The 2013 NFL Draft but an influx of new talent into the Buccaneers' division, not to mention renewed hope in all four cities. As the Bucs, Falcons, Panthers and Saints move on from the draft and into OTAs and mini-camps, we check in once again on the headlines being generated by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' three foes in the NFC South:
In Atlanta, the Falcons have a bit of a salary cap crunch in trying to get their draftees signed, according to AJC.com's D. Orlando Ledbetter, but relief may be coming after June 1. Ledbetter suggests the Falcons might also free up cap space soon with a contract extension for franchise QB Matt Ryan. On the field, the Falcons held a post-draft rookie mini-camp, much as the Buccaneers did, and their first and second-round cornerbacks, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, were impressive in the eyes of both team officials and the area press. The other big story at Atlanta's mini-camp was the play of 27-year-old LB Brian Banks, the former California high school star who spent five years in prison before being exonerated in 2012. Banks reportedly "looked the part" and showed impressive strength. According to Ledbetter, the Falcons' coaching staff has also devoted some time this offseason to looking into ways to combat the read-option plays that quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick used to great effect in 2012. The Falcons' web site took some time during these slower days to review the recent performances of a quartet of their top players and came up with these findings: new Atlanta RB Steven Jackson has dominated in games played in domes (especially in the Georgia Dome last year); WR Julio Jones does his best work in division games (half of his 16 best games have come against NFC South foes); Jones' bookend wideout, Roddy White, has been a beast in December during his career (16 December TDs in the last seven years); and veteran CB Asante Samuel still has it at age 32.
In Carolina, the Panthers also used their first two draft picks on players at the same position, taking Utah DT Star Lotulelei in Round One and Purdue DT Kawann Short in Round Two, and the pair formed a quick bond during the team's rookie mini-camp. "It's pretty good," said Short, who is the more outgoing and demonstrative of the two. "[I'm] not the only young guy in the defensive line room. Everyone is picking on both of us. We are just building that chemistry. We texted pretty much every other day before we came [to Charlotte]." If Brian MacIntyre of Yahoo! Sports is correct, the Panthers also made some news in the days between rookie camp and OTAs by restructuring the contract of RB DeAngelo Williams, with the aim of potentially keeping Williams with the team through 2015. As MacIntyre points out, the Panthers have a loaded stable of backs – adding sixth-round pick Kejon Barber to a group that already included Williams, Jonathan Stewart and versatile fullback Mike Tolbert – and might have at one point considered making a move at that position for cap relief. MacIntyre says that is unlikely now. Reacting to the news of Williams' restructuring, Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer notes suggest that, while a good amount of the new cap space created will go to the team's 2013 draft picks, the Panthers should consider looking for additional help on the offensive line and in the secondary. Meanwhile, Carolina matched Atlanta's off-the-radar signing of Banks with one of their own, inking Canadian defensive lineman Linden Gaydosh after a mini-camp tryout that apparently went well. Gaydosh, who played at the University of Calgary, was recently the first pick in the CFL draft, but he'll take a crack at the NFL first. That roster move was one of several after the conclusion of the camp, including the release of 2011 sixth-round pick OL Zack Williams. As the Charlotte Observer points out, Williams' release leaves the Panthers with just three players left from its 2011 draft: QB Cam Newton, DT Sione Fua and WR Kealoha Pilares.
As in the rest of the division, there was a rookie mini-camp in New Orleans after the draft, and it led to seven tryout players getting contracts after performing well. The most well-known of those seven is DE Baraka Atkins, the former University of Miami defender who played roughly two seasons in Seattle but hasn't appeared in a regular-season game since 2009. One undrafted free agent who signed with the Saints because he believes he has a shot to make the roster is Tulane QB Ryan Griffin. The team's backup to Drew Brees of the last three years, Chase Daniel, signed with Kansas City, so Griffin will be competing with veterans Luke McCown and Seneca Wallace for that job. Head Coach Sean Payton seemed reasonably impressed with Griffin after the rookie mini-camp. "I thought Ryan Griffin did a good job, right here from Tulane," said Payton. "He’s in a system he is very familiar with because it’s the same offense, from a terminology standpoint, that Curtis Johnson is running at Tulane. As a quarterback, you change from high school to college or from college to the NFL level, I mean it’s really a whole new language, so I think for him that transition was smoother, he understood a lot of the little nuances." Two veteran Saints who recently made their roster spots more secure were DE Will Smith and LB Jonathan Vilma, both of whom took significant pay cuts to stick around. Vilma, who says he's fully healthy for the first time since 2010, is just pleased that he and his team have the opportunity to put a very difficult 2012 season behind them. "Hey, I'm good on the money side," he said. "So it's just about winning right now," Vilma said. "And, you know, we say that all the time. But I would like to believe that most of our team really believes that. That we're a team. It's not really about individuals, it's not really about selfish, it's just about winning. And I think that we kind of got a raw deal last year. It is what it is. And so we want to get back out there this year." That feeling of getting back to normalcy and focusing on football, with Payton back at the helm, seems to have permeated the entire team this offseason. “Workouts have been great," said Brees in a recent radio interview. "It’s really the first normal offseason we’ve had in a long time, really since 2009. When you think about it, 2010 was coming off the Super Bowl, 2011 was the lockout year and then 2012, obviously with everything going on last offseason, it was definitely not the norm. Just to get back in mid-April, get going again, get back in the locker room, being around the guys, and Sean Payton is back; we’ve really had some great workouts, not just the stuff in the weight room but on the field with our route sessions and some of our football school. It’s really been great and you can tell that guys are just chomping at the bit to get back and get rolling.”