NFL Nation: Maake Kemoeatu

After losing a couple of key players early in free agency, the Ravens made their first free-agent signing, reaching a deal with Giants defensive tackle Chris Canty. That's according to the signed contract he posted on his Twitter. He unfortunately didn't include the terms of the contract in the pic.

The addition of Canty bolsters the middle of the Ravens' defensive line, which was among one of the areas that general manager Ozzie Newsome wanted to address in free agency. The Ravens were unhappy with the play of nose tackles Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody last season and had little depth behind defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

Canty, 30, brings a huge physical presence inside with his size (6 feet 7, 315 pounds). He was rated the seventh-best free-agent interior defensive lineman by Pro Football Focus.

Considered a better-than-average pass-rusher, Canty was not as effective last season because of a knee injury. He finished with three sacks and four quarterback hurries. Canty also held his own against the run.

This wasn't a splash by any means. This isn't Cullen Jenkins or even Desmond Bryant. But Canty was a popular free agent this offseason for a reason, taking three visits before coming to Baltimore. It was a solid first step for the Ravens.
NFC combine preview: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation previews the 2013 scouting combine by identifying the most important thing for each team to learn about its greatest area of need.

Baltimore Ravens: Days after the Ravens won the Super Bowl, general manager Ozzie Newsome pointed to the middle of the defense as the team's biggest need. Inside linebacker is the popular choice as the Ravens' biggest void, considering the retirement of Ray Lewis and the uncertainty with Jameel McClain (spinal cord contusion). That's why LSU's Kevin Minter has been linked to Baltimore. But Newsome was also talking about defensive tackle and safety. Nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu was average at best, and backup Terrence Cody has been a disappointment. Safety could end up being the Ravens' biggest need if they are unable to re-sign Ed Reed. There always seems to be good value at that position at the bottom of the first round.

Cincinnati Bengals: Strong safety is the biggest area of concern for the Bengals. Actually, it's been a need for the past two years, but the Bengals essentially ignored it last offseason. The hope was for Taylor Mays to take over that spot. When that didn't work out, Cincinnati tried to convert cornerback Nate Clements to safety. When that didn't work out, the Bengals brought back Chris Crocker, who is merely a stopgap player. Texas' Kenny Vaccaro makes a lot of sense for the Bengals at the No. 21 pick. Florida's Matt Elam is another highly-rated prospect at safety who could start immediately. The Bengals also need to add more youth at linebacker and speed at running back.

Cleveland Browns: The hope is for the Browns to address one of their top needs -- outside linebacker and cornerback -- with the No. 6 overall pick. That means keeping their fingers crossed that either Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones or Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner will fall out of the top five. Jones and Milliner are the top prospects at their positions. The Browns are transitioning to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Ray Horton and need to find versatile outside linebackers. Cleveland won't find a better one than Jones, who is an elite playmaker off the edge. Under Horton, the Browns are expected to blitz more, which puts more pressure on the cornerbacks. The Browns could play that style if they pair Milliner with Joe Haden.

Pittsburgh Steelers: As I addressed at length Tuesday, the Steelers need to find a way to come away with a feature running back in this draft. The biggest need on defense is at linebacker. There's a chance the Steelers could return all four starters from last season: LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison on the outside and Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote on the inside. If Pittsburgh is able to do this, and it could take a pay cut from Harrison, no one expects this to be the starting group in 2014. Foote would be 34 by the start of 2014, and Harrison would be nearing Ray Lewis territory at 36. It would be solid forward thinking to take a linebacker with the No. 17 overall pick. Could the Steelers be the team to take Notre Dame's Manti Te'o? His showing the combine (on the field and in interviews) could determine whether or not he slips out of the top half of the first round.
McCoy/PriceKim Klement/US PresswireTampa Bay is hoping it has found an interior tandem in Brian Price (92) and Gerald McCoy (93).
There was a time in the early years of the NFC South when top-notch defensive tackles roamed and controlled the division.

Tampa Bay’s Warren Sapp and Carolina’s Kris Jenkins were making Pro Bowl rosters and All-Pro teams and publicly arguing that each was the best defensive tackle in the game. They were rare talents, but there were other members of the species in the division in those days. Guys like Brentson Buckner and Anthony McFarland weren’t bad, and Carolina’s defensive line once refused to pose for a four-person picture unless the frame was expanded to five to include super-sub Shane Burton.

But then, sometime in recent years, the last of the space-eating dinosaurs disappeared. Defensive tackles became a non-factor, even an embarrassment around the NFC South.

Take the game in Charlotte near the end of the 2008 season when Tampa Bay, featuring journeymen Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims in the middle, looked like it was giving Carolina’s running backs a 7-yard head start. Or think back to 2007 and 2008 when New Orleans was scoring all those points and Drew Brees was throwing for all those yards. At the same time, the Saints were turning in mediocre records. That was because of the defense’s poor play all around, particularly in the middle of the defensive line.

Things have started to change in recent years with NFC South teams realizing they need to get back to their roots. They’ve been investing early-round draft picks and big money in defensive linemen and it's about to pay off.

Let’s go ahead and make a prediction now. If there is a 2011 season, it will be the year of the defensive tackle in the NFC South. Everywhere you look there’s a defensive tackle -- in some places, two defensive tackles -- poised to emerge as a force. It could be the year when the NFC South gets back to having Pro Bowlers or All-Pros at defensive tackle.

Let’s survey the landscape of who’s on the verge of emerging.

Buccaneers. After Hovan and Sims contributed to Jon Gruden losing his job, the Bucs weren’t able to do much right away at defensive tackle because they were too busy landing franchise quarterback Josh Freeman. But in 2010, they used their first two draft picks on Gerald McCoy and Brian Price and they also discovered Roy Miller, a valuable role player.

This is still a project because McCoy and Price suffered season-ending injuries in their rookie years. But these are two extremely talented players and the Tampa Bay coaching staff is convinced they’ll emerge.

Price, a second-round pick, looked like he was going to be an instant star when he showed up for his first minicamp and training camp. There was a buzz that he might be better than McCoy, a first-round pick. But Price got banged up in camp, never got completely healthy and appeared in only five games before the Bucs sat him down and he had surgery that included the insertion of four screws into his pelvis.

When the lockout ended very briefly in late April, Price showed up at One Buccaneer Place and indications were that he’s well on the way to being ready for this season. Same for McCoy, who had arm surgery. After a slow start, McCoy had come on with several strong games in a row right before the injury.

[+] EnlargeShaun Rogers
Matt Sullivan/Getty ImagesThe Saints are hoping Shaun Rogers can be a disruptive force in the NFC South this season.
McCoy is completely healthy and has spent much of the offseason in San Diego working to add upper-body strength. Throw a healthy McCoy and Price out there with newly drafted defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers and the Bucs suddenly could have a star -- or two -- in the middle.

Saints. Sedrick Ellis was drafted in the first round in 2008 and his first two seasons were interrupted by injuries. He played a full season in 2010 and responded with a career-high six sacks while playing the run well.

At the end of last season, the only thing between Ellis and greatness was having another strong defensive tackle next to him. That’s why the Saints signed Shaun Rogers just before the lockout started. Rogers is coming off three mediocre seasons in Cleveland, but he had some big years before that in Detroit.

New Orleans is a place where there’s a track record of veterans getting their careers going again. If Rogers can bring anything to the table, Ellis has a chance to emerge as the division’s best defensive tackle.

Falcons. For the past two years, Jonathan Babineaux has been the division’s best defensive tackle. But that’s sort of like putting a kid on a Little League baseball all-star team even though he came from the league’s worst team because every team has to be represented. Babineaux is solid, but he has been the best by default.

Babineaux probably is going to stay solid for the next few years, but the player the Falcons think really has a chance to become a force this year is Peria Jerry. He was their top draft pick in 2009 and his career has been kind of a sad story. He got hurt early as a rookie, suffering a major knee injury that the Falcons have never fully described.

Jerry returned last season, but ended up playing behind rookie Corey Peters, a third-round draft pick. Just when it looked like you could go ahead and declare Jerry a bust, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff stepped up and shed a little more light on his situation.

They still wouldn’t go into exactly what his surgery entailed, but at the NFL owners meeting in March, Smith and Dimitroff independently admitted last year was something of a “recovery’’ season for Jerry. They said their plan was to play him sparingly because his knee was not 100 percent.

They went on to say people with Jerry’s type of injury usually take two full years to recover and said they have high hopes for him. If Jerry can somehow get back to being the kind of player the Falcons thought he was when they drafted him, they could plug him in next to Babineaux and Atlanta suddenly could have a new face as its best defensive tackle.

Panthers. You can make a case that this position has been the weakest unit for any NFC South team since the moment Jenkins finally was granted his two-year request for a trade after the 2008 season. Yeah, Maake Kemoeatu could fill as much space as Jenkins, but he couldn’t move.

With Kemoeatu gone last year, the Panthers used a collection of journeymen, got pushed all over the field and went 2-14. Carolina has a major rebuilding program and they started it by using the first pick in this year’s draft on quarterback Cam Newton. But right after that, it instantly became obvious where new coach Ron Rivera was turning his attention.

The Panthers didn’t have a second-round pick, but had two in the third round. They used them to take defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain. Both could start right away. After they were drafted, Rivera kept talking about how Fua and McClain would allow the linebackers to play "downhill." That’s a start.

It’s hard to say right now that a third-round draft pick is going to be a star. But if either or both of those players can allow linebacker Jon Beason to run free or make plays, Carolina’s defense instantly will be better than it has been in several seasons.

Wrapping up NFC South third round

April, 29, 2011
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The third round has ended, so let’s take a quick look at what each of the three NFC South teams did in this round.

Carolina Panthers. No. 65, Terrell McClain, defensive tackle, University of South Florida. This guy has a chance to step in and start immediately. Defensive tackle has been the weakest position on the defense for a couple of years. McClain is the kind of space eater that’s been missing since Kris Jenkins and Maake Kemoeatu departed.

“The opportunity is there,’’ McClain said. “I’m not going to back down from it. I’m going to be one of the hardest workers out there. I don’t want to have any regrets.

No. 97, Sione Fua, defensive tackle, Stanford. The Panthers opened and closed the round by taking a defensive tackle. Can’t argue with that because they need all the help they can get at the position. Like McClain, Fua can play nose tackle or the three-technique spot. Like McClain, he also will have a shot to get playing time right away.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. No. 84, Mason Foster, linebacker, Washington. After getting defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers in the first two rounds, the Bucs stuck with their plan to improve their front seven. Last year’s linebacker corps of Barrett Ruud, Quincy Black and Geno Hayes really didn’t produce the number of big plays the team would have liked. Foster is more of an interior linebacker and this could be a sign that the Bucs are preparing to lose Ruud in free agency.

According to Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson, Foster is more of a “thumper’’ than Ruud. But he’s not a three-down player and is not a great fit dropping into coverage over the deep middle.

New Orleans Saints. No. 88, Johnny Patrick, defensive back, Louisville. An interesting pick by the Saints because they appear to be in great shape at cornerback. When healthy, Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter and Patrick Robinson can give the Saints as good a trio as any team in the league.

But general manager Mickey Loomis doesn’t always focus on glaring needs when he sees a player he likes. Patrick was close to being a shutdown corner in his last season at Louisville. He’s not known as a real physical guy, but he has the speed and athleticism to cover receivers and break up passes.

Atlanta Falcons. No. 91, Akeem Dent, linebacker, Georgia. This one was something of a surprise. Dent is purely an inside linebacker. He’s a two-down player who can play the run, but isn’t going to be on the field in passing situations. There wasn’t a glaring need for that kind of guy because the Falcons have a very solid middle linebacker in Curtis Lofton. There are greater needs on the outside. Sean Weatherspoon is set as one starter at outside linebacker. But the other spot is a question mark. Mike Peterson is aging and Stephen Nicholas probably will leave as a free agent.

Kris Jenkins back in NFC South?

March, 30, 2011
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Depending on your generation, consider this story as a classified ad in a newspaper or an item on Craigslist.

Jenkins
Jenkins
Kris Jenkins, a guy who, at times, has been considered one of the best defensive tackles in the game, is looking for a new team. The only real requirement Jenkins lists is that the team plays its home games in a stadium with a natural-grass surface.

Hmmm … there’s one obvious question -- could Jenkins return to the Carolina Panthers, the team that drafted him back in 2001? Since trading Jenkins to the New York Jets, after he spent two years begging out, the Panthers have struggled at defensive tackle. They got some decent play out of massive Maake Kemoeatu for a bit, but he couldn’t stay healthy and cost too much. Since then, there’s been a gaping hole in the middle of Carolina’s defensive line.

Could Jenkins be brought back to stand in the middle of that nice grass at Bank of America Stadium? Probably not. First, Carolina’s in a youth movement and Jenkins is 31. Second, Jenkins in Charlotte again might not be a good idea and that’s not even from a Panthers’ angle. Jenkins, never one to hide his feelings, once said Charlotte -- and I’m going to be diplomatic and paraphrase him a bit -- wasn’t cosmopolitan enough for him. That didn’t sit well with fans. Although Jenkins still has some family ties in Charlotte, I don’t think he’s changed his mind about the city’s cultural landscape.

Another part of Jenkins’ reason for wanting out was he wasn’t happy with the former coaching staff, led by John Fox. Ron Rivera’s running the show now and general manager Marty Hurney never had any problem with Jenkins, but I just don’t see the player wanting to come back.

That leads to only one other NFC South option, because New Orleans and Atlanta play in domes with artificial surfaces. That’s the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That team also is in the middle of a youth movement and the Bucs have used draft picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy, Brian Price and Roy Miller over the past couple years. None of those three have developed into stars yet, but the Bucs believe it could happen with any or all of them at any moment. Adding Jenkins might cut down on the opportunities for McCoy, Price and Miller to develop. But, then again, throwing Jenkins into the mix for a year might help them along.

Peppers on the clearance rack

October, 10, 2010
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A quick note as I get settled into Bank of America Stadium. If you want a Julius Peppers replica jersey from his Carolina days, you can get some pretty good deals.

Walking into the stadium, I came past Al’s Caps & More, a souvenir stand on College Ave. They had a pretty good selection of Peppers jerseys, and they’re only $29, roughly a third of what more current jerseys are going for. Also on the clearance rack, were a bunch of Jake Delhomme jerseys, also $29 each. Apparently former Carolina fullback Brad Hoover still is a good bit more popular than his former teammates.

Hoover jerseys also were on the clearance rack, but they were priced at $45. on a side note, the owners of the souvenir stand were happy to report they sold their last Maake Kemoeatu Carolina jersey this morning.

All right, I’ll be back in a bit with today’s inactives.

The Big Question: Replacing Haynesworth

May, 18, 2010
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NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What would the Redskins’ defensive line look like without Albert Haynesworth?

[+] EnlargeMaake Kemoeatu
G. Newman Lowrance/Getty ImagesMaake Kemoeatu's bulk and power make him an ideal fit as a 3-4 nose tackle, but can he stay healthy?
Haynesworth doesn’t want to play in a 3-4 scheme, which is exactly what is being implemented in Washington as we speak. It still remains a real possibility that the Redskins will move their star defensive lineman. If that happens -- and no defensive players are received in the deal -- who will line up in the Redskins’ front three and what will be the impact of his departure?

There isn’t a more disruptive player in the league than Haynesworth when he is on his game and he is capable of doing more or less whatever he wants on a football field. If motivated, he could be a fantastic nose tackle, or better yet, a 3-4 end for Washington. But enough about his abilities. For the sake of this piece, Haynesworth is elsewhere.

At nose tackle, the Redskins were shrewd in signing Maake Kemoeatu. Health could be a concern, but he is custom-made to man the nose in this scheme with his bulk, power and run-stuffing abilities. Still, the fact that Kemoeatu missed all of 2009 with an Achilles tendon injury has to give you pause. I am not a doctor, but I am guessing that his extreme mass puts a lot of stress on a recovering Achilles and this injury surely hasn’t helped this massive human being’s conditioning in the meantime.

Kedric Golston is the other candidate for nose tackle. He is more of an upfield player than Kemoeatu, but he isn’t as massive or stout. These two should be solid in a rotation, but if Kemoeatu’s health becomes a major problem, I would worry about Golston’s ability to hold down the spot full time. He plays hard, though, and has starting experience. Still, you need more than that to excel at nose tackle in the NFL, even on a two-down basis.

With the current group of nose tackles, it is feasible that Haynesworth could be a disruptive end in this scheme, a la Richard Seymour. To me, that is the way to best utilize his skills, while also making him happier with the scheme change. Of course, he also could play nose tackle and on throwing downs would be a beast as an interior pass-rusher. But without him, the Redskins are very light at the end position.

Phillip Daniels looks pretty set as a starter. He is a bigger base end in the 4-3 whose abilities should translate well to the new scheme. And this switch should extend his career, but he is 37, so who knows how long he can contribute. If he can hold up, Daniels should be solid enough as a run stopper. But how many snaps can he play?

Two others whom I see potentially making an impact are Adam Carriker and Jeremy Jarmon. Both have ability. When they were running a 4-3, the Redskins used a third-round supplemental pick on Jarmon, but he probably would have been drafted higher than that in the typical draft format. But now he is playing in a 3-4, where his upfield abilities will not be utilized as much and he will be asked to anchor into the ground and stack and shed against bigger men. I am not writing him off for this detail -- he has the size to adapt, he is very young and improved as his rookie season went along -- but it is not what he was drafted to do.

In the 2007 draft, St. Louis used the 13th overall pick on Carriker to play in its 4-3 scheme. But he was miscast in that role and is clearly better suited to play end in an odd front. Injuries have been the big problem for Carriker and even when healthy, he has yet to show much in the NFL in any capacity. But I was extremely high on Carriker coming out of Nebraska as a 3-4 end prospect, so it wouldn’t shock me if he revitalized his career to some degree in Washington.

Recognizing the problem at defensive end, the Redskins signed Vonnie Holliday on Monday. Much like Daniels, he is a veteran without upside, but he does have the grit and experience needed to hold his own in the trenches. In fact, he played quite well for the Broncos last season and might still be the best pass-rusher of the current group of defensive ends in Washington. Still, keeping his snaps low would be wise at his age (34).

Trust me, I am not a believer in keeping unmotivated players who do not want to be with the team. And in the 3-4, you can often get by with tough, try-hard guys who do their job without a lot of fanfare. But if Haynesworth leaves town, the Redskins’ defensive line looks pretty atrocious to me.

Mock pick for Carolina Panthers

April, 19, 2010
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As I’m sure you’re well aware, we published our Blog Network mock draft this morning. The Panthers don’t have a first-round pick, but I don’t want Carolina fans to feel slighted.

That’s why I’m going to go ahead and make my prediction on what I think Carolina will do with their first pick, which comes in the second round. Obviously, a lot depends on what happens with the picks ahead of the Panthers. Our mock only included the first 32 picks, so I’m doing some guessing on who might be off the board in the second round, before Carolina takes its turn.

I’m taking Al Woods, the defensive tackle from LSU. I know this isn’t the flashy pick many of you would like. But I’m not taking (alleged) quarterback Tim Tebow for the Panthers in the second round because I think that would be a wasted pick. Maybe Tebow develops into an NFL quarterback down the road, but John Fox doesn’t have the time to find out.

I also know a lot of fans are thinking Carolina will go with a wide receiver here. It could happen because the need is definitely there. But Carolina’s history of drafting receivers in the second round (Keary Colbert and Dwayne Jarrett) isn’t pretty at all. I think the Panthers will draft a wide receiver a little later.

Bottom line to my logic on Woods: I’d really like to give the Panthers super-sized defensive tackle Terrence Cody, but he went in the first round of our mock, although I have seen some others where he’s available in the second round. The Panthers really need a run stuffer for the middle of their defensive line. Fox has had Kris Jenkins and Maake Kemoeatu through the years and they worked out well. After Cody, Woods is the big body that makes the most sense for the Panthers.

Again, we all know Fox is under pressure to win this year. He’s a defensive coach and one of his core philosophies is to stop the run. That’s why I think Fox sticks with basics and gets a big guy for the middle of his defensive line.

Draft Watch: NFC East

March, 26, 2010
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NFC Under-The-Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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

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

Dallas Cowboys

We've spent a lot of time talking about the needs at safety and placekicker. And as I explained Tuesday evening, owner Jerry Jones feels like the competition between Connor Hughes and David Buehler will produce a suitable placekicker. I think that's a poor plan, but Jones did not seek my counsel during our lengthy discussion. So what are the Cowboys' biggest needs that no one's talking about?

Well, let's start with outside linebacker. Wade Phillips, a champion of outside linebackers, told me that this draft is full of talent at that spot. The Cowboys need someone to emerge behind DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Phillips mentioned that former Texas Tech star Brandon Williams was showing signs of being up to the task before suffering an injury last preseason. Both Phillips and Ware are excited about Williams' future. The Cowboys also have second-year player Victor Butler, who had his moments in '09. But I still think the Cowboys will look for help in next month's draft. They'll probably go with an offensive lineman at No. 27 overall, but it wouldn't surprise me if that next pick was an outside linebacker.

Everyone knows that replacing Ken Hamlin at safety is also a point of emphasis with the Cowboys. That's why I think Dallas will keep a close eye on which player starts to slip in the first round. If teams get fascinated with all this left tackle depth, a couple of safeties might start to slide in the first round. But I think the Cowboys also will look to draft another cornerback. As the Eagles found out last season, you can never have enough corners. The Cowboys were pretty fortunate with injuries in '09, but they can't count on Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick to make it through the season without getting banged up. So yes, I think cornerback is certainly an under-the-radar need.

New York Giants

We all assume the Giants will take a defensive player with the No. 15 pick. And Tom Coughlin basically confirmed that during the recent owners meetings. But don't be surprised if the Giants look to take another running back this season. I don't know whether Andre Brown (Achilles' tendon) will make a full return, so it's important to keep developing young backs. Both Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw were banged up in '09. The Giants need to create more depth at that position.

I also think tight end is an under-the-radar need. Kevin Boss has developed into a consistent threat, but the Giants need to identify and draft another tight end. I think Travis Beckum has some talent as he heads into his second season, but he's more of an H-back than a true tight end. Don't be surprised if the Giants go for a tight end in the third or fourth round. And keep the offensive and defensive linemen coming. General manager Jerry Reese knows that his offensive line is starting to show some age, so look for him to add depth via the draft. So far, last season's free agency moves with defensive tackles Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard look pretty sketchy, so they'll have to address that position as well.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles have some rather glaring needs at linebacker and safety. If you think Marlin Jackson's the automatic answer at free safety, you're a pretty optimistic Eagles fan. I don't trust a man who's had an ACL tear on each knee the past two seasons. So you have to take a long look at rookies such as Nate Allen and Taylor Mays and decide what you want to do at No. 24.

The Eagles also have an under-the-radar need at tight end. Brent Celek has emerged as one of the best in the league, but the Eagles could use a blocking tight end to help the running game. Mike Bell gives them more power in the backfield. Now, they have to open a hole or two in short-yardage situations. The Eagles have an excellent fullback, but let's not act like Leonard Weaver's some type of battering ram at that position.

In other news, it's time to draft some more cornerbacks. Sheldon Brown's starting to break down and Asante Samuel didn't play well down the stretch. His interception totals are nice, but the guy makes way too many mistakes. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was very frustrated with him at times. The Eagles have to create more depth at cornerback -- and the draft's a good place to start.

Washington Redskins

We know where Washington stands at quarterback and left tackle. I think Jason Campbell could do a nice job for Mike Shanahan, but so far, the coach isn't really embracing the incumbent starter. But those are the obvious needs. Honestly, there are no under-the-radar needs because the Redskins need help at pretty much every position. Maybe with the presence of Albert Haynesworth and Maake Kemoeatu, folks have been lulled into thinking the Redskins are OK at defensive tackle. But I don't think that's the case. If you can find a nose tackle early in the draft, you have to think about selecting him. Haynesworth's going to line up at defensive end the majority of the time. He wants no part of playing nose tackle, although he'll be there some of the time.

The Redskins would also be wise to look for inside linebackers for their new 3-4 scheme. If you think London Fletcher's going to succeed in a 3-4, you haven't studied the league. Little guys like Fletcher simply don't function well in this type of defense. Ask the Cowboys' former mighty mites Dat Nguyen and Dexter Coakley. It just doesn't work for 5-10 guys to be taking on 340-pound guards who are light on their feet. So yes, inside linebacker might qualify as an under-the-radar need.

The Redskins still have questions at punter and placekicker as well. They have needs all over the roster, so this could rank as the most important draft in the last 20 years. Nothing's really under-the-radar when it comes to this team's draft needs.
John Fox & Marty HurneyIcon SMIPanthers head coach John Fox, left, and general manager Marty Hurney remain steadfast in their approach to building a winning team.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- You've been waiting for the past month or so for the Carolina Panthers to reveal some top-secret plan for re-loading after their offseason purge.

Guess what? There's no big bang coming. The plan already is in place. It's already playing out. No matter how much you want to scream about the departures of Jake Delhomme, Brad Hoover and all the rest and yell for flashy and fresh new troops, this really is nothing out of the ordinary for Carolina.

"Being heroes in March, April and May doesn't matter," general manager Marty Hurney said during a break at the NFL owners meetings. "It's during the season and what you're judged by is winning games. We have to see if we can win games and be successful. But I think we have a lot of confidence in our young players and that's what we're doing in our approach."

There, the hand that Hurney and coach John Fox are playing is on the table. There are no huge free-agency signings coming. There are no blockbuster trades on the horizon and chances are slim the Panthers are going to be jumping up into the first round of the draft.

Like it or not, the Panthers are going with what they have. Seriously. And, really, when you think about it, it's not all that much different than what Fox and Hurney have done throughout their tenure. What happened a few weeks back when Delhomme, Hoover, Maake Kemoeatu, Damione Lewis and Na'il Diggs were released, and Julius Peppers was allowed to walk into free agency, was not the "fire sale" many fans have called it.

"Whatever words you want to use, I think we have a philosophy that's been in place for several years," Hurney said. "I think our nucleus or our identity fits our formula of how we win games and have an identity for our football team. I think the key is to make the necessary changes year in and year out to not lose that identity or that winning formula."

Hurney's got a good point. If you really thought a quarterback who threw way too many interceptions, a couple of ordinary and aging defensive tackles and linebackers and a veteran fullback were the face of the franchise, you're missing the point completely.

[+] EnlargeMatt Moore
Bob Donnan/US PresswireThe Panthers say they are prepared to enter training camp with Matt Moore as their starting quarterback.
The Panthers still have a core in place. It's guys like Steve Smith, Jordan Gross, Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, Chris Gamble, Jeff Otah, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Since they joined forces in 2002, Hurney and Fox have preached aggressive defense, ball-control offense and building through the draft. Yes, there are some cosmetic changes this offseason, but the big picture really hasn't changed.

"We feel we still possess that identity and that winning formula," Hurney said. "We have good depth on the offensive line. We have good depth at running back. We believe we have one of the best receivers in the National Football League. Yes, we do have a young quarterback. On defense, we lost a very productive defensive end, but we feel like we have young players ready to step in and we feel like our identity on defense still stands."

But Hurney admits there are questions with that young quarterback and at certain spots on defense. Let's start with the quarterback. I specifically asked Hurney if the Panthers really, truly, right hand in the air, are planning on going to training camp with Matt Moore as their starting quarterback.

Even though Hurney admitted the Panthers may do some things to solidify the position in what remains of free agency and the draft, the answer was a strong yes.

"We've seen enough to know he's taken care of the opportunities he's had," Hurney said. "Joe Gibbs always said at the quarterback position, when the lights go on, guys only get a few chances. When a guy gets that chance, he has to step up and take advantage of the opportunities. Matt Moore has done that in the opportunities he's had. That's the gauge for quarterbacks. They have to take advantage of the limited opportunities they have.''

(Read full post)

Draft Watch: NFC South

March, 17, 2010
3/17/10
12:00
PM ET
NFC Needs Revisited: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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

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

Atlanta Falcons

After making their one splurge into free agency to get Dunta Robinson and re-signing veteran Brian Williams, the Falcons have done a nice job of addressing a cornerback position that once was a big area of need. With those moves, the Falcons have whittled down their significant needs considerably.

The most glaring need is at defensive end and that almost certainly will be addressed early in the draft. John Abraham had a quiet year as a pass-rusher last season and age could be catching up to him. Nobody else stepped forward as a pass-rusher and the Falcons realize they need to get more pressure on quarterbacks. General manager Thomas Dimitroff believes in basing his drafts on need and getting a pass-rusher is critical.

The only other area that can be considered a high need is outside linebacker, but that’s not as dramatic as defensive end. The Falcons have Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas as their starting outside linebackers. Peterson is getting older, but still played at a high level last year. Nicholas was solid in his first year as a starter, but the Falcons could consider an upgrade.

Carolina Panthers

Their needs have grown since the start of free agency. The purge of veteran players has left the Panthers with needs in a lot of places. Without a first-round draft pick, the Panthers probably won’t be able to fill all their needs in the draft.

The defensive line, once the cornerstone of a John Fox team, has been gutted. The Panthers have high hopes for Everette Brown and Charles Johnson, but still could look for another defensive end to replace Julius Peppers.

The more glaring need might be at defensive tackle, where starters Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu were released. The Panthers have nothing but projects and journeymen at defensive tackle. Unless they suddenly get more active in free agency, they almost have to find one starting defensive tackle in the draft.

New Orleans Saints

They are the champions and, as a result, won’t draft until the final pick of the first round. The new free-agency rules prevent the Saints from doing much in free agency. Their roster is in good shape, but they still have some needs.

The defensive line is the most prominent need. Starting end Charles Grant was released after the season, and there is a possibility tackle/end Anthony Hargrove could be lost as a restricted free agent. The Saints would like to get a defensive end who can generate more of a pass rush than Grant, and they’d also like to find a solid starter to pair with defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis.

But the Saints can’t totally lock in on the defensive line with their first pick because they’ve also got a need at outside linebacker. With Scott Fujita leaving as a free agent, the Saints have some in-house candidates, but there’s no clear-cut replacement. Picking at the end of the first round leaves the Saints at the mercy of the teams in front of them, but it seems likely they’ll take the best available defensive lineman or outside linebacker.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

There are needs just about everywhere, and the Bucs are counting heavily on this draft to be a big part of their building process. They have 10 overall picks and five in the first 99. They’ve got the third overall pick in the first round and it seems almost certain they’ll take defensive tackles Gerald McCoy or Ndamukong Suh, if either is available.

After that, they’ve got plenty of other directions they could go. They could take several wide receivers because there isn’t a quality starter currently on the roster. Defensive end also is an area of need because there is no clear starter opposite Stylez G. White.

Draft Watch: NFC East

March, 17, 2010
3/17/10
12:00
PM ET
NFC Needs Revisited: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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

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

Dallas Cowboys

Since the Cowboys haven't made a single move in free agency, nothing has changed. They certainly didn't feel a sense of urgency to outbid the Giants for safety Antrel Rolle or the Eagles for free safety Marlin Jackson. But it wouldn't surprise me if the Cowboys addressed their need at safety with a veteran such as the Rams' O.J. Atogwe. At the No. 27 spot in the draft, you might have a shot at either South Florida's Nate Allen or USC's Taylor Mays. But I don't think the Cowboys will go either direction.

In conversations with folks at Valley Ranch, the offensive line is what gets mentioned the most. If the Cowboys can identify a talented offensive tackle or guard late in the first round, that's the direction they'll go. There's also the possibility they'll try to trade down because this appears to be a relatively deep draft. Obviously, place-kicker continues to be a glaring need. But after that, it's still offensive line, safety, inside linebacker and then probably wide receiver. With the rise of Miles Austin and the intrigue of Kevin Ogletree, I could see the Cowboys waiting until later in the draft to grab a wide receiver. After all, both Austin and Ogletree were undrafted players.

New York Giants

The Giants addressed a major need with the signing of Rolle, although I'm not sure he's worth $15 million guaranteed. Now they can focus on shoring up their linebacker situation. Second-year player Clint Sintim is expected to start at strongside linebacker, but there's a gaping hole at middle linebacker with the release of Antonio Pierce. It doesn't look like Jonathan Goff is quite ready to fill the position from within, so the Giants will be hoping that Alabama's Rolando McClain slips to them at No. 15. Outside of the defensive tackles from Oklahoma and Nebraska, I think McClain may have been the best defensive player in the country. He's incredibly smart and has tremendous size and athleticism. This just seems like a Jerry Reese pick to me.

The Giants also need to figure out their situation at defensive tackle. You have to think Chris Canty will have an easier time after battling injuries in '09 and perhaps Rocky Bernard will finally show up. But you can't simply depend on those things. The Giants probably will take a defensive tackle in the draft and then they'll look at some offensive linemen. It's probably the end of the road for Kareem McKenzie at right tackle. The Giants need to continue drafting and developing young offensive linemen and I think that will be a priority for Reese. At running back, you have to wonder how Andre Brown will look returning from a ruptured Achilles tendon. It's hard to find a lot of running backs who've made successful comebacks from that particular injury.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles have a potential solution at safety with Marlin Jackson, but it's still a position of need. You can't depend on Jackson being able to recover from his second ACL surgery in as many years. But I don't expect the Eagles to take a safety at No. 24 because Allen and Mays aren't blowing anyone away. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see the Eagles select a cornerback in the first round. It's a huge position of need with Sheldon Brown starting to break down a little bit and Joselio Hanson taking a step back after his suspension. This secondary had no chance against Tony Romo and the Cowboys late in the season, and that has to be fixed.

The Eagles also need more help in the pass rush. I know they traded for Darryl Tapp on Tuesday, but he put up pedestrian numbers for the Seahawks. If a pass-rushing defensive end starts slipping next month, the Eagles will be ready to pounce. The Eagles also need to think about a long-term solution at center with Jamaal Jackson coming back from a torn ACL. I know that Baylor center J.D. Walton is projected to go in the second round and he's the type of athletic player Andy Reid likes. I also know that the Eagles think a lot of versatile guard/center Nick Cole, who filled in nicely at right guard last season.

And don't be surprised if the Eagles go after a running back in the later rounds. Mike Bell is a young player, but the Eagles could still use more juice at the position.

Washington Redskins

After a slow start to free agency, the Redskins are now sifting through a list of former stars -- and signing some of them. Larry Johnson was one of the best running backs in the league -- four years ago. He's an odd "complement" to Clinton Portis because both players sort of bang around between the tackles. There's simply not much change of pace. That's why I feel like running back is still a position of need in the draft.

A lot of Redskins believe that quarterback is the biggest position of need, but I tend to think left tackle should be the bigger priority. Washington didn't really give Jason Campbell any chance last season, but he still put up decent numbers. With Chris Samuels retiring, it's time to find a long-term solution at left tackle. I think you take Russell Okung at No. 4 and never look back. But Mike Shanahan will be tempted by Jimmy Clausen. He knows he played in a pro-style offense and he won't get caught up in all this talk about Clausen coming off as cocky during the combine. Don't you want your quarterbacks to have a little swagger?

The signing of nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu might be one of the most underrated signings of the offseason. If he can return to his form of '08 (pre Achilles tendon injury), then new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett can be more creative with Albert Haynesworth. You also have needs at linebacker, safety and cornerback. London Fletcher is an excellent player, but he wasn't made for the 3-4. He'll be eventually be phased out of the defense -- and it might happen sooner than some of you think. General manager Bruce Allen and Shanahan will be looking for bigger players at inside linebacker. I think Rocky McIntosh will be fine, but Fletcher will have a tough time taking on some of the enormous centers and guards in the NFC East.

Who's holding Dan Snyder hostage?

March, 11, 2010
3/11/10
3:01
PM ET
Dan Snyder & Mike ShanahanWin McNamee/Getty ImagesWith Mike Shanahan, center, on the sideline, Redskins owner Dan Snyder, left, hasn't gone on one of his usual offseason spending sprees.
All signs pointed to another Redskins spending spree. For years, we'd become accustomed to Washington winning the month of March by signing big-name, if aging, free agents to lucrative contracts. To owner Dan Snyder and his top lieutenant Vinny Cerrato, the NFL draft was for weaklings.

While teams such as the Baltimore Ravens loaded up on offensive and defensive linemen, the Redskins turned to established stars in the league. Unfortunately, though, the Skins' version of March Madness couldn't overshadow what happened each fall.

Snyder built a foundation on smoke and mirrors, and the results had become downright depressing. At least the '09 season provided comic relief when Cerrato interrupted Sherm Lewis' bing0 calling to name him the team's playcaller. In retrospect, coach Jim Zorn was in over his head from the start. He was a panic hire by Snyder after his candidate pool evaporated in '08.

He has fired plenty of coaches in more than a decade as owner, but following last season's 4-12 campaign, Snyder knew his organization was at a crisis point. The losing was bad enough, but the Redskins had managed to alienate their fan base through a stunning series of blunders, the most humorous being a ban against homemade signs at games. In addition to being treated to a poor on-field product, fans were asked to express their dissatisfaction in healthier ways, such as politely clapping for first downs and pretending to recognize Marcus Mason's name.

If Snyder didn't get the next hire right, he might have encountered fan revolt. Fortunately for him, a Super Bowl-winning coach happened to have the '09 season off. Mike Shanahan might as well have had an office at Redskins Park because you knew he would replace Zorn from about Week 4 on. Snyder's only serious competition for Shanahan would've been the Cowboys, but most folks don't have an appreciation for Jerry Jones' devotion to Wade Phillips, a man who's happy to let the owner wear the whistle, and at times, the Russell coaching shorts.

The Redskins hired general manager Bruce Allen, son of George, late in the '09 season to start assessing the damage. Once he sacked Zorn, the stage was finally set for Team Shanahan to take over the building. The former Broncos coach hasn't done anything that dramatic (Artis Hicks, anyone?), but his presence alone has changed the club's perception around the league. As I walked the streets of Indianapolis during the combine in search of scouts and refreshments, people told me stories about Shanahan's iron-fisted ways. Members of the Cowboys' delegation weren't shy about admitting that the landscape of the NFC East would quickly change with Shanahan on the scene.

In fact, I'm not sure there's a coach in the league that Jones admires more than Shanahan. In the past, Shanahan had been a ghost at the combine, slipping into town to look at a certain player and then leaving before anyone saw him. But this year, Shanahan was popping up all over the place. He spent more than an hour with reporters and then I later saw him sharing trail mix with Wade Phillips at a Marriott property. For now, Shanahan's the face of the franchise and I think he realizes how important it is for fans to see him at work.

On the eve of free agency last Thursday, Redskins fans gathered at their laptops (hopefully) and read about Shanahan and Allen releasing 10 players. It sort of felt like the final cuts in the preseason. Allen was rather diplomatic in his description of Black Thursday at Redskins Park. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall was a little more blunt, telling ESPN that the Skins were able to shed some "dead weight." Nice touch, DeAngelo.

Some of us interpreted these moves as a prelude to a big-ticket item in free agency, but unless Hicks and Maake Kemoeatu were at the top of your wish list, the Skins basically sat on their hands. You keep waiting for that other shoe to drop, but it looks like this is all we're going to get. It makes you wonder if someone's kidnapped the free-spending Snyder, an owner who has been known to covet another man's roster. Surely he'll put a stop to all this inactivity at some point. But Allen recently told SI.com's Peter King that Snyder seems to be taking the (non) news in stride.
"He didn't throw anything at me," said Allen of Snyder. "And he didn't throw a tantrum. He's fine with it."

So we've apparently entered a new era of Washington Redskins football. To be clear, though, Shanahan won't be given license to have a couple more 4-12 seasons. He isn't expected to win the NFC East title in 2010, but the Redskins will need to show marked improvement.

Fortunately for Shanahan, the bar's been set pretty low over the past decade. His critics will point toward his playoff record in the post-John Elway era in Denver. But his total body of work is impressive.

The best news for Redskins fans is that Shanahan and Allen don't appear to be looking for shortcuts. As we've seen in the past, shortcuts look a lot better in March than they do in December. Artie Hicks and Kemo might not get your heart pumping, but regaining the respect of your division foes should.

And that has already happened.

Eagles, Jackson agree to two-year contract

March, 10, 2010
3/10/10
2:57
PM ET
The Philadelphia Eagles announced Wednesday that they've agreed to terms on a two-year contract with 26-year-old cornerback/safety Marlin Jackson. The terms of the deal were not immediately available.

Jackson, a former starter with the Colts, has missed much of the past two seasons with serious knee injuries. He played cornerback for Indianapolis, but he'll likely compete for the starting free safety spot with the Eagles opposite Quintin Mikell. The Eagles were held hostage by that position in '09. If Jackson can make a full recovery, he has the speed and instincts to cover Pro Bowl tight ends Jason Witten and Chris Cooley.

It's obviously a risk on the Eagles' part, which means there's probably not a lot of guaranteed money involved. Jackson will talk to the media via conference call later this afternoon. Here's the quote he gave local writers before his signing was announced today:
"It’s been a great visit and I think there’s a mutual interest here," said Jackson. "They feel that I’m capable of playing corner, safety, nickel and kind of want to see where things shake out and where the biggest need is at and, if I come here, where I will play."

More importantly, Jackson made it clear that his rehabilitation from a torn anterior cruciate ligament is going really well and that he's already able to sprint. Much like the Redskins' signing of Maake Kemoeatu, this won't be a big financial risk. And if Jackson can make a full comeback, it will end up being a smart decision. Of course, that's a big "if" for a player who's torn both ACLs over the past two seasons.

Report: Skins sign Hicks, Parker to visit

March, 6, 2010
3/06/10
10:52
PM ET
The Washington Redskins eased into the free-agency waters by agreeing to a three-year contract with Vikings guard Artis Hicks on Saturday evening, according to ESPN.com's John Clayton. The Skins have re-signed some of their own players but Hicks, an unrestricted free agent, is the first player signed off another team.

Hicks
Hicks
Hicks, 31, has been with the Vikings since '06 after beginning his career with the Philadelphia Eagles. He started 27 games for the Vikings and he was a valuable backup on a team that reached the NFC title game this past season. The Washington Post is reporting that Hicks received $3 million in guaranteed money and the opportunity to make as much as $9 million over the course of the deal. He'll likely challenge Mike Williams for the starting spot at right guard.

In other Redskins news, ESPN Insider Adam Schefter is reporting that unrestricted free-agent running back Willie Parker will visit with Washington on Monday. Parker, 29, lost his job to Rashard Mendenhall in '09 and only rushed for 389 yards on 98 carries.

Parker has been banged up the past couple seasons, but he was a prolific runner for the Steelers earlier in his career. He and Redskins starter Clinton Portis are at about the same stages in their careers, but Parker has more speed and quickness. If the Skins determine that Parker's healthy, signing him would make sense. Keep in mind that Shanahan also loves LaDainian Tomlinson, who remains on the street after being released by the Chargers.

Signing Parker wouldn't preclude the Redskins from selecting a running back in next month's draft, but it may allow them to wait until the later rounds.

The Post is also reporting that Ma'ake Kemoeatu will visit Redskins Park on Tuesday. Kemoeatu is recovering from a torn Achilles' tendon, so I don't think teams will be in a huge hurry to sign him. After years of spending wildly in free agency, the Redskins are now being lauded for their patient approach this weekend. Signing guys like Hicks and possibly Parker won't turn the franchise around overnight, but they seem like sound moves at this point.

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