NFL roster cuts: AFC | NFC

NFL Nation: Ovie Mughelli

St. Louis Rams cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
10:04
PM ET
Click here for the complete list of St. Louis Rams roster moves.

Most significant move: The Rams released No. 2 quarterback Kellen Clemens even though Clemens knew the offense better than any player on the roster. Clemens, who spent time with the New York Jets when Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer held the same job there, lost out to impressive undrafted free-agent quarterback Austin Davis.

Davis, drafted by the Boston Red Sox this year, stood out during preseason for his poise. Some players appear as though they belong. Davis did, at least initially. The preliminary assumption here is that Davis fared well enough to win the No. 2 role, although rosters remain fluid and the Rams will consider veterans at every position as they become available. The Rams also released Tom Brandstater, who was initially thought to be competing with Davis for the third-string role.

Onward and upward: Clemens could catch on with another team. Overall, however, the Rams had more holes than front-line talent to fill those holes. The players they released will not be coveted elsewhere. That was partly because the suspension Austin Pettis faces for the first two games bought the Rams time at wide receiver, where the team has quite a few mid-level prospects. With Pettis on the reserve/suspended list and not counting against the 53-man limit, the Rams kept the six receivers considered most likely to stick, including veteran Steve Smith and second-year pro Greg Salas.

Veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli received his release and could appeal to the dwindling number of teams valuing a traditional blocking fullback. The Rams kept only four running backs on this initial 53-man roster. They parted with Chase Reynolds after coach Jeff Fisher lauded the 24-year-old back as someone with the ability to close out a game.

The Rams also cut Aaron Brown, Cornell Banks, Cory Harkey, Jamaar Jarrett, Jose Valdez, Scott Smith, Mason Brodine, Nick Johnson, Ben Guidugli, Kendric Burney, Deangelo Peterson, Sammy Brown, T. Bob Hebert, Tim Barnes, Bryan Mattison, Vernon Gholston and Joe Long. Gholston could be running out of chances.

What's next: The Rams need help throughout their roster. They have the No. 2 priority in waiver claims. Expect them to put that privilege to use. The Rams should be active in pursuing help at defensive tackle after losing first-round pick Michael Brockers for a month (estimated) with a high-ankle sprain. Trevor Laws is already on injured reserve.

The Rams have only eight offensive linemen, one fewer than teams generally prefer to keep. They could use another one. They kept six linebackers, on the low side. The team is carrying 11 defensive backs at present. I wouldn't be surprised if they shopped former starting corner Bradley Fletcher, who was playing deep into games in preseason.

Atlanta Falcons cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
6:42
PM ET
Click here for the complete list of Atlanta Falcons roster moves.

Most significant move: In yet the latest sign that they’re going to become more of a passing team, the Falcons are going with Lousaka Polite as the only true fullback on their roster. They released Mike Cox, who became the starter last season after Ovie Mughelli suffered a major injury. Throughout Mike Mularkey’s tenure as offensive coordinator, the Falcons used Mughelli extensively as a lead blocker for Michael Turner. Polite’s a solid veteran, but I think the fact the Falcons are going without a true backup fullback says a lot. Tailback Jason Snelling can play fullback if needed, but I think this is an indication that new coordinator Dirk Koetter doesn’t plan on using fullbacks as much as this team did in recent years.

Onward and upward: More than any other franchise in the NFC South, the Falcons pride themselves on keeping their team together. That’s why I’m fairly surprised that third-year cornerback Dominique Franks was waived. He seemed to be in the lead for the job as the punt returner and he also made several nice plays as a cornerback in the preseason. Take this as a sign that the Falcons think more highly of fourth-year corner Chris Owens, who they also drafted and have developed. Owens will be the fourth corner after Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel. There is some mileage on the guys ahead of him, so Owens could end up in a bigger role as the season goes on. Also, this pretty much means the Falcons plan to use wide receiver Harry Douglas as their main punt returner. Franks shouldn’t have a problem landing on another roster.

What’s next: Quarterback Matt Ryan is “the franchise’’ in Atlanta. I know fans aren’t sold on left tackle Sam Baker. But I’m a little more concerned that all the Falcons have behind Baker, who has had injury problems in the past, is rookie Lamar Holmes, who missed a chunk of the preseason with an injury. I think the Falcons need to find a bit of insurance with a left tackle that’s had a little experience in the NFL. Until Holmes has a little more time to get coached up, this team is one Baker injury away from disaster.
EARTH CITY, Mo. - The St. Louis Rams used two running backs on 12 percent of plays last season, the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL.

Mughelli
That's going to change in a big way under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

To that end, the Rams signed veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli on Saturday. Age (32) and a 2011 knee injury (torn MCL) made the two-time Pro Bowl choice available to NFL teams this offseason. The former lead blocker for Michael Turner in Atlanta has ties to the Rams' front office (general manager Les Snead), coaching staff (offensive line coach Paul T. Boudreau) and roster (guard Harvey Dahl) from their time together in Atlanta.

Mughelli, 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds, played 38 percent of the Falcons' offensive snaps in 2010, a high number for a fullback in the current NFL.

The Rams used two backs 123 times last season, the fifth-lowest total in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That figure will surge with Schottenheimer taking over for Josh McDaniels as the Rams' offensive coordinator.

Schottenheimer's Jets ran 370 plays with two backs last season, the eighth-highest total in the league. That works out to 36 percent of the time for the Jets and 12 percent of the time for the Rams. The league average was 27 percent.

The knee injury Mughelli suffered against Detroit in October appeared grotesque on replays, but Mughelli assured fans the damage wasn't all that bad. Brit Miller, Todd Anderson and former tight end Ben Guidugli were the fullbacks under contract to St. Louis before Mughelli's addition.

Rams running back Steven Jackson has said he prefers running behind a fullback. He'll get that chance in 2012.

The Rams open training camp Sunday.

NFC South draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
6:15
PM ET
NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The 2012 NFL draft won’t be remembered as the flashiest in NFC South history. That honor belongs to the 2011 draft -- probably forever.

It’s tough to top a draft in which quarterback Cam Newton went No. 1 to Carolina, Atlanta traded up for receiver Julio Jones and New Orleans traded back into the first round to get running back Mark Ingram. Aside from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pretty good splash, this year’s NFC South draft wasn’t filled with drama.

Instead, it was filled with very deliberate picks that addressed big needs all around the division.

BEST MOVE

No pick set the division's tone for this draft better than Carolina's selection of Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly at No. 9 overall.

There’s nothing really flashy about Kuechly, but the Panthers didn’t need flash this time around. They got that with Newton, and he gave them a prolific offense. But that offense was only enough to carry the Panthers to a 6-10 record last season. Carolina couldn’t play defense, and opponents have run all over the Panthers the last few seasons.

A lot of people thought the Panthers should go with a defensive tackle in the first round. But there were two reasons they didn’t. They weren’t enamored of any of the first-round prospects at that position. They also feel pretty good about what they already have at defensive tackle. Ron Edwards, a big free-agent pickup last year, is coming back from an injury that kept him out last season, and the Panthers think he can anchor their defensive line. They also used two third-round picks on defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Sione Fua last year.

The Panthers believe they have the personnel to clog up the middle. Kuechly should be able to come in and do what he does best. He can roam the field and be the kind of tackling machine he was in college. This guy had as few flaws as any player in the draft and is ready to make an instant impact. It remains to be seen whether Keuchly or Jon Beason will play the middle and which one will slide outside. It doesn’t really matter. Either way, the Panthers now have a deep linebacker corps that should be able to stop just about any running game.

RISKIEST MOVE

You could say the Saints made a risky move by using their first draft pick on a player who didn’t even play his college ball in the United States. They drafted Regina (Canada) defensive tackle Akiem Hicks with the No. 89 overall pick in the third round.

The fact Hicks didn’t play against elite completion means there is obvious risk with this pick. But why not take a shot when you’re this late in the third round? Hicks has tremendous upside, and he was good enough to be recruited to LSU before leaving for Canada. The Saints have a great history of discovering gems (Jimmy Graham, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston) later in the draft. They took a risk, but it might pay off.

[+] EnlargeMark Barron and Doug Martin
Kim Klement/US PresswireThe Bucs made headlines with their first-round draft picks, S Mark Barron and RB Doug Martin.
Hicks should at least have a chance at some playing time early on. The Saints don’t have much behind Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis at defensive tackle. Hicks could end up in the rotation very quickly, and the Saints could end up looking very smart for taking this risk.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

The Bucs haven’t been exciting in any way in quite some time. But they provided virtually all of the excitement within the division in this draft. General manager Mark Dominik shrewdly made some trades that gave the Bucs the ammunition to move up twice and come out of the draft with three instant starters.

Get over the fact that Dominik used the No. 7 overall pick on a safety, Alabama’s Mark Barron. The Bucs weren’t sold on LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne for reasons we don’t know. They were sold on Barron, and safety might have been the weakest position on their roster heading into the draft. Trading down from No. 5 to No. 7 started a process in which Dominik was able to manipulate the draft with trades that gave him two other starters -- running back Doug Martin and outside linebacker Lavonte David.

The Bucs traded back into the first round to get Martin late Thursday night. They were without a second-round pick Friday night. But they saw David sitting there, they had the ammunition, and they pounced. No NFC South team needed more help from this draft than the Buccaneers, and Dominik made sure they got help that will matter right from the start.

FILE IT AWAY

Atlanta’s selection of Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing in the fifth round might not seem like a big deal on the surface. For now, Ewing is probably nothing more than a special-teams player. But the Falcons also were looking a year or two down the road when they made this pick. Veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli is coming off a major injury, and he’ll turn 32 in June. It was time to find someone to groom as Mughelli’s eventual successor.

Looking back on the fifth round

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
4:19
PM ET
The fifth round of the NFL draft is over and it is worth noting this was the first time in this draft that each of the four NFC South teams had a pick in the same round.

Let’s take a look at who’s joining the NFC South from the fifth round.

The Buccaneers added West Virginia linebacker Najee Goode. He’s viewed primarily as an inside guy, but has the ability to slide outside. The Bucs are coming out of this draft much deeper at linebacker.

The Panthers took Coastal Carolina cornerback Josh Norman. He’s not a threat to contend for a starting job anytime soon. But Norman has good instincts and should have a chance to play on special teams.

The Saints selected Samford safety Corey White. He doesn’t have typical safety size, but does have good cover skills. That’s significant. Starting safety Roman Harper isn’t known as a cover guy. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo likes to have safeties who can cover, so there’s room for White on the roster.

The Falcons picked Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing and Troy defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi. Ewing’s not spectacular in any area, but does everything reasonably well. He likely will start off as a special-teams player, but eventually could take over for veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli. Massaquoi already is 24 years old, but he does have some upside as a pass-rusher. The Falcons need all the pass-rushing help they can get.
Peter KonzJeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Falcons bolstered their offensive line with the addition of Peter Konz in the second round.

As it turns out, the Atlanta Falcons aren’t planning to jump over that playoff hurdle that’s been talked so much about.

They simply plan to plow right through it. The latest evidence came Friday night when the Falcons used their second-round draft pick (No. 55 overall) on Wisconsin center (more on that in a moment) Peter Konz.

It would have been very easy for the Falcons to overreact and do something crazy after an embarrassing January playoff loss to the New York Giants. Yeah, they could have made a leap in free agency for defensive end Mario Williams, which seemed to be the preferred rout by 99 of every 100 Falcons fans.

But the fact is, if the Falcons had landed Williams back in March, they wouldn’t be as good a team as they are today. Seriously.

Yeah, I know it sounds a little ridiculous to say the Falcons are better off without a guy who could have brought them double-digit sacks. But it’s the truth. Had the Falcons signed Williams, they would have had to gut their existing roster.

The salary-cap space Williams would have taken up would have prevented the Falcons from keeping guys like receiver Harry Douglas, safety Thomas DeCoud, defensive end John Abraham, center Todd McClure and running back Jason Snelling. They might not have been able to fit cornerback Brent Grimes under the salary cap with the franchise tag. Even if they did, they would have had to have made some dramatic moves -- like releasing receiver Roddy White, running back Michael Turner or fullback Ovie Mughelli.

Any or all of those moves seemed possible in the immediate aftermath of the loss in New York. But owner Arthur Blank, who earlier in his tenure may have been prone to overreacting, sat down with coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coolly came up with a plan on how the Falcons can take the next step.

Smith and Dimitroff have had four straight winning seasons, but have yet to win a playoff game. When you’ve had four straight winning seasons, you don’t blow a team up. You keep it together and fix the things that are wrong.

Without flash, that’s precisely what the Falcons have done and Friday night was just another step.

“We were really honed in on the offensive line as you can imagine,’’ Dimitroff said, moments after selecting Konz. “We need to get more stout on this offensive line.’’

There’s no doubt about that. Let’s consider this item from ESPN Stats & Information: The Falcons were one of 10 teams to average less than 4.0 yards per rush between the tackles last season. That came despite the fact they have a bruising runner in Turner.

The Falcons also didn’t do a great job of protecting quarterback Matt Ryan. That failure was the major reason why all the downfield passing we heard about after the Falcons traded up to draft Julio Jones didn’t fully materialize last year. The Falcons were soft up front and it cost offensive line coach Paul Boudreau his job.

Other than left tackle Sam Baker, a first-round pick in 2008, the Falcons really haven’t made huge investments in their offensive line. The arrival of Konz changes that.

Although he played center at Wisconsin, Dimitroff said “we’re listing him as a guard/center right now’’.

It’s no big secret McClure is at the end of his career. He’s 35 and it shows. The Falcons brought him back as insurance, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be their starting center on opening day. Guard Joe Hawley also can play center. Hawley also could factor into the situation at guard, where he played last season along with Justin Blalock and Garrett Reynolds. Add Konz to that mix and it’s pretty clear the Falcons are going to throw all their guards and centers onto the field in training camp and the preseason and see which of the three emerge as the best trio.

“Let’s come in here and have some great competition and see who can protect Matt Ryan the best,’’ Dimitroff said. “We want production and we want guys who can finish. In Peter, we have a guy who can do both of those.’’

Look, I’m not saying a guard/center from Wisconsin is going to come in the second round and push right through that hurdle all by himself. Konz is just a part of the puzzle and maybe fans can finally see that picture coming together now.

There’s a reason why Atlanta didn’t have a first-round pick this year. Jones was the first-round pick for last year and this year and he’s better than any receiver in this year’s draft. There was a reason why the Falcons didn’t make to splurge in free agency. They didn’t have the salary-cap room to do it without ripping a good team apart.

Little by little, they’ve made moves that have them gaining speed as they head for that hurdle. Just this week, they traded a late-round draft pick for four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel and quickly signed him to a cap-friendly deal.

In theory, Samuel should team with Grimes and Dunta Robinson to give the Falcons one of the league’s best cornerback tandems. In theory, Konz should team with all those other offensive linemen to make the Falcons tougher up front.

Yeah, there still are a few needs -- the pass rush, depth at tight end and maybe some more help on the outside of the offensive line. The Falcons are well aware of all that. They’ll address those needs in the rest of the draft and after it when the time and the price are right. But, now, you can see their offseason plan taking shape.

If the Falcons had gone out and paid a fortune for Williams, they wouldn’t be making solid, safe picks like Konz because they’d be desperately trying to repair all the other damage they did to their team.

Falcons: Who's on the hot seat?

February, 27, 2012
2/27/12
2:10
PM ET
The Atlanta Falcons currently aren’t under a lot of salary-cap pressure. They have about $30 million to work with, but that could change in a hurry.

The Falcons are likely to re-sign cornerback Brent Grimes or use the franchise tag on him. The Falcons also have said they want to re-sign middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. Although defensive end John Abraham and his agent have made it sound like he won’t return to Atlanta, it remains possible the Falcons could bring him back if Abraham’s price tag drops from the $12 million he’s seeking. The Falcons also have several other free agents, including receiver Harry Douglas, that they’re likely to have some interest in keeping.

If most or all of those free agents are signed, the Falcons could have some salary-cap decisions to make on players currently under contract. The Falcons aren’t the type of team that likes to sit still and it’s likely they’ll be spending some significant money in free agency.

With that in mind, let’s finish our series on NFC South players that could be on the hot seat with the Falcons.

Although Mike Smith said at the combine he looks forward to left tackle Sam Baker returning, I think that might have been a case of a coach just being nice. Releasing Baker, who lost his starting job last year, would free up $2.6 million in cap space.

Fullback Ovie Mughelli has been an outstanding blocker throughout his time with the Falcons. But he’s about to turn 32 and is coming off a leg injury that cut last season short. The Falcons could save $3 million by releasing him and there are other guys out there that can block.

Defensive tackle is another position where the Falcons might have to make some big decisions. Jonathan Babineaux is coming off a very quiet year and he’ll turn 31 early next season. He’s scheduled to count $4.6 million against the cap and the Falcons could clear $3.6 million in cap space by releasing him. There might be temptation by fans to say the Falcons should release Peria Jerry instead. Understandable because Jerry hasn’t done much since getting hurt early in his rookie season (2009). But the Falcons still think Jerry has some upside. More importantly, cutting Jerry wouldn’t help the Falcons against the cap. In fact, it would hurt them. Jerry is scheduled to count $1.95 million against the cap. If the Falcons cut Jerry, they’d take a $2.2 million cap hit.

All-NFC South team: Offense

January, 24, 2012
1/24/12
3:02
PM ET
It was a big year for offense in the NFC South. The New Orleans Saints set all sorts of records. The Carolina Panthers lit up scoreboards and, when the Atlanta Falcons were on, they sometimes were spectacular.

That made for some difficult choices, but here’s my All-NFC South offense.

Tackle: Jordan Gross, Panthers. He’s getting along in years, but Gross is still the best tackle in the division.

Tackle: Jermon Bushrod, Saints. This was a really tough call because Tampa Bay’s Donald Penn seemed destined for this spot, but his play slipped as the Bucs collapsed and lost their last 10 games. I refuse to put any offensive lineman from Atlanta on this team, so I’m going with Bushrod almost by default. I know he made the Pro Bowl, but I’m not convinced Bushrod is anything more than an ordinary left tackle. But he’s better than any other tackle the NFC South had to offer.

Guard: Carl Nicks, Saints. He might be the best guard in the NFL.

Guard: Jahri Evans, Saints. If Nicks isn’t the best guard in the NFL, then Evans is.

Center: Ryan Kalil, Panthers. He’s becoming a Pro Bowl regular and might be the best center in the league.

Wide receiver: Steve Smith, Panthers. Rookie quarterback Cam Newton came along and revitalized Smith’s career. But I also think Smith deserves a lot of the credit for Newton’s success.

Wide receiver: Marques Colston, Saints. I went back and forth on this one between Colston and Atlanta’s Roddy White and Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams also got some consideration. I’m joking. Williams didn’t get one bit of consideration. White’s numbers were slightly better than Colston’s in terms of catches and receiving yards. But Colston missed a couple games with a broken collarbone and still had very nice numbers in an offense where there are a ton of other options. White had nice numbers, but he didn’t look like the dominant receiver he was a year ago. White led the league in drops.

Tight end: Jimmy Graham, Saints. This one was easy. Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez had a very nice season and is the best tight end in history. But Graham had one of the most prolific seasons ever by a tight end in only his second season. Graham should only continue to get better and, if he stays healthy, he could eventually pass Gonzalez as the best tight end ever.

Fullback: Jed Collins, Saints. In his first real NFL season (Collins was with Cleveland in 2008), he emerged as a steady role player in the league’s best offense. Collins didn’t have much in the way of numbers, but his blocking was a key factor in the offenses’ success. If Atlanta’s Ovie Mughelli hadn’t gotten injured, he’d be in this spot. But Collins is a worthy replacement.

Running back: Darren Sproles, Saints. Sproles ended up with an NFL record for all-purpose yards. Out of the backfield, he contributed as a runner and receiver and created enormous matchup problems for opposing defenses.

Running back: Michael Turner. Yeah, I'm going with two running backs because it's my team, I can want and there are two guys that deserve to be on here. Turner looked slow for most of the second half of the season. But he still rushed for 1,340 yards and 11 touchdowns. That's not a bad season by any measure.

Quarterback: Drew Brees, Saints. He threw for a league-record 5,476 yards and also passed for 46 touchdowns. Brees has been great for a long time, but he took his game to another level. He’s the reason the Saints won 13 games without a defense.

Midseason All-NFC South offense

November, 10, 2011
11/10/11
11:30
AM ET
We’ve already unveiled our midseason All-NFC South defense. Now, it’s time for the offense.

As I said in the post on the defense, that’s not exactly the strong side of the ball in this division. The offense is the strong side and there were lots of tough choices. I felt I had to reach in a few cases on the defense. On the offense, I felt like I was forced to leave off some very good players.

Here’s the offense:

Tackle: Jordan Gross, Panthers. He’s been one of the best in the business for a long time. Gross has weathered some tough times, but, like a lot of other Carolina veterans, he’s been energized by the arrival of rookie quarterback Cam Newton.

Tackle: Donald Penn, Buccaneers. He’s gone from an undrafted free agent in 2006 to the Pro Bowl last season. Penn’s play has continued to improve this season and he’s one of the few Tampa Bay players who has performed consistently well this season.

[+] EnlargeTBD
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireSteve Smith is enjoying a career revival and already has as many receptions through Week 8 as he had all of last season.
Guard: Carl Nicks, Saints. Lots of people say Nicks and teammate Jahri Evans form the best guard tandem in the business. I think their play has fallen off a bit this year, but that might be because there’s been a lot of shuffling on the rest of the offensive line. But, on pure talent, Nicks remains an elite guard.

Guard: Davin Joseph, Buccaneers. I’m taking him over Evans (and Carolina’s Travelle Wharton, who got some consideration) because Joseph has been consistent.

Center: Ryan Kalil, Panthers. Carolina had the franchise tag on Kalil before signing him to a big contract in the preseason. Kalil hasn’t disappointed. He’s one of the league’s top centers and still has more upside.

Tight end: Jimmy Graham, Saints. In a division that’s loaded with talented tight ends, Graham stands above the rest, even though he’s only in his second season. He’s become a huge part of the offense and is on pace for somewhere around 100 catches. He presents all sorts of matchup problems for defenses and makes the Cover Two almost useless against the Saints.

Wide receiver: Steve Smith, Panthers. He’s having one of the best years of his career and no one has been more energized by Newton’s arrival than Smith.

Wide receiver: Marques Colston, Saints. Although Colston missed some time with a broken collarbone, he’s putting up nice stats. I picked him over Atlanta’s Roddy White, who slipped a bit in the first half of the season, but could explode at any time.

Running back: Michael Turner, Falcons. He’s on pace for almost 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. Perhaps the best news of all is Turner has his yards per carry average back up to 4.4, after it dipped to 4.1 last season.

Running back: Darren Sproles, Saints. I’m going with two running backs because it’s my team and I can make the rules. I’m also going with two running backs because Sproles deserves to be on this team. We knew this guy was a decent player in his San Diego days. But the Saints have put him in positions where he’s been great.

Fullback: Ovie Mughelli, Falcons. Yes, Mughelli’s done for the season with an injury. But, before that happened, he was clearly the best fullback in the NFC South. He provided excellent blocking for Turner and also was a bit of a threat as a receiver.

Quarterback: Drew Brees, Saints. He’s on pace for more than 5,000 passing yards and he clearly has been helped by the arrival of Sproles, a player Brees helped recruit. His 11 interceptions are a bit troubling, but you’re going to have some turnovers when you throw as often as the Saints.

NFC South Stock Watch

November, 1, 2011
11/01/11
1:00
PM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. The New Orleans offensive line. Drew Brees was sacked six times and the running game never got going in Sunday’s loss to St. Louis. Right tackle Charles Brown struggled mightily and it’s likely he’ll be back on the bench soon because Zach Strief is coming back from injury. But the problems weren’t all due to Brown. New Orleans has some highly regarded players across the rest of the line, but none of them played well Sunday. Guard Carl Nicks had a bad game and fellow guard Jahri Evans also appeared off. Jermon Bushrod has developed into a dependable left tackle, but he wasn’t dependable against the Rams.

2. Jonathan Vilma, Saints linebacker. He has been one of the top players in the NFC South the past few years. But Vilma doesn’t look the same this year. Part of it might be because of a knee injury that’s been bothering him all season. Against the Rams, I saw Vilma miss a couple of tackles he never would have missed a few years ago.

3. Olindo Mare, Panthers kicker. Carolina cut veteran and fan favorite John Kasay to make room for Mare, who landed a huge contract. Mare has kicked well most of the season. But he missed a 31-yard field-goal attempt that would have sent Sunday’s game with Minnesota into overtime. Yeah, Kasay was old and couldn’t kick off, but I don’t recall Kasay ever missing very many 31-yard kicks.

RISING

[+] EnlargeTampa Bay Buccaneers running back Kregg Lumpkin
Fernando Medina-US PRESSWIRETampa Bay Buccaneers running back Kregg Lumpkin is about to have an increased role.
1. Kregg Lumpkin, Buccaneers running back. He’s 27, but this reserve has all of 14 career carries and has never scored an NFL touchdown. Ready or not, Lumpkin’s about to get an increased role. With Earnest Graham lost for the season to injury, Lumpkin is going to be the top backup to LeGarrette Blount. He also is likely to be used as the third-down back. The Tampa Bay coaches are high on Lumpkin and they better be right because he’s only a Blount injury away from being the feature back.

2. Jason Snelling, Falcons running back. Fullback Ovie Mughelli has been lost for the season with a knee injury. The Falcons did sign Mike Cox and he could be used as the lead blocker for Michael Turner at times. Snelling is the top backup to Turner at tailback, but he has filled in at fullback from time to time. Don’t be surprised if the Falcons decide to let Snelling and Cox share the duties at fullback. At 237 pounds, Snelling might be a little light for a fullback. But he’s a good blocker and his ability to run and catch passes could add a new dimension to Atlanta’s offense if he’s playing fullback.

3. Julio Jones, Falcons receiver. The rookie was off to a pretty good start before missing the past two games with a hamstring injury. The bye week helped Jones get healthy and he returned to practice Monday. I’m expecting a big second half of the season from Jones. Remember, he was thrown right into the starting lineup and didn’t have a true offseason because of the lockout. He seemed to catch on pretty quickly, but this little break has given Jones a little time to really process everything.

Thoughtful side of Roddy White

October, 31, 2011
10/31/11
4:16
PM ET
As most of you know, Atlanta receiver Roddy White has a tendency to be outspoken. Sometimes, it’s in a playful way. Sometimes, White can be controversial.

But there’s another side to White that isn’t always seen. That’s the thoughtful side. It surfaced Monday when White was talking about the season-ending knee injury to teammate Ovie Mughelli that happened in a victory against Detroit.

White told John Manasso that he thinks the NFL should outlaw the type of hit that caused Mughelli’s injury. Mughelli was looking back at quarterback Matt Ryan on a pass play when he was hit from the side and behind by safety Louis Delmas.

"Once you see it, once he caught the ball, he couldn't really get around and the guy kind of cut him on his knees," White said. "That's kind of, that's bad. The NFL's got to make a rule or something on that. Those guys going into the flat and they can't see and getting your knees cut from under you like that. It's tough, especially when you're playing on turf and you're planted into the ground and you get hit like that."

White got into a war of words with Detroit defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril in the days after the game. White and center Todd McClure said Suh and Avril were making comments and gestures, which they thought were in appropriate, while Ryan was down on the ground with an injury.

But White wasn't looking to continue the war on this issue. He refused to say Delmas made a dirty play.

"Not really a dirty play because everybody does that week in week out in the NFL, it's just if you happen to get caught or not," White said.

Mughelli: Suh was out of line

October, 30, 2011
10/30/11
10:30
AM ET
It’s been a full week now since the Atlanta Falcons beat the Detroit Lions in a game that involved a lot of accusations after the fact.

If you were hoping that was over, it’s not. Although he suffered a season-ending injury in that game, Atlanta fullback Ovie Mughelli still is writing a weekly diary for his hometown newspaper in South Carolina.

Mughelli said he didn’t see and hear everything, but backed up previous claims by center Todd McClure and receiver Roddy White that the Lions were taunting quarterback Matt Ryan while he was down with an injury.

“One guy in particular, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was the one giving Matt the hardest time,’’ Mughelli wrote. “Don't get me wrong we were talking right back to the Lions, but to question a guy's injury after you've nearly ripped his head off is ridiculous.’’

Mughelli also went into specifics about the knee injury that he suffered late in the game. The good news is that he did not tear his ACL.

“An MCL injury is quicker to overcome than an ACL, so I have no doubt that I'll be as good or better for the 2012 season,’’ Mughelli said. “There was no damage to the bone, so it could have been worse.’’
Michael TurnerKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMichael Turner averaged 5.4 yards a carry as he finished with 21 carries and a score.
ATLANTA -- Talk all you want about how the Atlanta Falcons should go to the no-huddle offense or how they should throw down the field more often.

There may be some truth to both theories. But when it comes to the real core of the Atlanta offense, there’s one thing you need to keep in mind. Don’t ever forget that the real backbone of this offense is Michael Turner and the running game.

If you want proof, just look at a couple of crucial plays in the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s 35-31 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Georgia Dome.

Although there was a lot of hype about quarterbacks Michael Vick and Matt Ryan going head to head for the first time, they didn’t decide the game. Turner might have been the guy who did that.

With Philadelphia leading 31-28 with seven minutes and 54 seconds remaining and Atlanta holding the ball at its 13-yard line, Turner broke off a 61-yard run. Five plays later he plunged in for a 3-yard touchdown to give the Falcons the lead for good.

“Matt might like to think we’re a passing team and [receiver] Roddy [White] will definitely tell you we’re a passing team,’’ fullback Ovie Mughelli said. “But Michael and I will tell you we’re a running team and tonight shows that. Really, they go hand in hand. You’ve got to be able to run and you’ve got to be able to pass. Call us either one, but call us a happy team because we were a winning team tonight.’’

Vick left the game with a concussion in the third quarter and didn’t return. Ryan, whose performance was rocky at times earlier in the game, took control once the Falcons went to the no-huddle offense in the fourth quarter after falling behind 31-21. Ryan finished with a career-best four touchdown passes, but the Falcons wouldn’t have won this game without Turner.

His long run put Philadelphia’s defense, which spent a fortune on free agents in the offseason, on its heels. His touchdown also was the difference on the scoreboard.

Turner carried 21 times for 114 yards. It marked the 21st time since he joined the Falcons in 2008 that Turner has rushed for 100 or more yards.

“That’s one of the top defensive lines in the league,’’ Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We just kept scratching where we were going and we finally busted one open.’’

The long run came on a trap play and Smith’s right when he says the Falcons worked all night to set it up.

“I was a spectator on the sidelines for that play,’’ Mughelli said. “But the coaches were all saying, 'This could be the one. This could be the one where he breaks it.' We’d been looking at the photos of our plays all game long and you could just see that one was going to break open at some point. We were close on it a whole bunch of times. We’d just miss a block or two here and there. We finally put all those blocks together and Mike was able to break it.’’

Turner’s play came immediately after the Falcons had another of his runs wiped out by a holding penalty on Joe Hawley. The Falcons (1-1) were already in the no-huddle offense and it would have been easy to grow impatient and just abandon the running game. They could have just put the game in Ryan’s hands, but they didn’t.

That’s partly because Ryan calls the shots when the Falcons run the no-huddle offense and he liked what he saw.

“We got the look we wanted,’’ Ryan said. “That was a huge play in turning the field position and getting us on a roll.’’

It has often been suggested by fans and media that the Falcons should go with the no-huddle offense more often or maybe even all of the time. It also has been suggested that the Falcons should allow Ryan to throw downfield more often, especially now that he’s got rookie receiver Julio Jones to go with White.

But there weren’t a lot of downfield passes to those two against the Eagles, who have cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Asante Samuel. White had three catches for 23 yards and a touchdown. Jones had two catches for 29 yards.

Yeah, things seemed to go a little better once the Falcons went to the no-huddle offense, but offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey isn’t going to be out of a job anytime soon.

“No, no, no, no,’’ Ryan said when asked if he should call the plays from now on. “Mike does a great job for us and that’s for sure.’’

Ryan finished with only 195 total passing yards while completing 17 of 28 passes. His main target was tight end Tony Gonzalez. At this stage of his career, Gonzalez isn’t really a downfield threat. He caught seven passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns, including a spectacular one-handed grab in the back of the end zone.

There will be times this season when the Falcons aren’t playing two marquee cornerbacks or aren’t playing against a Cover 2 defense like Chicago’s in a season-opening loss. In those situations, the Falcons may finally get to the downfield passing they’ve talked so much about.

There might be some other games where they go with the no-huddle offense earlier if they think it will help with tempo and matchups. This offense is a work in progress and things will go back and forth throughout the season.

But one thing will always hold true. Turner and the running game need to be at the heart of things if this offense is going to thrive.

The Associated Press 2010 All-Pro Team is out and I can’t say the NFC South is well represented.

Only three players from the division made the first team. Atlanta receiver Roddy White and New Orleans guard Jahri Evans made the offensive unit and Atlanta defensive end John Abraham is the only representative on the first-team defense.

The numbers are only slightly better on the second team. On offense, Atlanta running back Michael Turner and fullback Ovie Mughelli are joined by New Orleans guard Carl Nicks.

On defense, there is a quirk. It comes at safety and it involves two New Orleans players. There are nine safeties listed on the second team due to a tie in the voting. New Orleans’ Malcolm Jenkins and Darren Sharper are among those safeties.

Jenkins had a breakout season and belongs on this team. Sharper has had a wonderful career and might land in the Hall of Fame. But he was out with an injury for a big chunk of the 2010 season and didn’t do all that much when he did play. In this case, Sharper made the team on reputation.

In one other voting quirk, there is no quarterback for the second-team offense. That’s because New England’s Tom Brady got every vote. I think you could make a case for New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan or Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman for this spot.

Falcons staff will coach NFC in Pro Bowl

January, 16, 2011
1/16/11
1:28
AM ET
ATLANTA -- Mike Smith and the Falcons coaching staff will handle the NFC squad in the Pro Bowl.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff confirmed that after Saturday night’s playoff loss to Green Bay. Although the staff of the losing team in each conference’s championship game drew the honor of coaching in the Pro Bowl for many years, the NFL changed the rules last year. That’s due to the fact that the Pro Bowl was moved up to the week before the Super Bowl, instead of the week after it. The new rule is that the coaching staff of the teams with the best regular-season record of the teams that lose in the divisional round in each conference are assigned to coach the Pro Bowl squads.

The league decided that time frame wouldn’t allow coaching staffs in the conference championship games enough time to get to the Pro Bowl site and prepare a team for the all-star game. This year’s Pro Bowl is in Honolulu.

Atlanta’s staff will be joined by at least seven players from the Falcons. Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Eric Weems, John Abraham and Ovie Mughelli all were selected to the Pro Bowl. There also is the chance several other Falcons could be added as alternates.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider