Rival Review - New Orleans Saints

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A look at the 2015 New Orleans Saints offseason. Have they made moves to improve and contend for the division title? 

This week we take a quick look at the New Orleans Saints and the bullet points of their offseason. (Last week we looked at the Atlanta Falcons)
The Draft
The Saints selected OT Andrus Peat in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft. Peat would have been the Panthers selection according to sources. This was a solid selection that will pay dividends in years to come. 
The Saints went on to address defense for 6 of their remaining 8 picks. You only need to look at the Panthers at Saints game last season to figure out why. 
Their second 1st round pick was spent on LB and Clemson alum Stephone Anthony. Anthony is extremely quick and athletic, will probably be starting by mid season if not sooner. 
The Saints addressed their pass rush in round 2 with the selection of sub package player Hau'oli Kikaha out of Washington. He will play OLB on situational downs where a bit of extra speed is needed on the pass rush (something the Carolina Panthers struggle with)
In the third round the Saints showed concern over the diminishing play of Drew Brees by selecting Garrett Grayson out of Colorado State. I like Grayson and think he has a chance to do well in the NFL. 
Free Agency
The biggest loss for the Saints obviously was Jimmy Graham. Graham was the life line the Saints needed in many games against the Panthers over past seasons. 
The Saints also lost WR Kenny Stills, C Ben Grubbs, and RB Pierre Thomas on offense. 
Their biggest offseason acquisition was RB CJ Spiller who should do well on the Saints fast home turf. 
On the defensive side of the ball the Saints lost one of the only bright spots in Curtis Lofton and his 144 combined tackles in 2014.
Overall, the Saints took a net loss in free agency, that fact would be difficult to argue against. 
Drew Brees
 2014 marked the first season of any real noticeable decline in the play of 14 year veteran Drew Brees. As the season went on, the physical toll on Brees became more apparent.
The Saints organization also took notice. The majority of draft picks being spent on defense signifies that. The days of the Saints simply out scoring opponents may be over. A NFL caliber defense is probably needed now, and the Saints know it. 
Throw in the fact a 3rd round selection was used on a QB, and well, it is easy to read the writing on the wall. Can you imagine the controversy if Carolina spent a 3rd rounder on a QB? Yet barely a mention of it in New Orleans. The Saints fan base may be in a bit of denial. 
Jon Beason once told me "If you aren't getting better, you're getting worse." 
The Saints.... they aren't getting better in 2015. They are in real danger of finishing last in the division. 
But what do you think?
Next week.... Bucs. 

Rival Review - Atlanta Falcons

With less than a month to go until NFL training camps open, I thought it may be helpful to take a look at the Carolina Panthers southern rivals and start a dialogue on their offseason changes. 
First up, Atlanta Falcons. Here are the important bullet points of the Falcons offseason... 
Atlanta has a new head coach. Those words should concern any Carolina Panthers fan who has paid attention to Ron Rivera's record against rookie head coaches. Adding insult to injury, the Falcons hired former Seattle DC Dan Quinn as Mike Smith's replacement at head coach. Quinn obviously has had success against the Panthers over the past two seasons. Panthers OC Mike Shula will have his work cut out for him. 
If Quinn can improve the Falcons defense in his first year, Atlanta could contend for the title in the NFC South. 
The Falcons addressed their need for defensive improvement in the first two rounds of the draft.
Falcons first round pick DE Vic Beasley should improve Atlanta's pass rush from day one. He was used mainly on the left side in Falcons workouts last month, but did switch to the right occasionally. Beasley's game is speed, how well the Panthers counter with Remmers and Oher remains to be seen. 
In the second round the Falcons selected CB Jalen Collins. This was a good value as many had Collins as a first round talent. Collins will most likely catch on quickly as he faces guys like Julio Jones in practice, helping him prepare to defense Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. Collins was a good pick for the Falcons and should help them at depth initially, with Collins taking over a starting role later in the season. 
On the offensive side of the ball RB Tevin Coleman and WR (and Huddle favorite) WR Justin Hardy. Coleman could see increased playing time as the season progresses while Hardy looks to have already earned the #3 WR spot. 
Overall, Atlanta had a solid 2015 draft based on early reviews. 
The Falcons released a few names Panthers fans were used to seeing, Harry Douglas and Steven Jackson the most notable. The loss of these two players were addressed nicely in the draft. Negative impact should be minimal. 
OLB Brooks Reed was added from the Texans and could be a real impact player for the Falcons. How much did he benefit from playing with JJ Watt? We will soon see. Reed will not be playing behind anyone of Watt's caliber anytime soon in Atlanta. 
The Falcons extended S Charles Godfrey which is excellent news for the Panthers. Godfrey's best days are well behind him.  
The Falcons signed a couple of new tight ends, Tony Moeaki and Jacob Tamme. Could they be an adequate long term replacement for Tony Gonzalez? Clearly, Toilolo last season was not.
Apparently, the Falcons are trying to move QB Matt Ryan out of the pocket more often. This is an interesting development to keep your eyes on. If the Falcons can give a few looks a game of Ryan rolling out of the pocket to throw it could change how aggressive the Panthers pass rush can be. 
Like it or not, the Atlanta Falcons improved a good deal this offseason. Mike Smith was not a good head coach. This was obvious to anyone that watched "Hard Knocks" on HBO last year. Dan Quinn will bring a tougher more hard nosed attitude to the Falcons. 
What say you? 

2014 vs 2015 - Wide Receivers

Last week I compared the Carolina Panthers offensive lines. 
This week it is time to take a look at the 2015 Carolina Panthers wide receivers against those of 2014. These lineups are as of today and this same day one year ago. 
The lineup and approximate depth chart looks something like this...
20142015  Kelvin BenjaminKelvin BenjaminJerrico CotcheryDevin FunchessJason AvantCorey BrownTiquan UnderwoodTed GinnKealoha PilaresBrenton BersinMarvin McNuttJerricho CotcheryTavaress KingStephen HillBrenton BersinMarcus LucasMarcus LucasJarrett BoykinCorey BrownMike BrownToney ClemmonsDamiere ByrdDe'Andre PresleyDe'Andre Presley 
Kelvin Benjamin took over the primary target spot last year from day one. From there, it does appear to be significant improvement in terms of starters and depth. 
3 players in the Panthers top 6 options at this point last season ended up not making the team. Rookie risers Corey Brown displaced Jason Avant by mid season 2014. 
The top 6 of 2014 compared to this far in 2015 shows tremendous improvement. Benjamin, Funchess, Brown, Ginn, Bersin and Cotchery look to be the best overall receivers corps the Panthers have had in many, many seasons. 
Thus, by once again crunching the numbers and applying our proprietary Huddle Algorithm, I can safely say the Carolina Panthers receives have seen a 38.21% increase in skill, speed, and overall ability over this time last season. 
Agree or Disagree? 

Carolina Panthers Training Camp Tips

You've read the announcement. You've seen the schedule. Now, I will give you the inside scoop on the Panthers Training Camp. I have seen a lot of rookie fan mistakes out there, and I aim to clean it up.
Camp begins with the Back to Football festivities at Gibbs Stadium. Be sure to arrive early, there are lots of great things to see and hear before practice begins. Typically there is live entertainment including a band as well as an appearance by a few select topcats. This takes place in front of the stadium close to the parking areas.
Practice takes place inside of Gibbs Stadium. Most people head for the seats closest to the parking. However, I feel like the best seating for Gibbs Stadium is on the east side of the field, especially if you are looking for player autographs. These bleachers are adjacent to where the players enter and leave the practice. The lower corner of these bleachers are prime autograph real estate.
You will be in the sun a bit more, but as the practice is later in the evening, that may not matter much to you.

Most of the practices at Training Camp are done on the three practice fields adjacent to Gibbs Stadium. There are a few key things here you should know...
Player Autographs
If you are looking for Carolina Panthers autographs listen up. The autograph area is along the fence near where the players enter and exit the locker rooms (pictured below). The key here is to position yourself in the right area. Typically the closer to the locker rooms the better. A you move farther away from them, the likelihood of an autograph decreases. Even farther away and you chances of getting an autograph drop to zero, as this would force the players to go far out of their way to get to you.
Preferential autograph treatment is given to kids, as it should be. My advice is to stand next to a kid, wait for that kid to get his or her autograph, then also get yours signed as well. If a player stops to sign once, he typically will sign a few within the same group of people. DO NOT push a kid out of the way or try to get yours first, you will be chastised by other fans, and probably me.
Players/Coaches I have seen give the most Autographs: Cam Newton, Ron Rivera, Luke Kuechly.
Practice Viewing
Once you arrive at camp, take note of where the blue lifts with the video cameras are situated. Take note on where the video cameras are pointed. This will give you a heads up on which field the main action of the day is located.
Most fans will simply sit on the hill. This is a convenient way to watch all of practice in a leisurely manner from an elevated location. The only downside to the hill is the limited shade, so consider bringing an umbrella, and don't forget your sun screen.
In the morning, if practices are on the two conjoined fields, my advice is to head to the trees after applying your mosquito repellant. You will be in the shade for a good part of the practice and also will have a great view of the action. I am not kidding on the mosquito repellent. You have been warned.

If you are interested in taking photos at camp, I recommend a digital SLR camera with a lens that is capable of 300mm shooting at least. Quarterbacks are easy to photograph, they are stationary and predictable. Other skill positions can be much trickier. During wide receiver drills, the players will typically all run the same route, one after another. Watch the first route, then use that to determine and plan ahead the angle you would like your capture to be.
There are a couple things that fans do that tend to bother me at practices.
Don't yell at the players during practice. They are there, in many cases, fighting for their job. They will not respond to you. Not because they don't hear you, but because they are working.
Know the players names if you want an autograph. Yelling "Hey 88" will likely annoy more than impress, making a signed jersey unlikely.
Where to Eat
Most people will tell you to stop by the Beacon for a burger and fries. This is fine and something everyone must do at some point. My favorite.place, however, is closer to the training Camp. Wade's is a smorgasbord type restaurant. The best thing about it is the fact that when you purchase an entree, you get as many sides as you like. They are all amazing.
The Pizza Inn is also a great place to go, especially if you grew up in the 80s. It is a virtual time warp including table top pac-man and 19 inch picture tube televisions, The chocolate pudding typically has a half inch skin on it, roll it up as a snack on the way home. Don't forget to try the chocolate pudding, cutting through the half inch skin is totally worth it. 
Here is the schedule and the "must attend" practices in my opinion....
Panthers Training Camp Schedule from Panthers.com
2015 CAROLINA PANTHERS TRAINING CAMP PRACTICE SCHEDULEDAYDATEPRACTICEFridayJuly 316:30-8:30 p.m. - Gibbs Stadium SaturdayAugust 13:10-5:30 p.m. SundayAugust 29:25-11:35 a.m.  MondayAugust 39:25-11:35 a.m. TuesdayAugust 4No PracticeWednesdayAugust 59:25-11:35 a.m. ThursdayAugutst 69:25-11:35 a.m. FridayAugust 77:30-9:30 p.m. - Fan Fest at Bank of America StadiumSaturdayAugust 8No PracticeSundayAugust 93:10-5:30 p.m. MondayAugust 109:25-11:35 a.m. TuedayAugust 119:25-11:35 a.m.  WednesdayAugust 129:25-11:35 a.m. ThursdayAugust 13No PracticeFridayAugust 147:00 p.m. - Preseason Game at Buffalo BillsSaturdayAugust 15No PracticeSundayAugust 16No PracticeMondayAugust 173:10-5:30 p.m. TuesdayAugust 189:25-11:35 a.m. WednesdayAugust 198:30-11:00 a.m. - Gibbs Stadium ThursdayAugust 208:30-11:00 a.m. - Gibbs Stadium  
Friday July 31 - First practice of 2015. What else can be said?
Sunday August 2 - Play 60 for the kiddos and probably the first practice in full pads. 
Friday August 7 - Fan Fest at BoA. Really, if you are local and miss this free event you cannot call yourself a Panthers fan.
August 19 and 20 - Miami Dolphins are in town and participating in joint practiced before their preseason game against the Panthers. Chances of punches being thrown in the hot Spartanburg sun? 120%. 

Dear NFL: Bring Back the Fullback

For fans of smash mouth football, the demise of the punishing NFL fullback has had a negative impact on maximum game enjoyment. Gone are the days of a 250lb work horse demolishing a linebacker as he paves the way to the end zone. Yes, I miss the blocking fullback. If you would frequently find yourself zoning in on a crushing block instead of the ball crossing the goal line, you probably miss them too. 
It seems we are not alone...
As PFF noted, fullbacks have become a thing of the past. But could that change? 
Over the past decade, defenses have adjusted both physically and within their schemes to defend against the offensives without fullbacks. Linebackers have gotten smaller, faster. More defensive sub-packages are being used than ever. Across the league the typical 4-3 is giving way to hybrid nickel and other formations. Teams are less worried about their linebackers getting dominated physically, but being out run. 
It is my contention that now may be the perfect time to bring back the punishing fullback, before defenses can easily adjust to them. 
A few weeks ago I was promoting Lee Ward as a guy on the Carolina Panthers roster that could immediately fill this role. Ward is a pure blocking specialist, almost perfect in technique. A quick look at his highlight reel from college will get any red blooded American football fan excited. 
Also, Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula does have experience with this type of player. As offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay, Shula utilized all time fullback great Lorenzo Neal as a blocking specialist, paving the way for the shifty Warrick Dunn and also for Mike Alstott in their rhino package. 
Could we see Ward in the same role in Carolina? Imagine him blocking for Jordan Todman, or perhaps on the goal line in front of Mike Tolbert. 
What say you Panthers fans... Are you ready for the blocking fullback to return? 

2014 vs 2015 - Panthers Offensive Line

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Over the coming weeks I will be comparing Carolina Panthers roster units from today and exactly one year ago. 
First up, the Carolina Panthers Offensive Line. 
Position20142015   First Team  Left TackleByron BellMichael OherLeft GuardAmini SilatoluAndrew NorwellCenterRyan KalilRyan KalilRight GuardChris ScottTrai TurnerRight TackleNate ChandlerMike Remmers   Second Team  Left TackleGarry WilliamsJonathan MartinLeft GuardDerek DennisAmini SilatoluCenterBrian FolkertsBrian FolkertsRight GuardTrai TurnerChris ScottRight TackleAndrew McDonaldDaryl WilliamsLooking at this roster, there appears to be a fairly significant improvement to the first team.
Three starters at this time last year (Chandler, Scott, Silatolu) are now backups. One starter (Bell) was released. The only starter on the offensive line that has remained from a year ago today is Ryan Kalil. 
Byron Bell was signed by Tennessee. 
In the second team, there is also some improvement. 
Daryl Williams, while raw, has the potential to be an anchor on the right side long term (particularly in the running game).  Amini Silatolu is a huge upgrade over the inexperienced Derek Dennis at left guard. The talent level of Jonathan Martin and Garry Williams is probably a push, but considering Garry Williams was never healthy enough to actually play in a game.... advantage Martin. 
Andrew McDonald is now trying to make the Cleveland Browns 2015 roster. Garry Williams is out of football. Derek Dennis is out of football. 
(Guard Fernando Velasco was not signed to the Panthers roster at this time last year)
So, by crunching the number and applying my proprietary Huddle algorithm, I can safely tell you there has been a 43.4% improvement in the offensive line over the past 365 days. Considering this was done while avoiding over spending on aging veteran players, I'd say GM Dave Gettleman has done a solid job. 
For the first time in a long time, could the Carolina Panthers offensive line in 2015 be considered.... above average? 

Carolina Panthers 2015 Roster Projection

Now that the Carolina Panthers offseason workouts are complete, here is my projected roster lineup based on first hand observations and reps received. 
Offense - 26
Quarterback - 2
Cam Newton
Derek Anderson
Running Back - 4
Jonathan Stewart
Fozzy Whitaker
Cameron Artis-Payne
Jordan Todman
Fullback - 1
Mike Tolbert
Tight End - 3
Greg Olsen
Ed Dickson
Brandon Williams
Wide Receiver - 6
Kelvin Benjamin 
Devin Funchess
Corey Brown
Ted Ginn
Brenton Bersin
Jerricho Cotchery
Offensive Line - 10
Michael Oher
Andrew Norwell
Ryan Kalil
Trai Turner
Mike Remmers
Jonathan Martin
Daryl Williams
Amini Silatolu 
Brian Folkerts
Nate Chandler
Defense - 24
Defensive Line - 8
Charles Johnson
Star Lotulelei 
Kawaan Short
Frank Alexander
Kony Ealy
Colin Cole
Dwan Edwards
Mario Addison
Linebacker - 5
Thomas Davis
Luke Kuechly
Shaq Thompson
Adarius Glanton
David Mayo
Safety - 5
Roman Harper
Tre Boston
Kurt Coleman
Dean Marlowe
Colin Jones
Corners - 6
Josh Norman
Bene Benwikere
Charles Tillman
Melvin White
Carrington Byndom
Teddy Williams 
Special Teams - 3
Kicker - Graham Gano
Punter - Brad Nortman
Long Snapper - JJ Jansen 
Practice Squad - 10
Lee Ward
Garry Peters 
Damiere Byrd
Brandon Wegher 
Terry Redden
Martin Wallace
David Foucault
Rakim Cox
Marcus Lucas
Brian Blechen
Panthers keep one less linebacker and one additional safety due to popularity of "Buffalo" package. Glanton currently higher on depth chart than Klein.CB Teddy Williams retained mostly for Special Teams abilities. Joe Webb not retained due to Cam Newton's improved health and other special teams additions added in offseason. All draft picks on regular roster until Gettleman shows otherwise. Nate Chandler retained for backup RT/G role. Versatility gets him a jersey. Brian Folkerts / Chris Scott position up in the air with Remmers taking backup center snaps. Folkerts as the only listed backup center on roster gets the spot for now. This is, by far, the most difficult year to make cuts to the roster in recent memory. Talent level is up, good players have to be released due to the numbers. Other teams will be signing cut Panthers players. 

Carolina Panthers Mini Camp Notes - June 18

The Carolina Panthers finished their offseason workout in spirited fashion. This was one of the better practices to have witnessed. No punches were thrown, but it was exciting none the less. 
Here are the highlights...
Konly Ealy impressed early with a reaching bat down of a Cam Newton pass. Could Ealy be using yesterday's fisticuffs at motivation?Starting corners today were Josh Norman and Peanut Tillman for the first half of practice, and then Benwikere replaced Tillman for the rest. Starting safeties were Tre Boston and Roman Harper.Josh Norman was very physical with Gamecocks rookie WR Damiere Byrd at the line, jamming him at the line. After the play, Josh would walk over to Byrd with encouragement, telling him what he did and how to counter it. Daryl Williams was the starting right tackle for most of the day. Mike Remmers spent time at center with the first and second unity. It is unclear if this is more than typical evaluation. TE Jamie Childers dropped a sure TD from Cam Newton. Not a great way to make an impression with the first team. Todman hauled in another nice touchdown from Derek Anderson out of the backfield. Todman has impressed as of late. CB Lou Young has looked less than average until today. He made a couple of nice plays on the ball. Bene Benwikere's quickness is an obvious asset to the Panthers. He is at the receiver instantly on Cam Newton check downs. Corey Brown again showed nice hands with an important sideline grab from Cam Newton. Devin Funchess also showed impressive hands today on a quick out from Cam Newton. Cam Newton had a couple of poor overthrows today to Ted Ginn, but Funchess is more difficult to place the ball out of reach for. A scary moment today happened when Cam Newton took a hard fall to the ground after slipping on the turf. There were many slips this year in practices for everyone.During the last first team drills, the offensive tackles were Martin and Williams. Jarrett Boykin dropped a sure TD from Cam Newton. Boykin tried to cradle the ball, but it bounced off his chest. Boykin has struggled throughout OTAs and Mini Camp. Damiere Byrd is looking like a keeper, at least on the practice squad. His snaps have been increasing as some others have been decreasing. He is taking full advantage of them.  

Panthers Mini Camp Observations - June 17

I have no doubt you have heard about the punches thrown at practice today, so here are the other things you need to know about today's Panthers practice. 
Kelvin Benjamin sat out most of practice due to a hamstring pull. This is not the same hamstring that kept him from participating two weeks ago. Shaq Thompson saw increased time with the first string defense today. It may just be a matter of time....Coleman and Boston again saw many snaps as the starting safeties. The play of the day belonged to Brenton Bersin, who hauled in a beautiful back of the end zone touchdown over Tre Boston from Cam Newton. This earned some celebration and a jumping chest bump from Cam Newton. Bersin continued to score two additional touchdowns. He is my player of the day. Corey Brown had a bit of an off day today, dropping two "would be" touchdowns. Stephen Hill dropped a corner of the end zone touchdown, broken up by Carrington Byndom. But on the very next play followed through with a catch. Jordan Todman took first string kickoff returns. Tedd Ginn took the second reps. Todman is extremely shifty on screens out of the backfield. He may displace another running back on this team's roster. Colin Jones continues to make impressive plays on the ball, two near interceptions today. Dean Marlowe had a nice day today and could push for the starting free safety spot. He had a key breakup on an end zone pass.  
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Panthers add a New Player

Matthew McCaskill of Fort Bragg practiced with the Carolina Panthers today. The seven year old McCaskill through the Make a Wish Foundation was welcomed by his favorite player, Kelvin Benjamin. McCaskill's father is currently enlisted at Fort Bragg. 
Like all new players, Benjamin and McCaskill compared past injuries and stories. 

Then, after a quick warm up they sat together eating energy bars and taking in the day's action. 

After practice, McCaskill played a little catch with Cam Newton, who stayed after practice to meet the young man. 

Cam, seeing McCaskill was an accomplished receiver began calling hot routes, not taking it easy on the rookie. 

The play selection ended in a touchdown which earned a well deserved fist bump from Newton. 

McCaskill is currently battling a heart condition. His wish was to practice with the Carolina Panthers.