The respective offseason workout programs in the four NFC South towns have wrapped up, or will do so shortly, sending all of the division's players on one final break before the start of training camp. Like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Carolina Panthers capped their program with a three-day mandatory mini-camp last week. The New Orleans Saints held their compulsory camp June 4-6 but had saved several of their OTA practice days for last week. The Falcons just started their three-day camp on Tuesday but will also head off into vacation time on Thursday. Still, there is plenty of news being generated around the NFL's most competitive division, so it's time to check in on those headlines once again:
In Atlanta, the Falcons have apparently had talks with defensive tackle Richard Seymour, who remains a free agent after 12 NFL seasons with New England and Oakland. However, the talks seemed to cool over the weekend and D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggests that is related to the Falcons' salary cap situation and the fact that two draft picks have yet to be signed. While those two signings would reduce the Falcons' remaining cap space to a level that probably wouldn't accommodate a Seymour addition, the situation could actually get better if a contract extension for star quarterback Matt Ryan gets done, thereby reducing Ryan's cap figure in 2013. The Falcons have already added one veteran to their defensive line in former New York Giant defensive end Osi Umenyiora, and that apparently has also had an impact on young receiver Julio Jones. According to Jones, the daily work ethic being displayed by Umenyiora and fellow 2013 addition RB Steven Jackson has changed the way Jones approaches his workout and diet regimens. The third-year receiver is coming off a 79-1,198-10 effort in his NFL sophomore campaign, so an even fitter and more motivated Jones is not exactly a welcome prospect for the Buccaneers and the rest of the NFC South. The Falcons' other line, on the offensive side of the ball, has lost players in 2013 rather than gained them, with veterans Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo moving on to retirement and Miami, respectively. (And that's not the first time retirement and Miami have shared a sentence.) The Falcons are going younger on Ryan's protective wall, with recent draftees Garrett Reynolds, Joe Hawley and Mike Johnson all having a shot at cracking the starting lineup this year. “We’ve had some good drafts the last few years,” said Johnson on the Falcons' official web site. “We’re kind of ready to get our shot at things. We’ve tried to fill in as best we can for the vacancy [McClure left. It’s just one of those things where you have to come out each day and kind of adjust to it. We’ve got some good guys in our room so I think we’ve adjusted well so far.”
Former Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula (1996-99) has been promoted to the same post in Carolina following the departure of Rod Chudzinski to Cleveland, and one of his goals is to make third-year quarterback Cam Newton more comfortable in the huddle. Towards that end, Newton recently noted that Shula has simplified the terminology in the team's play-calling. "It’s not tricking ourselves," said Newton. "We don’t want to trick ourselves, we want to trick the defense. It’s not saying a whole novel, it’s not saying a riddle either. It’s calling a play, executing it and performing.” Newton also believes that getting the team's deep stable of running backs, including rookie addition Kenjon Barner, more involved in the offense will also help to simplify matters. "For us, the running game is key," said Newton. "In years past, success for the Carolina Panthers has meant getting our running backs involved in the game early and letting those guys do what they do. I feel like we have an unbelievable group, especially with the addition of Kenjon and other guys that are capable of running the ball as well as catching it out of the backfield. We have to use that to continuously keep the defense honest. Everyone knows we have playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, but in order for us to be successful, we have to run the football. We will run the football." One of the more encouraging developments for the Panthers during last week's mini-camp was the return to the field of linebacker Jon Beason, who has lost most of the last two seasons to significant injuries. Beason, who is recovering from knee and shoulder surgeries, was expected to make his debut in training camp but was instead cleared last week by the Panthers' medical staff. He returned to a slightly different situation – in his absence last year, standout rookie Luke Kuechly took over the middle linebacker spot and made it his own. That puts Beason on the strong side, but he remains in the starting unit and he appeared to Head Coach Ron Rivera to be running at full speed last week. “They passed him on the physical, so I assume he’s 100 percent. He moved around like it. He made some plays,” Rivera said. “You really see that energy coming back. You see that quickness.” That same roundup of notes on the Charlotte Observer website did not, however, that wide receiver Domenik Hixon and rookie guard Edmund Kugbila, a potential starter, were sidelined by injuries during the mini-camp.
In New Orleans, the injury news is far worse, as linebacker Victor Butler has likely been lost for the season after suffering a torn ACL during an OTA practice last Tuesday. Since the Saints' schedule mimicked the Buccaneers, with the team canceling its Thursday practice to go on a team outing instead, that Tuesday practice was the penultimate time the team would be on the field before training camp. The Times-Picayune Beat writer Larry Holder calls the loss a "brutal blow" for the Saints, who had signed Butler from the Dallas Cowboys as an unrestricted free agent during the offseason. Butler, who followed his former defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, from Dallas to New Orleans, was one of two major additions (along with CB Keenan Lewis) to a defense that ranked as the league's worst in 2012, and he was expected to be an effective pass-rusher in the Saints' new 3-4 front. Butler was taking the majority of the first-team snaps at strongside outside linebacker in recent practices, but he was expected to get a battle for that spot from third-year man Martez Wilson. Wilson now appears likely to have that job, and he's aiming high. "My goal this year is at least 10-plus sacks, at least five-plus interceptions and all the other plays just let them come to me," he said. "My main goal though is just making big plays period. If you are in the correct position and you know the correct defense that's called and you know how to play defense according to how it's coached, I think it is possible." On the flip side of the injury front, tight end Jimmy Graham says he is "almost 100%" as he returns from surgery to correct the wrist injury that hampered him throughout the 2012 season. After his receiving yardage dropped from 1,310 in 2011 to 982 last year – an ankle sprain, the wrist injury and, perhaps relatedly, a higher than usual number of dropped passes contributed to that – Graham says he is hungrier than he's ever been heading into this season. (Read a full transcript of Graham's June 4 chat with the media here on the Saints' official website.) Graham has shown intensity on the practice field this offseason and appears ready to take that into this fall's campaign. “Just all-around being more aggressive," he said of his main goal this season. "From Day One, being the aggressive player that I am and bringing the energy that I bring.”