NFL Nation: Ryan Sims


Had Todd Haley remained the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, the selection of Dontari Poe may not have worked.

But the Chiefs are now Romeo Crennel’s team, and that’s why taking Poe at No. 11 in the NFL draft on Thursday might be a shrewd move for a team that has missed by taking defensive lineman high in the draft in the past decade.

Poe is a classic example of the long NFL draft process. He wasn’t considered a top pick when the massive Memphis defensive tackle entered the NFL draft. However, after he stole headlines at the NFL combine in February, he became a projected top-five pick. That happens when a 6-foot-3, 345-pound man runs a 4.98 40-yard dash and bench presses 225 pounds 44 times. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Poe is the only player over 330 pounds to run a sub-five second time since 2006.

However, after Poe put himself in the spotlight, teams closely dissected him and saw a player with immense ability that didn’t always show on the field against marginal competition. It was alarming and it still is.

“I’m still waiting for Poe to unleash the fury,” ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said moments after the Chiefs made him the pick.

This is what ESPN analyst Todd McShay had about Poe last week:

“I see the workout numbers, and I found myself wanting and waiting and wishing and hoping is what I keep saying. Every single play I watched from Memphis just hoping that he would make a big play. He will disrupt and he'll be involved in some plays, but for a guy that you're talking about potential top 10, top 12 pick, I just didn't see the production, and I just didn't see a guy who understands and has a great feel for the game, and that's not to say he won't develop, and he very well may, and one day he may be a junior Haloti Ngata. But Haloti Ngata coming out was a much better football player than Dontari Poe is right now, and that scares me, and that's why I've dropped him to where he is as the third best defensive tackle, somewhere in kind of the middle range … I've got him at 19 overall in the class.”

In the days leading up to the draft, there was talk that Poe’s lack of consistent game film would override his off-the-charts ability, and he’d be picked in the 20-25 range. However, the Chiefs took another swipe at a defensive lineman early in the draft. Bypassing a safe pick such as Stanford guard David DeCastro, the Chiefs went boom or bust with Poe.

[+] EnlargeDontari Poe
Brian Spurlock/US PRESSWIREDontari Poe became the only player over 330 pounds to run a sub-five second time at the combine, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
The decision to take Poe is understandable. The Chiefs, who had an outstanding free-agency period, do not have many holes. If Poe fills the nose tackle position as the team hopes he does, the Chiefs will be one of the most talented teams in the NFL and a real playoff threat. According to ESPN Stats and Information, last season Kansas City had one sack, two batted passes and three tackles for loss by its nose tackle -- and that was from the aging Kelly Gregg, a free agent.

The Chiefs hope to get better production out of Poe than they have from other defensive linemen they've taken in the first round of recent years. The team took Ryan Sims at No. 6 in the 2002 draft and he was a terrible bust. In 2008, they took defensive end Glenn Dorsey at No. 5 and in 2009 they took Tyson Jackson at No. 3. Both Dorsey and Jackson remain in Kansas City, but they have not been impact players.

Yet, they have improved in the past two years under Crennel, who became the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator in 2010 before taking over for Haley. I think Crennel is a key to the Poe pick.

Crennel is known as one of the best defensive line coaches in NFL history and he is known for getting questionable motors to start.

Poe may have a new best friend in Crennel. He is nurturer and he believes in his players. We saw the impact Crennel had on the entire Kansas City roster. The players loved the difference between the impatient and often caustic Haley and the calm, encouraging Crennel.

If think Crennel will motivate and teach Poe. Haley would have berated him and goaded him. I have a feeling Poe may respond more positively to Crennel’s approach. Crennel will teach him to become an NFL player and use his natural ability. Remember, this kid started high school as a drummer in the band. He is still raw.

Crennel has the patience and expertise to make Poe a good player and get the most out of this pick. If not, it will go down as another swing and miss on the defensive line in Kansas City.
McCoy/PriceKim Klement/US PresswireTampa Bay is hoping it has found an interior tandem in Brian Price (92) and Gerald McCoy (93).
There was a time in the early years of the NFC South when top-notch defensive tackles roamed and controlled the division.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s hard to say right now that a third-round draft pick is going to be a star. But if either or both of those players can allow linebacker Jon Beason to run free or make plays, Carolina’s defense instantly will be better than it has been in several seasons.
JaMarcus RussellBrett Davis/US PresswireThings have been looking up for the Raiders since releasing JaMarcus Russell a year ago.
It was exactly one year ago that the Oakland Raiders liberated themselves from the greatest draft bust in NFL history.

Happy anniversary, Raider Nation.

On May 6, 2010, the Raiders decided it was no longer worth keeping JaMarcus Russell around their organization. Thus, just more than three years after making him the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Oakland gave up on the talented but lackadaisical quarterback.

Russell, who was 24 at the time of his release, was 7-18 as a starter and made more than $39 million in guaranteed money. His questionable work ethic and general malaise were legendary. The only thing Russell accomplished in Oakland was taking Tony Mandarich and Ryan Leaf off the hook. Russell is the unquestioned biggest NFL draft bust of all time.

The events of the past year prove Oakland made the right decision. The Raiders are an improved, refreshed team without Russell, while he has made no positive strides toward resuming his NFL career. There have been significant developments that indicate Russell may never play in the NFL again.

“I don’t see it happening,” Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. said of a Russell comeback. “The guy has never shown he wants to work for it.”

Russell was unavailable for comment on this story.

Admitting the mistake allowed Oakland owner Al Davis and the rest of the organization to move on. No one in Oakland had to watch Russell slump around the facility and answer questions about his never-to-come development. In January, Davis acknowledged the pain of the Russell experience, but he was happy the team was moving forward.

[+] EnlargeJaMarcus Russell
John David Mercer/US PRESSWIREJaMarcus Russell was arrested for possesion of codeine syrup without a prescription but was not indicted. Still, no team has picked him up since his Raiders release.
“(He's) a good person but he's got personal problems, and I decided that it was time that we were not going to fight it anymore,” Davis said. “I wasn't going to. I wasn't going to ask the coaching staff to do it, and I had already traded for Jason and had that in the back of my mind. ... It hurt us a great deal. But you have to go on. ... JaMarcus hurt. Anytime you lose a first-round draft choice it hurts. But it's over. It's been a long time and we'll overcome it."

The recovery period began the day Russell was cut.

After winning a total of 14 games in the three seasons Russell was in Oakland, the Raiders went 8-8. Veteran quarterback Jason Campbell -- who was acquired less than two weeks before Russell was chopped -- started 12 games and gave the Raiders’ offense professionalism, preparation and leadership that was lacking under Russell.

“I think the simple fact that Russell was cut helped the Raiders improve,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. “It had to send a message to the team that the Raiders weren’t going to keep dead weight around just because he was a high draft pick. It showed the team that the Raiders were serious about winning and that they weren’t going to keep a liability around … It had to fire up that team and helped make them improve in 2010.”

Although Oakland has improved without Russell, the player himself has been unable to recover his career. Shortly before training camp, the New York Jets showed interest in Russell. Days later, however, Russell was arrested at his Mobile, Ala., home on charges of possession of codeine syrup without a valid prescription. In October, a grand jury declined to indict Russell.

In November, Russell worked out for both Washington and Miami. He was out of shape and unimpressive in both workouts. Russell weighed 282 pounds when Oakland cut him. He weighed significantly more during those workouts.

Russell has not had an NFL workout since. Don't expect teams to flock to him once the lockout is over. Russell is not even attracting interest from the minor league United Football League.

Last year, former Denver general manager and Omaha Nighthawks personnel man Ted Sundquist reached out to Russell as the team put him on its protected list. Sundquist said the word from Russell's camp was that he wanted to pursue an NFL career. This year, no UFL team put Russell on its protected list, and Russell went undrafted by the five-team league Monday while a player like 2002 Kansas City first-round pick Ryan Sims was a high draft pick.

In April, former NBA player and coach John Lucas reportedly parted ways with Russell after serving as a “life coach.” Lucas was reportedly frustrated with Russell’s work ethic. There hasn’t been any indication that Russell is working out and or that he is preparing for a comeback. Despite earning $39 million in Oakland, Russell reportedly faced foreclosure on his Bay Area mansion.

“I just don’t see it in the kid,” Horton said. “... I don’t think he is throwing and he is not doing the right things to give himself a chance to get back. I don’t think anyone will give him a chance.”

That’s what separates Russell from other recent quarterback busts such as Leaf, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Cade McNown and Joey Harrington. At least one other organization acquired these players after they were cut by the teams that drafted them. They weren’t considered untouchable, as Russell has become in the past 365 days.
Some good news on the injury front for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and fullback Earnest Graham will be back in the starting lineup when the Bucs take on the San Francisco 49ers later this afternoon.

Trueblood missed the past three games with a knee injury, while Graham sat out the past two games with a hamstring injury.

Linebacker Quincy Black (ankle) and defensive end Kyle Moore (shoulder) each will miss their second straight game. Adam Hayward is expected to start in Black’s place while Tim Crowder will start for Moore.

The other inactives for the Bucs are fullback Erik Lorig, tackle Will Barker, tackle Derek Hardman, wide receiver Preston Parker and defensive tackle Ryan Sims. Rudy Carpenter will be the third quarterback.

Bucs minus three starters

November, 14, 2010
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TAMPA, Fla. – No major surprises among Tampa Bay’s inactives, but the Bucs will be without several injured starters.

Defensive end Kyle Moore, linebacker Quincy Black and fullback Earnest Graham are inactive. Injured defensive tackle Ryan Sims also is inactive. Receiver Sammie Stroughter, defensive back Myron Lewis and offensive lineman Will Barker also are inactive.

Rudy Carpenter has been designated as the third quarterback.

Bucs without three starters

November, 7, 2010
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ATLANTA – As expected, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be without several injured starters for today’s game.

Center Jeff Faine, tackle Jeremy Trueblood and fullback Earnest Graham are all on the inactive list. Defensive tackle Ryan Sims, defensive end Alex Magee, cornerback Myron Lewis and receiver Sammie Stroughter also are inactive. Rudy Carpenter is the third quarterback.

Cornerback Dominique Franks, linebacker Spencer Adkins, tackle Garrett Reynolds, guard Mike Johnson, tight end Justin Peelle, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury and defensive tackle Trey Lewis are inactive for the Falcons. John Parker Wilson is the third quarterback.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 30

TAMPA, Fla. -- New construction in these parts largely has halted due to the economic situation over the past couple of years. So what’s that structure going up on the practice fields right behind One Buccaneer Place?

It’s the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There still is a lot of work to be done. But, unlike last year, you can see a foundation. Just look at the quarterback, Josh Freeman. When it comes right down to it, he really is all the Buccaneers are looking at. Yeah, guys like Gerald McCoy, Donald Penn, Barrett Ruud and Aqib Talib might also be viewed as possible cornerstones in the blueprints. But Freeman is the 6-foot-6 beam the Bucs are counting on to support this entire franchise.

Count last year as a redshirt season for Freeman and the Bucs. The team went 3-13 and Freeman really didn’t get to play until the second half of the season. Now, he’s been through an entire offseason. Now, the offense is his. Now, it’s time for Freeman and the Bucs to grow and make some sense out of the youth movement the franchise decided to begin last year.

“The most obvious thing that I hope people are noticing is we are giving Josh Freeman tools around him that he can grow with,’’ general manager Mark Dominik said. “We have Kellen Winslow and the tight end is important whether you have a young quarterback or an experienced one. And we wanted to put in a receiving corps that can grow together so their timing can be consistent. When you look back through NFL history, you see that consistently with the successful teams. You put two or three receivers together with the same quarterback for five, six or seven years and they become a timing machine and that’s what we wanted to do.’’

To that end, the Bucs drafted receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams in the first four rounds. They also traded for receiver Reggie Brown and they still have Sammie Stroughter, who might have been the steal of last year’s draft class.

Yeah, the Bucs also did some work on the defense. They used their top two draft picks on defensive tackles McCoy and Brian Price in an attempt to stop getting abused by running games. Their linebackers aren’t bad and the secondary has some potential. This defense isn’t anything close to the defense of Tampa Bay’s glory days, but it has possibilities.

The offense isn’t anything like in the glory days and that’s the way the Bucs want it. With Freeman, the Bucs believe the offense can be better than it ever has been. The belief is Freeman can be the first true franchise quarterback this team has had since Doug Williams.

The potential is there and the Bucs have put some parts around Freeman. Now it’s time for him to put this franchise on his back.

“Nothing can replace game time,’’ Dominik said. "But I will say, for an offseason, for a young quarterback, I could not have asked for more. He did everything we expected and more. I don’t remember him missing an offseason day and he was a sponge in the meeting rooms. His leadership has come through in that way. He’s got a natural charisma that you see guys want to bond with him and follow him.’’

THREE HOT ISSUES

Mike Williams
Gary Rothstein/Icon SMIRookie Mike Williams appears to be on track to earn a starting job.
1. What’s the receiving corps going to look like? That still is being sorted out, but Williams, the fourth-round draft pick, appears to be on his way to a starting job. He’s shown a knack for big plays ever since his arrival and seems to have developed a quick chemistry with Freeman. Benn started a little slower, but has come on of late. But Brown might open the season as the other starter.

Pair Williams and Brown with Winslow and Freeman suddenly might have a better cast of receivers than he did late last year when No. 1 receiver Antonio Bryant was pouting his way out of Tampa Bay. The Bucs have been cautious with Winslow and his knee throughout camp, but the belief is he’ll be ready for the regular season and that will provide Freeman with a go-to guy.

But the Bucs aren’t going to be running the West Coast offense they did with Jon Gruden and they certainly aren’t going to use the ball-control system that Tony Dungy ran. They’ve got a quarterback with big-play ability and they’re going to take their shots down the field. Williams, Brown and Benn all can go downfield and make catches in the possession game. But the real downfield threat might be Stroughter. He had an excellent rookie season, already has a rapport with Freeman and can make a lot of things happen as the slot receiver.

2. How much will the arrival of the two rookie defensive tackles help? McCoy and Price should be an instant upgrade over former starters Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims, who got pushed all over the field last year. The Bucs also plan to use Roy Miller in the rotation. That’s a pretty promising trio of young defensive tackles.

But it remains to be seen if this group can be dominant right from the start. The standard for defensive tackles in Tampa Bay is Warren Sapp. He might be ticketed for the Hall of Fame, but the fact is Sapp struggled as a rookie and took time to develop into a force.

The Bucs think McCoy should be fine from the start. Price got off to a great start in camp, but an injury has forced him to miss some time and that may set him back a bit. The Bucs are going to ask a lot of McCoy, Price and Miller. They want them to clog things up against the run and free up Ruud to make plays. They also need a strong interior pass rush because there’s no real force on the outside. Ready or not, McCoy and Price will have the opportunity to shine right from the start.

Raheem Morris
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIThings have been quieter in Raheem Morris' second offseason as the Bucs head coach.
3. Is this team headed in the right direction with coach Raheem Morris? The Bucs were in a state of chaos through much of last year. Morris fired coordinators Jeff Jagodzinski and Jim Bates early, changed defensive schemes early in the year and ran a quarterback competition that’s only real purpose was to make sure Freeman didn’t get on the field too soon. The results weren’t pretty.

But Morris’ second offseason has been one of peace and quiet and it only takes a few brief glances out at the practice field to see that the Bucs are much more organized than last year. Morris knows he made mistakes last season and he’s learned from that.

He’s running the defense now and believes he put Freeman in good hands with offensive coordinator Greg Olson and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. The Bucs still may need another offseason to get the talent level to where they really want it, but there are some parts in place and Morris needs to start showing some progress.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Aqib Talib, cornerback. The physical talent always has been there with Talib. But his first two seasons were rocky because of off-field issues and a feeling that he wasn’t always focused on football. However, the coaching staff is quietly buzzing because a new side of Talib has emerged throughout the offseason and carried over into camp. He’s more focused and more mature. The Bucs are keeping their fingers crossed on this one, but there is a belief that Talib can become a Pro Bowler very quickly if he stays on his current path.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Stylez G. White, defensive end. The Bucs know White never has been a very good practice player. But they thought he might come in with some inspiration this camp because he has a chance to be the top pass-rusher on team that doesn’t have any proven star in that area. That hasn’t happened. White’s been very ordinary in practice and doesn’t seem interested in being a leader for a young defensive line. Is that enough to cost him a starting job? Probably not because the Bucs really don’t have much behind him. They’re hoping White steps things up when the regular season arrives, but they’re a little worried that might not happen.

[+] EnlargeWard
Steve Dykes/US PresswireDerrick Ward has struggled to make an impact since his arrival in Tampa.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Bucs signed running back Derrick Ward to a big contract last year, but that move hasn’t worked out at all. Cadillac Williams has a firm grip on the No. 1 spot on the depth chart and is a favorite with the coaching staff. Ward is not. He’s been unimpressive throughout his time with the Buccaneers and could not hold onto the ball in the first preseason game. Kareem Huggins has outperformed Ward in camp and probably will earn a roster spot. That’s something that’s no longer a guarantee for Ward. But Huggins is undersized and the Bucs may have to hold onto Ward as insurance because Williams has a long history of injuries.
  • If you’re looking for the strongest unit Tampa Bay has, look at the linebackers. Geno Hayes and Quincy Black have had fantastic camps. Ruud already was pretty good and should be helped by the arrival of the young defensive tackles.
  • The competition for the job at nickelback is ongoing. Elbert Mack held that role last year, but the Bucs would like to find an upgrade. E.J. Biggers has shown some flashes and could unseat Mack. Rookie Myron Lewis is the guy the Bucs really hoped would claim that spot. But he’s been sidelined with an injury and the lack of practice time might prevent him from getting immediate playing time.
  • Michael Clayton and Sims are two veterans on the bubble when it comes to roster spots. Sims has gone from being a starter to fighting for the fourth spot at defensive tackle. He might hang on just to give the team some experience in the interior and he’s not going to cost the Bucs a fortune because he’s scheduled to make $1.2 million. Clayton clearly isn’t going to be a starter. He’s got $3 million in guaranteed salary this year, so the Bucs may keep him and hope to get something out of their investment. But it won’t be much more than a fourth or fifth receiver and special-teams player.
  • With all of the buzz about Huggins, Clifton Smith has been somewhat forgotten. But don’t rule out the possibility of Smith getting some time in the backfield, mainly as a situational player. Smith has the ability to make things happen in the open field and the Bucs may use him as a receiver out of the backfield. Smith is coming back from concussion problems last season and he should solidify the return game. Smith made the Pro Bowl as a return man as a rookie in the 2008 season.
  • Look for Keydrick Vincent to claim a starting guard spot from Jeremy Zuttah. Vincent started in Carolina last year and is a solid run blocker. Put him with center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph and the Bucs can be very good in the interior of the line. Zuttah might be best suited to serving as the top backup at both guard spots and center.

NFC South training camp preview

July, 23, 2010
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The good news for the New Orleans Saints is they are defending Super Bowl champions. The bad news is that’s not a great spot to be in in the NFC South.

The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl, and the 2003 Carolina Panthers, who lost it, didn’t even make the playoffs the following year. Since the division came into existence in 2002, there has been no such thing as a dynasty in the NFC South. No team has won the division crown in back-to-back seasons.

The Saints, who already have re-written history, will have to do it again if they want to stay on top. But the Atlanta Falcons might not be far behind, the Panthers have enough talent to be dangerous and the Buccaneers almost have to be better than last season.

We’ll find out soon enough if anyone can challenge the Saints. The test begins next week when all four NFC South teams report to training camp.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

Falcons: What does John Abraham have left?

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Falcons are confident defensive end John Abraham still has something left in the tank.
For the past couple of years, the 32-year-old defensive end has been one of those guys who doesn’t practice all the time because the Falcons go out of their way to keep him healthy and fresh. That plan isn’t likely to change this season, but the Falcons will be keeping a very close eye on Abraham in camp.

His sack total dipped from 16.5 in 2008 to 5.5 last season. The obvious question is if Abraham is on the last legs of his career. Despite the statistical evidence, the Falcons believe there’s something left. After closely watching film of Abraham from last season, the coaches firmly believe Abraham can get back to double-digit sacks. Part of their thinking is he’ll benefit from improved play from the interior of the defensive line and that Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury are ready to generate pressure from the other side. Recent history has shown the Falcons are willing to make deals late in the preseason (trading for cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Tye Hill) if they feel they have a weakness. But they’re hoping Abraham shows enough in camp to convince them the pass rush will be adequate.

Panthers: What must Matt Moore do to win the starting quarterback job?

A lot of people believe this training camp will be highlighted by a battle between Moore and rookie Jimmy Clausen. That’s not really the case -- or at least not how Carolina’s brass views the situation. The truth is the Panthers are going to camp with every intention of Moore being the starter. He earned that much by playing well at the end of last season.

Coach John Fox isn’t about to open the season with a rookie starting at quarterback. He could turn to Clausen later in the season if things aren’t going well. But the immediate starting job is Moore’s, and the only way he can lose it is to have a disastrous training camp and preseason.

Saints: Are the Saints ready for a return to the “real’’ world?

Rightfully so, the Saints spent a lot of time this offseason celebrating their first Super Bowl title. Great for them and great for their fans. But all that’s about to end. Coach Sean Payton runs what I think is easily the toughest camp in the NFC South, and I don’t anticipate that changing. If anything, camp might be tougher this year.

Payton is an excellent motivator and he’s well aware the Saints now are the jewel on the schedule of every opposing team. The track record of Super Bowl champions in the following season hasn’t been all that impressive in recent years. Payton knows that, and you can bet that message is going to be conveyed to his team. A big part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season is because they had such a tough and productive camp.

Buccaneers: Who are the starting wide receivers?

The Bucs truly don’t know the answer to that question right now and that’s not a bad thing. The plan is to throw all the receivers out there in camp, let them compete and see who rises up. A lot of fans were frustrated and puzzled when the Bucs let Antonio Bryant walk in free agency, leaving the team without a clear-cut No. 1 receiver. But the Bucs believe they’re better off without Bryant, who wasn’t all that productive last season and didn’t endear himself to the front office or coaching staff when he made public comments about the coaches and quarterback Josh Freeman that were far from flattering.

The Bucs used early draft picks on Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. It’s likely at least one of them will start right away. Veterans Reggie Brown, Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall will compete for the other job. If both rookies look good in camp, it’s possible they could be the starters because there isn’t much upside with Brown, Clayton or Stovall. Second-year pro Sammie Stroughter also is in the mix. But, ideally, the Bucs would like to use him as the slot receiver.

HOTTEST SEATS

Falcons: Brian VanGorder. The defensive coordinator has done a nice job of working with the talent he’s had the past two seasons. The Falcons haven’t always had the talent to play the kind of defense coach Mike Smith and Van Gorder want and they’ve gotten by with patchwork. But those days are over. Last year’s top picks, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, return after missing almost all their rookie seasons with injuries and the Falcons used their top two picks this year on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters. They also spent a fortune signing cornerback Dunta Robinson. Although questions remain about the pass rush, the Falcons have the talent to play their scheme. That means the defense must take a big step forward.

Panthers: Dwayne Jarrett. A former second-round pick, Jarrett has not had much of an impact. With Muhsin Muhammad retired and Steve Smith expected to miss most of training camp with a broken arm, Jarrett is going to get a very long look in training camp. In a best-case scenario, Jarrett finally reaches his potential and earns the starting wide receiver job across from Smith. For that to happen, Jarrett must show an attention to detail and consistency; both have been lacking from his game. The Panthers drafted Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards early because they’re not sure if Jarrett ever will blossom.

Darren Sharper
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIIf Darren Sharper isn't 100 percent healthy, he might not be the starter for the Saints.
Saints: Darren Sharper. The safety had a brilliant 2009 season. Sharper instantly became a fan favorite, but his lock on the starting job at free safety isn’t nearly as secure as many people think. Sharper is 34 and coming off knee surgery. We don’t even know if he physically will be able to do much during training camp. The Saints have moved Malcolm Jenkins, a first-round pick a year ago, from cornerback to safety. A lot of fans view Sharper as the Drew Brees of the defense, but I’m not so sure the coaching staff ever has seen it that way, and the Saints didn’t break the bank to re-sign Sharper in the offseason. If he’s 100 percent healthy, Sharper could stay in the starting lineup. Anything less and the Saints won’t hesitate to go with Jenkins.

Buccaneers: Ryan Sims. He was a starter with Chris Hovan at defensive tackle the past few years. The Bucs got rid of Hovan as soon as they could after last season. With the team using its top two picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, Sims can’t be feeling too secure. With Roy Miller also in the mix and the Bucs in a full-blown youth movement, Sims needs a strong camp just to secure a roster spot.

SECRET WEAPON

Under-the-radar player to keep an eye out for in camp: Clifton Smith, return man/running back, Buccaneers. It may seem like a stretch to call a guy who has been to a Pro Bowl an under-the-radar player, but Smith fits the profile. After missing most of the second half of last season with concussion problems, Smith has sort of been forgotten. That might be a mistake. Smith established himself as a top-notch return man when he made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season two years ago and helped ease the colossal mistake in which the Bucs drafted Dexter Jackson in the second round. When the new coaching staff took over last season, there was some talk about getting Smith more involved on offense. That got derailed by his injuries, but the plan could get back on track this year. Cadillac Williams is the main running back in Tampa Bay, but you could start to see Smith get some action as a situational player. With his speed, he could be an explosive receiver out of the backfield and also might be able to handle a few carries a game.

BEST POSITION BATTLE

It’s not an offensive skill position, so it won’t be flashy. But the best position battle in the NFC South will be sorted out in Spartanburg, S.C., as the Carolina Panthers try to figure what to do with their linebackers. This was supposed to be a spot with enormous strength, but an offseason knee injury to Thomas Davis has turned this into a huge question. Davis probably will miss the entire season, throwing the linebacker corps into a state of uncertainty.

The only thing that’s certain is that Jon Beason remains one of the best linebackers in the league and the unquestioned leader of this defense. But the Panthers aren’t even sure where Beason will line up. He has been fantastic in the middle, but he may move to Davis’ spot on the weak side. In what essentially amounts to a game of musical chairs, the Panthers are looking at four linebackers and trying to figure out the strongest starting trio. One reason they’re considering moving Beason is because they believe Dan Connor can be solid in the middle. He’ll get a chance to prove that in camp.

But the Panthers also will be keeping a close eye on outside linebackers Jamar Williams and James Anderson. If they both rise up, Beason could remain in the middle. If Connor rises up and the Panthers aren’t comfortable with Williams and Anderson as their starters on the outside, they won’t hesitate to move Beason.

Smith, Douglas & RuddUS Presswire, US Presswire, Icon SMISteve Smith, Barrett Ruud and Harry Douglas are all in line to have a big 2010 season.
The theme of this column, as I first pitched it to my editor, was going to be comeback players.

As I thought more about that, going the traditional route on that one would have limited us to guys who were injured last season. That’s why I decided to stretch the parameters on this one a bit. Yes, we’re going to include some guys who were injured last season. But we’re also going to include some guys who were limited by other things.

Whatever the circumstances, and we’ll detail them when we get to them, I wanted to examine five NFC South players who I think will be much more productive in 2010 than they were in 2009.

Smith
Steve Smith, wide receiver, Carolina Panthers. It may seem strange to include a guy who came up 18 yards short of what would have been a fifth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season in a conversation about comeback players. But, again, we’re stretching the parameters here.

I truly expect Smith to have a much bigger season than he did last year and there are several reasons for this. First off, we all know Carolina had major problems at quarterback last season as Jake Delhomme played his way out of a job. Smith still managed 65 catches and seven touchdowns, and his numbers could have been better if he hadn’t missed the final game with an injury.

With Matt Moore or Jimmy Clausen, Carolina is making a fresh start on offense and the running game always will be the backbone of a John Fox team. But Smith is still the best player on this offense. He’s made some noise in the offseason about how he’s not sure he still wants to be a No. 1 receiver and might be ready to step into a secondary role.

If you believe that, call me because I’ve got 10 acres of swamp land in Florida I’d love to sell you. More than anything else, Smith is a competitor. I don’t think he has it in him to be a second or third receiver right now. Besides, who do the Panthers have who could move ahead of him?

Smith’s mind operates in unique ways. He’s also made references to people saying he's “losing a step’’ because he’s 31. I haven’t seen or heard anyone say that and I’ve seen no evidence of that. Part of the reason Smith has had such a great career is because he’s found ways to motivate himself with perceived slights.

He’s played his entire career with a chip on his shoulder and that’s worked well for him. It may be totally by his own doing, but it looks like Smith has added a couple chips this year. That’s why the little guy might come up bigger than ever in 2010.

Ruud
Barrett Ruud, linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Remember in coach Jon Gruden’s last season in Tampa Bay when he kept saying Ruud should be included in talk about the NFL’s best middle linebackers? Gruden had a point. Ruud was making plays and seemed to be ascending as fast as any player in the league.

Ruud seemed on the verge of being a true star and the face of the franchise when Gruden left and the new regime cut ties with Derrick Brooks and a bunch of older players. But Ruud never emerged as a difference-maker last season. He produced a career-best 142 tackles last season, but can you recall him making a single big play?

Not really. But let’s not put all of the blame on Ruud. There was chaos for most of Raheem Morris’ first year as Tampa Bay’s head coach. The Bucs tried to switch to a different defense under coordinator Jim Bates, who got fired midway through the season. Tampa Bay switched back to the old Monte Kiffin defense and things got a little better at the end of the year.

The Bucs went out and drafted defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two picks. That should make Ruud the happiest guy in town. He still doesn’t have that long-term contract he’s been seeking for more than a year. But his plays no longer will start with Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims getting blown 5 yards off the ball. McCoy and Price should fill some space and keep blockers off Ruud.

That should allow him to start making the kind of plays that will get him a big contract.

Douglas
Douglas
Harry Douglas, wide receiver, Atlanta Falcons. We’re getting back to the true formula for a comeback player here. Douglas missed all of last season after suffering an injury early in the preseason.

I still don’t think a lot of people realize how significant this injury was to the Falcons. They had huge plans for Douglas in his second season. He was going to be the third receiver in this offense. The Falcons were planning on using him in the slot and bringing a whole new dynamic to their offense.

The injury prevented that and really kept Atlanta’s offense from ever hitting its stride last season. But Douglas should be back at full strength and that alone could change the complexion of an offense that’s loaded just about everywhere else.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Roddy White already are very good and wide receiver Michael Jenkins is dependable. Throw Douglas’ speed into the slot and Gonzalez, White and Jenkins immediately become even better. Quarterback Matt Ryan might even become great.

Ellis
Sedrick Ellis, defensive tackle, New Orleans Saints. On a roster where a lot of guys had career seasons last year, it’s kind of difficult to find a guy who might be markedly better this year. But Ellis fits the profile. He didn’t have a bad year last season or as a rookie in 2008.

But Ellis is one of those guys who you look at and keep thinking there’s more than we’ve seen. He’s been very good at times, but not quite dominant. That’s mainly because injuries kept him out of six games last season and three in his rookie year. When he’s on the field, the New Orleans defense is noticeably better than when he’s not.

The only thing separating Ellis from the Pro Bowl might be staying on the field for a full season.

Davis
Thomas Davis, linebacker, Carolina Panthers. Ask scouts, coaches and players who is the best linebacker in the NFC South and the consensus is Carolina’s Jon Beason. If you talk to those same people, they’ll tell you Davis was having an even better season than Beason through the first seven games of last year.

But Davis went down with a season-ending injury that stopped what seemed to be a true breakout year. Davis switched to linebacker after playing safety in college and it took him a few years to adjust. But Davis had been pretty good the past couple of years and he was playing at an All-Pro level before the injury.

He’s expected back at full strength this year. With defensive end Julius Peppers gone, the Panthers need Davis and Beason to take over this defense.

NFC South draft analysis

April, 24, 2010
4/24/10
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Let's break down the highlights in a memorable draft for the division:

Best move

Tampa Bay Buccaneers doubling up on defensive tackles and wide receivers. The Bucs used their first two picks on defensive tackles, taking Gerald McCoy in the first round and Brian Price early in the second. They are instant starters and the Bucs picture second-year pro Roy Miller joining them in the rotation. That probably means the end for last year’s starters Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims, but that’s a good thing. The Bucs ranked last in the league in run defense last season and they got no pass rush from the interior. McCoy and Price can stuff the run and create a surge in the middle. That’s going to free up middle linebacker Barrett Ruud to make plays and help the defensive ends generate a better pass rush.

The Bucs also followed a similar theme at wide receiver, taking Arrelious Benn in the second round and Mike Williams in the fourth. It may be a lot to expect two rookies to instantly start at wide receiver, but it could happen here. That’s mainly because the Bucs have very little other talent at the position. At worst, Benn’s an instant starter. Williams is a bit of a gamble because he’s had some off-field issues, but Tampa Bay was willing to take a chance because of his physical skills. There’s risk involved, but Williams has better upside than any of Tampa Bay’s receivers, including Benn. Quarterback Josh Freeman needed some new targets and the Bucs went out and got them.

Riskiest move

The Carolina Panthers traded away their second-round pick in 2011 to take Armanti Edwards in the third round. This is a curious move by a regime that has to win this year because Edwards is a project. He was a quarterback at Appalachian State, but the Panthers plan to use him as a receiver and a return man. Edwards might be able to make a quick impact as a return man.

But he’s going to need time to develop as a receiver. That’s time coach John Fox and Marty Hurney might not have.

Most surprising move

[+] EnlargeJimmy Clausen
Matt Cashore/US PresswireWill Clausen be able to succeed in Carolina's system?
It’s not all that surprising the Panthers took a quarterback because we all knew that was coming somewhere in this draft. But it’s a huge surprise that they got Jimmy Clausen in the middle of the second round. He’s a guy that many thought would go in the first round or very early in the second. Clausen tumbled in part because some view him as a “me-first" guy and a passer who takes too many chances.

Those are traits the Panthers generally stay away from, but Carolina is desperate. Besides, the Panthers have a locker room filled with strong leaders (Jon Beason, Jordan Gross, etc.) and there’s no room for “me-first" guys, except for receiver Steve Smith. Clausen will have to conform to have a chance. Carolina’s offensive system also will limit Clausen’s opportunities to take chances. Fox and coordinator Jeff Davidson want a guy who is mainly a game manager, but who also can make a play here and there.

File it away

Technically, Kerry Meier was drafted as a wide receiver by the Atlanta Falcons with a compensatory pick at the end of the first round. Realistically, Meier is a flat-out football player. He started off his career as a quarterback at Kansas and had some early success. But an injury cost him his starting job and he moved to wide receiver in 2007. All Meier did was go out and set a school record for career receptions. He played all three receiver positions, got some work as a fullback and H-back, served as the holder on place kicks and even still got some time as a backup quarterback. If Meier sounds a bit like Brian Finneran, he should. Finneran’s done a little bit of everything for the Falcons throughout his career. With Finneran getting older, Meier has the potential to help the Falcons in a lot of different areas.
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Bucs made a bit of a surprise decision by taking UCLA defensive tackle Brian Price with the No. 35 overall pick.

It’s surprising because the Bucs already took defensive tackle Gerald McCoy with their first-round pick and a lot of people were expecting them to go with a receiver here. It is clear they desperately need a receiver, but I kind of like the Price pick. He was graded as a first-round talent by a lot of teams.

Take him and McCoy and make them the starters from the start. Throw Roy Miller into the rotation and the Bucs are much better in this area than they were last year when Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims got pushed all over the field.

Speaking of Hovan and Sims, don’t be surprised if one of them isn’t on the roster on opening day. Heck, don’t be surprised if both of them aren’t on the roster on opening day.

Draft room tale: 'Boys almost skipped in '02

April, 21, 2010
4/21/10
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NFC Draft Tale: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

I've heard so many versions of the story where the Cowboys had a near-miss in the first round of the 2002 draft that I decided to go back for clarification Tuesday. Former assistant director of pro personnel Bryan Broaddus still marvels at how owner Jerry Jones was on the phone with Vikings vice president for player personnel Frank Gilliam, Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson and Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin at the same time.


Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRECowboys owner Jerry Jones was cool and collected despite almost missing a draft pick in 2002.
Jones, who had the No. 6 overall pick, was trying to determine who the Vikings were planning to take at No. 7 before swapping picks with the Kansas City Chiefs (No. 8). Jones found out the Vikings were not going to take Oklahoma safety Roy Williams (they picked Bryant McKinnie), so he traded down to No. 8 and selected Williams. We all know that Williams eventually flamed out in Dallas, but he was considered an excellent choice at the time. The Chiefs selected defensive tackle Ryan Sims No. 6 overall and the Jaguars took Tennessee defensive tackle John Henderson at No. 9.

"It was pretty impressive to see how calm Jerry was while working all those phones," Broaddus told me Tuesday. "You knew right then how good a negotiator he was."

But the Cowboys almost forgot to turn in their trade, which nearly allowed the Vikings to nab the sixth pick. A talented young scout from SMU named Chris Hall strolled into the draft room and asked whether the Cowboys had reported the trade to the league office. And that's when Stephen Jones, Jerry's son, took matters into his own hands.

"Jerry went to sleep at the wheel," former Cowboys scouting director Larry Lacewell told me a couple years ago. "And all the sudden someone shouts that we only have 10 seconds left."

According to Broaddus and at least two other eyewitnesses, Stephen dived across the table to grab the phone and inform the league about the trade. Jerry reportedly sat there with his arms crossed watching the whole thing play out. He'd likely been in tougher spots than this in the oil business.

"That's as close as I ever saw us come to losing one," said Lacewell, who remains close to the Jones family.

With the third-round pick the Cowboys acquired from the Chiefs in that trade, they selected Ohio State cornerback Derek Ross, who didn't pan out. But looking back, the Cowboys are just fortunate they submitted the trade on time. Vikings officials were rushing toward the table to make that No. 6 pick, but Stephen Jones' diving play saved the day.

Freeman, Jenkins lead Class of '09

December, 4, 2009
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At a draft-day party in Raymond James Stadium, fans booed when the Bucs selected quarterback Josh Freeman. A day later, there weren’t any large gatherings as the draft wound down, but you still could hear some groans in the streets of New Orleans as the Saints traded up to get a punter.

Funny, but no one’s complaining now about the two most controversial draft picks in the NFC South. Four starts into his career, Freeman’s shown enough promise to bring hope to a franchise that spent the first half of the season without any. In New Orleans, Thomas Morstead has gone from being the punter nobody aside from Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton wanted to one of the best picks in the entire draft.

We’re only 11 games into the season and you never can fully judge a draft until two or three years out. But this year’s draft class is forming an early identity and it’s time for a look at the Class of 2009.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS. For all that’s gone wrong with the Bucs this year, it’s important to remember that one thing has gone right. Tampa Bay appears to have found the franchise quarterback it’s been looking for since Doug Williams left. Don’t undersell the importance of that. If Freeman really is that franchise quarterback, this rebuilding process is no longer so daunting.
[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
J. Meric/Getty Images Rookie Josh Freeman is giving the Bucs a reason to believe they have found their franchise quarterback.

Want some more hope for the Buccaneers? Consider these numbers. In Freeman’s four starts, he has thrown more touchdown passes (seven) than Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez did in their first four starts. Freeman also has a 77.0 passer rating, which is significantly better than what the quartet just mentioned did in their first four starts.

He also is 1-3 as a starter, but easily could be 3-1 if the Bucs had just played a little bit of defense. Not bad for a kid who came out of Kansas State with questions about his ability to make decisions. It’s looking more and more like the Bucs made the right call in locking in on Freeman, who coach Raheem Morris knew from his one-year stint as an assistant at Kansas State, even if they telegraphed their intentions so strongly that they had to trade up a spot to No. 18 to make sure they got their quarterback.

The next step is to surround Freeman with talent. You can bet that’s going to be the focus of the 2010 draft as the Bucs quietly stockpiled 10 picks. But the Bucs already have landed a key piece for Freeman. That’s wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, who came in the seventh round. Stroughter had some personal issues in college, but the Bucs did their homework and thought he was worth a gamble late in the draft.

Stroughter has turned out better than anyone could have expected. He’s already a solid slot receiver, which is almost like a starter in the modern NFL. The Bucs also got another soon-to-be starter in the third round with defensive tackle Roy Miller. He’s played in a rotation with Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims this season, but it’s not much of a stretch to say Miller is the only member of that trio that will be around next year.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS. Pound for pound, the Saints probably have gotten the most out of their draft class so far. They only had four rookies to begin with and defensive back Chip Vaughn and Stanley Arnoux both went down with injuries in the preseason.

That leaves only Morstead and first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins, but that’s a pretty strong combination. Morstead, who also handles kickoffs, has helped solidify a kicking game that struggled last season. With Jenkins, the Saints had a rare luxury. They were able to bring the rookie along slowly because starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter were playing so well.

That allowed Jenkins to go through the learning process on the practice field and the sideline. Injuries have piled up the last couple of weeks and Jenkins has been pushed into a starting role. He’s shown he’s ready for it.

CAROLINA PANTHERS. Much like the Saints with Morstead and the Bucs with Freeman, the Panthers raised some eyebrows when they moved up in the second round (by trading away their 2010 first-round pick) to get defensive end Everette Brown. Unlike the moves by the Bucs and Saints, there remains room to question this one.

The Panthers drafted Brown at a time when there still was uncertainty about the future of defensive end Julius Peppers. But Peppers wound up staying as the franchise player and Brown hasn’t really been a contributor. He has 1.5 sacks and, no doubt, has plenty of potential.

But Brown is a project. At the moment, he’s undersized and nothing more than a situational pass rusher. But at least the Panthers are getting some production out of this draft.

They definitely hit on seventh-round pick Captain Munnerlyn, who’s been a contributor as a defensive back and on special teams. They also seem to have found a starter in safety Sherrod Martin, the second of their two second-round picks.

ATLANTA FALCONS. A year ago, everyone was talking about how general manager Thomas Dimitroff had put together such a brilliant draft class. That’s not happening this year because the Falcons have gotten very little from their rookie class.

It should be noted it’s a lot easier to get impact players when you’re drafting in the top five in every round instead of in the 20s. It’s also important to note that it wouldn’t be fair to label Dimitroff’s second class as anything close to a bust right now.

You could see right away the Falcons had a player in first-round pick Peria Jerry. But the defensive tackle went out for the season in Week Two. Pretty much the same story for second-round pick William Moore. Third-round pick Christopher Owens and fourth-round pick Lawrence Sidbury haven’t been big factors.

Maybe there’s a lesson in this draft for the Falcons. Maybe Atlanta fans shouldn’t expect every Dimitroff pick to be Matt Ryan or Curtis Lofton and produce huge and immediate results. Maybe they should look at this year’s draft class and remember the story of Thomas DeCoud. He’s probably the only member of the spectacular 2008 class that didn’t really produce as a rookie.

In his second season, DeCoud is starting at safety and playing well. Sometimes, it takes a little time.

Final Word: NFC South

November, 6, 2009
11/06/09
4:03
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

Five nuggets of information about Week 9.

 
 Tim Steadman/Icon SMI
 Giving Steve Smith any extra motivation isn't a good idea for defensive coordinators.
Don't fire up the little man. I know New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was only joking when he said the only way to stop Carolina receiver Steve Smith was to make sure he didn’t get up. But you don’t joke around about Smith, who will take any perceived slight or just make up his own perceived slight and use it as fuel for the rage that makes him what he is.

Trap game? New Orleans fans are talking about the Saints going undefeated. I think that’s at least a possibility, especially when I look at their schedule. I see Atlanta, New England and Dallas as the only teams that, theoretically, could give them trouble. However, that’s just theoretically. The reality is the Saints are coming off a game against the Falcons on Monday night that was physically and emotionally draining. If there’s ever a time for a letdown, this could be it. But the Panthers are going to have to play like they did last week in Arizona and not like they did at the start of the season to have any chance.

Rebound time. The Falcons have lost back-to-back games for the first time since coach Mike Smith has been in Atlanta. We don’t predict games here, but I will say the streak won’t reach three. Two reasons for that: The Falcons found out they’re pretty good, despite losing to the Saints on Monday night. More importantly, they’re hosting the Redskins.

All rookies, all the time. We all know rookie Josh Freeman is starting at quarterback for Tampa Bay against Green Bay. That’s obviously a big story and it’s going to have huge implications on the future of this franchise. But I’m just as curious to see if Tampa Bay goes full force with the rest of its youth movement. I mean, why not start wide receiver Sammie Stroughter and defensive tackle Roy Miller? Yes, they both are rookies. But I’ll make a case that Stroughter can contribute at least as much as Michael Clayton and Antonio Bryant. I’ll go further and make a case that Miller is better than Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims, who have been the starters this year. Those guys shouldn’t have even been on the team this year. If you disagree, go back and look at the film of last December’s game in Carolina.

Time for Brooks to make it official. Tampa Bay is going to induct Lee Roy Selmon as the first member of the team’s Ring of Honor on Sunday. No argument here. Selmon is the only Hall of Famer in franchise history. But all this makes me wonder about Derrick Brooks. He still hasn’t officially retired, even though he’s signing up for every broadcasting gig that comes along. Little advice to Brooks: Let Selmon get his due. Then, in a week or two, call a press conference and make your retirement official. You’re the best player in franchise history and in NFC South history. The sooner you truly retire, the sooner you’ll get into the Ring of Honor and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Heck, why not just grab the microphone when Selmon's done and get it over with?
 
  J. Meric/Getty Images
  One of the largest questions Tampa Bay needs to answer is who will be their starting QB from among Luke McCown (12), Byron Leftwich (7) and Josh Freeman (5).

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Questions

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

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

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

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

  Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Market Watch

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

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

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

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

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

Observation Deck

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

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