NFC South Notes - August 4th

The latest news and notes on the NFC South - Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

ATLANTA FALCONS

HOT TOPIC
When Roddy White finally ended his six-day contract holdout, the 29th overall draft choice had missed nine practices, but he hardly looked rusty.

White dropped no passes and continued his penchant for adjusting routes so Michael Vick doesn't have to throw a perfect ball every time.

This attribute is critically important for a mobile quarterback like Vick, who scrambles and avoids defenders like no player before him.

Fortunately for the Falcons, the favorable trait White shares with tight end Alge Crumpler is one that no other Atlanta receivers have.

Regardless how tightly they're covered, White and Crumpler "attack" the ball as it descends. They don't wait for the ball to intersect their route.

Both adjust accordingly, but White has yet to play in a real game, so it's premature to lend him too much credit.

Perhaps his skill is so hard to overlook because the rest of the team's personnel is rather pedestrian.

If White delivers as the team hopes, he can take pressure off other receivers and give them time to confuses opponents with crossing routes that can make the West Coast offense so effective.

The rookie anticipates a heavy workload in preseason games, but Atlanta coaches might not give him abundant snaps in the exhibition opener against the Colts in Japan. Just accompanying his teammates on the five-day trip, and spending plenty of time in a makeshift study hall aboard the team charter, might be enough.

"I felt like I needed to be here and get the deal done before I went to Japan, so I could see what kind of experience I could get in my first preseason game," White said. "I think I still have a chance to come in here and continue to do things well, then I'll have a chance to get some playing time."

"I really wanted to come in and make up for lost time," White said. "I wanted to get into camp early and I wanted to see what I could do."

Mora insists that White's late arrival forfeited his chance of unseating veteran Dez White, at least for the time being, as the starter at split end.

"I'm not going to change my position," Mora said. "It's going to be tough for him, but we need to see him on the field doing some things that are helping us."

White sidestepped whether he blew an opportunity to open camp in Dez White's spot. Because he's a rookie, Roddy White likely would've begun last Monday's first practice behind the former Georgia Tech standout regardless of when he signed.

Not that such situations warrant terrible concern. Because they play open the preseason in Tokyo against the Indianapolis Colts next Saturday, the Falcons have five exhibition games instead of the usual four.

So Roddy White will have many chances to prove he belongs in the starting lineup.

"I think I still have a chance to come in here and continue to do things well," he said, "then I'll have a chance to get some playing time."

The long wait to report, which White spent mostly in Birmingham but also at his new home in the exclusive neighborhood at nearby Chateau Elan, wasn't much fun.

His teammates made him feel comfortable.

"They're happy I'm back," White said. "Everybody has been coming up to me and saying congratulations. It's time to work now."

NOTES
-- Coach Jim Mora believes DE Brady Smith might start practicing sooner than expected. Smith, who underwent neck surgery just 10 day before camp opened, originally thought he would miss the entire month of August, but Mora thinks the 10-year veteran could begin practicing in the third or fourth week of preseason.

There seems almost no chance Atlanta would risk further injury to Smith and have him play in an exhibition game.

Smith, who has started at right end since the Atlanta Falcons signed him in February 2000, has begun running, lifting and exploding from his stance. Soreness throughout his body makes any strenuous activity difficult.

"The only thing I care about is that he feels better," line coach Bill Johnson said. "The only games that count are the ones we play beginning Sept. 12. Brady knows that, and he's working with the trainers to develop the right plan for his return."

-- Fullback Justin Griffith underwent an X-ray on his surgically repaired ankle. Results were negative, but he scared himself and those around him when scar tissue tore in the first week of camp.

"That's a good thing," Mora said. "I think it shocked and scared him a little bit, but he knew it was coming. He just didn't know how it was going to feel. He was fine after practice, and there was no lack of strength."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Peerless Price watch continues, but the seventh-year receiver promises he won't leave without a fight. Michael Jenkins, not Price, opened camp as the starting flanker.

What's uncanny is that Jenkins was elevated without playing a game. He earned the promotion with a strong offseason.

Salary cap ramifications could keep Price on the team regardless, but the fact that he doesn't play special teams and Atlanta's other top four receivers do, might not bode well.

INJURY REPORT: RDE Brady Smith is running, lifting and working from his stance after undergoing neck surgery 10 days before camp opened.

Despite these problems, Smith might return to practice in three or four weeks. The team will hold him out of all five preseason games. ... FB Justin Griffith tore scar tissue in his surgically repaired ankle, but X-rays were negative, and he hopes to take a few snaps in Tokyo. ... RB T.J. Duckett lost a combined 24 pounds in the first two days of camp and subsequently strained a hamstring. ... LCB DeAngelo Hall practiced despite wearing a sling and using a stim to help a sprained shoulder. He hopes to have a breakout season. ... MLB Ed Hartwell has a sprained wrist that doesn't affect him whatsoever. ... SLB Ike Reese has a sore knee after working one practice on artificial turf.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

HOT TOPIC
Despite starting training camp on the active-PUP list, Carolina Panthers running back Stephen Davis remains confident he can return from microfracture surgery on his right knee at age 31 and help the team win some games this year.

"Age has nothing to do with it," said Davis. Of course, knee injuries do, and Davis is coming off a rough one last November in which doctors drilled small holes in his kneecap, allowing fluid to fill in behind and prevent bone from rubbing on bone.

It's called microfracture surgery and for many NFL players like Terrell Davis, Eric Swann and Patrick Jeffers, it's signaled the end of their NFL careers.

But Davis isn't worried, and he insists he's taking the right approach to making a full recovery.

"A lot of people when they see microfracture they run from it," Davis said. "You shouldn't run from it. It's something if you've got to have it, you've got to be smart about it. In the past, the guys that didn't come back from it or weren't successful, they weren't smart about it. It's a long process."

Davis has learned that in the 8 1/2 months since his operation.

Carolina's doctors and trainers believe a player should not walk without the aid of crutches for two months after the surgery and they shouldn't run for another two to three months.

During that span, the admittedly impatient Davis has been forced to learn patience. But he believes he will be better off in the long run if he simply bides his time and listens to head trainer Ryan Vermillion, whom he has the utmost confidence in.

"I want to do what's best for me and the team," Davis said. "I want to be out there 100 percent. I feel that if we had a Super Bowl game or an important playoff game right now, I could go and play right now. The thing is, we don't want to do anything stupid and go out there and something happens. Then you say what if we would have waited.

"The best thing we can do right now is wait and get it better, and hopefully in the near future, I'll be out there."

Davis has no immediate timetable for when he'll be back on the practice field.

"As soon as possible," he said.

However, when asked if it's realistic to think he might play in Carolina's final two preseason games, Davis nodded his head and replied, "I think that's realistic."

Davis said he's "85-to-90 percent" healthy and said it's unfair to say he flunked his physical exam.

Although it's been widely suggested that most running backs start to fall off after they reach age 30, Davis isn't buying it. He points to Curtis Martin, who at 32 ran for an NFL-high 1,697 yards last year.

But for every Martin, there are five Eddie Georges and Marshall Faulks, running backs who have gone from being stars to out of a job in a matter of months.

"People deal with age every day," he said. "It don't matter. It don't matter. Yes, I'm older than I was last year. I'm older than what I was three years ago. But the determination and desire I have to play this game is no different than five or six years ago. So don't talk to me about age.

"You should ask me if I still have the desire to play this game. That's what you should ask me. That's what really irks me about somebody asking me about my age."

NOTES
--Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said he has shed more than 20 pounds and is down to his regular playing weight of 335 pounds. When asked if he thinks Jenkins is in shape, head coach John Fox said, "We'll find out."

Fox said Jenkins, when healthy, is a dominant player at his position and can help his teammates up and down the line.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
It appears S Thomas Davis will remain at strong safety this season for the Panthers.

The Panthers opened training camp on Saturday with the nine-year NFL veteran S Mike Minter working exclusively at free safety, a position he hasn't played since his rookie season in 1997. Minter has spent the past seven seasons at strong safety, but he's being moved to accommodate Davis, the team's first-round draft pick out of Georgia.

Davis opened camp working with the second team at strong safety behind S Colin Branch, who has also switched positions after starting 15 games last season at free safety. However, it's likely Davis will win that job.

The Panthers experimented some with Minter at free safety during minicamp, but the move now appears permanent.

"We wanted Mike to be in a position where he can start and where Thomas and Colin are battling each other," said defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac. "Our safeties are pretty much interchangeable. So it wasn't a big switch for Mike because he's done both."

Trgovac said the purpose is to get the best 11 players on the field, and clearly he feels like Minter is one of them.

"Right, that's why we're going to let Colin and Thomas battle it out," Trgovac said.

Davis will also play some linebacker on third downs.

--WR Eugene Baker was released by the Panthers after the team traded for WR Rod Gardner.

--P Steve Cheek was unable to get past a stress fracture in his leg and was released by the Panthers. That leaves P Tom Rouen and P Jason Baker to contend for Todd Sauerbrun's old job.

--DT Brentson Buckner contemplated retirement after the season, but now said he wants to play through the 2007 season.

--CB Ricky Manning, Jr. opened camp working as the team's nickel back behind starters CB Chris Gamble and CB Ken Lucas.

--RB Rod Smart has not received many reps at running back during camp, but has been playing on most special teams.

INJURY REPORT:Players being held out of practice: RB Stephen Davis, OT Matt Hill, (an NFL Europe player), WR Keary Colbert, LB Marcus Lawrence and OG Tupe Peko.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

HOT TOPIC
The Saints opened training camp with a bang last week, signing three key players to contracts in less than 48 hours - starting with two-time Pro Bowl running back Deuce McAllister.

McAllister, whose contract was to expire after the upcoming season, was rewarded with a seven-year extension just 30 minutes before he and his teammates were to attend a mandatory team meeting to open camp.

They followed that the next morning by getting right tackle Jammal Brown, their first-round draft pick this spring, to sign a five-year deal. Brown was on the field Friday for the first practice, marking the first time the team's top pick had participated in the opening workout since 1999.

Finally, the Saints agreed to terms on a three-year contract extension with cornerback Mike McKenzie, whose holdout last training camp eventually led to his being traded from the Green Bay Packers to the Saints in early October.

His new contract also includes the final two years of his old contract -- which means he has a five-year deal worth $22 million. The contract included a $7 million signing bonus.

McKenzie had been seeking an extension for the last year. After he was dealt to the Saints in exchange for quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan and a second-round draft pick, he told the team he wanted to renegotiate his contract.

But they wanted to wait until after the season and they kept their word when McKenzie came up with a team-leading five interceptions in 10 games. He also spearheaded a defensive effort that helped the team finish the season with a four-game winning streak.

"We told Mike and his agent that we wanted Mike to come here, do a good job and fit in, and then we would have some discussion," said Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis. "That was the extent of our commitment. We had some good discussions, and now they've turned into an extension."

"It's a beautiful day," McKenzie said. "Anybody who plays this game wants to be able to get to the Super Bowl and take care of his family ... I'm happy to be here. I'm going to be here for a good long while, so get used to the face."

McAllister's deal, which also includes the final year on his old contract, is worth a reported $50.1 million, while Brown's five-year deal is worth $11 million with $8.5 million of that guaranteed in the first year.

NOTES
--Former Arizona Cardinals linebacker Ronald McKinnon was out of a job for much of the spring until the Saints, who had been looking for a veteran linebacker this off-season, signed him to a one-year contract on the eve of training camp.

The Saints, who terminated the contract of middle linebacker Orlando Ruff in June, needed insurance at that spot behind second-year player Courtney Watson and talked to several free agents before getting a deal done with McKinnon, a 10-year NFL veteran who has 119 career starts.

"I'm real excited. ... New Orleans called my agent a week ago and it was a real good opportunity," said McKinnon. "We were waiting to make sure it would be right."

"We thought he was a good player, a guy who's started for 10 years and was out of a job," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "He is a great kid and he works hard. We never promised him anything, but he has an opportunity to make our team and play for us. He's got great leadership."

--After muffing his first punt in the first training camp practice, wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim had more trouble in the second practice. He caught a punt from Mitch Berger and fell backward as he desperately tried to hang onto the ball.

In 2000, while with the St. Louis Rams, Hakim fumbled a punt in the closing minutes of an NFC wildcard playoff which sealed the Saints' first-ever postseason win.

--Running back Deuce McAllister may have a new contract in excess of $50 million, but he's not planning to spend it frivolously. When asked what he planned to buy, McAllister thought about his family instead of himself.

"My job is to play football, but I'll try to do some smart investing in it," the five-year veteran said. "It's basically secured my family's future, as well as my children's future -- when that does occur. My nephews and everybody, they've basically been taken care of from this point on."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Saints' officials spent much of the past off-season trying to find a veteran linebacker, preferably someone who can play the middle, to add more depth to the position.

They finally found him just three days before training camp began when they signed ex-Arizona Cardinals linebacker Ronald McKinnon to a one-year deal. McKinnon, a 10-year NFL veteran with 119 starts in 141 games, is expected to back up second-year pro Courtney Watson in training camp.

INJURY REPORT: Starting SLB James Allen twisted his left knee on the final play of the team's first practice. He missed both workouts Saturday, but an MRI showed no damage to the knee. ... Free agent FB Jasen Isom missed both practices Saturday with an injury to his lower left leg. Isom spent time riding the stationary bike and later walked with a wrap on his left calf.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

HOT TOPIC
It remains to be seen where Carnell 'Cadillac' Williams will rank on the NFL rushing charts. But it took him one day for the Bucs to put him atop the depth chart at tailback.

Williams was placed ahead of veteran Michael Pittman. Not that he is having trouble keeping that sudden promotion in perspective.

"It doesn't mean much at all," said Williams, the fifth overall pick from Auburn.

"We've got Michael Pittman and a lot of guys who can carry the ball who are going to do great in this offense. There are going to be plenty of carries to go around."

The number of carries may not be the issue. According to coach Jon Gruden, there is more to playing the running back position than toting the football.

Running backs also are called upon to provide pass protection, particularly in blitz situations, and get in front of hard-charging defensive linemen.

Pittman, who led the NFL with five lost fumbles, is particularly good at picking up those blitzes and there was a time when that ability might have enabled him to keep his job.

But Williams is better in certain areas than expected. He certainly is a better receiver than he was given credit for at Auburn and his blocking is underrated.

"A lot of folks say my blocking is one of my weaknesses," Williams said. "That's something I have to work on, but I wouldn't consider it a weakness. I like to block. To be honest with you, the scheme here is a lot like Auburn's blitz pickup, so what they're doing I'm so familiar with."

Coach Jon Gruden was careful to warn Bucs fans not to read too much into the depth chart this early in the preseason.

"It's a piece of paper that's used by an organization to get rotations going," Gruden said. "It's a lot like picking teams in the backyard. Sometimes I get picked first, sometimes I get picked last. We're going to continue to do that throughout the camp. As stocks rise and stocks drop, depth charts change."

NOTES
--Scientists from Gatorade will spend the next several days analyzing several Bucs players who have struggled with weight loss and dehydration. Among them is OL John Wade and rookie defensive tackle Anthony Bryant.

"They're going to hook (Wade) up to these wires and do some real intense study on John Wade and I hope to find out what the problem is," coach Jon Gruden said. "Because when you play quarterback with John Wade at center, it's a wet ball drill, man. This guy sweats. We're going to get it resolved."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Bucs released T Todd Steussie, who signed a six-year, $20-million contract with the team a year ago. By releasing Steussie after June 1, the Bucs only have to count about $667,000 against the salary cap for 2005. Next year the team will take a hit of about $2.67 million.

The Bucs signed Sam Lightbody, a 6-foot-9, 325-pound tackle from Washington State. The team released guard/center Chris Watton.

INJURY REPORT: Tackle Derrick Deese did not practice Sunday due to a mild foot sprain. He should return today or Tuesday. Fullback Rick Razzano (hamstring) and Jacques Lewis (hamstring) did not practice. Cornerback Brian Kelly did not practice due to a virus. He is expected to return today. Center John Wade and tackle Kenyatta Walker were held out of the afternoon practice.

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