Around the NFC South 3-31

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ATLANTA FALCONS

Owner Arthur Blank announced a three-year contract extension and a pay increase for coach Jim Mora, who appreciated the show of faith.

Because he spent 19 years as an assistant before Blank made him a first-time head coach in January 2004, Mora understands the anxiety that often keeps a staff looking over its collective shoulder.

"Absolutely, there's not always a lot of job security in our business," Mora wrote in an e-mail Friday afternoon. "We are lucky to work for Arthur."

Besides adding 2009 to the deal, Blank changed the contract's language so that 2007 and '08 are no longer team option years but guaranteed. Mora originally signed for $7.5 million over five years.

"We're delighted Jim is our head coach, and we want him to be a part of our long-term success," Blank said in a statement. "Jim demonstrates every day his knowledge and passion for football, and he is a great leader for our players."

Blank's decision also removed potential obstacles the team might have endured with a sluggish start. After losing six of eight for an 8-8 finish that doomed their playoff chances, the Falcons and their coach were understandably sensitive to criticism as the season unraveled.

Should Atlanta struggle early in 2006, Mora and each of his assistants will have assurances that they're taken care of financially through that season and all of '07.

That's because none of the Falcons' coaches is entering the final year of his contract.

PLAYER NOTES

--Giving up a fourth-round draft choice for Chris Crocker might seem a lot for a player who was coming off shoulder surgery and no longer fit into Cleveland's plans for the coming season.

Atlanta scouts, however, were otherwise convinced. With 86 tackles, two forced fumbles, two sacks and two interceptions, the 26-year-old Crocker showed an ability to finish plays that often eluded Keion Carpenter on the deep end of the Falcons' secondary.

--QB Matt Schaub kept up with recent speculation as his name circulated in potential trade talks.

"There were numerous rumors that I heard, but that's what they were - rumors," the backup quarterback said. "And you don't really pay much attention to them. You don't really give them much thought because people are going to say stuff and talk and write whatever they want and whatever the talk is. The bottom line is I'm here with Atlanta, and I'm happy to be here."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

TEAM NEEDS

1. Cornerback: Jason Webster is locked in as the right-side starter opposite first-time Pro Bowler DeAngelo Hall entering the season. Webster, however, is a consummate team player and never grumbles about his role. Less reliance on Webster would make him more effective, particularly in a nickel role. So with a second-round pick or two of Atlanta's spots in the third round, president-general manager Rich McKay will go with Miami's Kelly Jennings, Fresno State's Richard Marshall or Alan Zemaitis early or Miami's Devin Hester, Georgia's DeMario Minter or Florida's Demetric Webb later.

2. Running Back: Looking toward 2007 and the potential departure of Warrick Dunn or no less than a reduced role, it's important that the team have a player of his caliber, size and elusiveness to learn from a three-time Pro Bowl selection in '06. Right now, there seems no chance that T.J. Duckett would return with a new contract. His decline in the final five games was frightening. Averaging 1.1 yards over Atlanta's 1-4 finish sent scouts scurrying for answers heading into this draft. Waiting until the second round could be worth the risk if Wisconsin's Brian Calhoun is still available. Calhoun, like Williams, resembles Dunn more than a bigger back whose frame is more akin to Duckett.

3. Offensive Tackle: The loss of left tackle Kevin Shaffer makes a starter of Frank Omiyale, but he offers no guarantees. Atlanta did not activate him once in his rookie season. Should he struggle in protection, opponents will overload his side and try to collapse Omiyale's side of the pocket and hammer Michael Vick. Some insurance would help, and the third round might bring Boise State's Daryn College, Auburn's Troy Reddick or Texas Tech's E.J. Whitley _ each of whom has the compact frame that suits Alex Gibbs' zone-blocking schemes.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--S Keion Carpenter might have played his way out of the league after a terrible 2005. He won't return unless he's a defensive assistant.

--QB Ty Detmer hasn't taken a snap since 2001. He taught Michael Vick and Matt Schaub all he knows about Greg Knapp's offense, but his career is over.

--S Antuan Edwards is injury-prone, but coaches never should've waited five games before dressing him. He will begin camp somewhere, maybe with Atlanta, but only as a backup.

--DE Erik Flowers might have taken his last snap in 2004 with the Rams. He spent all of last year on injured reserve after signing as an insurance policy in camp and won't return.

--S Ronnie Heard finds himself in a predicament; he's too brittle to blow up opponents on special teams, but he has upside in the secondary as a backup. Unfortunately, such players usually need to contribute heavily on special teams.

--WR Jerome Pathon did little to distinguish himself, and his small frame does little to help Vick make his reads when the quarterback has so many other big options available in Alge Crumpler, Roddy White, Michael Jenkins and perhaps Finneran. Pathon will not return.

--PK Todd Peterson signed last year for under the minimum, a relative coup for the front office. It's uncertain if the Falcons can work a similar deal in '06, but the team wants him back, and Peterson prefers to play another season in his adopted hometown.

--LB Artie Ulmer re-signed in midseason to fortify special teams. Once again, he did a good job. Once again, however, he will not return because Ed Hartwell and Jordan Beck are returning from season-ending injuries.

--WR Dez White essentially ended his Atlanta career with a spectacularly bad performance in the road win over the Saints. Played sparingly and briefly before given his walking papers in the way of injured reserve. No chance he returns.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)

--DE Constantin Ritzmann (not tendered as ERFA).

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--DT Antwan Lake (tendered at $721,600 with no compensation) is dependable and tough as a backup to starting NT Chad Lavalais. Lake did little to earn a big contract elsewhere, so the team will bring him back at his qualifying offer.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

--TE Dwayne Blakley (tendered at $425,000) was an untapped resource.

--G/C Ben Claxton.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

--WR Brian Finneran: UFA; $8M/4 yrs, $3M SB.

--DB Omare Lowe: Not tendered as RFA; terms unknown.

--FB Fred McCrary: Potential UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

--DE John Abraham: Franchise FA Jets/trade; $45M/6 yrs, $18M guaranteed.

--S Chris Crocker: Trade Browns.

--S Lawyer Milloy: FA Bills; $6.01M/3 yrs, $2.5M SB; 2006 cap: $1.643M.

PLAYERS LOST

--S Kevin McCadam: UFA Panthers; terms unknown.

--OT Kevin Shaffer: UFA Browns; 6 yrs, terms unknown.

--DE Brady Smith (released; failed physical/toe).

--OT Barry Stokes: UFA Lions; 3 yrs, terms unknown.

MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

As if they didn't know earlier, the Saints that are still around following last year's 3-13 debacle quickly found out that new coach Sean Payton is a no-nonsense kind of guy.

Little information came out of the first team meeting that Payton held on March 20 when players reported to begin their off-season program, but he was apparently simple and straightforward.

Payton was tight-lipped the next day about what he told his team, but two-time Pro Bowl running back Deuce McAllister gave a brief synopsis about what the players can expect.

"He told us a lot of things that were going to be different, just from a discipline standpoint or conditioning standpoint, things we have to work on as individuals as well as a team," said McAllister, who is rehabbing a torn ACL in his right knee.

Payton didn't take questions from the players.

"There wasn't a lot up for discussion. It was matter of fact," he said. "It probably was not unlike a lot of team meetings where a new head coach was on board. And we outlined the plans for our team for the upcoming year."

Payton said the key to an off-season program, and getting players to attend, is to make the players feel as though they're not coming into practice each day, rather they're coming in to get into better shape and investing in the future.

"What you're trying to do as a head coach is explain to them this is what we have at stake," he said. " 'Here's the off-season program, and here's the outline for it.' I think attendance here has been pretty good in the past.

"The trick is, once they're here what are you doing? We'll see. I don't know if the program we're getting ready to jump into is similar to what they have been involved in. I imagine it will be a little different. We'll see how they respond to it."

The structure of the off-season program, which is overseen by new strength and conditioning coach Dan Dalrymple, consists of stretching, lifting and running Monday through Thursday. Friday is a makeup day.

There are three groups a day, at 7:30 a.m., 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Attendance is voluntary, but highly recommended.

PLAYER NOTES

--While the makeover of the Saints' roster continued late last week with the release of guard Kendyl Jacox and the signing of three free agents - running back Michael Bennett, linebacker Anthony Simmons and safety Omar Stoutmire - the team brought back two familiar faces this week.

The Saints re-signed defensive tackle Willie Whitehead, who has been with the team since 1999, to a three-year contract and strongside linebacker James Allen to a one-year deal. Both were unrestricted free agents.

A 6-foot-3, 300-pounder, Whitehead was the first of the Saints' 16 unrestricted free agents to re-sign with the team. He started 15 games in 2005 and will continue to rotate along the interior of the line with Brian Young and fourth-year pro Johnathan Sullivan.

Allen, who will likely back up Scott Fujita, was expected to start last season. But a nagging knee injury forced him to miss the preseason and he played in a reserve role in just three games before being placed on injured reserve in October.

Another of the Saints' unrestricted free agents, wide receiver/kick returner Michael Lewis, visited the St. Louis Rams on Thursday. Lewis, a native of New Orleans and a crowd favorite, is coming off knee surgery that limited him to just two games last season.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Saints may have surprised some people by deciding to not wait until the draft to address their quarterback situation. The signing of Drew Brees to a six-year, $60 million deal gives Sean Payton a proven veteran to build his offense around - if Brees' rehabilitation from shoulder surgery continues at its current pace.

With Brees in the fold, the Saints gained a lot of flexibility for the April 29-30 draft. With the second overall pick, the Saints can choose a quality player (perhaps even quarterback Matt Leinart) or they can trade down and attempt to pick up a few extra draft picks to fill needs at several other positions.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Linebacker: Now that they have their quarterback in Drew Brees, the Saints could use the second pick in the draft or trade down to address other needs - like linebacker. They signed free agents Scott Fujita and Anthony Simmons but may try to upgrade the position even more, perhaps with the addition of Ohio State's A.J. Hawk. The Saints have lacked talent at this position for several years, so getting help has to be a priority for Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs.

2. Offensive line: With center LeCharles Bentley gone, the Saints still have to find a replacement and also could be in the market for a left guard after releasing Kendyl Jacox, though veterans Jermane Mayberry and Jamar Nesbit are still on the roster. The Saints missed out on free agent centers Melvin Fowler and Seth McKinney, so that will be a priority over the next couple of months - either through free agency or the draft. The Saints may also look to get younger at left tackle, where 35-year-old Wayne Gandy is due to receive a base salary of $5.25 million this season.

3. Cornerback: Mike McKenzie and Fred Thomas are the starters, but the Saints need more depth here after Fakhir Brown left via free agency. The only experienced backups are Jason Craft and Joey Thomas - and Thomas, who didn't play a lot after being claimed off waivers at midseason, will have to prove himself to this coaching staff. They will likely attempt to address the position before the draft, however, with a veteran free agent from another team.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--WR Az-Zahir Hakim was injured for most of training camp and the regular season and it's not known where he will fit in next season.

--TE Lamont Hall is a designated blocker who may or may not be asked back.

--WR/KR Michael Lewis is a fan favorite, but he's coming off a serious knee injury and will turn 35 just two months after the 2006 opener. He may or may not return.

--LB Ronald McKinnon played well once he joined the starting lineup at midseason and may or may not be re-signed.

--S Mel Mitchell has distinguished himself on special teams, but hasn't been able to crack the lineup on defense.

--LB T.J. Slaughter was plagued by a groin injury last fall, but he could be asked back because the Saints are desperate for linebacking help.

--RB Antowain Smith was the team's leading ball carrier with 659 yards and is a good presence in the locker room, but he'll be 34 next season.

--RB Anthony Thomas wasn't impressive and got very few opportunities after being signed in the second half of the season.

--DT Cedric Woodard was signed by the Saints in late November, but was a game-day inactive for each of the four games he was with the club.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--TE Zach Hilton (tendered at $721,600 with no compensation) became a favorite target of Saints quarterbacks late in the season and caught 35 passes.

--OG Montrae Holland (tendered at $721,600 with 4th-round pick as compensation) has started 30 games at left and right guard in his three seasons.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

--LB James Allen: UFA; terms unknown.

--RB Fred McAfee: UFA; terms unknown.

--LB Terrence Melton: ERFA; terms unknown.

--DT Willie Whitehead: UFA; 3 yrs, terms unknown.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

--RB Michael Bennett: UFA Vikings; $5M/2 yrs, SB unknown.

--QB Drew Brees: UFA Chargers; $60/6 yrs, $8M SB/$12M OB '07.

--TE Mark Campbell: FA Bills; terms unknown.

--LB Scott Fujita: UFA Cowboys; terms unknown.

--C Dwayne Ledford: Not tendered as ERFA by Browns; terms unknown.

--LB Anthony Simmons: FA; $1.5M/1 yr.

--S Omar Stoutmire: UFA Redskins; terms unknown.

PLAYERS LOST

--C LeCharles Bentley: UFA Browns; $36M/6 yrs, SB unknown.

--QB Aaron Brooks (released).

--CB Fakhir Brown: UFA Rams; $12M/5 yrs, $2.5M SB.

--LB Sedrick Hodge: UFA Dolphins; $2M/2 yrs, SB unknown.

--DE Darren Howard: UFA Eagles; $30M/6 yrs, $9.5M SB.

--OG Kendyl Jacox (released/failed physical).

--TE Boo Williams (released).

MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The Bucs don't deserve blame for losing backup quarterback Brian Griese, who signed a five-year deal with the Chicago Bears.

After all, Griese did receive a $5 million signing bonus and will earn $6 million next season.

Where the fault lies with Tampa Bay is in the Bucs' failure to act quickly enough to find a capable replacement.

Once the Bucs saw that Griese probably was headed elsewhere, they should have placed a call to Jon Kitna, Patrick Ramsey or Josh McCown.

Starter Chris Simms will not be working completely without a net. The Bucs have two other quarterbacks with NFL experience under contract - Luke McCown and Tim Rattay.

In fact, it was Griese's season-ending knee injury that forced the Bucs to deal for Rattay just before the trading deadline. But neither are considered capable of saving the season should Simms become injured.

But what is left on the scrap heap for the Bucs to consider are pretty poor options - Jamie Martin, Anthony Wright and Tommy Maddox.

Not exactly great choices.

The Bucs brought in former Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks, but he wound up signing with the Raiders.

The Bucs received a visit from Seahawks free agent Seneca Wallace, Seattle's No. 2 quarterback. His restricted status means the Bucs would have to sign him to an offer sheet that Seattle could match. The Bucs would then have to compensate the Seahawks with a fourth-round pick.

PLAYER NOTES

--Only one player of the eight drafted by the Bucs in 2002 remains - safety Jermaine Phillips. Of course, Tampa Bay didn't have a first- or second-round pick that season, having sent them to the Raiders for coach Jon Gruden. The Bucs' third-rounder, receiver Marquis Walker, and the fourth-rounder, running back Travis Stephens, are out of the NFL.

--The Bucs re-signed free-agent tight end and long snapper Dave Moore, positioning him to become the first player in franchise history to play a 13th season in Tampa Bay.

Moore, 36, is tied with former OL Paul Gruber for the longest tenure with the Bucs. Also, his 177 games played with the Bucs ranks second all-time behind Gruber's 183.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

TEAM NEEDS

1. Offensive line. The Bucs had all five offensive linemen start all 17 games last season, and the continuity played some factor in their success. But left tackle Anthony Davis is a liability in pass protection. Right tackle Kenyatta Walker is an unrestricted free agent and looking to cut ties with Tampa Bay. The Bucs re-signed guard Sean Mahan to a one-year contract and center John Wade returns. Dan Buenning, a rookie left guard who also started every game, is a promising run blocker. But the Bucs could use an upgrade at both tackle positions. Toniu Fonoti signed with Tampa Bay, but only after he failed his physical with Oakland, where he reportedly weighed in at around 400 pounds.

2. Cornerback. The defense has a pair of great bookend corners in Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, but both are getting long in the tooth. Barber is in the final year of his contract and coming off a Pro Bowl season. Kelly still is a functional cover man who excels in run support. But the cupboard is pretty bare behind them and the Bucs need some younger - and cheaper - stars to emerge.

3. Linebacker. Derrick Brooks and middle linebacker Shelton Quarles are both on the downside of their careers. Ryan Nece is entering his fifth season. Other than Barrett Ruud, the second-round pick from Nebraska, the Bucs have no players to reload with.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--OT Todd Steussie was a big free-agent bust from '04 that returned in '05 when injuries in training camp to the offensive line forced the Bucs to bring him back. His career in Tampa should be over.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--OG Sean Mahan (tendered at $1.573M with 1st-round pick as compensation).

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

--OT Anthony Davis started 17 games at left tackle.

--RB Earnest Graham is primarily a special teams player.

--WR Edell Shepherd filled in as Bucs No. 3 receiver when Michael Clayton was hurt and made big catch against Washington and a big drop in the playoffs vs. Redskins.

--OG Jeb Terry is a backup guard used only on special teams.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

--FB Mike Alstott: Potential UFA; $1.5M/1 yr.

--CB Juran Bolden: Potential UFA; 5 yrs, terms unknown.

--PK Matt Bryant: UFA; terms unknown.

--DB Torrie Cox: Not tendered as RFA; terms unknown.

--WR Ike Hilliard: UFA; 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--DT Chris Hovan: Potential UFA; $17.5M/5 yrs, SB unknown.

--TE Dave Moore: UFA; terms unknown.

--QB Chris Simms; Potential RFA; $2.1M/1 yr).

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

--OG Toniu Fonoti: UFA Vikings; terms unknown.

PLAYERS LOST

--FB Jameel Cook: UFA Texans; $5M/5 yrs, SB unknown.

--LB Jeff Gooch (released).

--QB Brian Griese (released; failed physical/knee).

--TE Will Heller: Not tendered as RFA/Seahawks; terms unknown.

--S Dexter Jackson: UFA Bengals; $7.6M/4 yrs, SB unknown.

--OG Matt Stinchcomb (released; failed physical/back).

MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.

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