Behind Enemy Lines is a weekly look at Tampa Bay’s NFC South foes every Tuesday morning. Let’s spy on the Bucs’ division rivals, shall we?
• The Falcons have promoted a familiar face to Bucs fans. Former Tampa Bay tight ends coach Ben Steele was given the same title in Atlanta after being an assistant under Mike Mularkey, who retired this offseason. As we mentioned in last week’s Behind Enemy Lines, the Falcons had one of the more productive tight ends in the league last year with Austin Hooper, who caught 75 passes for 787 yards and six touchdowns. But Hooper is a free agent and the Falcons don’t have much cap room to spare at this point with just over $5.2 million currently available.
NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero has recently speculated that Hooper could command as much as $13 million on the open market, and his franchise tag number would be just north of $13 million. With limited cap space, it will take some creativity by the Falcons to make enough room to re-sign Hooper, or to be a player in free agency, which kicks off on March 18. Quarterback Matt Ryan ($24.5 million), wide receiver Julio Jones ($20.4 million) and left tackle Jake Matthews ($16 million) could be asked to restructure their 2020 salaries to help give Atlanta some cap relief.
• Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is clearly on the hot seat, and most in Atlanta feels it is playoffs or bye-bye Quinn this year. Atlanta started the 2019 season terribly, but got hot over the last half of the year and ended up finishing second in the NFC South behind the Saints, with their 28-22 OT win over the Bucs in Week 17. That put the Falcons at 7-9.
But owner Arthur Blank has made it clear he wants to see the Falcons get back to the playoffs next year. With veterans Ryan (age 34) and Jones (age 31) having less and less tread left on their tires, Blank knows those two won’t be able to perform at a high level forever. The Falcons have turned the defense over to Raheem Morris, another name and face familiar to Bucs fans, but with the 20th-ranked defense and the team moving on from outside linebacker Vic Beasley, a former first-round pick, finding a consistent pass rush will be one of the team’s biggest needs – and priorities – this offseason.
• To Cam or not to Cam? That is the question. The future of Panthers standout quarterback Cam Newton is as murky as the Catawba River that winds through the state before emptying in Lake Norman. Panthers General Manager Marty Hurney was fairly vague when asked about Newton’s future with the organization.
With Luke Kuechly’s recent retirement, and the recent parting with tight end Greg Olsen, it appears that new head coach Matt Rhule and his heavily-laden college coaching staff will be in rebuild mode in 2020. Does Newton figure into Rhule’s plans? Part of that answer might come once Newton’s recovery timetable from foot surgery is known. The Panthers could save $19 million of his $21.1 million salary by trading or releasing Newton, although with his injury in question, a trade is highly unlikely.
• The Panthers added another piece of their organization and he has close ties to Rhule. Sean Padden was been recently hired as the team’s vice president of football operations. Padden worked with Rhule at Temple and also at Baylor. Carolina is also reportedly looking to hire an assistant general manager as an eventual heir to Hurney’s job, but don’t look for that to happen until possibly after the draft according to reports out of Carolina.
• Cornerback James Bradberry is scheduled to be a free agent on March 18 and is already posturing for a big contract, either from the Panthers – or a new suitor – maybe even his former head coach. According to NBCsports.com Bradberry joined a Redkins podcast during Super Bowl week.
“I would love to play for Coach [Ron] Rivera again,” Bradberry said. “He’s a great man and a great coach.”
Rivera is of course the former coach in Carolina, who was fired mid-season by new owner David Temper.
“He coached me for four years. I didn’t realize how much he meant to us until that day [he was fired],” Bradberry said. “Just how he spoke to us as men. He wasn’t overly aggressive unless he needed to be. He put his foot down when he needed to.”
Bradberry would be one of the top free agent corners on the market if he makes it, and the Redskins are sitting in the middle of the pack in terms of team salary cap, currently with just a little less that $39 million in available room. The Bucs, especially wide receiver Mike Evans, would love to see Bradberry leave the NFC South and join his former coach in Washington, D.C.
New Orleans Saints
• The Saints are still waiting to see what future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees will do for the 2020 season – return for one more year or retire. And that is creating some angst within the Saints organization. As the team waits on Brees’ decision they also have a decision to make on multi-positional player Taysom Hill.
The Saints want to keep Hill, who is a restricted free agent and hold all the cards essentially, but what is his value as a backup to Brees as opposed to being a starting quarterback should Brees decide to hang it up? The Saints would prefer to lock up Hill prior to him being wooed by other teams, who could make an offer that the Saints would still be able to match. But if a team sees Hills as more valuable at this point than New Orleans does, his price tag could skyrocket. Hill himself thinks he is an NFL franchise quarterback and said so at last week’s Super Bowl when being interviewed by the AP’s Rob Maadi.
I see Taysom Hill trending. He told me Super Bowl week: “I definitely view myself as a franchise QB. .. If New Orleans don’t view me that way then I have to leave.” Also he loves playing with Drew Brees, hopes to continue doing so. Full interview: https://t.co/CZvuLzPHyQ pic.twitter.com/KQLpsWuYAH
— Rob Maaddi (@RobMaaddi) February 10, 2020
• One of the big questions being bantered about by Saints fans and the local media is, will New Orleans find an upgrade at wide receiver to pair with superstar receiver Michael Thomas, who has hauled in 274 catches over the last two seasons. According to ESPN.com, the second-leading receiver over that span has just 47 receptions. That presents a major problem whether it is Brees or Hill under center. Especially with 35-year old Ted Ginn, Jr. set to become an unrestricted free agent next month.
• Looking into the NFL Draft crystal ball for someone who could help the Saints offense become more diverse and better in 2020, we turn to new PewterReport.com Bucs beat writer and NFL Draft expert Jon Ledyard, who published a full 32-team, two-round mock draft on Monday. In it, Ledyard has the Saints selecting TCU’s play-making wide receiver Jalen Reagor. This year’s draft appears to be strong for teams looking for wide receivers, and don’t be surprised if the Saints double dip at that position come April while on the clock.