Inside the Enemy Huddle

Do you want to know what the Panthers' NFC South rivals are up to? takes you inside the huddle of the Falcons, Bucs and Saints and tells you what you need to know. A Bucs rookie is tearing it up, a Falcon receiver might be done for good and the Saints release two classy vets. Get this and more INSIDE!

New Orleans Saints

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.

Great progress signing picks
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.

Camp to be held at Millsaps
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 recently promoted Ryan Pace, a seven-year employee who has worked in the player personnel department for the last six seasons, to director of pro scouting.

Pace had served as a pro scout since 2004. His expanded duties will be to manage the pro personnel department.

Quotable: "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.

Kick returner up in the air
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.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Maurice Stovall is winning the job as the Bucs' No. 2 receiver.

That means former first-round pick Michael Clayton is sinking on the team's depth chart.

At 6-foot-5, 220-pounds with sure hands, Stovall finished his rookie season with just seven catches for 102 yards and two carries for 29 yards. He was limited by a nagging back injury and buried on the depth chart.

Those numbers hardly compare to Clayton's first pro season, when he earned Rookie of the Year consideration with 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns.

But Clayton's career has spiraled and he's combined for just 65 catches and one touchdown over the past two injury-plagued seasons.

That's why coach Jon Gruden is giving Stovall and former Chargers and Dolphins receiver David Boston, who hasn't caught an NFL pass in nearly three years, a chance to play opposite starter Joey Galloway.

"(Clayton) is a good player, but the guys around him are getting good, too," Gruden said. "It's going to be very interesting. I love Mike. He's had a lot of injuries in the last couple seasons (and) hasn't been able to finish the '05 or '06 season healthy.

"Maurice Stovall is not here to sign autographs on the sideline. He's here to play. He's going to get a great look here during the off-season. David Boston hasn't caught a pass in the NFL in three seasons. But those are two guys who have really worked their butt off are those two guys. Mike Clayton I think sees that, I think realizes that and it'll make for a very competitive situation here in training camp."

A third-round pick from Notre Dame, Stovall is a quiet, introspective player who overcame personal tragedy at the start of his rookie season. His mother, Cynthia, died May 24 of ovarian cancer but was able to see her son graduate from Notre Dame and earn a job in the National Football League.

As a tribute, Stovall has a tattoo of a crucifix, with the name 'Cynthia,' on his right shoulder. A tattoo of a black angel with wings is on his left bicep. Before he leaves the practice field every day, he kneels in prayer.

By all accounts, Stovall has been a fixture at the Bucs' training facility this off-season and his drive has never been questioned.

"I've always been that way and set high expectations for myself and I try to never be satisfied with where I am, whether it was high school or college," Stovall said. "It was the same way at Notre Dame. They have a high expectation level. I just carried that on into the NFL being a professional and it's time to step it up because not everybody gets this opportunity, so why not make the most of it?"

Let the show begin.

"He started for us last year as a rookie; that's no mistake," Gruden said. "It's no mystery, really. He's six-foot-five, he's in great shape, he's a reliable guy, he's tough as hell and he wants to play. At least that's what he's showing out here every day. He's a guy that gives us a size factor, I think a physical playmaker and a guy that's going to make for a real interesting camp."

Gruden still wants Plummer
Jeff Garcia may have been declared the Bucs' starter by Jon Gruden. But that hasn't stopped the Bucs coach from wanting Jake Plummer.

Plummer is subject to being fined for missing the Bucs' three-day mandatory minicamp that concluded last Thursday and indications are the team will ask him to repay about $7 million in pro-rated signing bonus if he fails to play this season.

Tampa Bay acquired the rights to Plummer in a trade with Denver March 3 in exchange for a conditional draft pick, prompting him to announce plans to retire from the NFL. Bucs general manager Bruce Allen said he recently spoke to Plummer and the team still hopes the 32-year-old quarterback reports to training camp July 27.

"You can't unilaterally retire as a player in the NFL, because you have a contract," Allen said. "He is under the same obligations as every player on the team.

"It is resolved. We've traded for him and it's no different than if he elects not to report to camp, no different than when Keenan McCardell didn't report to camp or when you see other players hold out. There's no difference."

Initial interest in Darius
The Bucs have contacted Jaguars free agent safety Donovin Darius, who was released by the Jaguars last week. Darius, 31, has visited Oakland and received interest from Carolina and Buffalo. He's played just 12 games in the past two seasons due to injuries.

"We've checked into Donovin Darius, but we like where we're at right now," general manager Bruce Allen said.

Bennet to begin season on PUP
Defensive end Charles Bennett, who missed most of the minicamp with a left knee injury, could begin the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. "Other than that, everybody else will be ready to go," Allen said.

Bucs cut, sign two
The Bucs signed punter Sean Douglas and defensive end Jeremy Pittman. To make room for those players, the team released linebacker Jerry Mackey and kicker Garrett Rivas.

Douglas handled the punting duties at the University of Washington the past three seasons and finished his career with a 42.8-yard gross average. Pittman was a tryout player during the Bucs' three-day rookie minicamp in May. Last season at Central Arkansas, he had 24 tackles and one sack.

Quotable; "If he doesn't, we're going to change his name to Wal-Mart." -- Bucs coach Jon Gruden on whether Tennessee guard Arron Sears will help them next season. Sears sat out of the mandatory minicamp for undisclosed reasons.

Atlanta Falcons

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.

Finneran's career in jeopardy
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.

Special time for rookies
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."

Diamond in the rough
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."

New techniques for top rookie
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."

Petrino taking a break
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.

Quotable: "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.

Rookie signs quickly
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.

Plans to dip into supplemental draft?
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.

No plans to tweak cap
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.

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