Inside the enemy huddle

Do you want to know what the Buccaneers' NFC South rivals are up to? takes you inside the huddle of the Falcons, Panthers and Saints and tells you what you need to know. A Falcon receiver might be done for good, the Saints release two classy vets and the Panthers showed the money to a key special teamer. Check it out inside!

Atlanta Falcons

The hot topic

Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall claims that a big reason for his early success in the NFL stems from veterans Deion Sanders, Kevin Mathis and Allen Rossum reaching out and preparing him for much of what's in store, especially off the field.

Hall has not broken that chain.

The fourth-year standout took former college teammate Jimmy Williams under his wing last season and has "adopted" rookie cornerback Chris Houston this summer. Hall has had Houston, a second-round pick, stay at his house, he's escorted him around town and to and from practice and he's stayed in contact with him several times a day.

"His house has always been open to me," Houston said. "He hasn't closed the door on me for anything. I'm able to call him if I need to. He wants to see me do well and I appreciate that. On the field, he told me I'm going to get beat sometimes and that I'm going to go through some rough spots but there's always the next play.

"As far as off the field, the main thing he's told me is to hang around positive people. If I think a person is doing something that's not something I do, then I shouldn't try to be somebody I'm not."

Added Hall: "I felt it was my responsibility to get him caught up, not so much on the game, we got coaches for that, but just all the other stuff. All the temptations, all the things that come when you leave this facility with nothing really to do."

Houston has been working behind veteran Lewis Sanders in offseason drills but coach Bobby Petrino said Houston was drafted to become the starter at right corner, opposite Hall.

Team notes

After spending roughly a month gathering medical opinions, veteran wide receiver Brian Finneran had reconstructive left knee surgery, ending his season and putting his career in jeopardy. This is the second time in less than a year Finneran has undergone season-ending surgery to the knee.

The Falcons declined to divulge the actual injury but coach Bobby Petrino said the rehabilitative timetable is nine to 12 months. Finneran spent the previous seven months rehabilitating the knee after tearing ligaments and displacing his kneecap during a non-contract drill in training camp in 2006.

"Obviously, I am disappointed," Finneran, 31, said in a statement released by the Falcons. "I was looking forward to getting back on the field this season in hopes of helping my team return to the playoffs. After consulting with some of the leading knee injury experts in the country, I decided to have the surgery.

"I plan on attacking the rehabilitation process with all that I have, and look forward to getting back on the field."

Though Finneran, 31, plans to return, missing two seasons with such severe injuries could be tough to overcome.


— Coach Bobby Petrino excused veterans from the team's final voluntary mini camp last week and held a three-day session with 35 rookies. "We spent a lot of individual time with them and were able to go back and teach fundamentals. We really tried to take a lot of time in all of the OTAs and all of the offseason working with the rookies. It's a really good group coming in and we're going to have to rely on a lot of them to play right away."

— The undrafted rookie free agent who is starting to create a buzz is middle linebacker Tony Taylor from Georgia. A cerebral player who wasn't flashy but was frequently in the right place at the right time in college, Taylor's ability to align players and rarely make mistakes has him in the hunt for a roster spot.

Jordan Beck is listed as the backup to Keith Brooking in the middle but if Taylor shines on special teams in the preseason, Taylor could unseat Beck. Beck has shown a lot of promise in preseason games but has rarely seen the field when it mattered.

It doesn't hurt Taylor that the Falcons' linebackers coach, Brian VanGorder, coached Taylor for a few seasons at UGA.

"He's very intelligent," Petrino said. "I'm looking forward to seeing him in preseason games. He's very smart and can get everyone lined up right. He understands blocking schemes. I think he'll definitely be in there competing."

— DE Jamaal Anderson is having to learn new techniques against the run. At Arkansas, he typically aligned on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle or tight end, regardless of the down, distance or situation. With the Falcons, he frequently will align head up with the offensive player in front of him and be responsible for the inside, or "C" gap, something he said was pretty new to him.

"Coming from Arkansas I always played outside the tight end and I had space to run," Anderson said. "Now (in run schemes) it's more of my first two steps are head up on the tight end."

— Having worked pretty much non-stop since taking over for Jim Mora on Jan. 8, Bobby Petrino said he's finally going to take some time to decompress.

"I'm going to get home and go to Montana for a little bit. My parents have a 50th anniversary so I'll have a little down time there," Petrino said.

The quote

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's a 'yes sir' kind of guy. He is more easy-going than I was. I was more of jerk. Guys like him. He works hard and we can't wait to see how he progresses." -- Cornerback DeAngelo Hall on rookie cornerback Chris Houston.

Personnel moves

— Outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas, a fourth-round pick from South Florida, became the first of the 10-player draft class to sign a contract and the first player president/GM Rich McKay has ever signed so soon.

Typically, McKay waits until about three weeks before training camp before finalizing contracts. He has not given any reason as to why this deal materialized so quickly.

Although the bonus money has not been disclosed, Nicholas' base salaries total $1.7 million.

— Third-round draft pick Laurent Robinson, a wide receiver, said this week that he is close to coming to terms.

— The Falcons like area product and former University of Georgia cornerback Paul Oliver but they don't plan on selecting him in the supplemental draft.

— The Falcons have no plans to restructure any contracts at this point to create salary cap flexibility. One of the main reasons why is that the most likely candidates to re-work their deals, linebacker Keith Brooking and running back Warrick Dunn, re-worked their deals before the 2006 season.

Management also has no plans to add any more years to the contracts to the aging vets in order to prorate bonus money and trim short-term fat off the cap. Dunn's contract expires after the 2008 season, Brookings' after 2009.

Carolina Panthers

The Hot Topic

The Carolina Panthers believe Jason Baker is developing into one of the best punters in the league.

And last week they rewarded him for it, giving Baker a contract that equaled that of Dallas' Mat McBriar, the highest-paid punter in the NFL.

Actually, depending on how you look at it, Baker's contract is worth more over the first three years of the deal -- an average of $1.85 million per year.

It also includes a $2 million bonus.

With John Kasay handling field goals and extra points, the Panthers have the core of their kicking game intact.

Baker would have become an unrestricted free agent after the season.

"Jason is very excited," said agent Frank Murtha said. "We were hoping we could work out something with the Panthers. In the last negotiation they said if he put together another strong year they would re-visit it. They were true to their word."

Give Baker credit for not giving up.

He was waived four times earlier in his career, but found a home in Carolina when the Panthers traded three-time Pro Bowler Todd Sauerbrun to Denver for Baker and a seventh-round round draft pick. Although Sauerbrun was a great player for Carolina, he was a pain in the neck for management off the field, often making bold statements and getting in trouble with the law. He was also involved in the team's steroids scandal and later tested positive in Denver for ephedra and was suspended for four games.

Baker set back-to-back team records for net average the past two seasons -- 38.9 yards in 2005 and 39 yards in 2006. Baker was selected as a first alternate for the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons.

"He's been a very consistent punter for us," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "He holds for John and helps out on kickoffs, too. The last two years he finished in the top three in the league in gross and net average. We just feel like he's getting better every year. And he's our kind of guy."

Team Notes

— New offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson is happy with how the installation of the offense is coming along.

The Panthers got quite a bit accomplished in mini-camp and are now off until July 27.

"We're still in the process of evaluating the plays," Davidson said. "We were running some plays out here that we won't run on Sundays. So it's one of those things where we are evaluating our system still, while in turn evaluating the players. And it's coming along pretty well. I'm happy we have this time to work with and we're moving in the right direction."

Davidson said he's has the challenge of evaluating both the players and the plays at the same time.

"It's hard now because most of the time you're trying to simplify the formations and that type of thing and force a lot of guys into those positions," he said. "And then you see what they are capable of doing. Down the road you try to game plan to get them in the right places. It's not that hard. The real hard part comes later on when you try to figure out how to get them in the right positions."

One of the major changes Davidson is making is going to a zone-blocking scheme.

That has required him to retrain some of the offensive linemen and the running backs.

"I wouldn't say it's gone slower than I thought because going in you know there is going to be some growing pains," Davidson said. "Every day there is something that comes up that it's like, 'Hey, this is another aspect that we haven't gotten a chance to talk about.' But that's why we practice."

— Carolina defensive end Jason Hall was named the 2007 NFL Europa League Defensive MVP.

Hall, who was signed as a free agent by Carolina in January, was allocated to the Cologne Centurions and led the league with 12 sacks and tied a league mark by posting a sack in seven consecutive contests.

The 6-foot-2, 253-pound Hall recorded 30 tackles and two passes defensed in 10 starts.

He produced three outings with at least two sacks, including a three-sack performance versus the Hamburg Sea Devils in Week Eight. Hall's contributions helped the Centurions finish first in the league in total defense, allowing an average of 256.1 yards per game.

Hall will practice for the Panthers in July when the team returns to training camp.

Originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by Buffalo in 2006, Hall, 23, was waived by the Bills prior to the start of the regular season. In college, he played in 44 games with 12 starts at Tennessee and compiled 101 tackles, 11 sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and four passes defensed.

Hall becomes the second Carolina player to win the award.

In 2002, safety Deke Cooper won Defensive MVP when he ranked first in the league with five interceptions. Cooper is also on the Panthers roster.

— Panthers second-round draft pick Dwayne Jarrett, a wide receiver from USC, was involved in a car accident Wednesday night when his car was rear-ended on Interstate-77 that runs through Charlotte.

However, team officials said Jarrett was checked out and did not have any significant injuries.

Jake Delhomme said he hopes the rumors that NFL Europa may fold are untrue.

"I cut my teeth there and got to play a lot there, so I learned a lot there," he said. "To me, it's a quarterback's league -- that's what I believe. That's what I believe it was made for -- to allow young quarterbacks to play and grow."

If the league does go under, Delhomme is hoping the NFL will find other ways to develop young quarterbacks (like himself) who might have fallen through the cracks. One suggestion is mandating that one practice squad spot per team be reserved for a quarterback.

Of course, that still doesn't help with gaining playing time experience at the pro level.

"That's the thing," said Delhomme, who still follows NFL Europa closely. "That's what was so hopeful to me. The experience I gained on the field ... that was huge. You fall back on that."

So would he be here, the starting quarterback for the Panthers, had it not been for Europe? That's one Delhomme can't answer.

"I don't know. You'd like to say yes, but who knows?" he said. "That is where I got better playing on the field in certain situations. You just learn so much."

— Backup defensive tackle Jordan Carstens is still waiting for medical clearance to play football. Carstens has a disease called membranous, which leads to clotting in the lung.

"I'm just coming out every day, trying to stay in shape," Carstens said. "As far as my health, I don't know if I want to say where it was. Really just waiting for the medicine to work. Kind of in a holding pattern right now, waiting to see. They'll do some more tests right before camp. But I haven't been cleared for contact."

The Panthers are paying Carstens $1.3 million this year.

Asked if he's optimistic about playing this year, Carstens said, "Yeah, sure. I think anything can happen. My wife and I are just hanging in there, saying our prayers, because there's really nothing we can do. I'm taking the medicine and doing everything I can, so it's out of kind of out of my hands."

The Quote

"Oh Steve's fun to watch. As a coach you love guys that compete every play whether it's Sunday or on a Wednesday and Steve seems to be that kind of guy. He's really a joy to coach. He's doing a nice job also. He falls into that same category as Steve. There aren't a lot of guys who aren't in that category. There are a lot of guys that compete. There are some are exceptional. Those two guys (Delhomme and Smith) are simply exceptional." -- Panthers offensive coordinator on WR Steve Smith and QB Jake Delhomme.

Personnel Moves

The Panthers are one of three teams interested in free agent safety Donovin Darius, who was released by Jacksonville. Darius visited with Oakland on Thursday. Carolina and Buffalo have also expressed interest in Darius.

At this point Darius has no other visits set up.

New Orleans Saints

The Hot Topic

Two of the Saints' more tenured and more classy players took the news of their release from the team with dignity when wide receiver/kick returner Michael Lewis and defensive lineman Willie Whitehead were called into coach Sean Payton's office.

Instead of being bitter about the team's decision to let them go, Lewis and Whitehead said they appreciated the way the Saints broke the bad news to them on June 15 -- just one day after the team concluded its off-season program.

At different times that day, both players were called in and told that the team was going into a different direction with younger players at their positions. Lewis turns 36 in November and Whitehead is 34.

Lewis, who gained fame when he was named to the All-Pro team in 2002 after setting an NFL record for total return yards that season, was one of the game's great stories after making the roster following a stellar indoor career.

The story was made even better by the fact that Lewis never played college ball and drove a beer truck to earn a living while starring in three different indoor leagues.

He said he "didn't see the writing on the wall," but knew something was up when the team contacted him Friday morning. Whitehead also said he didn't expect the team to let him go either.

"It was a shock to me," Whitehead said. "I didn't see it coming. I've been through it before in eight years. It's a business."

Both players don't know what the future holds right now, but they are certain of one thing: they still want to play the game somewhere.

"I'm leaving it up to my agents," the speedy Lewis said. "It's wide open right now. I've got a lot of football left in me. It's no problem."

Whitehead said he hopes to get picked up by another team, or possibly land with the Saints again in the future. "I'm definitely going to play football again," he said.

Team Notes

— The Saints continued to make good progress in getting their 2007 draft picks under contract with the signing of three more players last week.

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis announced the signing of running back Antonio Pittman and tackle Jermon Bushrod, their two fourth-round selections, and linebacker Marvin Mitchell, a seventh-round pick. All received three-year deals.

With the signing of Pittman, Bushrod and Mitchell, the Saints have six of their seven draft picks under contract with a month to go until training camp starts. The lone unsigned pick is wide receiver Robert Meachem, their first-round selection.

Pittman, an All-Big Ten selection at Ohio State, came to the Saints with the 107th overall pick after they executed a trade with Houston to move up 16 spots in the round. Pittman rushed for 2,945 yards and had 22 touchdowns despite leaving after his junior season.

Bushrod, a 6-foot-5, 315-pounder, was the 125th overall pick of the draft, while Mitchell was the 220th selection. Like Pittman, they're expected to provide depth at their positions.

— The Saints finally made it official Thursday when team officials announced they will again hold training camp at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. -- conducting a total of 25 practices on the serene campus.

Triple-digit heat and humidity will again greet the Saints' players when they report to camp on July 25 with two-a-day practices starting on July 27. The team will break camp Aug. 19 -- one day after they take on the Cincinnati Bengals in their third preseason game.

The news had been expected for several weeks, but the announcement was delayed for several weeks while team officials and Millsaps representatives worked to reach an agreement on a handful of issues. Before committing to return, the Saints sought upgrades — including help to raise funds for an indoor practice field and extra laundry facilities.

Those issues have been resolved, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said. While team and school officials raise money to fund an indoor practice facility, the Saints will practice on the stadium field — which features a FieldTurf playing surface — and three adjacent grass fields.

"We learned last year the value of having the team together as a group in the atmosphere that Millsaps provides," owner Tom Benson said in a statement. "Everyone at the school and in the city worked hard to make our stay a success last year, which is something we all appreciated.

— The Saints' seven draft choices are scheduled to participate in the NFL's mandatory rookie symposium, which will be held June 24-27 in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

The quote

"I'm happy. Millsaps did everything they could to accommodate us and make it 'NFL standard.' We can't do anything about the weather. Camp brings us closer together and makes us better as a team." — Saints RB Deuce McAllister on returning to Millsaps College for a second straight year for training camp.

Personnel Moves

With the release of former All-Pro Michael Lewis on June 15, the day after the Saints wrapped up their off-season program, it's unclear who will be the team's main kickoff returner for the upcoming season.

For the time being, it appears the duties will fall to reserve running back Aaron Stecker, who returned most of the kickoffs in the first half of 2006 when Lewis was still recovering from a torn left ACL. Reggie Bush is expected to again return punts.

The Sports Xchange contributed to this report.

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