METAIRIE, La. – Pierre Thomas ended his stellar eight-year career with the New Orleans Saints the same way he began it as an undrafted rookie in 2007: Vastly underrated.

I’m not shocked that the Saints decided to release Thomas. After all, he’s 30 years old and missed five games last year with rib and shoulder injuries, His role has been diminishing in recent years and he had to agree to a pay cut to stay in New Orleans last year.

What I’m wondering, though, is what exactly the Saints plan to do now at running back.

[+] EnlargeThomas
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastPierre Thomas rushed for 3,745 yards and also had 2,608 receiving yards in eight seasons.
Because if the plan is to go with a cheap, committee approach, then they just released the perfect guy. Few NFL running backs could give you more bang for your buck than a do-everything runner/receiver/pass protector like Thomas, who wasn’t going to break the bank with $2.15 million in salary and bonuses this season.

No, he's not a high-end starter, but he's an ideal security blanket -- still an excellent third-down back who is also capable of filling in as an every-down guy if needed.

To me, this signals that the Saints might be planning to pony up and re-sign free agent Mark Ingram – something I was speculating as a possibility even before Thomas got released. If the Saints bring back Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet or a mid-round draft pick next year, then sure, Thomas is expendable.

Or if they lose Ingram, maybe they like another mid-level free agent such as Shane Vereen or C.J. Spiller. Or even Reggie Bush. There are bargains to be had all over the flooded free-agent running back market right now.

One way or another, I have to imagine the Saints have a plan in place for filling up a running back cupboard that is suddenly going bare for the first time in the Sean Payton-Mickey Loomis era.

It’s also worth noting that this move wasn’t purely forced by the salary cap. As I’ve dissected many times, the Saints have several ways they can trim the necessary $22 million-plus off their salary cap by March 10 (mostly through simple bonus restructures). Any move they make – Thomas included – will be for football reasons as much as financial ones.

I was more surprised to hear the NFL Network report that the Saints are shopping middle linebacker Curtis Lofton as possible trade bait. Lofton was one of the few defensive players who didn’t disappoint last year, and he’s the type of veteran leader New Orleans needs more of in the locker room.

Other moves I'd rank as more likely: the departures of defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley and linebacker David Hawthorne; the possible departures of linebacker Junior Galette, guard Ben Grubbs and cornerback Corey White; and likely pay cuts for receiver Marques Colston and guard Jahri Evans.

But no moves will shock me. Everything’s on the table after a disappointing 7-9 season – which will be an even bigger factor with the Saints’ pending moves than their salary-cap figure.

Last but not least, Thomas deserves to be celebrated as one of the Saints’ all-time greats. He was never as underrated in New Orleans as he was on a national level. He was popular with the fans and was a vital part of their Super Bowl championship team. Quarterback Drew Brees called him the “best all-purpose back in the league” last summer.

Thomas ranks fourth in Saints history with 3,745 rushing yards, has the most receptions ever by a Saints running back (327) and ranks among the top seven in yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns. He became so prolific at running the screen pass in New Orleans' offense that it should be officially renamed in his honor.

Thomas will be in the Saints Hall of Fame the moment he’s eligible. He’s just not in the Saints’ plans on the field anymore.
The big news this week, of course, was ESPN Insider Adam Schefter's scoop on the Philadelphia Eagles trading running back LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonso.

The move could have a ripple effect for the Atlanta Falcons, with the free-agent negotiating period set to begin Saturday. Linebacker is a priority position for the Falcons going into free agency, along with edge rusher and safety.

The Falcons were expected to at least look into New York Jets linebacker David Harris. However, the void left by Alonso means the Bills and Rex Ryan, the Jets' previous coach, will no doubt make a serious run at Harris. Not to mention the Jets and new coach Todd Bowles want to re-sign Harris, meaning there could be a bidding war.

Don't expect the Falcons to get involved, if such occurs. Yes, Harris is an impact player who would fit nicely in coach Dan Quinn's scheme. Plus Quinn, a former assistant with the Jets, is familiar with Harris' talent. However, the Falcons surely won't overpay for any player -- not a standout linebacker or even an impact pass-rusher.

There will be other linebacker options for the Falcons to pursue. First and foremost, they have to worry about re-signing their own in Sean Weatherspoon. Talks with Weatherspoon are ongoing, and both Quinn and general Thomas Dimitroff expressed a desire to bring him back coming off an Achilles tear.

Tampa Bay's Mason Foster will generate interest on the open market. He has a direct tie to the Falcons' staff, having been drafted by assistant head coach Raheem Morris when Morris was the Buccaneers' head coach. Foster, 26, started as a rookie but has had to adjust to three different defensive coordinators in four NFL seasons. Continuity moving forward would no doubt help his cause.

Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith from Seattle played under Quinn the past two seasons when Quinn was the Seahawks defensive coordinator. Smith is an outside linebacker with the versatility to play middle linebacker, and his familiarity with Quinn's scheme makes him a viable option despite Smith not being a regular starter throughout his career.

Word is veteran linebacker Lance Briggs, 34, from the Chicago Bears would be open to moving to Atlanta as he winds down his NFL career. That's not to say the Falcons would be interested in Briggs, but the seven-time Pro Bowler might have a good year left in him, if healthy.

And if free agency doesn't fill the Falcons' linebacker need, there's always the draft.
TAMPA, Fla. – On the surface, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are doing their due diligence on Jameis Winston.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerJameis Winston might have played in state, but he's still not an easy sell to the fan base.
They had the Florida State quarterback in for a visit Tuesday. He met with general manager Jason Licht, coach Lovie Smith, ownership and others. That’s the kind of homework you would expect from a team that holds the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

But I have to wonder if the Bucs had an ulterior motive in bringing in Winston almost two months before the draft. And I wonder if that ulterior motive is why pictures and video of Winston’s visit showed up on the team website. I’m still wondering if that possible motive played a role in Smith saying a few weeks ago that he would have no problem with Winston being the face of the franchise.

Are the Bucs preparing their fans for the selection of Winston?

Ordinarily, fan bases jump up and down when their team holds the No. 1 pick and is about to draft a quarterback. That is especially true when the quarterback played his college football in the same state.

But things are different with Winston. His football talent is unquestionable, but he’s a polarizing figure. A large part of the Tampa Bay fan base still is hoping the Bucs take Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota instead.

That’s because of Winston’s background. While at Florida State, he was accused of (but not charged with) sexual assault. He also had several other off-field transgressions that have left questions about his maturity.

But the early indications are that Winston has won the Bucs over and they’re prepared to draft him. The Glazer family, which owns the team, is very private. But the Glazers still care very deeply about public perception. They want a franchise that fans can fall in love with the way they did back in the glory days of Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch. They need a face for their franchise, and Winston is a charismatic guy.

Maybe the Bucs are being so public with their feelings about Winston because they want to give their fans some extra time to embrace the selection.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who had a close call in December when he was involved in an automobile accident, had another one Saturday night.

Newton was on stage in the Charlotte nightclub Label seconds before gun shots were fired, according to a report by WSOC-TV.

The Charlotte television station obtained photos of the two-time Pro Bowler with celebrities such as Young Jeezy during the party surrounding the CIAA basketball tournament.

This one was posted on Twitter:

According to the station, shots were heard moments after the pictures were taken. The police said in a release on Saturday night that unidentified suspects fired “several shots from inside the club."

Two people reportedly were injured, but were expect to recover. The television station reported the gunman had not been arrested.

Newton, who suffered two small fractures in his back during the December automobile crash, escaped without injury in this incident.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One of the more interesting stops during the open locker room period for the Carolina Panthers is near the far end, where No. 91 Colin Cole has resided the past two seasons.

Cole has a way of putting things into perspective like few others.

So it came as no surprise on Tuesday the perspective he put on the Panthers signing him to a one-year extension at an age -- he'll be 35 in June -- when most NFL defensive tackles are contemplating retirement or already enjoying it.

"It's just like a tire not being driven for however long," said Cole, who was out of football for almost 2½ years after being released by Seattle in 2011. "That tire still has tread on it."

More on that later.

Cole also put in perspective where the Panthers, in his opinion, appear to be with defensive end Greg Hardy, a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent not expected to be re-signed when free agency begins on March 10.

While Cole is among many Carolina players who would welcome back Hardy, who has remained on the commissioner's exempt list since his domestic violence charges were dropped on Feb. 9, he understands why management might think otherwise.

It goes beyond the perception of Hardy in terms of his May 13 arrest for the charges of assaulting and threatening to kill ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder. It goes beyond a Mecklenburg County judge dropping the charges on Feb. 9 because Holder refused to cooperate with the district attorney's office after reaching a financial settlement with Hardy.

It has to do with what it could cost to re-sign Hardy and how the team played last season with the 2013 Pro Bowl selection participating in only one game.

After a slow start, the Panthers finished in the top 10 in total defense for the third straight season.

"That plays a big factor," Cole said. "That plays a big factor in everybody's career. In order to stay relevant in this business, you have to be able to last physically [and be on the field]. And then when you have a situation where you're out a couple of months or a year and the team is forced to find the next guy, if somebody comes in and does their job well, especially when it comes to doing it for less pay, you can move on without him."

Cole may be old in the NFL in terms of his age, but he's all the wiser for it.

After signing a five-year, $21 million deal in 2009 with Seattle, Cole was released prior to the 2011 season. He was unable to be ready for the opener because of an ankle injury, and the team already had moved on to Brandon Mebane at nose tackle. The team also had signed free-agent tackle Alan Branch.

So Cole not only sat out the 2011 season but the entire 2012 season before the Panthers called in 2013. He thinks the time away from the game actually extended his career.

"I figure I've got three or four more years," Cole said. "I don't see myself done after this year."

Cole is what general manager Dave Gettleman calls a space-eater. He eats up blocks so linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis can make tackles.

He's also a leader. Although not outspoken, he helps teammates keep things in proper perspective.

That he could be had for a low price -- $1.05 million with a salary-cap number of only $665,000 -- also is a plus.

"What I was told was everybody loved having me around, that they feel I'm a core player, a key contributor," Cole said. "They said they wanted to bring me back because I add great depth and experience."

And he puts things into perspective like few others in the Carolina locker room.
TAMPA, Fla. – In the latest sign that drafting Jameis Winston with the No. 1 pick is the most likely course of action, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are hosting the Florida State quarterback on a pre-draft visit.

What’s unusual here is the timing. Potential top draft picks usually don’t make their visits to teams until just a few weeks before the draft. This year’s draft isn’t until the end of April. A team official said the visit was scheduled for now because the Bucs want to be able to devote their full attention to free agency when it begins March 10.

But the Bucs appear earger to get to know Winston. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that ownership (the Glazer family) will be heavily involved in the meetings with Winston. Take that as a sign that the visit could be a final hurdle in deciding whether to draft Winston.

The Glazers generally stay out of football matters, but they have final say over situations as big as this. That’s because they could be paying Winston millions of dollars and making him the face of the franchise.

Although Winston has had some off-field issues, including an allegation of a sexual assault, coach Lovie Smith said at the scouting combine that the club’s research into the quarterback’s background had not produced anything that would eliminate Winston from the team’s draft board.

Smith also has talked highly of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, and the team is expected to have him in for a visit at some point before the draft. But the early visit by Winston makes it appear more than ever that he’s the leading candidate.
Pass-rusher Brian Orakpo isn't the only Washington Redskins player the Atlanta Falcons will look into once the free-agent negotiating period begins Saturday.

It's a safe bet the Falcons will express interest in tight end Niles Paul, if Paul is not re-signed before then. The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Paul is one of several tight ends headed for free agency who has played in Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme. The others include Jordan Cameron of the Cleveland Browns and Owen Daniels of the Baltimore Ravens. Cameron has had concussion issues, while Daniels will turn 33 during the 2015 season.

Paul, who turns 26 in August, wouldn't be a flashy pickup, but the Falcons aren't expected to invest heavily in a top tight end, such as Denver's Julius Thomas. However, Paul, a former fifth-round draft pick who just completed his fourth NFL season, would be more than capable of playing his role.

Just ask former Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman, who was teammates with Paul for three seasons.

"He's as tough as s---," Grossman said of Paul. "He's like the one guy in the locker room you do not want to pick a fight with. He's just a tough wide receiver/tight end who shows up on special teams all the time.

"That's kind of how he got his reputation as a rookie, on special teams. Then after a couple of years, they moved him to tight end because he was so strong and could show that, especially in the zone running scheme where basically all you have to do is get your hat in front of the defensive linemen and cut them off. He was strong enough to hold them off in situations where he actually had to do the things normal tight ends do."

Paul, who started his NFL career at wide receiver and then became the starting fullback before transitioning to tight end, obviously can catch the ball. He caught a career-high 39 passes for 507 yards and a touchdown in 2014 while starting seven games.

Paul was a track athlete coming out of high school before attending Nebraska. He posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.51 at the NFL combine.

"Obviously, he's a mismatch for linebackers trying to cover him, with his speed," Grossman said. "I think tight end is a great position for him. A lot of teams have big tight ends that are like extra offensive linemen. I think he's the opposite of that. But he's athletic and really strong. He's perfect for Kyle's system. They don't ask him to block Jason Pierre-Paul one on one."

ESPN analyst Ryan Clark, who played in Washington last season, offered his thoughts on what Paul brings to a team.

"Tough player," Clark said. "He's a grinder. He played really well and produced big as the No. 1 pass-catching tight end when Jordan Reed (hamstring) was out. He's also a really good special-teams guy and a good locker room dude as well."

The Falcons have a tight end with playing experience in Levine Toilolo, yet it remains unclear what role the 6-8 Toilolo will have coming off a season with his share of drops.

Shanahan previously discussed his expectations of a tight end. We will see if Paul reunites with his old coach and ends up in a Falcons uniform.
Last week's release of Harry Douglas left the Atlanta Falcons with a void to fill at receiver, if they weren't planning to fill it already.

Douglas' departure, coupled with the aging of Roddy White (33), means the Falcons have to invest in the position for the immediate future to go alongside the explosive Julio Jones. That could mean targeting a receiver in the second or third rounds of this year's NFL draft -- provided the Falcons don't lose one of those picks as a result of the NFL's investigation into them piping in crowd noise.

Securing a pass-rusher will be the Falcons' first-round priority. If they do target a receiver after that, ESPN draft expert Todd McShay talked about possible options.

"In the second round, Phillip Dorsett is a guy with speed from Miami, an explosive guy who could play in the slot who can stretch the field vertically," McShay said.

"Jaelen Strong (Arizona State), to me, is an intriguing prospect because he's a big, physical receiver who doesn't have elite, down-the-field ability, but he creates separation when the ball is in the air. He's up there in the top two or three in ball skills of all the receivers. I think he might be in that early second-round range, so he could be a good fit. And I think Dorsett is late second, early third round."

McShay also mentioned a former teammate of Falcons running back Devonta Freeman.

"Florida State's Rashad Greene, I think, is a little underrated, too," McShay said. "He's probably going to be going early third round. He's not the biggest receiver. He's not the fastest receiver. He just gets open and makes plays. And I think he's going to exceed his draft slot."

USC's Nelson Agholor would be a great catch, too.

"I like him a lot," McShay said. "I've got a mid-second-round grade on him. He's tough. He goes over the middle and makes the tough catches. He runs after the catch. He does all the little things. He grew on me on tape. It's not a perfect comparison, but he's got a little bit of Robert Woods in him."

Here's a quick look at some notable combine numbers for the four receivers McShay mentioned.
  • Phillip Dorsett (5-9, 185), Miami (Fla.) -- 4.33 (40-yard), 37-inch (vertical), 6.70 (3-cone drills), 13 reps (bench press)
  • Rashad Greene (5-11, 182), Florida State -- 4.53 (40-yard), 36.5 (vertical), 6.88 (3-cone drill)
  • Jaelen Strong (6-2, 217), Arizona State --4.44 (40-yard), 42-inch (vertical)
  • Nelson Agholor (6-1, 198), USC -- 4.42 (40-yard); 12 (bench press reps)
TAMPA, Fla. -- There were reports Monday that said the Buccaneers were trying to trade left tackle Anthony Collins.

I wish them luck on that one. I can’t see anybody giving up anything for Collins after he was one of the biggest free-agent flops in the league last season.

Signed to a five-year, $30 million contract after spending most of his career as a backup in Cincinnati, Collins flopped so badly that he wasn’t even active for the final four games. His run blocking and pass blocking were disappointing and the coaching staff ended up having questions about his attitude and work ethic.

Collins has a base salary of $6 million in each of the remaining years on his contract. I can’t imagine any other team wanting to take on that contract.

The more likely outcome is that the Bucs will have to release Collins. That move would save them $3 million against this year’s salary cap. Collins might not be the only veteran on the hot seat.

Safety Dashon Goldson and punter Michael Koenen also could be casualties. Releasing Goldson would save the Bucs $4 million against the cap and cutting Koenen would free up $3.25 million.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Monday’s deadline for NFL teams to place the franchise tag on players for 2015 was a reminder of how the Carolina Panthers were burned for using the tag on defensive end Greg Hardy a year ago.

It also could be considered a reminder of how fortunate the Panthers were that they didn’t sign a player no longer in their future plans to a long-term deal instead.

The Panthers used the tag that guaranteed Hardy $13.1 million because it was cheaper for the then-salary-cap strapped team than signing the 2013 Pro Bowl selection long term.

It became a wasted investment as Hardy played only one game while waiting for his domestic violence case to be resolved.

Hardy remains Carolina’s most high-profile free agent again this season, but he is not in the team’s future plans.

It makes sense.

The Panthers wanted to keep Hardy last year to keep intact the front seven that finished second in the NFL in total defense. The front seven of a unit that finished 10th in the league this year without Hardy is intact.

The biggest decision is whether to re-sign aging defensive tackles Colin Cole, 34, and/or Dwan Edwards, 33.

Hardy is scheduled to become a free agent on March 10. He remains on the NFL’s exempt list, where he has been since mid-September, while the league conducts its own investigation into whether he violated the personal conduct policy.

A league source told on Friday that Hardy is seeking immediate reinstatement, but since Hardy hasn’t been suspended the league insists there’s nothing to be reinstated from.

The league hasn’t set a timetable on when its investigation will end. As reported by on Feb. 19, evidence the NFL sought from Hardy’s July 15 trial could not be obtained because it already had been returned to the district attorney’s office and Hardy’s lawyers.

The district attorney’s office told it does not return evidence. There’s no reason for Hardy’s attorney to share evidence from a trial in which a Mecklenburg County judge found his client guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder in July.

That verdict was set aside when Hardy asked for a jury trial. The charges were dropped on February 9 because Holder would not cooperate with the office of the district attorney, who said the accuser reached a financial settlement with Hardy.

Hardy still faces possible suspension by the league.

Any team that pursues Hardy in free agency will have to deal with that.

Monday was just a reminder of what the Panthers dealt with in 2014.
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Wake Forest's Kevin Johnson doesn't think he's simply one of the top three to five cornerbacks entered in the NFL draft.

"I think I'm the best cornerback," Johnson said on Monday during his pro day at Wake Forest.

If the Carolina Panthers use the 25th pick on a cornerback, Johnson could be their guy.

At 6-foot-1 and 185-pounds, Johnson could fill the role of shutdown corner opposite Josh Norman so that 2014 draft pick Bene' Benwikere could move back to nickelback.

While offensive tackle and a speed wide receiver to play opposite Kelvin Benjamin are Carolina's top needs, a potential shutdown corner isn't far behind.

Michigan State's Trae Waynes is considered to be the consensus top cornerback prospect, and he reinforced that recently at the NFL combine by posting a time of 4.31 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Washington's Marcus Peters isn't far behind in pure talent, but he has baggage after being released from the team this past season.

Johnson didn't show elite speed at the combine, running a 4.52 40. But he felt good enough about that time that he didn't run the 40 on Monday.

He feels good enough about his overall talent that he believes he can be a shutdown corner in the NFL just as he was at Wake Forest. So does Wake coach Dave Clawson, reminding that's what Johnson did against top programs such as Florida State in 2014.

In explaining why Johnson had only one interception this past season after posting three in each of the two previous seasons, Clawson said opponents often threw away from Johnson.

"He's a tall corner that can run," Clawson said. "And he has the loosest, quickest hips of anybody I've ever seen."

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who hold the 22nd pick, obviously like Johnson. Of the 23 teams that sent representatives to North Carolina, they led the way with four.

The Panthers met informally with Johnson at the combine and haven't set up an official visit to Charlotte, about 90 minutes from Winston-Salem. They only sent scout Robert Haines for Monday's workout, but they saw him run only a week ago.

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman insists he'll take the best player available. Much of what position the Panthers will consider depends on what happens in free agency, which begins next week.

Johnson has no doubt he'll make some team happy.

"To be out on an island [as cornerbacks are] you have to be confident," he said.
The Atlanta Falcons won't use the franchise tag on any of their players this season, but they could feel the affect of the tag being used around the league.

With the obvious need to sign a pass-rusher or two, the Falcons could see some of the top available players at the position locked down due to the franchise tag, which has to be executed before 4 p.m. ET Monday. Some of the candidates to be tagged include Kansas City's Justin Houston, Buffalo's Jerry Hughes and Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants.

The Falcons are projected to be armed with more than $30 million in cap space, which gives them room to spend. But that doesn't necessarily mean they would invest top dollar if a guy such as Pierre-Paul or Hughes reaches free agency. Houston will be tagged for sure, so he can't even be in the conversation.

Last year, the Washington Redskins tagged a player the Falcons would have targeted, pass-rusher Brian Orakpo, at a price of $11,455,000. The Falcons proceeded to invest $25 guaranteed to secure big run-stuffers Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, a move that essentially backfired.

New Falcons coach Dan Quinn has a plan, so don't expect the Falcons to be discouraged if the franchise tag keeps them from pursuing one of the top-tier pass-rushers in free agency.

And by the way, the secret is out now on Baltimore Ravens' reserve Pernell McPhee, who might have been a great option for the Falcons as an under-the-radar pass-rusher, but now is being mentioned as a top-dollar player.

Maybe the Falcons will have another shot at Orakpo, if he doesn't get re-signed. But Orakpo could be a concern based on his injury history, including a season-ending pectoral injury last year. Maybe they'll have to turn their attention to guys such as Derrick Morgan from Tennessee or Brandon Graham from Philadelphia.

We should get more clarity on what options are out there for the Falcons by the end of the day today.
video Our weekly look at clues that might reveal whether the Buccaneers are leaning toward selecting Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota -- or neither -- with the No. 1 pick in the draft:

The rumors started to really fly on Friday. All along, there’s been speculation that the Philadelphia Eagles might try to trade up for the No. 1 pick in the draft to use it on Oregon's Mariota. It all is logical. Mariota played for Eagles coach Chip Kelly in college and would be a perfect fit in Philadelphia’s up-tempo offense. It was pure speculation, I thought.

Until my phone started ringing Friday. Two different members of the Philadelphia media called me to say they were hearing rumblings that a trade was imminent. These are trusted media members and the content of both calls contained the same details.

The Eagles were about to trade quarterback Nick Foles, running back LeSean McCoy and three first-round draft picks to the Bucs for the No. 1 pick in the draft. It sounded believable.

So I called someone within the Tampa Bay organization that would know if something was cooking. He said the rumor was untrue. Meantime, my friends in the Philadelphia media poked around some more with their Eagles’ sources. They got the same response I did. No trade was imminent and no one would say if there even have been any talks between the two teams.

Scrap that rumor -- for now. If something is going to happen, it probably won’t come until much closer to the draft. Deadlines push people to action and the draft isn’t until the end of April. The rumors are likely to continue to circulate.

But for every reason why such a deal would make sense, there are an equal number of reasons why I don’t see it happening.

Let’s start with Tampa Bay’s side of things. Would the Bucs really part with the No. 1 pick instead of using it on Mariota or Florida State’s Winston? I think that might be a stretch. Winston and Mariota might be franchise quarterbacks. The Bucs would be giving up a franchise quarterback and plugging in Foles as the starting quarterback.

That doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Bucs had something close to Foles in Josh McCown and they let him go. They still have something close to Foles in Mike Glennon.

Then there’s McCoy. He’s a great running back. But the Bucs already have Charles Sims and Doug Martin. All indications are the coaching staff and front office are deeply invested in Sims, who they drafted last year. I don’t see the Bucs suddenly giving up on Sims. Plus, I'm not so sure the Bucs want to take on McCoy's big contract.

The three first-round picks would have to be attractive for the Bucs. They have plenty of holes besides quarterback. But this is where the potential deal hits a major roadblock.

With that in mind, let’s flip over to Philadelphia’s point of view. No matter how smitten Kelly is with Mariota, the Eagles might not have the firepower to make such a trade. At the moment, the Eagles have the 20th overall pick in the draft. That’s all they have.

They would have to make another trade first to get another first-round pick for this year. Yes, Philadelphia could offer its first-round picks in 2016 and ’17. But the Bucs can’t sit around and wait for those drafts. Coach Lovie Smith needs to win now.

Besides, giving up three first-round picks, would mean the Eagles would be mortgaging their future on Mariota. Three picks and two players would be a very steep price.

I’m not saying such a deal can’t happen. But let’s file that trade away for the moment and wait for something that’s stronger than a rumor.
Jonathan Massaquoi was supposed to be a promising young talent with the ability to emerge as a respected pass rusher for the Atlanta Falcons.

As it turns out, Massaquoi will have to develop his talent elsewhere.

Massaquoi was one of four players the Falcons parted ways with when he was waived late Friday. The former 2012 fifth-round pick out of Troy joined running back Steven Jackson, wide receiver Harry Douglas and guard Justin Blalock as players who were released.

Waiving Massaquoi only saved the Falcons $660,000 against the cap, so it wasn't about money. If anything, it was a testament how far Massaquoi fell out of favor with the organization.

Massaquoi has talent. He showed flashes of it last season, particularly in games against the Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens. But he rubbed some folks the wrong way with his carefree approach.

One member of the previous staff said Massaquoi was in the doghouse because he skipped treatments on the right foot he injured during a game against the Detroit Lions in London. Massaquoi was tabbed a "good kid who made some poor decisions and needs some structure."

Massaquoi saw his playing time diminish throughout the 2014 season and was even benched. He spoke out about his lack of snaps to, which didn't rattle the coaches as much as some thought it did. In fact, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said at the time that he admired a player willing to express such confidence in his abilities.

Still, there was a disconnect between the Falcons and Massaquoi, who ended up playing 311 defensive snaps, finishing the season with two sacks and seven quarterback hits.

New coach Dan Quinn retained defensive line coach Bryan Cox, so Cox no doubt relayed his thoughts about Massaquoi. At least one player told he believed Massaquoi had all the talent in the world but needed to tone down his attitude.

We will see if Massaquoi develops his talent with another team.

As for Quinn and the Falcons, they obviously have a plan to fix a non-existent pass rush. It will be interesting to see how that plan unfolds.
New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram did just about everything he could last season to boost his value heading into free agency.

But I still think it’s possible that Ingram can remain in an affordable price range for the Saints to keep him (maybe less than $4 million per year) -- especially as the free-agent market continues to get flooded with veterans released around the league.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
AP Photo/David GoldmanMark Ingram showed in 2014 that he can handle a heavy workload.
Reggie Bush, Steven Jackson and DeAngelo Williams were the latest reported salary-cap casualties this week. And at some point, Adrian Peterson could also wind up joining a free-agent class that already includes DeMarco Murray, Frank Gore, Ryan Mathews, Justin Forsett, C.J. Spiller, Shane Vereen, Knowshon Moreno, Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden and several other mid-level guys.

On top of that, many analysts including ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. believe that this year’s draft class is deep with running backs in the middle rounds -- a cheaper route that more and more teams have started to take in recent years.

“There are a lot of guys out there [in free agency] that are proven entities, but they also have a lot of tread on the tires,” Kiper said. “I’d always go the rookie route. I would not take a running back in the first round, but I would from the second round on.”

Kiper then rattled off a list of names and projected rounds: Todd Gurley and Tevin Coleman in the second, Ameer Abdullah, David Johnson and Jeremy Langford in the third, Duke Johnson and Jay Ajayi in the fourth, T.J. Yeldon in the fifth and David Cobb, Terrell Watson and Bill Belton in the late rounds.

“So take your pick. You can find them,” Kiper said. “They’re there every year, and they’re gonna be there again this season.”

I still think Ingram should rank near the top among all those options -- especially when it comes to the Saints.

The former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round draft pick is still just 25 years old. He just made his first Pro Bowl as an alternate, running for a career-high 964 yards and nine touchdowns despite missing three games with a broken hand. And he proved his value as a workhorse back with four 100-yard games in a six-week span.

Just as importantly, the Saints are high on Ingram’s character and work ethic, as coach Sean Payton stressed last week while expressing a desire to keep Ingram in New Orleans.

Intangibles like maturity, professionalism and leadership became an issue with the Saints last season, so it would be tough for them to part with a guy who has done things the right way since they drafted and developed him. Ingram was one of a few young Saints players whose arrow was actually pointing up last season.

If the Saints do lose out on a bidding war for Ingram, however, they do have more options than usual to fall back on. So either way, they should be able to build a healthy committee of running backs that could also include incumbents Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet.