The New York Giants made 18 of their players available for media interviews on Tuesday afternoon. Some faces were familiar, others were new. Here are four quick things I took away from the day:

1. Eli Manning's ankle injury may not turn out to be a huge deal, but it's not a small one either. Manning is getting around on crutches right now, though he ditched them before he came out to stand in a walking boot in front of cameras and answer questions Tuesday. (I don't blame him for that, by the way. I'd probably do the same.) Asked directly whether he would be ready for the start of training camp, Manning said, "I think I'm safe to say I'll be 100 percent by the start of training camp." Then he paused and made that face he makes when he's not all the way comfortable with something and said, "I would hope so."

Now, it's important to note that the Giants start training camp a week earlier than usual this year due to their participation in the Hall of Fame game. So it's possible that Manning would be ready by the usual start of training camp but not by July 22, when the Giants are likely to start this year. But regardless of those semantics, it definitely appears that Manning and the Giants are prepared for the likelihood that Manning will miss the on-field portions of OTAs and probably the June minicamp. Manning is a stickler for practice and never misses a chance to discuss the importance of everyone being on the field practicing together. So if his arrival on the practice field is delayed by a month or more, that has to have an impact on his mindset, if nothing else.

2. Chris Snee is a big wild card. We've been treating the Giants' veteran offensive lineman as a question mark, and until we see him back on the field and playing the way he used to play, we'll continue to do so. But Snee said his offseason program has been completely different from what it was last year -- that he's been able to do much more in terms of strength and conditioning work and that he's basically going through a normal offseason of preparation, ready for full practice when the time comes. The potential benefits of a fully healthy Snee to the Giants' offensive line simply cannot be overstated.

3. The new offense will be very new. Lots of talk about new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and what he's installing. Everybody thinks it's going to look a lot like what they run in Green Bay, which is where McAdoo came from. Victor Cruz talked about the simplification of the passing game routes under McAdoo versus the option routes on which Kevin Gilbride's offense relied. There's a lot of learning to be done, and especially with Manning on the shelf you wonder how quickly they can become proficient with it. But the Giants are going to look a lot different this year when they have the ball.

4. They were on message on Will Hill. The Giants have a good media relations staff, and with the news breaking in the morning that safety Will Hill had failed another drug test and was in the process of appealing a potentially lengthy suspension, the players were prepared to answer questions about Hill. Everyone who was asked used the word "support" and talked about Hill as a good guy and teammate who needs help dealing with his issues. I question the characterization of a player who keeps getting suspended as a good teammate, since a good teammate is generally an available one. And I have my doubts about how far the Giants organization's "support" will extend if Hill loses his appeal. I have to think he's probably done here. But Stevie Brown is a question mark as an ACL recovery case, and Quintin Demps was signed more for his kick-return abilities than for his safety abilities. So it's possible they let this play out and see just how mad they want to get about Hill's latest headache.
Sean Payton, Rob RyanAP Photo/Bill HaberSean Payton, shown with Rob Ryan, says Saints "pay attention to what is winning, who is winning."
The New Orleans Saints are evolving.

At their core, they haven't changed much since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006. The Saints are still led by a dynamic passing offense that toys with opponents inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where New Orleans was 8-0 last season.

But the Saints will win the NFC South this year because they might just have the best defense in the division, too. Adding three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd and future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey further bolstered a young defense that had a breakout year in 2013 under new coordinator Rob Ryan.

Meanwhile, New Orleans has also been embracing a more traditional run game while parting ways with offensive weapons like Darren Sproles and Lance Moore.

The Saints are showing a New England Patriots-like ability to keep adapting to stay on top.

"Everybody's always looking for ways to reinvent themselves, to improve themselves, without losing who they really are," said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, who believes New Orleans is doing just that.

[+] EnlargeByrd
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesSafety Jairus Byrd, who had four interceptions and a forced fumble last season with Buffalo, should help the Saints cause more turnovers.
"This is one of my favorite teams to watch. I like their style," Riddick, a former personnel director for the Philadelphia Eagles, said of the Saints. "Multiple is a big word in my vocabulary when it comes to football. And they're multiple on both sides of the ball. They can run it or throw it. On defense they can sit back and play zone or pressure you. I like that about them."

The Saints have only seven players remaining from their 2009 Super Bowl team. But New Orleans still should be considered a bona fide contender to get back there five years later.

"I like what they're doing," Riddick said. "I think they're positioning themselves well to make sure that they stay among the heavyweights in the NFC and try to knock some of them off and get back to the big game."

The Saints' defense was surprisingly sensational last year, led by breakout seasons from pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, cornerback Keenan Lewis and safety Kenny Vaccaro, among others. They ranked fourth in the NFL in yards allowed (305.7 per game) just one year after setting the record for most yards allowed in a season (440.1 per game).

But just as surprisingly, the Saints decided that wasn't enough.

Although conventional wisdom in New Orleans has always been that the Saints just need to be decent on defense to complement their high-powered offense, the team didn't feel that way. Especially after falling victim to the Seattle Seahawks' dominant defense twice last season.

When Payton was asked in his season-ending news conference if there was less of a need to improve the defense than ever before, he quickly shot down the idea.

"I think we try to pay attention to what is winning, who is winning," Payton said. "I think you study the San Franciscos and the Seattles, and you recognize that there is still this formula that has won in our league for a long time. And that is your ability to stop the opponent ... and then have balance in both the running and passing game."

So the Saints went all-in with a six-year, $54 million deal for Byrd. He's a ball-hawking safety who should help in the one area where the Saints' defense struggled last year: forcing turnovers.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram, Nate Allen
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsMark Ingram carried 18 times for 97 yards and a touchdown in the Saints' playoff win at Philadelphia.
Offensively, Payton also seems to be embracing that pass-run balance as much as ever. The Saints rode the run game to their first road playoff win in franchise history. They're clearly intent on finding more touches for emerging running backs Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram, who led the way that night in Philadelphia. That was one of the reasons for the Saints' decision to trade Sproles, a veteran runner/receiver, to the Eagles.

"You want to kind of be like a chameleon from week to week and do whatever is necessary to win a game, depending on what your opponent doesn't do very well," said Riddick, who remembers the Saints having a better pass-run balance when they steamrolled his Eagles during the 2009 season. "[Patriots coach] Bill Belichick has been lauded for that for years."

It's no coincidence that Payton and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis are being credited for some of the same things as Belichick. Ever since Payton arrived, they have talked openly about modeling themselves after the Patriots organization in many ways.

"What they're doing is [Patriots-like]," said former Saints and Patriots fullback Heath Evans, who now works as an analyst for the NFL Network. "And Sean's never really shied away from, 'Hey, what the Patriots do, it works. So why not to the best of your ability, with your own talent pool and your own system of thinking, try to copy what they do?'"

Evans also pointed out that copying the Patriots' model means borrowing from other teams, as well.

"You've got to go with the flow of this league. And what Seattle's done, they're really the ones that everyone needs to try to be copying," Evans said. "Because they can beat you in 15 different ways. Their quarterback doesn't have to play well to win."

In that same postseason news conference back in January, Payton also shot down another reporter's question, when he was asked if the Saints' "window of opportunity" might be closing as many of their longtime stars get older.

"Honestly, the 'window,'" Payton said, "as long as I am the head coach here, we are trying to slam it open always."
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When Jadeveon Clowney sits down with a member of the Atlanta Falcons' front office or coaching staff during his Wednesday visit, the question about his desire is bound to come up.

Critics continue to offer harsh assessments of the South Carolina defensive end despite the 6-foot-6, 266-pound Clowney being the most athletically gifted prospect in the draft. While Clowney previously defended his work ethic, one of his former coaches also spoke up on his behalf.

South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward disputed the "lazy" tag recently placed on Clowney by an anonymous NFL scout.

"It doesn't offend me because I know JD, and I know all this talk about JD being lazy and all this talk about him not playing hard, I know all that is motivating him," Ward told ESPN.com in reference to Clowney. "And I know JD because I coached the kid and I recruited him, and that's not who he is. JD plays hard all the time."

There were some doubts about Clowney's commitment after he pulled himself from a game against Kentucky because of a rib injury. There also were questions about Clowney’s conditioning after he reportedly looked tired in the season opener against North Carolina. Clowney finished the season with just three sacks in 11 games.

"People go back to that North Carolina game and say he wasn’t in shape and was tired. People said that because the other three defensive linemen were down on the ground and had their hands down, and JD was standing up with his hands on hips," Ward explained. "That's what seven guys on defense do: They stand up with their hands on their hips. He's an athlete, so he stood up with his hands on his hips. So that made him tired? Not at all. But that's perception. He was down there ready when the ball was snapped. It's all perception.

"Anytime you're as highly regarded as JD is, most people are going to try to find out something that's wrong with you. And that's what the NFL's job is: They're going to try and bring his grade down because it's about paying him. I understand it. I coached in the league [Oakland assistant in 2006]. I know how it works."

Ward pointed to practices as evidence of how hard Clowney worked.

"I never had an issue with him. If anything, you had to slow him down," Ward said. "There were days that Coach [Steve] Spurrier would have to tell us to take him off the field or they weren't going to get anything accomplished on offense. And that's the truth because they couldn’t get a pass off on him."

Even if his work ethic isn't an issue, Ward continues to encourage Clowney to raise his level of play in preparation for the NFL.

"My biggest to thing to JD is he's going into a grown-man league and everybody is big and fast in that league," Ward said. "It's not going to be just his talent that's going to help him become a good player there. He's going to have to spend more time studying his opponent, the guy he's going against in that league, in order to beat him. And he didn’t have to do that a lot in college.

"He's going to have to find out what that guy's weakness is and take advantage of it, if he's going to have success in the NFL. And he'll grow into that. He's very highly motivated. He wants to be the first pick in the draft. He wants to be as good as advertised. And there's no question he'll be a great pro."

Clowney defended himself during the NFL combine when asked about Spurrier's assertion that he didn't work as hard as some of the program's other top players from the past.

"I really don't have anything to say about it. It's just opinion," Clowney said in February. "I believe I did work hard. You can pull out any practice tape from last year and you'll see that. That's what I would tell them. I'll tell anybody that. I'm always going to be working hard. No matter where I end up, I'm going to work hard and give the team everything I've got."

For the Falcons to end up being that team, they likely would have to trade up for Clowney. Atlanta currently holds the sixth overall pick. The teams with the top three picks -- Houston, St. Louis and Jacksonville -- all seem willing to trade down, while Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he is open to trading up.

Bucs not short on running backs

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
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TAMPA, Fla. -- As a new head coach, Tampa Bay’s Lovie Smith still is getting to know his players. But it’s obvious he already has developed a comfort level with his running backs.

“I went in there the other day and I asked them if there was a requirement to being under 5-[foot-]10 to be in this room,’’ Smith said with a laugh.

With Doug Martin listed as 5-9, Bobby Rainey at 5-8 and Mike James at 5-10, the Bucs may be short at running back. But they aren’t short on running backs.

“We have three running backs that have a 100-yard game on record,’’ Smith said. “That’s hard to say for most teams.’’

But Smith is inheriting a situation where running back might be the deepest position on the roster. Martin entered last season as the starter. When he went down with a shoulder injury, James took over. After James went out with an injury, Rainey took over as the featured back an prospered.

“I like everything about all of them,’’ Smith said. “They can catch the ball, even though they haven’t been used that way. They can run inside of the tackles. They have good quickness and can make you miss. They come to work with a smile on their face every day.’’

And it might not be hard to keep a smile on the faces of all three running backs. Smith has said he plans to use a rotation at that position.

“As far as how many play, Doug Martin’s our starter, but they’ll all play,’’ Smith said. “We’ll let them have their reps.’’
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A potential twist has the attention of broadcast and league insiders as the NFL prepares to announce its 2014 schedule. The league's work to elevate its new Thursday night package -- and eventually sell it for billions of dollars -- could have some intriguing ripple effects.

Namely: Will it steer better games to Thursday nights? And if so, at whose expense will that shift occur?

Since 2006, NBC's "Sunday Night Football" has been the NFL's premium prime-time event. It traditionally gets the best collection of games and is the only package that can "flex" uncompetitive late-season matchups for more interesting ones. ESPN broadcasts "Monday Night Football" and, until this year, the NFL Network has handled Thursday nights.

In February, however, CBS reportedly paid the league between $250 million and $275 million for the right to simulcast eight Thursday night games along with the NFL Network. (The rest of the 16-game package will air only on the NFL Network, although CBS will continue producing it.) The Thursday night deal is for one year, although the league has an option for 2015. Its short tenure suggests that 2014 is a product trial that could fetch a much more lucrative annual fee in future years. (For context, consider that ESPN pays the NFL $1.9 billion annually for "Monday Night Football" and other considerations.)

How best to generate more Thursday night interest? One place to start would be sliding more prominent games into that slot, a possibility that John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal reported on this month. According to Ourand, media executives believe the Thursday night schedule will be closer in quality to the traditional Sunday night slate and could well supersede what is assigned to Monday night.

There is no standard formula for determining the quality of a schedule from a broadcast perspective. So in the chart, I measured the three 2013 prime-time schedules by three strength-based criteria:
When you look at the 2013 prime-time schedule from that perspective, you see how skewed it was toward "Sunday Night Football" -- even before it flexed three games and moved its Week 17 matchup from TBA to Eagles-Cowboys. "Sunday Night Football" also received a number of "storyline games," from the NFL's 2013 Kickoff Game to the heated 49ers-Seattle Seahawks rivalry to Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis.

If the league in fact seeks to strengthen its Thursday night schedule, you could see movement in those numbers. You also wonder if Thursday night will get one of receiver DeSean Jackson's games against the Eagles, who released him this offseason. Or perhaps it will broadcast receiver Steve Smith's reunion with the Carolina Panthers, or one of cornerback Darrelle Revis' games against the New York Jets.

There are some complicating factors, of course. Most notably, the NFL schedule formula remains the same, so there can be no increase in the inventory of "good games." Also, league parity makes it vulnerable to unexpected competitive slips. (Hello, last season's "Monday Night Football" matchup of the Vikings and Giants.) The NFL must also comply with a requirement to schedule all 32 teams to play at least one Thursday game, and it also must respect the Sunday afternoon games aired on CBS and Fox.

There is little doubt that Howard Katz, the NFL's schedule czar, can pull it all off if so instructed. Wednesday's news that the NFL had exercised an option to move a wild-card playoff game to ESPN added an additional level of anticipation. Was it a coincidence of timing a concession? In either event, I'll focus on this angle when the announcement comes at 8 p.m. ET, and I'll follow up in an Inside Slant post no later than Friday morning. Until then, enjoy our newest national holiday.

The most poignant Oakland Raiders plea leading up to the new league year last month?

No doubt it was Pro Bowl fullback Marcel Reece saying the weekend before free agency began that he wanted general manager Reggie McKenzie to make “Raider-ass moves” in signing players. As in, bold moves.

Reece
So, after signing 12 free agents, acquiring a new quarterback in Matt Schaub and jettisoning QB Terrelle Pryor, does Reece, the new voice of the Raiders, think McKenzie has followed through on his, ahem, advice?

“I do feel he did that,” Reece said Tuesday, the first day of voluntary offseason workouts for the Raiders.

“We weren’t looking for any saviors to come here and get in this locker room. We were looking for help. We were looking for help to bring this tradition, the winning attitude and a championship pedigree back to this organization and to the locker room and I think we did that.”

Consider: Defensive end Justin Tuck, offensive lineman Kevin Boothe, linebacker LaMarr Woodley, defensive lineman C.J. Wilson and receiver James Jones are toting a combined seven Super Bowl rings to Oakland from their time with the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers.

Surely that has to rub off on the Raiders, no? That’s the plan.

“Like I said, it’s a certain stature and pedigree that you have, only by winning a championship,” Reece said. “Things that even leaders like myself don’t have yet. I haven’t been able to experience the playoffs or a championship, and when guys like Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley, when you bring guys like that in here, especially on the defensive side of the ball, it really helps. It brings a different aspect of leadership into a locker room and into a team.”

Reece served as a recruiter for the Raiders and said left tackle Donald Penn told him Tuesday he was “tired of me texting him two or three times a day” before he eventually signed.

“Obviously, we lost out on a few guys that we wanted to keep,” Reece said, likely referring to left tackle Jared Veldheer, defensive end Lamarr Houston and running back Rashad Jennings. “But I think other than that, we were fairly successful.”

As was the turnout for the first day of workouts, even if there was no official tally.

“Very close to 100 percent,” Reece said. “A couple of guys that aren’t here, I know why they’re not here and when they’re going to show up. There’s always things that come up, it’s life. It is 100 percent in my eyes. It means a lot to me, especially the veteran guys.”

And Reece’s thoughts on Pryor being traded a day earlier to the Seattle Seahawks?

“Nothing surprises me at this point in time in my career,” Reece said. “I’ve seen a lot happen in my seven years here in the organization. Nothing surprises me. As a team, we just wish him the best and thank him for what he did here and wish him the best.”
The Denver Broncos hope DeMarcus Ware -- he of the 117 career sacks, seven Pro Bowl selections and seven seasons with at least 11 sacks -- can have a positive impact on uber-talented linebacker Von Miller in the days and weeks ahead.

And this week Ware said he received some advice from a Hall of Famer that the team certainly hopes works its way back to Miller.

As Ware prepares to enter his 10th season he was asked if he had taken the time to break down some of the great pass-rushers, including Hall of Famers, or sought them out for tips on maintaining a high performance level at this stage of his career.

"Actually, I have," Ware said as the Broncos opened their offseason program at the team's Dove Valley complex. "Actually, they got a little bit more consistent in what they were doing. I actually talked to Michael Strahan and he tells me, 'You know what? You've got to make sure you're lean. Make sure you're able to run, because your body now is a totally different deal once you hit the 30s. So you've got to make sure you're able to stay out there on the field and you have the endurance.' That's what I'm trying to do now."

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsVon Miller's weight was reportedly up to 270 pounds before he suffered an ACL injury that ended his season.
It is something Ware has been successful at throughout his career. The Broncos list Ware at 6-foot-4 and 258 pounds on their current roster. At the 2005 NFL scouting combine, Ware was listed at 6-4 and 251 pounds, so physically Ware is largely the same player now as he was when he entered the league almost a decade ago.

Ware said he had already spent time watching game tape with Miller, talking about specific pass-rush moves in a variety of situations against a variety of offensive linemen. But there are certainly plenty of people in and around the Broncos who hope Ware extends the message to Miller about staying lean.

Because Miller's weight was a topic of conversation last season when he returned from his six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. The bottom line is many Broncos' decision-makers and Miller's teammates saw him as a special player when he tipped the scales between the 246 pounds he weighed at the 2011 scouting combine and the 255 pounds he said he weighed during the 2012 season when he had 18.5 sacks.

But even before his suspension last year, Miller had made the decision -- for reasons he only described as "it could help me," -- to get bigger. He said he was just over 260 pounds when the Broncos gathered for their offseason program a year ago and by the time he returned from his suspension in October he said he was just over 270 pounds so he "could play with more power."

And while he flashed the disruptive play that put him in the conversation for the league's Defensive Player of the Year award in the 2012 season, Miller wasn't consistently the same player when he returned to the field in 2013 as he had been the year before. He finished with five sacks in nine games before he tore an ACL in December against the Houston Texans.

Given he is returning from a knee injury, it would seem playing at a lighter weight would help take some stress off the joint even as he works to strength the muscles around the knee. The Broncos currently list Miller at 6-3, 250 pounds, but they also listed him at that last season when Miller said he weighed at least 20 pounds more when he returned in Week 7 from his league-imposed punishment.

But at a few offseason appearances, Miller has looked slightly leaner than he did last season. Broncos head coach John Fox has said "everything is on target," with Miller's return, but he is expected to be limited during the team's organized team activities (OTAs) in May and June and, at the moment, is not expected to participate fully in training camp.

"Now I have an opportunity to shed some advice onto him," Ware said. "He is a great player and I look forward to playing with him this season."
PITTSBURGH -- Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's contract status has been a topic of interest because he has two years left on the $102 million deal he signed in 2008.

That is the same number of years Roethlisberger had remaining on his rookie contract when he and the Steelers agreed to the deal that made him the highest-paid player in franchise history.

That nothing has happened as far as a new contract -- and that nothing is imminent -- has generated a little anxiety among some Pittsburgh Steelers’ fans.

[+] EnlargeRoethlisberger
Mark Konezny/USA TODAY SportsSteelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has two years remaining on his contract.
What hasn’t changed, however, is that the two most important factors to a new deal getting done are still in place: Roethlisberger wants to play his entire career in Pittsburgh, and the organization wants the 10-year veteran to retire as a Steeler.

“There’s been ongoing (contract) discussions for quite awhile,” Ryan Tollner, Roethlisberger’s agent, told ESPN.com. “I think from the time we did the first extension there was sort of a plan moving forward. There’s a plan in place, but both sides are pretty committed to doing that privately and not having it be something that’s discussed in the media.”

That is how the Steelers operate, whether it is with their franchise quarterback or a player who helps fill out the roster. But Steelers president Art Rooney II and general manager Kevin Colbert have each said the organization is committed to Roethlisberger playing his entire career in Pittsburgh and maximizing the remaining years he has left in him.

As for Roethlisberger’s desire to play for just one team his entire career, Tollner said, “It’s always been critical to him. From Day 1 he’s always admired players that could play with one organization and retire with that organization. That’s an underlying goal that always drives him, that he would always be a Steeler.”

The Steelers can lower Roethlisberger’s cap hit -- it is just under $18.9 million in 2014, according to ESPN Stats & Info -- but they can also wait to get a new deal done since they have already done the bulk of their free-agent shopping and get more than $8 million in cap relief after June 1.

Whether that means the Steelers sign Roethlisberger to a new contract this summer, before the start of the 2014 season, or even next year remains to be seen. Tollner wouldn’t predict when or if a new deal would get done, but he said, “I think there’s mutual respect on both parties.”
Seeing new defensive end Tyson Jackson toss 120 dumbbells around like trash bags Tuesday was a positive sign for an Atlanta Falcons team desperately in need of some heavy lifting.

Yet such strength means nothing if the Falcons fail to use it to their advantage on the field. Just ask general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

"It's functional strength," Dimitroff said this offseason. "Our guys were considerably stronger last year than they were the year before, interestingly enough, and we had some challenges with it. What I'm saying it, yes, we're going to continue to focus on strength increase. But it's the functional strength. It's being able to put them in the right spot to utilize their strength."

[+] EnlargePeter Konz
AP Photo/Paul AbellPeter Konz, who was pushed around at times last season, has "been living in the weight room."
That will all come in time. For now, the Falcons are using offseason workouts to get their bodies prepared for what should be a more physical 2014 campaign.

Coach Mike Smith seemed a bit more animated Tuesday as he explained part of the formula would be for winning the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball.

"One of the emphasis points for us as a coaching staff was to evaluate everything that we do," Smith said. "One of the things that became very apparent for us was that we need to get bigger and stronger. I think we've started doing that with our players. ... It's going to be very important for us to be a much bigger and stronger football team."

Smith is counting on AJ Neibel and his strength-and-conditioning staff to produce results as the Falcons go through Phase I of the offseason workout program. Smith and the other coaches are not allowed to oversee activity during the first two weeks, which started Monday.

"The offseason program has changed," Smith said, again emphasizing the bigger-stronger campaign. "If you'll look back and look what I said the very first time I was here in this room -- not in this room but over in that team meeting room -- I talked about what it takes to win in the National Football League. And I believe I said that you have to win the line of scrimmage. You have to have bigger and stronger players than your opponent. I feel like we've lost our way. I've lost my way a little bit.

"And the emphasis moving forward is going to be a bigger and stronger football team. And we're going to win the line of scrimmage."

Adding big, physical players such as offensive guard Jon Asamoah, nose tackle Paul Soliai, and Jackson were the first steps toward improvement. New offensive line coach Mike Tice immediately encouraged center/guard Peter Konz to bulk up, and Konz, who was pushed around more often than not last season, responded by "living in the weight room" so far this offseason.

"I think it's more for the younger guys," Tice explained in January, during a break at this year's Senior Bowl practices. "I think the younger guys, as they grow into their bodies and they stop growing and they start maturing, physically, I think that they get stronger and take a big leap and not only take a big leap with strength, but when they gain strength, they gain confidence.

"I see us in a couple different areas needing to gain that confidence. And I think a good offseason in the weight room will help some guys."

The first two players quarterback Matt Ryan mentioned Tuesday in terms of working hard in the weight room were tackle Lamar Holmes and Konz. The Falcons' offensive line obviously failed at the line of scrimmage last season as Ryan was the most pressured quarterback in the league.

"I think everybody takes a good, hard look in the mirror when things go well and then also when things don't go well," Ryan said. "And I know that's one of the most important things for me as a player and as a professional is to take a good, honest evaluation of yourself after a season and try and find areas that you can improve. And so those guys, they've made a conscious effort to get into the weight room and to move weight.

"We're not naive. Those guys (the offensive linemen) have taken some heat. And they've had to answer questions and tough questions all of last season and through the offseason so far. And I think they've taken it as a challenge. And they're in there working as hard they possibly can. I've been really impressed with the way they've handled it professionally and also how they have taking it personally, too, and want to become better and are doing everything that they can in order to improve."

Konz appears to be taking things personal. But again, he understands it's about more than just bulking up.

"You know what? We never talk about strength in the film room because it's all about technique," Konz said near the end of last season. "If you open up any book, it's all about leverage. And strength is important when you know how to use it with your footwork.

"Strength is very important, when used in combination with technique. That's what most important: lowest man wins. If you've got your hands on somebody and you've got them, they're going to have a hell of a time trying to get away from you."

If the Falcons don't improve up front, the season could get away from them again.
The phone rang early in the morning on April 22, 2004.

Cardinals president Michael Bidwill still remembers the exact place in his house he was standing when the news traveled through his phone: One of the Tillman brothers had been killed in Afghanistan.

“My heart sunk,” Bidwill said. “It was like a kick to the gut.”

There are only a few days in our lives that we can remember as vividly and as clear as the moment we’re currently living in. For America, one was Sept. 11, 2001.

For those who knew Pat Tillman, April 22, 2004 was another.

Jeremy Staat’s NFL career was over by 2004 but he was trying his hand in the Arena Football League with the Los Angeles Avengers. About 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 22nd, he was walking out of the training room at West Los Angeles Community College after being treated for a torn MCL when he picked up his cell phone and saw 13 missed calls.

“I’m like, ‘Who in the hell is trying to call me at 6:30 in the morning?’” Staat said. “It was from the guys we played with at ASU.

“I’m like, ‘Why are they calling me? What the hell? Did I do something great?’”

Then his phone rang again. It was Staat’s mother. She was crying hysterically. Her next words are seared in Staat’s memory: “He’s dead,” she said between tears. Staat was confused. “Patty," she said. "He’s gone. He’s dead.”

“I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’” Staat remembered, his voice speeding up, “Pat’s not dead.”

Tillman was in fact dead, killed in a friendly-fire accident on a mountain range in Afghanistan. Staat lost it at first but tried to practice through it, using football as an outlet to occupy his mind while his emotions stewed.

Football could only mask Staat’s feelings for so long.

“Finally, about halfway through practice I just took my helmet and shoulder pads off and threw them and packed up my locker and said I’m out of here and took off,” Staat said. “Then I just kinda started dealing with that.”

He tried to play the following week but decided that was it. Staat was done with football.

For Doug Tammaro, Arizona State’s assistant sports information director, he couldn’t just walk away from work.

He and Tillman had become closer in the six months leading up to Tillman’s death. On the night of April 21, 2004, he heard from a local reporter that Tillman may had been killed. Ten years ago, information wasn’t as readily available in the depths of Google as it is now and Twitter had yet to be created, so Tammaro was went to sleep with his thoughts, waiting for the news to be confirmed or denied.

The next morning, no later than 8 a.m., he was feeding his then eight-month old daughter when former Arizona State athletic trainer Perry Edinger called with the news. It was true. Tillman was dead.

Tammaro had to go to work, but he couldn’t have ever prepared for what awaited him that day.

“I just remember you’re trying to get people to talk about him and everybody was afraid to talk about him because what would the family think or what would this person think?” Tammaro recalled. “And what do you say?”

It was the one day in his career where Tammaro felt compelled to be the one talking instead of coaches or players.

“We needed the right things to be said,” he said. “His legacy was starting that day.

“That was the worst day I’ve ever had on the job and hopefully it’ll never be topped.”
AVONDALE, La. -- Champ Bailey met with the New Orleans media for the first time on Tuesday. Naturally, one of the first questions for the Saints' new 35-year-old cornerback was how much football he has left in him.

“We'll see,” Bailey said. “I still got some now. That's all I'm worried about right now. I'm not looking beyond that.”

Bailey, who spoke before teeing off in a celebrity golf shootout as part of New Orleans' Zurich Classic PGA tournament, hasn't had to deal much with those types of questions throughout his stellar career.

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY Sports"I can't get out and run 365 days a year. That's just not smart," Champ Bailey said. "So it's just trying to prepare smarter and do things the right way so I can play a lot longer."
The former Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins standout is a 12-time Pro Bowler and a future Hall of Famer. But for now, the jury is still out on how much he has left in the tank.

“Well, that comes with the business,” Bailey said. “People are always gonna doubt you. You have one hiccup, and you know, you're just not the same. My thing is just to go out there and play the best I can.

“I'm not trying to prove anything to anybody but myself and my teammates. That's all I've got to do.”

Bailey struggled last season with the Broncos, largely due to a foot injury that sidelined him for 11 games.

He was then released by Denver after the season. And though the Saints showed interest in him early, he went unsigned for a month before the Saints inked him to an incentive-laden two-year deal that included only $500,000 in guaranteed money.

The Saints obviously feel like Bailey still has something left. They added him despite releasing several of their own aging players at other positions this offseason.

Bailey will compete for the No. 2 cornerback job opposite Keenan Lewis. He'll compete against younger corners Corey White and Patrick Robinson, among others.

“My thing is to find my place on this team and my role and just play to the best of my ability,” Bailey said.

Bailey mentioned more than once that the goal in New Orleans is to win a championship. He said the Saints' ability to do that was one of the main attractions for him.

When asked Tuesday if there was any one deciding factor -- be it head coach Sean Payton or defensive coordinator Rob Ryan -- Bailey pointed to quarterback Drew Brees above all others.

“Well, those are definitely some big factors,” Bailey said of Payton and Ryan. “I mean, you want a good head coach (with) a good track record. And Rob Ryan, we know what he's done in this league for defenses. But, you know, when I look around the league in my experience, you've got to have a good quarterback. And Drew Brees was a big part in that.

“You're not gonna win that many games without a good quarterback and a good pass rush. Those two things together, plus the good coaches, it makes for a good team.”

Bailey, who turns 36 in June, said he doesn't plan to alter his training regimen much this year from recent years. But he said that he did change up his routine a few years ago to better pace himself because of age and injuries.

“I can't get out and run 365 days a year. That's just not smart,” Bailey said. “So it's just trying to prepare smarter and do things the right way so I can play a lot longer.”

NFL schedule to be announced Wednesday

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
6:05
PM ET
video
The NFL schedule for the 2014 season will be released at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday. ESPN2 will have coverage from 8-10 p.m. Here is the strength of schedule and list of opponents for every team:

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2014 OPPONENTS

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ALAMEDA, Calif. -- So what, exactly, is the Oakland Raiders' reputation across the NFL, according to three of the teams’ more respected free-agent veteran signees?

“Man, the impression was they had a lot of talented players but they couldn’t finish,” receiver James Jones said Tuesday, the first day of the Raiders’ voluntary offseason workout program. Jones spent the first seven years of his NFL career with the Green Bay Packers.

Tuck
Jones
Jones
“Obviously, the record speaks for itself. I wasn’t part of the team back then but as we talked today, 4-12 is not good enough. When we played the Raiders in the past, we’re kind of putting that ‘win’ on the board already. Now, everybody’s got to look at their self in the mirror and we’ve got to understand that we really don’t get no respect, and you’re not going to get no respect when you’re 4-12, so we’ve got to go out there and take it this year. And I believe we’ve got the right guys to do it.”

The Raiders have been among the more busy teams since the new league year began on March 11, having signed 12 free agents and acquiring a new quarterback in Matt Schaub in a trade with the Houston Texans.

Granted, most of the new guys are on the backside of their careers, but to a man they believe they still have a lot in the tank, while acknowledging they have a lot to prove.

“You hear, 'This is a great team, in 2009,'" offered running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who had been with the Jacksonville Jaguars since 2006. "Whatever."

There are more chips on these guys’ shoulders, though, than questions ... or whatevers.

"Being a fan of the Raiders," added Jones-Drew, who grew up in the East Bay and still lives in Oakland, "I was always envious of Darren (McFadden) because he got to wear that (silver and black) jersey and he played well, when healthy.

"We brought the right guys in."

Meaning drama-free vets with championship pedigrees, so to speak. And a knack for knowing how to win, as defensive end Justin Tuck's two Super Bowl rings with the New York Giants attest.

And yes, Tuck thought the same as Jones when it came to the Raiders, who have not had a winning season since 2002 and are coming off consecutive 4-12 seasons.

"I would say 'talented,' but hadn’t played together as far as knowing how to win," Tuck said of the recent Raiders. "Beating themselves a little bit. Just like the game up (in New Jersey) last year. They had an opportunity to win, but they couldn’t close it out. That’s the M.O., I guess."

That’s what the veterans were brought to Oakland to do -- reverse the course and teach the team how to win.

“That’s our mentality,” said Tuck, who envisions the Raiders making like last season’s Kansas City Chiefs, who were 11-5 a year after going 2-14.

“A lot of people always say you go to Oakland for your career to die. I’m not looking at it like that. I’m looking at it like this is an opportunity to revive a storied franchise in a city with a great fan base behind this football team. The energy and excitement around this football team should be good. I’m excited about it.”
St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher has said it. General manager Les Snead has said it. Chief operating officer Kevin Demoff has said it. The Rams even put it in their renewal letter to season-ticket holders.

On Monday afternoon, Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis couldn't have made it any more clear: The time for building is through and 2014 is the year for the Rams to become relevant in the NFL's postseason conversation.

"[Strength coach] Rock [Gullickson] made a good point in the weight room today: for a lot of us that have been here for a while -- myself, Sam [Bradford], Chris Long -- enough of 'Hey, in the future we are going to be good, in the future, in the future. It's more of 'Hey, we need to be good now,'" Laurinaitis said. "I wouldn’t say we are getting old but we are not second- or third-year guys anymore. I think there's an urgency there, kind of a realization that we were fourth in our division, this isn't going to be easy to catch the Seahawks when we are still working to catch the Arizona Cardinals if we are going to be honest with ourselves.

[+] EnlargeJames Laurinaitis
AP Photo/Tom Gannam"I don't think we're far away, I just think there's a sense of urgency, kind of a realism of we are fourth in our division and that's not good enough for any of our standards," James Laurinaitis said.
"I don't think we're far away, I just think there's a sense of urgency, kind of a realism of we are fourth in our division and that's not good enough for any of our standards."

So it was that all 60 players on the offseason roster showed up Monday for the team's first day of the offseason program. And again on Tuesday. In this, the third year of the Fisher/Snead era, the excuses of years past are being tossed away. Even if the Rams have the youngest roster in the league for the third consecutive year -- a real possibility, by the way -- they've been building toward 2014 as a potential breakout season.

For that to happen, a lot is going to have to go right. Many young players are going to have to take a big step forward, an expected large draft class is going to have to contribute right away and a quarterback and left tackle coming off serious knee injuries are going to have to get and stay healthy. For now, the only thing the Rams can control is how they approach this part of the offseason program, the part known as "phase one."

That means doing everything possible to get the most of the strength and conditioning sessions and whatever little tidbits of actual football study they can get their hands on.

"Instead of denying it, we are just kind of accepting it and all we can do is work hard," Laurinaitis said. "We can't play football again for a while so just go out there and work your tail off right now while you can and realize that's our goal and our only objective to catch everybody else. Right now we are fourth. That's the reality, no matter how much it stinks or how much talent we've got. We're fourth."

As returning defensive captain, Laurinaitis was pleased with what he saw from teammates on what amounts to the first day of school for players. He said there was a noticeable growth among guys once they went from the more playful locker room area to the weight room and he could tell most of his teammates had been working out on their own.

"I think a lot of them showed up in great shape," Laurinaitis said. "You can tell [there's] a lot more maturity in them and stuff like that. I think the main question will be on the football field. You can be in better shape, look like you're faster and stuff like that but we all know sometimes it doesn't translate to the football field. We have a lot of guys, we need a whole bunch to [step up]. That won’t really show up until OTAs. Whoever we draft, that always seems to make people work harder as well. There's no bigger motivating factor than competition."

The competition at this point will come in smaller pieces like the bench press, in the sand pit and running sprints. But if the Rams are indeed going to make the next step in 2014, every step along the way counts.
Maybe the Detroit Lions are just doing their diligence on as many potential draft picks as possible, but Tuesday's visit by former Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack should only fuel more speculation that general manager Martin Mayhew might try to move up from No. 10.

Mack
Todd McShay currently projects Mack will go third to the Jacksonville Jaguars in his latest mock draft Insider, while Mel Kiper Jr. has the Oakland Raiders taking Mack at No. 5 in his latest mock draft Insider.

Mack is at least the third top prospect to make a pre-draft visit to the Lions. Potential number one overall pick Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina visited last week.

This month, the Liions also hosted Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins, projected by Kiper Jr. to go third to the Jaguars and by McShay to go fifth to Oakland.

In reporting on the visit, the Lions' team website quoted Mack as saying it would be fun to play in a defense like Detroit's.

"Just talking to coaches you can't help but get excited," Mack told DetroitLions.com. "Just being able to be mentioned with and play with a guy like [Ndamukong] Suh and [Nick] Fairley and all those guys inside.

"Knowing all those guys they have around them in [DeAndre] Levy. [Ziggy] Ansah is a new addition to the madness coming off the edge. Somebody has to get single blocked, and that’s fun."

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