With the crew of HBO's "Hard Knocks" set to dissect the Atlanta Falcons' every move during training camp, the team avoided adding unnecessary drama to the equation.

In signing veteran wide receiver Roddy White to a four-year extension that includes $10 million guaranteed, the Falcons kept themselves out of a potentially messy situation.

Although White said Thursday, "I don't think I would have held out" and missed the start of training camp on Friday, the Falcons certainly didn't want the extension to be any type of distraction. The Falcons need White to be a happy camper, and need everyone to be on the same page going into such a critical season. They are trying to make last season's 4-12 implosion a distant memory, and the last thing the team needed was for one of its most respected players to feel disrespected.

"Where our football team is now, if we all stay healthy, we can win football games. That's the most important thing," White told on Thursday.

White, a four-time Pro Bowl receiver, expected all along to be a Falcon for life, particularly after the team expressed its desire to keep him in the fold. He simply wanted the organization to keep its word and follow through with what he anticipated would happen after the draft.

Extension talks hadn't even started until this week. The initial process was put on hold as White mourned the loss of his younger brother, who was shot to death in South Carolina in May. The team gave White his space as he grieved.

Negotiations heated up Tuesday with some concern that a deal wouldn't get done. Then White's agents flew in to meet with the team Wednesday night, and the sides obviously worked diligently to get matters resolved before reporting time.

White brings levity to the locker room, along with a swagger. His vibe rubs off on the younger players. And, by the way, White can play a little bit, too. Although he turns 33 in November, his production toward the end of last season showed he has plenty left.

As long as White remains healthy -- he was hampered by ankle and hamstring injuries last season -- he should be ready for a productive season with tag-team partner Julio Jones (foot surgery) back in the fold.

But in terms of how he feels, physically, there are no concerns. Last year, he was hampered by both ankle and hamstring injuries.

"As long as I can stay healthy, I'll be a successful football player in this league," White said. "I don't feel like I'm down a step or I can go out there and play. I've watched guys like Reggie Wayne before his knee injury and he'd go out there every year and have 1,000-yard seasons. That's how I see myself, as that type of player.

"If I don’t get hurt, I feel like I can always be an elite wide receiver in this league -- especially for the next two or three years."

Things are looking up for the Falcons. Let's see how the rest of the drama unfolds.
The Carolina Panthers open training camp today with a slight twist.

Instead of reporting to Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, as they have since the team was formed in 1995, the Panthers will report to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The schedule was adjusted because Liverpool FC will play AC Milan at Carolina's newly-renovated stadium on August 2 as part of the Guinness International Champions Cup.

So instead of holding Fan Fest at the stadium on the second Saturday of camp as has been tradition, the Panthers moved that event to Friday night.

Players will hold a two-hour practice from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., followed by a question-and-answer session, a performance by the group Voltage Brothers, and fireworks.

The teams will make the 90-minute trek to Spartanburg on Saturday morning and hold their first practice at Wofford at 6:30 p.m. as part of a back-to-football celebration.

Aside from individual work with receivers over the past month, Friday will be the first time quarterback Cam Newton has been a full participant in practice since undergoing offseason surgery on his left ankle.

Here's a complete look at the training camp schedule:
  • July 25 -- 6:30-8:30 p.m. FanFest at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
  • July 26 -- 4:30 o.m. Back to Football Party at Wofford College in Spartanburg. First camp practice 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wofford's Gibbs Stadium.
  • July 27 -- 3:10-5:30 p.m.
  • July 28 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • July 29 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • July 30 -- No practice.
  • July 31 -- 3:10 p.m.-5:30 p.m.
  • Aug. 1 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • Aug. 2 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • Aug. 3 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • Aug. 4 -- No practice.
  • Aug. 5 -- 3:10 p.m.-5:20 p.m.
  • Aug. 6 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • Aug. 7 -- 9:25 a.m.-11:35 a.m.
  • Aug. 8 -- 7:30 p.m. preseason opener against Buffalo at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
  • Aug. 9 -- No practice.
  • Aug. 10 -- 6:10 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
  • Aug. 11 -- 3:15 p.m.-5:20 p.m.
  • Aug. 12 -- 3:10 p.m.-5:20 p.m.
Bernard ReedyAP Photo/David Goldman"It's a crime that the kid didn't get drafted," one Toledo coach said of Bernard Reedy.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Atlanta Falcons rookie Bernard Reedy is still waiting for his NFL career to take off, but his acting career has launched -- sort of.

Before minicamp concluded in mid-June, the diminutive, undrafted receiver from Toledo was summoned by "the skinny white guy who always wears sunglasses" -- better known as football communications coordinator Matt Haley -- for a video session with the crew from HBO's "Hard Knocks."

"I think they said they're going to have me 'mic'd' like two times a week," Reedy said of the Falcons' upcoming training camp documentary. "They had me go in there and do a little commercial thing with the previews and spray the water all over your face. It was some sticky stuff where they made you close your eyes, and [then] you've got to look up at the camera like you're mad.

"That was my first time trying to act. It took like, 10, 15 minutes. I think they said your head turns into a football or something, so you've got to turn this way and then turn that way. And they put this green screen behind you. It was fun."

The 5-foot-8, 175-pound Reedy made the offseason much more entertaining, even without props. His explosive cuts and nifty deep-ball catches impressed Falcons coaches and left some teammates in awe. His 4.39 speed in the 40 was clearly evident.

[+] EnlargeBernard Reedy
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsReedy ranked sixth in the nation in all-purpose yards per game during his junior season at Toledo.
Reedy, however, has an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster. Julio Jones and Roddy White will lead an established receiving corps into Friday's opening day of camp.

"It's a crime that the kid didn't get drafted," Toledo offensive coordinator Jason Candle said of Reedy. "Obviously, folks have their specs in what they want, size-wise and speed-wise. ... But this kid has an unbreakable mindset about him. He's always risen to the occasion. The moment is never too big for him."

If "Hard Knocks" decides to make Reedy one of the featured characters, he'll have a compelling story to tell.

Ask him about what motivated him to excel as a football player while growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Reedy will tell you about the friendly competition with his older sister.

Innekia Reedy was the flag football co-athlete of the year for Pinellas County in 2007. She averaged 100 rushing yards and three sacks per game during her senior year at Lakewood High School.

"I think she was the best flag football player in the nation," Reedy boasted. "She played running back, quarterback -- you know, put the athlete anywhere. She's fast."

Reedy also attended Lakewood and was the county player of the year as a running back in 2009. He rushed for 1,211 yards and scored 36 touchdowns. But his sister, who briefly played small-school college basketball, has never shied away from claiming bragging rights.

"She was [always] claiming that she was better than me, faster than me," Reedy said.

Ask Reedy about his other sibling and he'll tell you his half-brother, Dominique Flowers, has been in and out of prison for a majority of his adult life.

"He's a street dude," Reedy said. "He's been slinging [drugs]. He's out now. Is he still drug-dealing? I don't know."

"He's not allowed to drive because he has no license," Reedy said of his brother. "So I'll go pick him up and then we'll go do something. He went jet-skiing with me this summer. He was just amazed. I was like, 'This is what it looks like when you get out of the house.'"

Reedy grew up in an undesirable neighborhood on the south side of St. Petersburg. He elected to meet at a restaurant in a "nicer" area of town to be interviewed for this story, to avert any violence near his home.

"Ever since I've been growing up, the crime rate has been crazy," he said.

Reedy had a few run-ins with the law as a teen. St. Petersburg police confirmed he had been stopped in the past for illegally riding his dirt bike on the street.

"I didn't think it was no harm," Reedy said. "I knew [it was wrong], but it's not like I was running any red lights."

Sports gave Reedy the green light to do something more with his life and possibly achieve an NFL dream. Ask him why he didn't get drafted and he’ll shrug his shoulders. He has grown accustomed to being overlooked: Despite gaudy numbers in high school, his only two college choices were Toledo and Western Kentucky.

As a junior at Toledo, Reedy ranked sixth in the nation in all-purpose yards per game (174.7). He didn't have the type of senior season he had hoped for, but he thought he was good enough to be drafted.

Reedy figured he was on his way after a strong showing in East-West Shrine game practices and scoring a touchdown in the annual all-star game, played in St. Petersburg. Then he started generating interest from two NFL teams in particular, Houston and Oakland.

"The Raiders talked to me for like two hours," Reedy said. "And they were just saying how important the [East-West Shrine] practices were. And [later] I was like, 'If they were that important, I should have went the first round.'

"I thought I was going to the Texans, especially after my pro day. They had me working outside, inside and catching punts. And then they called Coach Candle about me."

Regardless, Reedy didn't get drafted. Thirty-three receivers did.

"I'm thinking all these receivers that they're taking, I just played with these guys," Reedy said. "One of the guys who got drafted, he broke his finger in the East-West practices and didn't even practice. I mean, I don't knock anybody, but I've seen talent before."

Some of that talent came from St. Petersburg. Former Lakewood standout Louis Murphy, now a receiver with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, mentored Reedy and helped him during the lead-up to the draft.

"I wasn't trusting none of the agents at first, so Murph paid for me to train," Reedy said. "And he paid for my housing. He used to come to my little league games and my high school games. Of course I look up to him."

Murphy had no problem lending a hand.

"I wanted to look out for him," he said. "I just feel like it's my duty, as a guy who made it out of St. Petersburg, to give advice or always be accessible."

Perhaps Murphy and Reedy will meet again when the Falcons and Buccaneers battle Sept. 18 at the Georgia Dome.

Reedy realizes he has to make quite an impression during training camp to stick. But his opening act this offseason was nothing short of spectacular.
New Orleans Saints safety Jairus Byrd's recovery from back surgery has gone as expected this summer, according to a league source. Byrd is expected to be healthy enough to participate in training camp, though it’s unknown if he will be limited when the Saints begin practicing Friday at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

Obviously there’s a good chance the Saints will take a cautious approach with their prized free-agent acquisition. But all along, they expected Byrd to recover in plenty of time to participate in training camp and be fully healthy for the regular season.

Byrd missed all of OTAs and minicamp during the summer after he and the team decided he should have a minor surgery to alleviate a nagging disc issue in late May.

At the time, Saints coach Sean Payton described the surgery as “something that didn’t need to be done” and said it wouldn’t have been done if it were the regular season. But Payton said all parties, including doctors, felt it would be the best approach for Byrd’s long-term health.

Byrd, 27, was a three-time Pro Bowl selection during his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills. The Saints signed him to a six-year, $54 million contract, in large part because of his ball-hawking history. Byrd’s 22 interceptions over the past five years rank second in the NFL during that span. He also forced 11 fumbles.

As for other injuries, it remains unclear if defensive tackle John Jenkins (pectoral) and receiver Joe Morgan (knee) will remain sidelined or be limited at the start of training camp. Both players were also held out of OTAs and minicamp, but both are also expected to participate in training camp.
The Atlanta Falcons are set to begin training camp on Friday, and the process begins with the rookies scheduled to report Tuesday.

First-round draft pick Jake Matthews should have no problem making the adjustment. Here are five questions for some of the other rookies as they head into their first training camp:

[+] EnlargePrince Shembo
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith Sean Weatherspoon lost for the season, Prince Shembo has a chance to earn a starting spot as a rookie.
1) Will Prince Shembo take full advantage of his golden opportunity? The former Notre Dame Fighting Irish standout could earn a starting role at inside linebacker following a season-ending injury to Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles). Coach Mike Smith said Shembo will get every opportunity during camp and said the coaching staff is excited about his potential. Now, it's up to Shembo to continue his transition from outside linebacker to inside. Physically, it shouldn't be a problem. But he has to be on top of his game, mentally, to bump Joplo Bartu aside.

2) Can Devonta Freeman truly push Steven Jackson for carries? Freeman has to worry about holding off Jacquizz Rodgers first as the No. 2 guy behind Jackson. Freeman looked more than capable in shorts, but let's see how he fares with the pads on. One thing you immediately respect about Freeman is his willingness to work and learn. If he can prove himself to be an adequate blocker in terms of picking up blitzes, then he'll get on the field sooner rather than later.

3) Will Dez Southward put some heat on veteran Dwight Lowery at free safety? Southward didn't really stand out this offseason despite the coaches raving about his potential. The most impressive thing about him from first glance is his attention to detail and tendency to ask questions. Now he has to show the ability to make plays. He lined up at both free and strong but, again, his best chance is to challenge Lowery at free because William Moore is the defensive leader at strong.

4) Can Tyler Starr turn heads again like he did during rookie minicamp? The outside linebacker showed a burst upon arriving from South Dakota. But once Starr lined up against the veterans, he didn't have as much success. Regardless, you can't help but like his energy. And he should be a standout on special teams no matter what. But the Falcons need capable pass-rushers to emerge, so Starr has a shot to make an impact.

5) Will undrafted receiver Bernard Reedy make it hard on the Falcons to cut him? If Reedy shows the speed and deep-threat ability he displayed this offseason, he just might. The 5-foot-7 dynamo gave Matt Ryan all the credit, but Reedy was the one who kept blowing through the defense and catching long balls. Of course, that's going to be Julio Jones' main job once the regular season arrives, but it wouldn't be so bad for the Falcons to have another deep threat at their disposal.
Brandin CooksStacy Revere/Getty ImagesBrandin Cooks should benefit from having one of the NFL's elite players as his quarterback.
New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson was trying to be a voice of reason when describing the potential of rookie receiver Brandin Cooks.

Watson said there are too many variables when it comes to making any kind of NFL Rookie of the Year predictions -- things such as injuries, grasping the offense and adjusting to NFL defenses.

But like everyone else on the practice field when Cooks first showed up this summer, Watson couldn't help but be taken aback by what he saw from the 5-foot-10, 189-pound speedster out of Oregon State.

"When you see a guy catch a pass and you see his first two steps look like he's about to run a 40-yard dash, you know that the guy is quick and fast. And when you get the ball to him and he learns what to do, there might be problems [for opposing defenses]," Watson said. "And that's what we all saw from the first pass he caught.

"Everybody looked at each other like, 'Wow, this kid is definitely at a different speed.'"

Cornerback Keenan Lewis nicknamed his new teammate "Lightning" after Cooks torched him down the field on an end-around, even pausing to playfully let Lewis try to catch up for a moment.

Outside linebacker Junior Galette added, "I haven't seen that kind of speed in a while," which is saying an awful lot since Galette has played across the field from Darren Sproles, Reggie Bush, Joe Morgan, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson while in New Orleans.

"I didn't even see when he got the ball on that handoff," Galette said. "Just moving around, he can get into that last gear quick. His speed is obviously top tier in the league."

Like Watson, I usually consider myself a voice of reason when it comes to predicting the level of impact any rookie can have in the NFL.

But even my practical, sensible side believes Cooks can become the Saints' first offensive rookie of the year in nearly three decades, joining Rueben Mayes (1986) and George Rogers (1981).

Cooks was the 20th pick in the draft, and no other offensive weapon landed in a better place to immediately showcase his skill set. Even if Cooks is only the third or fourth option in New Orleans' versatile offense, you know coach Sean Payton will find a way to create mismatches for him and quarterback Drew Brees will find a way to exploit them.

Cooks boasts a stunning combination of athleticism and actual college production. Last year, he led the nation and set Pac-12 records with 128 catches for 1,730 receiving yards. He set a school record with 16 touchdown catches. Then he went out and ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any receiver at this season's NFL scouting combine (4.33 seconds) and the fastest 20- and 60-yard shuttles of the past decade (3.81 and 10.72 seconds).

Just moving around, he can get into that last gear quick. His speed is obviously top tier in the league.

-- Saints LB Junior Galette discussing his first impressions of rookie Brandin Cooks
Watch highlights of Cooks tearing up the Pac-12 and you see glimpses of both Sproles and Lance Moore, two of the longtime playmakers that the Saints released this offseason. You also see a lot of Payton-level creativity in former NFL coach Mike Riley's offense at Oregon State. Cooks burned defenses on reverses, screen passes, passes over the top, passes in traffic and punt returns.

Former NFL general manager Phil Savage -- who scouts college talent as the Senior Bowl's executive director and analyzes the game for ESPN, among other outlets -- said Cooks' exposure to a pro-style offense should help him make the transition to the NFL. Savage also believes the "perfect marriage" with the Saints' offense could give Cooks a better chance to thrive quickly than even the top receiver taken in this year's draft, Sammy Watkins of the Buffalo Bills.

"If he's in the slot, Drew Brees literally can raise up, flip him the ball and let him go," Savage said of Cooks. "They can do that in Buffalo with Watkins, and I'm sure they will. But I feel certain that the Saints can guarantee getting the ball to Brandin Cooks, and I'm not 100 percent certain and convinced the Bills will be able to consistently get the ball to Sammy Watkins.

"I could see Watkins having some of those one-catch, 15-yards kind of games, just because EJ Manuel didn't play well or they double up Watkins and he's gotta go other places with the ball. Whereas with Cooks, I think there's gonna be probably three or four automatic completions in every game plan."

The Saints' history under Payton and Brees indicates they won't have any trouble trusting Cooks. Last year, rookie Kenny Stills caught 32 passes for 641 yards and five touchdowns, leading the NFL with 20.0 yards per catch. And he was just a fifth-round pick. As rookies in 2006, Marques Colston caught 70 passes for 1,038 yards and the versatile Bush caught 88 passes for 742 yards.

Payton and Brees also were adept at getting running backs Bush and Sproles in open space on screen passes or tosses -- a role Cooks could help fill even though Payton insisted he's a wide receiver, first and foremost.

"You hope that whenever you add speed to the field, it stretches the defense both in the passing game and the running game," Payton said. "It will just be finding that balance and fitting it into what we are doing."

Cooks has drawn favorable comparisons to versatile players such as Sproles, Percy Harvin and the player Cooks said he likes to model his game after, Steve Smith.

Another comparison I particularly like came from NFL analyst Matt Bowen: Az-Zahir Hakim, who thrived in a similar role in an offense with a similar attitude, the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf."

"That guy is Az Hakim, Part 2. You don't want to cover him in the slot," said Bowen, a former NFL safety who now analyzes the league for Bleacher Report among other outlets. "With his change-of-direction skill set, plus electric talent in the open field, Cooks has the opportunity to produce big numbers with Drew Brees in Payton's scheme."

Added Savage: "You're basically gonna have in one slot Jimmy Graham, and in the other you're gonna have Brandin Cooks. In and of itself, that's gonna create problems. Because how do you match up with a 6-foot-7, 255-pound tight end and a 5-foot-10, 185-pound quick-as-a-cat speed merchant?"

I'm not necessarily predicting blockbuster numbers for Cooks, since the Saints spread the ball around so much. But even if he catches something like 70 passes for 800 yards, he'll be doing it for a Super Bowl contender. And he's likely to hit a lot of "home runs" on a variety of screens, reverses, deep balls and punt returns.

The kind of highlight-reel stuff that will attract the attention of voters.
Examining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ roster:


McCown is the present and Glennon the future. The third quarterback can be on the practice squad.


Arguably the deepest position on the roster. James, Rainey and Sims will compete to be the top backup to Martin. Demps is a project, but he has value as a return man.


Owusu and Murphy likely will compete for the third receiver spot. But the team is hoping Herron can develop quickly and be the slot receiver.


A position with lots of depth. Seferian-Jenkins is the future at this position, but Myers and Wright might be the present.


There is concern about Nicks’ health. If he’s unable to return, this becomes a real problem area. The depth isn’t great, and the team may have to look to the outside for help.


The starting four of McCoy, McDonald, Johnson and Clayborn is solid. But spots in the rotation after them are very much up for grabs. Bowers needs a good training camp to secure a roster spot.


The last two spots are up for grabs and could end up being filled from the outside.


Banks and Jenkins will compete for the No. 2 job. The loser likely will end up as the nickelback.


There’s good depth here because Wright was a former starter for coach Lovie Smith in Chicago.


This won’t change unless there’s an injury.
Examining the New Orleans Saints' roster:

It’s not easy to cut veteran Luke McCown from this roster. He has been a great fit in the Saints locker room. But if the Saints can trust the younger Griffin in that backup role, they don’t need to keep three quarterbacks.


I’m going out on a limb and predicting that this is the year an undrafted rookie running back doesn't make the roster (though Timothy Flanders will probably shine in the preseason). All five names on this list are virtual locks, with backup fullback Austin Johnson also a dark horse.


I actually think it will be tough for all six of these guys to make the roster. But they have all shown enough in the past to earn the benefit of doubt for now. Morgan is the big wild card. His uncertain health and the addition of fellow speedster Cooks places him firmly on the bubble. But if Morgan shines in camp, he could pass up Meachem or Toon. ... The Saints have some talented undrafted rookie receivers, but the practice squad seems more likely for them.


This is a spot where I could definitely see an undrafted rookie such as Je'Ron Hamm or Nic Jacobs cracking the roster. But the Saints went with only three tight ends last season, so I'll stick with that for now.


The top seven seem pretty safe. After that, it's wide-open for one or two more backup spots. I'll go with the rookie Rooks for now because the Saints invested a sixth-round pick in him and like his growth potential. But former draft pick Marcel Jones and undrafted rookie Matthew Armstrong are among several other possibilities.


The top six are about as safe as it gets. Johnson’s future is uncertain, but the second-year pro has great athleticism and potential. And now he’s being cross-trained as a defensive lineman, which adds versatility for the pass-rusher. Veteran Brandon Deaderick is a more experienced possibility for depth.


My most difficult cut on the defense was veteran outside linebacker Keyunta Dawson, whom the Saints really liked last season and re-signed this offseason. I also like pass-rusher Kyle Knox as a dark horse. But this is suddenly such a crowded group with the arrival of enticing rookies Fortt and Powell.


This position is even deeper. Six cornerbacks is a lot, but it’s hard to cut any one of these guys at this point. And I still had to leave off some talented candidates such as Trevin Wade, Terrence Frederick and Derrius Brooks.


These four seem like a pretty safe bet. But this is another spot where an undrafted rookie such as Pierre Warren or Ty Zimmerman could earn his way into the mix, especially if he shines on special teams.


The only competition is at kicker, where Graham will have to fend off young contender Derek Dimke.
Examining the Carolina Panthers' roster:

Quarterbacks (2)
Joe Webb was signed to simulate the things Newton did while the franchise quarterback recovered from offseason ankle surgery. Newton is healthy and general manager Dave Gettleman has the philosophy of keeping only two quarterbacks, so Webb likely will fall to the practice squad or off the team completely.

Running backs (5)

The top three are a given and Barner is the leading candidate to return kicks in addition to his running back duties. Gaffney isn't safe, but the Panthers drafted him in the sixth round because they are high on his ability to block. He is part of the future.

Receivers (5)

I'm still not convinced Underwood is safe. While the Panthers love his speed, he has a tendency to drop passes. King also isn't a shoo-in. Don't be surprised if Brenton Bersin, Kealoha Pilares or Marvin McNutt are a part of the final picture.

Tight ends (5)

Normally I would say four players here, but the Panthers plan to run a lot of two-tight-end sets and Brockel also doubles as a fullback. Williams is the wild card. He's shown flashes and if he continues to impress in training camp he could be almost like an extra wide receiver.

Offensive linemen (9)

The key here is flexibility. Williams and Chandler can play tackle or guard. Turner can play guard and backup center. While the Panthers may like to keep a 10th player here, using that spot for a fifth tight end makes more sense.

Defensive line (10)

I'd be nervous if I were Alexander. He's been suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and the Panthers drafted end Ealy in the second round. Keeping 10 defensive linemen may be a reach, and there is solid depth at end.

Linebackers (5)

Again, flexibility is key and why I went with five linebackers instead of six. Blackburn can step in and replace Kuechly if he ever had to come off the field. If the Panthers decide to go with six here, look for Ben Jacobs or D.J. Smith to figure into the mix.

Cornerbacks (5)

The wild card here is Godfrey as he returns from an Achilles injury and moves from safety to corner. The Panthers restructured his contract to keep him on the roster and really love his leadership. If he is good to go, there will be some tough cuts with Norman and James Dockery. Going back to the defensive line, Carolina could keep one more here and go with nine there.

Safeties (4)

The good thing about having Godfrey at cornerback is he could move back to safety if healthy and an injury occurs here. The decision will come in whether to keep fourth-round pick Tre Boston and go with five safeties over an additional defensive lineman.

Specialists (3)

These positions are set barring an injury.
Examining the Atlanta Falcons' roster:

The Falcons are counting on Ryan to play like an elite quarterback with a full complement of receivers and better protection. They feel like they upgraded the backup quarterback position by trading for Yates, the former Houston Texan who has a playoff win under his belt. If the Falcons indeed go with just two quarterbacks, as expected, look for undrafted rookie Jeff Matthews to be on the practice squad.


Jackson, who turns 31 on July 22, still has a good year left in him if he remains healthy. He showed signs of his old self last season after enduring an early season hamstring injury. Freeman, a rookie fourth-round pick, will get a chance to push for touches. Rodgers still should have a role, somewhere, while Smith is valuable on special teams.


The Falcons are counting on Jones and White to be healthy. If Davis (foot surgery) is the same after starting training camp on the physically unable to perform list, he should be a nice backup. Bernard Reedy, the undrafted rookie from Toledo, might make it hard not to keep a sixth receiver if he continues to impress like he did this offseason.


No one is expecting another Tony Gonzalez out of this group, but the Falcons do expect Toilolo to make significant strides this season. Pascoe will be kept for his blocking but don't discount the possibility of Shuler.


The Falcons believe they have a solid starting five after signing the veteran Asamoah to play right guard and drafting the rookie Matthews in the first round to play right tackle. Uncertainty remains about Baker at left tackle coming off a major knee injury. If he can't finish the whole season, then Matthews would have to move over to left tackle. Yes, I left Lamar Holmes off the roster. Undrafted rookie center James Stone could stick on the practice squad.


As long as Soliai and Jackson do their jobs up front in the 3-4, in terms of stuffing the run and freeing up the linebackers to make plays, they'll be well worth the combined $25 million guaranteed despite not playing all the snaps. Hageman, the second-round draft pick from Minnesota, is an intriguing prospect. Peters could be the wild card depending on his health coming off an Achilles tear. I think Umenyiora still has a place as a designated pass-rusher, but we'll see.


The Falcons are counting on Massaquoi to be a consistent pass-rusher. He definitely has developed a little more nastiness. Just ask Sam Baker. Biermann looks healthy coming off an Achilles tear. Starr, a seventh-round draft pick, showed good signs during rookie minicamp but has to do the same against the big boys in training camp.


The group will sorely miss Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles), who was lost for the season. Worrilow showed the ability to tackle last season as an undrafted rookie but still has strides to make. The coaches are really counting on the fourth-round draft pick Shembo to step in and have an immediate impact.


Trufant and Alford could make up one of the best cornerback tandems in the league in the future if Alford continues to mature. Trufant is there already. The high-powered, multi-receiver offenses around the league only increased the need for solid cornerbacks, and the Falcons have a battle for the third corner with McClain, Wilson and Arenas. All three should stick.


Moore has to take on more of a leadership role with his buddy Weatherspoon done for the season. Newcomer Lowery could be an upgrade over Thomas DeCoud at free safety provided the offseason was indicative of Lowery's ability. There is no guarantee Zeke Motta (neck surgery) will play this season, so he's off the list.


Bosher is one of the best in the league, and Bryant is consistent. They just need to keep it going.
Let’s conclude our fact-or-fiction series with coaching and special teams.

1. The arrival of coach Lovie Smith makes the Buccaneers an instant playoff team.

Our take: Fiction.

Justify it: There's little doubt Smith will be better than predecessor Greg Schiano. Smith is a proven winner in the NFL. Players like working for him and he commands respect. All that being said, Smith still faces a tough job. This team was 4-12 last season. The Bucs were very aggressive in free agency and that will help. But turning this team completely around might be more than a one-year project.

2. Leslie Frazier is the luckiest defensive coordinator in the NFL.

Our take: Fact.

Justify it: Frazier inherits defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. They're among the best in the league at their respective positions and they give Frazier a couple of solid building blocks. David and McCoy have been compared to Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp, who were the central figures of the defense in Tampa Bay's glory days. If Frazier can get solid production from some other role players, the Bucs could have an elite defense.

3. Jeff Tedford's offense is going to bring excitement to Tampa Bay.

Our take: Fact.

Justify it: For the most part, the Bucs have been very quiet about what Tedford's offense will look like. Several players have used the phrase "up tempo" to describe it. That would be a nice twist for an offense that's been boring in recent years. This offense has enough tools to be potent if Tedford can put things together the right way. Doug Martin gives the team a solid runner and Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans will be one of the league's biggest receiving tandems. But the real key will be quarterback Josh McCown. If he can thrive in Tedford's offense, this team suddenly can be good.

4. Smith had strong return games in Chicago, so he should bring the same thing to Tampa Bay.

Our take: Fiction.

Justify it: Smith had a strong return game in Chicago mostly because he had Devin Hester. At the moment, the Bucs don't have anyone to compare with Hester. Eric Page handled returns last season and he was ordinary. The Bucs will look at several other possible returners, including Jeff Demps and Charles Sims. Someone could emerge as a strong returner, but the Bucs don't have anyone that's proven yet.

5. Connor Barth is back, so the kicking game will be fine.

Our take: Fact.

Justify it: Barth missed all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon. He's healthy now and that's great news for the kicking game. Barth is one of the better young kickers in the NFL.
One NFL personnel man said he was concerned with Jake Matthews' strength prior to the draft. At least one team that drafted in the top 10 this year ranked Zack Martin -- the 16th overall pick of the Dallas Cowboys -- ahead of the Atlanta Falcons' rookie right tackle because of concerns over Matthews' ability to finish.

Such nitpicking of his son's game seems comical to Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, particularly the strength part of it.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
AP Photo/David Goldman"Obviously, Jake wants to get stronger," said Jake Matthews' father, Bruce. "But look at what's on the tape. ... It's a result league. That's the bottom line."
"Floyd Reese, he was our GM when I was with the Tennessee Titans," Bruce Matthews explained, "and we drafted a guy -- it might have been my last year -- and Floyd goes, 'This kid bench-presses like 700 pounds.' And I go, 'Damn, it's a shame you can't play with a bench on your back.'

"The game is so much more than that. Obviously, Jake wants to get stronger. But look at what's on the tape. I've seen dudes that have run 4.6, weigh 315 pounds, stand 6-foot-6, bench-press 225 pounds 45 times, and they're horrible players. It's a result league. That's the bottom line."

The Falcons firmly believe the end result of drafting the younger Matthews sixth overall this year will be stability at the tackle position for years to come. He showed signs of his NFL readiness during minicamp with his sound technique and eagerness to learn. His maturation will continue a week from now when the Falcons begin minicamp.

Bruce Matthews feels his son has an edge in terms of being fundamentally sound.

"I'd say 95 percent of sacks in the NFL are based off of offensive line error," Bruce Matthews said. "Whether I'm flipping my hips or I'm late off the ball or I'm lunging, it's very unusual for an offensive lineman to be in good position and just get your ass kicked. But it does happen. And you go, 'All right. That's one for him.' But most of the time you lose as an O-lineman in the NFL is because I did something wrong.

"That's the thing that Jake does well: He really owns his pass set and he understands what's required of him, or at least where the quarterback's going to be. And now, you put it in the defender's hand. I'm in a position where you either have to bull rush me ... you have to be definitive about what you're going to do to counter me. You want to make them think."

Of course, NFL pass-rushers move at a faster speed, although Jake Matthews faced his share of speed rushers in college at Texas A&M. Still, the elder Matthews doesn't believe the speed factor will be a difficult transition for his son.

"The big thing is you can't out-athlete any of those defensive guys," Bruce Matthews said. "We don't match up, no matter how good an athlete they say you are. But the thing you can do, especially when you know exactly where your quarterback is, you get in that position where you don't equip the defender by taking a crappy set. If I take a good set, protection-wise, and I'm in the right spot and I'm in balance, then it's in his court."

In terms of criticism about him not being a finisher, that's an aspect Jake Matthews already discussed with Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice.

"He knew that he needed to do a better job of finishing because when I asked him at the combine during the interview what he needed to work on, he said 'finishing better,' so he's aware of that," Tice said this offseason.

During minicamp and organized team activities, Tice worked extensively with Matthews on hand placement, so that's obviously an area in need of improvement. Tice is sure to clean up whatever shortcomings the rookie lineman might have.

And it only helps when you have a Hall of Fame father dissecting your play every step of the way.
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NFL Nation's Mike Triplett examines the three biggest issues facing the New Orleans Saints heading into training camp.

Offensive line: After ranking among the NFL’s elite units for half a decade, the Saints’ offensive line has suddenly become one of the team’s biggest question marks. It still has a chance to be one of New Orleans’ strengths -- led by Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and veteran right tackle Zach Strief -- but the Saints need to clean up the inconsistency they displayed up front last season while also breaking in two new full-time starters at left tackle and center. The line is the key to the Saints’ two biggest priorities on offense this season: running the ball with more consistency and giving Drew Brees time to hit some more explosive plays down the field.

The good news is there’s plenty of reason for optimism: Second-year left tackle Terron Armstead has the potential to be a great player; the Saints have two strong candidates for the center job in youngster Tim Lelito and veteran Jonathan Goodwin; and the line was playing terrific by the end of last season. This was especially true during the playoffs after Strief said they got better at identifying their strengths and weaknesses. They need that progress to continue.

Cornerback: The Saints might be building the NFL’s best secondary east of Seattle, led by young stars such as cornerback Keenan Lewis, safety Kenny Vaccaro and newly signed safety Jairus Byrd. However, they need to find out which other cornerbacks they can rely on among a group loaded with both talent and question marks. None of the candidates are sure things. But with so many options, one or two of them are bound to emerge.

The most intriguing is probably future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, whom the Saints signed in free agency in hopes that he still has a standout season left in him. Third-year pro Corey White has shown promise, but also some growing pains, so far. Former first-round draft pick Patrick Robinson had a great start to his career but needs to bounce back from his 2012 struggles and a knee injury that wiped out his 2013 season. Second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a big corner with big potential, but he might need time to develop. Throw second-year pro Rod Sweeting into the mix, and a few other young guys, and this should easily rank as the most compelling position group to watch this summer.

Road woes: If it’s possible to address this issue during training camp, the Saints will find a way. Their struggles on the road last season derailed their Super Bowl chances. They’ve got to find a way to win enough road games in the regular season to make sure they’re playing at home in the playoffs -- where they are truly dominant inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints’ road performance will be especially important early on since they play three of their first four games on the road, including a critical Week 1 showdown at division rival Atlanta.

Coach Sean Payton and Brees were already stressing the importance of their road performance this summer. Although they’re confident in their ability to travel (especially after a playoff win at Philadelphia last season), they’re well aware of the need to handle things such as communication better. Payton broke down statistics for the team this summer and even pumped crowd noise into practices during OTAs -- something he had never done so early in the offseason. If nothing else, they’ll get used to hotel living, as they’ll spend three weeks at their new training camp site at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.

Camp preview: Atlanta Falcons

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
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NFL Nation's Vaughn McClure examines the three biggest issues facing the Atlanta Falcons heading into training camp.

Julio Jones: Everyone knows how dynamic Jones is when he's healthy, but coming off a second right foot surgery, no one will be at ease until he absorbs his first live contact. Jones was held out of all offseason activity but said he feels stronger due to extensive weightlifting, particularly with squats. The Falcons sorely missed him last season, particularly in the red zone and as a deep threat. Matt Ryan can always throw a quick screen to Jones and rely on him to pick up plenty of yards after the catch. Jones, despite the surgery, seems more confident than ever in his ability, touting himself as the league's best receiver and saying he and Roddy White are the league's top receiver combination. Jones has a career average of 15.7 yards per catch and has 42 catches of 20-plus yards. To put it simply, the Falcons' offense is rather pedestrian without Jones in the lineup. With him, opposing defenses have more planning to do. The Falcons need Jones for all 16 games in a pivotal 2014 season.

Offensive line: Yes, the Falcons invested in the offensive line this offseason by signing right guard Jon Asamoah to a five-year deal worth $4.5 million per season and by drafting right tackle Jake Matthews in the first round. Yes, the Falcons hired Mike Tice, a new offensive line coach capable of instilling some toughness. But none of that will matter if the five guys up front don't develop cohesiveness as a unit. The Falcons expect Matthews to make a seamless transition to the pros, and the expectation is for left tackle Sam Baker to hold his own despite coming off a significant knee surgery. Some of center Joe Hawley's struggles last season can be attributed to weak play next to him at right guard, so having Asamoah in the fold should benefit Hawley. And left guard Justin Blalock was the team's best lineman last season. The Falcons feel like they have some quality depth now with Mike Johnson, Ryan Schraeder and even newcomer Gabe Carimi. But if they have to rely on their second-stringers, it could be another long season along the line.

Lacking at linebacker: Since we've talked so much about the lack of a pass rush, it's time to pinpoint a different area of deficiency on defense. Obviously the Falcons aren't where they need to be in terms of their linebacker situation. The loss of Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles) will be felt, although injuries limited his time last season as well. There's something to be said for having a spiritual leader and coach on the field, and the Falcons will miss that from Weatherspoon. No one can take away what Paul Worrilow accomplished last year as an undrafted rookie, but Worrilow would be the first to say he missed his share of tackles. And the coaching staff doesn't have full confidence in Joplo Bartu. Rookie fourth-round pick Prince Shembo was switched from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, and the coaches believe they can mold him into a capable replacement for Weatherspoon. Shembo has the talent, but even he admitted it will be a quite an adjustment from what he did at Notre Dame. The Falcons worked out veterans such as Jonathan Vilma and Nick Barnett but only signed Tim Dobbins, a guy better known for special teams. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Falcons add another linebacker before camp or search the open market for linebacker depth once cuts are made. The issues at linebacker put more of the onus on the rebuilt defensive line, led by Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, to create havoc up front.

Camp preview: Carolina Panthers

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
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 NFL Nation's David Newton examines the three biggest issues facing the Carolina Panthers heading into training camp.

Offensive line: In many ways, the success of the Panthers comes down to how well this revamped group comes together. With left tackle Jordan Gross retired, there's a chance only center Ryan Kalil returns to the position he started at the end of last season. It's not as dire as many think, though. The Panthers are high on starting right tackle Byron Bell or right guard Nate Chandler moving into Gross' spot to protect Cam Newton's blind side. The loser of that battle probably will start on the right side. Carolina also has veteran Garry Williams, coming off an ACL injury, ready to play either tackle or guard. The Panthers love rookie Trai Turner at right guard and Chris Scott has experience there if needed. Amini Silatolu had won the starting left guard spot last season before suffering a knee injury in the fourth game. He has 18 career starts, so he's solid. It all comes down to chemistry for a team that wants to rely on the run and give Newton freedom to improvise as he does so well.

Wide receivers: No position has drawn more scrutiny during the offseason at Carolina with the top-four receivers from 2013 gone. The biggest reason was the decision to let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go. When Carolina didn't sign a big-time name to replace Smith, the naysayers became more outspoken. But here's my take. The Panthers are better at receiver than they were a year ago. Nothing against Smith, but at 35 he was no better than a No. 2 receiver and at the end of his career. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon really weren't big losses when you look at it closely. Hixon wouldn't have been a loss at all were it not for the game-winning touchdown against New Orleans. The key here will be chemistry, but first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin looks like a red zone beast at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Free agent signees Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant are solid possession receivers, and more dependable than the players they replaced. Who steps up as the fourth receiver will be the biggest question, whether it's free agent Tiquan Underwood or one of the young receivers. The Panthers plan to run a lot more two tight-end sets makes that less critical.

Cam Newton: I was going to go with the secondary here. The Panthers are replacing three-fourths of their starters. But that position is as good or better than it was this time last season, so I'm going with the franchise quarterback here. The two-time Pro Bowl selection is coming off surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle. The diagnosis is the ankle will be better than ever, which makes him even more of a threat as a runner since he'll be pain free for the first time since college. I mention Newton here not because of the ankle, but because his ability to take his game to another level will be more important than ever with changes to the line and receiving corps. The leadership and consistency he showed last season will be called upon even more. Just because of the changes he can't be lulled into thinking he has to do it all as he did his first two seasons. But as former left tackle Jordan Gross said last season, as Newton goes so goes the Panthers.