Around the NFC South

Get the latest news on the Panthers' NFC South Opponents: ATL: The Falcons reshape their defense; NO: The Saints made several high-impact moves over the summer; TB: The Buccaneers turn the team over to their QB of the future... and more, INSIDE!

Atlanta Falcons

The offseason acquisitions of John Abraham, Jimmy Williams and Lawyer Milloy, in that order, should reshape the Atlanta defense and provide the backbone it lacked against the run.

Abraham was, by far, the most important addition, not only because the Falcons guaranteed bonuses between $15 million-$18 million and gave up a first-round draft pick to acquire him. Far more tangible for fans is the upgrade Abraham offers to fortify the pass rush and give players around him more chances to stuff running backs.

With Brady Smith injured and missing 11 games last year, the run defense capitulated as opponents hammered the right side of the line. That's far less likely with Abraham taking on maybe two blockers and freeing Rod Coleman, Patrick Kerney, Ed Hartwell and Keith Brooking to make plays.

It's unclear how quickly Williams will assimilate to the demands of camp, but the second-round pick seems a quick study. For Atlanta, the sooner Williams beats out Jason Webster to start at right cornerback, the better off the Falcons will be on defense. Webster would provide the kind of smarts and savvy teams need from a No. 3 cornerback in nickel and dime situations.

Williams has the kind of size, at 6-feet-2, 213 pounds, that will give opponents fits, and his aggressive swagger complements DeAngelo Hall, the left-side starter whose speed and coverage skills give coordinator Ed Donatell a chance to mix man-to-man and zone coverages and confuse opponents.

Milloy, who starts at strong safety, is the link that so was glaringly absent last year. Bryan Scott, his predecessor, became a symbol for the defense's lack of aggression and poor tackling habits.

Now, with Milloy manning the middle of the secondary, teams won't do as they please so often.

As hopeful as these new additions seem, the bottom could fall out if either suffers a debilitating injury. Fans saw last year how poorly the Falcons were suited to handle Smith's ailments. If Abraham or Kerney is hurt significantly, Chauncey Davis, the No. 3 end, will have upgraded his technique since the end of 2005.

-- Rookie cornerback Jimmy Williams, the 37th overall draft choice, is anxious for the start of training camp next month. Though he's studied lots of film, asked a ton of questions and watched how veterans defend certain routes, Williams believes he still has grasped probably less than 1 percent of what he needs to know.

"Trying to figure out what it is that they truly want me to do, as far as technique, and how I go about guarding receivers," Williams told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I have to get my hands on them at the line, run with them and figure out whether I need to be on the outside or inside shoulder. Finishing out the play all the way through was different. Coaches watch from the start of the play to the end of the play. Trying to finish the whole play instead of looking away when it doesn't look like the quarterback is throwing your way is something I had to get used to."

-- Now that Williams, strong safety Lawyer Milloy and free safety Chris Crocker are in the secondary, president-general manager Rich McKay believes the run defense, which faltered last year, will hold up.

Of course, adding John Abraham as a replacement for Brady Smith at right end, was the most important step of all. Abraham will force opponents to decide whether they will double-team him, left end Patrick Kerney or "under" tackle Rod Coleman.

"No. 1, we had our pass rush slow down," McKay said of last year's struggles. "No. 2, it affected our secondary because of that. So, I think we feel good about it. Hopefully in combination, we've tried to help the secondary and we've tried to help the defensive line."

"We're all disappointed with the way our season ended, but there's no question that we should be a lot better, at least from a consistency standpoint, on offense. I think what you'll really see is a significant upswing in Mike's growth curve as a quarterback. He's already doing so many things better that often go unnoticed, like throwing the ball away to avoid a sack or taking a sack to keep from throwing what might be an interception." -- Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp on quarterback Michael Vick.




New Orleans Saints

Three off-season moves that made the most impact:

1. The hiring of Sean Payton as head coach.

After four ho-hum seasons led to a 3-13 campaign, albeit under some trying circumstances because of Hurricane Katrina, the Saints desperately needed something exciting and new for the 2006 season.

So Jim Haslett was fired and 42-year-old Sean Payton, who's never been a head coach at any level, jumped at the opportunity to help the Saints rebuild their franchise while the city of New Orleans continues to recover from the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

Young and energetic, Payton immediately rolled up his sleeves and purged the roster of underachieving, highly-paid players and put his own stamp on the team via trades and free agency with the addition of 18 veterans. With those moves, Payton has let it be known that things are going to be quite different this fall.

2. The signing of quarterback Drew Brees.

Like the coach, the Saints needed a change at quarterback after the erratic Aaron Brooks continued to head on a downward spiral and was finally benched for the final three games of the 2005 season.

The Saints resisted the urge to draft Matt Leinart or Vince Young with the second pick and almost immediately set their sights on Drew Brees even though he was coming off shoulder surgery.

In giving Brees a six-year, $60 million contract, the Saints also gave him the keys to the franchise and entrusted him with turning around an offense that has some talented players over the years -- but never seemed to live up to expectations.

3. The drafting of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.

The opportunity to get a player like Reggie Bush was something the Saints never dreamed of until the Houston Texans decided to pass on the electric running back. The selection of Bush with the second overall pick signaled the start of a honeymoon that has yet to end -- and likely won't for quite some time as Bush has become the face of the franchise.

On the field, Bush will team with two-time Pro Bowl pick Deuce McAllister to give the Saints a solid 1-2 punch in the backfield. McAllister is coming off an ACL injury that could make the addition of Bush all the more important if McAllister is feeling the affects of that surgery.

--Former Saints wide receiver Eric Martin, a seventh-round draft pick who starred for the team from 1985-93, was one of eight all-time sports greats inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame last weekend.

Martin, a fearless receiver who still holds club records for catches (532), receiving yards (7,854) and receiving touchdowns (48), was selected by a 30-member panel of the sponsoring Louisiana Sports Writers Association. He was inducted during a June 24 ceremony in Natchitoches, La.

Martin is the ninth person with ties to the Saints to be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. The others are Danny Abramowicz, Jim Finks, Bobby Hebert, Dalton Hilliard, Rickey Jackson, Archie Manning, Sam Mills and Jim Mora.

Martin, who finished his NFL career with 553 catches for 8,161 yards and 49 TDs after playing the 1993 season with the Kansas City Chiefs, was the 27th player selected in the 1985 draft.

Before being chosen by the Saints, Martin was a record-breaking wide receiver at LSU from 1982-84. Even though he played running back as a freshman in 1981, he left the school as the Southeastern Conference's all-time leader in receiving yards with 2,625 yards.

--Saints tackle Jammal Brown, a second-year pro, was arrested on one count of domestic abuse battery on June 22 after his wife called police from their Mandeville, La., home.

St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office spokesman Capt. George Bonnett said deputies received a phone call from Brown's wife just before 11 a.m. Brown wasn't home when the officers arrived, but returned as the investigation was being completed.

"I can certainly say it was a physical altercation," said Bonnett. "We know they had a disagreement that escalated into a physical disagreement."

Bonnett said Brown was "very cooperative" and was taken into custody without incident. Brown posted a $5,000 bond and was released by mid-afternoon. The charge is a misdemeanor.

Saints spokesman Greg Bensel said the team was aware of the incident and was looking into the altercation. He said the team would have no further comment until its security department completed its investigation.

A 6-foot-6, 313-pounder, Brown started 13 games in 2005 after the Saints took him with the 13th pick in the draft. He was moved from right tackle to the left side when new coach Sean Payton remodeled his offensive line this spring.

--Saints running back Deuce McAllister is one of three Gulf Coast-area athletes who are being recognized for their efforts in helping the region recover from Hurricane Katrina.

The Sporting News has named McAllister, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and Chicago Bulls guard Chris Duhon as winners of its annual "Good Guy" award.

McAllister, who was born in Lena, Miss., has directed money and resources to the region and plans to aid New Orleans' educational system and its football programs.

Manning, a New Orleans native, and brother Eli were among the first athletes to fly relief supplies into Louisiana. Duhon, a native of Slidell, La., organized a relief effort in Chicago that sent a truckload of supplies to his hometown soon after the hurricane.

--The Saints added a fifth quarterback to their depth chart by signing Jason Fife, who played this spring with the Las Vegas Gladiators of the Arena Football League, to a two-year contract.

A 6-4, 225-pounder from Oregon, Fife started 11 games as a rookie in 2006. He completed 207 of 357 passes for 2,221 yards and 41 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. In addition, Fife led the Gladiators in rushing with 178 yards on 49 carries with 12 TDs.

Since Fife was put on the Other League Exempt list, his rights will be retained by the Gladiators.

--Saints cornerback Fred Thomas continued an annual tradition earlier this month when he treated teammates to a night out at a New Orleans-area restaurant to eat dinner and watch the NBA Finals on television.

Thomas, who calls the annual outing "Break Bread with Fred," said he does it in part to build camaraderie with his teammates. He said about 40 players came out this year, including many of the team's new players.

"I think it's a positive. It's always good to be together in close quarters. You're going to be around each other 24-7. Obviously, it's going to get old. You're going to be ready to see another team, go against another team, hit somebody else. I think it helps build team chemistry." -- Saints RB Deuce McAllister on holding training camp in Jackson, Miss.




Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The biggest off-season move for the Bucs was turning the team over to quarterback Chris Simms.

Time will tell whether it was a stroke of genius. Simms, who has not entered the off-season as a starting quarterback since his days at the University of Texas, certainly played well following the season-ending knee injury sustained by starter Brian Griese, who piloted the Bucs to a 5-1 start. Simms went 5-1 against the NFC South, the biggest plus in his resume.

Griese signed with the Chicago Bears as a free agent, leaving Simms without a capable back up. Luke McCown, who has four NFL starts, and veteran Tim Rattay will battle for the No. 2 spot.

In order to protect Simms, and provide the Bucs with some much-needed size up front, Tampa Bay used its first two picks in the NFL Draft to take Oklahoma guard Davin Joseph and Boston College tackle Jeremy Trueblood. Joseph will be a starter at right guard, leaving Sean Mahan to battle John Wade for the center position. Trueblood will compete with Kenyatta Walker at right tackle.

The Bucs also added free-agent guard Toniu Fonoti and tackle Torrin Tucker for depth. Fonoti will compete with guard Dan Buenning, who started 17 games as a rookie.

Finally, the third-best off-season move was to retain several of their own free agents, most notably defensive tackle Chris Hovan and kicker Matt Bryant.

Hovan helped anchor the Bucs top-ranked defense at nose tackle while Bryant finally brought some consistency to the team's kicking woes.

--One day after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was involved in an accident, Bucs RB Michael Pittman put his motorcycle for sale on E-Bay.

"My wife (Melissa) approached me about it and at first I really didn't want to sell it," Pittman said. "I love bikes, grew up on bikes (in San Diego). But being a smart player and smart person, man I just had to do what I had to do. I've got four kids, a wife and a career. I feel like I've got at least five years left in me I can play. And so I just want to finish it. I want to see my kids grow up. I love motorcycles and I'm one of the best riders. But somebody can just cut me off and there I go, even with a helmet on. I could kill myself, paralyze myself. But I just had to give it up."

--Coach Jon Gruden wasn't sentimental following what was likely the last practice at One Buc Place, the team's antiquated training facility. The Bucs move into a new complex following training camp in Orlando in August.

"I didn't see any tears shed when we got out of the old stadium and into a new one," Gruden said. "This place has served its purpose. It helped us a win a championship. We're very excited to move into a new facility and appreciative of our owners."

--Father's Day took on a new meaning for Chris Simms.

The Bucs quarterback became a first-time dad June 19 when his wife, Danielle, gave birth to a 7-pound, 10-ounce girl the couple named Sienna Rose.

"She was born on Father's Day, of course, so that was awesome. It was a great Father's Day gift," Simms said Tuesday. "I got to name her because it was Father's Day. So I got naming rights. Her name is Sienna. Sienna Simms. We just both thought it sounded good. My wife is Italian, so that went with it. It was either going to be Sienna or Charlotte. I didn't like Charlotte just because Carolina is in Charlotte. That might be jinxing myself."

"I'm not going to say anything other than he's looked pretty damn good." -- Bucs coach Jon Gruden on WR David Boston.

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