From a New Orleans Saints perspective, the guy I’m most interested in watching on Super Bowl Sunday is Seattle Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell.

Housler
Maxwell
Although the fourth-year pro is the least-known member of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom,” he’s the only one scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the game. And he just happens to play the position that I believe ranks as New Orleans’ top free-agent need.

Of course, a big game by Maxwell on the NFL’s biggest stage might shoot his market value through the roof (if it’s not there already). ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan ranks the 6-foot-1, 207-pound Maxwell as the best of an impressive free-agent cornerback class that also includes enticing names such as Brandon Flowers, Kareem Jackson, Tramon Williams and Antonio Cromartie.

“It’s rare for someone of his talent and age to make it to free agency,” Caplan said of Maxwell, who turns 27 next month.

Caplan cited Maxwell’s height, arm length and ability to play in man coverage among his strengths. Maxwell took over as a full-time starter midway through last season as an injury replacement and has locked down the No. 2 cornerback job opposite Richard Sherman ever since. Naturally, he gets targeted a lot because Sherman is on the other side, but Maxwell has mostly held his own while also intercepting six passes over the past two years.

Seahawks general manager John Schneider said it’s a top priority to talk with Maxwell after Sunday’s game, but the Seahawks have already spent big bucks on the rest of their secondary and have a lot more bills coming due in the future. So it’s possible Maxwell could be picked off by another team.

The Saints obviously have cap constraints of their own, but they have shown a willingness to stay aggressive in free agency with similar cap constraints in recent years (see: Jairus Byrd, Keenan Lewis, Ben Grubbs, Curtis Lofton, etc.)

Maxwell acknowledged this week that he’s excited about the prospects of testing the free-agent market, though he said he would love to stay in Seattle as well.

“I mean definitely, you know, I’m the prettiest girl at the dance right now,” said Maxwell, who was a sixth-round pick out of Clemson in 2011.

When asked if he thinks he’s made a name for himself over the past two years, Maxwell said probably, but that he doesn’t think in those terms because he never wants to “settle.”

“The sky’s the limit. There aren’t ceilings, to be honest with you. It’s one of those things I don’t put a bar on it,” Maxwell said. “Defensive MVP of the Super Bowl would be nice. That’s what I’m saying; there’s no ceilings. I just want to take it as far as I can take it.”

Another pending free agent in Sunday’s game who will be highly coveted is New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty – though it’s hard to imagine the Saints bidding heavily on another safety with so much invested in Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro already (in terms of both dollars and draft picks).

Among guys a little more off the radar is versatile Patriots linebacker Akeem Ayers, whose career has been resurrected since being acquired in a midseason trade with the Tennessee Titans this season.

Ayers (6-3, 255) has four sacks and an interceptions since joining New England as a rotational player in Week 8. He’s mostly been used as a pass rusher on nickel downs, though he also has the versatility to play linebacker and switch between 3-4 and 4-3 looks – all of which could intrigue the Saints.

Ayers was highly touted as a second-round pick out of UCLA in 2011, but he never realized his potential with the Titans and reportedly became disenchanted as he fell down the depth chart. But the new life he found in New England could make him a more enticing possibility.
Another member of the previous Atlanta Falcons coaching staff could remain with incoming head coach Dan Quinn.

Running backs coach Gerald Brown, who interviewed for the same position in Oakland, is not going to join the Raiders' staff, according to sources -- an indication that Brown could be retained by the Falcons.

If that comes to fruition, Brown would join special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, defensive line coach Bryan Cox, wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie and tight ends coach Wade Harman (formerly the assistant offensive line coach) as holdovers from Mike Smith's staff.

Brown just completed his seventh season with the Falcons. Two of his backs have made the Pro Bowl: running back Michael Turner (2008, 2010) and fullback Ovie Mughelli (2010).

The Falcons are likely to upgrade the running back position this offseason. That could mean the release of veteran Steven Jackson, which would create a $3.75 million cap savings for the Falcons. Brown spent plenty of time getting rookie Devonta Freeman up to speed this past season, and Freeman should be a big part of the team's plans moving forward.

Quinn, who is expected to be introduced as the Falcons' 16th head coach next Tuesday, has the bulk of his staff already in place. Besides the aforementioned holdovers, Kyle Shanahan is set to become the offensive coordinator and Richard Smith the defensive coordinator. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris is joining the Falcons as the assistant head coach/defensive backs.

NFL Nation TV talks Hall of Fame

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
11:00
AM ET
Join us at 3 p.m. ET, 12 p.m. PT Thursday for the second special NFL Nation TV Super Bowl Week Spreecast.

Episode No. 42 will review ESPN.com's recent joint venture with Pro Football Focus, which broke down how many "above-average" players each team is from contending for the Super Bowl.

The crew will also preview the Super Bowl matchup between the defending champion Seattle Seahawks and three-time winner New England Patriots as well as break down how the Pro Football Hall of Fame's upcoming class may shake out Saturday.

Host Paul Gutierrez (ESPN Nation's San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by Jeff Legwold (Denver Broncos reporter) and ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando, both of whom are among the Hall's 46 selectors.

 

Rob Ninkovich has always been one of the New Orleans Saints' biggest regrets -- a storyline I've written about several times over the years for two reasons.

Not only did the Saints let Ninkovich get away -- twice, as a matter of fact -- but he also won't go away.

Ninkovich
Casillas
Casillas
The versatile defensive end/linebacker has been thriving ever since he finally found a place in the NFL with the New England Patriots in 2009, and he's now set to make his second Super Bowl appearance Sunday on his 31st birthday.

Ninkovich led the Patriots with eight sacks this year, matching the eight sacks he had in 2013 and the eight sacks he had in 2012.

That's eight more than he ever had in New Orleans, despite being drafted in the fifth round out of Purdue in 2006 and spending a total of three summers with the Saints.

His first two were derailed by knee injuries. Then after Ninkovich joined the Miami Dolphins, the Saints re-signed him late in 2008 and actually tried to move him to long snapper in the summer of 2009.

"So it tells you how much I know," Saints coach Sean Payton admitted, cracking on himself last year before the Saints played at New England. "Those are the types of things that keep you up at night as a coach is having a good football player like that right under your wing twice and not being able to take advantage of it."

The Saints' biggest issue with Ninkovich (6-foot-2, 260 pounds) was finding the right fit back when they played a traditional 4-3 defense, since he was something of a 'tweener end/linebacker.

New England had no such problem, though, first using him as an outside linebacker when they played more 3-4 looks and now using him as a 4-3 end.

"The more things that you can do and the different positions that you can play, it's just going to help you in your total game," Ninkovich said during Super Bowl media day Tuesday, according to transcripts. "Being able to play defensive end and linebacker, dropping coverage, it all helps."

Ninkovich has always said the Saints' snubs helped motivate him and worked out for the best -- especially since he met his wife Paige while in New Orleans. But he has also stressed that his competitive drive never allowed him to accept the Saints' vision for him, especially when Payton insisted that long snapper was his best path to the roster. As Ninkovich repeated to the New Orleans Advocate's Nick Underhill on Tuesday, "I didn't believe anything they were telling me."

Speaking of that competitive drive, by the way, while reading up on Ninkovich, I just stumbled on this awesome story for the first time by Jackie MacMullan for ESPNBoston in 2012 about how Ninkovich first got noticed in New England by taking on veteran offensive lineman Matt Light in practice.

Another former Saints linebacker -- Jonathan Casillas -- will also suit up for the Patriots on Sunday. Casillas, a special teams specialist, had the good fortune of being traded to New England in the middle of the season from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who finished with the NFL's worst record).

Casillas spent his first four seasons with the Saints as an undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin from 2009-2012 before signing with Tampa Bay. He told Underhill that Payton called him Tuesday morning to tell him he's jealous.

Casillas also talked about how much he valued his time in New Orleans, learning from veteran leaders like Jonathan Vilma, Curtis Lofton, Will Smith and Drew Brees in a "tremendous locker room." And he said he was "very surprised" to see the way the Saints' season played out in 2014, especially since they uncharacteristically lost so many home games.

"It was shocking for me to see that," Casillas said.

Unless I'm missing someone, Ninkovich and Casillas are the only two Super Bowl participants who spent any meaningful time with the Saints. At least two former undrafted rookies who spent their first summer in New Orleans are in the game, though -- Seattle Seahawks long snapper Clint Gresham and tight end Keavon Milton.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen says strong safety Kam Chancellor is the key to Seattle's top-ranked defense that faces New England on Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX.

Olsen shared his thoughts on Tuesday during an appearance on ESPN's "The Herd with Colin Cowherd” radio show broadcast live in Arizona.

"He's the cog," Olsen said of Chancellor. "He's the main part of them. With the flexibility he gives them to be the eighth linebacker type, the eighth guy in the box, the fourth linebacker in base, but then he also is a D-back ... that's the combination that makes that style of defense work.

"Six-two, 230, 4.4 guys. They're not exactly just popping them out every year. It's rare."

Olsen speaks from first-hand experience. In four games against Seattle since 2012, often covered by Chancellor, the 2014 Pro Bowl selection had a combined 12 catches for 167 yards and no touchdowns.

He had one catch for 16 yards in a 13-9 loss to the Seahawks on Oct. 26 in Charlotte, and four catches for 58 yards in a 31-17 loss at Seattle in the NFC divisional playoff game.

Olsen doesn't envy what New England tight end Rob Gronkowski will face in Chancellor.

"It's a tough matchup," Olsen said. "The team that can just stay with their normal stuff and don't need to reinvent themselves on defense to stop the Gronkowskis of the world, they have an advantage."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis will turn 32 in March. He’s reached his goal of playing 10 years in the NFL, and his contract expires after the 2015 season. But he’s not thinking retirement anytime soon.

Davis
 The first player in NFL history known to have successfully returned from reconstructive ACL surgery on the same knee, Davis anticipates one more contract with the Panthers before retiring.

Davis said on Monday night that the injuries actually may have extended his career.

“That’s the way I’m looking at it,’’ he said. “I lost two and a half years to injuries, but I also feel I gained two and a half years. . . . This was my 10th year and I’m going on year 11, and I still feel I have a lot of football left in me.’’

Davis spoke about his future while touring his Youth Leadership Academy that helped make him a candidate for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. It will be announced on Saturday night in Arizona, the site of Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers and San Francisco wide receiver Anquan Boldin also are up for the award.

Davis said if he wins the award it’ll “definitely the highest honor I’ve ever received as a player.’’

Davis is set to count $10,066,668 against the 2015 salary cap before becoming an unrestricted free agent. The Panthers could opt to restructure and add a couple of more years to lessen the hit against the 2015 cap or simply do an extension.

Davis isn’t worried.

“We’ve got plenty of time for that,’’ he said. “At some point I’m pretty sure they’ll address it.’’

Davis, the 14th pick of the 2005 draft out of Georgia, has finished second on the team in tackles behind middle linebacker Luke Kuechly the past three seasons. He had 100 tackles this past season after recording a career-best 123 in 2013.

“I do understand that I’m getting up there in years,’’ Davis said. “I’ve played more years than I have left. At the end of the day I’m taking advantage of each situation I have. From year to year, however my career plays out moving forward, I’m just going to enjoy every minute.’’

And how long does he want that to be?

“Until they tell me they don’t want me no more,’’ Davis said. “Until my body really says I can’t take it anymore.’’
TAMPA, Fla. -- I think John Lynch belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But I have to admit I’m partial.

I had the good fortune to cover the early part of Lynch’s career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I saw plenty of big hits that made the highlight reels. I also saw some big interceptions. Beyond that, I saw one of the nicest guys I’ve ever covered.

But personality doesn’t count in the Hall of Fame voting. If it did, Lynch would have no problem getting in. But the reality is he’s fighting an uphill battle. He made it to the final 15, but he may not make it any further when the voting takes place Saturday in Phoenix.

Safety just isn’t a glamour position in the eyes of the Hall of Fame voters. Only seven full-time safeties are in the Hall of Fame. Guys like Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson don’t count because they split their careers between cornerback and safety.

There hasn’t been a true safety selected since Paul Krause in 1998. And it took Krause, who is the NFL's career leader with 81 interceptions, more than a decade to get into the Hall of Fame.

If it was so difficult for Krause to get in, it probably will be even tougher for Lynch. The most important statistic for safeties is interceptions. Lynch had 26 in his career. That’s a respectable number, but it’s not a Hall of Fame number.

If Lynch is going to have any chance at getting in, voters will need to take a big-picture look at his career. They need to remember that Lynch, along with Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, were the key parts to a defense that was the best of its era. They need to remember that Lynch wasn’t a center fielder. He could play the pass, but his bigger role was to be a hitter.

Lynch was one of the hardest-hitting safeties in NFL history. But that might not be enough to convince the voters to put him in the Hall of Fame.
It could have been a messy divorce based on the circumstances. Instead, Mike Tice made sure it was an amicable parting of ways with the organization that got him back in the game.

Tice, formerly the Atlanta Falcons' offensive line coach, was first told he would be blocked from pursuing other coaching opportunities this offseason. After a follow-up conversation with general manger Thomas Dimitroff, Tice was allowed out of his contract with one year remaining. Then, he signed the standard, two-year deal to hold the same position under close friend Jack Del Rio, the new coach of the Oakland Raiders.

"It was just an exciting opportunity for my wife, Diane, and I to be able to work for somebody that we knew, understood and know how he’s going to approach things," Tice said of working for Del Rio. "It was a comfort thing.

[+] EnlargeMike Tice
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneFormer Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice helped his unit succeed despite a rash of injuries.
"It was also an opportunity to get back on the West Coast. We haven’t been back on the West Coast since I left the Seahawks. I have a home in Seattle, and it’s a two-hour flight up the coast. My daughter lives in the Carson City area of Nevada, so she’s not far away. And I have a tremendous amount of friends in California."

It wasn’t so easy for Tice to leave Atlanta behind, though. In just one season with the Falcons, he earned the respect of many by orchestrating the unexpected improvement of a makeshift offensive line while losing five linemen to season-ending injuries. Tice made the most out of undrafted players James Stone and Ryan Schraeder, two regular starters at season’s end, along with veterans Jon Asamoah and Justin Blalock, and rookie first-round pick Jake Matthews.

"I was proud that through all of the adversity and through all of the line changes that these guys -- except for the last game -- improved every week and became a unit," Tice said. 'Once they started pushing as a unit, they were able to keep Matt (Ryan) clean, for the most part.

"Going into the last game, we had goal to be in the Top 10 in the least amount of sacks allowed in the league, and going into the last game, we were ranked sixth. I thought that was a great accomplishment. Unfortunately, we screwed it up in the last game and didn’t finish in the Top 10."

Maybe Tice fell short of his stated goal, but his accomplishments were why the Falcons didn’t want him to leave in the first place. He brought toughness to a unit that lacked it.

Now, he’ll be asked to take on a new challenge with the Raiders.

"I have an initial feeling on the guys," Tice said. "I think there is some talent here that we can work with. But I need to go and grade the whole season before giving a valid assessment of the group. No. 71 (Menelik Watson) and No. 66 (Gabe Jackson) look like they have the potential to be good players. The left tackle (Donald) Penn, from what I’ve seen to this point on film, played solid."

Tice is not even a week into the job, but appreciated how Del Rio allowed him to be a part of the process of interviewing other coaches. When Del Rio was the head coach in Jacksonville, Tice was the assistant head coach.

"First and foremost, Jack and I are friends and have been for a very, very long time," Tice said. 'Just to watch him operate and how he’s grown as a head coach with such professionalism, I’m very proud of him."

There appeared to be an outside chance Tice would reunite with fired Falcons coach Mike Smith in Oakland, but reports of Smith interviewing to be the Raiders defensive coordinator were not accurate. Smith is expected to take the year off from coaching.

"Mike Smith gave me an opportunity to come and work with some guys that I know and trust and respect," Tice said. "I was trying to get back in the league, and he opened doors for me that allowed me to get back. He’s a tremendously organized and passionate coach who treats everybody around with the utmost respect. And I really enjoyed working for Smitty.

"As far as the Falcons' organization, I was treated with the utmost respect and made a tremendous amount of friends in that building. My son is still in the building in the personnel department. They were very good to my family and I, and at the top of the list was allowing me to pursue this new opportunity."
The New Orleans Saints and Bountygate came up a few times during GQ’s detailed profile on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s controversial reign.

One of the most intriguing revelations in the story was that former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he and Goodell haven’t talked much since Goodell replaced him as commissioner and that “Bountygate didn’t help.”

Tagliabue was brought in at the tail end of the NFL’s 2012 investigation into the Saints’ alleged pay-for-injury program to hear the appeals of four players who were suspended by Goodell. Tagliabue vacated all four suspensions.

Although Tagliabue strongly rebuked the Saints for wrongdoing, he found that there was no justification for such unprecedented punishments against the players -- stressing that the punishments were more for pregame “talk” than any actual misconduct on the field.

"I talked to him after I issued the bounty decision," Tagliabue told GQ. "I explained I was doing it and why. He didn't think I would vacate all the discipline. He said, 'I was surprised where you came out.'"

Tagliabue only ruled on player suspensions, so the unprecedented punishments against the organization, coaches and general manager Mickey Loomis all remained -- including a full-season suspension for coach Sean Payton.

The GQ report also quoted Houston Texans owner Bob McNair as saying that when Saints owner Tom Benson resigned from three league committees in 2013, Goodell’s pay package and his handling of Bountygate were two of the reasons -- though GQ said that Benson denied that through a spokesman.
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen proved he deserved to be in the Pro Bowl after waiting eight years to get there.

Olsen caught a pair of touchdown passes and was the target for a potential game-winner on Sunday night at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

His first Pro Bowl catch was a 17-yard touchdown from Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck in the first quarter.

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesGreg Olsen did well in his first Pro Bowl appearance of his eight-year career, snagging two TD catches.
He added a 10-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter from New Orleans’ Drew Brees in which officials overturned their original ruling that both of his feet weren’t down in the end zone.

With less than a minute remaining, Olsen was the target of an Andy Dalton fourth-down pass near the end zone that fell short.

Olsen wasn’t on the winning team as teammate Luke Kuechly was in the 32-28 victory for Team Irvin over Team Carter. But he wasn’t complaining after catching three passes for 52 yards.

“Two touchdowns . . . the only thing that would’ve been better is win the game,” Olsen told the Charlotte Observer after the game. “But the whole week was just awesome, whether you win or lose. The whole week was amazing. It was an awesome opportunity to come out here.”

The game also was an example of why Olsen has had trouble getting noticed in the Pro Bowl voting. NFC South rival tight end Jimmy Graham of New Orleans also had two touchdown catches, including the game-winner with 3:10 remaining.

Graham is considered one of the top two tight ends in the NFL along with New England’s Rob Gronkowski. Prior to this season, Olsen also was overshadowed by NFC South tight end Tony Gonzalez, who retired after making his 14th Pro Bowl last season.

But Olsen showed there’s no doubt he has reached elite status by his performance in the game and with his season. He led the Panthers in receiving with a career-high 84 catches for 1,008 yards.

Kuechly also showed why he is one of the top linebackers in the league. In his second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance, he had seven tackles and called the defensive signals when he was on the field.

He also didn’t have any awkward moments against Olsen as he had in last year’s all-star game with teammate Mike Tolbert, who bowled past Kuechly’s side for the game-winning touchdown.

“He didn’t catch any on me, so we’re good,’’ Kuechly told the Observer, speaking of Olsen. “That’s all I was looking for. I was hoping they were going to throw one his way. I was going to try to get my hands on it. They didn’t do it. He caught two touchdowns, played well.”

The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons aren’t exactly “besties.” But when Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan needed a touchdown late in Sunday night’s Pro Bowl, he didn’t let the NFC South’s oldest rivalry get in his way.

On fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Ryan went with an option he’s seen work plenty of times from the other sideline. He fired a pass into Saints tight end Jimmy Graham’s breadbasket -- despite Graham having Arizona Cardinals cornerback Antonio Cromartie draped all over him.

It turned out to be the game-winning score for Team Irvin in a 32-28 victory over Team Carter.

It was the second touchdown of the night for Graham -- and it was followed by Graham’s second dunk of the night (no word yet on whether Graham will be fined for his illegal TD celebration of choice, though the NFL confirmed earlier in the day he and other players would be “subject” to the same fines as if it were a regular-season game).

Graham, who caught three passes for 30 yards overall, wasn’t the only Saints player who shined in an exhibition game that turned out better than most of New Orleans’ regular-season games this year.

Saints running back Mark Ingram also played a key role in the Team Irvin victory (named for honorary captain Michael Irvin). Ingram ran for a game-high 72 yards on 11 carries while visibly continuing to relish his first Pro Bowl experience throughout the night.

Former Saints running back Darren Sproles also came up big for the winning side with three rushes for 42 yards, six catches for 79 yards and a fumble recovery -- even though he was technically voted in as a special teamer.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees wound up on the losing end for the team captained by Cris Carter, despite throwing two touchdown passes (a 21-yarder to Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson and a 10-yarder to Carolina’s Greg Olsen) and a 2-point conversion pass to Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton.

Brees completed 13 of 21 passes for 163 yards. He also threw one interception -- though in Brees’ defense, it was a spectacular pick by Miami’s Brent Grimes, who ripped the ball away from Hilton in the end zone.
The Atlanta Falcons will name former assistant offensive line coach Wade Harman the team's next tight ends coach, according to multiple league sources.

Harman, who worked alongside offensive line coach Mike Tice last season, came to the Falcons in 2014 following 15 seasons as the Baltimore Ravens' tight ends coach. He is credited with helping the development of former two-time Pro Bowler Todd Heap and working with three-time Super Bowl champ Shannon Sharpe.

Harman will replace Chris Scelfo, who obviously won't be back with the Falcons. As it looks now, the Falcons will retain four assistant coaches from Mike Smith's staff under expected new head coach Dan Quinn: special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie, defensive line coach Bryan Cox and Harman.

Kyle Shanahan will be named the Falcons' new offensive coordinator, while there is a Washington Post report about one-time Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris being Quinn's defensive coordinator.

The Falcons need a makeover at the tight end position, so Harman could help with the process. The team didn't have the luxury of Tony Gonzalez last season, so tight end wasn't a position of strength. Levine Toilolo showed some improvement toward the end of the season, yet his numerous drops early on stunted his growth. Not to mention there wasn't much production from the second tight end, Bear Pascoe.

The Falcons are destined to target a pass-catching tight end either through free agency or the draft. One intriguing name is veteran Owen Daniels, who caught 48 passes for the Ravens this past season. Daniels played under Shanahan with the Houston Texans and caught a career-high 70 passes in Shanahan's offense during the 2008 season.

Toilolo, who caught 31 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns this past season, is signed through 2016. Pascoe is set to become a free agent.

The Falcons are unlikely to announce any coaching moves until Quinn, the Seattle Seahawks' defensive coordinator, is introduced as head coach following the Super Bowl.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- While most of the NFL world is focused on "Deflategate" and the Super Bowl, the Carolina Panthers are focused on building for 2015.

General manager Dave Gettleman and much of the college scouting department are in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl. Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera are in the process of evaluating the roster and where improvements can be made.

With that, let’s get to your questions for my Saturday mailbag:

@DNewtonESPN: Big money? Probably not. There really aren't a lot of great options on top tier left tackles in free agency, and there may be fewer when teams start to re-sign their own. I'd look for the Panthers to look more toward the second-tier guys and draft a potential future left tackle in the first couple of rounds. I'm still not ruling out re-signing Byron Bell to a low number and giving him a chance to compete for the job. No doubt he struggled this season, but to be fair it was his first season as a left tackle. There is room to grow and the coaching staff likes him. I'm not saying he is the answer, but better to have insurance in case you don't find the answer.

@DNewtonESPN: Content? No. As general manager Dave Gettleman said you never can be satisfied with the status quo. The Panthers are comfortable with Bene' Benwikere at cornerback and Tre Boston at free safety. They went 5-1 with them as the starters down the stretch. But I believe if they can find a taller and faster every-down cornerback that would allow them to move Benwikere back to the nickel spot full time they would make that move. It would only make the defense stronger. And as Gettleman admitted, Benwikere doesn't have the elite speed you look for as an every-down corner. But he does have good speed and great football instincts. I still believe cornerback is a viable option if a top one is available in the first round of the draft.

@DNewtonESPN: Yes. Mike Shula will remain the offensive coordinator. As I've said before, it would be tough to judge him during a year in which he had four new wide receivers, a rebuilt offensive line and a quarterback dealing with offseason surgery and in-season injuries. Sometimes continuity is more important than change.

@DNewtonESPN: Ron Rivera pretty much shot down the notion of a coaching change during his final news conference. Speaking specifically of the breakdowns on special teams he talked about injuries to five key special-team players this past season. He also spoke to the need for him and the staff to commit to finding players specifically for those units. The biggest need is a return specialist. The Panthers had one in Ted Ginn Jr., and then let him sign with Arizona last offseason.

@DNewtonESPN: As far as I know he's looking at talent more than age. Having said that, he's looking to upgrade the overall speed of the team and you seldom do that with older players such as Eddie Royal. The Panthers already have a player like Royal in Jerricho Cotchery. To find a real difference-maker at wide receiver to play opposite Kelvin Benjamin the best avenue likely will be the draft. It's another deep class.

@DNewtonESPN: I couldn't pass on this one. First, I have no idea. He's a big guy with big hands, so I doubt the amount of pressure in the football is an issue. But I will attempt to find out the exact number.

METAIRIE, La. -- Though it might be hard to believe with all the family drama that has erupted over the past two days, team owner Tom Benson's intent was to ensure stability and continuity for the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans franchises.

Those might seem like odd word choices, considering that Benson, 87, is now in a high-profile, high-stakes legal battle with his daughter and grandchildren, who levied scathing accusations about Benson’s mental capacity and the intentions of his wife, Gayle, in a lawsuit filed Thursday.

But "stability" and "continuity" were precisely the terms used to describe Benson's decision to transfer ownership of his vast business empire to Gayle upon his death.

Multiple sources within the two sports franchises, both on and off the record, applauded the move. Many believe the transition will be much smoother if Gayle Benson becomes owner instead of Tom Benson’s adopted daughter, Renee Benson, and grandchildren Rita Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc.

[+] EnlargeTom Benson
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe decision of Tom Benson (center) to transfer ownership of the Saints and Pelicans to his wife, Gayle (left), upon his death has set off a high-stakes legal battle.
The two most important aspects of that transition are the franchises’ long-term security in New Orleans and the current power structure remaining intact, led by president Dennis Lauscha and executive vice president/general manager Mickey Loomis.

"Continuity is very important, and this plan ensures that," Benson said in a statement released by the Saints on Thursday. "We have had the same management team in place that oversees both teams for a number of years. It has proven to be successful and it works. Dennis and Mickey will continue to run the operations as they have done day-to-day for the last 10 years or so. They consult with me daily, but they will continue to have the same authority they have always had with making decisions, large and small, and this will continue even when Gayle becomes owner."

"We have nothing but [Tom Benson's] unequivocal support, and that is important. We have been a successful franchise because of it. Nothing will change with that when Mrs. Benson becomes the owner," Loomis said in a statement released Thursday morning. "That stability creates an environment so that players and coaches want to come here."

Benson had long intended to groom his granddaughter as his successor, but multiple sources indicated that Rita Benson LeBlanc never developed into the protégé he hoped she would -- with inconsistency in her attendance, accountability and interest level in team matters.

The concern with her being thrust into the position of ultimate power is more about unpredictability than anything else, according to sources.

Sources confirmed that ownership uncertainty was a concern during negotiations for Saints coach Sean Payton’s most recent contract extension, which was signed in January 2013. The NFL initially denied a clause that would allow Payton to break the contract if Loomis was ever fired, suspended or left the organization.

Gayle Benson, 67, is widely liked and respected throughout the organizations, according to sources both on and off the record. Pelicans coach Monty Williams and Saints players Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham were among those who praised her on Thursday.

So the plan to transfer ownership was met with a sigh of relief throughout the Saints and Pelicans organizations on Wednesday night, according to multiple sources -- at least until Thursday afternoon, when Benson’s family fought back with the lawsuit.

There are also legal issues involving the family trust that could make an ownership change difficult. Ideas of any sort of “smooth transition” are pretty much out the window for now as the two sides appear set for a lengthy legal battle.

What’s being contested now is why Benson was motivated to push his daughter and grandchildren out. The lawsuit alleges his declining mental capacity and the growing influence of Gayle Benson are the leading causes -- claims that Benson denied in a statement Thursday night.

The lawsuit also stresses that Gayle Benson has never owned, operated or managed a substantial business enterprise, has not received any formal training on how to do so and stated publicly that she had no interest in football, basketball or sports in general before marrying Tom Benson.

Meanwhile Rita Benson LeBlanc, 38, began working with the Saints full-time in 2001 and held the title of owner/vice chairman of the board before being fired in late December for unspecified reasons. She was listed in the team’s media guide as the second-highest ranking executive overseeing management alongside Tom Benson.

She regularly attends league owners meetings and votes along with larger ownership groups. She has chaired the NFL Employee Benefits committee, among other committees she has served on with both the NFL and NBA.

However, Benson LeBlanc was not involved with the day-to-day operations of the sports teams. Her role was more in the realm of community and marketing endeavors and public appearances, according to sources.

The Times-Picayune reported in 2012 that Benson LeBlanc was placed on an unofficial paid administrative leave by Tom Benson, which one source confirmed. Benson LeBlanc has been characterized by sources and that 2012 Times-Picayune report as smart and talented, but also unfocused and abrasive at times. Sources confirmed that TP report that she had gone through 30-plus assistants over the past decade.

Benson’s daughter and grandson were based out of Texas and rarely spent any time around the sports franchises. In fact, sources indicated that tension grew when Renee Benson began to spend more time around the franchises this past summer.

Although the lawsuit claims that the "petitioners have done nothing to provoke any of the above, unjustified actions and have sought and still seek to reconcile with" Benson, sources described Benson’s decision as one that had been brewing over recent years and months as he battled more frequent health issues -- and that the family relationships continued to worsen in recent months.

It was widely known, according to sources, that Rita Benson LeBlanc and Gayle Benson did not get along -- a relationship that never improved and ultimately forced Tom Benson to make a decision between the two as he evaluated the future of the franchises.

The details of the lawsuit filed against Benson on Thursday also paint the picture of a gradual but intense deterioration of the family relationships.

“This is something I have thought about and prayed about for a while now,” Benson said in his statement, adding that his recent knee surgeries have “given me time to reflect on a number of issues that we will face in the distant future.”
IRVING, Texas -- Throughout the years, we have heard countless teammates rave about Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.

Witten
Graham
This past season, we heard Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray talk about Witten’s impact on them as players and men. We heard Tony Romo say Witten might be the best Cowboy of all time. Jason Garrett called Witten the best tight end in football for the past decade.

On Thursday, I pulled aside New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham after a Pro Bowl practice and asked about Witten.

During the practice, Witten, who was added to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement for Denver’s Julius Thomas, took the first-team snaps over Graham. I wondered if it was Graham deferring to a tight end who will be playing in his 10th Pro Bowl.

"The first thing I told him is, you know, he’s my idol and he always has been," Graham said. "I try to emulate everything he does on the field and off the field. Not only does he do everything right on the field, and he’s been consistent for the past forever, but he does so much in his community. So I’ve tried to emulate myself just like him as a man, just because of the type of individual he is."

Graham and Witten have played in Pro Bowls before. They share the same agent, Jimmy Sexton. How they play tight end is different. Graham is more athletic, almost a wide receiver playing the position. Witten is the more traditional tight end.

"He is what I know I will be or what I try to be each and every year," Graham said. "And I strive to be the type of tight end that he is."

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