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NFC South Roundup, Combine Week

Posted Feb 26, 2013

With the combine taking place in Indianapolis and the start of free agency just around the corner, a lot of news – and even more speculation – has been generated in the Bucs' division in recent days


A quick look at the headlines being made by the other three teams in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' division while most of the NFL has been gathered in Indianapolis for the Scouting Combine:

The free agent market will open in two weeks, but in Charlotte and New Orleans team administrators are pondering ways to get in compliance with the new salary cap before that March 12 deadline. The Saints have already begun the roster reshaping, in fact, while the Panthers are contemplating options that do not include releasing either of their top two running backs. The Falcons are looking at potential changes on their offense, including an expanded role for third-year back Jacquizz Rodgers and the possibility of a future without tight end Tony Gonzalez.

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In Atlanta, the Falcons are expected to release veteran running back Michael Turner before the start of free agency, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, and thus it is not surprising to hear Head Coach Mike Smith talk up the three-down potential of third-year back Jacquizz Rodgers on the Falcons' web site. “We thought he was only going to be a change of pace back,” said Smith. “We found out very quickly that even though he is short, he is not little. He can handle all three downs and he does a very good job for us returning kicks." On the other hand, Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution speculates that Atlanta might go after Steven Jackson now that the veteran Rams running back has chosen to void the final year of his contract. The Falcons' site also chose to spotlight Stanford tight end Zach Ertz in its draft coverage, in a nod to the common opinion on this year's mock drafts that the team is looking hard at that position. That opinion, of course, can be traced to the possible retirement of first-ballot Hall-of-Famer-to-be Tony Gonzalez, a possibility that no longer seems as certain as it did two months ago. Gonzalez hasn't personally announced an update to his in-season projection that he was 95% sure he would retire, but Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff told ProFootballTalk.com before the combine that he believed the percentage was now closer to 50%. Gonzalez would have to be re-signed if he chooses to return – as the Falcons clearly hope he will – as he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in two weeks. That's another issue for the Falcons to work around as they try to squeeze under the upcoming salary cap (NFL.com has them projected at $2.1 million over), and the Journal-Constitution does not expect the team to be heavy players on the free agent market. Of course, the same article points out that Dimitroff and the Falcons have used the draft very well in recent years, finding 13 starters and four Pro Bowlers in the last five drafts.

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In Carolina, the Panthers are counting on new General Manager Dave Gettleman's long history as an NFL talent evaluator to help them maximize the week in Indy. Gettleman was hired in January after Marty Hurney's 10-year run in the post ended in October. Of course, at the same time that Gettleman and Head Coach Ron Rivera are checking out the next wave of NFL players at the Combine, they are also trying to work through some difficult roster decisions. The Panthers are projected to be around $14 million over the 2013 salary cap with their current roster, so it's likely that a few veterans will be let go. "We're working towards making those decisions," said Gettleman during his time at the podium in Indianapolis, "and very frankly haven't made any yet." The Charlotte Observer reports that releasing either of the team's two starting-quality running backs, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, is not how Gettleman intends to solve the cap situation, and Gettleman said at the podium in Indy that he would like to bring back defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who is scheduled to become a free agent in March. Either way, Rivera indicated to the Observer that the team would consider taking advantage of a deep class of defensive tackles in the first round of April's draft. The Panthers are scheduled to pick 14th in the opening round, right behind the Buccaneers, and are likely to find more value there on the defensive line than at receiver, where most believe the team has a big need. NFL.com writer Marc Sessler thinks the Panthers may turn to a potentially deep pool of pass-catchers in free agency to fill that need, an opinion that gained some momentum when Rivera answered a question about Pittsburgh wideout Mike Wallace by telling the interviewer in Indy that he was "warm." On the other hand, Gettleman talked up the Panthers' current receivers this past week, as well. "I don't know, I think Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell are pretty darn good," he said. "It's funny, I learned a great lesson from Marv Levy when I was in Buffalo. He said, 'Oftentimes the answer is on your roster.'"

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The annual Scouting Combine is a very good opportunity for G.M.'s around the league to talk to players' agents and, in New Orleans, soon-to-be free agent offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod is expecting his talks to start soon, according to The Times-Picayune. Bushrod has been led to believe that he will not receive the team's franchise tag (as reported late last week by Schefter), and given his desire for long-term security, he appreciates that development. The Saints, whose cap situation is very similar to that of the Panthers, have already made some roster moves prior to free agency, releasing veteran tight end David Thomas and cornerback Johnny Patrick. Only the former of those two moves was really cap-related, but the latter is noteworthy in that Patrick was a third-round pick just two years ago. He was waived last Tuesday and quickly claimed by the San Diego Chargers. General Manager Mickey Loomis called the move with Thomas "an extremely difficult decision," and Head Coach Sean Payton praised the reserve tight end for his four seasons of service in New Orleans. “With his dependability, intelligence and work ethic, he was someone our players and coaches could always rely on," said Payton. "On the field, he would set a physical tone and his versatility proved to be a great asset for us.” Since additional cuts are probably in the offing in order to get the Saints under the 2013 cap over the next two weeks, The Times-Picayune's Larry Holder poses the question of whether Drew Brees should accept a new contract extension/restructuring like the one the Patriots worked out with Tom Brady. On the other hand, an article on ProFootballTalk.com discusses, with previous input from Holder, how a Brees contract restructuring could end up causing as many problems down the road as it solves now. In a little bit of non-salary-cap, non-Brees news, the Saints introduced their new secondary coach on Tuesday: Wesley McGriff, from Ole Miss. Tight end Jimmy Graham, who got to know McGriff when both were at the University of Miami in 2010, praised the hire on the Saints' web site. “Coach McGriff will be a great addition to our team,” said Graham. “His experience and work ethic along with being an excellent teacher will make him an asset to our team.”