While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head to New York to play the Jets and the Carolina Panthers prepare to welcome the Seattle Seahawks to town, the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints will open the season with the NFC South's first intra-division battle. All four of those teams took to the practice field on Monday after spending the weekend focused on maneuvering their rosters down to 53 spots. The roster work included several veteran signings in Carolina, thanks to various injury concerns, and a run on undrafted rookies in Atlanta. The Saints are potentially unveiling their new 3-4 defensive front with just three outside linebackers on the roster, and the Falcons are keeping a close eye on the health status of WR Roddy White and several others. As the NFL's opening weekend approaches, it's time to check in on the headlines from around the Buccaneers' division once again.
The mandated roster cuts went down in Atlanta over the weekend without getting a trio of surprising rookie free agents: LB Joplo Bartu of Texas State, LB Paul Worrilow of Delaware and T Terren Jones of Alabama State (undrafted rookie T Ryan Schraeder also made the team). In addition, the Falcons kept second-year player Josh Vaughan despite a relatively crowded backfield that also includes Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling and Antone Smith. Vaughan actually began his NFL career as an undrafted free agent out of Richmond with the Buccaneers in 2009 and has since bounced around to six other teams, including two stints with the Panthers. Those roster longshots didn't have long to celebrate their success, as the Falcons (like the Buccaneers) got in a bonus practice on Monday to begin preparing for their opener against the Saints. It appears that Atlanta will have starting receiver Roddy White available for that big intra-division matchup, even though White hasn't practiced or played since the second preseason game due to an ankle injury. Three other starters (counting kicker as a starting position) missed practice on Monday – kicker Matt Bryant (back), linebacker Stephen Nicholas (quadriceps) and cornerback Asante Samuel (quadriceps) – but Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith expects them to suit up on Sunday, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter. Ledbetter also reports that Smith has three main concerns he's taking into the regular season after an 0-4 preseason: penalties, third-down conversions and red zone efficiency. While those concerns are significant, the Falcons' winless August almost certainly is not, as AJC's Mark Bradley argues. Bradley isn't the only one singing the Falcons' praises as the regular season arrives; ESPN's Pat Yasinskas, who blogs about the entire NFC South, is picking the Falcons to finish 11-5 and become the first team to win the division two years in a row. In fact, Yasinskas has Atlanta facing Denver in the Super Bowl. On the other hand, he thinks the Falcons need to be looking hard at the waiver wire to find some veteran help for an offensive line that is depending upon a lot of young players this year.
In Carolina, the Panthers are hoping that second-year lineman Amini Silatolu will be sufficiently recovered from a preseason hamstring injury to start the season opener at left guard. Reporting from Carolina's practice field on Monday, the Charlotte Observer's Jeff Person indicates that Head Coach Ron Rivera is much more optimistic about Silatolu's status than he was a week ago. Regardless, the Panthers brought Travelle Wharton back during the last week of August as insurance against a more extended Silatolu absence. Person also reports that either Josh Thomas or Josh Norman will start along with Captain Munnerlyn at cornerback after the release of veteran cornerback Drayton Florence over the weekend. Fullback Mike Tolbert returned to practice on Monday after missing nearly a month with his own hamstring injury, a development that might be more important for the Panthers after they were forced to put running back Jonathan Stewart on the PUP list to start the season. Stewart is focused on returning to help the team in Week Seven, and Rivera thinks that's the right approach. "Right now, the best move is to put him on PUP," said Rivera. "When he's ready, following the rules, we'll get him out here and ready to go. Until then, he'll continue to rehab. He's made some big strides, some real good things have happened; it's just not going to happen soon enough." Tolbert and rookie tailback Kenjon Barner provide the Panthers some depth behind DeAngelo Williams with Stewart out, but the team wasn't feeling nearly as comfortable at safety with both Mike Mitchell and Haruki Nakamura ailing. Nakamura, in fact, was placed on injured reserve due to a concussion, and that prompted the team to sign veteran safety Quintin Mikell, an 11th-year veteran who started 32 games for St. Louis over the last two seasons. Mikell is excited to be playing behind what he considers a very talented defensive front in Carolina. "Here, with this front seven, you don't really have to blitz a whole lot," he said. "The front seven – they're incredible. I've never played with a front seven that's as dominant as those guys are. I'm excited to see what those guys can do once they're cut loose."
In New Orleans, the weekend's cuts – and, more significantly, the earlier losses of Victor Butler and Will Smith to injury – left the Saints with only two players listed at outside linebacker on their depth chart. Head Coach Sean Payton concedes that wasn't necessarily the plan, especially with the team switching to a 3-4 defensive front. “In a 3-4 defense [that] would be less than normal," said Payton. "We will be smart about what we are doing. Certainly [at the] the bottom of this roster there will be movement like there is with every team starting off the season.” The Saints actually have three OLBs on the roster after trading for former 49er Parys Haralson during the last week of the preseason. Haralson could step right into a starting assignment. “He’s real solid," said Payton. "He is a quick study. He’s has picked up what we are doing and he is someone that you can tell he is a veteran who has played real good football. His impressions have been real strong.” Haralson joins the duo of Martez Wilson and Junior Galette, and Wilson is actually pleased that the depth chart ends there. “We’re not rookies. It’s not like this is ... our first rodeo,” Wilson told the Baton Rouge Advocate. “We’re ready for Sunday with no hesitation. We’re excited. Even having three outside linebackers, that just gives us a better rotation, more playing time.” At inside linebacker, the Saints could get veteran leader Jonathan Vilma back soon, perhaps in time for Sunday's opener against the Falcons, despite Vilma having arthroscopic knee surgery in the middle of August. Ramon Antonio Vargas of the Advocate says the Saints hope to start Vilma and former Falcon Curtis Lofton next to each other at the two ILB spots. In some non-LB news, the Saints' weekend cuts included two interesting veterans: WR Courtney Roby and S Jim Leonhard. New Orleans is very deep at safety, especially after drafting Texas' Kenny Vaccaro in the first round in April, but the release of Roby leaves the team with a relatively young group of receivers behind starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Of course, QB Drew Brees has helped plenty of young receivers rise from obscurity to stardom, which is good news for the reserve trio of Nick Toon, Andy Tanner and Kenny Stills.