Carolina PAnthers

Pick Away

By: Kenneth Harrison news services

The NFL regular season is winding down. We know who the contenders are and the teams that need to try again next year.

I’m going to take a look at the projected NFC South draft order and team needs.

Pick #5 Atlanta: The biggest team needs are edge rusher, defensive back and offensive line.

The Falcons have struggled to protect their $150 million quarterback Matt Ryan. In the Thanksgiving game against New Orleans he was sacked nine times (tying a career high). Atlanta failed to sack Drew Brees, which brings the team’s needs in the trenches into focus.

Ohio State defensive end Chase Young is by far the best pass rusher in the draft. I do not expect him to be around when the Falcons pick, so I think Iowa edge rusher AJ Epenesa will be their pick. He had double-digit tackles for loss the last two seasons. He had 10.5 sacks in 2018 and 9 in 2019.

Pick #12 Carolina: Their biggest team needs are DB, OL and defensive line.

Quarterback might also be a need since Cam Newton has not played since Week 2. Kyle Allen has stepped in but he has not played well. His QBR is 38.3, which is 30th, and he’s thrown double digit interceptions.

The Panthers defense cannot stop the run, ranking 29th in run defense. Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs would be a good pick. He has great size standing at 6’2 and 208 pounds. He has 3 interceptions and 8 pass breakups this season.

Pick #14 Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers biggest team needs are QB, RB, OL and DL.

Jameis Winston is in the final year of his rookie contract and he’s still struggling. He’s been a turnover machine his entire career and this season is no different.

Winston leads the league with 20 interceptions. That would be too much for a rookie but he’s in his fifth season and he has also had off the field issues.

The Bucs have several other areas of concern but I believe they will prioritize drafting a franchise quarterback.

Oregon QB Justin Herbert could be the answer. He has prototypical size at 6’6 and 237 pounds. He’s a senior so he has a lot of experience which is invaluable.

Herbert helped bring the Ducks program back to a national title contender. This season he has 31 touchdowns with only 5 interceptions, so we know he can protect the football.

Pick #29 New Orleans Saints: The Saints are truly Super Bowl contenders so this might turn into the 31st or 32nd pick.

The biggest needs are WR, interior OL and DB. Michael Thomas is great but he could use another receiver to help stretch the field. Thomas is a true possession receiver and he is the focal point of the defense.

A player with speed would be explosive and they could make teams pay for covering him one on one.

Three of the seven Saints defenders who have played the most snaps in 2019;  Vonn BellEli Apple and P.J. Williams happen to be members of the New Orleans secondary. All three are scheduled to become free agents in 2020.

Clemson receiver Tee Higgins would be a great addition, assuming he’s still on the board.

Running Division

By: JJ Lanier news services

When it comes to the NFL, quarterbacks are going to get most of the publicity, good or bad. And if two of the last four NFL MVP’s have been quarterbacks within your division (Cam Newton, Matt Ryan) and a third is a future first ballot Hall of Famer who also happens to be the all-time leader in passing yards (Drew Brees) you can understand why the position gets the attention it does.

However, if you look past the big names at the top of marquee, you’ll see the teams in the NFC South have a pretty impressive supporting cast, especially at the running back position.

Atlanta Falcons: DeVonta Freeman.

The Falcons running back reminds me of the younger brother you never let play in your buddies’ pickup games until mom forces you to let him play, only to find out he was better than most of your friends.

Since his arrival in 2014, Freeman has quietly put together a very underrated start to his career. In the three years leading up to this last season, when Freeman was inured for all but two games, he was averaging just under 1,500 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns a year.

That may not put him on the level of the next two players I’m about to mention, but that is the type of production almost any coach would take from the running back position.

Carolina Panthers: Christian McCaffrey.

There were times last season where it felt like McCaffrey had his hands on the ball more than Cam Newton.

McCaffrey saw his rushing attempts almost double in his second full season, but much like Freeman, his main potency comes from catching balls out of the backfield; he had 107 receptions this past season.

He had almost 2,000 yards from scrimmage last year and as much as Newton is the main driver within the offense, McCaffrey has become the focal point.

New Orleans Saints: Alvin Kamara.

The Saints running back is the Fantasy Football gift that just keeps giving. His numbers actually fall in between the aforementioned Freeman and McCaffrey, but his ability to break loose for the big play/score puts him a category just above his divisional peers.

In today’s NFL, where catching the ball out of the backfield is almost as important to a running back as their ability to run between the tackles, don’t be surprised if Kamara becomes a Top 5 within the next year or two.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Peyton Barber.

My wife always says to ignore anything that comes before “…..but,” so I’m going to dispense with the niceties; Barber just isn’t on the level with the three that I’ve mentioned.

The former Auburn Tiger running back is much more one dimensional than his counterparts and yet he may still be the worst of the four in that one particular area.

In a story where I’m trying to make the case that the strength of the running back position in the NFC South is on par with any other division in the NFL, Barber is the counterpoint to that argument.

Over the past few years the NFC South has been able to place much of their notoriety on the shoulders of Brees, Ryan, and Newton.

For a variety of reasons, they may be forced in the near future to turn to a different set of players. Those players may already be in place; they just happen to be at a different position.

Southern Draft

By: Kenneth Harrison Jr. news services

The 2019 NFL Draft is in the books.

Some teams drafted well and others made some head scratching decisions. I’m going to take a look at the NFC South and rate each teams draft.

Atlanta Falcons: Picks: Boston College OG Chris Lindstrom; Washington OT Kaleb McGary; Ohio State CB Kendall Sheffield; Charleston DE John Cominsky; Pittsburgh RB Qadree Ollison; Washington CB Jordan Miller; Louisiana-Monroe WR Marcus Green

With the 14th pick, guard Chris Lindstrom was selected. The offensive line needs to improve but Lindstrom was rated as a late first round pick at best. Then they traded the second and third round picks to get the 31st pick. The Falcons selected tackle Kaleb McGary.

He was not going to be selected in the first round. If Atlanta wanted him, they could have waited. The trade up value was not good and McGary has issues handling edge-rush speed. The strength of this draft was defense, especially in rounds 2 and 3. Atlanta missed on adding impact players on defense. Grade: C

Carolina Panthers: Picks: Florida State DE Brian Burns; Mississippi OT Greg Little; West Virginia QB Will Grier; Alabama DE Christian Miller; Florida RB Jordan Scarlett; South Carolina OT Dennis Daley; Georgia WR Terry Godwin

Burns was a great pick. He should make an impact rushing the passer immediately and he can develop his game over the next few years.

Daley and Godwin were good value picks in Rounds 6 and 7. They also doubled up on pass rushers by selecting Christian Miller. Grade: B+

New Orleans Saints: Picks: Texas A&M C Erik McCoy; Florida S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson; Rutgers S Saquan Hampton; Notre Dame TE Alize Mack; Idaho LB Kaden Elliss

Erik McCoy was a great pick for the Saints. He has Day 1 talent mixed with intelligence, toughness and competitiveness. New Orleans needs him to protect an aging Drew Brees.

Safety Gardner-Johnson was a good pick as well, addressing a position of need. The first two picks were good but I’m not sold on the rest of the players they selected. Alize Mack was rated as a top recruit going to Notre Dame. He never played like it in college. The Saints need to win now so they don’t have the luxury to develop these players. Grade: C

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Picks: LSU LB Devin White; Central Michigan DB Sean Bunting; Auburn CB Jamel Dean; Kentucky S Mike Edwards; Iowa OLB Anthony Nelson; Utah K Matt Gay; Bowling Green WR Scott Miller; Missouri DT Terry Beckner Jr.

Devin White is a great pick. I expect him to be a Pro Bowler for the next decade. He has great closing speed and athleticism.

Jamal Dean is a questionable pick because of his injury history. He was medically disqualified to play football by Ohio State due to his suffering multiple knee injuries in high school. He sat out 2015, transferring from Columbus to Auburn, which cleared him to play.

Dean suffered yet another knee injury in preseason 2016 camp, which sidelined him for the year.

The Bucs ignored the offensive and defensive lines for some reason. They also drafted a second kicker in four years. Grade: C-

Save The Dates

By: JJ Lanier news services

It’s all about the presentation.

In the past, when a recruit signed with a school, or a player announced he or she was turning pro, at the most they would hold a conference at their respective school to mark the occasion.

Now, it’s all about the theatrics; Instagram posts, professionally done videos, etc.

That same hype has trickled down now to the release of the NFL Schedule.

Instead of quietly releasing the upcoming season schedule, it’s all about the creativity from each team’s marketing and social media departments. I know I might come across like a millennial version of Archie Bunker, yelling at those “darn kids”, but I actually love it.

And thankfully for those of us in this area, both Atlanta and Carolina were the two videos battling it out for the top spot.

If you’re grading on the overall creativity and consistency of the video I think you have to go with the Panthers. Their idea to present the matchups as if they were competing in an actual video game was nothing short of brilliant.

As someone who spent the better part of the ‘90s navigating through his teenage years, I appreciated their nods to games like Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, and Goldeneye. The only thing that could’ve improved their overall presentation was somehow slipping in a score of 28-3 for either of their matchups against Atlanta.

Now, since I am a big Game of Thrones fan, and even though it has become a popular trend of late, I can give the Falcons props for their homage to one of the most popular shows of my generation.

While you can debate the originality of the idea, the video did provide possibly the best five seconds put on film this year. There is certainly no love lost between Carolina and Atlanta, but the one thing both fan bases can agree upon is their complete disdain for anything associate with the New Orleans Saints.

So, when the Falcons video included a ram knocking over a Saints player, followed by a ref running up to the knocked player and waving off any infraction I almost gave them a standing ovation, in my living room. That’s pettiness at its finest, and I’m all in.

There will be numerous touchdown celebrations, quarterback sack dances, and taunts throughout the season, but I don’t know if any of them will be as brutal as that takedown the Falcons just performed on the Saints.

I do think there was some room for improvement though. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like they missed a golden opportunity by not including a “Jameis Winston running out of Publix” set piece.

I admit I haven’t actively searched out New Orleans or Tampa Bay’s schedule release video, but I doubt it compares at all to these two.

Oh, and as for the actual schedule itself, would it really matter all much if not for these videos? I mean, most of the games are already predetermined and no matter how difficult or easy we perceive a schedule to be, it all changes once the season begins anyway.

One thing the NFL does better than any other league- the NBA isn’t too far behind- is they’ve turned their season into a year around event.

The release of their schedule is just one more thing we as fans now have to look forward to. I know I sound like Meathead, but I almost don’t care how my team does this season; it’s all about the announcement video now.

NFC South Draft Report

By: Kenneth Harrison Jr. news services

The 2019 NFL Draft starts April 25, 2019. For the 31 other teams that didn’t win the Super Bowl they have a chance to add players and improve their franchise. Let’s take a look at the NFC South and see who they might select in the first round.

Tampa Bay (5-11): The Buccaneers have the fifth overall pick. They had a bit of quarterback controversy to begin the season before Jameis Winston came back from his four-game suspension.

It looks like the Bucs will stick with the troubled young QB. Bruce Arians has taken over as head coach and he will try to give Winston protection.

Left tackle Donovan Smith will be a free agent. On the right side, Demar Dotson is entering the last year of his contract and turns 34 in October. That is why Alabama’s Jonah Williams should get picked to protect Winston’s blind side.

Atlanta (7-9): The Falcons are coming off of a disappointing season that had many injuries on the defense. They need to drastically improve on that side of the ball and on the offensive line.

Head coach Dan Quinn is on record saying he is only comfortable at center and left tackle.

With the 14th pick guard Cody Ford from Oklahoma makes sense. He’s extremely physical and he would help change the identity of the line. He played guard and right tackle so he might also be shifted to that position.

If defensive tackle Ed Oliver (Houston) is still on the board he should get selected. He reminds me of Aaron Donald because he can totally disrupt an offense.

Carolina (7-9): The Panthers started off the season hot before the seven-game losing streak. They are in an interesting position because star quarterback Cam Newton had surgery on his injured shoulder. Some time tables have predicted him to miss the 2019 season.

They also need help on defense. Mario Addison led the team with nine sacks. They need help getting to the quarterback and that is the direction they will go with the 16th pick.

They can draft a local player like Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell. The defensive end registered 50 career tackles for loss and 27 sacks in three seasons. He added 56 total pressures and 30 total stops during his final year. He’s 6’4, 265 pounds with great first-step quickness.

New Orleans (13-3): The Saints had a great season, advancing to the NFC Championship game. They should have won the game but a terrible no call for pass interference against the Rams cost them. They traded their first-round pick in the 2019 draft to move up and select Marcus Davenport.

The biggest needs are tight end, defensive tackle, running back and linebacker. Running back Mark Ingram will be a free agent so that may create a need. Alvin Kamara is great but he works best paired up with a physical runner.

New Orleans will pick 62nd in the second round. I think they will want a pass catching tight end. I’m not sure who will still be on the board by the time they make the pick. The best-case scenario is Irv Smith from Alabama. The best available might be Dawson Knox of Ole Miss.

Prior to last year the NFC South was the toughest division in the league. The Saints were the only playoff team so the other three teams need to get better. It will be exciting to see how everything plays out.

Renaissance Man

By: JJ Lanier news services

In the midst of our fandom it’s easy to look at the team name on the front of the jersey, and not the player name on the back.

No matter your feelings towards the Carolina Panthers, it’s hard not admire their current linebacker and former Georgia All-American, Thomas Davis. (I realize Davis will serve a four-game suspension to start the season due to testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, so I understand if that changes your opinion of him. Personally, while it certainly factors in, I view it as merely a footnote as opposed to the main story.)

Normally, when a player like Davis is about to retire- he announced months ago this would be his final season- unless that athlete was a complete malcontent, most of the focus is aimed towards any accomplishments he or she received on the field.

A Super Bowl appearance, 3 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro team, and one 2nd team All-Pro tends to lend itself to pats on the back. I’m not quite sure if Davis is Hall of Fame worthy, but you could make an argument in his favor. However, in this particular case his on-field achievements are merely an opening act to a much larger headliner.

For starters, and it has been well documented, are Davis’ return from three ACL tears.

Sports has a history riddled with athletes that couldn’t get over the mental and physical hurdle of one ACL year, let alone three.

Not only did Davis return but he came back better than he was before; all those accolades I just mentioned above, they after took place after those three surgeries.

I’m so mentally fragile, I came across a copperhead walking my dogs the other day and now I’m trying to teach them to use a toilet so I don’t have to take them outside. If I tore my ACL once I just render that leg useless for the rest of my life.

Now the one piece of recognition I didn’t mention and the second piece of Davis’ legacy that will be remembered is his philanthropy.

In 2014 he was awarded the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, given to a player based on his volunteer and charity work.

There have been numerous instances of Davis’ charitable work around the Charlotte/Mecklenburg area, as well as his hometown of Randolph County. None have been more influential though than his Defending Dreams Foundation.

Through his foundation Thomas has spent an immeasurable amount of time and money giving the youth in his community opportunities they would otherwise never be afforded. As someone who has friends and family in the Charlotte area, the name “Thomas Davis” has become synonymous with giving.

There are better and more athletic players that have come out of the Georgia football program but I’m not sure there has been a more successful one, considering all the different phases of life.

As Davis enters his final season it will be easy to get caught up in his suspension, after all we are a country that seems to feed off negativity. My suggestion though would be to focus on what he has overcome and how incredible it has been for him to actually achieve what he has.

Once the season ends though, there really will be only one question on my mind- “How does Thomas Davis feel about copperheads?” The potty training hasn’t gone according to plan and my dogs really need to go outside.


Offensive Minded

By: JJ Lanier news services

As sports fans, whenever our teams start to struggle, there’s always someone we blame.

Sometime it’s the star player; sometimes the head coach. When it came to the Carolina Panthers that scapegoat used to be former Offensive Coordinator, Mike Shula. For Falcons fans think Steve Sarkisian type hatred, to the tenth degree.

When Shula was relieved of his duties following the season, you could hear that collected sigh of relief coming from the Panthers fan base.

It’s been a few weeks since Carolina brought in Norv Turner as Shula’s replacement, with tepid excitement.

Turner’s success as an NFL head coach has been less than stellar, to put it politely. His history working with quarterbacks and his reputation as an Offensive Coordinator, has been well earned.

Two accusations that followed Shula during his tenure was mundane play calling, as well as an inability to help Cam Newton realize his full potential. (I was not a huge fan of Shula, but I always thought the latter was a little unfair. I mean, Cam did win a MVP under Shula’s direction).

Turner has never struck me as someone who was an innovative offensive mind but rather someone who was an excellent play caller. It’s kind of like going to a music concert; would you rather hear the hits or songs from their “experimental” album when they were trying to find themselves?

Turner isn’t going to reinvent the plays being run, he’s just going to do a better job of calling them.

As for the part about Cam’s lack of development under Shula, that really shouldn’t be an issue with Turner. The new Carolina OC has a history of getting the most out of his quarterbacks.

His influence on QB’s like Troy Aikman and Philip Rivers are well known, but he has been very successful with those who aren’t current/future Hall of Famers. Take his time in Minnesota; his most recent NFL stop before Carolina.

In his three years with the Vikings he helped turn Teddy Bridgewater in a Pro Bowl Quarterback and was calling plays when Sam Bradford set an NFL record for completion percentage.

Cam has a lot to work on- footwork and accuracy being two of the larger ones- but it’s obvious the talent is there; just look at what he accomplished three years ago. Working with Turner every day, you’d expect to see some of the growth missing over the past few years.

There is some trepidation with the hiring though. For one, outside of his coaching gigs, Turner’s stay with the Vikings, 3 years, has been his longest stop since he was Wise Receivers with the Rams in the late ‘80’s.

Like I mentioned, some of those stops were short lived because of head coaching jobs, but overall he is not someone who stays in one place for an extended period of time. I don’t know if it’s because he wears out his welcome fairly quickly, or if he’s a “grass is always greener on the other side” person. However, for a franchise like Carolina that puts a premium on stability, Turner’s one night stand history is a little worrisome.

There have been a lot of changes to the Panthers organization since the season ended, both on and off the field.

The firing of Shula was one most fans were happy to see. The jury is still out on Turner. If history repeats itself, the Panthers should see some success in the offensive side of the ball. Just don’t get too excited, it may only be for one year.

NFC South Draft

By: Kenneth Harrison Jr. news services

The NFL Draft is April 26, 2018. So, it is approaching soon.

This can change the fortune for several franchises. The best division in 2017 was the NFC South because they had three playoff teams. Let’s take a look at the division and their 1st round picks.

No. 7 Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers (5-11) were the only team in the division with a losing record. They took a step back because they were 9-7 in 2016. We expected them to improve and make the playoffs. They also added speedy wide receiver DeSean Jackson to pair with Mike Evans but it obviously did not work.

The biggest team needs are defensive back, running back and offensive guard. Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick would be a great pick. He played both safety and corner in college. He can cover and he’s physical and can make tackles. He also has very good size at 6’1, 201 pounds.

No. 24 Carolina: The Panthers (11-5) rebounded last year after regressing in 2016. They addressed a need by drafting running back Christian McCaffrey in the 1st round last year. He was very good as a pass catcher but he did not run the ball well. He only rushed for 435 yards and averaged 3.7 yards per carry.

The biggest team needs are wide receiver, offensive line and defensive line. The Panthers traded their #1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo on Halloween.

Cam Newton needs a good WR so I think they will go in that direction. Courtland Sutton from SMU should still be available. He’s 6’4, 225 lbs. so he’s a big target.

He caught 68 passes for 1,085 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017. Newton struggles with accuracy so having a tall receiver with a big catch radius is a good move.

No. 26 Atlanta: The Falcons (10-6) had an up and down year coming off last year’s heartbreaking Super Bowl meltdown. They did win in the first round of the playoffs against the LA Rams. They came very close to beating the eventual world champion Philadelphia Eagles in the second round, losing 15-10. Atlanta should return to being an elite team if they make the right personnel moves.

The biggest needs are defensive line, WR and offensive guard. Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst would be a good fit. Putting him next to Grady Jarrett might give the Falcons one of the best young defensive lines in the league.

No. 27 New Orleans: The Saints (11-5) had a great season. They have the best running back duo in the NFL and an elite veteran quarterback. They lost to Minnesota in the divisional round of the playoffs on the last play of the game. The defense ranked 16th in total D and 17th in run defense.

They need to improve the defensive front seven, WR or slot corner. Boston College defensive end Harold Landry might be selected here. He showed he could rush the passer in 2016 when he recorded 16.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss. Landry is a bit of a one-year wonder though because he did not have a season with more than 5 sacks outside of 2016.


The Super NFC South

By: JJ Lanier news services

At the beginning of the season it looked as though a battle would be taking place between the AFC West and the NFC South for NFL dominance.

As we approach the final stretch of the season it looks like the AFC West will only get one team into the playoffs and that basically because they have to have at least one representative.

On the other hand, the NFC South has held up their end of the preseason bargain and are looking to be the toughest division in football.

The question regarding the division isn’t whether or not they’ll get two teams into the playoffs, but could they possibly get three?

For the sake of argument let’s go ahead and assume that Philadelphia (East), Minnesota (North), Saints (South) and the Los Angeles Rams (West) will all win their respective divisions.

Obviously, anything can happen over the next few weeks, but my brain is fried on college football playoff hypotheticals, so I’m taking the easy way out on this one.

Were this scenario to play out, that would really leave only four viable teams for the remaining wild card spots: Seahawks, Lions, Falcons, and Panthers.

Seattle has probably the second easiest schedule of those four teams, but I just don’t have the confidence in the Mom to make a legitimate run at the playoffs.

Their offense has resorted to Russell Wilson running around in the backfield and making some sort of ridiculous throw to Doug Baldwin, off of a busted play.

With injuries plaguing the defensive side of the ball the “Legion Of Boom” has turned into the Legion of “We’d like to hit you hard, but we’re a little fragile right now, so we’re just going to push you and hope that you fall down.”

Could Seattle make the playoffs? Absolutely. Will they ultimately make me regret saying that they won’t make it? Without a doubt.

So, that leaves Detroit as the main threat to the NFC South sending 3 teams to the playoffs.

There are two things the Lions have going for them. First, they have a much easier schedule from here on out. of their remaining games, Detroit doesn’t play a single team with a winning record.

It’s almost the exact opposite for Atlanta and Carolina. Secondly, and this could be what propels Detroit into the playoffs, is that Carolina still has one more game against Atlanta and New Orleans, while the Falcons and Saints will play each other twice. Did I mention they both have a game with Minnesota still on their schedules, too?

The one thing that both the Falcons and Panthers do have on the Lions though, is that they are currently one and two games ahead of Detroit in the standings, respectively.

Not to mention, both teams hold the tiebreaker due to victories earlier in the season. So really, Atlanta has a two game lead and the Panthers’ lead is three. That’s difficult to overcome when you only have a handful of games left to make it happen.

The entire division has their work cut out for them is they hope to get three teams into the playoffs.

Detroit is in prime position to run the table while the entire NFC South will be dueling it out amongst themselves- reminiscent of what the SEC West used to be years ago.

Regardless, ¾ of the NFC South has lived up to the hype, which is pretty damn impressive, when you think about it.

Best Case Scenario

By: JJ Lanier news services

I’ve mentioned before how little faith I put into mock drafts and after this year’s first round you can see why. If there was a NFL Draft Bracket, similar to March Madness, predicting the events of Thursday night would’ve been like predicting South Carolina to make it to the Final Four.

Well, I put about as much stock into the post-draft grades as I do the mock drafts. So, rather than give each team a grade that will surely come back to bite me at some point, I’ve listed each team, along with the best and worst outcome they can expect from their drafted players. Some of these may or may not be realistic. I’ll let you decide.

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