Hitting the NFC South hot spots

I just opened the mailbag for the first time since before the Atlanta Falcons' disappointing playoff loss to Green Bay. Lots of frustration and venom from Atlanta fans and it looks like New Orleans fans still are feeling some of that more than a week after the Saints' disappointing loss to the Seahawks. On the flip side, it seems like Tampa Bay and Carolina fans have closed the book on the 2010 season and are looking ahead.

Sean in White Plains, N.Y., asks if the Falcons are giving any thought to getting rid of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder after Saturday night’s disastrous defensive performance.

Pat Yasinskas: I understand why you’re asking this question (Atlanta’s defense was horrible Saturday) and many others are asking the same thing. But, in his season-ending news conference Monday, Mike Smith said he was planning on keeping his staff together. You can debate whether that’s the right or wrong move. But one thing I’ve learned about Smith is he’s a very straight shooter. He’s not the type to say one thing and turn around and do another. Keep one other thing in mind: Smith comes from a defensive background and is heavily involved in what the Falcons do on defense.

Ken in New York asks if the Panthers might re-sign quarterback Matt Moore.

Pat Yasinskas: In past years, I’d say that could happen. But I think the page has turned in Carolina -- or at least I hope the page has turned in Carolina. The Panthers fully realize they didn’t have good quarterback play last season. They’re keeping Jimmy Clausen because he’s under contract and because some people in the organization still have hope he can develop into a decent quarterback. But Moore is coming off an injury and I think the Panthers will let him go into free agency. I’m pretty sure they will go out and try to find someone they see as a significant upgrade over Moore and someone who is a very viable alternative if Clausen doesn’t step up.

Ned in Canada asks if there is any chance the Falcons might pursue Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency.

Pat Yasinskas: My guess is it’s a long shot because there is going to be a lot of competition for Asomugha and the price tag is likely to be very high. The Falcons already spent a pile of money on Dunta Robinson last year and I don’t see them paying huge money to two cornerbacks. Obviously, the injury to Brian Williams showed a need for more depth at cornerback on Saturday. But I think the Falcons will address that through the draft or with a mid-level free agent. General manager Thomas Dimitroff has established a track record of targeting one big free agent each offseason. Yes, cornerback is a position where the Falcons have some need. But I don’t think it’s their biggest area of need. If the Falcons are going to sign one big free agent, my guess is it will be a pass-rusher or a left offensive tackle.

J Ross in Cheyenne, Wyo., asks why John Clayton considers Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco as “elite’’ quarterbacks, but doesn’t put Josh Freeman in that same category.

Pat Yasinskas: I can’t speak for John Clayton, although I have tremendous respect for his opinion on everything related to football. Also, I don’t know how you truly define “elite." But I will say I think Freeman already is in the same general category as Ryan and Flacco and he just finished his first full season as a starter. There obviously are a lot of variables, but I think Freeman has the upside to eventually be better than Ryan or Flacco.

Nick in London, Ontario, Canada, asks if the Buccaneers will bring back Ronde Barber for one more season.

Pat Yasinskas: Barber’s contract is up and the potential lockout could make for a strange and messy preseason. But I think the bottom line here is the choice will be up to Barber. He still was playing at a high level. If he wants to continue playing, I suspect the Bucs will give him that opportunity. At the same time, I think they also need to use free agency or the draft to prepare for the day that Barber is no longer playing.

Tony in New York asks if Sean Payton made a huge mistake by playing his starters in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay.

Pat Yasinskas: It’s been a long time since anyone’s had any reason to question any of Sean Payton’s move. Virtually everything he did in the 2009 Super Bowl season was perfect. But, yeah, I think it’s valid to at least do some second guessing on him playing the starters in the regular-season finale when it was pretty obvious Atlanta was going to have an easy time beating Carolina and securing the home-field advantage. The injuries to safety Malcolm Jenkins and running back Chris Ivory certainly left the Saints short-handed in their playoff loss to Seattle.