NFL Nation: Sabby Piscitelli

TAMPA, Fla. -- They talked like they were drafting the second coming of John Lynch.

Instead, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of a past regime might have hit on a second Sabby Piscitelli.

The current regime was only too happy to give up on 2012 first-round pick Mark Barron on Tuesday as the NFL's trading deadline approached. Barron was shipped to the St. Louis Rams for fourth- and sixth-round picks in 2015. The Bucs also traded reserve linebacker Jonathan Casillas to the New England Patriots. The Bucs will get New England’s fifth-round pick next season and send their 2015 sixth-round pick to the Patriots.

Barron
But it's the trade of Barron that's most significant. The current tandem of coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht obviously didn't share the same high opinion of Barron that former coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik did only two years ago.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but the Bucs could have taken linebacker Luke Kuechly with the seventh overall pick in the first round in 2012. Instead, they passed and took Barron. Kuechly won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 while playing for Carolina.

Barron hasn't been a total bust like Piscitelli, but he has produced only three interceptions in three seasons. Barron never has come close to playing up to his potential.

Barron became expendable in part because the Bucs have a trio of mediocre safeties in Bradley McDougald, Major Wright and Keith Tandy. None of those safeties has as much natural talent as Barron. But Barron's talent wasn't showing in the current system.

Barron also became expendable because he just wasn't as good as advertised. Maybe Barron turns into a force in St. Louis. But he was nothing more than mediocre in Tampa Bay.

Anybody else think the 2012 Bucs should have gone linebacker and drafted Kuechly?

Looking at NFC South payrolls

December, 2, 2010
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We’ve talked all year about how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might be a little frugal when it comes to paying out big salaries for players.

There’s no denying that. But, now that the Bucs are 7-4, I’m wondering if being frugal is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the gap between the Bucs and the rest of the league has widened even more than it was at the beginning of the season. With the releases of some veterans like Sabby Piscitelli and Keydrick Vincent, Tampa Bay’s payroll has been trimmed even more.

A few months ago, the Bucs were up around $85 million in money committed to this year’s salary cap. Of course, we must note there is no salary cap this year. But these figures are still the best way to gauge how teams are spending. These numbers aren’t actual salaries. They include salaries, but also included pro-rated signing bonuses, other bonuses and, in some cases, cap hits for guys no longer on the team.

According to the latest numbers obtained by ESPN.com, Tampa Bay is by far the league’s lowest team in this category. The Bucs are on the books for $80.8 million this year. I’m looking around the rest of the league and the only other teams that are at less than $100 million are Arizona ($98.1 million), Jacksonville ($91.5 million) and Kansas City ($93.7 million). The league average is $124.2 million.

I’m also looking at the two highest figures around the league. Washington leads at $192.2 million and Dallas is next at $167.3 million. Gee, they’re not really thriving, which makes me wonder if you have to spend huge money to succeed.

Beyond the Bucs, there is plenty of evidence that you don’t need a high payroll to win. The Atlanta Falcons are tied for the best record in the league and they’re committed to $118.8 million this year.

New Orleans is on the upper end of things, but they’re not quite with the big boys. The Saints are at about $147 million. Then, there are the Carolina Panthers, who are in a league of their own. They are right at $110 million. But more than $30 million of that is “dead money’’, which counts for players no longer on the team. If you factored in only the guys on Carolina’s roster, the Panthers would have a lower figure than the Buccaneers.

How I See It: NFC South Stock Watch

October, 13, 2010
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

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.

RISING

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Jason Miller/US PresswireJohn Abraham's two sacks against the Cleveland Browns doubled his season total.
1. John Abraham, defensive end, Falcons. He was supposed to be old and washed up after last year’s lackluster season. But guess what? He’s not. Abraham racked up two sacks against three-time Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas on Sunday. Abraham delivered a hit that knocked out starting quarterback Seneca Wallace and forced the Browns to put a gimpy Jake Delhomme on the field. In addition to reviving his own game, Falcons officials are also delighted with the way Abraham has embraced serving as a mentor to young defensive linemen -- helping Kroy Biermann and Jamaal Anderson have productive seasons.

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.

NFC South Week 5 decisive moment

October, 12, 2010
10/12/10
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

There’s an old saying in the NFL that big-time players make big-time plays. If that’s the case, the baby Buccaneers are growing up fast and big-time players have been sprouting up quickly in a 3-1 start.

No one has grown faster than quarterback Josh Freeman, who wasn’t even playing at this time a year ago. It still is very early in his career, but Freeman is showing he might be capable of doing what no other quarterback in franchise history ever has done. This guy goes out and wins games.

That has never happened in Tampa Bay before. Through different coaching and front-office regimes, the Bucs always seemed to ask their quarterbacks to not lose games. From Doug Williams to Trent Dilfer to Brad Johnson to Jeff Garcia, nobody ever went out and truly won games. The quarterbacks always were asked to try to be careful while the defense did the winning.

But the Bucs are letting Freeman be a gunslinger and it’s working. The latest example came Sunday in Cincinnati. With one fourth-quarter touchdown pass already under his belt to tie the score, Freeman got a huge break when safety Sabby Piscitelli picked off Carson Palmer.

Freeman charged onto the field and threw a rocket to the sideline where Micheal Spurlock also grew up before our eyes. Spurlock made a tippy-toe catch that prompted a replay to see if he actually made the catch inbounds. He did.

That set up Connor Barth’s game-winning field goal.

Wrap-up: Buccaneers 24, Bengals 21

October, 10, 2010
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Cincinnati Bengals 24-21 on Sunday.

What it means: The Bucs are for real. We’re not talking dynasty just yet and they might not even be a playoff contender. But the Bucs are 3-1 and this was their biggest win of the year. Unlike the first two, it didn’t come against Jake Delhomme or the guy who replaced him (Matt Moore) in Carolina. It came against Carson Palmer, generally considered a good quarterback. The Bucs went on the road, fell behind a decent team and had enough talent to come back and win. This one was a major sign of progress.

Injury of note: Center Jeff Faine suffered a quadriceps injury. He’ll be examined and tested more thoroughly back in Tampa, but this one sounds fairly serious. The Bucs likely would slide backup guard Jeremy Zuttah over to center if Faine is going to miss time.

Heroes: Take your pick because there were a number of candidates. Connor Barth kicked the game-winning field goal. Josh Freeman set him up to do it. Much-maligned safety Sabby Piscitelli made a key interception to allow Freeman to set up Barth.

Hindsight: Remember when everybody was freaking out because rookie safety Cody Grimm gave up a big play against Pittsburgh in his first NFL start? A lot of knee jerkers wanted Grimm run out of town. That wasn’t realistic because seventh-round picks aren’t supposed to be immediate starters. But Grimm used the bye week and some coaching and came up with an interception that he returned for a touchdown. There still will be ups and downs for Grimm, but this guy might have a future.

What’s next: If you truly want to measure progress and find out if the Bucs just might be a legitimate playoff contender, start looking to next week. The Bucs host the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Yeah, the Saints haven’t exactly been lighting it up like they did last season, but they’re still the champions and that will provide an excellent test for Tampa Bay.

Jackson suspension a hurdle for Bucs

September, 22, 2010
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The undefeated Tampa Bay Buccaneers just suffered their first loss of the season and it’s a really big one.

[+] EnlargeTanard Jackson
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesTampa Bay safety Tanard Jackson has been suspended by the NFL for the rest of the season.
The team just announced that safety Tanard Jackson has been suspended for at least a year for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Jackson will miss the rest of this season and will not be eligible to apply for reinstatement until Sept. 22, 2011. He will not be paid during that time.

Jackson also was suspended for the first four games of the 2009 season for violating the same policy and the length of this suspension suggests he has had at least three positive tests for banned substances.

This is a particularly crushing blow to a team that is off to a fast start and has been relatively controversy free after a tumultuous 2009 season. Along with cornerback Aqib Talib, Jackson formed the core of a secondary that was developing into a team strength.

Jackson, 25, has been viewed as one of the league’s better young free safeties and some members of the organization have said they thought he had Pro Bowl potential. There likely will be a big dropoff from Jackson to whoever replaces him and the options aren’t many.

Rookie Cody Grimm, a seventh-round pick, is listed as the top backup on Tampa Bay’s depth chart. Corey Lynch, a third-year player, is listed as the third-team free safety. Lynch has never been much more than a special-teams player. Grimm lacks experience, but had an impressive training camp and preseason.

Some teams like to say the safety positions are interchangeable, but neither of Tampa Bay’s strong safeties appear likely candidates for a move. Veteran Sean Jones is the starter at strong safety, but he might be the best bet for a move. Jones has some ball skills as evidenced by his 16 career interceptions.

Jones replaced Sabby Piscitelli, last year’s starting strong safety. Piscitelli is not known for being especially good in coverage and he lacks ball skills. It’s also possible the Bucs could bring in a safety from somewhere else, but there aren’t a lot of starting-caliber safeties sitting out there that could step right into the lineup.

One other long-shot scenario would be moving veteran cornerback Ronde Barber to safety. It’s not uncommon for cornerbacks to move to safety late in their careers. But it would be unusual and difficult to make the transition in the middle of a season. At 5-foot-10 and 184 pounds, Barber doesn’t have the size of most safeties, but the Bucs do have some depth at cornerback with E.J. Biggers, Elbert Mack and Myron Lewis currently in backup roles.

Observations on the Buccaneers

August, 28, 2010
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Time for some observations on the Bucs from their 19-13 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

  • [+] EnlargeJosh Johnson
    Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesBackup quarterback Josh Johnson had a decent start in place of injured Bucs starter Josh Freeman.
    The Bucs showed some signs of having a bend-but-don’t-break defense. That’s super. But let’s keep it in perspective. Jacksonville’s offense, minus Maurice Jones-Drew, isn’t going to break any defense.
  • Rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy looked pretty good. He got good pressure on David Garrard on an incompletion in the second quarter. Right after that, McCoy did a nice job running Garrard out of bounds after a snap sailed over the quarterback’s head. That play resulted in a 10-yard loss.
  • Where else might the Bucs get a pass rush from? Believe it or not, Kyle Moore was in Garrard’s face as he threw a second-quarter interception (more on that in just a second). Looks like Moore’s going to have a starting job.
  • On to the previously-mentioned interception. It was made by (drum roll please) … Barrett Ruud. Yep, the middle linebacker made the kind of big play he needs to make to get himself that big contract he wants. Ruud even ran 80 yards after making the grab. Do that in the regular season a few times and Ruud's wish will come true.
  • Return man Clifton Smith, who missed a chunk of last season after concussion problems, fumbled the first time he touched the ball this preseason. Not really a good sign for Smith because the Bucs have other options in the return game.
  • Josh Johnson had decent numbers (9 of 14 for 122 yards) while starting in place of injured starting quarterback Josh Freeman. But I still don’t think it would be a bad idea for the Bucs to pluck a legitimate backup quarterback off the waiver wire before the season starts.
  • Then again, maybe the Bucs are just like the Vikings. After all, they’ve got a quarterback who spent virtually all of training camp hanging out in Mississippi. That’s Jevan Snead, the guy they cut on the first day of training camp and re-signed when Freeman got hurt.
  • I thought the biggest positive for the Bucs was rookie receiver Mike Williams. He’s been making big plays since he arrived in Tampa Bay. It’s great when he can do that with Freeman, but it’s even more impressive that he’s still making big plays when he’s catching passes from another quarterback.
  • The Bucs just gave an injury update on Sabby Piscitelli, who went down in the fourth quarter. The team said he has a mild concussion.

Ranking the NFC South safeties

August, 26, 2010
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We’ll continue our NFC South position rankings with the safeties.

[+] EnlargeTanard Jackson
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireTanard Jackson forced three fumbles and had five interceptions last season.
Before we get into the list, let me clarify a few things. I’m throwing free safeties and strong safeties in here together and after double checking the lists of likely starters and backups, I’ve got to say I’m not awestruck by any safety in this division.

There are some guys who were great in their time and there are some guys who could be great in the future. Although I’m projecting in some areas, we’re dealing mostly with the present here.

That’s why I made the final criteria for this list asking myself, “If you were starting a team, which of these safeties would you chose?’’ So, here it comes.

  1. Tanard Jackson, Buccaneers. At the moment, Jackson is simply the most reliable safety in this division and I decided on him after envisioning him in a couple different uniforms (like those worn by the Saints and Falcons). Jackson played on a bad defense last year. It should be slightly better this year and Tampa Bay’s secondary is shaping up to be one of its few strengths. That’s largely because Jackson will be back there directing traffic.
  2. Thomas DeCoud, Falcons. This guy made huge strides last year in his first full season as a starter. The Falcons think he’s only going to be better now that they’ve added cornerback Dunta Robinson. DeCoud might be the most cerebral safety in the division.
  3. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints. I was projecting a bit on DeCoud. I’m projecting a lot on Jenkins. Last year’s first-round pick spent his rookie season at cornerback before making the move to free safety. He’s got big shoes to fill -- and we’ll get to those shoes in a bit. But Jenkins probably has more natural physical talent than any safety in the division. If he has any grasp at all of what he’s doing, he’ll probably end up looking pretty good in Gregg Williams’ defense.
  4. Roman Harper, Saints. I know there are probably even some New Orleans fans who think I’m ranking Harper too high. Well, look at what else is left? But, seriously, I think Harper gets a bit of a bad rap. He’s a strong safety and strong safeties aren’t supposed to be great in coverage. They’re supposed to make tackles and Harper does that. In a very good secondary, he’s a nice role player.
  5. Sherrod Martin, Panthers. Here's another instance where I’m projecting a bit. Martin had three interceptions as a rookie and was part of the reason the Panthers felt comfortable trading Chris Harris. Like the rest of the Carolina defense, it will be interesting to see how he fares without Julius Peppers up front.
  6. Charles Godfrey, Panthers. He’s produced two interceptions in two seasons. But the Panthers think enough of him that he’s in the starting lineup.
  7. Sean Jones, Buccaneers. He was brought in to take over at strong safety and it appears he’s won the starting job. Jones is a pretty average player. But surround him with Jackson and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber and he’ll be fine.
  8. Darren Sharper
    Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIDarren Sharper is potentially the top safety on this list -- if he's 100 percent healthy.
  9. Erik Coleman, Falcons. This guy wasn’t a bad player a few years ago, but the coaching staff wasn’t happy with him last season. The Falcons would like to get Coleman out of the starting lineup, but it hasn’t happened yet.
  10. Darren Sharper, Saints. This is the guy I was referring to Jenkins replacing. He’s one of the best safeties of all time. But Sharper is a total unknown at this point. He’s 34 and coming off knee surgery. There are indications he might not be ready for the start of the season. There’s even a chance he could be cut or retire. If Sharper miraculously comes back and is anything close to what he was last season, he jumps to No. 1 on this list immediately. But, at the moment, I think the best the Saints can hope for is to have him as insurance for the second half of the season.
  11. William Moore, Falcons. This is the guy the Falcons want to start ahead of Coleman. But Moore missed most of his rookie year with an injury and has missed a lot of time this preseason. He needs to get healthy and show he’s prepared before he can step into the starting lineup.
  12. Sabby Piscitelli, Buccaneers. This guy got destroyed by Tampa Bay fans last year. Some of that was unfair because, as I said earlier, strong safeties aren’t supposed to be great in coverage. Piscitelli got hung up in deep coverage on a bad defense last year. But the real problem was Piscitelli never came close to being the hitter John Lynch used to be in the same position in Tampa Bay’s defense. He flat-out missed on a lot of tackles. That’s why the Bucs brought in Jones.

Observations on the Buccaneers

August, 15, 2010
8/15/10
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Some quick observations on Tampa Bay after the Buccaneers lost their preseason opener to Miami, 10-7, on Saturday night.
  • Forget the final score. This one was a victory for the Buccaneers. They controlled the game when the starters were in, and even through a long stretch with the second teams playing. It wasn’t until the benches really got cleared that the Dolphins won the game.
  • I thought quarterback Josh Freeman had a very strong outing. He completed all four of his passes, and his touchdown throw to Sammie Stroughter showed how much his patience and maturity have grown. It's also obvious that he has developed chemistry with rookie receiver Mike Williams. Freeman also ran the ball a couple times, which is nice and certainly will help in the regular season. But I’m not so sure it was such a great idea to have him scrambling around on a rainy and muddy night in Miami.
  • Tampa Bay’s defense did something it couldn’t do last season. It got the Dolphins off the field. Geno Hayes busted up a screen pass, E.J. Biggers made a nice play against receiver Brandon Marshall and Sabby Piscitelli came through with pressure on a blitz to force the Dolphins to punt on their first three drives.
  • Backup quarterback Josh Johnson threw an interception and lost a fumble on a sack. But he threw the ball pretty well overall. I’ve questioned why the Bucs haven’t brought in an experienced backup. But I’m going to back off that a bit. Johnson has some talent, and might be able to be effective if he can take better care of the ball.
  • I know the playbook is a lot more sophisticated with offensive coordinator Greg Olson. But there was one moment when I had to laugh out loud as the Bucs ran a play that reminded me of the mid-1990s. Derrick Ward took a handoff and ran straight into fullback Chris Pressley’s back. It was just a one-time thing. But there was a time back in the dreary old days when Errict Rhett taking a handoff, running into Mike Alstott’s back and plowing for a yard or two was Tampa Bay’s signature play.
  • Speaking of Ward, who’s fighting to earn more carries, he looked good at times. He even was having a nice run on a third-down draw play, until he fumbled. Turning the ball over probably will wipe out the rest of the good stuff he did Saturday. The Bucs aren’t going to be a team with a big margin for error, so they’re not going to give a lot of carries to a guy who puts the ball on the ground.
  • Running back Kareem Huggins, who has had a nice camp, continued to impress. This guy’s going to make the roster, but he’s going to do more than that. He’s got a shot at some playing time in the backfield and on special teams.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falling

Sabby Piscitelli, safety, Buccaneers. Last season, the Bucs went out of their way to clear the way for Piscitelli to move into a starting role. After a year-long view of that, they’ve got Piscitelli on the move again. This time, he’s headed for a backup role and a job as a regular on special teams. The recent signing of veteran Sean Jones pretty much guaranteed that. Jones has been a dependable and productive starter elsewhere and the Bucs didn’t bring him in to be a backup. Piscitelli will be fine, running down kicks and punts. The guy has great raw athletic skills and that’s why the Bucs got the idea last year he could play. Problem is, the athletic skills were overshadowed by the fact Piscitelli has virtually no football instincts and that’s why he was beaten repeatedly as a safety.

Rising

Tyler Brayton, defensive end, Panthers. Carolina let Brayton hang out there in free agency for nearly two weeks. He got a few nibbles, but Wednesday he re-signed with the Panthers in a move that made a lot of sense for the player and the team. With Julius Peppers gone, the Panthers are counting on young defensive ends Everette Brown and Charles Johnson to step. Each has the potential to do that, but there are likely to be some bumps along the road. That’s where Brayton comes in. He’s never been a dominant player, but he’s solid and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He can help mentor Brown and Johnson. In a best-case scenario, they both play well and Brayton is used as the third end in the rotation. In a worst-case scenario, one of them stumbles and Brayton has to start. Brayton’s as good as a lot of starters out there.

Draft Watch: NFC South

March, 3, 2010
3/03/10
12:00
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NFC Schemes/Themes: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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

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

Atlanta Falcons: There is little doubt what Atlanta’s biggest need is. It clearly is a pass-rusher, specifically a defensive end. The Falcons thrived in 2008 when John Abraham was having a career year and struggled last season as he suddenly got old. Coach Mike Smith wants speed on the outside to help protect his secondary. Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann have some potential as pass-rushers. But the Falcons don’t have anything truly close to an every-down defensive end in their 4-3 scheme. There’s little doubt they’ll try to find one early in this draft.

Carolina Panthers: The defensive line used to be the foundation of a John Fox football team. The Panthers went to a Super Bowl with Mike Rucker, Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner dominating up front. That was a long time ago and, with Peppers about to walk out the door, there’s not a marquee player on the defensive line. Fox likes defensive ends who are quick, even if they’re a bit undersized. He likes defensive tackles who take up a lot of space. The return of Maake Kemoeatu from injury should help, but he’s not getting any younger. The fact the Panthers don’t have a first-round pick is going to make it difficult to get any sure things along the defensive front.

New Orleans Saints: It’s kind of ironic how the secondary has gone from being an area of need to a huge strength in just one year. Even if the Saints let safety Darren Sharper walk in free agency, they don’t need to do much with the secondary. That leaves the front seven as the biggest area of need. Outside linebacker could be an issue with Scott Fujita headed toward free agency and Scott Shanle carrying a big salary. Fujita and Shanle played well last season, but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams prides himself on playing an aggressive style. It might be time to get some younger legs to surround middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Quarterback Josh Freeman has hinted he wouldn’t mind having a burner at wide receiver. That’s something the Bucs desperately need. Freeman has one of the strongest arms in the league and the Bucs would like to take advantage of that. The problem right now is they don’t have a true downfield threat on the roster. They’ve got some decent possession receivers and Sammie Stroughter might be perfect for the slot. But Freeman is the franchise and you’re about to see the Bucs start building around him. On defense, Raheem Morris decided to get back to the Tampa 2 scheme late last season and the results were positive. But cornerback Ronde Barber is near the end of his career and safety Sabby Piscitelli struggled mightily. It’s time to get some younger legs in the secondary.

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


TAMPA, Fla. -- Without a doubt, the biggest difference I’ve seen between living in the Tampa Bay area from the mid-1980s through 1999 and returning here in 2008 is the way fans view the Bucs and the expectations they have for this football team.

Back in the old days, an 0-2 start wasn’t that big a deal. Heck in a lot of years, it was totally expected and fans just rolled with it. These days, it seems like a lot of people around here are ready to run coach Raheem Morris out of town and have already penciled in the Bucs to join the Detroit Lions in the ranks of teams that have gone a 16-game schedule without a win.
J. Meric/Getty Images
Bucs head coach Raheem Morris is facing heightened expectations in Tampa Bay.

It’s one extreme to another, so why did such a dramatic change come about in, roughly, the last decade? The short and simple answer is that Tony Dungy came along and started winning. Then, Jon Gruden won a Super Bowl and put together some other strong seasons and people have come to expect it.

Makes sense, but I’m having a tough time understanding why so many people suddenly have decided the sky is falling in Tampa. It’s been pretty clear since soon after Morris took the job that expectations shouldn’t be that high for this year. The Bucs don’t like to use the term, but, the fact is, they’re rebuilding and that takes time.

In fact, a history lesson might be in order before the panic gets out of control. Morris provided a bit of pretty good perspective on that as he spoke with the media Wednesday.

“Coach Dungy walked in here and there was a young defense,’’ Morris said. “There was Derrick Brooks, there was Warren Sapp, there was (John) Lynch. They said Lynch couldn’t play safety and he should have moved to linebacker. They said Derrick Brooks was too small to play linebacker. They said Warren Sapp was too fat and had a whole bunch of off the field issues and he couldn’t do it either. Ten years later, we can’t believe that we got rid of him. We can’t believe they are no longer Bucs anymore. Twelve years later or whatever it’s been, we can’t believe that they aren’t here anymore.’’

That’s a valid point and a lot of people forget Dungy’s turnaround of the Bucs didn’t happen overnight. Dungy’s initial team lost its first five games and eight of its first nine and a lot of people wondered loudly if the coach had any idea what he was doing. The 1996 team turned things around, winning five games in the second half of the season and the rest is history.

Before you go saying you don’t see any young versions of Brooks, Sapp and Lynch out there, listen to a bit more of what Morris had to say.

“We aren’t saying that the new guys are going to be Lynch, Sapp and those guys but we have some talented players out there,’’ Morris said. “In the last couple of weeks it has really been impressive. It’s tough to lose but it has been impressive. We just have to get other guys to come around with them. The bounce-back game that Sabby (Piscitelli) had, the way Ronde (Barber) performed in this new defense. Having Kellen Winslow getting off the way he did and the offense the way they did. Obviously, we addressed the offense this offseason. The offense has performed well and performed up to task. We’ll have an opportunity to catch it with some of the young players on defense that we drafted over the years. You guys get a chance to meet those guys and go through the growing pains that they went through the first night in 1996 and we love it as a challenge.”

It’s a huge challenge and I have no idea if Morris is going to turn out to be the second coming of Dungy or Sam Wyche. I’m just saying, give the guy a little time more time before calling him a failure.

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


Falling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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