NFL Nation: Stylez G. White

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.

NFC South free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC South team:

Atlanta Falcons

1. Sign a pass-rushing defensive end: This move has been telegraphed since the draft, when the Falcons jumped up to add an explosive offensive player in wide receiver Julio Jones rather than a pass-rusher. It’s no secret the Falcons want to add an edge rusher who can complement John Abraham in the short term and replace him in the long term. The Falcons showed last year when they signed cornerback Dunta Robinson that they’re not afraid to spend big money in free agency. They’re poised to do it again, and Minnesota’s Ray Edwards and Carolina’s Charles Johnson are two pass-rushers just entering their prime who will be on the market. The Falcons can offer big money and the chance to be the last piece of a Super Bowl puzzle. That should be attractive.

2. Figure out what the offensive line will look like: The Falcons have three starters on the offensive line who are likely to be free agents, and they’ll allow one or two of them to walk. That’s not as scary as it may sound, because none of those free agents is dominant, and the Falcons have stockpiled some promising linemen in the last few drafts. But center Todd McClure is near the end of his career, and left tackle Sam Baker is still a question mark. That means the Falcons can’t afford to let all their free-agent linemen walk. They need to maintain some continuity on the line to make sure quarterback Matt Ryan stays upright. Keeping right tackle Tyson Clabo is the major priority.

3. Re-sign kicker Matt Bryant: The veteran has revitalized his career since coming to Atlanta. He’s come through consistently in the clutch. The Falcons are a team on the verge of great things, and they don’t need to suddenly go young or cheap at kicker. They need a veteran who can help them win some big games.

Top five free agents: Bryant, LB Mike Peterson, T Tyson Clabo, G Harvey Dahl and G Justin Blalock.

Carolina Panthers

1. Re-sign DeAngelo Williams: The running back is sure to be a hot commodity on the open market, but the Panthers can’t afford to let him get away. Yes, Jonathan Stewart looked very good at times last season, and Mike Goodson made the most of his playing time after Williams was injured. But the Panthers don't want to put too much pressure on a young starting quarterback, whether it's Cam Newton or Jimmy Clausen. They need to have two or three strong running backs, and Williams is the most versatile member of the backfield.

2. Make a decision on Steve Smith: Other than the drafting of Newton, speculation about Smith’s future has been the dominant story out of Carolina this offseason. There have been conflicting reports about whether the veteran wide receiver wants to be traded from the only team he’s ever played for. The speculation was a moot point because no trades could be made during the lockout. Now, Smith and the Panthers will have to show their hand. If he truly wants out, the Panthers will try to trade Smith. But they’re not simply going to give him away. Even if he’s unhappy, Smith still might be the best player on the roster. The Panthers aren’t letting him go without getting a good draft pick or a decent player in return.

3. Sign a veteran quarterback: New coach Ron Rivera has said several times that he wants to add a veteran quarterback to serve as a mentor to Newton and Clausen. Heck, he might even need that veteran to start the first few games of the season so Newton and Clausen can catch up on all the missed offseason work. The Panthers want someone who can help the development of the two young quarterbacks. Someone like Marc Bulger or Jake Delhomme could fit, if either is willing to accept a backup role.

Top five free agents: Williams, DE Charles Johnson, LB James Anderson, LB Thomas Davis and CB Richard Marshall.

New Orleans Saints

1. Decide what to do with Reggie Bush. The running back/return man is scheduled to make almost $12 million and count $16 million against the cap. That’s not going to happen, but the Saints have indicated they’d like to keep Bush if they can work out a contract extension that would spread money around. The Saints drafted running back Mark Ingram in the first round, but Bush still could play plenty of roles with this team. Sean Payton has been creative with the ways he’s used Bush, who has been productive when healthy. Last year’s injury problems at running back showed the Saints can’t have enough depth at the position.

2. Make some key secondary decisions. Safeties Darren Sharper and Roman Harper are both potential unrestricted free agents, so the Saints have to make some choices. Sharper’s past his prime and is a free safety. That position now belongs to Malcolm Jenkins. Harper has been the starting strong safety and has been solid. Harper shouldn’t command huge money on the open market, and the Saints would be wise to re-sign him. If they do, they should have one of the league’s better secondaries.

3. Shore up the outside linebacker spots. Scott Shanle is an unrestricted free agent and may or may not return. The other position is up for grabs. Martez Wilson was drafted in the third round, and the Saints have a few other promising prospects at outside linebacker. But this is a veteran team with a realistic chance to contend for the Super Bowl, so it might be wise to go out and get a proven veteran and let the young linebackers develop behind him.

Top five free agents: Sharper, Harper, WR Lance Moore, FB Heath Evans and TE David Thomas.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1. Re-sign Davin Joseph. The guard is very much in his prime and is strong as a run blocker and pass blocker. Along with Donald Penn, he’s the anchor of an offensive line that may be working in some young players. Quarterback Josh Freeman is the franchise in Tampa Bay, and the Bucs need to do whatever it takes to keep him protected.

2. Decide on a defensive leader. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud is an unrestricted free agent and may bolt if a decent offer comes from elsewhere. Ruud’s been asking for a new contract for about two years, and the Bucs haven’t given it to him. They drafted Mason Foster in the third round and are high on his potential. But this is a very young defense, and putting a rookie at middle linebacker could be a risky move. Buffalo’s Paul Posluszny is a free agent, and there are reports that Green Bay could be looking to trade or release Nick Barnett. Either of those guys could come in and be an immediate leader on this defense.

3. Spend some money. The Bucs have had one of the league’s lowest payrolls in recent years. Still, they’ve made progress in a youth movement that won’t be abandoned. It might be time to start locking up some young players to longer deals. It might also be time to go out and get just a few free agents to keep the youth movement headed in the right direction.

Top five free agents: G Davin Joseph, LB Barrett Ruud, RB Cadillac Williams, DE Stylez G. White and Maurice Stovall.

Buccaneers back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Although he’s only 23, quarterback Josh Freeman further cemented himself as this team’s leader by taking control and organizing the offseason workouts for the Bucs. Freeman’s workouts focused mostly on the offensive skill positions and some offensive linemen. Most of the defensive players did most of their working out on their own. Freeman seemed to strengthen his bond with tight end Kellen Winslow and some of the young receivers, and that should help. But this was the NFL’s youngest team last year, and the lack of offseason time with coaches is going to make for a very challenging training camp.

Biggest challenge: Although the Bucs got a lot of production out of last year’s rookie class, most notably receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount, a lot of players still aren’t deeply versed in the system. Defensive tackles Brian Price and Gerald McCoy, safety Cody Grimm and receiver Arrelious Benn all had their rookie seasons end prematurely because of injuries. All indications are they’ve done a good job getting healthy, but they could have used the offseason time with the coaches to really put them into position to take the next step.

Secondary issues: The Bucs are certain they’ll open camp and the regular season without safety Tanard Jackson. He’s serving a one-year NFL suspension and won’t even be allowed to apply for reinstatement until late September. The team can’t count on Jackson's return, although it would be a nice bonus. There’s nothing certain about cornerback Aqib Talib’s situation. He’s facing an assault charge in Texas and his trial is scheduled for next March. There’s the possibility the Bucs or the NFL could take disciplinary action against a player who’s been suspected for violating the league’s personal-conduct code previously. If the Bucs and the league decide to wait on disciplinary action, it’s possible Talib could open camp with his teammates.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Linebacker Barrett Ruud, running back Cadillac Williams, guard Davin Joseph, defensive end Stylez G. White.

NFC South Stock Watch

July, 19, 2011
7/19/11
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As we get closer to what sounds like the end of the NFL’s labor lockout, it’s time to start thinking about some real football.

Let’s focus on the field and bring back the NFC South Stock Watch.

Falling

1. Corey Peters, defensive tackle, Atlanta Falcons. He wound up starting as a rookie last season and played fairly well. But Peters was getting playing time out of necessity because Peria Jerry wasn’t fully healthy. The Falcons used Jerry as a backup. But Jerry’s expected to be healthy and the Falcons are going to give their No. 1 pick from 2009 every chance possible to get on the field.

2. Stylez G. White, defensive end Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When you’re a starting defensive end and your team goes out and uses its first two draft picks on defensive ends, it’s generally not the sign of a bright future. White is an unrestricted free agent and the only way he’ll return to the Bucs is if he accepts a contract somewhere near the minimum and is willing to accept a backup role. But even that may be a bit of a long-shot. White’s never been a good practice player and the Bucs don’t want rookies Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers picking up his habits.

3. Jermon Bushrod, left tackle, New Orleans Saints. He’s been a starter each of the last two seasons, but the Saints know Bushrod is never going to be a top-notch left tackle. They drafted Charles Brown last year and are hoping he shows some promise in training camp. If Brown shows much of anything, he’ll start.

Rising

1. Kellen Winslow, tight end, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I’ve seen Winslow a couple of times this offseason and he looks better than ever. He’s always been a workout warrior, but he seems to have taken things to extremes this year. Part of the reason for that may be that a sore knee that bothered him most of last season has healed. Winslow has spent much of his offseason in Tampa, working with quarterback Josh Freeman. They already had good chemistry, but it should be even better.

2. Harry Douglas, wide receiver, Atlanta Falcons. The drafting of receiver Julio Jones was not good news for Michael Jenkins. Jones probably will replace Jenkins in the starting lineup. But Jones’ arrival is actually good news for Douglas, who was asked to fill in as a starter when Jenkins was hurt early last season. Douglas is not an every-down wide receiver. He’s perfectly suited to playing the slot. With Jones around, Douglas should be able to focus on what he does best.

3. Charles Johnson, defensive end, Carolina Panthers. There might not be an NFC South player in better position coming out of the lockout. Johnson is 25 and coming off a breakout season in which he had 11.5 sacks. He also is expected to be an unrestricted free agent. The Panthers are going to do everything possible to keep him. But other teams, perhaps even the Falcons, are going to come after Johnson hard. Wherever he ends up, Johnson will be making a lot of money.
We’ve had some system-wide technical problems much of the day, so I haven’t been able to provide a report from the Bucs’ "minicamp" in Bradenton, Fla. -- until now. Some other items that were delayed by the technical problems also should be popping up. We’ll keep this one to the basics and will share some other Tampa Bay stuff with you down the road.

  • The Bucs began a series of three-day workouts at IMG Academies Tuesday morning, organized largely by quarterback Josh Freeman. IMG football director Chris Weinke, a former member of the Carolina Panthers, and some members of his staff supervised the on-field activities and IMG strength and conditioning coach Jeff Dillman supervised the weight-lifting session and the stretching session before the players began workouts.
  • Approximately 50 players were in attendance, highlighted by cornerback Aqib Talib. He’s been in the news this offseason as he faces an assault charge in a March incident in Texas. But it’s not that big a surprise that Talib attended the session. He took part in some of Freeman’s earlier workouts in Tampa, according to teammates. Talib is awaiting trial and also could face discipline from the Bucs or the NFL. But, as long as the lockout remains in place, the league and the team can’t issue any punishment for Talib. He talked briefly with reporters on his way to the practice field and again as he walked off. He declined to discuss his case and said he wanted to simply focus on football.
  • Although IMG also is hosting the National Football League Players Association rookie event that has been called the NFL’s rookie symposium in previous years, at least two of Tampa Bay’s draft picks took part in the morning session. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn and linebacker Mason Foster went through drills with their new teammates. Some others apparently elected to attend the rookie event.
  • The notable players not on the field for the morning session included running back Cadillac Williams, linebacker Barrett Ruud, cornerback Ronde Barber and defensive end Stylez G. White. Williams, Ruud and White are expected to be unrestricted free agents when the lockout ends. Freeman said some players stayed away because of their contract situations and others ran into scheduling conflicts or travel problems. Freeman said some more players could be joining the workouts this afternoon or Wednesday.
  • When asked who was paying for the use of the facilities and lodging for the players, Freeman said that IMG had been very generous in making the event possible. He then added that he and several veterans are chipping in to pick up the tab.
  • Several players recovering from major injuries were in attendance but not taking part in the on-field activities. They included running back Kareem Huggins, defensive tackle Brian Price and wide receiver Arrelious Benn.
Da'Quan BowersKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDa'Quan Bowers amassed 74 tackles and 15.5 sacks for Clemson last season.
We’ve all heard of the law of diminishing returns. Well, I think we just saw an example of the law of diminishing risk.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just used their second-round pick on Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. The pick was No. 51, which is precisely 50 spots below where most people were saying Bowers would go back when talk about this draft really started in January.

He’s the most dynamic pass-rusher in the draft and a freakish athlete. But he tumbled beyond all expectations as concerns about what could be a chronic knee problem surfaced and continued to grow.

The Bucs supposedly considered Bowers in the first round at No. 20. But that’s where the law of diminishing returns might have played a role. Instead, the Bucs went the safer route and chose Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn. He’s not as dynamic a pass-rusher as Bowers, but he’s a complete defensive end and doesn’t come with a lot of questions.

But the law of diminishing risk kicked in as the second round kept rolling and Bowers kept sliding. At No. 51, the risk isn’t nearly as great as it would have been at No. 20.

The Bucs have played this game before and played it quite well. They took their shot on receiver Mike Williams in the fourth round last year. He came with some background questions and might have been a big risk if he had been taken any sooner. The returns came quickly as Williams instantly turned into Tampa Bay’s No. 1 receiver.

I don’t know all the details that are in the medical reports about Bowers' knee, but the Buccaneers obviously do. Like every other team, they do their homework on these matters.

They must feel like Bowers can at least be a productive player for a few years. With Clayborn and Bowers, even if his knee is a bit of an issue, the Bucs suddenly look a lot better at defensive end than they did last season. Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder were starters most of last year and they generated almost no pass rush.

Even if the Bucs want to start off cautiously with Bowers and use him as a situational pass-rusher for 15 or 20 snaps a game, that gives them more of a threat than White and Crowder did over the course of an entire game. Clayborn’s the kind of guy who should play a lot of downs because he can play the run and generate a decent pass rush.

There’s another theme emerging here. The Bucs used their first two picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price in last year’s draft. This time, they did it with defensive ends. McCoy and Price showed promise last year and they should get a lot better with some help around them on the outside.

Suddenly, there’s at least the potential for the Bucs to have a very good defensive line. That should make the entire front seven a lot better. There weren’t a lot of big plays from the front seven as the Bucs ranked 30th in the league in sacks. In a 10-6 season that was highlighted by the emergence of quarterback Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay’s secondary was the only area of the defense that made plays.

Now, there’s the potential for pressure up front, which should translate into more big plays for the secondary and maybe more wins for the Bucs.

Even if his role is limited, Bowers should help the Bucs. In a best-case scenario, Bowers’ slide could end up bringing back very happy memories from the franchise’s past.

Once upon a time, 1995 to be exact, there was a defensive lineman tumbling fast. He also had initially been projected as the No. 1 overall pick. But there were reports of a different nature (failed drug tests). The Bucs watched as that player slid. When their time came, they assumed the risk.

They drafted Warren Sapp. That worked out pretty darn well. If Bowers can bring half the impact Sapp did, this pick will be well worth the risk.

Bucs make safe choice in Clayborn

April, 28, 2011
4/28/11
11:21
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In instant hindsight, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the safe approach Thursday night.

Clayborn
Clayborn
With the 20th overall pick in the draft, they took Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn. He might not have the same upside as a pass-rusher as Clemson’s Da'Quan Bowers or Georgia’s Justin Houston, but he sure as heck doesn’t have the downside they do.

Bowers and Houston were on the board when the Bucs picked and both come with questions. Bowers, once expected to be the first overall player taken, was sliding as reports about many teams having concerns about his knee surfaced. Houston’s name surfaced in reports about players who had failed drug tests.

This wasn’t the time for the Bucs to take a chance. They’ve been under the character microscope recently because of a series of off-the-field problems and they still get criticism for taking chances on receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount.

The Bucs are very sensitive to that criticism and that might be part of the reason why they didn’t switch gears and go for Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith, who also was on the board. Smith’s a guy with some background questions of his own and it wouldn’t have made a lot of sense to take him to replace Aqib Talib, who probably is on his way out after a series of off- and on-the-field issues.

Clayborn might not be the most exciting pick. He’s known as a guy who plays the run very well, but he wasn’t the most dynamic pass-rusher in college. He did have 11 sacks in 2009, but only had four in 2010.

Clayborn’s probably not the kind of guy who's going to come in and give you 16 or 18 sacks in a season. What he represents is a guy who might be the most balanced defensive end in the draft. He can come in and start right away and play a lot of downs.

He probably is an instant upgrade over either of the guys who started much of last season (Tim Crowder and Stylez G. White) and he’s also another big piece of a defensive line that could be a franchise cornerstone.

The Bucs used their first two picks last year on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Both showed some promise last season before having their rookie years cut short. Both are expected to be healthy this year. Put Clayborn next to them and McCoy and Price suddenly could be a lot better. Put McCoy and Price around Clayborn and he suddenly could become a lot better.

Oh, while we’re on the subject of Price and McCoy, don’t be surprised if there’s another double dip on the horizon. Clayborn’s better than any defensive end on the roster. The Bucs need another guy to go with him. I’m not saying the Bucs necessarily go defensive end with their first two picks. But I think there’s a decent chance the Bucs come out of this draft with at least one more defensive end.

NFC South mock draft

April, 25, 2011
4/25/11
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The ESPN.com Blog Network’s mock draft is out and the entire thing is posted over on the AFC South Blog.

But let’s take a look at just the NFC South picks here. I got to play general manager for each of the four NFC South teams as we worked our way through this draft late last week.

Let’s make it clear that I wasn’t picking the guy I happened to like best. I was relying on what I’ve been seeing and hearing over the last couple of months, especially over the last couple of weeks, to try to project what I think each team will do. It was easy to make the No. 1 overall pick for the Carolina Panthers because no one stood in my way.

I didn’t have the same luxury when picking for the Buccaneers, Saints and Falcons because a lot depended on what happened with the choices in front of me.

Here’s who I took for each team and my analysis of the pick.

1. Carolina: Cam Newton, QB, Auburn.

Analysis: The Panthers are aware of upside and downside with Newton. But a team that has to compete in a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman for the foreseeable future realizes it has to get a franchise quarterback to compete in the NFC South. Time to take the big leap on Newton.

20. Tampa Bay: Justin Houston, DE, Georgia.

Analysis: The Buccaneers have a huge need for a pass-rusher. Houston's the best on the board. Time for the Stylez G. White (4.5 sacks last season) era to end.

24. New Orleans: Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa.

Analysis: The Saints don't need an immediate star. But he can be the heir apparent to Will Smith and contribute in a defensive-end rotation for a year or two before becoming the main piece of this defensive line.

27. Atlanta: Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh.

Analysis: The Falcons would really love to get a pass-rushing defensive end, but the board is pretty empty. They can fill that need whenever free agency starts. For now, they'll switch things up and look for an "explosive" player on offense. Baldwin is a huge receiver and could be the perfect complement to Roddy White.
Adrian Clayborn and Ryan KerriganGetty ImagesIowa's Adrian Clayborn, left, or Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan would be a nice addition to any NFC South team looking to improve its pass rush.
Let’s have a little bit of fun and play a game of NFC South word and name association.

I’ll start it off and say "franchise quarterbacks." This is where you chime in and say what pops into your head. Your venue for that generally is the comments section or the mailbag, but I’ll go ahead and read your minds. I feel safe on this.

Your answer, with only the slightest bit of room for argument, is Drew Brees, Josh Freeman and Matt Ryan. If you want to argue any of that, hold it for now, but I probably won’t listen anyway.

Now, I’ll throw out the words "elite pass-rushers."

I can’t hear you now and I can’t even read your minds. You might be saying John Abraham, Charles Johnson and Will Smith. Or you might not.

Let’s face it: The NFC South is a division with three franchise quarterbacks. Maybe four if the Carolina Panthers take Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert with the No. 1 choice in this draft and actually hit on that pick.

You stop or slow great quarterbacks by putting pressure on them. Amazingly, the NFC South isn’t really set up to do that, but that could change quickly. Although most of the attention on the April draft has centered on the Panthers and their quarterback situation, there’s another huge storyline out there.

When all is said and done, 2011 could be the year of the defensive end both for the NFC South and the draft. There at least is a possibility the Buccaneers, Saints and Falcons each could use first-round picks on defensive ends.

The time might be right because that’s a position of strength in this year’s draft. I’m looking at Mel Kiper’s Big Board and seeing seven defensive ends (when you count college outside linebackers and defensive tackles as guys who may project as NFL defensive ends) among the top 25 players.

The NFC South often is referred to as the NASCAR division, so, gentlemen and general managers, start your pass rush. Please.

It’s overdue. If things don’t change dramatically, and soon, we could be looking at somewhere close to a decade of Brees, Ryan and Freeman having all day to throw. That’s the way it was last season when the NFC South had two big flashes (Johnson in Carolina and Abraham in Atlanta) and not much else in the way of a pass rush.

We’ll leave Abraham’s 13.0 sacks and Johnson’s 11.5 in the mix because last year’s division numbers would be laughable without them. Even with them, things were pretty ugly.

Tampa Bay produced an NFC-worst 26 sacks. Carolina and Atlanta each had 31. New Orleans led the division with 33 sacks, which tied the Saints for 10th in the NFC. The NFC average was 35.9 and the league average 35.3.

If you want to throw out the old lines that “stats are for losers’’ or "sacks don't tell the whole story with defensive ends,'' go ahead. But I’ll throw this back at you: The Pittsburgh Steelers led the league with 48 sacks and the Green Bay Packers tied for second with 47. Those two teams played in the Super Bowl.

The NFC South had both its playoff representatives, Atlanta and New Orleans, bounced the first time they took the field. The Falcons and the Saints are just fine on offense and, for the first time in franchise history, so are the Buccaneers.

But no NFC South team is going to get to the Super Bowl without improving its pass rush, and that’s not going to happen without some help in the draft. This division simply does not have a ... oh, let’s just say, Julius Peppers. This division doesn’t have a sure-fire dominant pass-rusher. (Note: Carolina's Johnson could turn into that guy if he can string together more seasons like the last, and if he ends up staying with the Panthers amid some potential uncertainty about his status as a free agent in a new labor agreement. But this column's more about the need to improve the pass rush in the other three NFC South cities).

Atlanta’s got Abraham, but he’s going to be 33 in May and he’s only one season removed from a disappointing 5.5-sack year. The Falcons can’t count on Abraham to put up big numbers much longer, and guys like Kroy Biermann, Chauncey Davis and Jamaal Anderson don’t scare anybody.

Maybe someone like Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn or Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan could scare someone. But the Falcons are going to have competition within their own division for guys like that. Atlanta has the No. 27 pick. Look at the myriad mock drafts out there and you see those same names frequently tied to Tampa Bay at No. 20 or New Orleans at No. 24.

It all makes sense. The Bucs were starting Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder much of last season. If they didn’t get really good play out of their secondary, things would have been really ugly. Tampa Bay turned a corner by going 10-6 last season, but the Bucs easily could slip back to mediocrity -- or worse -- if they don’t address the pass rush.

They used their first two picks last year on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Both showed a little promise before suffering season-ending injuries. They at least have the potential to generate a surge in the middle, but McCoy and Price aren’t going to really blossom until they have some help on the outside.

In New Orleans, the need also is obvious. The Saints have Smith, but he’s nearing Abraham territory, which means uncertainty. Smith dropped to 5.5 sacks last season after having 13 in the 2009 Super Bowl season. Smith will turn 30 in July. He might be able to bounce back and have a few more good seasons, but that’s not likely to happen if the Saints don’t add a threat on the other side. They got through last season with Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson serving as functional veterans.

But a Gregg Williams defense is supposed to thrive on pressure, and the Saints need more. Kerrigan or Clayborn could fit. Throw in California’s Cameron Jordan or Missouri’s Aldon Smith. Any of them could fit in with the Saints.

Or the Bucs. Or the Falcons.

Draft Watch: NFC South

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
12:00
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Atlanta Falcons

Perhaps the biggest positive to come out of a 13-3 season that ended with a disappointing playoff loss to Green Bay is that it made Atlanta’s offseason needs so clear. Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have said, in no uncertain terms, the Falcons need to become more explosive on both sides of the ball, and they have established a track record of working together to get what they want.

It’s no secret that Atlanta’s biggest need is to improve the pass rush. Veteran John Abraham stepped up with 13.5 sacks last season, but there’s no guarantee that will continue. Even if Abraham produces another big season, the Falcons need another defensive end to help provide a more consistent pass rush. Although the team used its first-round pick on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon last year, another athletic outside linebacker is a possibility, because Mike Peterson is getting older and Stephen Nicholas might leave via free agency. Speed and athleticism also will be targets on offense. The Falcons have a good power running game with Michael Turner and Jason Snelling, but need a speed back to make some big plays. Roddy White is one of the game’s best receivers, but the Falcons would like to add a speedster to stretch the field.

Offensive line also is a possibility, because the Falcons have several possible free agents and it remains to be seen if the team is really sold on left tackle Sam Baker.

Carolina Panthers

New coach Ron Rivera takes over a roster that’s not as depleted as last year’s 2-14 record might suggest. There are some areas of strength -- defensive end, running back and linebacker. Some consistent play at quarterback would go a long way toward making the Panthers competitive quickly. It remains to be seen if the Panthers will take a leap on Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert in the draft, or try to get a veteran through free agency or via trade.

Whatever the Panthers decide at quarterback, there are some other big needs that will have to be addressed in the draft. The middle of the defensive line has been a problem spot the past two seasons, and Auburn’s Nick Fairley is a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick. The wild card in all this could be LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. Some say he’s the best player in the draft, and there is uncertainty about the futures of cornerbacks Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble. The rule of thumb is that you don’t take a cornerback with the top pick of the draft. But Peterson might be the most complete player in the draft, so the Panthers have to at least consider breaking the rules.

New Orleans Saints

Assuming the restricted free agent tags hold up with a new labor agreement, the Saints should be able to keep a pretty strong roster intact. That said, there are some obvious areas of need. On defense, the Saints could use another pass-rusher to team with Will Smith. Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson were adequate last season, but not dynamic. The basis of a Gregg Williams defense is to create turnovers, and that starts with a pass rush up front. An athletic outside linebacker also is high on the list. The Saints thought they had enough young guys last year to let Scott Fujita walk in free agency. But several of those young linebackers were injured, and that spot became a problem.

Offensively, the Saints are pretty well set at the skill positions, but it’s possible they could at least look to add another running back at some point. Reggie Bush's future remains uncertain and the Saints were hampered by injuries at running back last season. Although the Saints drafted Charles Brown last year, offensive tackle could be addressed again. Brown might get a shot to start ahead of Jermon Bushrod at left tackle, but the Saints might like to add one more person to that competition.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Despite a surprising 10-6 record last season, the rebuilding job is far from done in Tampa Bay. The Bucs still need to upgrade the talent level at several positions, and defensive end appears to be first on the list. Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder ended up as the starters last season and weren’t able to generate much of a pass rush. After using the first two picks of last year’s draft on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, the Bucs would like to surround them with young talent on the outside.

The Bucs could be looking for a middle linebacker if Barrett Ruud leaves via free agency, and more depth at outside linebacker also is a possibility. The uncertain future of suspended safety Tanard Jackson means the Bucs might have to look for depth at that position. The offensive needs aren’t as big, but the Bucs could use a running back to help share the load with LeGarrette Blount.

Leading Questions: NFC South

February, 15, 2011
2/15/11
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC South team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

ATLANTA FALCONS

How do the Falcons take the next step?

Atlanta went an NFC-best 13-3 in the regular season, but got eliminated at home in the playoffs by Green Bay. That was painful proof that the Falcons haven’t quite arrived despite three consecutive winning seasons since coach Mike Smith took over. The Falcons played like a well-oiled machine through most of the regular season and it would be easy to say the machine just got clogged in the playoffs. But that’s not what really happened. The Falcons were successful during the regular season because they played smart football and didn’t do anything to beat themselves. But the reality here is the machine might need a few more parts for the Falcons truly to go out and beat other teams.

The core is solid with guys like quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Roddy White, running back Michael Turner and linebacker Curtis Lofton. But White was the only real playmaker on offense last season, and defensive end John Abraham, who is nearing the end of his career, was the only one on defense. Whether it’s a speed back or a wide receiver who can provide a deep threat, the Falcons need to find a difference-maker on offense. They need the same thing on defense, and a pass-rusher to complement, and eventually replace, Abraham could be the top priority in the draft.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

What does Carolina do at quarterback?

A new era is starting with the arrival of coach Ron Rivera, and everyone in the organization knows it can’t be like the final few seasons of John Fox’s tenure. The Panthers simply stopped having a legitimate NFL offense. Fox’s conservative approach to offense certainly played a role, but the real problem is that the Panthers simply haven’t had a dependable quarterback since Jake Delhomme fell apart in a playoff loss to Arizona at the end of the 2008 season. That’s handcuffed the entire franchise and was the major reason the Panthers went 2-14 last year.

In typical Fox fashion, he handed the starting job to career backup Matt Moore. When that didn’t work, Fox reluctantly turned to Jimmy Clausen and didn’t help the rookie’s confidence by yanking him out of the lineup several times. Although some in the organization believe, with a fresh start, Clausen can develop into a decent starter, the Panthers can’t rely totally on that. This franchise has to do something major to get a viable alternative at quarterback. With the No. 1 pick in the draft, the Panthers could take a leap on Blaine Gabbert or Cam Newton, but neither comes with any guarantees. With talk that Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer, Vince Young and Kevin Kolb could be available, the Panthers might have to break from tradition and sign or trade for a veteran. With receiver Steve Smith, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and a talented offensive line, the Panthers can’t afford to continue to let the offense rot away due to ineffective play at quarterback.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Can the Saints get back to the Super Bowl?

The nucleus of the 2009 team that went on to win the Super Bowl remains largely in place, so there’s no reason the Saints shouldn’t at least be in contention for a deep playoff run. They never really suffered the collapse that’s been common for many recent Super Bowl winners as they went 11-5 in 2010. But they weren’t the same dominant and explosive team. Injuries played a role in that and a few holes were exposed.

But a little better luck on the injury front and a few tweaks could put the Saints right back where they were. After the season, quarterback Drew Brees admitted he played part of the year with a sprained knee. That might explain why he wasn’t as precise as the Super Bowl season, and a healthy Brees automatically would make the Saints better. But the biggest issue on offense is the running game. With Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush banged-up for most of the season, the Saints weren’t able to run the ball consistently. Chris Ivory stepped in and did a nice job at times, but the Saints know they have to upgrade in this area. Thomas probably will be allowed to leave as a free agent. The Saints probably will use an early draft pick on a running back or sign someone of significance in free agency. On defense, the Saints have to get back to being opportunistic and taking advantage of turnovers like they did in the Super Bowl season. Upgrading the pass rush is the best way to make sure that happens.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Where will the Bucs find an outside pass rush?

Not on their current roster. Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder are just “guys’’ and that showed all too often as Tampa Bay’s pass rush was anemic. The Bucs broke from tradition and won with offense -- mainly quarterback Josh Freeman -- for the first time in franchise history last season. There is talent elsewhere on defense, but the Bucs need to improve the pass rush to elevate the overall play of the defense and make this a complete team.

Look for something similar to last offseason when the Bucs realized they had problems at defensive tackle. They went out and used their first two draft picks on Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Both ended up having their seasons shortened by injuries, but both showed some promise. They’ll be back healthy and will be joined by Roy Miller in the middle. That trio should create a decent inside pass rush, but the Bucs know they need more talent on the outside. It might not be the same scenario as last year with the Bucs using their top two picks on defensive ends. They may draft one early and look for another potential starter in free agency.
As with just about everything else in the NFL, there is huge uncertainty when it comes to the use of franchise tags.

Get ready to start hearing a lot more about this. According to the league and its teams, franchise tags can be assigned starting Thursday. According to the NFL Players Association, franchise tags cannot be used – at least until there is a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in place, which could take months.

DeAngelo Williams
Rich Kane/Icon SMIWould Carolina keep running back DeAngelo Williams by using the franchise tag?
You’re probably going to see the two sides fight this one out and some teams will probably cast the first stone by announcing Thursday, or soon after, that they are assigning franchise tags. We’ll see how that plays out in the long run. But, at very least, we can take a look at guys who could get franchise tags in the NFC South.

I just went through all my contract stuff and I’m seeing three prime candidates. Again, there is some uncertainty here because there is no labor agreement and the way any potential deal is structured could play a big role in deciding if some players are restricted or unrestricted free agents.

But the three guys that could come into play are Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams, Tampa Bay offensive guard Davin Joseph and Tampa Bay linebacker Barrett Ruud. Each team can only use a franchise tag on one player, if they chose to use it at all.

We don’t know the price of 2011 franchise tags, but we can look back to 2010 as a reference point. The tag for a running back was $8.2 million. For an offensive lineman, it was $10.7 million. For a linebacker, it was $9.7 million.

Let’s take a look at the significant players for each team who currently are not under contract for 2011 and see how this might play into the situation with franchise tags. Again, some players may fall into the category of restricted free agents, depending on how a potential labor agreement is structured.

Atlanta: Mike Peterson, Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl, Jerious Norwood, Jason Snelling, Brian Williams, Justin Blalock, Brian Finneran, Matt Bryant, Michael Koenen, Stephen Nicholas, Brent Grimes and Eric Weems.

Summary: Grimes is coming off a breakout season and likely will be classified as a restricted free agent. Most of the veterans on this list are role players and wouldn’t be considered for the franchise tag. The two long-shot exceptions could be kicker Bryant and punter Koenen. The Falcons used the franchise tag on Koenen in 2009 and let him play for the restricted free agent tender last year. The 2010 franchise tag for punters and kickers was $2.8 million. I have a tough time seeing general manager Thomas Dimitroff using a franchise tag on a punter or kicker. The Falcons don’t really have any need to use the tag.

Tampa Bay: Ronde Barber, Barrett Ruud, Cadillac Williams, Davin Joseph, Stylez G. White, John Gilmore, Maurice Stovall, Jeremy Trueblood, Quincy Black, Tim Crowder and Adam Hayward.

Summary: The Bucs should have a ton of cap room to work with, so they should be able to handle a franchise tag easily. But it remains to be seen if they want to use it on either of the two realistic candidates: Joseph or Ruud. Joseph is a guy they want to keep in the middle of their offensive line, but they might be able to work a long-term deal that would be a lot more cap friendly. Ruud has made it clear to the Bucs for two years that he would like a long-term contract. That’s never happened. Maybe he’s just not in their long-range plans.

New Orleans: Jonathan Goodwin, Scott Shanle, Roman Harper, Darren Sharper, Jimmy Wilkerson, Lance Moore, Jermon Bushrod, Pierre Thomas, Anthony Hargrove, Courtney Roby, David Thomas, Remi Ayodele, Heath Evans and Carl Nicks.

Summary: The Saints have more than 20 potential free agents and even the guys I singled out above aren’t huge stars. Nicks is probably the best player on the list. But he has three years of service in and almost certainly would qualify as a restricted free agent in any new agreement. Goodwin’s a good player, but I think the Saints would rather take their chances on working a new deal with him than using the franchise tag on a center.

Carolina: Thomas Davis, Matt Moore, DeAngelo Williams, Jeff King, Richard Marshall, James Anderson, Ryan Kalil, Charles Johnson and Dante Rosario.

Summary: Kalil and Johnson are key players, but they could end up as restricted free agents. Williams is the key guy. The Panthers have depth at running back with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson. But Stewart has had durability issues and Williams is a playmaker on a team that needs all the offense it can get. Maybe the Panthers try to work a long-term deal with Williams, but they might try to protect him in the short term by using the franchise tag.

Buccaneers regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
1/05/11
1:00
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 13
Preseason Power Ranking: 30

[+] EnlargeLeGarrette Blount
J. Meric/Getty ImagesLeGarrette Blount went from undrafted free agent to 1,000-yard NFL rusher in a matter of months.
Biggest surprise: LeGarrette Blount. The running back wins a very close call over receiver Mike Williams, mainly because Blount was an undrafted free agent and Williams was a fourth-round pick. Blount initially signed with the Titans, but was cut by Tennessee at the end of the preseason. The Bucs took a shot on Blount and brought him along slowly. With Cadillac Williams starting the season ineffectively, the Bucs turned over their running game to Blount. He produced 1,000 yards and gave the Bucs a power running game. The best part of all is that Blount is still very raw. An offseason of coaching and working with his teammates could make him a lot better.

Biggest disappointment: Tanard Jackson. The safety was one of the best players on the team and big things were expected of him this season. But Jackson was suspended early in the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. His absence created a scramble at safety, but that at least allowed the Bucs to find out that Cody Grimm and Corey Lynch can play a bit. But this is an area that probably still needs to be strengthened in the offseason. Jackson isn’t eligible to apply for reinstatement until late September and there is no guarantee he will be back with the Bucs.

Biggest need: A pass rush. The Bucs used their first two draft picks to solidify the middle of their defensive line. They selected defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Each showed some potential before getting injured. Both should be back and healthy next season, and they should bring some push to the middle of the defensive line. But the Bucs need to focus on the outside of the line this offseason. Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder are not elite pass-rushers. The Bucs have assembled an offense that can score some points. Now, they need to fix up the defense to generate some sacks and turnovers to put teams away when the Bucs take a lead.

Team MVP: Josh Freeman. In his second season -- and first full season as a starter -- Freeman left no question that he truly is a franchise quarterback. He carried the team all season and seemed to get better each week. The Bucs are letting Freeman and his young receivers grow up together, and that means the rapport should only get stronger. Freeman established himself as a leader on and off the field, and this is his team now. Freeman hasn’t even hit his full potential and the Bucs came close to making the playoffs. He should continue to get better, and that means nothing but good things for the Buccaneers.

Can’t stand still: The Bucs showed a knack for finding guys who can play at the bottom of the scrap pile. Players such as Blount, Williams and Grimm prospered when they were given chances, and the Bucs were proud to tell you how many rookies they were playing this year. That’s great, but you’re not going to hit on every player you reach for. The Bucs need to continue with their youth movement because it’s working nicely. But they might be wise to at least do a little in free agency and sign a proven player or two to help the youth movement along.

How I See It: NFC South Stock Watch

November, 24, 2010
11/24/10
11:55
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Brian St. Pierre, Panthers quarterback. His stock didn’t start off very high because he was out of the league until the Panthers signed him to the practice squad. Then, coach John Fox surprisingly elected to start St. Pierre over rookie Tony Pike. St. Pierre did all right for a while against a good Baltimore defense. But reality set in and he threw two costly interceptions.

2. Pierre Thomas, Saints running back. He’s been sidelined by an ankle injury and it doesn’t sound like he’s anywhere close to returning. Other guys have stepped up in his absence and Thomas doesn’t appear to be in the good graces of the coaching staff. He may be looking for a new team to play for next season.

Steve Smith
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswirePanthers receiver Steve Smith has just two touchdowns this season.
3. Steve Smith, Panthers wide receiver. You can put most of the blame on horrible quarterback play. But one of the league’s most talented receivers has disappeared this season. Smith has 34 catches for 411 yards. He hasn’t caught a touchdown pass since Week 2 and he is tied for second in the league with six drops.

RISING

1. Stylez G. White, Buccaneers defensive end. The Bucs haven’t had much of a pass rush all year, but that changed in Sunday’s 21-0 shutout victory in San Francisco. The Bucs, playing with a lead most of the game, put steady pressure on Troy Smith. No one brought more pressure than White. He finished with 1.5 sacks to bring his season total to 4.5.

2. New Orleans’ scouting department. Once again, the Saints have found some jewels later in the draft and beyond. The latest exhibits are tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Chris Ivory. Graham was playing college basketball two years ago, but he came up with five catches for 72 yards Sunday and has been playing a more prominent role with Jeremy Shockey banged up. Ivory, an undrafted free agent, has held New Orleans’ running game together while Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas have been out with injuries.

3. Michael Jenkins, Falcons wide receiver. After missing the first five games of the season, Jenkins is just hitting full stride. He’s had five catches in each of the past two games. He’s a role player in an offense that has receiver Roddy White, tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Michael Turner. But Jenkins is an important role player. He makes clutch catches and is a big factor as a blocker in the running game.
We’re going to resume our series of NFC South position rankings with the defensive ends.

This is not exactly a position of strength entering the season, but I think that could change as time goes on. There are a lot of young defensive ends around the division and some of them are bound to rise up as the season goes on. For the moment, though, there aren’t a lot of sure things.

Once again, I’m basing my rankings on talks with coaches, scouts, front-office folks and players. Here we go.

  1. [+] EnlargeWill Smith
    AP Photo/Jeff RobersonWill Smith is the most dominant defensive end in the division. He had 13 sacks for the Saints last season.
    Will Smith, Saints. This is the easiest decision in this bunch because Smith really is the only sure thing among the defensive ends in this division. He’s coming off a big season and still is in his prime. At the moment, it’s safe to say he’s the only pass rusher in this division that really scares people.
  2. John Abraham, Falcons. Let’s make it clear the decision to go with Abraham, who is coming off a disappointing season and not getting any younger, is not a lifetime achievement award. Atlanta coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff could have attempted to get an elite pass rusher if they thought Abraham was through. They chose not to. Abraham’s looked great in camp and there are other folks around the NFC South that think he’s going to bounce back this season and produce double-digit sacks.
  3. Charles Johnson, Panthers. I’m projecting here, but somebody has to step up on Carolina’s defensive line now that Julius Peppers is gone. You’ve heard some preseason hype about some young Carolina pass rushers and we’ll get to them. But Johnson is the guy the Panthers believe is ready to be their most complete defensive end.
  4. Alex Brown, Saints. This guy’s not going to come up and suddenly put up huge numbers, but he’s going to be a nice upgrade over the inconsistent Charles Grant. Look back at Brown’s time with Chicago. His numbers were very steady. He’ll put some heat on the passer from time to time. His sack numbers never have been spectacular, but he disrupts a lot of passes. He’s always going to play the run well.
  5. Kroy Biermann, Falcons. This guy’s getting a lot of hype because he’s had a sack in each of the first three preseason games and Dimitroff and Smith are convinced Biermann’s ready for a breakout season. There are some other talent evaluators around the league that think Biermann doesn’t have all that much upside. But I’m going to take the word of Smith and Dimitroff and trust what I saw out of Biermann in camp and the preseason and give him a high ranking.
  6. Greg Hardy, Panthers. This guy’s been getting tons of preseason hype and some fans are comparing him to Peppers. That’s a stretch. But I’ve been told by the Panthers and people who’ve been watching Hardy from a distance that this guy’s for real -- as long as he can keep focused on football.
  7. Tyler Brayton, Panthers. We’ll twist a common phrase from coach John Fox and say Brayton is what he is. That’s a pretty solid all-around defensive end. In a lot of ways, he’s a lot like New Orleans’ Brown.
  8. [+] EnlargeLawrence Sidbury
    AP Photo/Steve NesiusLawrence Sidbury has potential, but he recorded just five tackles -- including one sack -- during his rookie season.
    Lawrence Sidbury, Falcons. We’ll jump back to projecting here. Sidbury didn’t do much as a rookie, but there are people around the league who think he has a lot more upside than Biermann.
  9. Jimmy Wilkerson, Saints. He’s pretty much in the same category as Brown and Brayton. In fact, Wilkerson probably would be higher on this list if he wasn’t coming off a major knee injury.
  10. Everette Brown, Panthers. Carolina drafted Brown last year thinking he might be the eventual replacement for Peppers and that still could happen. The Panthers believe Brown has lots of upside, but his development has not been rapid.
  11. Chauncey Davis, Falcons. One talent evaluator thinks Davis is enormously underrated. In Atlanta’s defensive-line rotation, where it doesn’t really matter who starts, Davis is going to get a lot of playing time. He’s good against the run and isn’t a bad pass rusher, although his lack of height sometimes keeps him from really disrupting passes.
  12. Stylez G. White, Buccaneers. He’s the best Tampa Bay has right now. The Bucs have tried to light a fire under him in the preseason by publicly questioning his practice efforts. They’re also disappointed he hasn’t stepped forward at all as a leader of a very young defensive line. But White’s never been a great practice player and has been reasonably productive in the regular season.
  13. Jamaal Anderson, Falcons. No doubt this guy has been a huge bust as a defensive end and maybe you can’t even call him a defensive end anymore. He started rotating inside last year and could get even more work at tackle this year. This guy’s not going to give you any pass rush from the outside, but he can play the run.
  14. Kyle Moore, Buccaneers. He seems to have landed the starting spot opposite White. Part of that is because Moore’s been decent, but part of it is because the Bucs have no one else who is ready.
  15. Bobby McCray, Saints. New Orleans let him go after last season and brought him back at a reduced salary. There’s no guarantee he’ll make the regular-season roster. McCray’s a guy that’s supposed to be a pass-rush specialist in a rotation. He ended up starting a lot in place of Grant last year and produced 1.5 sacks. Maybe, in the right situation, McCray can be a pass-rush specialist, but he’s never really lived up to that reputation.
  16. Michael Bennett, Buccaneers. This guy’s unknown and undersized, but he’s had some flashes as a pass rusher in the preseason. He could be used in a rotation as a situational pass rusher. But, keep an eye on how White’s season goes. If White struggles, Bennett could end up starting later in the season as Tampa Bay continues its youth movement.

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