NFL Nation: Von Hutchins

If and when there is free agency, the Texans need to dip into it to try to solve their issues in the secondary. I think they should throw open the vault and be sure to land either Nnamdi Asomugha or Champ Bailey.

But as Green Bay prepares to play for the NFC title in Chicago on Sunday, it’s a good time to note that the Texans had one of the league’s best young cornerbacks on their roster in 2006.

The Texans had the foresight to bring Tramon Williams in as an undrafted free agent out of Louisiana Tech on May 8, 2006. Unfortunately, their ability to see big things in him ended after training camp and he was released on Sept. 6, 2006.

He was available to everyone in the league for months before the Packers signed him to their practice squad on Nov. 29 for the final five weeks of the season. In 2007 he was a training camp surprise, earning a roster spot. He’s played in every game since, with 16 interceptions. In the same span, the Texans don’t have a player with more than five interceptions.

Here are the guys who played cornerback for the 2006 Texans: Dunta Robinson, Dexter McCleon, Demarcus Faggins, Lewis Sanders, Kevin Garrett, Von Hutchins and Dexter Wynn.

Every team in the league let go of someone it wishes it held on to.

The Texans will be watching their prime example play in the NFC Championship Game, then either the Super Bowl or the Pro Bowl.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Atlanta Falcons
Training camp site: Flowery Branch, Ga.

Campfires: The offense is pretty much set with last year's starters virtually intact and the addition of tight end Tony Gonzalez. That's going to put the focus of camp on a defense that overachieved last year and will have five new starters.

Division Camp Previews
Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
Friday: NFC West | AFC West

MORE
Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates

The hottest battles will be in the secondary, where the Falcons have to replace safety Lawyer Milloy and cornerback Domonique Foxworth. Atlanta's coaching staff is hoping second-round pick William Moore can step in and start at safety, but second-year pro Thomas DeCoud provides a decent fallback option if Moore's not ready. DeCoud had a strong showing throughout the offseason and isn't going to give up the job without a fight.

Cornerback might be the most intriguing spot to watch in camp. The Falcons are set with Chris Houston on one side, but it's a wide-open competition for the other starting spot and the nickelback job. The plan is to throw Brent Grimes, Von Hutchins, Chevis Jackson and rookies Christopher Owens and William Middleton out there and see who rises up. Keep an eye on Jackson, who came on strong in the second half of his rookie season last year.

Camp will be a downer if ... there are any injuries on the offensive line. The Falcons have a starting five that probably played over its head last year and very little depth. Veteran Todd Weiner retired after last season and the Falcons tried to replace the flexibility he gave them by signing veteran Jeremy Newberry. But Newberry retired earlier this week because of knee problems.

 
  Paul Abell/Getty Images
  Tony Gonzalez gives quarterback Matt Ryan another target in the Falcons' passing game.

Coach Mike Smith is very good at mixing up the tempo of his practices, but he may have to be more cautious with his offensive line. Left tackle Sam Baker had back problems last year and center Todd McClure has wear and tear on his 32-year-old body. If some young linemen don't step up -- and there aren't many likely candidates -- the Falcons may have to keep an eye on the waiver wire for some depth.

Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Matt Ryan masters the offense he looked so good in as a rookie. That's a strong possibility. Although he already was very good, Ryan looked noticeably better in minicamp practices in the spring.

The Falcons didn't hold back much of the playbook from Ryan last season, but they're going to expand it significantly this year. The addition of Gonzalez suddenly gives the Falcons the pass-catching tight end they lacked last year. That should only help receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, who blossomed with Ryan last year. And don't forget second-year receiver Harry Douglas. He showed some promise last year, but looked ready to take on a bigger role in offseason workouts.

The Norwood factor: One player to keep an eye on in camp and preseason games is running back Jerious Norwood. The Falcons realize they put a very heavy load on starter Michael Turner last season and they don't want him approaching 375 carries again. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has to find a way to give Norwood some of Turner's carries. That's not as simple as just swapping them out. Turner i
s a power runner and Norwood is a speed guy. The Falcons need to put in some wrinkles to take advantage of Norwood's skills.


Carolina Panthers
Training camp site: Spartanburg, S.C.

Campfires: The Panthers are returning 21 of 22 starters from a team that went 12-4. But the disastrous playoff loss to Arizona means that Carolina can't be complacent. Coach John Fox never has been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons and he needs to if he wants to stay off the proverbial "hot seat."

 
  Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
  Jake Delhomme and the Panthers need to put last season's playoff loss to Arizona behind them.

Fox needs to revitalize a defense that collapsed down the stretch last season and much of that responsibility will fall to new coordinator Ron Meeks. Barring injury or upset, the only new starter will be cornerback Richard Marshall, who will replace Ken Lucas. A lot of fans are wondering if Marshall is ready to be a starter. The coaching staff wouldn't have let Lucas go if Marshall wasn't ready. He's been a very good nickelback the past couple of years and should do fine opposite Chris Gamble.

The bigger question might be who's going to replace Marshall at nickelback? The Panthers seem to have rookie Sherrod Martin ticketed for that spot. That may seem a little risky, but Fox has a pretty good track record when it comes to playing rookie cornerbacks quickly. Marshall and Ricky Manning Jr. were able to step in and contribute as rookies.

Camp will be a downer if ... Steve Smith pulls a repeat of last year. Early in camp, Smith punched out Lucas, who was kneeling on the sideline. That led to a two-game suspension for Smith. The incident may have helped pull the team together in some ways, but the Panthers can't endure something like that again.

Things tend to get hot in Spartanburg, but Fox and his staff need to keep the ultra-competitive Smith cool. Smith's nasty streak is a big part of what makes him such a great receiver. But he needs to save that for the regular season and let the team get through camp peacefully.

Camp will be a success if ... the Panthers can put the Arizona playoff loss behind them. Losing badly at home was a terrible end to what had been a very nice season, and Fox has to eliminate any hangover from that. One of Fox's strengths is his ability to motivate and he's got to convince this team it can win big games when it matters most.

Fox has been adamant about sticking with quarterback Jake Delhomme, who had a disastrous outing against Arizona. That's a strong show of confidence from the coach. But Fox may have to spend part of camp convincing the rest of the team that the move is a result of confidence and not stubbornness.

It starts up front: Early in Fox's tenure, his defensive line was dominant and the team was built around the front four. That hasn't been the case in recent years. The back seven is very good, but it can become great with more production up front.

Although end Julius Peppers is the only big name on the line, the Panthers have the ingredients to be good up front. They didn't draft Everette Brown to spend his rookie season on the bench. He'll join in a rotation with Peppers, Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton. If Peppers can play at a level close to his $17 million franchise tag, there could be a lot of sack opportunities for Brown, Johnson and Brayton.


New Orleans Saints
Training camp site: Metairie, La.

Campfires: As far as pure numbers, the Saints have the most legitimate position battles in the NFC South. That competition should be a good thing for a team that underachieved, particularly on defense, last season.

General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton did a nice job of creating competition with a bunch of offseason moves geared at making the defense better. Last year's biggest problem area was in the secondary and that's where the best camp battles will be. The Saints paid free-agent cornerback Jabari Greer big money and that probably makes him a starter.

 
  Crystal LoGiudice/US Presswire
  Rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins will battle for one of the starting cornerback spots.

But the battle for the other starting cornerback spot should be intense. The Saints used their first-round pick on Malcolm Jenkins, who probably has the most physical talent of any rookie on the roster. But Jenkins truly will have to earn the starting job because the Saints think very highly of Tracy Porter, who got off to a strong start before suffering an injury in his rookie season. Porter brings a high level of confidence and he's not going to give up a starting spot very easily. If the Saints open the season with Jenkins as their nickelback, they'll have far more depth than they've had in recent years.

Camp will be a downer if ... it's anything like last season. A rash of injuries started in last year's training camp and the plague continued through the regular season. That was a major reason why the Saints missed the playoffs. Even with added depth, they can't endure another season like last year. Payton ran the NFC South's most-intense camp last season and he may have learned from it.

The Saints have moved their camp back to their practice facility and a look at their schedule shows a large amount of afternoon practices in the indoor facility. There also are a fair amount of days where the Saints will practice only once. That should help keep the team fresh and cut down on the injuries. That's hugely important for a team that will open the season witho
ut starting defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant, who are suspended for the first four games.

Camp will be a success if ... Gregg Williams' defensive system takes hold quickly. Coordinator Gary Gibbs took the fall for last season's defensive failures and the Saints went out and spent big money to bring in Williams. Once viewed as one of the league's top defensive minds, Williams is looking for redemption after recent struggles in Jacksonville and Washington.

There will be some changes in the defensive scheme. But, more importantly, he'll be trying to install a mindset. Williams is known for having high-motor, aggressive defenses. The Saints haven't had anything that resembled that throughout Payton's tenure. There is plenty of talent in place and the defense showed signs it was developing an aggressive attitude in minicamp. If that continues, the Saints could have the one thing that's separated them from the playoffs the past two seasons.

Who will run the ball? That remains a huge question for a team whose passing game is pretty close to perfect. Payton's not going to take the ball out of the hands of quarterback Drew Brees, but the coach has made it clear he wants to develop a running game that's more consistent than last season.

With Deuce McAllister gone, the Saints have made it clear they plan to go with the tandem of Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. Payton will use camp and the preseason games to experiment with their roles and try to put Bush and Thomas in spots that play to their strengths.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Training camp site: Tampa, Fla.

Campfires: Fans are going to need rosters for this training camp. Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway, Jeff Garcia and Warrick Dunn are gone. Tampa Bay's youth movement, which starts with new coach Raheem Morris, is in full swing as the Bucs truly look for a new identity.

Starting jobs are open all over the place, particularly on defense. The Bucs have moved safety Jermaine Phillips to Brooks' old spot at weakside linebacker and are putting Sabby Piscitelli in Phillips' old spot. If either of those moves fail, the Bucs could always move Phillips back to safety, but the team is planning on this switch working out. It better because the Bucs have plenty of other questions elsewhere. Is veteran cornerback Ronde Barber still capable of playing at a high level? Is defensive end Gaines Adams finally ready to play up to his potential?

 
  J. Meric/Getty Images
  Play him or sit him? That's the decision the Bucs face regarding rookie quarterback Josh Freeman.

But the biggest question of all -- and the one most fans will be watching -- is at quarterback. Tampa Bay used its first-round pick on Josh Freeman and Morris already has dubbed him as the franchise quarterback. The Bucs initially threw out all sorts of hints that Freeman, who left college a year early, would sit as a rookie. But he came on faster than expected in minicamp and that could change the thinking. The Bucs probably will enter the preseason looking to start either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich. But it's not out of the question that Freeman could outshine both veterans. If that happens, the Bucs would have to speed up their plan.

Camp will be a downer if ... none of the quarterbacks steps forward. The rest of the offense is pretty solid, but this team won't go anywhere without a quarterback who can make the passing game work. There are reasons why McCown has never been a true starter and why Leftwich has gone from being a franchise quarterback in Jacksonville to being just a guy.

McCown has enough athleticism to make you believe there's upside, and Leftwich still throws the ball very nicely at times. But nothing is certain with either of these guys. If Freeman plays like a rookie in camp, the Bucs may have to settle on a quarterback by attrition. That's not a great situation because if McCown or Leftwich starts slowly, fans will be screaming for Freeman before he's ready.

Camp will be a success if ... the new schemes catch on. The Bucs aren't going to look anything like Jon Gruden's Bucs. New offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski is installing a power running game and a vertical passing game. New defensive coordinator Jim Bates is going away from the famed Tampa 2 defense and going with a system that relies heavily on pressure from up front.

The Bucs are young in a lot of ways, but they'll need new leaders like Barrett Ruud, Derrick Ward, Kellen Winslow and Antonio Bryant to step up and lead this team through the transition process.

Whatever happened to Michael Clayton? After a brilliant rookie year, the wide receiver spent the past few seasons buried in Gruden's doghouse. A lot of people were stunned when the new regime handed Clayton a big contract, instead of letting him walk as a free agent. There's a reason for that.

The new regime believes Clayton can be a productive starter. Forget all the talk about what a good blocker Clayton is in the running game. Sure, that will help. But Clayton isn't getting big money just to block. He got paid because Morris, general manager Mark Dominik and Jagodzinski think he can be a solid No. 2 receiver.

Trey Wingo, Cris Carter and Marcellus Wiley preview the NFC South.

 
  Dale Zanine/US PRESSWIRE, Paul Abell/Getty Images, David Stluka/Getty Images
  Peria Jerry, William Moore and Stephen Nicholas are among the young defenders Atlanta coach Mike Smith will be counting on this season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Take just about any team that was in the playoffs last season and remove five starters from the defense. In theory, that team's probably not going back to the playoffs.

Now, take the Atlanta Falcons.

They got rid of almost half their defensive starters and expect to be better on defense. Wishful thinking? Not really.

Think about all the wonderful things that went right for the Falcons in a stunning 11-5 season. The defense wasn't really one of them. This fact kind of got lost in the hysteria of quarterback Matt Ryan having a great rookie season and Michael Turner running wild.

The simple reality is that Atlanta's defense wasn't very good. The Falcons ranked 25th in rush defense, allowing 2,046 yards on the ground. Against the pass, the Falcons allowed 3,526 yards. That's only 21 yards less than New Orleans allowed and the Saints were widely considered one of the league's worst defenses.

 
  Greg Trott/Getty Images
  John Abraham collected 16.5 sacks and forced four fumbles last season.

Sure, Atlanta's defense played well enough to help the Falcons win 11 games, but it was done with smoke, mirrors, John Abraham and a whole lot of luck.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith were painfully aware the defense wasn't going to get any better by standing still and that's why they didn't. Linebacker Keith Brooking, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, cornerback Domonique Foxworth and linebacker Michael Boley were allowed to walk in free agency and safety Lawyer Milloy was released.

The truth is Foxworth was the only one of the bunch the Falcons wanted to keep, but only if they could do it at a reasonable price and that didn't happen. Brooking, Jackson and Milloy were great players -- a few years ago. But last season, they were old guys and liabilities. Boley fell out of favor with the coaching staff and wasn't even starting at the end of last year.

The names of the guys who are going to replace those five aren't going to excite anyone, but maybe they should. Atlanta's defense is going to be better in the long run because of the housecleaning. But it also might be better right away.

"I came into the meeting (on the first day of last week's minicamp) and I saw Abe and a couple old guys," safety Erik Coleman said. "But for the most part, it was first- and second-year guys. I think it's a good thing. We've got a lot of youth on our team and a lot of guys that are hungry to show they can play."

We won't know for sure if all the young guys can play for a few more months. But they might have a better chance than last year's defense. They at least fit the profile.

When Smith and Dimitroff came in last year, they focused most of their efforts on offense, signing Turner to a big free-agent contract and using the third overall draft pick on Ryan. Smith, who came with a defensive background, didn't truly have the kind of players he wanted on defense, so he had to make do.

But that's no longer an issue. Atlanta's offseason was all about defense and players who fit Smith's scheme. The Falcons are younger and the upgraded speed of the defense was obvious in minicamp.

They used their first-round pick on defensive tackle Peria Jerry and their second-round choice on safety William Moore. They're the likely replacements for Jackson and Milloy. They firmly believe that third-year pro Stephen Nicholas is ready to blossom and take over Boley's old spot on the strong side. They're not sure exactly who will start in Foxworth's spot, but they're going to throw Brent Grimes, Von Hutchins, Chevis Jackson and Chris Owens out there and see who rises up.

 
  Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
  Mike Peterson could provide some of the veteran leadership that the Falcons lost this offseason.

The Falcons didn't necessarily get younger at weakside linebacker where free-agent Mike Peterson is only a year younger than Brooking. But Peterson spent much of his career under Smith in Jacksonville and he wouldn't have been brought in if he didn't fit the system.

The one potential downside to the youth movement is that the Falcons lost a lot of experience and leadership in Brooking, Milloy and Jackson and nobody is denying that's a concern.

Smith doesn't believe in randomly anointing leaders and he's given a lot of thought to where his defensive leadership will come from.

"When you're a good player and you have success on the field, it leads to leadership," Smith said. "They become leaders."

At the moment, the Falcons don't have as many defensive leaders as a year ago. But Smith thinks that will change quickly.

Abraham's already a leader. Coleman was close to being one last year and should have room to spread his wings with Milloy gone. Peterson's a natura
l leader and already is getting comfortable with his new team. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was thrust into a leadership role as a rookie by the nature of his position and Smith expects his development in that role will accelerate this year.

"Instead of having one or two leaders, you've got to have eight or nine leaders throughout the entire team," Smith said. "There has to be a balance there."

Balance really is what the Falcons are aiming for on defense. They've got veterans in Abraham, Coleman and Peterson, young guys in the rookies and second-year players and some guys in between like defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and cornerback Chris Houston.

"We've got enough veteran leadership that can work out with the younger players to be a great blend," defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. "With young players, it's always a process. Right now, it's crucial that we work hard to allow them to get comfortable so they can attach themselves to the leadership and let it shine through."

 
  Getty Images/AP Photo
  Aqib Talib, Jabari Greer and Richard Marshall are part of the changing of the guard at the cornerback position in the NFC South.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

In an otherwise-quiet offseason, the NFC South has turned the corners.

If there's one common theme in the division, it's that there will be lots of change and plenty of youth at cornerback. For better or worse, each team is going to have at least one new starter at cornerback and many familiar faces are gone.

Get used to guys like Richard Marshall, Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter, Aqib Talib and Chevis Jackson because they're going to be the new cornerback faces in the NFC South.

Yes, Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber and New Orleans' Mike McKenzie are still around, but that may be more for show and sentiment than anything. The days of big-name cornerbacks in this division are over -- at least until some of these new guys make names for themselves and they're going to get every chance.

Somebody has to step up and guard the likes of Steve Smith, Roddy White, Marques Colston and Antonio Bryant. That may seem like a big task for a bunch of young and unproven cornerbacks, but that's what it's going to come down to.

Every team in the division suddenly needs major production from young or new cornerbacks.

 
  Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
  The Saints get a healthy Tracy Porter back after injury cut short his promising rookie campaign.

Start with the Saints because they could have the most change of all. The entire secondary has been a mess the last couple of years, but the problems have been particularly bad at cornerback. McKenzie's gone down with major injuries in each of the last two seasons and the Saints have been forced to go with the likes of the undersized Jason David and the antiquated Aaron Glenn playing big roles.

It hasn't really mattered how many yards Drew Brees has thrown for the last two seasons because the New Orleans defense has given up just as many. But the plan is for that to stop. Although McKenzie, David and Randall Gay remain on the roster, there's a chance the Saints could end up with Greer and Porter as their starters.

New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams wants to bring an aggressive approach and Greer has been the highlight of New Orleans' free-agency class. He was signed away from Buffalo, where he was a starter the last two years. The four-year, $23 million deal the Saints gave Greer likely means they're counting on him being the No. 1 cornerback.

But don't rule out the possibility of Porter being just as good before all is said and done. A second-round pick last year, Porter got off to a strong start as a rookie. He showed all the physical skills and tremendous confidence before going down with an injury just before midseason.

Tampa Bay also could have two new starters as new coach Raheem Morris takes over. You can pretty much assume that Aqib Talib, last year's first-round pick, will move into a starting role. Starter Phillip Buchanon departed through free agency and Talib showed promise as the nickelback last year. He may have to become Tampa Bay's No. 1 cornerback because nobody knows what the future holds for Barber, who is nearing the end of his career.

The Bucs pursued Greer and several other free-agent cornerbacks. They likely aren't done making moves at this position and that could be a sign that they're considering moving Barber to the nickel role.

Only a year ago, a lot of people thought Carolina had the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL. But that trio is now just a duo. Chris Gamble remains as probably the division's best cornerback, but he's going to have a new starter beside him.

The Panthers whacked veteran Ken Lucas in a salary-cap move this week. Lucas' play declined late last season. There are a lot of people who believe Richard Marshall, the nickelback the last couple of years, is ready to step in and provide an upgrade over Lucas.

That may turn out to be true, but Marshall's elevation raises another question that doesn't have an obvious answer: Who's going to be the nickelback? All the Panthers have at the moment is C.J. Wilson, who barely has played and veteran Dante Wesley, who may not be much more than a special-teams player. That means there's a good chance the Panthers, who have almost no salary-cap room, will have to draft a cornerback.

 
  AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
  Chevis Jackson, a third-round pick in 2008, should have a larger role in 2009.

That's a route the Falcons may also follow because they have the division's least-defined cornerback situation at the moment. This team unloaded the talented, but troubled DeAngelo Hall before last season and made it to the playoffs with smoke, mirr
ors and luck at cornerback last season. But some of that luck already is gone.

Domonique Foxworth, who emerged as a pleasant surprise last season, went to Baltimore after getting a massive deal in free agency. But the Falcons don't seem too worried. They could have made a stronger attempt to keep Foxworth, but didn't.

That makes you wonder whether coach Mike Smith has a higher opinion of his cornerbacks than the rest of us do. Chris Houston returns as a starter, but he hasn't yet shown he can be a true No. 1 cornerback. Smith must be thinking Houston can grow into that role because there aren't any other options on the roster.

In fact, it's far from clear who the other starter will be. Von Hutchins will be back after missing last season with an injury and Brent Grimes, who was a part-time starter last year, also remains a possibility.

But keep an eye on Jackson, a third-round pick last year, who started to show some big-play capability at the end of last season. The Falcons may be looking for Jackson to start or, at very least, be the nickelback.

If Jackson can do that, he'll fill a big void. He'll also be one of the faces of change at cornerback in the NFC South.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFL SCOREBOARD