NFL Nation: Ron Meeks
McCoy and Milus worked together in Denver. Milus’ contract was not extended a few days after Denver safety Rahim Moore inexplicably allowed Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones to get behind him on a 70-yard Ravens’ pass play that allowed Baltimore to tie Denver in the final seconds of regulation in the Ravens’ win Jan. 12.
The Broncos have maintained that Milus would likely not have been brought back anyway. McCoy didn’t keep San Diego defensive backs coach Ron Meeks.
In other AFC West news:
Peyton Manning asked his Pro Bowl teammates to give an honest effort Sunday to help save the game. Last season, many players noticeably gave a lacking effort in the game. Manning has long talked about the honor in being a Pro Bowler and the importance of playing in the game. His speech doesn’t shock me.
Former Raiders’ linebacker Rod Martin is part of a great ESPN.com piece on the Lost Heroes of the Super Bowl.
The Bears’ website reports that the Raiders have decided not to interview Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice for their head-coaching job. It reports the Raiders are concentrating on a second interview with Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. It is not known if anyone else will get a second interview. ESPN’s Adam Schefter has reported that Philadelphia offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg may be a favorite.
This news signals the Raiders want to wrap up the process and it likely means new Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie believes he has already talked to the man he wants to hire.
If Allen does get the job, Denver will be looking for its seventh defensive coordinator in seven years.
In other AFC West news:
The San Diego Union-Tribune reports former Panthers secondary coach Ron Meeks is expected to be hired for the same job with the Chargers. Meanwhile, Chargers special-teams coach Rich Bisaccia is no longer in the mix for the same job with the Tennessee Volunteers. That’s a good thing for the Chargers. Their special-teams play improved under Bisaccia in 2011.
The Bears announced Chiefs college scouting director Phil Emery is one of two finalists for their general manager job. There was a report earlier Monday that said he has been offered the job, but the Bears denied it.
If Childress is on the Colts’ list, Jackson – who was fired last week after one year at the helm in Oakland – should be, too.
Jackson wasn’t fired in Oakland because he can’t coach. I think Jackson, 46, is one of the bright, young offensive coaching minds in the league. His work with Oakland’s offense the past two years shows how capable a coach he is.
His problem in Oakland was that he took on too much power after the death of owner Al Davis — and that he talked too much. But those are issues he can quickly resolve. The Colts have a strong power structure in which Jackson would simply be asked to coach. And whether the Colts’ quarterback in 2012 is Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning, Jackson would be a good leader for either.
Jackson is a candidate to be the offensive coordinator in St. Louis. If he gets that job and the Rams offense rebounds in 2012, Jackson will likely be a hot head-coaching candidate next year. Still, if the Colts are looking at a retread like Childress, they might as well take a gander at Jackson, who’d still be the head coach in Oakland under the right circumstances.
In other AFC West news:
The San Diego Union Tribune is reporting that former Carolina secondary coach Ron Meeks has been offered the Chargers’ secondary coaching job and he is expected to decide by the end of the weekend. Meeks would replace Steve Wilks — who went to Carolina to work for former Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who is now Carolina’s head coach.
The Raiders denied a report that new Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie has hired former Raider Sean Jones as assistant general manager. The team's search for a new head coach continues, meanwhile; Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was reportedly set to interview Friday.
The new coach in Miami could further increase the chances of Dolphins offensive coordinator Brian Daboll ending up in that role with Kansas City. Daboll worked in New England with new Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that Mike McCoy will remain the Broncos’ offensive coordinator. He was also getting interest in Kansas City and in Cleveland.
This move makes complete sense for Denver. McCoy worked for new Denver coach John Fox in Carolina prior to coming to Denver and working for former Denver head coach Josh McDaniels.
The biggest personnel question in Denver is the future of quarterback Tim Tebow. Fox is a defensive specialist, so he’ll need to have a coach who believes he can develop Tebow.
The fact that McCoy decided to stay in Denver rather than go to the Chiefs or the Browns is an indication that he believes he can make it work with Tebow. McCoy called plays after McDaniels was fired, and Tebow made strides when he started in the final three games of the season under McCoy’s guidance.
This continuity will only help Tebow moving forward.
Names that have surfaced for Denver’s defensive coordinator include Ron Meeks, Sal Sunseri and former Atlanta and Seattle coach Jim Mora.
Meanwhile, Kansas City will have to adjust its offensive coordinator search now that McCoy is staying in Denver. Other names that have been mentioned to replace Charlie Weis, who is now the offensive coordinator at the University of Florida, include Tampa Bay’s Greg Olson (who is under contract there and who could be difficult to hire), Arizona’s Mike Miller and Kansas City assistants Maurice Carthon and Nick Sirianni.
- If Mike McCoy -- who worked for Fox in Carolina -- stays on as offensive coordinator, the Chiefs will have to move on to other candidates. It has been reported McCoy was a favorite to replace Charlie Weis.
- Jim Skipper could also join the Denver staff. He was Fox’s assistant head coach/ running backs coach in Carolina.
- A couple of defensive coordinator candidates are Ron Meeks and Sal Sunseri. They both have strong histories with Fox.
- Fox is a 4-3 coach and he is expected to run that defensive alignment in Denver, although he hasn't committed to it. He can also run a 3-4. The Broncos ran a 3-4 defense the past two years under Josh McDaniels. If Fox sticks to the 4-3, it will be interesting to see what Fox does with linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who missed the entire 2010 season with a pectoral injury he suffered in training camp. Dumervil signed a long-term contract earlier in the summer.
- Dumervil flourished in the 3-4 in 2008 when he led the NFL with 17 sacks. Dumervil also had some success in the 4-3 defense used by Mike Shanahan. The key for Fox will be to figure ways to keep Dumervil on the field as much as possible and not compromise the defense in run situations.
- I wouldn’t be surprised if Fox pushes to keep free-agent cornerback Champ Bailey. Fox loves veterans and I’m sure he’d like to move forward with the star cornerback on the team.
- Ironically, Fox is represented by Bob Lamonte, who also represents Josh McDaniels. The Broncos and Lamonte worked on a settlement for McDaniels recently.
It’s a bigger story for Williamson than for us, but it still is a big deal in the NFC South world. After all, Fox spent nine years coaching the Carolina Panthers and was the dean of NFC South coaches -- a title now held by New Orleans’ Sean Payton.
I think Denver fans should be excited by this move. Yeah, I know Fox went 2-14 in his final season with the Panthers, but I still think he was the best candidate on the market. Say what you want about the end of Fox’s tenure in Carolina.
But the guy did a good job for a long time. His message might have gotten stale in the later years and his relationship with ownership deteriorated. But Fox can flat-out coach and he’ll bring some instant energy to the Broncos.
Fox needs to take a couple of lessons from his early Carolina days to make things work in Denver. First, he needs to go out and get a top-notch offensive coordinator and Fox might want to give that guy a little more flexibility than he ever gave Dan Henning or Jeff Davidson.
As soon as he hires a coordinator, Fox needs to decide on a quarterback. It doesn’t matter if it’s Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow. Let the coordinator and whoever the quarterbacks coach is handle the quarterback.
The best thing Fox can do is focus on the defense and the overall running of the team and keep his hands off the offense.
By the way, Fox already is in the process of filling his coaching staff. That could mean he'll bring in some guys who were with him in Carolina. I'd keep an eye on running backs coach Jim Skipper and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks.
Here’s my best guess:
As soon as the season ends, though, Fox will be gone. His contract is up after the season and he’s not getting a new one with the Panthers. The rest of the coaching staff will go as well, although there might be an assistant or two that gets to stick around. But don’t look for the Panthers to turn to defensive coordinator Ron Meeks or offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson as their next head coach.
Like it or not, general manager Marty Hurney probably will stay. At one point, Fox and Hurney were viewed as a package deal, but it hasn’t been that way for several years. Hurney remains in Richardson’s good graces, and he and team president Danny Morrison, who runs the business side, will probably be the ones conducting the search for the next head coach.
Don’t get your hopes too high on big names. If Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden or Tony Dungy want to coach, it will be elsewhere. With the labor situation likely to still be unsolved, Richardson is not going to pay the kind of money one of the big names would command.
He was burned by that once before when he hired George Seifert. Besides, a big-name coach isn’t necessarily what the Panthers need right now. They’ve got a fan base that’s not very happy and they need a coach who will bring in fresh air and also be a bit of a cheerleader.
What they need is a guy like Fox was in 2002. Back in those days, Fox would grab the microphone at training camp and talk to the fans. He was part cheerleader and part coach.
Somewhere along the way, probably right after the Panthers went to the Super Bowl in the 2003 season, Fox started frowning on doing anything but coaching. His contract called for certain public duties and Fox did them, but he did them reluctantly and it was noticed.
When Hurney, Morrison and Richardson look for the next guy, they’ll look for someone who is willing to be a salesman as well as a coach. But will they go the total anti-Fox route?
That would mean going with an offensive-minded coach, something the Panthers never have had. That choice probably will be up to Hurney, and it will be interesting to see if he’s willing to go that route.
Part of the reason for Fox’s downfall is that he never was willing to change, never was willing to adapt. Hurney might be wise to keep that in mind.
The general manager has a full-blown youth movement on his hands. But, as he sat in Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, Hurney at least got to see the upside of a youth movement. He saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are flourishing after getting rid of almost all their veterans following the 2009 season. The Bucs are 6-3, mainly because they’ve put their total trust in quarterback Josh Freeman, and coach Raheem Morris has fully embraced the youth movement.
Keep in mind, Hurney is the guy that drafted quarterback Jimmy Clausen this year. Just a hunch here, but I’m thinking the guy who ultimately gets the Carolina job is the guy who says the magic words to Hurney – “I can turn Jimmy Clausen into a good NFL quarterback.’’
Who is that guy?
I don’t think anyone’s been identified by the Panthers just yet. But Hurney has old ties to Arizona assistant head coach Russ Grimm. Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy used to be Carolina’s quarterbacks coach and is respected within the organization. Kansas City offensive coordinator Charlie Weis coached Clausen at Notre Dame.
There are other rising stars out there like New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Or let’s really step off the charts here; what about Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Greg Olson?
Look at what he’s done with Freeman in a very short period of time. And look at that clear-out route he ran for a touchdown pass to rookie Arrelious Benn on Sunday. I think it’s safe to bet the current Panthers don’t even have a play like that in their playbook.
Speaking of that playbook, Hurney, Morrison and Richardson need to rip it up. Sometimes the best way to go is in the exact opposite direction. Fox was a good coach in Carolina for a relatively long time. But his system and his methods got stale because he never adjusted.
The Panthers need more than a coaching change. They need a change in mindset.
1. Geniuses from New Orleans. I’ve been guilty of it too, but I think the media in general gets carried away with labeling coaches as “geniuses’’ or “gurus’’ like we did with Sean Payton and Gregg Williams last season. They might have been somewhat close to deserving those tags last season, but this season is proving that they’re just football coaches. I still think both are good at what they do, but when you go up against an undrafted rookie quarterback (Max Hall) and you’ve got Drew Brees and you lose, nobody’s going to call you a genius.
2. Jeff Davidson, offensive coordinator, Panthers. I’m the first to put the blame for the unimaginative offense on head coach John Fox. But don’t all the fans who tried to run Dan Henning out of town a few years ago feel just a tad guilty about that now? And what about that supposed “passing camp’’ the Panthers had in the offseason, where the entire passing game was going to be overhauled? Well, maybe they should have used the word “demolished’’ instead of overhauled. If Fox doesn’t make it through the rest of the season, and that’s looking possible, Davidson’s way behind defensive coordinator Ron Meeks on the list to take over as the interim coach.
3. Perceptions that Reggie Bush is a bust. Since the New Orleans running back fractured his leg, the Saints have lost two of three games. Suddenly, the Saints can’t run the ball and they can’t pass it nearly as well as they used to. Yeah, I know there’s a school of thought that Bush is nothing more than a role player. But it’s becoming pretty clear that his role is to confuse defenses and make everyone around him better. The Saints are suffering without that.
2. Redemption songs in the Tampa Bay secondary. Cody Grimm, Sabby Piscitelli and Aqib Talib have seen hard times in the past. Grimm got toasted by Pittsburgh in his debut, Piscitelli took more than his share of the blame for last year’s disaster and Talib was suspended for the first game for an off-field incident. But each of those three guys came up with an interception Sunday and Piscitelli’s pick set up the game-winning field goal.
3. Micheal Spurlock, receiver, Buccaneers. This little guy is showing signs he might be more than just a return man. After Piscitelli’s interception, Spurlock made a great catch on a great throw by Josh Freeman. He kept both feet in bounds long enough and the play allowed the Bucs to kick a game-winning field goal.
We looked at the defensive ends on Monday and saw that the list was topped by Will Smith and an aging John Abraham, and filled out with a bunch of prospects and role players. We’re looking at defensive tackles today and the pickings might be even more slender.
- Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons. This one was easy. Babineaux is by no means an All-Pro, but he’s proven over time he’s a very solid defensive tackle, which might make him the only one in the division. Babineaux should be helped by having Peria Jerry and Corey Peters joining the rotation this year. Last season, Babineaux led the Falcons with 6 sacks.[+] EnlargeDale Zanine/US PresswireJonathan Babineaux had 47 tackles, including six sacks for the Falcons last season.
- Sedrick Ellis, Saints. No, he hasn’t dominated like a lot of people thought he would coming into the league two years ago. But the main reasons for that have been injuries. When he’s healthy, Ellis isn’t far from the same level as Babineaux, and, eventually, could turn out to be better.
- Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers. Yep, I’m going with a rookie this high. Part of it is because there’s not a lot to choose from. But part of it is because I think McCoy’s going to be really good right from the start. Don’t be surprised if he’s at the top of this list a year from now. I’ve had two general managers from other teams with early picks that they had McCoy ranked ahead of Ndamukong Suh, who went one pick ahead of McCoy to Detroit.
- Anthony Hargrove, Saints. Like a lot of NFL teams, the Saints rotate their defensive tackles a lot and Hargrove technically might not be a starter. But Hargrove’s going to play a lot. He straightened his life around as he joined the Saints last year and it looks like the arrow continues to point up on this guy.
- Peria Jerry, Falcons. We’ll see if this one ends up being a reach or not. There are big questions about Jerry’s health as he comes back from a major knee injury that sidelined him for most of his rookie year. But the guy was a first-round pick. The Falcons are going to rotate their tackles heavily and may be a little cautious with Jerry at first, but they’re hoping he can emerge as a force as the season goes on.
- Roy Miller, Buccaneers. McCoy and second-round pick Brian Price are getting all the attention, but Miller’s another young defensive tackle the Bucs are expecting big things from. He’ll probably start next to McCoy. Miller’s not the kind of guy who will put up big stats, but he’s a “plugger’’ and should be a big boast for the run defense.
- Brian Price, Buccaneers. He’s more explosive than Miller and although McCoy’s been drawing all the comparisons to Warren Sapp, Price is the guy that actually is built like Sapp, and, theoretically, should be able to play like Sapp did. But a preseason injury set back Price just enough to probably keep him out of the starting lineup. That doesn’t really matter. He’ll rotate in a lot.
- Corey Peters, Falcons. If Jerry’s not healthy, the Falcons are going to have to rely on Peters a lot. Either way, Peters will have a prominent role in the rotation. He showed more polish in camp than the Falcons expected from a third-round choice.
- Louis Leonard, Panthers. His health remains a question. But, if Leonard is on the field, he’s the best defensive tackle the Panthers have.
- Remi Ayodele, Saints. Yeah, I know this guy started 13 games for the Super Bowl champions last year and he could start again. But Ayodele is more role player than anything else. He’s all right against the run, but doesn’t bring anything special to the table.
- Ed Johnson, Panthers. If he keeps dropping weight like he has throughout the preseason, Johnson probably will end up starting or getting significant playing time. The Panthers took a chance on this guy because he played under defensive coordinator Ron Meeks with the Colts before running into some trouble. But Johnson appears to be getting his career back on track.
- Trey Lewis, Falcons. Again, much will depend on Jerry’s health. But with Babineaux suspended for the first game, Lewis might have some role in a rotation.
It started right at the very top because this division has two linebackers I’d put up against anybody. Everyone knows Jonathan Vilma and Jon Beason are absolutely great. But how the heck do you pick between the two? I don’t want to overdramatize this, but my gut said this was like picking between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson or Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. You make a call, but there’s a part of you that feels like you’re slighting the other guy.
For all of these rankings, I rely on conversations with coaches, personnel guys and players to make my decision. When it came down to making the call between Beason and Vilma, I reached for the phone and made even more calls. The sources are anonymous, but I called some high-ranking people that I trust most on this one and they also were torn.
I took what they said, processed it and analyzed it and came to the decision that ultimately was mine. Here it is:
- Jon Beason, Panthers. What it really came down to was this: I viewed Beason and Vilma as equals in virtually every sense based on the past. These rankings are based to some degree on projections for the 2010 season and that’s where I saw a slight edge emerge. Beason is moving from middle linebacker to the weak side and that’s very significant because coordinator Ron Meeks runs a Tampa Two defense. In that scheme, the weakside linebacker takes on huge importance. Think of Derrick Brooks in the Tampa Bay glory days. Beason might not have the supporting cast around him that Brooks did, but he’s going to have a chance to make more tackles and more big plays than he did in the middle.
- Jonathan Vilma, Saints. You couldn’t ask for a more complete middle linebacker and that’s a very important spot in New Orleans’ scheme. I don’t know that there’s a smarter defensive player in the division. Vilma also is a fantastic leader. Not sure if this works as a consolation prize for Vilma, but I’ll say something I never thought I would. As someone who was born and raised hearing and seeing Penn State called Linebacker U., I’ll admit Beason and Vilma have forced me to give the nod to Miami -- at least for the moment.
- Curtis Lofton, Falcons. This guy makes me worry that I’ll be trying to sort out a three-way race at this time next year. Lofton had a very good rookie year, got better in his second year and everybody I talk to believes he’s ready to step to the elite level this year. Much like Vilma, he’s a middle linebacker that can do it all.
- Geno Hayes, Buccaneers. This may come as a shock to some Tampa Bay fans who believe Barrett Ruud is the Buccaneers best linebacker. That’s no knock on Ruud and we’ll come to him very soon. But the people around One Buccaneer Place keep singing Hayes’ praises and they’re all saying he’s poised for a breakout season. Hayes is going to be an every-down linebacker. Now that the Bucs are back to playing the Tampa Two scheme, Hayes should be in position to make a lot of big plays.
- Barrett Ruud, Buccaneers. Ruud does what he’s supposed to do in this system. He makes tackles and he should make more this year because the Bucs did him a favor by putting so much emphasis on adding defensive tackles early in the draft. Ruud’s been wanting a contract extension for some time and it hasn’t happened. If he goes out and makes some big plays and shows he’s the leader of the defense, he might get his wish. But the middle linebacker in the true Tampa Two isn’t the most important guy on the field.
- Dan Connor, Panthers. Before you go bringing up the Penn State angle, you should know this. Two of my panelists urged me to put Connor ahead of Ruud. I went against them because Ruud has a track record and Connor really doesn’t. The Panthers are throwing him into the middle and we’ll see how he does. But Carolina wouldn’t have moved Beason to the weak side to take the spot of the injured Thomas Davis (he'd be high on this list if he were playing) unless the coaching staff had a lot of faith in Connor.
- Jonathan Casillas, Saints. This is a bit of a leap, but I saw very good things out of Casillas in training camp and early in the preseason. He moves well and he tackles well and I don’t think the Saints are going to miss Scott Fujita all that much. It also won’t hurt Casillas that he’ll be lining up next to Vilma.
- Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons. He’s a rookie, but he’s incredibly talented. The Falcons say he can play the strong side or the weak side equally well. My guess is Weatherspoon ends up starting on the strong side and making an immediate contribution.
- Mike Peterson, Falcons. He’s a question mark as he nears the end of his career. But the Falcons believe Peterson has at least a year in him. Their sudden depth at linebacker might cut into his versatility.
- Stephen Nicholas, Falcons. He started last year and was average. With Nicholas and Coy Wire, the Falcons think they have quality linebacker depth. If Nicholas ends up starting again, the Falcons wouldn’t be all that upset.
- James Anderson, Panthers. He’ll get the first shot at the starting job on the strong side. Anderson’s been a quality backup and special-teams player and we’ll find out if he can do more than that.
- Quincy Black, Buccaneers. The Bucs have been praising Black just as much as Hayes. But there’s one difference. Hayes will stay on the field with Ruud when the Bucs go to their nickel package.
- Scott Shanle, Saints. A very dependable veteran and he helped the Saints win the Super Bowl last season. But Shanle’s skills as a run defender might be starting to erode.
- Jamar Williams, Panthers. While Anderson will open as the starter on the strong side, he hasn’t really distanced himself from Williams. If Anderson stumbles at all, the Panthers won’t hesitate to start Williams.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In the kindest of terms, fans and media are referring to the Carolina Panthers as a team in a youth movement.
There’s some basis for that as they opened camp with the league’s third-youngest roster after saying farewell to popular veterans such as Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme and Brad Hoover.
In the harshest of terms, fans and media have referred to those departures as a “bloodletting’’ and are talking about the Panthers as a team without an identity, a team that’s not going to be very good.
Now, let’s turn to two guys who beg to differ.
“How do you say we’re going through a youth movement, when we beat those teams late in the season using the same key components?’’ running back DeAngelo Williams said. “People can say what they want to say. But we know what it takes to win and we have what it takes to win.’’
“The way I look at it is, I like our core guys,’’ linebacker Jon Beason said. “I think we have a great nucleus. Now we’re looking for a few good men, a few young guys who are talented. For those young guys, it’s an opportunity to come in and do great things.’’
Maybe Beason and Williams have valid points. They’re two team leaders with a pretty good feel for the pulse of the locker room. They also have impressive résumés. Williams was one of two Carolina running backs (Jonathan Stewart was the other) to run for 1,100 yards last season. Scouts, coaches and players everywhere will tell you Beason is one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
Can you really call the Panthers a team without a face?
That’s kind of a difficult statement to make when you look at Carolina’s roster and see Beason and Williams. Then, keep looking and you see Stewart, left tackle Jordan Gross, center Ryan Kalil, right tackle Jeff Otah, receiver Steve Smith and cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall. Those are all guys the Panthers view as core players. Look around the league and see how many teams have that many core players in place.
“There are question marks, sure,’’ coach John Fox said. “Anytime you have question marks, the expectations on the outside might not be that high. But on the inside, we know we’ve got some very good core players and those core players are going to have to have big seasons.
THREE HOT ISSUES
Sure, that’s not the longest of track records and the Panthers did draft Jimmy Clausen in the second round. But this isn’t the Carolina camp of 2001, where the Panthers were kind of expecting Jeff Lewis to fail and to hand the job to rookie Chris Weinke.
Williams’ point about the youth movement taking place last year might be right. Moore won this job with his play down the stretch and, so far in camp, the team’s confidence in him is only growing.
“Matt Moore is a gamer,’’ Williams said. “When he mentally locks in, the game comes easy for him. All quarterbacks in the league are pretty much the same. They can all throw the ball or they wouldn’t be here. The thing that separates the good ones from the bad ones is decision making. Matt Moore can make decisions. Matt’s going to be fine.’’
Let’s keep one other thing in mind. With an excellent offensive line, two very good running backs and Smith at wide receiver, Moore has a pretty strong supporting cast. He doesn’t need to be Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. He just needs to keep mistakes to a minimum and the job can be his as long as he wants.
2. Can the defensive line be any good? For much of Fox’s tenure, the defensive line has been the foundation of the team. But Peppers was the last in a line of supernovas that used to include Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner. There are no current stars on this defensive front.
But Fox and the Panthers don’t appear to view that as a bad thing. They’re not expecting any single guy to come in and replace Peppers. They believe they can get quality out of quantity and are hoping the defensive front can attack in waves. They’ve got high hopes for Charles Johnson and Everette Brown, and rookies Eric Norwood and Greg Hardy have been very impressive in camp. They brought back Tyler Brayton for a bit of continuity, but they feel they’ve got some pass-rushers who can emerge.
They also have a better feeling about defensive tackles Louis Leonard, Tank Tyler and Ed Johnson than a lot of people realize. This might not be the traditional Fox defensive front with a huge run-stuffer in the middle and a big name on the outside. But, keep in mind, the Panthers brought in Ron Meeks as defensive coordinator last year and his system is based more on speed than power up front.
“We were eighth in the league in defense a year ago with a new scheme,’’ Fox said. “It’s kind of early to tell, but we should be better with our scheme the second time around.’’
He’s a confident guy with a pretty solid résumé. He’s not losing sleep because he knows he can get another job if it comes to that. But he wants to make it work in Carolina, a place where his family has set down roots. Keep in mind, Fox never has had a truly bad season. There have been some disappointing years, but the record’s always been close to or above .500. He’s sometimes stumbled a bit when expectations were high, but he always has done his best job when people weren’t counting on much out of the Panthers.
Greg Hardy. The defensive end was a sixth-round draft pick because his college career didn’t end all that well. But the Panthers took a shot because they thought there was uncommon physical talent sitting out there late in the draft. So far, they feel as if they might have hit a home run. Hardy has looked great in camp. Coaches are noticing him and so are other players. There were some questions about Hardy’s ability to focus on football at the pro level. But so far, so good on that end. Brayton, Johnson and Brown are competing for the starting jobs, but Hardy appears to be carving out some playing time.
Dwayne Jarrett. As they’ve been doing for his entire career, the Panthers are hoping the light suddenly comes on for this wide receiver. He’s still running with the first team, but all indications are it’s just not happening for Jarrett. There’s still some work to be done and polish to be added, but the Panthers are starting to think rookie Brandon LaFell is their best option at the starting position opposite Smith. Jarrett basically is fighting for a roster spot at this point. The fact he’s still making mental mistakes this far into his career means there’s a good chance he’s gone before the preseason is over.
- As mentioned above, the Panthers are singing Moore’s praises and that’s all very legitimate. But behind the scenes, the Panthers also are thrilled with what they’ve seen from Clausen. His physical skills and mechanics are as solid as expected and Clausen’s doing everything right on and off the field. There’s not a sense of urgency to play him because Moore has looked so solid. But the Panthers believe they got a steal when they took Clausen in the second round.
- There’s been a lot of hype about third-round draft pick Armanti Edwards. Understandable because he was a college quarterback and came from Appalachian State, which automatically makes him popular in the Carolinas. The Panthers aren’t disappointed with Edwards by any means, but the reality is he’s just feeling his way as a receiver and a return man. Don’t look for him to be a huge contributor instantly. There’s big upside here because Edwards is so dynamic and he might be in a few packages early on. But it’s going to take some time for him to become a staple in this offense.
- The Panthers let go of Keydrick Vincent, who played every snap at right guard last season, for a reason. He was older and they had Duke Robinson waiting in the wings. Coaches, players and the front office believe Robinson can be a punishing run-blocker. Put him on the right side with Otah and the Panthers believe that side of the line can be just as good as the left, where Gross and Travelle Wharton are outstanding.
- If you’re looking for a long shot to make the roster, I’ll throw out Trent Guy’s name. This is a tiny wide receiver, but every time I looked up during my visit to Wofford College, Guy seemed to be making a play. He’s got rare speed and good hands, and also could be a factor in the return game.
- Thomas Davis, who had major knee surgery in June, has been hanging around at camp and working hard at his rehab. The Panthers haven’t ruled out a possible return for him later this season, but I don't see that happening for a guy who has torn his ACL twice in less than a year. The Panthers wouldn’t have moved Beason from the middle to the weak side unless they thought he’d stay there for the long haul. At the moment, they’re happy with what they’ve seen from Dan Connor in the middle and James Anderson on the strong side. That better stay that way because, aside from Jamar Williams, there’s no real depth at linebacker.
- A lot of people have questioned why the Panthers would take Beason out of the middle where he’s been such a dominant player. The answer is simple. Under Meeks, the Panthers run the “Tampa 2’’ defense. In that scheme, everything goes through the Will linebacker. Think Derrick Brooks.
In Jacksonville …
Ernest Wilford got his money in Miami. When things didn’t work out for him there after a free-agent deal, he returned to Jacksonville for 2009, a receiver turned tight end who was second to Marcedes Lewis. Wilford played in 15 games, catching just 11 balls for 123 yards and a score.
Wilford’s not been talked about much this offseason. It’s second-year man Zach Miller, after all, who’s supposed to be this great piece for Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to use creatively.
But while Miller was banged up and missing work, it was Wilford who got a lot of featured time during offseason work. Wilford might be the big surprise among David Garrard's pass targets and tight ends.
“We think Zach can be that guy, we have high hopes for him,” Koetter said. “The guy that’s really shined bright in [organized team activities] in Zach’s absence is Ernest Wilford. Back in  when we did go to the playoffs, Ernest was our leading receiver. I think Ernest has been kind of reborn.
“He’s got all these reps. We’re excited about the role Zach can play. But I think Ernest Wilford probably made more big plays at OTAs than anybody out there.”
I imagine Sanders as a scary blitzer who will get his chances for shots at quarterbacks.
“I think he’d be pretty good at it,” Colts president Bill Polian said. “He’s not blitzed a lot. Almost none, because we weren’t a blitzing team in the old configuration. His explosiveness and speed are something that are really special. We’ve used him in special situations in the past where we’ve assigned him to a running back and he’s done a heck of a job with it. So there is no reason to believe he won’t be a good blitzer.”
Sanders sounded excited during summer workouts about the possibility of adding some sacks to his stats.
“I love it because it just expands my game and each safety around here, it gives us more opportunity to show what we can do and showcase our skills,” he said. “So we’re excited about it and look forward to getting better at it.”
In Houston …
With Rick Dennison taking over for Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator and Greg Knapp in place as quarterbacks coach, there is not a major transformation of the Texans’ offense in the works. But there are subtle changes we might notice.
Matt Schaub said his review of the 2009 season was helpful, as he and the two new coaches came to a consensus on how things developed. Dennison has roots with the same Denver system that bred Texans head coach Gary Kubiak and Shanahan (now with Washington), while Knapp worked with Schaub in Atlanta.
One key to Schaub’s great connection with Andre Johnson has been crossing routes. And one small change with the new coaches pertains to those.
Previously Schaub read progressions the same way regardless of the coverage.
“They came in and said, if we get man coverage let’s look at it this way and if we get zone let’s read it a different way,” Schaub said. “I think it’s really going to help us. There are only certain concepts that we do that on.
“But I think that will really help our game get even better to take advantage of some of the throws down the field rather than taking throws underneath when something could have opened up. Those can help us get bigger chunks of yardage.”
I’ve always thought that offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger was simply philosophically opposed to going deeper than three receivers on a Sunday if health allowed him to stick with his top three. Depth, though, always has been a Titans issue that fit neatly with the practice.
But in talking to him at the end of OTAs, I learned that reluctance to look to a fourth or even fifth receiver on a game day hasn’t been as much about rhythm as it has been about the fissure between the third and fourth guys.
Behind his top three of Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and Justin Gage, Heimerdinger now has Lavelle Hawkins, for whom the lights apparently have come on, as well as third-round pick Damian Williams, who’s likely to be working as a return man.
“Hawk’s got a good feel, he was actually coaching other guys. That was scary when I saw that,” Heimerdinger said with a laugh. “He’s gotten to the point now where I get on him about little things and he’ll do it right the very next time.”
If Hawkins can stay on course, look for him to get chances working out of the slot.
Smith provided a scouting report. Here it is:
I think arguably the NFC South is the toughest division and I think that has played out over the last five years. With the Saints as the defending Super Bowl champs, they have to go into the season as the favorite. Offensively, they’re very dynamic with Drew Brees and the weapons that he has like Reggie Bush and Jeremy Shockey, Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem. They’re a very powerful offense. Defensively, last year, they were probably the most opportunistic defense in the league. They do a great job of attacking the football and creating turnovers.
Carolina, every year, John [Fox] has that team playing well and playing hard. I think everything sets up around their two running backs. They’re going to run the ball and they’re always going to play strong defense with John and Ron Meeks. I played against Matt Moore when I was in Jacksonville one year and Jake was injured. I think he’s got a very good skill set. He’s got the height and the arm strong. He doesn’t have the experience yet, but I think he’s got a chance to be a very good quarterback.
In Tampa Bay, with Raheem [Morris] in Year 2, I think you’re really going to see big strides. I really like the big quarterback, Josh Freeman. He can not only throw the football, but he can run. He can extend a play. We played both our games with them in the second half of last season and I saw quite a bit of improvement, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They were really flying around and attacking the offense.’
And what about the Falcons? We’ll have more on them -- through the eyes of Smith, Arthur Blank and Thomas Dimitroff -- later today. I’ll be posting a column on the Falcons this afternoon.
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|New coach Jim Caldwell has made a number of changes and the Colts appear happy with the alterations.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
But Freeney is content with new coach Jim Caldwell's changes at defensive coordinator and special teams coach. The Colts' star defensive end surveys a landscape that no longer includes Ron Meeks and Russ Purnell and feels just fine.
"I think that's one thing people need to understand: We had a lot of success in the years with Meeks and Purnell and, yeah, we are changing personnel as far as those coaching positions are concerned. But change is not always a bad thing," he said. "If you look at the end result, and I'm not saying it was their fault, but we only achieved the end goal once even though we were very successful.
"And I'm not saying it was because of them. But there is always room for improvement. You never know -- you change things around, it brings new energy, it brings new fire. We could see some bigger things."
That energy was palpable early in camp from a team that overcame a lot to go 12-4 last year, then botched a big opportunity in a playoff game in San Diego.
The Colts have had a smooth transition because they anticipated the change and had Caldwell serve as associate head coach under Dungy. Caldwell removed Meeks and Purnell, replacing them with Larry Coyer and Ray Rychleski, respectively.
But the other key people in the organization who provide major stability are still in place -- Bill Polian is still the team president and Peyton Manning is still the quarterback.
Like Freeney, Polian believes some change can be a good thing.
"Sometimes that's good -- you hear a different voice, you hear a different approach, it gets the message across in a different manner," Polian said. "Both are excellent coaches, both are terrific guys.
"They're both organized and they're both good teachers, so I don't think there is any real change there. But maybe the way the lesson is taught might be a little bit different and it's probably, in the end, good."
1. Can the third-down defense get Manning the ball back?
The Colts tied for second worst in the league in third-down conversion rate, allowing teams to convert on third down 47.4 percent of the time. Bend-but-don't-break is going out of fashion under Coyer, according to many of his players. And with third down as a focus, they hope to get the offense back on the field and allow their best people to spend more time working.
Only six teams fared worse in time of possession than the Colts (28:39) last year. No matter how opponents try to play keep-away, getting Manning and the offense on the field more must be a priority.
2. Does Manning have the weapons and protection?
Reggie Wayne has been the de facto No. 1 receiver for a while already. And Anthony Gonzalez is primed for a great year in his third season, with a lot more opportunities to come. Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie were both impressive early in camp and appear primed to be steady contributors, and Donald Brown provided a second running back with dynamic possibilities.
The protection question may be a bigger conc
ern. Charlie Johnson has been inserted at left tackle. While he has been an effective fill-in, if he is the guy for 16 games, defensive ends named Mario Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch are going to find the holes in his game. Perhaps Tony Ugoh responds to the demotion and seizes the job back. Either way, could Manning have to worry more about getting hit from a blind side rusher than he has in the past?
3. Can special teams provide a boost?
Mediocre to poor special teams have been the norm for the Colts, and under Dungy there seemed to be a level of tacit acceptance. Enter Rychleski, a fiery and passionate special teams coach who Caldwell hired from South Carolina. As in many of the departments where the Colts ranked poorly in the past, just a moderate improvement can make a big difference.
The return games have been the worst element. T.J. Rushing is the leading candidate right now, but rookies Collie and Jerraud Powers could provide a boost. Another rookie, Pat McAfee is slated to be the new punter.
Working predominantly as the third receiver last season, Gonzalez had 664 receiving yards. Bumped up to No. 2, he should be poised to top 1,000 yards and improve on the four touchdown catches he totaled in 2008. He is typecast by too many as a slot guy, but in three wide receiver sets it appears more likely that Wayne or Collie will line up inside.
Gonzalez is a complete receiver who has established a great rapport with Manning -- so much so that Manning invited the receiver to serve as his caddy at a pro-am golf tournament in April.
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|The Colts are counting on Donald Brown to have a big impact in his rookie season.|
Newcomer to watch
While most analysts figured the Colts would look wide receiver or defensive tackle late in the first round, Polian spent the 27th pick in the draft on highly productive UConn running back Brown. An indictment of Joseph Addai? Perhaps. An upgrade over Dominic Rhodes? Absolutely.
The Colts' plans for Brown and their opinion of Addai after an off year in which he struggled with with knee trouble are both unclear. But Caldwell has made it clear he anticipates significant work for his top two backs. Brown was effective in his first preseason action, even as it came against a mix of second- and third-string Minnesota defenders. High draft picks on offense are expected to help right away and rookie running backs regularly plug in and excel. It's what Addai did in 2006 as the league's leading rookie rusher and it's what Brown may well do in the same offense.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri (hip) isn't expected back until the very end of the preseason. When he's kicking again, he will work intensively with McAfee, his new holder, to get their rhythm and timing down. ... If everyone is healthy in the secondary, work as the dime won't be sufficient for safety Melvin Bullitt. Expect the Colts to creatively find other ways to get him on the field regularly. His development likely means Antoine Bethea won't be re-signed when he becomes a free agent. ... Ryan Lilja is the best run blocker on the line and will also help Jeff Saturday provide an additional veteran influence on the younger players in the offensive line meeting room. ... While Harrison was locked in to lining up in the right, Reggie Wayne will move from the left into the slot, making him tougher to predict and defend. ... Curtis Painter's preseason play could determine his fate. The team doesn't intend for the rookie quarterback to be Manning's backup this season -- that's still Jim Sorgi's job. But injuries and numbers at other spots could impact their ability to keep three signal-callers. Ideally they would have Painter on the practice squad, but what if someone else wants to sign him away? ... Gijon Robinson can block and catch and qualifies as a starter. Buy the development of two second-year right ends could cut into his time. Jacob Tamme runs good routes and has good hands, qualifying as more of a pass catcher while he's emerging as a better blocker. Tom Santi can be a combination guy but has had health issues. ... Because the Colts added three big bodies to the defensive tackle mix -- veteran Ed Johnson and rookies Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor -- two guys who contributed in the interior last year could see far less action. Keyunta Dawson has been moved to end and Eric Foster could get caught in a numbers crunch. ... If Philip Wheeler and Clint Session lock in the outside linebacker spots, then Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler will give the Colts something they have not often had -- veteran linebackers available for a lot of special teams work. ... Dante Hughes looks to have fallen out of favor, which creates a lot of opportunity for Powers. ... Maybe I just caught him on a good couple days of practice, but receiver Taj Smith looks like a guy with real potential to develop. Look for him on the practice squad again.
|G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images|
|After recording 14.5 sacks last season, Julius Peppers said he wanted out of Carolina. The defensive end eventually agreed to play for the franchise tender.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The good news is the Carolina Panthers were 12-4 last year and return 20 of 22 starters.
"We don't have any reason to be bad," All-Pro offensive tackle Jordan Gross said.
The bad news is coming off a winning season has never led to good things for the Panthers. In their short existence (the franchise began play in 1995), the Panthers never have been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons. That's a fact that weighs heavily on the minds of owner Jerry Richardson, head coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney.
The Panthers have won big at times -- making the Super Bowl in the 2003 season and the NFC Championship Game in the 2005 season -- but they've also followed up with some massive flops. Take the 2006 season, when they were the trendy pick to win the Super Bowl after adding the supposed missing link (Keyshawn Johnson). Instead, with injuries and locker-room dysfunction playing big roles, they were one of the NFL's most disappointing teams.
Preventing that kind of downturn this year is a big theme in Carolina's camp. Like Gross said, there really is no reason for the Panthers to be bad. The only starters they're missing from last year are cornerback Ken Lucas, who was getting older and was released in a salary-cap move, and defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu, who went out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon on the first day of camp.
Other than that, the Panthers look a lot like the NFC South champions of last year.
"There's no doubt that back-to-back winning seasons is on the front burner for us this year," Hurney said. "We've always said we wanted to be consistently competitive and we have been. But the next step is to win in back-to-back years. We started this in '02 by saying we wanted to draft well, develop young players and keep your core players. That philosophy is probably more evident now than at any time since we started this in 2002. We were able to keep the core players we identified over the past year and, now, as a result, I think we need our young players to step up and fill those holes as far as backups and depth."
The Panthers have kept the nucleus of last year's team together, re-signing Gross to a huge new contract, extending the contract for quarterback Jake Delhomme and forcing defensive end Julius Peppers to play for the franchise tender. But those moves have come at a high cost.
With almost no salary-cap room, the Panthers didn't sign a single player in free agency and they watched as some key backups walked away. Depth is a question mark almost everywhere. Carolina has a very good starting lineup. But is that enough to give the Panthers back-to-back winning seasons?
"It starts with having enough depth to sustain," Hurney said. "Different things happened in different seasons in the past. But drafting well and having a young base is really important as far as staying ahead of the game and not having to go out in free agency and bring in guys a lot. If you draft well and bring those guys up, you have a continuity in there that should keep you competitive. Continuity is a result of bringing in the right guys from the start."
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