NFL Nation: Sean Jones

Jimmy Graham and Ryan TannehillAP PhotoJimmy Graham has as many touchdown catches (4) as Ryan Tannehill has TD throws.
One team is the biggest surprise in the NFL. The other has worked its way back to prominence after the return of its Super Bowl-winning head coach.

That leads to a monumental matchup of undefeated teams when the Miami Dolphins travel to face the New Orleans Saints on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” This is the only matchup of unbeatens in Week 4.

Is Miami ready for prime time? Can the Saints stay hot?

ESPN.com’s Dolphins reporter James Walker and Saints reporter Mike Triplett weigh in.

James Walker: Mike, I don’t know whether we can have this discussion without starting at the top with the head coaches of both teams. Joe Philbin in Miami and Sean Payton in New Orleans have done a tremendous job through three games. Dare I say we could be looking at two early coach of the year candidates if the Dolphins and Saints maintain their winning ways. For Philbin, I’ve really been impressed with his game planning and his attention to detail in his second year. Miami has committed just two penalties for 13 yards in the past two games. This is a team that doesn’t beat itself. Miami also is outscoring opponents 41-16 in the second half, a credit to the coaching staff’s ability to make halftime adjustments. Mike, you saw the impact of Payton when he was suspended in 2012. How much has Payton meant to New Orleans’ fast start?

Mike Triplett: Well, let’s start with those two traits you just mentioned: game planning and attention to detail. I think Payton has been the best game planner and offensive schemer in the league during his tenure in New Orleans, especially exploiting mismatches in the passing game. Also, when asked that same question you just posed, players such as quarterback Drew Brees have said Payton’s attention to detail and ability to focus on what’s most important are what make him stand out. But I think, more than anything, there is just a confidence and comfort level that has returned along with Payton. The Saints believe that Payton is going to put them in the right situations to win -- and have an answer when things aren’t working. I think that played a big part in their down-to-the-wire victories over the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 and Week 2.

I have to imagine that “trust” and “confidence” are some words that are starting to be used to describe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill around Miami. I’ll admit that from afar I didn’t expect this much out of Tannehill in his second season. What’s working so well?

Walker: I’ve seen Tannehill up close and personal from his first minicamp in 2012 after he was drafted, and even I’m surprised with how well he is playing in Year 2. If you told me before the season that Tannehill would have a better passer rating (94.3) than Brees (91.4) after three games, I would have thought you were crazy. But there really are not a lot of quarterbacks playing better football right now than Tannehill. He has outdueled Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan in back-to-back weeks. On top of that, he has made key drives in the fourth quarter in both games, something I did not see from Tannehill in his rookie year. His growth involves more than statistics. Tannehill’s confidence has skyrocketed, and the game appears easier and is slowing down for him. But a big concern has been pass protection. Miami has allowed 14 sacks and faces an aggressive Saints defense. How do you view that matchup, Mike?

Triplett: The Saints’ young defense has been just as surprising -- especially the way it has been able to generate consistent pressure with its four-man front. The Saints have eight sacks (four of them last week). End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette have been particularly disruptive. And players are clearly responding to new coordinator Rob Ryan’s versatile schemes (a mix of 3-4 and 4-3). They’re still a work in progress, but, if Miami’s pass protection is suspect, the Saints sure look prepared to exploit it.

Tell me about the Dolphins’ defense. I know it's been solid, but will it have answers for matchup problems such as Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston?

Walker: I’m not sure Miami has a lot of answers for New Orleans defensively. That’s why I think the Saints are a tough matchup for the Dolphins. Miami has had trouble for years defending tight ends. It was one of the reasons the Dolphins upgraded at linebacker in free agency, signing Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. But Miami still struggled until the second half last week against Tony Gonzalez of Atlanta. Graham’s athleticism over the middle could be a nightmare for the Dolphins. Brent Grimes has been terrific for Miami and has a good track record against the Saints. But New Orleans could have a lot of success attacking the Dolphins’ second and third corners. I think Miami’s best chance to disrupt the Saints is with its pass rush. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake’s (knee) status is up in the air, but the Dolphins’ blitz packages have been a strength. How would you assess New Orleans’ offensive line, and can it improve?

Triplett: The Saints’ pass protection has been surprisingly porous. Brees has been sacked 10 times, the most in any three-game stretch since he arrived in 2006. The Saints have actually allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL over that stretch -- so it’s a problem I think they’ll correct. It will be huge for them if they can get All-Pro right guard Jahri Evans back healthy. While he was out last week with a hamstring injury, his rookie backup Tim Lelito allowed three sacks. But the rest of the line is still solid, including new left tackle Charles Brown. And Brees and Payton are savvy enough to keep him clean. The bigger issue for the Saints’ offense has been its lack of a consistent run game. I think it’ll still be pretty pass-heavy this week against Miami. Sounds like the run game has been an issue for the Dolphins, too?

Walker: The only way I can describe Miami’s running game, Mike, is sluggish. It just hasn’t looked good, and various parts aren’t on the same page. Sometimes, it’s the offensive line missing blocks. Other times, it’s the running backs not eluding tacklers. The play calling on runs, too, has been predictable. Add this up and you have a Dolphins team averaging 3.2 yards per carry. Miami running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas still have a lot to prove. They haven’t showed much in three weeks, but Monday’s game is a good opportunity. The Saints’ defense has allowed 5.3 yards per carry. It’s the one hole I’ve seen so far in the New Orleans defense. Look for Miami’s offense to try to grind out yards on the ground and control the clock to some degree. That will be big playing on the road. Speaking of which, a big topic in Miami this week is playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Dolphins are 2-0 on the road, but this could be their biggest challenge to date. How much will home-field advantage affect this game, especially in front of a rowdy Monday night crowd?

Triplett: The Saints’ home-field advantage is no joke, especially for these prime-time night games. The Saints have won 10 straight night games at home, including the playoffs, and 13 of their past 14. Whatever advantage you can get from a loud dome and a frenzied crowd, the Saints obviously seem to feed off it. I asked new Saints tight end Benjamin Watson about it earlier this year, and he said the loudest game he ever played in was a regular-season Monday night game in the Dome when he was with the New England Patriots in 2009. And you hear that kind of stuff quite a bit from visiting players. At least some folks in the crowd will be cheering for NOLA native Mike Wallace, though.

All right, speed round. If the Dolphins win Monday night, who will get the game ball?

Walker: It would have to come down to Miami’s defense. I don’t see the Dolphins beating the Saints on the road in an offensive shootout. Someone in the secondary must have a big game for Miami to pull this out. The top two candidates are probably Grimes and safety Reshad Jones. Brees is going to throw the ball in the Superdome -- a lot. Someone such as Grimes or Jones probably has to get a big turnover or two to give the Dolphins momentum. Jones believes he’s one of the NFL’s top young safeties, and he’s being paid like one after his summer contract extension. This is the type of national game to prove it, especially when matched up against Graham. Which key player could thrive for New Orleans?

Triplett: I’m cheating if I say Brees or Graham, right? I’ll give you two other names, as well -- Sproles on offense and Galette on defense. I think Sproles looks as dynamic as ever as a runner/receiver, so it might be his turn to bust out if the Dolphins concentrate too much on stopping Graham. And Galette is the Saints’ speed-rusher who could best exploit the Dolphins’ pass-protection issues.

.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Well then. My first day at Detroit Lions training camp started with news of safety Louis Delmas' knee surgery, continued through what surely wasn't the team's sharpest practice of camp and ended with tailback Kevin Smith leaving a team drill after appearing to bruise his right quadriceps.

Smith's injury does not appear serious, although it did provide a reminder of how close the Lions are to an emergency in their backfield. (Jahvid Best remains on the PUP list and Mikel Leshoure has missed most of training camp because of a hamstring injury.) And even though coach Jim Schwartz huddled the team at mid-practice, presumably after one too many false starts and overthrown balls, I can't get too worked up about one sloppy practice in the context of a three-week training camp.

Louis Delmas
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonThe Lions said Louis Delmas had surgery to "assist in his recovery from knee soreness he developed early in camp."
On the other hand, I wouldn't blow off the potential ramifications of Delmas' surgery, an undisclosed procedure on his left knee that came after he missed most of the last 10 days of camp. Schwartz termed his status as "week-to-week," which is Schwartz-speak for something more than minor, and the best guess is that Delmas could miss the preseason.

If you made a list of the Lions' five most important players, Delmas would probably be on it. The Lions defense ranked among the NFL's worst in the five games Delmas missed after spraining his right knee last season, and he is as important as an energy lifter as he is on the field. For him to face a health situation once again, rather than contributing to the on-field development of what the Lions hope is a more consistent pass defense in 2012, is a scary proposition.

"It doesn't do any good to have him back if he's not the same kind of player," Schwartz said. "And that's the whole idea of why we did what we did, to get him back for practices and get him healthy on the field. Because he does mean a lot to us, not just from his play, but his personality, his leadership, and all those things."

With Delmas sidelined, the Lions used veterans Erik Coleman and Amari Spievey as their first-team safeties Wednesday. Coleman and Spievey had been competing for the job opposite Delmas, and the Lions have veterans Sean Jones and John Wendling in reserve.

But I think we can all agree that Delmas adds a level of attitude that the Lions wouldn't otherwise have. He runs full speed, sacrifices his body in contact situations and never stops talking on the field.

Go back and look at what Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers told us about his team's defensive changes this summer. Rodgers lauded the energy added by a group of rookies and newly signed veterans, suggesting it would make the Packers a better overall team. It might sound silly, but energy and attitude are real things that are contagious and highly valued by football people. Delmas is that guy for the Lions.

"You hope those guys will pick up the slack," middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. "But Lou is a heck of a player. I enjoy watching him play and fly around. I love his attitude on the field. You can't replace that. Hopefully he can get back soon."

A few months from now, we could very well look back at this moment and view it as a small delay in progress for the Lions defense. This is a team deep enough to handle some short-term injuries. But there are a few players on this roster whose absence brings heightened concern, and Louis Delmas is one of them.

NFC South: Free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
3/08/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Atlanta Falcons

Key free agents: CB Brent Grimes (franchise), LB Curtis Lofton, DE John Abraham, WR Harry Douglas and C Todd McClure.

Where they stand: The Falcons put the franchise tag on Grimes, but still would like to sign him to a long-term contract. That would improve a salary-cap situation that’s already decent. Keeping Lofton and Douglas, who have been developed by the current coaching staff, is also likely to be a priority. Although Abraham led the team with 9.5 sacks last season, his age and salary expectations work against the possibility of his return. Unless Abraham’s price tag drops significantly, the Falcons seem likely to let him walk. McClure could opt to retire. But if he wants to play, it’s likely the Falcons would welcome him back.

What to expect: After a quick and embarrassing exit from the postseason, owner Arthur Blank made it very clear that simply making the playoffs isn’t good enough. Blank expects to contend for a Super Bowl title. The Falcons went all-in last year when they traded up to draft receiver Julio Jones and paid big money to free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards. Look for them to take a similar approach this year. The Falcons are usually good for at least one major move an offseason and this year we could see two or three. Don’t be surprised if the Falcons go hard after Mario Williams because they need a pass-rusher to replace Abraham. Without a first-round pick, the Falcons also probably will use free agency to fill a big need at left tackle. There aren’t a lot of options, but Marcus McNeill could be a target if he is released, as expected, by the Chargers. The Falcons could even make a play for New Orleans guard Carl Nicks. His presence would make life easier for any left tackle and pulling him away from the Saints also would weaken a division rival.

Carolina Panthers

Key free agents: TE Jeremy Shockey, LB Dan Connor, G Geoff Hangartner, LB/DL Antwan Applewhite and QB Derek Anderson.

Where they stand: The Panthers seem to be uncertain whether Shockey plans to retire or keep playing. If he wants to play, they’d gladly take him back because he’s a nice complement to Greg Olsen. They also are likely to make a strong attempt to keep Hangartner, who did a nice job after Carolina had several guards injured last preseason. It’s similar with Applewhite, who was signed during the season and made some nice contributions. But the Panthers seem prepared to let Connor test free agency because they can’t promise him playing time with Jon Beason returning from injury as the starting middle linebacker. Anderson could return, but it’s likely the Panthers will at least explore the possibility of looking for an upgrade as Cam Newton’s backup.

What to expect: Don’t expect a lot. The Panthers had their big splurge coming out of the lockout last summer and they’re paying the tab for that now. They will have to release players and restructure contracts just to get below the cap before free agency starts. Linebacker Thomas Davis, who is coming off his third torn ACL, is a prime candidate for release or restructure. Although the team clearly wants to improve its defense, don’t look for any major moves in free agency. The team simply doesn’t have the cap room to make any big deals. The team might sign a mid-level free agent or two, but major upgrades will have to come through the draft.

New Orleans Saints

Key free agents: QB Drew Brees (exclusive franchise), G Carl Nicks, WR Marques Colston, CB Tracy Porter and WR Robert Meachem.

Where they stand: The past three years have been the most peaceful and prosperous in franchise history. But the peaceful part already has come to an end this offseason. In addition to getting into trouble with the NFL for a bounty program, the Saints are dealing with contract issues that are beyond challenging. They used the franchise tag on Brees and that’s going to cost them around $15 million. Even if they do reach a long-term agreement with Brees, his cap figure for this year could climb above $15 million. Either way, the Saints are going to have major cap issues. They’ve already restructured the contract of defensive end Will Smith and may do the same with linebacker Jonathan Vilma or perhaps even release him and some veterans. The Saints are going to have so much cap space tied up in Brees that they’ll have a hard time keeping their other free agents. Nicks would seem to be the top priority with Colston close behind. But keeping even one of them would be a victory for the Saints.

What to expect: General manager Mickey Loomis always has been aggressive and daring and he might have to be even more creative than usual because of the cap situation. The Saints simply aren’t the type of team to sit still. They had flaws exposed in a playoff loss to San Francisco and they’re asking new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to fix their defense. The problem there is a lot of the current personnel doesn’t fit all that well in Spagnuolo’s scheme. Loomis needs to find a way to get at least one more pass-rusher up front and needs to add an athletic linebacker or two. He also may have to fill more needs if the Saints lose as many free agents as most expect. This is a team without a first-round pick in the draft, so Loomis will have to make some big moves when it comes to releasing players or restructuring contracts just to give the Saints a shot at being a little bit active in free agency.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key free agents: K Connor Barth (franchise), CB Ronde Barber, RB Earnest Graham, LB Geno Hayes, S Sean Jones, DE Michael Bennett (restricted) and RB LeGarrette Blount (exclusive rights).

Where they stand: The Bucs begin coach Greg Schiano’s tenure in a very unique situation. They’ve got a ton of cap room and need improvement in lots of areas. But they’ll deal with what they’ve got between now and the start of free agency. A decision on Barber probably will come very soon. Schiano has indicated he’d like the veteran back, but Barber could choose to retire, which also would create a major need at cornerback. That position also could be an issue later in March when starting cornerback Aqib Talib is scheduled for trial on an assault charge. It’s possible Talib could go to prison or face a suspension from the NFL, but his fate will be an unknown at the start of free agency. Hayes didn’t have a great season last year, but he has upside and the new staff may want to keep him. The Bucs are likely to let Graham walk because of his age. A return by Jones is possible at a reasonable salary, but the Bucs still need to look to upgrade at safety.

What to expect: The exact amount will depend on how many of their free agents are brought back, but the Bucs are likely to have somewhere around $50 million in cap space at the start of free agency and that will put them near the top of the league. After barely dipping into free agency last year, the Bucs were able to carry over extra cap room and general manager Mark Dominik has publicly stated the team plans to be more active in free agency. But fans need to keep that in perspective. The Bucs aren’t going to suddenly return to the days when Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen regularly shelled out money for big-name players in their 30s. The Bucs started a youth movement three years ago and there are some parts in place. Now, it’s time for them to supplement those parts. They’ll be active in free agency, but they’ll be focusing on players still in their 20s. They’ll also be focusing on improving the supporting cast of quarterback Josh Freeman, who they believe can become great. Look for them to add a speed receiver, perhaps someone like Mario Manningham or Eddie Royal. The Bucs also want to improve at running back, where Blount is a one-dimensional power runner. They could look for a pass-catching specialist or may opt to look for a complete back who could even replace Blount as the starter. On defense, the Bucs probably will try to upgrade at linebacker. If Barber and/or Talib aren’t back, the Bucs will have to make a move or two at cornerback and probably wouldn’t hesitate to pay big money to someone such as Cortland Finnegan.
NFL.com is reporting that the Indianapolis Colts want to interview former Minnesota coach Brad Childress for their head-coaching opening. Here’s another name the Colts should consider: Hue Jackson.

If Childress is on the Colts’ list, Jackson – who was fired last week after one year at the helm in Oakland – should be, too.

Jackson wasn’t fired in Oakland because he can’t coach. I think Jackson, 46, is one of the bright, young offensive coaching minds in the league. His work with Oakland’s offense the past two years shows how capable a coach he is.

His problem in Oakland was that he took on too much power after the death of owner Al Davis — and that he talked too much. But those are issues he can quickly resolve. The Colts have a strong power structure in which Jackson would simply be asked to coach. And whether the Colts’ quarterback in 2012 is Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning, Jackson would be a good leader for either.

Jackson is a candidate to be the offensive coordinator in St. Louis. If he gets that job and the Rams offense rebounds in 2012, Jackson will likely be a hot head-coaching candidate next year. Still, if the Colts are looking at a retread like Childress, they might as well take a gander at Jackson, who’d still be the head coach in Oakland under the right circumstances.

In other AFC West news:

The San Diego Union Tribune is reporting that former Carolina secondary coach Ron Meeks has been offered the Chargers’ secondary coaching job and he is expected to decide by the end of the weekend. Meeks would replace Steve Wilks — who went to Carolina to work for former Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who is now Carolina’s head coach.

The Raiders denied a report that new Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie has hired former Raider Sean Jones as assistant general manager. The team's search for a new head coach continues, meanwhile; Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was reportedly set to interview Friday.

The new coach in Miami could further increase the chances of Dolphins offensive coordinator Brian Daboll ending up in that role with Kansas City. Daboll worked in New England with new Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel.

Final Word: NFC South

September, 23, 2011
9/23/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 3:

Looking back, but not too far. The Saints will wear their throwback uniforms Sunday against the Texans. But New Orleans fans better hope the defense doesn’t turn back the clock too far. The Saints need to play defense the same way they did in last week’s victory against Chicago. Houston has plenty of offensive weapons and the Saints can’t afford to play the way they did in the season opener against Green Bay. It should help significantly that defensive end Will Smith is back after serving a two-game suspension.

[+] EnlargeJon Gruden
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe last time the Buccaneers beat the Falcons, coach Jon Gruden was still prowling the sidelines.
One-sided rivalry. Tampa Bay hasn’t won against Atlanta since Jon Gruden was coaching the Buccaneers. The Falcons have won five in a row. Here’s a little tip for Bucs coach Raheem Morris: Try getting your offense on track in the first half. Josh Freeman can rally his team from a 17-point deficit against a team like the Vikings. That’s probably not going to work against the Falcons, who are a little bit better than Minnesota.

Shooting for 30. The Saints can make some franchise history if they score 30 points against the Texans. It would mark the first time the Saints have scored 30 or more points in each of their first three games.

Revisiting the 1995 expansion. The Jaguars and Panthers both came into the league in 1995. The Jaguars have had more regular-season success. They’re 134-124, while the Panthers are 119-139. The Jaguars also hold a 3-1 advantage in head-to-head play. But the Panthers have reached a Super Bowl and the Jaguars haven’t. I give a big edge to the Panthers in this one because their rookie quarterback (Cam Newton) already has shown he can play in this league. Jacksonville’s rookie, Blaine Gabbert, will be making his first start.

Whatever happened to Roddy White? The Atlanta receiver had 115 catches last season. Through the first two games, White has only 11 catches. He has been targeted on only one throw of more than 15 yards and that pass was incomplete. History has shown that you can’t keep White quiet for long. He and Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib are two guys who like to talk and their matchup could be interesting. But the real key could be if Bucs safeties Cody Grimm and Sean Jones are able to continue the trend of keeping White from getting open downfield.
TAMPA, Fla. -- If LeGarrette Blount continues on Thursday night’s pace, he’ll need the NFL to expand to a 1,000-game schedule in order to have his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season.

I don’t mean to single out Blount, but the running back is as fitting a symbol as any of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their exhibition loss (31-14) against the New England Patriots. He ran for 1 yard on four carries. Heck, on Thursday night’s pace, quarterback Josh Freeman would need almost 100 games to reach 3,000 passing yards.

Freeman completed 5 of 10 passes for 33 yards. And we could go on and on.

Yes, they were playing the mighty New England Patriots and Tom Brady played just about the entire first half. But let’s not give all the credit to New England.

“We had a couple of mistakes out there as well,’’ Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said at halftime when New England was leading 28-0.

There were missed assignments on both sides of the ball and 10 first-half penalties that cost the Bucs 85 yards. And all this comes less than a week after the Bucs looked like potential Super Bowl contenders in the preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Take the Kansas City game for what it’s worth and do the same with the New England game. It all tells you the preseason really doesn’t mean much. It also tells you the Bucs have some more work to accomplish before the start of the regular season.

A few more observations on the Bucs.
  • The Bucs are planning on letting outside linebacker Quincy Black wear the radio helmet because they're going to keep him on the field for passing downs. Black didn’t look too good dropping into coverage on a touchdown pass from Brady to Aaron Hernandez in the first quarter. Then again, it wasn’t like Black got any help from the safeties.
  • Rookie Mason Foster seems to be the leading candidate for the starting job at middle linebacker and part of the reason Black is wearing the radio helmet is because the Bucs plan to take Foster out in nickel situations during the regular season. They let Foster stay on the field for some passing downs against the Patriots and that didn’t go very well. Foster got hit with an unnecessary-roughness penalty for what appeared to be a helmet-to-helmet hit on Chad Ochocinco. Tyrone McKenzie still may be competing with Foster for the starting job.
  • Speaking of Ochocinco, he had no problem getting by safety Sean Jones to catch a first-quarter touchdown.
  • Defensive tackle E.J. Wilson suffered an ankle injury. The severity of the injury wasn't known right away.
  • One of the few bright spots for the Bucs was cornerback Elbert Mack. He picked off a Ryan Mallett pass and returned it for a touchdown early in the second half.
  • As long as we’re scraping for bright spots, I’ll throw out rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn. He at least got near Brady a few times and seemed active, which is an upgrade over anything the Bucs had at defensive end last year.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Sit down with Mark Dominik even for just a few minutes and you’ll quickly hear his theory on why the term “youth movement’’ shouldn’t come with negative connotations.

“Don’t confuse youth with immaturity,’’ the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers said. “There’s a big difference between those two things. I’m sure we’ve all met 23-year-olds that act like they’re 28 and we’ve met people that are 28 but act like they’re 23. I feel like we’re a mature, young football team, which is important.’’

Yes, the Bucs, who were the NFL’s youngest team last season, are going to be young again. They have only three players 30 or older and they’re counting on big things from a lot of rookies and second-year players.

But this is a team that won 10 games last season with a lot of young players in key roles, and all of them should be a year better. That experience only encouraged the Bucs to continue with their youth movement and steer clear of making any dramatic moves in free agency. Instead of worrying about regressing, like a lot of fans and media are predicting, the Bucs fully expect to take another step forward.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are,’’ quarterback Josh Freeman said. “It matters how well you’re playing and if you have the ability to step up in big situations.’’

Freeman epitomizes what Dominik was talking about. The quarterback is 23, but spend a few minutes with him or think about how he led his teammates through workouts during the lockout and you’d swear he was 28. Or 38.

“It’s about the type of player we’re looking for,’’ Dominik said. “Certainly, the skill level has a lot to do with it. But it’s also very much about the type of player we’re looking for in terms of their demeanor. Plus, I have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff as far as getting guys prepared.’’

The Bucs hit it big when they drafted Freeman, and pickups such as receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount have made quick impacts. That’s part of the reason why they plan to plug rookie Adrian Clayborn in as an immediate starter at defensive end and why they’re willing to put rookie Mason Foster at the all-important middle linebacker position.

“When we talked to Adrian Clayborn and Mason Foster in the draft process, we felt that sense of someone who was wise beyond his years,’’ Dominik said. “It gives you confidence to be able to see a young man who takes his game and his craft seriously and puts time into it and it’s important to him. That's the kind of thing that's important to us. We have a young team that we like very much and we look forward to it growing older together.''

THREE HOT TOPICS

[+] EnlargeGerald McCoy
Brett Davis/US PresswireThe Buccaneers have invested several high draft picks in their defensive line, including the No. 3 overall pick in 2010 on defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
1. Where will the pass rush come from? The Bucs were among the worst in the league at pressuring quarterbacks last season. That’s why they drafted Clayborn in the first round and fellow defensive end Da'Quan Bowers in the second in April. A year ago, the Bucs used their top two draft picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price.

There’s a lot invested in those young defensive linemen and the Bucs expect immediate results. Sure, they wouldn’t mind getting some sacks from blitzes by their linebackers or defensive backs, but it’s not like the Bucs have some other pass-rushing defensive end hidden up their sleeves.

Throughout camp, Clayborn’s looked even better than the Bucs thought he was when they drafted him. Bowers, coming off knee surgery in January, hasn’t been quite at Clayborn’s level. But he has looked better than the Bucs expected him to be at this point. At worst, Clayborn will start right away and Bowers will be used as a situational rusher. At best, Bowers might get on the field more than that and show every team that let him slide to the second round that his knee is fine.

2. Can Blount be a complete running back? That’s the hope and the plan, but Blount is a work in progress. We learned quickly last season that he can run between the tackles. He didn’t take the starting job from Cadillac Williams until midseason, but he still managed to rush for 1,007 yards.

Williams thrived as a third-down back last season, but he left via free agency, creating a void. When Blount was on the field last season, it was pretty obvious the Bucs were going to hand the ball to him. He only caught five passes and the team was hesitant to rely on Blount to pick up on blitzes on pass plays.

Earnest Graham and Kregg Lumpkin can do some of those things, but the Bucs have been working hard to make Blount a more balanced player. The coaching staff said he’s now up to speed on pass blocking and he has worked a lot on catching the ball out of the backfield in camp. If Blount can do everything this season, Tampa Bay’s offensive intentions no longer will be telegraphed.

3. Was Freeman’s first full season as a starter misleading? Not at all. He threw for 25 touchdowns with only six interceptions and pretty much carried an offense that had to do a lot of shuffling through a series of injuries.

Freeman took over as leader of the team last season, and he only reinforced that with the way he kept the Bucs together during the lockout. Those workouts only increased his chemistry with Williams, Arrelious Benn, Sammie Stroughter and tight end Kellen Winslow. Freeman is capable of throwing for 30-plus TDs and passing for more than 4,000 yards.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeDezmon Briscoe
Kim Klement/US PresswireTampa Bay is counting on a big contribution from receiver Dezmon Briscoe this season.
The Bucs had a pretty strong feeling about receiver Dezmon Briscoe when they made the unconventional move of signing him to the practice squad, but paying him like he was a member of the regular roster at the start of last season. Briscoe later earned his way onto the regular roster and has made the Bucs look like geniuses throughout camp and in the first preseason game. The team believes Benn is coming along well after suffering a torn ACL late last season. But the Bucs don’t want to rush Benn. That's why Briscoe could end up starting at the “Z’’ position opposite Williams early in the season. The long-range promise of Briscoe is off the charts because he can play all three receiver spots.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

It’s not so much that the Bucs have been disappointed with what they’ve seen from McCoy and Price when they’ve been on the field. The problem is the two second-year defensive tackles simply haven’t been on the field a lot. The hopes are still high for these two, but Price is coming off a rare surgery on his pelvis and is being brought along slowly. McCoy, who had his rookie season end with a triceps injury just when he was starting to blossom, has missed some of camp with a shoulder injury. Roy Miller is a consistent player and the Bucs don’t mind starting him. But they need McCoy and Price to be on the field and making big plays.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The arrival of Clayborn and Bowers also helps the offensive line. In the old days, left tackle Donald Penn rarely had to break a sweat in practice because he worked against Stylez G. White.
  • There’s concern on the outside about depth in the secondary. A lot of that concern stems from the uncertain situations of cornerback Aqib Talib and safety Tanard Jackson. Talib could face suspension by the league for an offseason incident in which he was charged with aggravated assault, and Jackson is out until at least late September as he finishes a one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. The Bucs have no idea what’s going to happen with Talib. If Jackson returns to them, they view it as a bonus. But the team isn’t nearly as concerned with the depth situation as fans are. Coaches are comfortable with Sean Jones and Cody Grimm as starting safeties and think they’ve found quality backups in Larry Asante and Corey Lynch. At cornerback, the Bucs believe E.J. Biggers could step into a starting role if anything happens to Talib, and there’s hope that second-year pro Myron Lewis could succeed as a nickel back.
  • The Bucs like what they’ve seen from Lumpkin during camp and think he might be a reliable backup for Blount. But Graham is a nice fall-back option. He’s been playing fullback, but played tailback earlier in his career. With Erik Lorig getting time at fullback last season, the Bucs have flexibility to move Graham around.
  • Although Foster is expected to start in the middle, the Bucs aren’t going to overload the rookie. At least in the short term, outside linebacker Quincy Black will wear the radio helmet and call the defensive plays. Part of that is because Black will be on the field all the time, and Foster will come out when the Bucs go to the nickel package.
  • Attention, fantasy football players: Consider drafting Winslow. He was good last season, despite missing a lot of practice time with an achy knee. Winslow said the knee feels better than it has in years. He spent most of the offseason working out with Freeman in Tampa and their chemistry should be even better than last season.

Looking at who Bucs should extend

August, 16, 2011
8/16/11
9:15
AM ET
Much to the chagrin of many of their fans, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have made it very clear they have a plan that involves building through the draft and largely ignoring free agency.

Other components of that plan involved developing the players the Bucs draft and, then, at some point, making sure they keep the ones they want for the long term. Whenever people point to how much salary cap space the Bucs have (at the moment it’s $29.5 million because only the top 51 cap figures count in the preseason and the Bucs have about $14 million in cap room when you count all their contracts, which is how it works in the regular season), the team quietly reminds you that money will be spent.

The implication is that the Bucs are going to extend the contracts of some of their key young players to make sure they never get near free agency. We’ve talked several times about how quarterback Josh Freeman has to be at the very top of that list.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
AP Photo/Margaret BowlesQuarterback Josh Freeman should be at the top of the Bucs' list of players to offer an extension to.
He’s under contract through 2013, but you could make the argument that Freeman already has outperformed his rookie deal. His average per year pay is $5.24 million. That may sound like a lot to you and me, but it terms of quarterbacks, it’s not great pay.

Freeman’s average per year ranks 24th in the league and he’s below guys like Kyle Orton and Charlie Whitehurst. If Freeman isn’t already a top-10 quarterback, he will be soon.

He’s also the franchise and you want to keep him happy. It’s pretty much a no-brainer that the Bucs should offer Freeman a pile of money and try to lock him up for the long term. But, after Freeman, who else should the Bucs target for extensions?

When I first thought about it, not a lot of names were coming to mind. That’s when I pulled out my list of the contract status for every player on the team and started really thinking about it. Once I did, I came up with a pretty lengthy list. I’ll give it to you in order of importance -- at least in my eyes.

Running back LeGarrette Blount. He’s under contract only through this season and could be an exclusive-rights or restricted free agent until he’s played four seasons. But the Bucs don’t need to play those games. If Blount picks up where he left off last season, the Bucs should lock him up. He’s not quite the franchise, like Freeman, but he’s a pretty important part of the franchise. He’s only making minimum ($450,000) this year and you want to keep key players happy.

Receiver Mike Williams. He’s under contract through 2013. But, like Freeman and Blount, he’s already outperformed his rookie contract as a fourth-round pick. If Williams didn’t have two more years on his contract, I’d rank him ahead of Blount. I think Williams has already shown that he’s going to be a very good player for a very long time.

Defensive tackle Roy Miller. He’s only under contract through 2012 and he’s quietly become a very solid player. We still don’t know if Gerald McCoy and Brian Price are going to be good and we’ve seen signs both might be injury prone. Miller doesn’t have the upside of McCoy and Price, but he’s the one sure thing the Bucs have at defensive tackle.

Cornerback Aqib Talib. Yeah, I said it. But humor me and listen to my logic on this one. I’m not saying the Bucs need to go out and give him an extension immediately. Talib’s under contract through 2012 and he’s got a trial scheduled for next March for his latest off-field incident. Let’s say Talib isn’t punished by the NFL and isn’t convicted by the legal system. And let’s say that he’s a model citizen from here on out. Then, it might make some sense to extend him. The kid is a heck of a talent and there are some important people in One Buccaneer Place who believe Talib isn’t a bad person, but has made some questionable decisions. They also know more about the off-field incidents than we do and they don’t think Talib was the instigator in any of them.

Linebacker Geno Hayes. He’s under contract only through this year. Hayes is a decent, but not great player. But the coaches like him and he’s viewed in much the same way as fellow linebacker Quincy Black. If the Bucs were willing to recently give Black a new contract, I think they’d do something similar for Hayes.

Cornerback E.J. Biggers. A lot will depend on how Talib’s situation plays out. Biggers is under contract through 2012. Ronde Barber's not going to play much longer. The Bucs could have one or two starting cornerback jobs open before long. Biggers has become a very good No. 3 cornerback and easily could transition into being a starter.

Safety Sean Jones. He’s 29 and only under contract through this season. He’s not young and he’s not a star. In fact, he's pretty ordinary. But the Bucs might want to extend him for a year or two. Jones brings stability to the safety spot and the Bucs don’t know if Tanard Jackson will be back after his one-year suspension.

Offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah. He’s only under contract through this season and he’s a nice backup at center and guard. Center Jeff Faine's probably not going to play a lot longer and Zuttah could be his eventual replacement.

Quarterback Josh Johnson. He’s in the final year of his contract. Although he rarely has played, the Bucs like him a lot. But, even if they approached Johnson about an extension, they might not have much luck. Johnson knows he’ll never start in Tampa Bay as long as Freeman is healthy. He’s got some talent and might want to go to a place where he at least has a shot at a starting job.

Safety Cody Grimm. He’s under contract through 2013, but he’s getting paid like the seventh-round choice he was last year. There’s no need to rush. But if Grimm, who is expected to start, plays well and Jackson’s not coming back, then it might be time to start thinking about extending him.

Receiver Sammie Stroughter. Like Grimm, there’s no rush on this one and the Bucs need to see more out of Stroughter, who is under contract through 2012. He looks like he could be a nice third receiver and return man. If he can provide some more evidence of that, he might be a candidate for an extension.

Observations on the Buccaneers

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
11:07
PM ET
It looked a little bit like Josh Freeman turned into Drew Brees on Friday night.

Playing just a little more than a quarter, Freeman completed passes to seven different players as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened their preseason with a 25-0 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Freeman completed nine of 13 passes for 73 yards and also ran for a touchdown before leaving with the Bucs holding a 13-0 lead.

Some other observations on the Buccaneers.
  • Tampa Bay’s defense had as much to do with the fast start as the offense. Rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster, who appears to be headed for a starting job, recovered a fumble to set up Freeman’s touchdown. On Kansas City’s next possession, safety Sean Jones recovered a fumble and the Bucs followed that up with a field goal. Tampa Bay’s second-team defense even recorded a safety late in the second quarter.
  • Nice to see the Bucs throw a pass to running back LeGarrette Blount. They’ve talked about getting him more involved in the passing game. Looks like the Bucs are serious about that.
  • Second-year receiver Dezmon Briscoe had four catches for 60 yards. The coaches have been high on Briscoe since late last season and he has a chance to open the season as the starter opposite Mike Williams. Arrelious Benn is coming off major knee surgery. Benn is progressing well, but the Bucs don’t want to rush him. With Briscoe, they might be able to buy Benn some more recovery time.
  • Not a bad outing by backup quarterback Josh Johnson. His agent might want to copy the tape and ship it around the league because Johnson can become a free agent next season.
  • The Bucs used their first two draft picks on defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers in hopes of improving the pass rush. The rookies have yet to make an impact, but third-year defensive end Kyle Moore had two sacks and reserve linebacker Dekoda Watson had 1.5.

Three things: Buccaneers-Chiefs

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
10:59
AM ET
Three things to watch for in Tampa Bay’s preseason opener at Kansas City on Friday. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET.

The play of Mason Foster. All indications are the Bucs are leaning heavily toward going with the third-round draft choice as their middle linebacker. The rookie has had a nice camp, but needs to show he can do the job in game conditions.

The evolution of LeGarrette Blount. The running back ran for 1,000 yards last season, but the team was limited in how he could be used. That’s because Blount didn’t join the team until late, didn’t start until the second half of the season and wasn’t fully up to speed on plays that didn’t involve him running the ball. The Bucs want Blount on the field more often this season and want to utilize him as a pass blocker and receiver.

How the safeties fare. With Tanard Jackson still suspended, the Bucs aren’t exactly loaded at safety. They have veteran Sean Jones, who is not exactly a ball hawk, and Cody Grimm, who still is recovering from a leg injury. This could be an opportunity for Corey Lynch or Ahmad Black to step forward.

Evening links around NFC South

August, 2, 2011
8/02/11
6:50
PM ET
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- I've spent the day watching the Carolina Panthers practice and doing interviews. Now, it's time to catch up on the headlines from around the entire NFC South.
  • Former Atlanta running back Jerious Norwood agreed to terms with the Rams and he’s not the only former NFC South runner who could end up in St. Louis. Jim Thomas reports, Tampa Bay free agent Cadillac Williams remains on the Rams’ radar. The Bucs have said they would like to bring Williams back. But, presumably, that’s only at the right price and only if they can’t find someone better. According to league sources, the Bucs made overtures toward Darren Sproles before he agreed to terms with New Orleans.
  • The Saints agreed to terms on a contract that will keep tight end David Thomas with the team. This one’s significant. Although second-year pro Jimmy Graham figures to be the main pass-catching tight end, Thomas is an all-around tight end, who can contribute as a blocker and receiver.
  • D. Orlando Ledbetter lays out the scenario on Atlanta restricted free-agent cornerback Brent Grimes, who has yet to sign his first-round tender. Basically, the Falcons have the right to match any offer Grimes receives and would receive a first-round pick as compensation if he leaves. The Falcons also could sign Grimes to a long-term contract.
  • Stephen Holder supplies a refresher course on the rules of safety Tanard Jackson’s suspension. He’s not eligible for reinstatement until Sept. 22 and cannot practice with the Bucs during training camp. Jackson was in the final year of his contract when he was suspended last year for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. As a result of that, the remainder of his contract rolled over to this year and the Bucs still have his rights. In the meantime, Tampa Bay appears content to open the season with Sean Jones and Cody Grimm as the starting safeties.
Shortly before the lockout began and soon after Tampa Bay re-signed cornerback Ronde Barber to a one-year, $4 million contract, the Buccaneers were sitting at a league-low $63.8 million in salary-cap space committed toward the 2011 season.

[+] EnlargeNnamdi Asomugha
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireThe Buccaneers are in position financially to compete for free agents like Nnamdi Asomugha.
You also need to remember the Bucs have placed tenders on guard Davin Joseph and some others, so this number’s going to climb a bit if the tenders hold up in a new labor agreement.

But it’s pretty likely the Bucs will be doing some subtracting as soon as the labor agreement is reached. As I said in this post, the Bucs are almost certain to cut ties with troubled cornerback Aqib Talib as soon as they can, and that move will clear up roughly $1.35 million in salary-cap space.

We don’t know what the new salary cap will be. In 2009, the last capped year, it was right around $130 million. In some of the reports about the labor negotiations, there were indications owners were pushing for a cap as low as $101 million. So let’s just go hypothetical, split the difference and say the cap will be somewhere around $115 million.

Throw in the tenders, assume the Bucs might re-sign a few of their new players and factor in whatever they have to pay their rookies. No matter how you slice all that, it’s pretty safe to assume the Bucs still will be well beneath the cap.

The Bucs haven’t been big players in free agency lately and they’ve been preaching about how they’re building with youth, which is nice. But there also will be a salary-cap floor, if there is a salary cap and the Bucs will have to meet that.

Sometimes, coach Raheem Morris talks a little more than he should. But, after a quick crunch of the numbers, I’m wondering if Morris was sending out a signal when he was asked about what his team might do in free agency when he met with the media at the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans last week.

“You get your plan, you lay it out and you execute it,’’ Morris said. “We talk about when to dabble in free agency, adding some pieces to push you to the next level. Those things happened in Tampa . And maybe those things will happen again. Are we at that point yet? We’ll have to find out. You’ve got a good idea who you want to target. You can’t close the door. Sean Jones worked out great. Derrick Ward was not a great fit for us. You get a certain value. You’ll never hit 100 percent in the draft or life, you just want to be more right than wrong.’’

I’m not expecting the Bucs to go on a crazy spending spree in free agency, but I’m thinking Morris sounds like a man who is planning on doing a little shopping once the store opens. Hey, with that kind of cap room, the Bucs just might be able to replace Talib with some like ...oh, let's just say Nnamdi Asomugha. That would be an upgrade on many levels.

Final Word: NFC South

October, 8, 2010
10/08/10
4:03
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 5:

[+] EnlargeCadillac Williams
Cliff Welch/Icon SMICadillac Williams will still be the starter and get the majority of the carries for Tampa Bay.
Not ready to trade in the Caddy. I think there’s been a bit of overreaction to Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris saying running backs Kareem Huggins and LeGarrette Blount are going to get increased playing time. Yeah, that’s going to happen. But Morris never has said Cadillac Williams is being benched or anything close to that. He’s still the starter and he’s still going to get the bulk of the carries. Huggins and Blount will get some carries and part of the reason for this is the Bucs think a little lighter load might make Williams more effective.

The homecoming. Chicago defensive end Julius Peppers returns to Bank of America Stadium on Sunday. A lot of people used to say Peppers didn’t show up all the time when he played for the Panthers. I think it’s a given that he’ll show up for this one because he wants to make a statement. That’s going to put the heat on Carolina tackle Jordan Gross. But if the hapless Panthers have one thing going for them, it’s that Peppers and Gross spent most of their careers practicing against each other. Gross is a pretty strong blocker and he might be able to keep Peppers from rubbing too much salt into the wounds of his former team. But the Bears have been giving Peppers the freedom to line up wherever he wants. He may avoid Gross some of the time and go after Geoff Schwartz on the right side.

The slumping Saints? There’s been all sorts of talk about how the Saints are winning ugly. I don’t dispute that, but they are 3-1 and loaded with talent. At some point, things are going to click and the Saints are going to put together a pretty win. I think it comes Sunday in Arizona. The Saints aren’t going to play down to the level of competition in this one.

A new MVP. Pretty much since we started the Blog Network in the summer of 2008, I’ve been saying Drew Brees is the best current player in the NFC South. At least for the moment, I’m going to back off that. I still think Brees is one heck of a quarterback and I’m not all that concerned that his numbers are down a bit so far this year. But, after four games, I feel very strongly that Atlanta receiver Roddy White has been the NFC South’s Most Valuable Player. Time for this guy to start getting the league-wide recognition he deserves.

Mismatch? Even with the Rays in the playoffs and the Bucs coming off a bye week, there’s a pretty good buzz in Tampa Bay about how the Bucs are going to handle Cincinnati receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens (too bad Antonio Bryant's not part of the mix). With rookie Cody Grimm getting his second start at free safety, that’s a legitimate concern. But the rest of Tampa Bay’s secondary is pretty good. Aqib Talib, Ronde Barber and Sean Jones need to help Grimm out a bit. But, here’s an idea: If the Bucs can start generating just a little bit of a consistent pass rush, the secondary can survive this one.

Jackson suspension a hurdle for Bucs

September, 22, 2010
9/22/10
6:32
PM ET
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.

Ranking the NFC South safeties

August, 26, 2010
8/26/10
7:05
AM ET
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.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider

NFL SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 8/21
Friday, 8/22
Saturday, 8/23
Sunday, 8/24
WEEKLY LEADERS