impact on this game. Do you see any Falcons who fall into that same category?

Fox: There are two undrafted rookie free agents on defense who won’t start but should see plenty of action. One is Joplo Bartu, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker out of Texas State. The other is Paul Worrilow, a 6-foot, 230-pound linebacker out of Delaware. Both are unheralded guys who are big and strong and really caught the coaches a little by surprise. Remember those two. OK, so give me a prediction. Who wins?

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC East team?

DALLAS COWBOYS

Offense: Running game
Dallas averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per rush in 2012. In turn, the Cowboys too often got away from their run game and became too reliant on Tony Romo and this very good passing attack. The offensive line was mostly to blame for the ground struggles, but at least Dallas did use a first-round pick on Travis Frederick to improve the interior of the line. But DeMarco Murray is increasingly difficult to count on, having missed nine of 32 games in his two NFL seasons. Murray’s yards per attempt also dropped from 5.5 to 4.1 in his second season.

Defense: Scheme change
New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is a smart man and surely will not rely on his usual Tampa 2 scheme as some might speculate. Still, after investing so heavily in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne as man-to-man corners, Dallas now -- just one year later -- will ask these two to operate much more out of their comfort zone. It will be interesting to see what percentage of man coverage Dallas plays this season.

Wild card: The linebackers
If Dallas does move to a predominant Tampa 2 scheme, two players who should benefit a great deal are Sean Lee in the middle and Bruce Carter at the Will linebacker spot. Both have outstanding range and playmaking skills. Lee could flourish much like Brian Urlacher did in his prime as an outstanding coverage linebacker, while Carter could have a Derrick Brooks-type impact as a run-and-hit defender.

NEW YORK GIANTS

Offense: Plenty to like
Few seem to be talking about it, but I expect the Giants’ offense to produce an awful lot of points this season. With the addition of Justin Pugh, the offensive line should be upgraded. My only slight concern is at tight end, where Martellus Bennett's blocking will be missed. New starter Brandon Myers really isn't even comparable in that department. I am expecting a breakout season from running back David Wilson, with Andre Brown acting as a superb complement. Wide receiver Rueben Randle also should take monumental steps forward in his second season, and I have little doubt that Eli Manning is still an exceptional quarterback. What’s not to like?

Defense: Back seven
While I am extremely high on the Giants’ offense and think the defensive line will be improved, the back seven of this defense is worrisome. This just might be the worst group of linebackers in the NFL, and I expect Kenny Phillips to be missed at safety. Certainly the Giants have been successful defensively by dedicating resources to the defensive line, but this is a bit ridiculous.

Wild card: Defensive line
Can this deep and talented front make up for all the concerns behind it? I have my doubts, but that isn’t a knock on this front four. Potentially, the Giants should go four deep at end and six deep at tackle with high-end talent. That is pretty amazing and should allow this group to constantly have fresh, hungry players on the field. Also, Jason Pierre-Paul should be healthier than he was a year ago, which is frightening.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Offense: Jason Peters
Before his Achilles injury, I thought Peters was the best offensive lineman in the NFL. He missed the entire 2012 season, a year in which the Eagles’ offensive line was simply horrible. Other injuries certainly factored into that ineptitude, but getting Peters back in the form we saw pre-injury would go a long way to making this a potentially excellent unit, especially with the addition of Lane Johnson. But therein lies the question: What kind of movement skills will we see from the 31-year-old Peters, a tight end in college who once possessed exceptional quickness, balance and agility?

Defense: Cole, Graham and Curry
By all accounts, the Eagles are going to be a predominant 3-4 defense under Chip Kelly. But Trent Cole, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are prototypical 4-3 defensive ends. Cole and Graham, who somewhat quietly played exceptional football during the second half of the 2012 season, are listed as outside linebackers in this 3-4, and Curry is listed at defensive end. It will be a shame if these three players are misused, and it will be interesting to see their role when camp opens.

Wild card: All new secondary
The Eagles' starting cornerbacks greatly underachieved last year, and the safety play was just terrible. The new Philadelphia regime completely revamped the back end of the defense, and it looks as though the Eagles will have four new starters in the secondary. Philadelphia had an inordinate number of mental errors last season; while it might take some time for this group to jell, it should be improved in that capacity as well as in its overall play.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Offense: Right tackle woes
Robert Griffin III’s immense abilities and Mike Shanahan’s scheme masked a major deficiency at right tackle in 2012. The scheme won’t change and Griffin will have even better on-the-field awareness in his second season -- even if he isn’t as mobile while recovering from injury -- but Washington certainly realized this area of concern and brought in Tony Pashos and Jeremy Trueblood to compete with Tyler Polumbus. My fear is that none of the three is the answer.

Defense: O-Sack-Po?
Much like Peters for the Eagles, Brian Orakpo will be under a microscope when camp opens, as all eyes will be watching to see if he still has his same explosive movement skills post-injury. Far and away Washington’s best pass-rusher, Orakpo and his edge presence were missed in a big way last season, and the Redskins were forced to blitz, exposing their weak secondary, much more than what would have been ideal.

Wild card: New DBs
Again much like in Philadelphia, the Redskins put many of their limited offseason resources into improving a poor secondary. A healthy Orakpo’s pass rush certainly will help, but the Redskins could see as many as three rookies -- David Amerson, Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo -- playing prominent roles in their secondary early in the season. Rookie cover men rarely enter the league without their share of growing pains.
So the Washington Redskins have signed Jeremy Trueblood, an offensive tackle formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Redskins fans want to know who he is and why. He's a guy who was once thought to have some promise but didn't end up being a great player in Tampa. He turns 30 in May, is 6-foot-8 and was benched during the season last year due to ineffectiveness.

Trueblood
What? That doesn't sound like the final piece for a Super Bowl run? Hey, this is reality, Redskins fans. Due to the league-imposed salary cap penalties, the Redskins are bargain shoppers right now. And as Rich Campbell writes here, the plan at right tackle appears to be to create competition and see what emerges. Trueblood joins recently signed veteran Tony Pashos and 2012 sixth-round pick Tom Compton as internal options to fill the position played by free agent Tyler Polumbus in 2012.

I know they like Compton, but obviously he may not be ready to be a starter right away in 2013. So they bring in a couple of veterans they like who can either push him or push each other to be worthy of the starting job by Week 1. I wouldn't get my hopes up about any bigger-name offensive linemen making their way to Washington this offseason.

Reviewing NFC South free agents

March, 7, 2013
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We’ve shown you the lists of potential NFC South free agents before. But let’s do it again because there have been some minor moves and the free-agency period is getting ready to start Tuesday.

Here’s the list of potential free agents for all four NFC South teams:

Atlanta Falcons. Tony Gonzalez, Brent Grimes, Sam Baker, William Moore, Will Svitek, Mike Cox, Todd McClure, Luke McCown, Christopher Owens, Mike Peterson, Garrett Reynolds, Lawrence Sidbury and Vance Walker all can become unrestricted free agents. Michael Palmer can become a restricted free agent.

Carolina Panthers. The potential unrestricted free agents are Derek Anderson, Antwan Applewhite, Gary Barnidge, Dwan Edwards, Ben Hartsock, Sherrod Martin, Captain Munnerlyn, Louis Murphy and Mike Pollak. Richie Brockel can become an exclusive-rights free agent. Andre Neblett, Nate Ness and Jason Phillips are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

New Orleans Saints. Jermon Bushrod, Jonathan Casillas, Chase Daniel, Sedrick Ellis, Devery Henderson, Ramon Humber, Elbert Mack, Turk McBride, Will Robinson, Courtney Roby and Scott Shanle can become unrestricted free agents. Brian De La Puente, Justin Drescher, Junior Galette and Chris Ivory are scheduled to become restricted free agents. Eric Olsen and Michael Higgins can become exclusive-rights free agents.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ronde Barber, Dallas Clark, Michael Bennett, E.J. Biggers, Andrew Economos, Geno Hayes, Roy Miller, Roscoe Parrish, Sammie Stroughter and Jeremy Trueblood can become unrestricted free agents. LeGarrette Blount, Jacob Cutrera, Corvey Irvin and Daniel Te’o-Nesheim are scheduled to become restricted free agents.

Looking at Tampa Bay's free agents

February, 11, 2013
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Let’s finish our look at the potential NFC South free agents with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Safety Ronde Barber, tight end Dallas Clark, defensive end Michael Bennett, cornerback E.J. Biggers, long-snapper Andrew Economos, linebacker Geno Hayes, defensive tackle Roy Miller, receiver/return man Roscoe Parrish, receiver Sammie Stroughter and tackle Jeremy Trueblood can become unrestricted free agents. Running back LeGarrette Blount, linebacker Jacob Cutrera, defensive tackle Corvey Irvin and defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim can become restricted free agents.

The good news is the Bucs have enough salary-cap room to bring back any of their own free agents that they want and there likely are several they want to keep.

Let’s start with Barber. He switched from cornerback to safety last season and continued to play at a relatively high level. The common assumption is that the Bucs want Barber back for another season. But it’s unknown at this point if Barber wants to continue playing. If he decides to retire, he needs to let the Bucs know in the next few weeks so they can begin moving in a different direction.

Bennett might be the key player on Tampa Bay’s list of free agents. In his fourth season, Bennett emerged as a decent pass-rusher (nine sacks), despite not having the injured Adrian Clayborn opposite him for most of the season. Tampa Bay has the nucleus for what could become a very good defensive line and that means it is important to re-sign Bennett and Miller.

Clark came in as a free agent last season and gave the team some help at tight end. But he wasn’t the player he was in his prime in Indianapolis and I could see the Bucs looking to bring in another tight end.

Although the Bucs are expected to overhaul the cornerback position, Biggers is one guy they may keep. In an ideal world, Biggers isn’t a guy the Bucs want in a starting role. But he can be decent as a third or fourth cornerback.

Stroughter and Trueblood are underachievers who are likely to walk as free agents.

Final Word: NFC South

November, 30, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge for the Week 13 games:

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Elsa/Getty ImagesCam Newton is just 54 yards shy of eclipsing 500 rushing yards for the season.
Newton making history: Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is 54 yards short of 500 rushing yards. If he reaches it, he will become the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for 500 yards in each of his first two seasons.

Enjoying the road: The Panthers have a chance to win their third consecutive road game, at Kansas City on Sunday. Carolina has won its past two road games after ending a streak of four straight road losses. The Chiefs are 0-6 at home this season. That’s their first 0-6 home start since 1976. Kansas City never has started 0-7 at home.

Next man up: Call it back luck that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a league-high $37.89 million in salaries on injured reserve this season. That total is led by the high salaries for guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, linebacker Quincy Black and offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood. But also give credit to the Bucs for having a winning record and being in the playoff hunt, despite missing a bunch of key ingredients.

Strength on strength: Denver’s defense has allowed a league-low eight completions on throws of more than 20 yards downfield. Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman has completed a league-high 22 passes of more than 20 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Headed for the record book: Tampa Bay rookie running back Doug Martin is second in the NFL with 1,382 yards from scrimmage. No rookie has led the league in yards from scrimmage since Eric Dickerson in 1983. Martin needs 59 yards to break Warrick Dunn’s franchise record for yards from scrimmage by a rookie.

Get ready for Buccaneers-Vikings

October, 25, 2012
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We already gave you a Final Word post on Thursday night’s game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings.

But, since it’s not often the Bucs play in prime time and we still have a few hours until kickoff, let’s talk a little more about this one.

Let’s turn to ESPN Stats & information and Tampa Bay’s media relations department for some statistical nuggets on this matchup:

  • Tampa Bay’s offense appears to be coming to life. The Bucs have had 976 net yards in their past two games. That’s the largest number in a two-game stretch in franchise history. The Bucs rank second in the NFL in yards per pass and fifth in total yards per play.

    [+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
    Rob Foldy/US PresswireJosh Freeman is looking to continue his recent hot streak against Minnesota on Thursday night.
  • Quarterback Josh Freeman has only five career games in which he’s thrown for 300 yards or more. But two of those were in the past two games. He’s coming off a career-high 420 passing yards against New Orleans and has thrown for 1,047 yards in the past three games. Freeman also has thrown three touchdowns in each of his past two games. In 45 career starts prior to the current streak, Freeman had only two games in which he threw three touchdowns or more. If Freeman can do it again against the Vikings, he’ll become the first quarterback in franchise history to throw for three touchdowns in three straight games.

  • Rookie running back Doug Martin also has come on strong recently. In the past two games, Martin has 253 total yards (161 rushing and 92 receiving). He also has averaged 5.6 yards per carry in the past two games.

  • It’s safe to say Vincent Jackson is settling in as the No. 1 receiver the Bucs envisioned when they signed him to a big contract in free agency. Jackson set a franchise record with 216 receiving yards against New Orleans. He’s fourth in the NFL with an average of 97.7 receiving yards per game and is third in the league with an average of 21.7 yards per catch.

  • Jackson’s arrival also has had a positive impact on receiver Mike Williams. He’s fourth in the NFL, averaging 19.4 yards per catch. Of the wide receivers drafted in 2010, Williams has the best career numbers in receptions (149) and receiving yards (2,103) and is tied with first-round pick Dez Bryant with 14 career touchdown receptions.

  • The Bucs apparently made the right move when they benched right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and replaced him with Demar Dotson in Week 2. Since then, the Bucs have allowed only seven sacks, the third-lowest total in the NFL in that span.

  • Rookie linebacker Lavonte David has had an immediate impact. He leads the team with nine tackles for a loss and is part of the reason the Bucs lead the NFL in forcing negative plays (52) and negative runs (28).

  • The recent history of Thursday night games isn’t good news for the Bucs because they’re on the road. Home teams are 5-1 in Thursday night games this season and 13-3 over the past two seasons. By the way, the Vikings are 4-0 at home this season, after going 5-11 at home over the previous two seasons.

  • The Bucs have a five-game winning streak against the Vikings. The only active winning streak they have that’s longer is against the Bengals (six straight).

  • Part of the reason the Tampa Bay defense has been so good against the run (the Bucs rank third, allowing 76 rushing yards per game) is because the Bucs don’t allow much to happen before contact. The Bucs are allowing a league-low 1.7 yards before contact.

  • Christian Ponder is the first Minnesota quarterback to throw two or more interceptions in three consecutive games since Warren Moon did it in four straight games in 1995. Ponder can tie Moon on Thursday night, but the franchise record is five straight games (Fran Tarkenton in 1978).

Live from the Georgia Dome

October, 14, 2012
10/14/12
10:55
AM ET
ATLANTA -- I’m settled into the Georgia Dome press box for Sunday’s game between the Falcons and Oakland Raiders.

I’ll be back with the inactives in about an hour and you know the rest of the drill. I’ll weigh in on anything of substance during the game and we’ll have a Rapid Reaction immediately after the game and a full column a bit later.

I’ll also be watching the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs and providing an update on that.

Speaking of the Bucs, we’ve got two items worth noting. First, congratulations to former offensive tackle Paul Gruber, who will be inducted into Tampa Bay’s Ring of Honor on Sunday. I had the pleasure of covering Gruber in the 1990s and can honestly say he’s one of the most genuine professionals I’ve ever dealt with.

Second, it sounds like the Bucs are switching up their offensive line in a different way than many expected. There were hints during the week that Ted Larsen, who had been starting at right guard, would be out of the lineup and be replaced by Jeremy Trueblood. Apparently, that’s only half true. Larsen isn’t expected to be in the starting lineup. But PewterReport.com reports that Jamon Meredith -- not Trueblood -- will start at right guard.

Gee, that should really throw off the Chiefs’ plans.

Mocking with Mel Kiper Jr.

April, 25, 2012
4/25/12
5:17
PM ET
We ran through the NFC South portion of Todd McShay’s latest mock draft earlier. Now, let’s turn to ESPN’s other draft guru.

Check out this Insider post in which Mel Kiper Jr. unveils his latest mock draft Insider. Kiper differs significantly from McShay when it comes to the only two NFC South teams with first-round picks.

In Kiper’s draft, LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and Alabama running back Trent Richardson are gone before the Bucs pick at No. 5. As recently as a week ago, the consensus was at least one of those two players would be available for the Bucs. But the consensus seems to be changing and I’m sure the Bucs have been preparing themselves for all scenarios.

Kiper gave the USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil to the Bucs and I don’t think that’s at all out of the realm of possibility. Yeah, Tampa Bay could take Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly and fill a big need. Or the Bucs could take Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon to give quarterback Josh Freeman another play-maker to go with Vincent Jackson.

But Kalil makes some sense. He’s viewed as pretty much a can’t-miss prospect. The Bucs already have Donald Penn at left tackle, but right tackle Jeremy Trueblood is a bit of a question mark and he’s heading into the final year of his contract. Kalil could step in and play the left side immediately and Penn could switch to the right side. Or Penn could stay on the left side for now and let Kalil begin his career on the right side.

At No. 9, Kiper, who had been giving the Panthers a steady diet of defensive tackles in the past, made a significant change. He has the Panthers taking Kuechly. Makes total sense. Kuechly might be the best player on the board at that point and the Panthers have linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason returning from major injuries.

But I also could see Carolina going with South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore or North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples if Kiper’s first eight picks come true.
Todd McShay has his latest mock draft out and it includes some major changes from what he’s had in the past for the NFC South.

This draft goes seven rounds deep and McShay has help from Steve Meunch and Kevin Weidl. But we’ll just focus on the first round here and that means we’re talking about the Bucs and Panthers, the only two division teams with first-round picks.

It long has been thought that Tampa Bay’s choice at No. 5 would come down to LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and Alabama running back Trent Richardson. But McShay is buying into growing speculation that Minnesota is going to throw off the direction many saw this draft going. McShay now has the Vikings taking Claiborne at No. 3. He follows that up by giving Richardson to Cleveland at No. 4.

Then he goes in a direction that many suddenly seem to be headed. He has Tampa Bay taking Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly at No. 5. I don’t have a big problem with that scenario, assuming new coach Greg Schiano’s defense is ready to put increased emphasis on the middle linebacker position. Back in the Cover 2 days, middle linebacker wasn’t all that important and the Bucs relied on outside linebacker Derrick Brooks to make the big plays.

If the Bucs want a strong presence and are willing to make a significant investment on middle linebacker, then go with Kuechly. He’s viewed as a can’t-miss prospect with no real questions on or off the field. (That in itself would be a departure from the approach Tampa Bay took with some picks in the past.)

But, I also see some other scenarios for the Bucs if Claiborne and Richardson are gone. They probably could trade down a few picks and still get Kuechly and they also would add a pick or two.

Even if the Bucs stay put, I’m not certain Kuechly really is the guy they would take. They at least would have to consider Southern California offensive tackle Matt Kalil or Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon. Neither plays a position where the Bucs have a huge need, but they might be hard to pass up. Kalil is viewed as the kind of guy who can be an elite left tackle for a decade.

The Bucs are pretty well set on the offensive line. The interior is very strong and left tackle Donald Penn is above average. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood is a bit of a question mark. The Bucs could take Kalil and start him off on the right side and eventually have him switch spots with Penn. Or the Bucs could take Kalil and switch Penn, who has a history of getting off to fast starts and then not playing as well down the stretch, to the right side. That could give them one of the league’s best offensive lines and it’s become clear one of Schiano’s priorities is to structure this team to help quarterback Josh Freeman.

Speaking of helping Freeman, Blackmon also could do that. I know the Bucs just signed Vincent Jackson and they have a bunch of young guys with potential. But Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn haven’t really shown they are big-time players. The Bucs already have given Freeman one big playmaker in Jackson. They could give him two if they take Blackmon.

McShay also departs from previous conventional wisdom by selecting South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore for Carolina at No. 9. There are rumblings that Gilmore is a player on the rise. He’s also a local kid. He grew up just over the South Carolina border in what qualifies as a suburb of Charlotte. Cornerback is certainly a need and owner Jerry Richardson likes to bring in players from the Carolinas. I can see this one happening. But there’s another local guy who could be in the mix. That’s North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples. General manager Marty Hurney and coach Ron Rivera drove up to Chapel Hill for a meeting with Coples on Monday and I don’t think they would have made that trip if they weren’t seriously considering him.

Bucs announce moves

March, 28, 2012
3/28/12
11:16
AM ET
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just announced two transactions.

The first is no big surprise. We told you last week that cornerback Ronde Barber had agreed to terms on a one-year deal that would bring him back to the Buccaneers for a 16th season. That deal now officially has been signed, the team said.

The Bucs also announced that reserve offensive lineman DeMar Dotson has agreed to a two-year contract. Dotson had been tendered as a restricted free agent.

Dotson’s signing enhances the depth on a Tampa Bay offensive line that has a chance to be very good. Dotson, who appeared in 13 games last season and started two, is viewed as a young player with high upside. He and the recently-signed Jamon Meredith likely will be the two backups behind starters Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood at tackle.

After adding guard Carl Nicks in free agency, the Bucs appear loaded in the middle of the line. Nicks and Davin Joseph will be the starting guards and Jeremy Zuttah, who has played both center and guard, will become the full-time starter at center.

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