NFL Nation: Jermaine Phillips

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Are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ready to give up on Sabby Piscitelli as their starting strong safety?

[+] EnlargePiscitelli
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireSabby Piscitelli's future with the Bucs is a little uncertain heading into the season.
If you watched Piscitelli in Monday’s workout, you saw him line up with the first-team defense. Maybe it’s just a matter of giving Sean Jones time to learn the playbook. Or maybe the Buccaneers really are giving Piscitelli a chance to keep his job.

If you watched Piscitelli last season, it was ugly. He had all sorts of problems in coverage and his tackling was bad. That’s a pretty brutal combination for a strong safety. But the Bucs did see something last year that inspired them to move Jermaine Phillips to linebacker in an effort to get Piscitelli on the field.

In the eyes of the fans, Piscitelli quickly went from being the next John Lynch to the symbol of all that was wrong with Tampa Bay’s defense. He certainly deserved some criticism, but I’m not ready to write this guy off just yet.

Strong safety is a position like right field in Little League or softball. When you’ve got a good defense, it’s not all that important. Fact is, the Bucs had a horrible defense last year and Piscitelli went from being hidden to being exploited badly.

Maybe -- and I’m just saying maybe -- all the moves on defense will make the Bucs better and give Piscitelli a chance. In theory, their pass rush should be better and the cornerback tandem of Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib should keep the pressure off the safeties.

I think back to this time a year ago when a lot of New Orleans fans wanted to run off strong safety Roman Harper. On a bad defense in 2008, Harper was hung out in coverage a lot and he struggled. In 2009, the Saints upgraded their defense all over the place. Harper no longer got stuck in long-term coverage and turned in an excellent season. He was allowed to do what he does best, which is to make hits and sort of be an extra linebacker.

That’s kind of the ideal role for a strong safety. Maybe the improvements to Tampa Bay’s defense will prevent Piscitelli from having to do too much deep coverage and that would be a big plus. But if Piscitelli really is going to be the next Lynch, he has to start hitting like Lynch. Or, at very least, he has to make the tackles that are in front of him. If he can’t do that, Jones is waiting in the wings.

NFC West teams need safety help

March, 6, 2010
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The Cardinals lost Antrel Rolle, the Rams could lose Oshiomogho Atogwe and the 49ers might need to replace Michael Lewis. The Cardinals could also lose backup safety Matt Ware, who could draw interest from the Rams.

The Seahawks aren't exactly set for life at safety, either.

What to do?

I've gone through the list of available safeties -- NFC West fan favorites Brian Russell and Mark Roman are out there -- and come up with a few fallback options, listed with their 2009 teams:

  • Ryan Clark, Steelers. The 30-year-old longtime starter couldn't work out a long-term deal with Pittsburgh. The Cardinals are running their defense in the Pittsburgh mold. Clark could fit.
  • Brodney Pool, Browns. Teams generally do not sever ties with productive 25-year-old starters, but the Browns decided against tendering Pool as a restricted free agent after he suffered a series of head injuries last season. Pool picked off four passes in 11 games last season, making 10 starts before his season was ended.
  • Darren Sharper, Saints. The 34-year-old Pro Bowl choice would upgrade every secondary in the NFC West, but at what price? Sharper is probably most valuable to the Saints.
  • Jermaine Phillips, Bucs. Injuries have severely limited Phillips' contributions recently. It's probably not a great sign that Tampa thought about moving him to linebacker. Still, Phillips is 30 years old, hardly ancient by safety standards, and he has 74 starts.

Other safeties who are unrestricted free agents: Ware, Russell, Roman, Nick Ferguson, Sean Jones, Will Allen, Todd Johnson, Clinton Hart, Roy Williams, Vernon Fox, Marquand Manuel, Mike Brown, Tyrone Carter and Lawyer Milloy.

Other safeties who are free agents (but technically not UFAs): John Busing, Hamza Abdullah, Aaron Francisco, Kennard Cox, Eric Bassey, Jamaal Fudge and Quinton Teal.

Players stepping up to support Morris

December, 16, 2009
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There’s one encouraging trend emerging when it comes to the future of Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris.

He seems to still have the locker room. Center Jeff Faine used very strong words Wednesday to say he believes Morris should not be let go after a first season that hasn’t gone well at all. Injured safety/linebacker Jermaine Phillips made some pretty similar comments Monday.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Morris
Rex Brown/Getty ImagesWith the Bucs at 1-12, Raheem Morris has come under fire in his first season as head coach.
This is significant. I covered the end of the Sam Wyche era in Tampa Bay and the final days of George Seifert’s disastrous era in Carolina. In those locker rooms, nobody -- and I truly mean nobody -- was stepping forward in defense of the coach.

Does it really matter what the players think? Yes, it absolutely does. Most owners around the league try to get a sense of where the players stand before firing a coach. Although the Glazer family, which owns the Buccaneers, does operate with a great deal of stealth in the public eye, the three brothers who run the team are very smart and always very aware of what’s going on in their building.

I’m sure they’ve seen the quotes from these players and they might have heard some of the same straight from players. I’m not reporting here that the Glazer brothers have been surveying players, but that wouldn’t surprise me.

At any rate, this kind of support can only help the chances of Morris sticking around for a second season. If the players still believe in him, that’s a big positive.

One thing I found very interesting was Faine’s response when asked about Morris firing both his offensive and defensive coordinators already. The public assumption is that Morris made the hires of Jeff Jagodzinski and Jim Bates totally by himself.

Faine indicated that might not have been the case. I’ve never heard any indication that Jagodzinski and Bates weren’t the guys Morris wanted and the rule of thumb around the league is that a coach usually hires his own coaching staff.

But this statement by Faine makes me wonder a bit. I do know for a fact that, at the very least, ownership didn’t allow Morris to do everything he wanted with the support staff. And I also think there’s a realization high in the organization that general manager Mark Dominik probably could benefit from a stronger surrounding cast in the front office.

Of course, the best thing that could happen for Morris' future would be for the Bucs, particularly rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, to go out and play well (just show some signs of progress) in the final three games. That might be enough to keep Morris in place, although I think that would come with some movement on the coaching staff, in the front office and heavy turnover on the roster.

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


Falling

 Delhomme
1. Jake Delhomme, Panthers QB: Delhomme’s stock has crashed in Carolina. His shot at redemption after last season’s playoff disaster against Arizona was ruined when he threw four interceptions against Philadelphia.

The Panthers gave Delhomme a contract extension and a vote of confidence in the offseason, but they can’t go on like this much longer. It’s pretty baffling because Delhomme was a pretty dependable quarterback for a long time, but he suddenly has turned into a turnover machine.

 Piscitelli
2. Sabby Piscitelli, Buccaneers safety: If you didn’t see him in Sunday’s game, you weren’t watching. Piscitelli was largely responsible for three Dallas touchdown passes.

Back in the offseason, the Bucs decided to move Jermaine Phillips to linebacker so they could get Piscitelli in the starting lineup. Maybe Piscitelli should have been the one they moved to linebacker.

 Fox
3. John Fox, Panthers coach: It’s tough to say a coach who was 12-4 last season is on the hot seat, but Fox is truly there. Patience is wearing thin in Charlotte and the Panthers never have had back-to-back winning seasons.

Fox had a built-in excuse two years ago when Delhomme went out with an elbow injury. He often reminded us of the fact the Panthers were playing without their quarterback and he got a free pass. There’s no excuse this year. Fox could have gone out and done something at quarterback after Delhomme fell apart in last season’s playoffs. He didn’t.

Rising

 Sharper
1. Darren Sharper, Saints safety: Yes, he’s old, but Sharper still has it. He picked off Matthew Stafford twice to give him 56 career interceptions.

General manager Mickey Loomis has had his share of misses on the defensive side in recent years, but signing Sharper already has proven to be a solid move. His veteran presence helps the entire secondary and he still can make plays.

 Peterson
2. Mike Peterson, Falcons linebacker: This guy was embarrassed by what happened between him and coach Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville last year. Peterson had been a leader throughout his career and he felt like he was made to look like the bad guy with the Jaguars.

He’s got a fresh start with his former defensive coordinator (coach Mike Smith) and he’s showing he really is a leader. The Falcons aren’t missing Keith Brooking at all.

 Shockey
3. Jeremy Shockey: Saints TE: Shockey’s been a target for ridicule throughout much of his career. Some of it’s due to injuries and some of it's because of his behavior.

But you can never forget that he’s an enormous talent. He caught two touchdowns on Sunday, which is two more than he had all of last year. Makes you wonder what’s possible if he can stay healthy all season.

 
 Kim Klement/US Presswire
 Miles Austin and the Dallas receivers had their way with the Tampa Bay secondary.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas


TAMPA, Fla. -- Hmmm, let's test our memories here. Who's the last person to be stopped by a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' secondary?

Oh, got it.

It was that cab driver who pulled over to call police back in August and allege cornerback Aqib Talib had punched him from the backseat. It sure as heck wasn't Roy Williams, Patrick Crayton or Miles Austin. They just kept catching and running ... and running.

"We just gave up too many plays on the defensive side of the ball," Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said.

It would be nice to cut Morris some slack in his first game as an NFL head coach. But that's not going to happen because what took place Sunday was about much more than Tampa Bay's defense surrendering (and we mean surrendering) 462 yards of offense in a 34-21 loss to Dallas.

What happened Sunday goes way beyond Morris being new to his role. You could give him some slack for the offense, but that unit actually played better than just about anyone expected. The defense was what let Morris down -- specifically, the defensive backs.

"We've got to stand up and take responsibility," safety-turned-linebacker-turned safety again Jermaine Phillips said. "It's nothing for us to be alarmed about or worried about."

I'll agree with the thing about taking responsibility, but I think there is plenty to worry about for Tampa Bay's secondary. These are supposed to be Morris' "guys." These are the guys he knows best and, so far, all they've done is fail him.

It goes even deeper than Tony Romo throwing for 353 yards and three touchdowns. It goes back to Talib's incident, for which he hasn't drawn any disciplinary action yet. It goes back to Tanard Jackson getting suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

It goes back to Morris' offseason decision that Sabby Piscitelli could be a starting safety in the NFL and Phillips should switch to linebacker. Maybe, if all those things hadn't happened, the Bucs might have had a smoother transition from the Cover 2 defense to the Cover Nobody defense.

"There's no secret about it," Morris said of one of the touchdown passes allowed by Piscitelli. "I looked right at Sabby. I grabbed him right next to me. He looked at me and said "plaster."

Yep, a Tampa Bay defense got plastered.

Where have you gone Monte Kiffin?

He's not here anymore. This is Morris' team and Derrick Brooks isn't coming to rescue him.

When you go from being an assistant to being a head coach and start making major changes, you've got to take all that comes with it and it would help to bring along the best part of your past. Tampa Bay's secondary was, by far, its weakest link against a Dallas passing game that -- for a day anyway -- looked better without Terrell Owens.

Everywhere you looked, the Cowboys were making big plays. Crayton's touchdown went for 80 yards, Williams' for 66 and Austin's for 42. Everywhere you looked, Tampa Bay's secondary was out of place. Piscitelli seemed to be at the center of it all, which begs you to ask if he's the one who should have made the offseason move to linebacker?

Phillips, who moved back to safety to take Jackson's place, also was a culprit. So was cornerback Elbert Mack. Even though they didn't make any noticeably horrible plays, you still have to consider Talib and Ronde Barber guilty by association.

They all used to hang out in Morris' room when he was coaching defensive backs.

"We have to watch the film and everyone has to stand up to their responsibility, including myself on a couple of plays," Piscitelli said. "We can't give up plays like that and we know that as a secondary. We will bounce back hard and learn from our mistakes."

Those mistakes will be pointed out in film sessions Monday at One Buccaneer Place and they won't be any prettier then. But shouldn't the secondary be one area where the Bucs don't have to play catch-up in the second week of the regular season?

The secondary, after all, supposedly was Morris' specialty. All the preseason questions about whether he's ready to be a head coach remain valid -- so far.

"Romo did exactly what we thought he would do," Morris said.

Oh, so the Bucs fully expected Romo to stand in the pocket all day and carve their secondary to shreds? No, that's obviously not what they wanted. But they had to know it could happen, unless Morris got totally fooled into thinking his defense was good after watching it spend months practicing against Jeff Jagodzinski's offense.

Let's be fair to the secondary and point out the Bucs didn't put any pressure on Romo. All that offseason talk about Gaines Adams developing moves and Jimmy Wilkerson being a double-digit sack guy appears to be just talk. And let's not let the linebackers off too easy. Geno Hayes, the guy who was supposed to be the first person besides Brooks to start at weakside linebacker since the early 1990s, couldn't even show up at the stadium on time Sunday morning.

Morris yanked him from the starting lineup and inserted Matt McCoy. Maybe Morris should have yanked the whole secondary. Then again, there's not much behind Piscitelli, Phillips, Barber, Talib and Mack -- and Jackson, when he comes back.

For better or worse, these are Morris' guys.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- I just sent a story over to our news side about Tampa Bay linebacker Angelo Crowell probably being out for the year due to a torn biceps.

 Crowell

What does that mean for the Bucs' linebacker corps? Not much, really. Crowell was signed as a free agent and the early expectation was that he would be the starter on the strong side. But even before Saturday night's injury in Jacksonville, that wasn't anywhere close to happening.

Crowell had been bothered by an assortment of injuries ever since joining the Bucs and never made much progress toward claiming a starting job. The Bucs had pretty much decided on Quincy Black as their starter on the strong side even before Crowell's latest injury.

They're also very high on Adam Hayward and project him as the top backup to Black. Geno Hayes also has had a nice preseason and is the top backup to Jermaine Phillips at the moment. Given the fact that safety Tanard Jackson will be suspended for the first four games of the season, the Bucs have said Phillips could get some playing time at safety, the position he previously played before moving to linebacker this offseason. That could give Hayes a shot at significant playing time on the weak side.

 
  J. Meric/Getty Images
  One of the largest questions Tampa Bay needs to answer is who will be their starting QB from among Luke McCown (12), Byron Leftwich (7) and Josh Freeman (5).

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- Take a look at any preseason magazine or watch any television show. The verdict is unanimous.

Everybody's got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked to finish fourth in the NFC South. If you want to know where they're projected in the whole league, look somewhere between No. 25 and No. 32.

Camp Confidential: NFC South
Panthers: Thurs., Aug. 6
Saints: Mon., Aug. 10
Falcons: Sat., Aug. 15
Buccaneers: Tues., Aug. 18
Training camp index

When you've got a new coach, a new general manager, uncertainty at quarterback and part ways with some of the biggest names in franchise history, you're going to be anointed as one of the NFL's worst teams.

"That's not a bad thing," middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said with a laugh. "That's the mindset we have going into this year. There may be no expectations for us from the outside. But, as a group, we think we can be pretty good.''

Why?

To understand what Tampa Bay has, you have to understand what the Bucs don't have. They don't have coach Jon Gruden, linebacker Derrick Brooks, receiver Joey Galloway, running back Warrick Dunn and quarterback Jeff Garcia back from the only NFC South team that's had a winning record each of the last two years.

That's been enough to drop expectations from prognosticators and fans to the lowest level since Sam Wyche and company were piling up double-digit losses in the mid 1990s. But maybe -- just maybe -- it doesn't have to be this way.

Maybe the Bucs aren't as bad as everyone thinks. They do have some positives.

 
  Cliff Welch/Icon SMI
  Barrett Ruud (right) is one of the Bucs' building blocks on defense.

"We've got a nice core group of players,'' Ruud said. "We've got a really good offensive line. We've got four or five really good running backs. We've got two quarterbacks that are really hungry and they're battling to be the starter. And we've got a defense that kind of had our pride taken away at the end of last year and we're trying to get back to where a Tampa Bay defense is supposed to be.''

Ruud has some valid points. Forget the quarterback situation for a second. The rest of the offense looks pretty good. The offensive line is solid, Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham are quality running backs and receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton and tight end Kellen Winslow might be able to make whoever is the quarterback look good.

The defense needs some work, but the Bucs have players like Ruud, cornerback Ronde Barber and safety Tanard Jackson to build around.

But, more than anything, the Bucs have new coach Raheem Morris. Yes, he's the youngest coach in the league and that's one reason for the low expectations outside the organization. But Morris is the reason the expectations are high within the organization.

"We were 9-3 last year and had a rocky ending because the atmosphere wasn't right,'' Clayton said." But the team we've put together this year is a whole lot better than last year. You know the energy is going to be in the right place because of the atmosphere. Raheem maximizes you. Raheem does a good job of maximizing everybody's effort and we didn't have that last year.''

Key Questions

Who will be the quarterback? Even the Bucs don't know the short-term answer to this one yet. They'll pick a starter after Saturday night's preseason game in Jacksonville. It will be either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich; they have been basically even through camp and one preseason game.

The Bucs will go with the quarterback they think can be more efficient because they believe the rest of their offense is solid. But it's no secret that the quarterback who opens the season is merely a stopgap. It's blatantly clear that Josh Freeman is the quarterback of the future.

Since drafting Freeman, Morris has gushed about the quarterback he coa
ched at Kansas State. The selection went against the wishes of many fans, who believed the Bucs should have focused on a defensive player. But that's history now because Morris and general manager Mark Dominik are committed to building this team around Freeman.

They want to bring Freeman along slowly and that's why they'll open the season with one of the veterans. But Freeman isn't going to sit forever. If McCown and/or Leftwich struggle, the same fans who booed Freeman's selection will be calling for him to start.

  Brooks

What's the defense going to look like without Brooks? It's going to be completely different and that's not just because the best player in franchise history is gone. Coordinator Monte Kiffin, the man who made the "Tampa Two'' scheme famous also is gone. The Bucs have a new coordinator in Jim Bates and a whole new defense.

There will be more bump coverage, but the emphasis still will be on speed. This isn't a very big defense. Former safety Jermaine Phillips has moved into Brooks' old spot on the weak side. Ruud's the only proven star in his prime and the veteran Barber will try to ease the transition.

But the Bucs believe they can develop some new stars and they're hoping guys like defensive end Gaines Adams and cornerback Aqib Talib can become core players very quickly.

What will the offense look like without Gruden? Again, things will be totally different. Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski brings in an offense that's focused on ball control and the Bucs have the parts in place to be a run-first team. Led by center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph, the offensive line might be the team's biggest strength.

One of the first moves Morris and Dominik made was to bring in Ward. He's going to be used in tandem with Earnest Graham. Jagodzinski's first goal is to establish the running game, but he's also got big plans for the passing game.

Gruden relied mostly on a horizontal passing game, but those days are gone. Although the Bucs may not have a true speed receiver, they'll use play action to try to create opportunities for Bryant, Winslow and Clayton down the field.

Market Watch

 
  Cliff Welch/Icon SMI
  The Bucs took a risk in trading for Kellen Winslow and signing him to a new, long-term contract.

Without much depth at wide receiver, camp was a golden opportunity for Dexter Jackson to redeem himself after a horrible rookie season. Jackson's been given a lot of chances, but hasn't been able to take advantage of him. A second-round pick from a year ago, there's a very real chance Jackson won't even make the roster. ...The move of Phillips to weakside linebacker is working out nicely and it comes with another component. Part of the reason the Bucs decided to move Phillips was because they wanted to get Sabby Piscitelli into the starting lineup at strong safety. He's embraced that chance and showed he can make big plays in the preseason opener.

The Bucs have known for months that they might have to go without starting guard Arron Sears, who hasn't reported to camp because of a "private matter." Sears was a very solid player the past two years, but there shouldn't be much drop off. The Bucs already were high on Jeremy Zuttah, who showed some promise as a rookie last year. He's had the entire offseason to work with the first unit. The Bucs would welcome Sears back, but they're not counting on that happening any time soon.

The Bucs knew what they were getting into when they traded for Winslow and turned around and gave him a huge contract. The tight end comes with enormous talent and baggage. Winslow had injury problems and often was the center of controversy in Cleveland. Morris is trying to light a fire under Winslow and already has criticized him. But that's all part of a plan to try to get the most out of Winslow's talents.

The Bucs also took a gamble by drafting wide receiver Sammie Stroughter in the seventh round. Stroughter has had some personal problems in the past. But all indications are he's put those behind him. Stroughter has been one of the stars in camp. At the moment, he's probably the leading candidate to be the No. 3 receiver. He's shown the ability to go across the middle and he also has return skills.

Observation Deck

The Bucs had pictured Angelo Crowell as their starting strongside linebacker when they signed him as a free agent. But injuries have held Crowell back and Quincy Black appears to have locked up the starting job. Backup Adam Hayward also has had a strong preseason and can do a lot on special teams. Crowell no longer is a lock to make the roster. ... Defensive tackle was a big concern in the offseason because Chris Hovan is aging and Ryan Sims never has been dominant against the run. The Bucs will use those two as the starters, but they feel a lot better about this position as they prepare to break training camp. Third-round pick Roy Miller has had a strong preseason. So has Dre Moore, who did little as a rookie last year. Moore has kept himself in shape after struggling with weight issues last year. The Bucs plan to use a four-man rotation and play Miller and Moore a lot. Miller could emerge as a starter before long. ... Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson has been a backup throughout his career. But the new coaching staff penciled him in
as a starter from the very beginning and he hasn't disappointed. The coaches believe Wilkerson can play the run and rush the passer. They'll also rotate Stylez White into the lineup, but Wilkerson will get the majority of the snaps.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Atlanta Falcons
Training camp site: Flowery Branch, Ga.

Campfires: The offense is pretty much set with last year's starters virtually intact and the addition of tight end Tony Gonzalez. That's going to put the focus of camp on a defense that overachieved last year and will have five new starters.

Division Camp Previews
Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
Friday: NFC West | AFC West

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Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates

The hottest battles will be in the secondary, where the Falcons have to replace safety Lawyer Milloy and cornerback Domonique Foxworth. Atlanta's coaching staff is hoping second-round pick William Moore can step in and start at safety, but second-year pro Thomas DeCoud provides a decent fallback option if Moore's not ready. DeCoud had a strong showing throughout the offseason and isn't going to give up the job without a fight.

Cornerback might be the most intriguing spot to watch in camp. The Falcons are set with Chris Houston on one side, but it's a wide-open competition for the other starting spot and the nickelback job. The plan is to throw Brent Grimes, Von Hutchins, Chevis Jackson and rookies Christopher Owens and William Middleton out there and see who rises up. Keep an eye on Jackson, who came on strong in the second half of his rookie season last year.

Camp will be a downer if ... there are any injuries on the offensive line. The Falcons have a starting five that probably played over its head last year and very little depth. Veteran Todd Weiner retired after last season and the Falcons tried to replace the flexibility he gave them by signing veteran Jeremy Newberry. But Newberry retired earlier this week because of knee problems.

 
  Paul Abell/Getty Images
  Tony Gonzalez gives quarterback Matt Ryan another target in the Falcons' passing game.

Coach Mike Smith is very good at mixing up the tempo of his practices, but he may have to be more cautious with his offensive line. Left tackle Sam Baker had back problems last year and center Todd McClure has wear and tear on his 32-year-old body. If some young linemen don't step up -- and there aren't many likely candidates -- the Falcons may have to keep an eye on the waiver wire for some depth.

Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Matt Ryan masters the offense he looked so good in as a rookie. That's a strong possibility. Although he already was very good, Ryan looked noticeably better in minicamp practices in the spring.

The Falcons didn't hold back much of the playbook from Ryan last season, but they're going to expand it significantly this year. The addition of Gonzalez suddenly gives the Falcons the pass-catching tight end they lacked last year. That should only help receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, who blossomed with Ryan last year. And don't forget second-year receiver Harry Douglas. He showed some promise last year, but looked ready to take on a bigger role in offseason workouts.

The Norwood factor: One player to keep an eye on in camp and preseason games is running back Jerious Norwood. The Falcons realize they put a very heavy load on starter Michael Turner last season and they don't want him approaching 375 carries again. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has to find a way to give Norwood some of Turner's carries. That's not as simple as just swapping them out. Turner i
s a power runner and Norwood is a speed guy. The Falcons need to put in some wrinkles to take advantage of Norwood's skills.


Carolina Panthers
Training camp site: Spartanburg, S.C.

Campfires: The Panthers are returning 21 of 22 starters from a team that went 12-4. But the disastrous playoff loss to Arizona means that Carolina can't be complacent. Coach John Fox never has been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons and he needs to if he wants to stay off the proverbial "hot seat."

 
  Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
  Jake Delhomme and the Panthers need to put last season's playoff loss to Arizona behind them.

Fox needs to revitalize a defense that collapsed down the stretch last season and much of that responsibility will fall to new coordinator Ron Meeks. Barring injury or upset, the only new starter will be cornerback Richard Marshall, who will replace Ken Lucas. A lot of fans are wondering if Marshall is ready to be a starter. The coaching staff wouldn't have let Lucas go if Marshall wasn't ready. He's been a very good nickelback the past couple of years and should do fine opposite Chris Gamble.

The bigger question might be who's going to replace Marshall at nickelback? The Panthers seem to have rookie Sherrod Martin ticketed for that spot. That may seem a little risky, but Fox has a pretty good track record when it comes to playing rookie cornerbacks quickly. Marshall and Ricky Manning Jr. were able to step in and contribute as rookies.

Camp will be a downer if ... Steve Smith pulls a repeat of last year. Early in camp, Smith punched out Lucas, who was kneeling on the sideline. That led to a two-game suspension for Smith. The incident may have helped pull the team together in some ways, but the Panthers can't endure something like that again.

Things tend to get hot in Spartanburg, but Fox and his staff need to keep the ultra-competitive Smith cool. Smith's nasty streak is a big part of what makes him such a great receiver. But he needs to save that for the regular season and let the team get through camp peacefully.

Camp will be a success if ... the Panthers can put the Arizona playoff loss behind them. Losing badly at home was a terrible end to what had been a very nice season, and Fox has to eliminate any hangover from that. One of Fox's strengths is his ability to motivate and he's got to convince this team it can win big games when it matters most.

Fox has been adamant about sticking with quarterback Jake Delhomme, who had a disastrous outing against Arizona. That's a strong show of confidence from the coach. But Fox may have to spend part of camp convincing the rest of the team that the move is a result of confidence and not stubbornness.

It starts up front: Early in Fox's tenure, his defensive line was dominant and the team was built around the front four. That hasn't been the case in recent years. The back seven is very good, but it can become great with more production up front.

Although end Julius Peppers is the only big name on the line, the Panthers have the ingredients to be good up front. They didn't draft Everette Brown to spend his rookie season on the bench. He'll join in a rotation with Peppers, Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton. If Peppers can play at a level close to his $17 million franchise tag, there could be a lot of sack opportunities for Brown, Johnson and Brayton.


New Orleans Saints
Training camp site: Metairie, La.

Campfires: As far as pure numbers, the Saints have the most legitimate position battles in the NFC South. That competition should be a good thing for a team that underachieved, particularly on defense, last season.

General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton did a nice job of creating competition with a bunch of offseason moves geared at making the defense better. Last year's biggest problem area was in the secondary and that's where the best camp battles will be. The Saints paid free-agent cornerback Jabari Greer big money and that probably makes him a starter.

 
  Crystal LoGiudice/US Presswire
  Rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins will battle for one of the starting cornerback spots.

But the battle for the other starting cornerback spot should be intense. The Saints used their first-round pick on Malcolm Jenkins, who probably has the most physical talent of any rookie on the roster. But Jenkins truly will have to earn the starting job because the Saints think very highly of Tracy Porter, who got off to a strong start before suffering an injury in his rookie season. Porter brings a high level of confidence and he's not going to give up a starting spot very easily. If the Saints open the season with Jenkins as their nickelback, they'll have far more depth than they've had in recent years.

Camp will be a downer if ... it's anything like last season. A rash of injuries started in last year's training camp and the plague continued through the regular season. That was a major reason why the Saints missed the playoffs. Even with added depth, they can't endure another season like last year. Payton ran the NFC South's most-intense camp last season and he may have learned from it.

The Saints have moved their camp back to their practice facility and a look at their schedule shows a large amount of afternoon practices in the indoor facility. There also are a fair amount of days where the Saints will practice only once. That should help keep the team fresh and cut down on the injuries. That's hugely important for a team that will open the season witho
ut starting defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant, who are suspended for the first four games.

Camp will be a success if ... Gregg Williams' defensive system takes hold quickly. Coordinator Gary Gibbs took the fall for last season's defensive failures and the Saints went out and spent big money to bring in Williams. Once viewed as one of the league's top defensive minds, Williams is looking for redemption after recent struggles in Jacksonville and Washington.

There will be some changes in the defensive scheme. But, more importantly, he'll be trying to install a mindset. Williams is known for having high-motor, aggressive defenses. The Saints haven't had anything that resembled that throughout Payton's tenure. There is plenty of talent in place and the defense showed signs it was developing an aggressive attitude in minicamp. If that continues, the Saints could have the one thing that's separated them from the playoffs the past two seasons.

Who will run the ball? That remains a huge question for a team whose passing game is pretty close to perfect. Payton's not going to take the ball out of the hands of quarterback Drew Brees, but the coach has made it clear he wants to develop a running game that's more consistent than last season.

With Deuce McAllister gone, the Saints have made it clear they plan to go with the tandem of Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. Payton will use camp and the preseason games to experiment with their roles and try to put Bush and Thomas in spots that play to their strengths.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Training camp site: Tampa, Fla.

Campfires: Fans are going to need rosters for this training camp. Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway, Jeff Garcia and Warrick Dunn are gone. Tampa Bay's youth movement, which starts with new coach Raheem Morris, is in full swing as the Bucs truly look for a new identity.

Starting jobs are open all over the place, particularly on defense. The Bucs have moved safety Jermaine Phillips to Brooks' old spot at weakside linebacker and are putting Sabby Piscitelli in Phillips' old spot. If either of those moves fail, the Bucs could always move Phillips back to safety, but the team is planning on this switch working out. It better because the Bucs have plenty of other questions elsewhere. Is veteran cornerback Ronde Barber still capable of playing at a high level? Is defensive end Gaines Adams finally ready to play up to his potential?

 
  J. Meric/Getty Images
  Play him or sit him? That's the decision the Bucs face regarding rookie quarterback Josh Freeman.

But the biggest question of all -- and the one most fans will be watching -- is at quarterback. Tampa Bay used its first-round pick on Josh Freeman and Morris already has dubbed him as the franchise quarterback. The Bucs initially threw out all sorts of hints that Freeman, who left college a year early, would sit as a rookie. But he came on faster than expected in minicamp and that could change the thinking. The Bucs probably will enter the preseason looking to start either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich. But it's not out of the question that Freeman could outshine both veterans. If that happens, the Bucs would have to speed up their plan.

Camp will be a downer if ... none of the quarterbacks steps forward. The rest of the offense is pretty solid, but this team won't go anywhere without a quarterback who can make the passing game work. There are reasons why McCown has never been a true starter and why Leftwich has gone from being a franchise quarterback in Jacksonville to being just a guy.

McCown has enough athleticism to make you believe there's upside, and Leftwich still throws the ball very nicely at times. But nothing is certain with either of these guys. If Freeman plays like a rookie in camp, the Bucs may have to settle on a quarterback by attrition. That's not a great situation because if McCown or Leftwich starts slowly, fans will be screaming for Freeman before he's ready.

Camp will be a success if ... the new schemes catch on. The Bucs aren't going to look anything like Jon Gruden's Bucs. New offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski is installing a power running game and a vertical passing game. New defensive coordinator Jim Bates is going away from the famed Tampa 2 defense and going with a system that relies heavily on pressure from up front.

The Bucs are young in a lot of ways, but they'll need new leaders like Barrett Ruud, Derrick Ward, Kellen Winslow and Antonio Bryant to step up and lead this team through the transition process.

Whatever happened to Michael Clayton? After a brilliant rookie year, the wide receiver spent the past few seasons buried in Gruden's doghouse. A lot of people were stunned when the new regime handed Clayton a big contract, instead of letting him walk as a free agent. There's a reason for that.

The new regime believes Clayton can be a productive starter. Forget all the talk about what a good blocker Clayton is in the running game. Sure, that will help. But Clayton isn't getting big money just to block. He got paid because Morris, general manager Mark Dominik and Jagodzinski think he can be a solid No. 2 receiver.

Trey Wingo, Cris Carter and Marcellus Wiley preview the NFC South.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

A look at the key loss and his replacement for each team in the division:

Atlanta Falcons

 Brooking
 Peterson

Who's out: Keith Brooking, LB (wasn't re-signed and went to Dallas as a free agent)

Who's in: Mike Peterson, LB (signed as free agent from Jacksonville)

Outlook: On the surface, swapping one aging linebacker for another may look like a wash. But, keep in mind, Peterson played for coach Mike Smith in Jacksonville. That means Peterson is Smith's kind of player -- something Brooking and fellow departed linebacker Michael Boley were not. Brooking may have been an institution in Atlanta, but he looked old last year and looked lost in the playoff loss to Arizona.

Peterson spent most of his career playing middle linebacker, but he'll move to the weak side. Smith already has designated Peterson as a team leader and this is a chance for a fresh start. That's something Peterson wants. His once-sterling reputation was dirtied a bit when he stood up to coach Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville last year. This is Peterson's chance for the last laugh.

Carolina Panthers

  Lucas
  Marshall

Who's out: Ken Lucas, CB (released in a salary-cap move and signed with Seattle)

Who's in: Richard Marshall, CB

Outlook: Marshall had been the nickelback the last couple of years, which essentially meant he was a starter. But Marshall has a bit of an ego (not a bad thing for a cornerback) and quietly kept saying he thought he should be in the starting lineup. Now, he'll get his chance. (Note to Marshall: Be careful what you wish for because now you have to go against Steve Smith in practice every day.)

There really shouldn't be much drop-off because Lucas showed signs of age the second half of last season. In fact, the Panthers believe Marshall can be better than Lucas. The only downside is the Panthers have to find a new nickelback.

New Orleans Saints

  McAllister
  Bush

Who's out: Deuce McAllister, RB (released and has not signed elsewhere)

Who's in: Reggie Bush, RB and Pierre Thomas, RB

Outlook: Yeah, Thomas and Bush were ahead of McAllister last year. But the icon of the Gulf Coast region still was on the team. Even as he stood on the sideline, there was always a suspicion from fans McAllister might be thrust back into a prominent role.

Now that he's really gone, fans don't have a safety net to grasp for. Neither does coach Sean Payton. Thomas showed some signs of being a pretty good back last year, and Bush flashed his usual promise at times. But it's time for Thomas, Bush and maybe a short-yardage back to be named later to step up. The Saints are going to be a passing team as long as Payton's around, but it sure wouldn't hurt to have at least something that looks like a running game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

 Brooks
  Phillips

Who's out: Derrick Brooks, LB (released and has not signed elsewhere)

Who's in: Jermaine Phillips, LB

Outlook: In the first real move of the new regime of Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik, the Bucs made the bold decision to release Brooks, the best player in franchise history. Yes, he's old and yes, the situation could have been handled better. But it's over now.

The Bucs had a plan all along. That was moving Phillips from safety to Brooks' spot on the weak side. If Morris, who was Phillips' position coach last year, didn't think this would work, it wouldn't have happened. Phillips might not be the Brooks of five years ago, but he might be better than the Brooks of the last two seasons.

 
  US PRESSWIRE
  How will NFC South defensive backs fare against the bevy of tight ends including Tony Gozalez, Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Shockey?

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

With the NFC South suddenly becoming a hub for tight ends, a very big question rises.

Who's going to cover all these guys?

Presumably, the outside linebackers and safeties. Does the NFC South have enough talent at those positions to keep up with Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Shockey? We'll find out in the fall, but I'm thinking linebackers and safeties could have a lot more value in the NFC South in this weekend's draft.

Think about it a bit.

Let's say you're the Saints and you're sitting there at No. 14. There's been lots of talk about taking running back Chris "Beanie'' Wells, defensive back Malcolm Jenkins or maybe even a defensive tackle. But, after Thursday's trade of Gonzalez to Atlanta, you're suddenly faced with the prospect of facing him and Winslow in four games.

You've got experience at outside linebacker in Dan Morgan, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle, but do any of those guys have the legs to run with Gonzalez or Winslow? If you're the Saints, you suddenly might want to slide Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, the two USC linebackers who could be available when you pick, up a few spots on your draft board.

Same story for the Bucs, who are sitting at No. 19. They've already overhauled their linebacker corps by signing Angelo Crowell and moving safety Jermaine Phillips to weak-side linebacker. But the thought of facing Shockey and Gonzalez on a regular basis might make it difficult to pass on Matthews or Cushing. For that matter, the Bucs would have to think hard about Jenkins, if he's available.

Part of the reason for moving Phillips to linebacker was a desire to get Sabby Piscitelli into the starting lineup at strong safety. But is Piscitelli ready to line up against Shockey and Gonzalez?

The Falcons, who hold the No. 24 pick, have needs at defensive tackle, defensive end and cornerback. But they might have to put more emphasis on their needs at safety because of changing landscape of tight ends in the NFC South. Matthews, Cushing and Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas might have jumped up Atlanta's board in recent days.

Carolina doesn't pick until the second round (No. 59 overall) and the Panthers are in good shape at outside linebacker. They've got some big needs on the defensive line, but they might not be able to sit still at safety in the second or third round. Strong safety Chris Harris isn't known for his coverage skills and second-year pro Charles Godfrey still is trying to grow into the free safety job.

How NFC South defenses try to counter the upgrades at tight end is one story line to follow throughout the draft. Here are four more NFC South story lines to follow.

What happens with Julius Peppers? This situation has been simmering in Carolina for months and it could be ready to boil over. Peppers has said he wants out of Carolina and the Panthers have said they want him back.

But Peppers has strapped Carolina's cap situation with his $17 million franchise tag. If some other team steps forward with a deal that includes a first-round pick, the Panthers almost have to take it. The alternative is to hang on to Peppers at his current price and the Panthers are ready to do that.

In that situation, the common assumption is that Peppers has no choice but to put in another season with the Panthers. But don't assume anything with Peppers. This thing has never been about money and Peppers is a very unique individual. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he would hold out and pass on the $17 million.

Will Sean Payton be able to keep his hands off the offense? That's not going to be easy for the New Orleans coach. Payton's background and passion is on the offensive side, but his future is on the defensive side. As tempting as it may be to draft Wells to give the Saints a power back, Payton may have to go outside his comfort zone.

The defense is the reason the Saints haven't made the playoffs the last two seasons. They've spent the offseason overhauling the defense. Now, it's time to finish the job. Payton has switched defensive coordinators and that pulls away a layer of insulation on his own job security. If defense keeps this team out of the playoffs again, it might be Payton's turn to take the fall.

Are the Bucs really content with their quarterback situation? Kansas State's Josh Freeman is at least a consideration in the first round. But Tampa Bay has so many other needs that it might not make a lot of sense to take a quarterback who might not be ready to play right away.

The Bucs signed Byron Leftwich and he certainly is a candidate to start. But think back to one of the first moves coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik made when they took over. They re-signed Luke McCown and paid him pretty good money. There was a reason for that. Morris and Dominik want McCown to be their starter.

Can Atlanta rebuild its defense in one draft? That's pretty much what the Falcons have to do after parting ways with Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy, Grady Jackson, Domonique Foxworth and Michael Boley. The Gonzalez move means that the Falcons will focus almost their entire draft on defense, except for possibly adding a little depth on the offensive line.

Atlanta's only addition on defense was adding linebacker Mike Peterson. There's some good, young talent in place with defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Chris Houston.

But the Falcons need some more young talent on this defense. They need to walk out of this draft with at least two defensive starters.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Just posted an item over in our breaking news area on Tampa Bay's signing of linebacker Angelo Crowell, but wanted to expand upon that a bit here.

 
  Rich Kane/US Presswire
  Ex-Bill Angelo Crowell should take Cato June's place at strongside LB.

First impression? Nice move by the Bucs and it starts to clear up some of the clouds on their defense. Crowell was a productive strongside linebacker in Buffalo and the Bucs presumably will play him at the same spot. This also comes on a day when it became public the Bucs are going to take a look at strong safety Jermaine Phillips moving to weakside linebacker.

Barrett Ruud stays in the middle. Essentially, what the Bucs are doing is replacing Cato June with Crowell and Derrick Brooks with Phillips, although there are fallback options like Quincy Black, Adam Hayward and Geno Hayes. But those guys likely will end up as backups.

There was outrage when the Bucs let Brooks, the best player in their history, go on Feb. 25. They let June go that same day and there were at least some raised eyebrows on that move.

Well, now, the other shoes have fallen. I think Crowell can be a slight upgrade over June. As far as Phillips, it's impossible to know how he'll fare in a new spot, but he has the potential to do some good things. He'll never be the Brooks of four or five years ago, but he might be able to become as good as Brooks was the last year or two.

The Phillips move also means the Bucs can get Sabby Piscitelli onto the field as the starting strong safety. At times this offseason, it's looked like the Bucs didn't really have a plan. But, gradually, it's coming together and they're filling their needs.

They still could use a cornerback and at least one defensive tackle, but there's still time to work on that. There's also a chance the Bucs will re-sign veteran defensive end Kevin Carter. Take care of all that and that basically leaves quarterback as the only glaring need.

Anybody want to talk some more about Jay Cutler?

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Tracking free-agent visits can become a part-time job during the initial rush of free agency. Now that things have settled, I've put together an unofficial list showing where NFC West free agents have visited and which players the division's teams have visited with.

These visits fall into four basic categories:

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

The San Diego Chargers jumped into free agency by signing Dallas linebacker Kevin Burnett.
Burnett, who hails from Southern California, chose San Diego over several teams including Oakland and Green Bay. Burnett will likely be given a chance to win a starting job at inside linebacker.

He has four career starts and he started two games for Dallas last season. Burnett is considered an interesting prospect because he is young and he has shown promise. The Chargers had hoped Anthony Waters would blossom into a starter but he was cut this offseason.

The Chargers had been very quiet in free agency as they have been concentrating on restructuring the contract of running back LaDainian Tomlinson. San Diego did visit with safety Jermaine Phillips but he re-signed with Tampa Bay.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

I know, I know. Seahawks fans are wondering what's up with free-agent safety Jermaine Phillips. NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas reports Phillips has re-signed with Tampa Bay.

We also have some news on the Seattle front.

The team has signed blocking tight end John Owens, an unrestricted free agent from the Lions. I was tempted to make the headline read, "Seahawks strike deal with Owens," but that would have been a shameless attempt at attracting traffic for fans wondering where that other Owens might land. "Seahawks sign J.O." might have worked as well.

In any event, here's the scouting report on John Owens. His addition could affect Will Heller's status with the Seahawks. Heller, an unrestricted free agent, has served as the second tight end for the Seahawks in recent seasons.

Bucs keep Phillips

March, 5, 2009
3/05/09
6:22
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

 Phillips

The Bucs just announced they have re-signed safety Jermaine Phillips. They also confirmed previous reports that they also have re-signed tight end Jerramy Stevens and receiver Cortez Hankton.

The re-signing of Phillips is by far the biggest move of those three. He's been a starting safety and there was concern the Bucs would lose him on the heels of cornerback Phillip Buchanon signing with Detroit.

Phillips had drawn interest from San Diego and Seattle, but elected to stay in Tampa Bay where he and Tanard Jackson will remain as the starting safety duo. The Bucs expect second-year pro Aqib Talib to take over at one starting cornerback position next season. Veteran Ronde Barber remains on the roster, but the Bucs also have been looking at some free-agent cornerbacks.

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