NFL Nation: 09 NFC camp preview
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Campfires: Coach Ken Whisenhunt isn't afraid to make first-round draft choices earn their starting jobs. He benched Matt Leinart coming out of camp last season, then made talented rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie wait until near midseason before becoming a full-time starter. The trend could continue this summer as rookie first-round choice Beanie Wells practices with the Cardinals for the first time.
Wells projects as the long-term replacement for Edgerrin James at running back, but Ohio State's late graduation prevented him from participating in minicamps and organized team activities. That means the adjustment period for Wells could take a little longer. Expect Tim Hightower to enter camp as the tentative starter.
Meanwhile, the situation at tight end remains a mystery. Arizona is carrying six tight ends on its roster, one behind the league high. Ben Patrick, the player coaches have tried to develop as a player versatile enough to help as a receiver and blocker, faces a four-game suspension to start the season. That could open the door for Anthony Becht, Leonard Pope or Stephen Spach to seize the starting job. I don't see a clear favorite, particularly with Patrick serving a suspension and Spach coming off knee surgery.
|Jeff Mills/Icon SMI|
|Will Beanie Wells be able to avoid the injuries that plagued him in college?|
Camp will be a downer if ... Wells doesn't immediately prove he can avoid the long list of injuries that affected him in college. Arizona needs a more dynamic runner to run its offense the way Whisenhunt and offensive line coach/running game coordinator Russ Grimm want to run it. Wells has the physical ability to provide that missing element. Can he stay on the field and will he fight through some of the ailments that await every running back in the NFL?
The preferred scenario would include Wells breaking a few long runs during the preseason, setting up the play-action passing game that worked so well for Arizona when the team showed more balance in the playoffs last season.Camp will be a success if ... the reconfigured coaching staff takes control of the team and helps Arizona build on the momentum from its Super Bowl season.
Whisenhunt has stressed continuity during the first two years of his tenure. He kept the same five starters on the offensive line even though right guard Deuce Lutui had penalty problems and center Lyle Sendlein sometimes struggled while playing through a shoulder injury. While the approach worked, continuity wasn't an option for the coaching staff once the Chiefs hired offensive coordinator Todd Haley head coach.
Whisenhunt's decision to fire quarterbacks coach Jeff Rutledge and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast shook up the staff considerably more.
Warner will miss the rapport he enjoyed with Haley. The two appeared inseparable at times and the relationship seemed to benefit Warner on the field. Can the newly configured staff fill the void or otherwise find ways to keep Warner and the offense rolling?
Franchise player rules will force Dansby to wait, and he should be content "settling" for a one-year franchise deal worth nearly $9.7 million. The volatile Dockett has also committed to letting his play do the talking, a good sign for the team.
While Boldin put aside his concerns to produce last season, his situation bears monitoring. Another year without a new contract probably equates to a higher frustration level. Boldin, generally the consummate pro, might have a harder time dealing with the situation -- particularly if the team fails to meet expectations.
San Francisco 49ers
Training camp site: 49ers headquarters (Santa Clara, Calif.)
|Kyle Terada/US Presswire|
|Can Shaun Hill distinguish himself to claim the starting QB job?|
Campfires: The 49ers have quite a few position battles for a team that finished strong and feels good about its chances for contending within the division.
The quarterback race will rightfully command the most attention. Coach Mike Singletary said the players will know whether Shaun Hill or Alex Smith should be the starter, at which point Singletary will merely affirm what they know. That means Smith's status as the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2005 will not afford him any advantage in the competition. Hill's 7-3 record as the 49ers' starter over the last two seasons gives him the edge.
On defense, Dashon Goldson would have to flop or suffer another injury for the older and less athletic Mark Roman to take back his job at free safety. Dre Bly has the edge over Tarell Brown at right corner. Kentwan Balmer, the 49ers' first-round choice in 2008, could push for a starting job at left defensive end.Camp will be a downer if ... both quarterbacks flounder and veteran Damon Huard appears to be the best option. Unlikely? Perhaps. But the scenario isn't as laughable as it should be. Neither Hill nor Smith distinguished himself during the competition a year ago. Even if Mike Martz was playing favorites when he installed J.T. O'Sullivan as the starter, the fact remains that O'Sullivan enjoyed the strongest preseason of the three.
The new offensive system should better suit Hill in particular, and the 49ers have declared this quarterback race a two-man affair, ruling out Huard as a contender. Still, after years of backing up Trent Green, Tom Brady and Dan Marino, Huard wound up starting three of the first five games in Kansas City last season when the unaccomplished Brodie Croyle and Tyler Thigpen were his primary competitors.Camp will be a success if ... Hill validates his 7-3 record as the 49ers' starter, right tackle Marvel Smith makes it through training camp healthy and the push toward a full-time 3-4 defense validates Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson as promising pass-rushers.
Hitting on all three of those might be asking a bit much, but getting two of them right might be enough, particularly if the 49ers feel good about the quarterback situation.
On the receiving end: It's a little surprising to see the 49ers emerge with their deepest group of receivers in years after committing to Singletary's smashmouth approach. The change to Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye was all about making smarter use of the players general manager Scot McCloughan and former coach Mike Nolan had acquired in recent years.
That meant -- and still means -- forging an identity in the ground game. Yet, while receivers Michael Crabtree, Isaac Bruce, Brandon Jones and Josh Morgan will not be battling Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin for Pro Bowl berths this season, they do give the 49ers better potential than they've enjoyed recently.
Singletary's smashmouth roots should not and likely will not dissuade the 49ers from making frequent use of those receivers.
|Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire|
|The Seahawks must get Matt Hasselbeck through training camp unscathed.|
Training camp site: Seahawks headquarters (Renton, Wash.)
Campfires: The Seahawks weren't going to pretend that first-round choice Aaron Curry would have to prove himself in camp to earn a starting job. They put the fourth overall choice in the lineup from the beginning. No suspense there.
Most positions in Seattle appear settled. The situation at receiver should produce intrigue with Nate Burleson, Deion Branch and rookie burner Deon Butler fighting to get on the field with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and tight end John Carlson. Injuries will probably help sort out the situation. Burleson is returning from ACL surgery. Branch is entering his first full season since undergoing his own ACL procedure.
Don't be surprised if rookie second-round choice Max Unger pushes for playing time somewhere in the interior of the offensive line. He projects as the long-term starter at center if Chris Spencer plays out his contract and leaves following this season.
If Spencer holds the job, Unger figures to find his way onto the field in one of the guard spots, perhaps this year.
Camp will be a downer if ... quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's back injury flares up at any point along the way. Hasselbeck and the Seahawks say the quarterback has long since overcome the problems that helped limit him to seven starts last season. They didn't know the extent of the problem a year ago when they assured fans that Hasselbeck would be fine for the regular season. The issue is under control now, they say, but the very nature of back injuries should raise at least some concern heading into a pivotal season for the organization.
Camp will be a success if ... Hasselbeck, left tackle Walter Jones and defensive end Patrick Kerney put to rest concerns about their long-term health. Beyond the obvious injury storylines, this camp becomes a success for Seattle if Curry validates coach Jim Mora's opinion that the linebacker's pass-rushing abilities are indeed far stronger than anticipated on draft day.
Seattle badly needs to restore its pass rush to better compete against the Cardinals' passing game in a broader effort to overtake Arizona in the division. Kerney is the key, but the Seahawks are also counting on pressure from other sources: Brandon Mebane, Cory Redding, Lawrence Jackson, Darryl Tapp and possibly Leroy Hill. Significant pass-rush help from Curry would offset Julian Peterson's departure while making it easier for the Seahawks to justify having drafted a linebacker fourth overall.
Learning curve: By all accounts, the two years Mora spent in the background watching Mike Holmgren operate should leave him better prepared to handle his second head-coaching job. The way Holmgren handled everything from players to the media differed quite a bit from the more freewheeling approach Mora displayed with the Falcons.
Lessons learned? Yes, but it will be interesting to see how the Seahawks' leadership -- operating without Holmgren for the first time since 1998 -- will respond under pressure if things go wrong early.
St. Louis Rams
Training camp site: Rams Park (Earth City, Mo.)
|G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)|
|Will Marc Bulger be able to regain his old form behind a revamped offensive line?|
Campfires: The Rams need to figure out what they have at receiver, linebacker and left cornerback after overhauling their roster.
Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Drew Bennett, Trent Green, Anthony Becht, Corey Chavous, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Brian Leonard, Gary Stills, Jason Craft, Ricky Manning, Fakhir Brown, La'Roi Glover, Dane Looker, Travis Minor, Dante Hall, Nick Leckey and Brett Romberg were among the former starters and role players cast aside in the makeover.
None was irreplaceable. Getting rid of them was the easy part. Identifying and developing adequate replacements will take time.
Camp will be a downer if ... top draft choices Jason Smith and James Laurinaitis aren't ready to contribute right away. Coach Steve Spagnuolo has taken it slowly with both rookies, but he likely will not have that luxury once the regular season gets going. Smith and Laurinaitis probably must play and play well for the Rams to avoid trouble.
Laurinaitis' development is critical because the Rams appear so thin at linebacker after releasing Tinoisamoa. Even if Laurinaitis plays well, the Rams' depth at linebacker could betray them.
Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Marc Bulger finds comfort behind an upgraded offensive line. Bulger can be a highly accurate passer when opposing defensive linemen aren't pounding the confidence out of him. The player who topped 4,300 yards passing with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions three years ago hasn't resembled even remotely the scared soul seen under center for the Rams too often over the last two seasons.
The Rams' should start to regain some swagger on the line with 320-pounder Jason Brown taking over at center and the personably intense Smith at tackle. Right guard Richie Incognito won't be the only starter with some snarl, in other words. That should help provide improved protection for Bulger and leadership for the offense.
Fantasy spin: Running back Steven Jackson should not hurt for opportunities now that the Rams have landed a 320-pound center (Brown, free agent from the Ravens) and a 258-pound fullback (Mike Karney, late of the Saints). The Rams will try to develop their young receivers, but rarely should any of them represent a more formidable option than Jackson. And if he gets some luck with injuries, look out.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Training camp site: Englewood, Colo.
Campfires: A key to camp will be how well rookie running back Knowshon Moreno adjusts. The Broncos drafted him with the No. 12 overall pick because they wanted him to have a major role in the offense. Denver coach Josh McDaniels envisions Moreno as a three-down back. Even though Denver is deep at running back, Moreno wasn't drafted to be a complementary piece.
The Broncos' offense is changing and the Georgia product can be the centerpiece of the unit if he has a strong camp. Moreno was impressive in the offseason and Denver wants to see him lock down a starting job in camp.
The Broncos want to see second-round pick Alphonso Smith take command of the nickel cornerback job. The team sent its first-round pick in next year's draft to Seattle to acquire Smith with the No. 37 pick. He failed to solidify the nickel spot in the offseason, battling with second-year player Jack Williams for the job. Expect the playmaking Smith to pull away from Williams as camp marches on.
|Ron Chenoy/US Presswire|
|Knowshon Moreno could become the workhorse in Denver's offense if he has a good camp.|
Camp will be a downer if ... starting quarterback Kyle Orton doesn't make strides in McDaniels' system. McDaniels picked Orton to be his first quarterback in Denver after the Jay Cutler fiasco. McDaniels chose Orton over several other options because he thought the former Chicago quarterback could excel in his system.
Orton was named the starter over Chris Simms in June, partly to give him the most time in training camp with the first team. If Orton doesn't respond well to McDaniels' offense during camp and in the preseason, the Broncos will be quite nervous about their once-solid quarterback position heading into the season.
Camp will be a success if ... receiver Brandon Marshall doesn't miss any time due to a holdout and is recovered from a late March hip surgery. Marshall has asked to be traded. Yet, he recently said he planned to report to training camp on time -- he is due Monday because he is an injured player -- to avoid being fined.
If Marshall shows up with a good attitude and doesn't show any wear from the surgery -- as the team expects the case will be -- it will be a positive development after a rocky start to McDaniels' era.
Aged secondary: There is no doubt Denver improved its secondary this offseason. The unit, which featured seven different starting safeties in 2008, was revamped. Veteran Andre' Goodman will now start opposite left cornerback Champ Bailey, the lone holdover. Veterans Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill were brought in at safety.
This is a solid group. But it is an old group. Dawkins turns 36 in October. Bailey is 31. Goodman will turn 31 next month and Hill will turn 31 in November. It is the oldest secondary in the NFL since at least 2000. The unit may be improved, but it will be interesting to see how this group's legs hold up late in the season.
Kansas City Chiefs
Training camp site: River Falls, Wis.
Campfires: The Chiefs will be interested to see how their defensive line, which they have invested so much in, adjusts to the 3-4 alignment that the new regime has installed in Kansas City.
Former LSU stars Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson are the centerpieces of the line. Dorsey was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2008 draft. Jackson was the No. 3 overall pick this year. Dorsey is a natural 4-3 tackle who will likely be tried at end. Jackson will play end. If Dorsey, who was so-so as a rookie, can make the transition to the 3-4, the Chiefs have a chance for an excellent line. Jackson may not be a dynamic pass-rusher, but he is an excellent run-stuffer and is expected to bring toughness to the line. Both of these former top picks have to show they are ready during camp to bring life to a defense that set an NFL
record for fewest sacks last season with 10.
Replacing the legendary Tony Gonzalez, traded to Atlanta in April for a second-round draft choice next year, will be a big part of training camp. Second-year player Brad Cottam may have an edge. He is a blocking specialist. Journeymen Tony Curtis and Sean Ryan should get a chance to show what they can do. Whoever wins the job likely won't be a major part of the passing offense. New coach Todd Haley was not a big proponent of the position as the offensive coordinator in Arizona last season.
|Kirby Lee/US Presswire|
|Dwayne Bowe has had some problems with hanging on to the ball.|
Camp will be a downer if ... Matt Cassel flops. Cassel is the guy in Kansas City. That became evident when the Chiefs gave him a monster contract earlier this month. Cassel will be paid more than $40 million in guaranteed money in the next three years.
Cassel was a surprise star for New England last season after he took over for an injured Tom Brady in the first game. The Chiefs, led by new general manager Scott Pioli, who witnessed Cassel's success first hand as a New England executive, are hoping the quarterback can enjoy the same success this year. Still, Cassel has a lot fewer weapons than he had with New England, and he will be working behind a young and unsettled offensive line. If Cassel takes his lumps in camp and in the preseason, the Chiefs may have some buyer's remorse.
Camp will be a success if ... the team buys into Haley's approach. The Chiefs were shell-shocked as they transitioned to the tough Haley, who was groomed by Bill Parcells. The Chiefs were used to the easy-going ways of Herm Edwards. Haley is much more demanding and harsher than Edwards ever was.
Haley is a certified screamer and he has expressed this offseason that his team -- which won a total of six games over the past two seasons -- needs to be better in all phases of the game. He also directed a mass weight-loss program because he thought his team was too heavy and too soft. A coach like Haley can either light a fire under a team or alienate it. His first training camp could indicate which way it will go. If the team is behind Haley, the Chiefs' rebuilding period could be shorter than expected.
Hold onto the ball: Cassel's best weapon is receiver Dwayne Bowe. He is a talented player and has a chance to emerge as one of the best young receivers in the game and team with Cassel as a top pass-catch tandem. However, he needs to learn to catch the ball consistently.
Bowe needs to work on his hands during camp. He struggled with dropped ball some during the offseason. He has struggled holding onto the ball in the past. While Larry Johnson appears to have some NFL life left, Bowe is the Chiefs' top weapon. If he drops balls during the season, Cassel's job will be even more difficult. Camp has to be a time where Bowe finds his ball-catching groove.
Training camp site: Napa, Calif.
|AP Photo/Paul Sakuma|
|The Raiders are hoping first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey can shore up their receiving corps.|
Campfires: The Raiders have tried to upgrade an offensive line that has struggled in recent years, especially in pass protection. The team has added several pieces and the situation at tackle will be watched closely.
The team brought in talented and massive tackle Khalif Barnes as a free agent from Jacksonville to compete on the left side. However, there were indications after the minicamp season that young Mario Henderson was playing well enough to be considered the favorite to win the job over Barnes. Barnes could still be in the mix at right tackle if Henderson wins the job on the left side.
The Raiders will also need to get some clarity at receiver. The unit has been one of the team's weakest areas for years and the Raiders need some reliable players to emerge during camp. The team is counting on youngsters Chaz Schilens, Johnnie Lee Higgins and Darrius Heyward-Bey. If these young players show they are ready to take the next step, Oakland's offense has a chance to be balanced.
Camp will be a downer if ... quarterback JaMarcus Russell doesn't make strides. Russell has to show he is ready to be an NFL quarterback this season, and training camp and the preseason will go a long way toward telling whether he is ready to make a move. This is Russell's second full season as a starter. He has had some moments, but he has been mostly inconsistent, including during this offseason.
Russell will have extra pressure on him in the presence of veteran backup Jeff Garcia. Garcia has not been shy in expressing that he thinks he should be the starter. However, the Raiders will only be masking a problem if Garcia, 39, is the quarterback. If Russell doesn't have a good camp and he doesn't show consistency is his passing and improved leadership, the Raiders will be in a tough spot.
Camp will be a success if ... the Raiders develop a strong plan on how to use their tailbacks. The Raiders have three solid runners in Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas and Michael Bush. All three players possess rare talents that can help Oakland's offense. The Raiders struggled to use all three well last season.
Training camp must be used to find a suitable role for all three players. This may be the NFL's deepest running back group if all three stay healt
hy. The Raiders can find their niche on offense with McFadden, Fargas and Bush. Finding a way to do it has to be a goal of camp.
Ready or not: All eyes will be on Heyward-Bey, a receiver who was Oakland's first-round pick, and Mike Mitchell, the safety who was Oakland's second-round pick. The selections of both players were roundly criticized on draft day. Heyward-Bey was the first receiver taken at No. 7, but he was considered a low first-round talent. Mitchell was not on the draft board of several teams, yet the hard-hitting Ohio University product was taken with the No. 47 pick.
The Raiders believe both players can be special and it is clear both players have some skills. Yet, because of the negative hype stemming from their selections, extra pressure will be on both players. Their every move will be watched in camp. Welcome to the NFL, fellas.
San Diego Chargers
Training camp site: San Diego, Calif.
Campfires: This camp will be about seeing what a promising rookie class can do in San Diego. For a veteran-based team, there is an intriguing influx of young talent coming to town.
|Christopher Hanewinckel/US Presswire|
|The Chargers' secondary needs Antonio Cromartie to return to Pro Bowl form in 2009.|
First-round pick Larry English is expected to start right away and be part of an intriguing threesome of pass-rushing linebackers that includes Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, in his first full season in his role, has been scheming ways all offseason to use all three together. The Chargers believe English is ready to step in and make an impact right away.
Keep an eye out for two other rookies. Third-round pick Louis Vasquez will be given a chance to emerge as a starter at guard. Sixth-round pick Kevin Ellison will have the same chance at safety. He may have a steeper climb up the depth chart than Vasquez, but the Chargers think Ellison can make an impact as a rookie. The USC product was downgraded in the draft because of injuries, but he is skilled and he is a feared hitter. He could be the answer at one of the Chargers' few weak spots. But he needs to show his ability during camp.
Camp will be a downer if ... Merriman doesn't make strides from a serious knee injury he suffered last year. Merriman missed all but one game last season.
The Chargers have been cautiously optimistic about Merriman, but they have been bringing him along slowly. He has been working out on his own and the team will likely be cautious with him during camp. However, Merriman looks fantastic and he reports that he is doing well. The team expects him to be ready for the regular season. The Chargers' entire pass defense missed Merriman last year. If Merriman can't show he is getting ready for the season, the Chargers may be in store for another rocky season on defense.
Camp will be a success if ... cornerback Antonio Cromartie has a big camp and preseason. Cromartie had a disappointing season in 2008 after being a star in 2007. He suffered with injuries and off-field issues last season. He has worked out very hard this year and the Chargers were thrilled with him during the offseason. If he has a big camp, the Chargers should be in great shape on defense, especially if Merriman doesn't have a setback.
Is this it for LT? The Chargers and star running back LaDainian Tomlinson nearly parted ways this offseason before agreeing on a restructured new contract. Tomlinson just turned 30. He is coming off an injury-plagued season in which his production slipped.
He has said often this offseason he feels great. He needs to show he still has the skills that made him one of the greatest running backs in recent memory.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Training camp site: Flowery Branch, Ga.
Campfires: The offense is pretty much set with last year's starters virtually intact and the addition of tight end Tony Gonzalez. That's going to put the focus of camp on a defense that overachieved last year and will have five new starters.
The hottest battles will be in the secondary, where the Falcons have to replace safety Lawyer Milloy and cornerback Domonique Foxworth. Atlanta's coaching staff is hoping second-round pick William Moore can step in and start at safety, but second-year pro Thomas DeCoud provides a decent fallback option if Moore's not ready. DeCoud had a strong showing throughout the offseason and isn't going to give up the job without a fight.
Cornerback might be the most intriguing spot to watch in camp. The Falcons are set with Chris Houston on one side, but it's a wide-open competition for the other starting spot and the nickelback job. The plan is to throw Brent Grimes, Von Hutchins, Chevis Jackson and rookies Christopher Owens and William Middleton out there and see who rises up. Keep an eye on Jackson, who came on strong in the second half of his rookie season last year.
Camp will be a downer if ... there are any injuries on the offensive line. The Falcons have a starting five that probably played over its head last year and very little depth. Veteran Todd Weiner retired after last season and the Falcons tried to replace the flexibility he gave them by signing veteran Jeremy Newberry. But Newberry retired earlier this week because of knee problems.
|Paul Abell/Getty Images|
|Tony Gonzalez gives quarterback Matt Ryan another target in the Falcons' passing game.|
Coach Mike Smith is very good at mixing up the tempo of his practices, but he may have to be more cautious with his offensive line. Left tackle Sam Baker had back problems last year and center Todd McClure has wear and tear on his 32-year-old body. If some young linemen don't step up -- and there aren't many likely candidates -- the Falcons may have to keep an eye on the waiver wire for some depth.
Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Matt Ryan masters the offense he looked so good in as a rookie. That's a strong possibility. Although he already was very good, Ryan looked noticeably better in minicamp practices in the spring.
The Falcons didn't hold back much of the playbook from Ryan last season, but they're going to expand it significantly this year. The addition of Gonzalez suddenly gives the Falcons the pass-catching tight end they lacked last year. That should only help receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, who blossomed with Ryan last year. And don't forget second-year receiver Harry Douglas. He showed some promise last year, but looked ready to take on a bigger role in offseason workouts.
The Norwood factor: One player to keep an eye on in camp and preseason games is running back Jerious Norwood. The Falcons realize they put a very heavy load on starter Michael Turner last season and they don't want him approaching 375 carries again. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has to find a way to give Norwood some of Turner's carries. That's not as simple as just swapping them out. Turner i
s a power runner and Norwood is a speed guy. The Falcons need to put in some wrinkles to take advantage of Norwood's skills.
Training camp site: Spartanburg, S.C.
Campfires: The Panthers are returning 21 of 22 starters from a team that went 12-4. But the disastrous playoff loss to Arizona means that Carolina can't be complacent. Coach John Fox never has been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons and he needs to if he wants to stay off the proverbial "hot seat."
|Paul Spinelli/Getty Images|
|Jake Delhomme and the Panthers need to put last season's playoff loss to Arizona behind them.|
Fox needs to revitalize a defense that collapsed down the stretch last season and much of that responsibility will fall to new coordinator Ron Meeks. Barring injury or upset, the only new starter will be cornerback Richard Marshall, who will replace Ken Lucas. A lot of fans are wondering if Marshall is ready to be a starter. The coaching staff wouldn't have let Lucas go if Marshall wasn't ready. He's been a very good nickelback the past couple of years and should do fine opposite Chris Gamble.
The bigger question might be who's going to replace Marshall at nickelback? The Panthers seem to have rookie Sherrod Martin ticketed for that spot. That may seem a little risky, but Fox has a pretty good track record when it comes to playing rookie cornerbacks quickly. Marshall and Ricky Manning Jr. were able to step in and contribute as rookies.
Camp will be a downer if ... Steve Smith pulls a repeat of last year. Early in camp, Smith punched out Lucas, who was kneeling on the sideline. That led to a two-game suspension for Smith. The incident may have helped pull the team together in some ways, but the Panthers can't endure something like that again.
Things tend to get hot in Spartanburg, but Fox and his staff need to keep the ultra-competitive Smith cool. Smith's nasty streak is a big part of what makes him such a great receiver. But he needs to save that for the regular season and let the team get through camp peacefully.
Camp will be a success if ... the Panthers can put the Arizona playoff loss behind them. Losing badly at home was a terrible end to what had been a very nice season, and Fox has to eliminate any hangover from that. One of Fox's strengths is his ability to motivate and he's got to convince this team it can win big games when it matters most.
Fox has been adamant about sticking with quarterback Jake Delhomme, who had a disastrous outing against Arizona. That's a strong show of confidence from the coach. But Fox may have to spend part of camp convincing the rest of the team that the move is a result of confidence and not stubbornness.
It starts up front: Early in Fox's tenure, his defensive line was dominant and the team was built around the front four. That hasn't been the case in recent years. The back seven is very good, but it can become great with more production up front.
Although end Julius Peppers is the only big name on the line, the Panthers have the ingredients to be good up front. They didn't draft Everette Brown to spend his rookie season on the bench. He'll join in a rotation with Peppers, Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton. If Peppers can play at a level close to his $17 million franchise tag, there could be a lot of sack opportunities for Brown, Johnson and Brayton.
New Orleans Saints
Training camp site: Metairie, La.
Campfires: As far as pure numbers, the Saints have the most legitimate position battles in the NFC South. That competition should be a good thing for a team that underachieved, particularly on defense, last season.
General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton did a nice job of creating competition with a bunch of offseason moves geared at making the defense better. Last year's biggest problem area was in the secondary and that's where the best camp battles will be. The Saints paid free-agent cornerback Jabari Greer big money and that probably makes him a starter.
|Crystal LoGiudice/US Presswire|
|Rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins will battle for one of the starting cornerback spots.|
But the battle for the other starting cornerback spot should be intense. The Saints used their first-round pick on Malcolm Jenkins, who probably has the most physical talent of any rookie on the roster. But Jenkins truly will have to earn the starting job because the Saints think very highly of Tracy Porter, who got off to a strong start before suffering an injury in his rookie season. Porter brings a high level of confidence and he's not going to give up a starting spot very easily. If the Saints open the season with Jenkins as their nickelback, they'll have far more depth than they've had in recent years.
Camp will be a downer if ... it's anything like last season. A rash of injuries started in last year's training camp and the plague continued through the regular season. That was a major reason why the Saints missed the playoffs. Even with added depth, they can't endure another season like last year. Payton ran the NFC South's most-intense camp last season and he may have learned from it.
The Saints have moved their camp back to their practice facility and a look at their schedule shows a large amount of afternoon practices in the indoor facility. There also are a fair amount of days where the Saints will practice only once. That should help keep the team fresh and cut down on the injuries. That's hugely important for a team that will open the season witho
ut starting defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant, who are suspended for the first four games.
Camp will be a success if ... Gregg Williams' defensive system takes hold quickly. Coordinator Gary Gibbs took the fall for last season's defensive failures and the Saints went out and spent big money to bring in Williams. Once viewed as one of the league's top defensive minds, Williams is looking for redemption after recent struggles in Jacksonville and Washington.
There will be some changes in the defensive scheme. But, more importantly, he'll be trying to install a mindset. Williams is known for having high-motor, aggressive defenses. The Saints haven't had anything that resembled that throughout Payton's tenure. There is plenty of talent in place and the defense showed signs it was developing an aggressive attitude in minicamp. If that continues, the Saints could have the one thing that's separated them from the playoffs the past two seasons.
Who will run the ball? That remains a huge question for a team whose passing game is pretty close to perfect. Payton's not going to take the ball out of the hands of quarterback Drew Brees, but the coach has made it clear he wants to develop a running game that's more consistent than last season.
With Deuce McAllister gone, the Saints have made it clear they plan to go with the tandem of Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. Payton will use camp and the preseason games to experiment with their roles and try to put Bush and Thomas in spots that play to their strengths.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Training camp site: Tampa, Fla.
Campfires: Fans are going to need rosters for this training camp. Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway, Jeff Garcia and Warrick Dunn are gone. Tampa Bay's youth movement, which starts with new coach Raheem Morris, is in full swing as the Bucs truly look for a new identity.
Starting jobs are open all over the place, particularly on defense. The Bucs have moved safety Jermaine Phillips to Brooks' old spot at weakside linebacker and are putting Sabby Piscitelli in Phillips' old spot. If either of those moves fail, the Bucs could always move Phillips back to safety, but the team is planning on this switch working out. It better because the Bucs have plenty of other questions elsewhere. Is veteran cornerback Ronde Barber still capable of playing at a high level? Is defensive end Gaines Adams finally ready to play up to his potential?
|J. Meric/Getty Images|
|Play him or sit him? That's the decision the Bucs face regarding rookie quarterback Josh Freeman.|
But the biggest question of all -- and the one most fans will be watching -- is at quarterback. Tampa Bay used its first-round pick on Josh Freeman and Morris already has dubbed him as the franchise quarterback. The Bucs initially threw out all sorts of hints that Freeman, who left college a year early, would sit as a rookie. But he came on faster than expected in minicamp and that could change the thinking. The Bucs probably will enter the preseason looking to start either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich. But it's not out of the question that Freeman could outshine both veterans. If that happens, the Bucs would have to speed up their plan.
Camp will be a downer if ... none of the quarterbacks steps forward. The rest of the offense is pretty solid, but this team won't go anywhere without a quarterback who can make the passing game work. There are reasons why McCown has never been a true starter and why Leftwich has gone from being a franchise quarterback in Jacksonville to being just a guy.
McCown has enough athleticism to make you believe there's upside, and Leftwich still throws the ball very nicely at times. But nothing is certain with either of these guys. If Freeman plays like a rookie in camp, the Bucs may have to settle on a quarterback by attrition. That's not a great situation because if McCown or Leftwich starts slowly, fans will be screaming for Freeman before he's ready.
Camp will be a success if ... the new schemes catch on. The Bucs aren't going to look anything like Jon Gruden's Bucs. New offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski is installing a power running game and a vertical passing game. New defensive coordinator Jim Bates is going away from the famed Tampa 2 defense and going with a system that relies heavily on pressure from up front.
Whatever happened to Michael Clayton? After a brilliant rookie year, the wide receiver spent the past few seasons buried in Gruden's doghouse. A lot of people were stunned when the new regime handed Clayton a big contract, instead of letting him walk as a free agent. There's a reason for that.
The new regime believes Clayton can be a productive starter. Forget all the talk about what a good blocker Clayton is in the running game. Sure, that will help. But Clayton isn't getting big money just to block. He got paid because Morris, general manager Mark Dominik and Jagodzinski think he can be a solid No. 2 receiver.
Trey Wingo, Cris Carter and Marcellus Wiley preview the NFC South.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
Training camp site: San Antonio
Campfires: The one legitimate camp battle that will take place features second-year cornerbacks Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins. Terence Newman's the obvious starter, but Scandrick, a fifth-round choice, will challenge Jenkins, a first-round pick. Scandrick was the more complete player his rookie season, but Jenkins has vowed to win the job -- via his blog.
|Al Bello/Getty Images|
|Dallas needs Roy Williams to improve upon his first season with the Cowboys.|
It might be interesting to keep your eye on the situation at left guard, where Kyle Kosier will try to hold off Montrae Holland and last year's fill-in, Cory Procter. Kosier has more experience, but Holland might have more athletic ability.
The running back rotation also will be intriguing to watch. The Cowboys have hinted about starting Felix Jones and returning Marion Barber to his cleanup role. I'm not sure it's the right way to go, but the Cowboys will certainly take a long look at it. Also take a look at the competition for the No. 2 receiver spot. Miles Austin appears to have the inside track, but Patrick Crayton's not ready to concede.
Camp will be a downer if ... Tony Romo and Roy Williams can't get on the same page. They had their moments during offseason workouts, but they didn't wow anyone. Perhaps Williams' dedication to weightlifting and conditioning will pay off.
I think the Cowboys also need Anthony Spencer to make a strong move at outside linebacker. If he doesn't take the next step or he ends up with another injury, it would certainly be a downer.
Camp will be a success if ... Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett's able to implement a more balanced offense that utilizes the Cowboys' depth at running back. Garrett's under a lot of pressure to live up to his immense paycheck.
Success also means strong performances from free-agent additions Igor Olshansky and Keith Brooking. The Cowboys need Brooking to be an upgrade over Zach Thomas, who never looked totally comfortable at his inside linebacker spot in the vaunted Wade Phillips 3-4. One more thing: The Cowboys need to agree to an extension with DeMarcus Ware. That would help alleviate any potential tension with the team's best player.
Surprise, surprise: I think Sam Hurd will have an outstanding camp and could actually challenge for the No. 2 receiver role. He really impressed me during OTAs -- when he wasn't working with the trainers.
New York Giants
Training camp site: Albany, N.Y. (University at Albany)
Campfires: I'll have my eye on the running back competition from the start. Danny Ware wants to battle Ahmad Bradshaw for the right to replace Derrick Ward. But he has a long way to go to win the trust of the Giants' coaches. Rookie Andre Brown could emerge during camp as a key contributor. The rookie running back has won universal praise early in his time in the Meadowlands.
|William Perlman/US Presswire|
|Defensive lineman Chris Canty is one of the new faces the Giants are counting on.|
At linebacker, free agent Michael Boley was supposed to shore up some of the deficiencies in coverage. Now he's banged up and will serve a one-game suspension. The Giants will have some strong competition at linebacker with players such as Chase Blackburn, Bryan Kehl, Danny Clark and the talented but oft-injured Gerris Wilkinson.
Of course, we'll all be watching the competition at receiver. Can Hakeem Nicks break into the starting lineup in training camp? We're about to find out.
Camp will be a downer if ... The Giants don't see some of their young receivers take the next step. Domenik Hixon and Steve Smith should be serviceable as the starting duo. But the team would love for either Sinorice Moss or Mario Manningham (or both) to emerge as a viable threat. That would free up Nicks and Ramses Barden to sort of ease their way into the regular season.
Oh, and we can't forget Super Bowl hero David Tyree. He's looking for another book deal.
Camp will be a success if ... All of the new additions on defense (Rocky Bernard, Chris Canty, Boley, etc.) mesh early. I think Canty will flourish from the defensive tackle spot and he'll still be able to slip outside and rush in some situations. Those players should make Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora even more effective.
I also think it's time for Kenny Phillips to have a breakthrough season. If he has a strong camp, I think he'll be headed for Pro Bowl consideration.
Surprise, surprise: Give me Brown at running back. The Giants were thrilled to land him in the fourth round and Jerry Reese thinks he'll be in the mix for the No. 2 role behind Brandon Jacobs.
|AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh|
|Quarterback Jay Cutler and the Bears will need a young receiver to step up in camp.|
Training camp site: Olivet Nazarene University (Bourbonnais, Ill.)
The only Bears receiver with a guaranteed job is Devin Hester. Otherwise, the position is wide open. Veterans Earl Bennett and Rashied Davis will compete with rookies Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox for the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 receiver positions. If general manager Jerry Angelo doesn't like what he sees, the Bears could pursue a proven veteran later this summer.
The free safety position is also wide open as the Bears replace the departed Mike Brown. Craig Steltz ended spring practice atop the depth chart, but he'll have to battle converted cornerback Corey Graham. Former New Orleans starter Josh Bullocks is also on the roster as a third, if distant, option.
Although the Bears hope it never matters, they'll have to sort out their depth behind new quarterback Jay Cutler. Unproven Caleb Hanie is set to battle free agent Brett Basanez in a competition that, like receiver, could ultimately give way to a veteran from outside the organization. Hanie, however, is a favorite of coach Lovie Smith and will get every opportunity to win the job.
Camp will be a downer if ...
... the Bears realize this summer that they haven't given Cutler enough weapons. While young players don't always develop on a convenient timetable, it should be pretty clear by mid-August if the Bears have enough mature depth at the receiver position. Adding a veteran at the end of the summer is an imperfect solution and would limit his chances to develop a rapport with the new quarterback.
The best-case scenario is if Bennett can parlay his familiarity with Cutler -- they were college teammates at Vanderbilt -- into a quick claim on the No. 2 job. That would lessen the pressure on the rookies and relieve the need to rely on Davis, who isn't a starting-caliber receiver. But if Bennett stumbles, the domino effect could significantly diminish the Bears' passing attack early in the season.
Camp will be a success if ...
... Smith can lay the groundwork for a revived defense. Smith has taken over as the de facto defensive coordinator and will call most defensive signals during games. He'll need to restore the Bears' core values -- producing a pass rush with the front four and making big plays in the secondary -- in order to meet the standard his defenses set earlier this decade.
It might be difficult to judge the success of this venture during camp and even in the preseason; Smith isn't likely to give away too much from a schematic standpoint before the regular season begins. But make no mistake: The origin of any improvement must come during technique and drill work in training camp.
Quietly, the Bears shook up 60 percent of their offensive line this offseason. Center Olin Kreutz and right guard Roberto Garza are the only returning starters. Chicago is hoping that left tackle Orlando Pace, left guard Frank Omiyale and right tackle Chris Williams can breathe some life into a group that grew stale last season.
Pace is the short-term key. Injuries have caused him to miss 25 games over the past three seasons. His health and conditioning will be monitored carefully in training camp. It will be interesting to see if the Bears also work Williams at left tackle -- his natural position -- as a contingency should Pace suffer another injury.
Training camp site: Team facility in Allen Park, Mich.
|Rashaun Rucker/zuma/Icon SMI|
|The Lions would like Daunte Culpepper to earn the starting quarterback job ahead of Matthew Stafford to start the season.|
No Black and Blue battle will be more scrutinized than the competition between Lions quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper and Matthew Stafford. Conventional wisdom suggests Culpepper will win the job as long as he maintains his offseason conditioning level. But coach Jim Schwartz has said Stafford will start as soon as he meets two criteria: when he is ready and when he surpasses Culpepper as the team's best option.
Stafford's status as an underclassman suggests he faces a steep learning curve this season. That, along with Culpepper's familiarity with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's scheme, imposes a two-pronged challenge for Stafford to win the job in training camp.
Another rookie, safety Louis Delmas, appears to be one of the few locks to start in the secondary. You would assume Phillip Buchanon will win one cornerback spot, but the other two starting roles seem wide open.
Anthony Henry could start at cornerback, or he could move to safety. Other safety candidates include Daniel Bullocks, Marquand Manuel, Kalvin Pearson and Stuart Schweigert. The competition will be wide open as the Lions look for defensive backs who are aggressive and eager for contact.
Camp will be a downer if ...
... every player on the roster suffers a season-ending injury on the first day of camp. Otherwise, there is nowhere to go but up for a team that went 0-16 last season.
Seriously, there is one position where Detroit is keeping its fingers crossed. The Lions signed 36-year-old nose tackle Grady Jackson to help tighten their run defense and also keep offensive linemen off their talented trio of linebackers. But Jackson missed all of spring practice after undergoing knee surgery in February. Jackson is as important as any player the Lions acquired this winter and he needs to get at least some practice time in training camp to ensure he will be ready for the season.
Camp will be a success if ...
... Culpepper can win the job outright, rather than become the starter simply because Stafford isn't ready. If Culpepper can recapture some of his previous magic with Linehan, the Lions will have a much better chance to be credible in Schwartz's first season.
And despite the protestations of modern-day thinkers, Stafford can only benefit from some time on the sidelines. That doesn't mean he should sit for three years. But rare is the quarterback who can start -- and succeed -- on day one. A rejuvenated Culpepper is the first step in the Lions' rebuilding project.
Through trade and free agency, the Lions have put together a competent group of linebackers in Julian Peterson, Larry Foote and Ernie Sims. It will be interesting to watch defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham experiment with ways to utilize their playmaking skills.
Cunningham has said he plans to blitz 40 percent of the time this season. Peterson could make some big plays if he has maintained the athletic skills of his prime. The same goes for Foote. We'll get a good idea of how much each player has left in the tank this summer.