SCOUTING the NFC South: 7-8-06

Atlanta: The Falcons' defense will have a markedly different composition following a busy offseason; Carolina: The Panthers believe their already stout defense got another notch better thanks to a few targeted offseason moves; New Orleans: the Saints will have a new look on defense this season -- mostly at linebacker; Tampa: The Bucs will enter camp with plenty of playmakers on defense.

Atlanta

The Falcons' defense will have a markedly different -- and potentially much better -- composition following a busy offseason.

President/general manager Rich McKay orchestrated a three-team trade that sent Atlanta's first-round selection to Denver and the Broncos' first-round spot to New York so the Jets would send right end John Abraham to the Falcons.

That bold move, along with the $18 million that owner Arthur Blank guaranteed Abraham in a new contract, came two days after Atlanta signed strong safety Lawyer Milloy as a free agent. In replacing injured Brady Smith with Abraham and giving Milloy the job that Bryan Scott blew so spectacularly last year, Atlanta acknowledged personnel mistakes it made entering 2005.

The Falcons have a new starter at free safety, too, after trading a fourth-round pick to Cleveland for Chris Crocker. In deciding not to re-sign Keion Carpenter, Atlanta acted a year too late, just as it did with Scott, but give McKay and head coach Jim Mora credit for doing what was necessary to correct the problems at safety.

McKay further compensated by moving up in the second round so the Falcons could take cornerback Jimmy Williams with the 37th overall pick. At 6-feet-1, 213 pounds, Williams provides a physical, hard-hitting corner to complement DeAngelo Hall's superior athleticism on the left side.

Williams is expected to beat out Jason Webster for the starting job on the right side, a move that ultimately makes Atlanta stronger and deeper in the secondary. Webster's major difficulty was staying healthy in 2003-04, so moving him into a nickel role can only benefit everyone else.

Abraham's presence should only make it harder for opponents to block left end Patrick Kerney and "under" tackle Rod Coleman. If they stay healthy and Darrell Shropshire brings the kind of nasty attitude lacking from nose tackle Chad Lavalais, the Falcons will have a starting line that brings steady pressure.

Middle linebackers Ed Hartwell and Jordan Beck return after missing much of last season. Now that Hartwell has reclaimed his starting job, Keith Brooking moves back to weak side, a position that allows the five-time Pro Bowl pick to blitz accordingly and disrupt the passing game with his impressive speed.

Michael Boley retains his job at strong-side linebacker, a role he played well at times as a rookie. But he still left his gap too often and created big lanes for opponents who gouged a defense that finished 26th against the run, 14th against the pass and 18th in scoring.

Line coach Bill Johnson will rotate other players inside (Jonathan Babineaux, Antwan Lake) and outside (Chauncey Davis) to keep his stars fresh. If Kevin Mathis returns from a major knee operation and provides depth in the secondary, the Falcons can use dime coverages that also include cornerback Chris Cash, Hall, Webster, Milloy and Crocker.

Health concerns eventually wore down the defense last year as the Falcons lost six of eight and missed the playoffs.

Carolina

The Panthers believe their already stout defense got another notch better thanks to a few targeted offseason moves.

The Panthers made a big splash on the first day of free agency when they inked defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu to a five-year, $23 million contract.

If former two-time All-Pro Kris Jenkins can return from two major injuries that limited him to just five games over the past two seasons, then the Panthers will have two mammoth players on their interior defensive line. That, in turn, should help free up middle linebacker Dan Morgan from blockers and allow him to make more plays.

Kemoeatu is a wide body who recently admitted to weighing more than 360 pounds. While he's consistently last in the team's "gassers" during practice, the Panthers won't ask him to do a lot of running. They simply want him to clog the middle and help a defense that finished third in the league last season against the run, but got destroyed in a 34-14 NFC Championship Game loss to Seattle.

The contracts given to Kemoeatu and center Justin Hartwig the first two days of free agency left little room to re-sign outside linebacker Will Witherspoon, who bolted to St. Louis after getting a six-year, $33 million deal. The team also released Brandon Short, meaning the Panthers have to replace both starting outside linebackers.

Thomas Davis, a first-round draft pick in 2005 who saw limited action as a rookie, will take over at strong-side linebacker, while the Panthers have thrown the door open to competition on the other side. Free agent pickups Na'il Diggs (Green Bay) and Keith Adams (Philadelphia) will compete for Witherspoon's old spot along with Adam Seward and rookie third-round draft pick James Anderson from Virginia Tech.

Expect that battle to be played out in training camp.

The Panthers also needed to make changes in the secondary after losing strong safety Marlon McCree to the San Diego Chargers. The team is hoping 2004 starter Colin Branch can return from a torn ACL and MCL in his knee, but the Panthers signed often-injured free agent Shaun Williams (Giants) and drafted Nate Salley from Ohio State in the fourth round just in case.

Meanwhile, at cornerback the Panthers were forced to replace No. 3 corner Ricky Manning Jr. and No. 4 corner Dante Wesley, both of whom left for Chicago. Reggie Howard, a starter in the Super Bowl for Carolina three years ago, will compete for the nickel spot along with second round pick Richard Marshall from Fresno State.

Punter Jason Baker re-signed with the team after a brief flirtation with the Baltimore Ravens this offseason.

New Orleans

With a primary goal of stopping the run with more consistency than the past three years, the Saints will have a new look on defense this season -- with the linebacker positions getting the biggest overhaul.

The Saints will have at least two new starters -- maybe three -- as middle linebackers Ronald McKinnon and Courtney Watson and veteran strong-side 'backer Sedrick Hodge are no longer with the club. In addition, James Allen has already been lost for the season because of a knee injury.

Who lines up where when the regular season begins on Sept. 10 won't be decided until training camp as a host of newcomers will battle for the three spots. Even weak-side linebacker Colby Bockwoldt, a starter for the past 1 1/2 seasons, will have to fight for a job when practice begins July 28.

Among the new players trying to win starting berths are four veterans -- Scott Fujita, Anthony Simmons, Tommy Polley and Jay Foreman. Also in the mix is second-year pro Alfred Fincher, a third-round draft pick in 2005 who showed signs of promise during the team's final mini-camp in June.

With defensive end Darren Howard gone, former first-round draft pick Will Smith -- a relentless player who has 16 sacks as a spot player in his first two seasons -- will get a chance to blossom as a starter. While he's a solid pass-rusher, Smith is also strong against the run.

The Saints tried to shore up the interior of their defensive line by trading for tackle Hollis Thomas, a solid run-stopper for the past decade with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Saints certainly didn't neglect the back end of the secondary, which can also play a role in stopping the run. The team signed unrestricted free agent Omar Stoutmire to team with second-year pro Josh Bullocks and also acquired Bryan Scott via a trade with the Atlanta Falcons.

In addition, the Saints used a second-round draft pick to select Alabama safety Roman Harper. He earned a reputation as a playmaker in college and turned heads in the team's mini-camps and organized team activities during the spring and summer.

-- The Saints will collect only a small portion of the payment the state of Louisiana owes them next week as a result of Hurricane Katrina, which displaced the team and thousands of residents last August.

Because the Saints played only two exhibition games in the city before the Superdome was damaged by Katrina, the club will receive roughly $2.53 million of the scheduled $15 million payment -- which is due July 5.

The state's contractual obligations for the 2005 fiscal year were part of the 10-year, $186.5 million contract it signed with the Saints back in 2001.

Representatives with the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District and SMG, the company that manages the Superdome and New Orleans Arena, said the Saints have been made aware of the reduced payment for months.

LSED officials planned to send the Saints a letter outlining the calculated reduction, Doug Thornton, the regional vice president of SMG, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

"It has not been 'officially' presented to the Saints, but will be provided to them on or before (July 3)," Thornton wrote in an e-mail to the newspaper. "We have had conversations with them regarding the payment amount, and there doesn't seem to be any disagreement."

Whether the Saints will agree to the reduced payment is unknown, however, because team officials declined comment on the issue this week.

In a statement, Saints chief operating officer Rita Benson LeBlanc said, "The Saints are continuing in positive discussions and negotiations with the state, and we are both eagerly anticipating a successful 2006 Saints season. Our focus, and primary goal, has been to ensure in every possible way the progress of the Superdome for play for our first home game."

Tampa Bay

The Bucs will enter training camp hoping to maintain status quo with a stout defense that has some aging parts but also plenty of playmakers.

The last two times the Bucs' defense finished No. 1 overall in the league, Dexter Jackson started at safety (in '02 and '05).

Jackson, the Super Bowl XXXVII MVP, completed his second stint with the Bucs and left via free agency to join the Cincinnati Bengals.

But don't expect the Bucs defense to suffer much of a drop off.

Tampa Bay has finished in the top 10 of the league in defense each year since '97, and this season should be no different. Ten starters return, including nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks.

In fact, Brooks took a $4 million pay cut so the Bucs could retain nose tackle Chris Hovan and kicker Matt Bryant.

What can the defense do for an encore?

"Try to do it again," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "That's the way I approach it personally. I look to see what I can do to get better."

Taking over at free safety for Jackson will be third-year pro Will Allen, who established himself as a big hitter last season and has more range than Jackson.

"He's had a great offseason," coach Jon Gruden said of Allen. "He and Jermaine Phillips give us two, I think, very good young safeties who have lateral range who will hit you, who have coverage ability, who have system understanding and experience. And we're going to need that. We've got quite a tough schedule indeed."

-- The Bucs' quarterback position was a house of cards behind starter Chris Simms.

They took steps to rectify that problem by signing veteran Jay Fiedler.

Although he is recovering from a shoulder injury and won't be able to practice until training camp, Fielder says he plans to compete for a spot.

"I'm a competitor," said Fielder, 34. "The coaches are going to make decisions on where the quarterbacks are placed on the depth chart. That's nothing I worry about. My preparation doesn't depend on where they slot me on the depth chart. I'm going to go out there and I'm going to compete and work with these guys and do my best to help these guys with the experience that I have in the league."

The Bucs' immediate interest in Fiedler was the result of a season-ending knee injury to No. 2 quarterback Luke McCown.

Meanwhile, Fiedler missed last season with a torn labrum and a damaged biceps tendon in his right throwing shoulder. The Bucs believe he will make a full recovery.

"This isn't a young player who has to reps to prove something to us," general manager Bruce Allen said. "There's a lot of film on Jay, a lot of successful film that shows what type of player he is."

Fiedler has a little experience in the Bucs' offensive system. Bucs coach Jon Gruden was the offensive coordinator at Philadelphia when Fiedler played there in 1995.

"The year I spent in Philadelphia under coach Gruden was probably the biggest leap I made in terms of knowledge of the game," Fiedler said. "That was my first involvement (with) a coach that really gets in depth into offensive football and philosophies and studies the game as hard as he does."

With Fiedler on board, the Bucs could opt to release veteran Tim Rattay, who is scheduled to earn $1.25 million this season. The Bucs' other quarterback is rookie Bruce Gradkowski.

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