AFC North: Julius Peppers
Once again, the eight-year veteran was held out of a practice, working Thursday on conditioning drills instead of game preparation as he recovers from offseason knee surgery. As the days get shorter between now and Sunday's opener at Chicago, the odds Whitworth will start his 65th consecutive regular-season game appear to be slim.
In the event the elder lineman isn't ready and has to be shelved, his backup, longtime reserve Anthony Collins, is confident he will fill his shoes nicely.
"I’m going to prepare like I’m the starter, period," Collins said. "Week 1, OTAs, Week 16, I’m going to prepare like I’m the starter."
Collins, a former Kansas standout in his sixth year, isn't trying to bash Whitworth by making that statement. He's just trying to let all who care know that he'll be ready.
And just who will Collins be getting ready for? None other than arguably the best power-rushing end of the last decade: Julius Peppers.
"He’s definitely the biggest end you’re going to go against. ... He's 6-7, 300," Collins said of the slightly more human 6-foot-7, 287-pound Peppers. "So you’ve got to play ball and be smart."
One of the questions surrounding the Bears this preseason has to do with the aging Peppers and whether he still has the playing ability that garnered him league-wide acclaim from the first time he walked on an NFL field in 2002. At 33, he might have slowed a half-step, but from what Collins can tell, Peppers still is very much the intimidating edge enforcer he was when he was a more spry and athletic rookie.
"He’s still the best," Collins said, "33, 21, he’s still Julius Peppers. So you've got to man up. Point blank, period."
Part of Collins' goal this offseason was manning up and taking responsibility in the film room. With Whitworth as his guide, Collins felt that now was the time to start better understanding defensive rushing patterns and offensive blocking schemes off the field.
"[Whitworth] is a guy that since Day 1, he watches tons of film," Collins said. "So by looking at him and by paying attention to him — actually paying attention to him — during this offseason or whatever, I got better at watching film and watching the guy’s every move. That’s how I think off the field I improved."
Something else Collins believes has helped him entering this season was making the move from the right side of the offensive line to the left. After the Bengals re-signed right tackle Andre Smith in April and saw where Whitworth was in his rehab from surgery, they switched Collins to the left side of the line in order to shore up depth behind their injured star. While over there, Collins started getting comfortable and took advantage of as many practice repetitions at the position as he could.
"Every rep offensively, I've been out there," Collins said. "From 1s [first-team], 2s, scouts, pass-rush, anything. Individual, I'm out there."
During those repetitions, Collins said, he worked on getting techniques down pat and learning how to let his muscle memory take over as he gets used to playing on the left side of the line. Now that he isn't bouncing between both sides, he feels more comfortable and confident that he can attack defenders with the same fluid motions and mechanics.
If he starts Sunday, Collins will be playing left tackle for the first time since his rookie season, when he lined up six times there replacing an injured Levi Jones.
"It's definitely not my first rodeo," Collins said. "And we're made different from where I'm from: Beaumont, Texas, Port Arthur, Texas. We're made different. Trust me, I'll be coming out ready to play."
And just how are Texas Gulf Coast football players made?
"Tough, grimy, with heart," Collins said. "Period."
Here's the rest of Thursday's Bengals injury report:
Did not participate in practice: LT Andrew Whitworth (knee), OG Mike Pollak (knee), CB Brandon Ghee (concussion)
Full participation in practice: DE Carlos Dunlap (concussion), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (concussion), TE Tyler Eifert (forearm), RT Andre Smith (knee), DT Devon Still (knee)*
*Still made progress after being held in limited practice Wednesday afternoon.
- Let's start with the quarterbacks since that is the hottest topic in Cleveland. Although a final decision hasn't been made, Holmgren was very candid in saying it's a "long shot" that Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn will both be on the roster next season. If one has to go, it's likely Anderson, who is due a $2 million roster bonus next month.
- Here is an interesting note: Defensive end Julius Peppers is on Cleveland's radar in free agency. ESPN's Chris Mortensen recently mentioned the Browns as a sleeper team for Peppers, who is arguably the biggest unrestricted free agent on the market. Cleveland also has the money to spend. "When we talk about possible free agents, Julius is one of the guys we talk about," Holmgren admitted.
- Although he didn't want to provide a timeline, Holmgren is confident that he can turn Cleveland around. Three teams in the AFC North had winning records last season. So the division would be extremely tough if Cleveland also gets up to par.
- The contract situation with Pro Bowl returner Josh Cribbs isn't settled, according to Holmgren, but both sides are making progress. Reportedly, Cribbs was expected to have a deal in place by the end of the week. But Holmgren believes it will take longer than that. "It's moving," Holmgren said. "We're not quite there yet. But actually I'm very, very pleased with both sides talking."
- Cleveland plans to retain restricted free agent Jerome Harrison. The tailback led the team in rushing, but the Browns also want to get him some help so the smallish Harrison won't take the same pounding he did last season.
Cleveland Browns are the only AFC North team I can envision making a run at Peppers. But even then, chances aren't good that Peppers lands in this division.
- Former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Carnell Lake resigned as UCLA's secondary coach for family reasons.
Bobbie Williams and Kyle Cook.
Shawn Davis from Manassas, Va., writes: James, are there any shutdown corners in the free-agent market that the Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to go after?
James Walker: No one unrestricted really catches my eye, Shawn. Most "shutdown" -- i.e. elite -- corners never hit the free-agent market, because they're such a rare commodity. But last month I mentioned an intriguing trade scenario involving San Diego Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie that I think the Steelers should explore. He's in the final year of his rookie contract at a relatively affordable salary. The Chargers reportedly are interested in getting something for Cromartie before he bolts (no pun intended), and Cromartie will be hungry to have a great 2010 season while in a contract year. It could be a win-win for both teams if the asking price is reasonable.
Mattieu from Lyon, France, wants my impressions of Baltimore Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb and if he will be ready for the season opener.
Walker: Webb is a good young prospect who showed starting potential towards the end of last season, Mattieu. The Ravens are really high on him. The question is how strong can he return next season from major knee surgery? It typically takes nine months to recover from an ACL injury, and Webb injured his knee in late December. So that will probably take Webb, without any complications or setbacks, right up until September's season opener. He should miss training camp or be very limited during the summer. All of this will impact Webb's ability to perform, especially early in the 2010 season.
Mike from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Do you think the Cleveland Browns have any chance of getting Julius Peppers?
Walker: The Browns are not the favorites, Mike. But as ESPN's Chris Mortensen recently pointed out, Cleveland has the money to spend and the right scheme (3-4 defense). So any team with that combination at least has a puncher's chance. Peppers at this point of his career would prefer to play for a contender. But money could supersede that. It's different for each player.
Sean McMann from Pittsburgh, Pa., is curious if the Cincinnati Bengals will take at free-agent DE/OLB Aaron Kampman?
Walker: Sean, despite recent injuries, Kampman is a good player and may prefer to return to a 4-3 defense, which Cincinnati has. But Kampman has no ties to the Bengals or their coaching staff. So I don't see him coming to Cincinnati unless it's willing to spend the most money. History says that probably won't be the case.
- Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer wants his fourth-ranked unit to get even better in 2010.
- How much would the Cleveland Browns, or any other team, be willing to invest in 30-year-old defensive end Julius Peppers?
But here is the latest name involved with Cleveland: Julius Peppers.
According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, the Browns are a "sleeper" team to watch in the Peppers sweepstakes. The defensive end for the Carolina Panthers isn't interested in a long-term deal with his current team and could become a free agent next month. Carolina may also franchise Peppers again and perhaps orchestrate a trade with another team.
In the past, Peppers said he wanted to play in a 3-4 defense where he can switch between defensive end and outside linebacker. Cleveland runs that scheme under head coach Eric Mangini.
The Browns also have money to spend in what is expected to be a relatively tame year in free agency. Cleveland needs help at outside linebacker and with rushing the passer. Peppers, who had 10.5 sacks last season, could fill both voids.
These are more than enough reasons to give Mort's "sleeper" label for Cleveland some traction. Stay tuned.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are seven AFC North notes and observations from last weekend's preseason games:
- If you were surprised by the sudden air-it-out attack from the Baltimore Ravens' offense in Saturday's preseason win over the Carolina Panthers, don't be. Baltimore's coaching staff is still guaging quarterback Joe Flacco's ceiling heading into his second season. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is never afraid to experiment and chose the third preseason game to see how much Flacco and his unit could handle as a pass-heavy offense. As a result, the offense looked pretty good and Flacco finished 23 of 28 for 247 yards and a touchdown. Baltimore's pass-run ratio overall Saturday was 39-to-28. Don't expect that to happen much in the regular season. But at least Cameron knows he's more comfortable switching identities if the proper situation calls for it.
G Fiume/Getty Images Ravens rookie Michael Oher has performed well in the preseason.
- The way the Cleveland Browns beat the Tennessee Titans, 23-17, over the weekend is the exact blueprint Cleveland needs in order to win games in the regular season. The Browns hustled and played very smart football, while the Titans completely lost sight of the fundamentals. Cleveland blocked a field-goal attempt, forced a fumble near the goal line before halftime, recorded a "pick six" off Vince Young and recovered another fumble on a kick return. Despite all of these advantages for Cleveland, the more talented Titans still made it a one-possession game where a late touchdown would have won it.
- While many often focus on Brady Quinn's throwing arm, a very underrated part of his game is his mechanics and attention to detail. Quinn works very hard on the little things and he displayed a full range of skills against the Titans. His pocket presence allowed him to avoid being sacked. His footwork helped make Cleveland's multiple screens work. Quinn also sold the play-action fake well on his best throw of the night-a 20-yard touchdown pass to receiver Braylon Edwards. In all it equaled an 11-for-15 performance for 128 yards, one touchdown, a 121.0 passer rating, which may have won him the starting job.
- In his recent comments this weekend, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer (ankle) didn't seem optimistic that the team's medical staff will allow him to play Thursday against the Indianapolis Colts. That is compliant with what we reported last week via a source. The team is going to wait for another day or so to make its final decision for Thursday's game. But we're told as early as last week there were internal discussions about taking extra precaution by sitting Palmer for the remainder of the preseason. That leaves me to believe the team will go forward with that train of thought to make sure Palmer is 100 percent by the Sept. 13 opener against the Denver Broncos.
- Cincinnati rookie first-round pick Andre Smith checks in with the AFC North blog after signing with the team. He believes getting in football shape with be his toughest challenge. The first-year offensive tackle hasn't played in an actual game since December. But Smith believes getting acclimated to the playbook won't be much of an issue. We will have more on Smith Monday afternoon.
- Pittsburgh rookie free-agent tailback Isaac Redman has slowed since his solid preseason debut against the Arizona Cardinals. Saturday against Buffalo, Redman rushed for 31 yards on 13 carries (2.4 yard average). His longest run was for five yards. Redman also has just 34 rushing yards in the past two preseason games. The Steelers like his potential. But barring another push late, Redman is a bubble candidate for the practice squad. That means Pittsburgh would risk losing Redman to a waiver claim. But if not, the Steelers would be more than happy to continue to develop him throughout the season in the event another tailback goes down.
|Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers and Cleveland defensive tackle Shaun Rogers both want off their current teams.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and James Walker
Apparently, being a top-notch defensive lineman in the NFL doesn't guarantee success. With the possible exception of Denver quarterback Jay Cutler, Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers and Cleveland defensive tackle Shaun Rogers might be the most disgruntled players out there.
Both have made it clear they don't want to stay with their current teams. Although Peppers could make almost $17 million if he stayed as Carolina's franchise player, he and his agent have spent the last few months telling anyone who will listen he doesn't want to be with the Panthers. Peppers and his agent have said he wants to be traded away from the only team he's ever played for and away from the state where he's spent his life.
Rogers has asked the Browns to release him from his six-year, $42 million contract and just recently returned to offseason workouts. Rogers was one of the crown jewels of Cleveland's 2008 offseason, but that was with an old regime. Rogers and Eric Mangini have clashed pretty much since the new coach was hired.
So why are Peppers and Rogers so unhappy? How did these situations get so ugly and how will they play out? ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and James Walker take an in-depth look at Peppers and Rogers:
Why are Peppers and Rogers unhappy?
Pat Yasinskas: I'll leave the Rogers situation to James, in part because the Browns are his territory and the Panthers are mine, but mainly because there's so much ground to cover on Peppers alone. Let's start by saying none of us truly know the full reason Peppers wants out of Carolina so badly. He and his agent have been vague about that.
But there's a lot to read between the lines. Peppers has been careful not to single out anyone and the conspiracy theories were flying when defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac and defensive line coach Sal Sunseri mysteriously walked away from the Panthers. But that didn't prompt any change in Peppers' tune.
Peppers still came out and said he wants to play with a team where he'll have a better chance to reach his potential. He also previously turned down an offer from the Panthers that would have made him the highest-paid defensive player in the league.
Let's be blunt here. If it's not about money and it wasn't about the assistant coaches, you have to draw the conclusion that Peppers, whether he's wrong or right, just doesn't want to play for coach John Fox.
|Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images|
|Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Shaun Rogers was miffed at coach Eric Mangini.|
James Walker: Similar to Peppers' situation, Pat, the quandary between Rogers and the Browns involves a lot of variables. This much I know: Rogers was unhappy with the way the new regime treated him, because this isn't exactly what he signed up for.
When Rogers was traded from the Detroit Lions a year ago, he was thought to be the missing piece to an up-and-coming Cleveland team that went 10-6 in 2007. Rogers, 30, had played on awful Detroit teams his entire career. He was finally refreshed, motivated, and playing for someone he liked very much in former Browns coach Romeo Crennel.
A year later all of that is gone. Not only that, new coach Eric Mangini refused to communicate with him, snubbing him on two separate occasions, and reportedly ordered a weight mandate when Rogers never had a weight problem all last season.
From a player's perspective -- a Pro Bowl player's perspective -- Rogers felt this was unnecessary. From a team's perspective, the Browns' loose culture needs to be changed and Mangini is a disciplinarian who is doing just that.
Also, there has been speculation that this is all about money. I'm not 100 percent sure that is the case. Rogers was unhappy in January, months before defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth signed for $100 million with the Washington Redskins. The deal certainly caught Rogers' attention and probably added fuel to the fire. But I don't think it was the start, or even central focal point, for his unhappiness.
Who shoulders the blame?
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here is this week's look inside the AFC North division:
- The Cincinnati Bengals made yet another front office flub in letting receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh walk for nothing this week. The Bengals could have easily slapped the franchise tag on "Housh” in an effort to work out a trade for draft picks. Instead, Cincinnati used its tag on kicker Shayne Graham. (I'm still scratching my head on that one.) As a result, Houshmandzadeh signed with the Seattle Seahawks and left the Bengals empty-handed. Other teams like the New England Patriots (Matt Cassel) and likely the Carolina Panthers (Julius Peppers) are using franchise tags to work out trades. Why can't the Bengals?
|AP Photo/Kevin P. Casey|
|Why didn't the Bengals franchise T.J. Houshmandzadeh to trade for draft picks?|
- The Pittsburgh Steelers are taking a risk in letting No. 3 receiver Nate Washington flee to the Tennessee Titans. It's obvious that the Steelers were not going to pay their third receiver $27 million over six years. But in terms of on-field production, Pittsburgh runs a lot of three-receiver sets. So much so that you can almost count the third receiver as a starter in offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' scheme. Therefore it's a must that second-year receiver Limas Sweed is ready to step up for the defending Super Bowl champions. With few opportunities, Sweed didn't get to show much and had trouble catching the football. But the coaching staff is showing a lot of confidence in letting him take another big step forward in 2009.
- Veteran cornerback Samari Rolle is looking more and more like the next salary-cap casualty for the Baltimore Ravens. There is a lot of writing being put on the wall by the Ravens, including the fact they went after cornerback Domonique Foxworth and signed him to a $27.2 million contract on the first day of free agency. With Foxworth and Fabian Washington likely the starters, Rolle would be an expensive nickelback to keep. Releasing Rolle, 32, would reportedly save a little more than $4 million off Baltimore's salary cap.
- The Cleveland Browns' offseason program begins in less than two weeks (March 16), and it will be interesting to see who shows up. It's apparent that new head coach Eric Mangini means business. So although these workouts are "optional," it's in the players' best interest to show up to avoid being put in Mangini's doghouse right off the bat. Will star players like defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and receiver Braylon Edwards cooperate?
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
But what about the mystery team in the AFC?
Connecting the dots, there is a chance that mystery team is in the AFC North. Peppers wants to play for a 3-4 defense and he wants to play for a contender. Three teams -- the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns -- play 3-4 defenses. But only the Ravens and Steelers are contenders, so let's rule out the Browns.
Yet the Ravens and Steelers already have great defensive players and no need for another big-money player like Peppers. Other AFC teams that could be better targets would be the New England Patriots and New York Jets. Both clubs could use Peppers and it would give him a chance to play in a much bigger market.
So through the process of elimination, Peppers' mystery team may not be in the AFC North. It's more likely the Patriots or Jets.