NFL Nation: 2010 Camp Confidential NFC

Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

August, 20, 2010
8/20/10
1:34
PM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 32

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The quivering hand pressed against Jason Brown's backside belonged to the first player chosen in the 2010 NFL draft.

Alas, the week before St. Louis Rams training camp was tough on quarterback Sam Bradford's nerves.

The No. 1 overall draft choice could not be sure when his agent and the team would reach a contract agreement, and by the time Bradford finally arrived, the other quarterbacks had a couple days' head start on him. All eyes were on the franchise savior from Oklahoma when Bradford lowered himself under center for the first time during camp.

Bradford might have appeared cool and in command from afar, but one veteran teammate had a better, uh, feel for the situation.

"You couldn't see it on his face, but I knew he was nervous because when he got under center and put his hand underneath my rear end, his hand was shaking -- it was quivering," Brown said. "And of course, I didn't say anything, but it's a very awkward feeling for me as well when someone has their hand shaking underneath your rear end."

Brown didn't say anything to Bradford because he figured the quarterback would settle down quickly. Bradford did, and he appears well on his way to earning the starting job heading into the regular season.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Scott Rovak/US PresswireSam Bradford's teammates appear to be confident the quarterback can hold his own as a rookie.
In fact, if anyone has reason to quiver at this point in camp, it's the defensive backs trying to defend passes they sometimes do not see coming -- as when Bradford laced one between Oshiomogho Atogwe and Craig Dahl before the safeties even turned around. It's not Bradford's accuracy or timing that have caught defensive backs' attention so much as the combination of those all-important quarterback traits. Early indications suggest the Rams could have the best quarterback in the division sooner rather than later.

"You see a lot of greatness in him -- what he brings, his skill set, very talented, very intelligent," Atogwe said.

Several of Bradford's teammates have experience breaking in first-round quarterbacks elsewhere. Brown (Joe Flacco), tight end Billy Bajema (Alex Smith), center Hank Fraley (Brady Quinn), defensive end James Hall (Joey Harrington), defensive tackle Fred Robbins (Eli Manning) and guard Jacob Bell (Vince Young) pointed to Bradford's maturity, intelligence, competitiveness, demeanor and accuracy.

The way they freely praised Bradford suggested genuine excitement, not the obligatory kind.

"I played with Steve McNair [in Tennessee] and with Ben Roethlisberger [at Miami (Ohio)]," Bell said, "and I thought, 'This guy, the way he throws the ball, man, I haven't seen anybody in person like that on the practice field, ever.' "

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. When will Bradford become the starter? It's an upset if Bradford isn't the No. 1 quarterback from the beginning of the regular season even though veteran A.J. Feeley remains the starter for now. Feeley and Bradford are sharing first- and second-team reps in practice. The team doesn't want to rush Bradford, but all signs point to the rookie grasping the offense quickly. The Rams think he's mature enough to handle what figures to be a rough rookie season. Why delay the inevitable if Bradford is looking good?

2. Can this team defend the pass? The Rams appeared to beef up the middle of their defense by adding Robbins, but the NFL is a passing league and the Rams could struggle to get pressure consistently. They have two pass-rushers -- Chris Long and Hall -- and their secondary has battled injuries throughout camp. Long should continue his improvement. Hall's sacks fell off to 4.5 last season as he transitioned from backup to starter. He is 33 years old. Kevin Dockery has exceeded expectations at cornerback, where rookie Jerome Murphy has also shown promise. But with Atogwe still rounding into form following injury, the secondary is a bit of a question mark.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
Jerry Lai/US PresswireSteven Jackson's health remains instrumental in the Rams' success this season.
3. What happens if Steven Jackson gets hurt again? The Rams do not have a proven running threat behind Jackson, even though 2009 seventh-round draft pick Chris Ogbonnaya performed well against the Arizona Cardinals late last season. Ogbonnaya might be a good third-down back because he protects the passer well and can catch the ball, but the Rams could be in trouble if they needed a starter to replace Jackson for a few games. Jackson appears fully healthy so far, but he's coming off back surgery. Brian Westbrook's decision to sign with the 49ers hurt, but the Rams saw him mostly as a third-down back at this stage of his career, anyway. Expect the Rams to monitor the waiver wire for running backs as teams reduce to 53 players on Sept. 4.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Danny Amendola. There's enough uncertainty at receiver for this position to qualify under the "Hottest Questions" heading, but Amendola appears to have found a home as the slot receiver in the Rams' personnel groupings with more than two wideouts. Injuries forced Amendola to play multiple positions last season. Camp practices have convinced me -- and the Rams -- that Amendola's quickness can make him a threat. Said Feeley: "He has polished his game. Some of these guys discover themselves after a year of playing and realizing what they can do. The guy is a special player. The guy is going to make plays and have a lot of catches this year ... a poor man's Wes Welker trying to establish himself. He fits that mold right now. The guy is cat quick."

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Offensive line continuity. The way the Rams' line struggled during the exhibition opener against Minnesota was deceiving. Rookie Rodger Saffold was making his first start at left tackle (against Jared Allen, no less). Right tackle Jason Smith had only recently returned from injury and the team knew he might wear down as the game progressed. Brown was filling in at right guard. These mitigating factors point to a broader problem: continuity. Only this week have the Rams gotten their projected starting five linemen on the field together. That must change as the Bradford era gets under way.

OBSERVATION DECK
[+] EnlargeFendi Onobun
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonTight end Fendi Onobun has made a positive impression in camp.

  • Multiple fights broke out during a recent Rams practice and that has to be a welcome sign for a team without enforcer types. The Rams have spent the past couple of years putting into place building-block players with apparently solid character. Long, Smith and James Laurinaitis qualify as "safe" draft choices along those lines. The team has now added some veteran seasoning -- think Robbins, Feeley, Na'il Diggs and Fraley -- but there's still something missing. The next step for St. Louis could be to add some players with a few rough edges. The best teams tend to have a few good players teammates fear. The Rams need more of them.
  • Jackson rehabbed from back surgery with a vengeance and he's looking strong as ever. Jackson also sounds happy. He clearly appreciates coach Steve Spagnuolo's evolving approach to training camp. Spagnuolo polled coaches and players anonymously for ideas after last season. Some complained that a tough 2009 training camp featuring live tackling left the team with weary legs heading into Week 1. Spagnuolo listened, putting limits on some of the contact and giving players more time between practices. Longer term, Spagnuolo wants to reach a point where young players know how to practice without the staff having to manufacture intensity.
  • Looks like the Rams might find a role in their offense for rookie tight end Fendi Onobun. Considered a project coming out of college, Onobun has shown he's further along than the Rams anticipated. The leaping end-zone grab he made in practice this week wasn't out of the ordinary for Onobun. Rookies often must contribute on special teams to earn spots on the 45-man game-day roster. Onobun made a positive impression as a gunner in the exhibition opener.
  • Rookie receiver Mardy Gilyard will bring needed swagger if his body holds up. Gilyard has his own style and doesn't seem to worry about what others think. He practices wearing abbreviated gym shorts over bicycle shorts for a distinctive 1980s look. Gilyard has stepped up his production in practice this week. An arm injury remains a potential concern.
  • Long appears more comfortable with himself and his status on the team. As a rookie and even last season, I sensed Long felt the pressure of being a No. 2 overall draft choice, to the point that he sometimes sounded apologetic about it while finding his way as a pro. Long showed obvious improvement late last season, however, and he appears to be asserting himself more readily. He played a prominent role in recent camp fights and called out Bajema for chipping him unexpectedly.
  • After last season, the Rams were thinking receiver Brandon Gibson might develop into an important part of their offense. They can't be so sure at this point because Gibson has missed an extended period with a hamstring injury. The Rams need Gibson to get on the field and produce during preseason. The team is cautiously optimistic about some of its prospects at receiver, but injuries were a concern last season. Donnie Avery, who bulked up this offseason to become more durable, took a hard shot in practice and came back strong the next play. Rookie free agent Dominique Curry has great size (6-foot-2, 224 pounds) and stood out at times. But I sense the Rams' fingers are crossed at this position. "If they play to their ability, we'll be OK," general manager Billy Devaney said.
  • Atogwe dropped multiple interception chances in practice, which is unusual for him. He's among the team's more conscientious players, though. Atogwe stayed after every practice I watched to work on catching passes. He was the last guy out there.
  • The Rams hoped to get something from linebacker Bobby Carpenter after acquiring him from Dallas in the Alex Barron trade. That's a tough sell at this point. Carpenter isn't working with the starters. The first time I noticed Carpenter in practice was when someone knocked him on his back.

Camp Confidential: Dallas Cowboys

August, 19, 2010
8/19/10
1:01
PM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 4

OXNARD, Calif. -- No one would blame 34-year-old linebacker Keith Brooking for taking a day or two off in training camp, but that's not his style. He missed the Cowboys' OTAs this offseason after having a relatively minor knee surgery and now he's refusing to leave the field.

Brooking, who played in a Super Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons, hears the clock ticking on his career -- and he also hears rookie Sean Lee's footsteps.

"Dick Butkus is my idol and he always said you never want your last play to be a stinker," Brooking told the NFC East blog . "In saying that, he knew how precious this game is. The window's closing on me every passing day and it's time to push all my chips in."

Brooking has become the inspirational leader of this defense. He was frustrated last season when he had to come off the field in the nickel and he has reminded everyone in this camp that he can run step for step with running backs in pass coverage. Everyone expected Lee to replace Bobby Carpenter in the nickel defense, but Brooking's not making it easy.

"They've been drafting guys to take my place for 13 years," he said. "I thrive on the competition and I'm going to keep coming no matter who they bring in."

That said, Brooking and Lee have become fast friends. Lee speaks in awe of Brooking and Bradie James. Coach Wade Phillips has taken to calling Lee "Brooking" when he sees him around camp.

"Sean Lee keeps me young," Brooking said. "They've made a lot of comparisons between us, and most of them are accurate."

But Lee will have to wait his turn with the Cowboys because Brooking may be having the best camp of his 13-year career.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Marc Colombo
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireDallas hopes to have Marc Colombo back in time for the opener at Washington.
1. Is there enough depth on the offensive line? That's a question folks were asking even before starting left guard Kyle Kosier and right tackle Marc Colombo suffered injuries. Colombo probably will return in time for the opener against Washington on Sept. 12, but Kosier could miss a couple of games. Veteran Montrae Holland (48 career starts) will replace Kosier. Holland's had his moments in the league, but he has started only two games since joining the Cowboys in '08.

Robert Brewster may get the start in Colombo's place, and that's a problem. Brewster's footwork has been questionable and he's getting blown off the ball in pass protection. And on Wednesday, the Cowboys couldn't seem to decide whether quarterback Tony Romo would play Saturday against the Chargers. The Cowboys are extremely talented at the skill positions, but a couple of injuries on the offensive line could derail this team. The good news is that left tackle Doug Free has had an excellent camp. Owner/general manager Jerry Jones believes that Free will be an upgrade over Flozell Adams. I think that may be the case down the road, but for now, Free's still somewhat of a wild card.

2. Will the Cowboys score in the red zone at any point this preseason? Romo's coming off the best season of his career with 26 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. He stopped putting so much pressure on himself to constantly make plays, in part, because he knew the defense would get him the ball back quickly. But for all the yards, the Cowboys were not a good red zone team. They ran the ball well between the 20s, but they were stymied after that.

Romo told a couple of us Monday that we're going to "enjoy" the Cowboys' new red zone plays. He said that Jason Garrett was purposefully being vanilla with his play calls because he doesn't want to tip his hand. The good news is that tight ends Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett have made several plays in the red zone during practice. If Romo can develop some trust in the 6-foot-6 Bennett, it would give the Cowboys quite a weapon. Bennett has made some remarkable catches since returning from an ankle injury Sunday. He's trying to persuade Romo to go ahead and force the ball to him even when it looks like he's covered.

Dez Bryant
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe Cowboys are uncertain if Dez Bryant will play in the team's remaining preseason games.
3. How much of a setback was Dez Bryant's high ankle sprain? Bryant was supposed to be the story of this camp, and he delivered all the headlines until Jon Kitna fired a pass behind him. He appears to be ahead of schedule in his rehab work with Cowboys associate head athletic trainer Britt Brown. Bryant has done a nice job of staying in the playbook and he passed a pop quiz from Garrett after practice Wednesday. You can stand there and watch him play catch during practice and be amazed by the way he snags balls with his left hand. The more I'm around Bryant, the more obvious it becomes that he's going to force his way into the starting lineup early in the season. I think we'll see him play in the final preseason game just to get a feel for game speed. It will be interesting to see if Phillips lets Romo play a series with him just to work on their rhythm.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Cornerback Cletis Gordon and safety Danny McCray tied for this coveted award. My colleagues at ESPNDallas.com have Gordon with 10 interceptions in training camp. The ball just seems to find him and that's a great thing for a cornerback. He'll be the Cowboys' fourth cornerback.

The University of Texas wanted to make McCray into a linebacker, so the Houston native opted to play at LSU. He's one of at least nine rookies from the school and he was not even close to being the headliner. He played in the shadows of Chad Jones, the Giants' third-round draft pick who was in a horrific car accident this offseason. Special teams coach Joe DeCamillis thinks McCray could be a star for him. His play on special teams jumped off the screen in the Hall of Fame Game, but he also has shown excellent range at safety. There's no way to keep McCray off the 53-man roster.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

The Cowboys still like wide receiver Kevin Ogletree's potential, but he's really missed some great opportunities in this camp. The knock on Ogletree is his consistency, and he hasn't done a lot to overcome that reputation. He has tremendous speed and runs nice routes. But he'll lose focus and drop a couple of balls in practice. When Bryant suffered the ankle injury, Ogletree should've seized the opportunity. But all he did is make Patrick Crayton look more valuable than ever.

[+] EnlargeMartellus Bennett
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezMartellus Bennett is out to prove he can be a threat in Dallas' offensive attack.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Bennett has pretty much taken over camp the past three days. He told me Tuesday that he watched film of Brandon Marshall before practice every day because he loves his intensity. Bennett believes that he's been too nice of a guy to everyone in general and wants to play with more attitude. I don't know about the attitude, but he's catching everything. Perhaps he'll gain Garrett's trust heading into the season. As I mentioned earlier, I think he could be a huge weapon in the red zone.
  • Nose tackle Jay Ratliff had surgery on both elbows in the offseason and he's finally playing without pain. He's relentless in practice and he has put some of his mixed martial arts training to use. Ratliff has quietly become an important leader for this defense.
  • Brewster's still a work in progress, and that's as nicely as I can put it. He's had a difficult time anchoring in the two preseason games and he's lunging at defenders. The good news is that he's doing everything in his power to turn the corner. And he's going to get a huge opportunity this Saturday against the Chargers. If he can hold up well as the starter (if Alex Barron is out), that should solidify his roster spot.
  • Romo walked past the Beast West Coast bureau Wednesday and jokingly asked me whether he was playing Saturday. Moments earlier, Phillips had indicated that Romo might play an entire quarter. In other Romo news, he was seen sprinting after practice Wednesday near a busy street in Oxnard. I was later told that he was filming a spot for a TV network. According to an eyewitness, he was trailed by two motorcycle cops.
  • David Buehler has to be the cockiest place-kicker I've met -- and that's not a bad thing. The former USC kicker doesn't seem to have a care in the world, even though Cowboys fans are wondering what he'll do in real games. Other than that 49-yarder that he almost hooked into the stands in Canton, Ohio, he has been pretty consistent.
  • The Cowboys are going to try to get the ball to Crayton in the red zone. They've been lining him up in the slot and they're hoping to take advantage of his strength and sure hands. I love watching him compete against press coverage. He's a heady player who knows how to set up a route.
  • Safeties coach Brett Maxie has done some solid work with Alan Ball in camp. Ball looks like he has been starting for years. There are no false steps with this guy right now. Maxie is trying to get Ball to be a little more vocal on the field. That's not really Ball's nature, but he's getting a lot better at communicating with his teammates.
  • The John Phillips knee injury really hurts the Cowboys' offense. Garrett had made Phillips an important part of the running game and he was getting a lot better at catching passes. In fact, he was sensational against the Bengals before the injury. Without Phillips, the Cowboys only have two legitimate tight ends on the roster. We'll see what Scott Sicko does when he comes back from this concussion, but it's not a deep position right now.
  • What a superb camp it has been for Terence Newman. Everyone thought Mike Jenkins had passed him by, but Newman has responded with an excellent camp. He's doing a good job of getting his hands on everything.
  • Felix Jones looks so much bigger than I remember him, but the burst is still there. The Cowboys may have the best three-deep backfield in the NFC. Tashard Choice is an excellent back who could start for a lot of teams. Garrett has to find different ways to get him the ball. This team needs to get Jones and Choice in space.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 30

TAMPA, Fla. -- New construction in these parts largely has halted due to the economic situation over the past couple of years. So what’s that structure going up on the practice fields right behind One Buccaneer Place?

It’s the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There still is a lot of work to be done. But, unlike last year, you can see a foundation. Just look at the quarterback, Josh Freeman. When it comes right down to it, he really is all the Buccaneers are looking at. Yeah, guys like Gerald McCoy, Donald Penn, Barrett Ruud and Aqib Talib might also be viewed as possible cornerstones in the blueprints. But Freeman is the 6-foot-6 beam the Bucs are counting on to support this entire franchise.

Count last year as a redshirt season for Freeman and the Bucs. The team went 3-13 and Freeman really didn’t get to play until the second half of the season. Now, he’s been through an entire offseason. Now, the offense is his. Now, it’s time for Freeman and the Bucs to grow and make some sense out of the youth movement the franchise decided to begin last year.

“The most obvious thing that I hope people are noticing is we are giving Josh Freeman tools around him that he can grow with,’’ general manager Mark Dominik said. “We have Kellen Winslow and the tight end is important whether you have a young quarterback or an experienced one. And we wanted to put in a receiving corps that can grow together so their timing can be consistent. When you look back through NFL history, you see that consistently with the successful teams. You put two or three receivers together with the same quarterback for five, six or seven years and they become a timing machine and that’s what we wanted to do.’’

To that end, the Bucs drafted receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams in the first four rounds. They also traded for receiver Reggie Brown and they still have Sammie Stroughter, who might have been the steal of last year’s draft class.

Yeah, the Bucs also did some work on the defense. They used their top two draft picks on defensive tackles McCoy and Brian Price in an attempt to stop getting abused by running games. Their linebackers aren’t bad and the secondary has some potential. This defense isn’t anything close to the defense of Tampa Bay’s glory days, but it has possibilities.

The offense isn’t anything like in the glory days and that’s the way the Bucs want it. With Freeman, the Bucs believe the offense can be better than it ever has been. The belief is Freeman can be the first true franchise quarterback this team has had since Doug Williams.

The potential is there and the Bucs have put some parts around Freeman. Now it’s time for him to put this franchise on his back.

“Nothing can replace game time,’’ Dominik said. "But I will say, for an offseason, for a young quarterback, I could not have asked for more. He did everything we expected and more. I don’t remember him missing an offseason day and he was a sponge in the meeting rooms. His leadership has come through in that way. He’s got a natural charisma that you see guys want to bond with him and follow him.’’

THREE HOT ISSUES

Mike Williams
Gary Rothstein/Icon SMIRookie Mike Williams appears to be on track to earn a starting job.
1. What’s the receiving corps going to look like? That still is being sorted out, but Williams, the fourth-round draft pick, appears to be on his way to a starting job. He’s shown a knack for big plays ever since his arrival and seems to have developed a quick chemistry with Freeman. Benn started a little slower, but has come on of late. But Brown might open the season as the other starter.

Pair Williams and Brown with Winslow and Freeman suddenly might have a better cast of receivers than he did late last year when No. 1 receiver Antonio Bryant was pouting his way out of Tampa Bay. The Bucs have been cautious with Winslow and his knee throughout camp, but the belief is he’ll be ready for the regular season and that will provide Freeman with a go-to guy.

But the Bucs aren’t going to be running the West Coast offense they did with Jon Gruden and they certainly aren’t going to use the ball-control system that Tony Dungy ran. They’ve got a quarterback with big-play ability and they’re going to take their shots down the field. Williams, Brown and Benn all can go downfield and make catches in the possession game. But the real downfield threat might be Stroughter. He had an excellent rookie season, already has a rapport with Freeman and can make a lot of things happen as the slot receiver.

2. How much will the arrival of the two rookie defensive tackles help? McCoy and Price should be an instant upgrade over former starters Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims, who got pushed all over the field last year. The Bucs also plan to use Roy Miller in the rotation. That’s a pretty promising trio of young defensive tackles.

But it remains to be seen if this group can be dominant right from the start. The standard for defensive tackles in Tampa Bay is Warren Sapp. He might be ticketed for the Hall of Fame, but the fact is Sapp struggled as a rookie and took time to develop into a force.

The Bucs think McCoy should be fine from the start. Price got off to a great start in camp, but an injury has forced him to miss some time and that may set him back a bit. The Bucs are going to ask a lot of McCoy, Price and Miller. They want them to clog things up against the run and free up Ruud to make plays. They also need a strong interior pass rush because there’s no real force on the outside. Ready or not, McCoy and Price will have the opportunity to shine right from the start.

Raheem Morris
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIThings have been quieter in Raheem Morris' second offseason as the Bucs head coach.
3. Is this team headed in the right direction with coach Raheem Morris? The Bucs were in a state of chaos through much of last year. Morris fired coordinators Jeff Jagodzinski and Jim Bates early, changed defensive schemes early in the year and ran a quarterback competition that’s only real purpose was to make sure Freeman didn’t get on the field too soon. The results weren’t pretty.

But Morris’ second offseason has been one of peace and quiet and it only takes a few brief glances out at the practice field to see that the Bucs are much more organized than last year. Morris knows he made mistakes last season and he’s learned from that.

He’s running the defense now and believes he put Freeman in good hands with offensive coordinator Greg Olson and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. The Bucs still may need another offseason to get the talent level to where they really want it, but there are some parts in place and Morris needs to start showing some progress.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Aqib Talib, cornerback. The physical talent always has been there with Talib. But his first two seasons were rocky because of off-field issues and a feeling that he wasn’t always focused on football. However, the coaching staff is quietly buzzing because a new side of Talib has emerged throughout the offseason and carried over into camp. He’s more focused and more mature. The Bucs are keeping their fingers crossed on this one, but there is a belief that Talib can become a Pro Bowler very quickly if he stays on his current path.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Stylez G. White, defensive end. The Bucs know White never has been a very good practice player. But they thought he might come in with some inspiration this camp because he has a chance to be the top pass-rusher on team that doesn’t have any proven star in that area. That hasn’t happened. White’s been very ordinary in practice and doesn’t seem interested in being a leader for a young defensive line. Is that enough to cost him a starting job? Probably not because the Bucs really don’t have much behind him. They’re hoping White steps things up when the regular season arrives, but they’re a little worried that might not happen.

[+] EnlargeWard
Steve Dykes/US PresswireDerrick Ward has struggled to make an impact since his arrival in Tampa.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Bucs signed running back Derrick Ward to a big contract last year, but that move hasn’t worked out at all. Cadillac Williams has a firm grip on the No. 1 spot on the depth chart and is a favorite with the coaching staff. Ward is not. He’s been unimpressive throughout his time with the Buccaneers and could not hold onto the ball in the first preseason game. Kareem Huggins has outperformed Ward in camp and probably will earn a roster spot. That’s something that’s no longer a guarantee for Ward. But Huggins is undersized and the Bucs may have to hold onto Ward as insurance because Williams has a long history of injuries.
  • If you’re looking for the strongest unit Tampa Bay has, look at the linebackers. Geno Hayes and Quincy Black have had fantastic camps. Ruud already was pretty good and should be helped by the arrival of the young defensive tackles.
  • The competition for the job at nickelback is ongoing. Elbert Mack held that role last year, but the Bucs would like to find an upgrade. E.J. Biggers has shown some flashes and could unseat Mack. Rookie Myron Lewis is the guy the Bucs really hoped would claim that spot. But he’s been sidelined with an injury and the lack of practice time might prevent him from getting immediate playing time.
  • Michael Clayton and Sims are two veterans on the bubble when it comes to roster spots. Sims has gone from being a starter to fighting for the fourth spot at defensive tackle. He might hang on just to give the team some experience in the interior and he’s not going to cost the Bucs a fortune because he’s scheduled to make $1.2 million. Clayton clearly isn’t going to be a starter. He’s got $3 million in guaranteed salary this year, so the Bucs may keep him and hope to get something out of their investment. But it won’t be much more than a fourth or fifth receiver and special-teams player.
  • With all of the buzz about Huggins, Clifton Smith has been somewhat forgotten. But don’t rule out the possibility of Smith getting some time in the backfield, mainly as a situational player. Smith has the ability to make things happen in the open field and the Bucs may use him as a receiver out of the backfield. Smith is coming back from concussion problems last season and he should solidify the return game. Smith made the Pro Bowl as a return man as a rookie in the 2008 season.
  • Look for Keydrick Vincent to claim a starting guard spot from Jeremy Zuttah. Vincent started in Carolina last year and is a solid run blocker. Put him with center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph and the Bucs can be very good in the interior of the line. Zuttah might be best suited to serving as the top backup at both guard spots and center.

Camp Confidential: Atlanta Falcons

August, 16, 2010
8/16/10
1:25
PM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 8

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The leadership seen on the Atlanta Falcons’ practice field these days was hatched in the locker room of a former Arena Football League team.

Two years ago, that's where Matt Ryan, Curtis Lofton, Sam Baker, Harry Douglas, Kroy Biermann, Thomas DeCoud, Chevis Jackson and a handful of others dressed. Now, Ryan’s the quarterback, Lofton’s the quarterback of the defense, Baker and DeCoud are key starters and Douglas, Biermann and Jackson are expected to play bigger roles.

“We’re a super-tight group,’’ said Lofton, who has started at middle linebacker since his rookie year and has used camp to emerge as the unquestioned leader of the defense. “When you’re a rookie, you don’t get to be in that [main] locker room. You’re down in the Georgia Force locker room. That’s where it started for us. It’s kind of like we had our own little team. All of us went through our ups and downs, and we all leaned on each other and it’s just continued that way.’’

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesQuarterback Matt Ryan and the rest of the Falcons' "Class of 2008" believe they will make noise in their third year.
The Force is gone and the Class of 2008 has taken over the main locker room. This class already has done some very good things, namely leading the Falcons to the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history. But last year’s 9-7 campaign was a bit of a disappointment for a team that had hoped to follow an 11-5 season in 2008 with another playoff berth.

This offseason, the team’s marketing department came up with a new advertising campaign, “Rise Up.’’ The slogan is plastered on billboards in the Atlanta area, and a television commercial with actor Samuel L. Jackson passionately delivering the message plays frequently on stations throughout the market.

“I think 'Rise Up' is a good theme for our organization,’’ Ryan said. “I’ve been here for two years, and I feel like we’ve done a good job. But I feel like we have the kind of talent to take it to the next level.’’

In other words, the Class of 2008 believes the third year is when it’s time to take over the real locker room and fully take control of what happens on the field. That’s why the Falcons are embracing, not running away from, the “Rise Up’’ campaign.

“We have something special going on here,’’ Lofton said. “Everyone knows it. We feel like we’re about to rise up to the occasion and hopefully make it to the Super Bowl.’’

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Is the defense really ready to rise up? The Falcons' defense was not very good the past two seasons. The front office and coaching staff are well aware, and that’s why the defense has looked different in camp.

[+] EnlargeSean Weatherspoon
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIFalcons rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has a good chance of grabbing a starting role.
There are many positive signs. The Falcons aim to be more aggressive. The overall team speed is better. The energy and enthusiasm the defense shows is reminiscent of New Orleans last preseason when new Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had his unit chasing after every loose ball. There also seems to be a growing swagger to a defense that simply had none the past two years. Part of that is coming from rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, a talking machine who seems destined to be a starter at one of the outside spots. Weatherspoon’s energy seems to be rubbing off on Lofton, who seemed a bit stoic in his first two seasons. They celebrate after big plays, a trend that’s spreading throughout the defense.

Atlanta’s secondary has been revamped, with the signing of cornerback Dunta Robinson to a big free-agent contract being the key addition. There is a lot of work to be done, but the early impression is the defense has a whole new look and attitude

“We can be great,’’ DeCoud said. “We can be one of the best defenses in the league. If everyone builds the confidence and the swagger and keeps building up each other, we can be one of the elite defenses in this league.’’

2. Where will the pass rush come from? The biggest moves the Falcons made in the offseason were adding Weatherspoon and Robinson. That should help the secondary and linebacker corps. But the Falcons didn’t make any dramatic moves at defensive end after a season in which the pass-rush production was disappointing.

The Falcons studied that area closely and decided to stick with the ends they already had. Atlanta firmly believes that veteran John Abraham (who dropped from 16.5 sacks in 2008 to 5.5 last season) still has plenty left. He came to camp in outstanding shape and has shown signs he can return to dominant form. The Falcons also believe Biermann has grown in his first two seasons and might be ready to emerge. They think second-year pro Lawrence Sidbury is still a work in progress, but believe he’s about ready to start delivering results.

But the biggest reason the Falcons didn’t import any defensive ends is because they believe players at other positions will help make the rush better. With defensive tackle Peria Jerry returning from injury and the arrival of third-round pick Corey Peters, the Falcons believe they can create more of a surge in the middle, freeing up the ends. Weatherspoon also has the speed to apply pressure on blitzes, and coaches believe the arrival of Robinson and improved play in the secondary will create more opportunities for coverage sacks.

3. Are Ryan and the offense ready for the next step? Many thought Ryan took a step back in 2009 after a stellar rookie season. The Falcons don’t think Ryan regressed, but they do expect him to take a big step forward this season.

Ryan and the offense were handcuffed from the start last season. Harry Douglas, expected to be a big factor as a slot receiver, went out with a knee injury early in camp. Running back Michael Turner, who admits he didn’t take great care of himself last offseason, got banged up early and missed close to half a season. Ryan also dealt with a toe injury and the offense never really hit its stride.

Douglas, Turner and Ryan are healthy and the presence of Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez means the Falcons should be able to do what they want on offense. They still are going to be a run-heavy team because of Turner’s skills. But Douglas’ return gives the Falcons someone who can stretch the field and open things up for White and Gonzalez. Look for offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey to structure this offense to play more to Ryan’s strength as a passer.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeCorey Peters
Dale Zanine/US PresswireFalcons third-round pick Corey Peters has been better than expected in training camp.
Defensive tackle Corey Peters. With Jerry coming off the injury and Jonathan Babineaux suspended for the season opener in Pittsburgh, the Falcons used a third-round pick on Peters. They thought they were getting depth, but they might have more than that. Performing better than expected, Peters can play the run and generate pass-rush push in the middle and could be in the starting lineup on opening day. Even if he’s not, Peters is going to get a lot of playing time because the Falcons are serious about rotating defensive linemen. They’ll also slide defensive end Jamaal Anderson inside at times, giving them four quality defensive tackles.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Strong safety William Moore. After missing almost his entire rookie season with an injury, the Falcons hoped Moore would grab the starting job. But Moore has been banged up again and hasn't had a lot of practice time. The Falcons thought Moore could provide an upgrade over veteran Erik Coleman. But, at least in the short term, it looks as if the Falcons will be sticking with Coleman as the starter.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The starting cornerback spot opposite Robinson remains unsettled. But the Falcons are content with that because they think the preseason competition there has been healthy. Christopher Owens probably has a slight lead on Brent Grimes. But Grimes, the best natural athlete on the team, is putting up a good fight and making flashy plays. Veteran Brian Williams is coming back from a knee injury and provides an experienced and dependable alternative. But the best way for the Falcons to move forward as a defense might be to go with Owens as starter and Grimes as nickel back.
  • The one bright spot from injuries to Turner and fellow running back Jerious Norwood last year was the Falcons discovered that Jason Snelling can be a decent backup. The Falcons plan to be careful not to overuse Turner, and Norwood’s durability has been an issue throughout his career. Turner will get the bulk of the carries and, if Norwood’s healthy, he’ll get playing time because he’s a home-run threat. But Snelling also has earned playing time. He has the trust of the coaching staff and can do a little bit of everything out of the backfield.
  • The Falcons aren’t ready to make any immediate changes to their offensive line. With an eye toward the future, they drafted guard Mike Johnson and center Joe Hawley. Right guard Harvey Dahl and right tackle Tyson Clabo could become free agents after this season, and center Todd McClure is nearing the end of his career. Johnson has had a decent training camp and Hawley is off to a slow start. But the Falcons believe both rookies have potential and versatility. Each could get playing time this season.
  • Fifth-round pick Dominique Franks hasn’t been mentioned a lot in the cornerback competition, but he has been better than expected. Franks isn’t a candidate to start, but he has shown potential. He also could be an immediate factor in the return game.

ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 3

MANKATO, Minn. -- The question typically follows The Question. After Minnesotans ask, "Is Favre going to play?" they almost always follow with this one: "How does the rest of the team look?"

In a sign of what has been a wild summer already, the former is much easier to answer than the latter. Quarterback Brett Favre still seems likely to re-join the team later this month, but his once-and-future teammates missed so many training camp practices that it was nearly impossible to gauge the state of the team. Pro Bowl receiver Sidney Rice missed all 24 practices because of a mysterious hip injury. Receiver Percy Harvin (funeral/migraines) missed 21, tailback Adrian Peterson (hamstring) sat out 16, center John Sullivan (leg) was significantly limited in 20 and right guard Anthony Herrera (back) missed seven.

In all, more than half of the Vikings' offensive starters missed a majority of training camp. It might prove a manageable total for a team that has returned nearly intact from the one that advanced to the NFC Championship Game, but the injuries and indecision conspired to make for some nervous days at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Coach Brad Childress did his best to weather what he termed a minor storm, but his skill for finding the bright side has surely been tested.

"People ask me if this is the most number of players that I can remember sitting out," Childress said. "No, it's not. I read the [news] clips. Philadelphia, they had 14 guys sitting out at one point. I guess [the media] is the one that has to determine whether it's the key guys or not. As the mother hen, I would like them here taking every turn and taking everything. The downside is they're not getting those turns. But the upside, and I have to look at the upside, is you have other players who are getting elevated reps."

Indeed, the Vikings will have the most well-trained junior varsity team in the NFC North. The state of their varsity team, however, remains unknown.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Brett Favre
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesIt seems the Vikings are expecting Brett Favre to return this season.
1. To what extent did Favre's uncertainty impact the rest of the team's preparation? Most players experienced a similar drama last season, and it doesn't appear that many are fretting his ultimate decision or are distracted by the indecision. But that's largely because they all expect him to return, and it was telling when tight end Visanthe Shiancoe blurted that a surprise retirement "would be a blow to the team." Not coincidentally, a muzzled Shiancoe has hardly been heard from since.

Another respected veteran, cornerback Antoine Winfield, said: "We are all hopeful that he comes back. It would be nice to spend another season with him, but at this point we don't know. But either way, it's not going to make my job any easier or harder. I still have to go out there and perform and make as many plays as I can."

As far as on the field, history trumps intuition. It makes sense to suggest that an offense is behind for as long as its quarterback stays away. But Favre's remarkable mid-August adjustment last season makes it difficult to make that argument.

2. Have the Vikings done enough to fortify their secondary? Starting right cornerback Cedric Griffin is still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and the Vikings have opened his job up to four players: Lito Sheppard, Asher Allen, Benny Sapp and rookie Chris Cook. Sheppard makes the most sense as a short-term starter, but Cook was impressive on every level in training camp.

Cook displayed sophisticated cover skills, enough speed to stay with most receivers and, at 6-foot-2, an imposing physical presence. Sheppard has held on to his first-team job, but it could be a matter of time before Cook displaces him.

Meanwhile, the Vikings have created a legitimate competition at strong safety between incumbent Tyrell Johnson and second-year player Jamarca Sanford. If all things are equal, I'm guessing the Vikings will favor Johnson, a high second-round draft pick in 2008. But Sanford is a live wire, a strong hitter and won't go quietly.

Coaches believe Johnson has responded well to the challenge, but they want to see it translate into more plays -- big tackles, interceptions, forced fumbles -- during preseason games.

[+] EnlargePeterson
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyAdrian Peterson has missed 16 training camp practices.
3. Is there a connection between Favre's indecision and the lengthy absences of Rice, Harvin and Peterson? I can't tell you how often I've heard that question in the past week or so. It comes down to whether players resent the double standard Favre has enjoyed since the end of last season, and if some of his most prominent teammates are passively protesting. All I can say is that no overt evidence exists to support that charge.

I agree that it seemed suspicious when the Vikings' three top skill players all came up with reasons to miss most of training camp. Conspiracy theories are great, but in the end that's all they are -- theories. The most important fact is there is every reason to believe all three players will be ready to play when the regular season begins.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

When middle linebacker E.J. Henderson first fractured his left femur last December, initial reports suggested he would need a year to recover. That timetable suggested that Henderson wouldn't return to the field, if at all, before the 2011 season. Given his age (30) and history of significant injuries, you wondered if his career was over. But Henderson has cut his recovery time in half and appears on his way to re-claiming the starting job in time for the Sept. 9 season opener at New Orleans. By the second week of camp, Henderson was taking all of the first-team repetitions while his understudy, Jasper Brinkley, was pushed back to the second team. Considering the titanium rod that holds Henderson's leg in place, such a quick return would be nothing short of a miracle.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Ever since the Vikings made him a second-round draft pick in April, Toby Gerhart has figured as the heir to Chester Taylor's vacated role as the No. 2 tailback. But when the Vikings broke camp Thursday, Albert Young was clearly ahead of Gerhart on the depth chart. There is plenty of time for that order to change, but however you look at it, Gerhart had a tough camp. He somehow incurred the wrath of a number of defensive veterans; nose tackle Pat Williams and defensive end Ray Edwards both took their shots at him during practice. Perhaps it was just a visible portion of the NFL toughening process, but there's no doubt Gerhart has some climbing to do before the season begins.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Tarvaris Jackson
    Icon SMITarvaris Jackson played only a handful of snaps in 2009 but would be the starter if Favre retires.
    There is no doubt that Tarvaris Jackson, and not Sage Rosenfels, is the No. 2 quarterback and will be the starter if Favre ultimately decides not to play. Jackson has developed a realistic mentality after living through various incarnations of FavreWatch the past three years, and as he does every summer, he threw some tantalizing passes during individual camp drills. But there is a big difference between unleashing 60-yard ropes in practice and playing quarterback at an NFL level during games, and Jackson remains somewhere in the middle.
  • Rosenfels reportedly struggled during the early stages of camp, but he looked decent during the three days I watched practice. I once thought Rosenfels would be traded or released if Favre returned, but now I'm not so sure. To this point, there is no way the Vikings could choose rookie Joe Webb over Rosenfels for the No. 3 job -- and keep a straight face. Frankly, Webb flashed some athletic skills but otherwise looked overwhelmed during camp. There is no way he is ready to be on an NFL roster. One option: Keep two quarterbacks on the active roster and put Webb on the practice squad.
  • Although the Vikings are splitting kicking duties between Ryan Longwell and Rhys Lloyd in the preseason opener at St. Louis, it's hard to believe Longwell won't be the team's place-kicker this year. Lloyd will be a high-priced kickoff specialist. But in explaining the initial split, special teams coordinator Brian Murphy said: "There is no preconceived notion about how this roster will develop. We want to see everyone compete at their highest level. We want to see them put in every position possible. If we get that at every position, we will be a better football team."
  • Of all the veterans who missed significant camp time, Sullivan's absence might have been the most significant. He struggled at times during his first year as a starter and needed every practice repetition he could get. It's especially important to see if Sullivan has improved his core strength to stand up to NFL nose tackles.
  • After noting the Vikings' long list of camp absences, it's only fair to note that two of their biggest -- and older -- players participated in every practice. Pat Williams, 37, and left tackle Bryant McKinnie, 30, were on the field every day.
  • It appears as though Winfield has made it all the way back from a foot injury that made him a part-time player in 2009. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier admitted the team wasn't certain that would be the case when camp began, but Winfield experienced no setbacks after an offseason of rest and rehabilitation.
  • Childress has used a John Wooden maxim as one of his primary messages of training camp. "It's in all of their manuals and I'm talking to them about it," Childress said. "It's this: 'The main ingredient to stardom is the rest of the team.' It's a great statement. We'll find out how much guys can put their stuff away for the greater good."

Camp Confidential: Seattle Seahawks

August, 12, 2010
8/12/10
3:06
PM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 25

RENTON, Wash. -- Elevated speakers pump out PG-13 lyrics and hip-hop beats all through Seattle Seahawks practice.

"I'm fresh, I'm fly, I'm always high," boasts rapper Lloyd Banks of G-Unit fame, "got ya b----es waving at me when I roll by."

Later, it's a song from Usher creating the visuals: "Honey got a booty like pow, pow, pow."

And this from another rapper, Akon: "I'm the boss, it only takes one call for a driver to hit you up and drop you off and that's all. Guess what? I won't be takin' that fall. Homie, I got cake, that's what I'm payin' them for."

Thirty-six-year-old safety Lawyer Milloy, the second-oldest player on the team behind kicker Olindo Mare, grooves on the sideline during a break for the first-team defense. His head coach and the Seahawks' unofficial hype man, Pete Carroll, runs a spirited practice a few yards away. Afterward, I ask Milloy bluntly whether it's credible for a 58-year-old white guy from Marin County to like G-Unit. Milloy laughs. He played for Carroll in New England more than a decade ago and he jumped at the chance to play for him again.

"The thing about a leader, the leader has to understand and know the people that he is leading," Milloy explains. "[Carroll] is willing to step into our world a little bit and that's the sign of a good leader, man -- somebody that will get up there and rock to the music. He might not listen to the lyrics, but he can find the beat."

In theory, anyway.

"I'm not saying he's always on beat," Milloy says, "but, you know, it's just good to see that our leader is out in front. Everything he wants us to do, he's leading by example."

The big question upon Carroll's hiring was whether his enthusiastic style would translate from USC to the NFL. Carroll isn't running from his reputation as a rah-rah coach. He's embracing it and winning over players, at least so far, with an approach to training camp that represents a 180-degree turn from the tough camp Jim Mora ran last summer. Mora's own conditioning level was such that his resting heart rate was 41 and doctors couldn't make a stress test tough enough to bring his rate to peak levels. If he could achieve such fitness, shouldn't professional athletes half his age? The team worked harder during camp than anyone imagined. In retrospect, it's possible the 2009 Seahawks never quit on Mora so much as they ran out of gas.

Carroll has given players full days without practice. Two-a-days ended after about a week. There have been no three-hour practices.

"Best training camp I've ever been involved with," 10th-year receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "We go harder than any training camp I've ever been in when we're out there. Everything is fast, fast, fast. But he's giving us ample rest and I'm not used to that. It's very, very different, and I think it's good because we took a conditioning test and everybody passed it very easily. That showed everybody was in shape. So now it's just, work on your craft."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeChris Clemons
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonThe Seahawks hope Chris Clemons can add to his 20 career sacks.
1. Where will this team get its pass rush? Carroll is not sure and this might be the biggest weakness on the team. Chris Clemons, acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles in the Darryl Tapp trade, is probably the best pass-rusher on the roster. He has 20 career sacks and three starts in six NFL seasons with three teams.

"He has shown a lot of great things out there with his speed, and I think he has so much speed off that edge and I think people lose track of his strength," linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. "I've seen him hip-toss some people over almost like Reggie White used to do with that club move. And he has a good bull-rush on him."

Clemons thinks his career will blossom with additional playing time. It might, but that is no given. At one point in practice Wednesday, undrafted rookie center Jeff Byers caught the 254-pound Clemons off balance, lifted him off the ground and planted him on his back.

The best pass-rusher on the team after Clemons? Tatupu mentioned Nick Reed, who had one sack as a rookie last season.

"In practice, we have gotten to the QB a number of times," Tatupu said. "I know Matt [Hasselbeck] won't admit it, but we've given him fits. I think we'll be fine in that department."

2. Which running back gets most of the carries? Probably Justin Forsett, a seventh-round draft choice left over from the Seahawks' previous leadership. Forsett showed an ability to make the first defender miss while rushing for 619 yards on 114 carries last season. He has a chance to become a 1,000-yard rusher because his style suits the Seahawks' full-scale conversion to Alex Gibbs' zone-blocking scheme. Seattle dabbled in the zone scheme last year, but the line lacked an overall identity. Julius Jones remains a factor, but Forsett and the newly healthy Leon Washington are commanding most of the attention at running back. Washington has recovered from the gruesome leg injury that threatened his career. He looks good and Carroll loves what he offers to the offense.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonThis year's Seahawks have experienced a different training camp under new head coach Pete Carroll.
3. Will Carroll's competition mantra hold up? Carroll has put veteran players on notice by letting rookies command practice reps based on merit. That's easier to do during training camp, when wins and losses aren't at stake. Coaches often favor veterans when the games start counting because veterans tend to know their responsibilities and have a better overall feel for the game. I think Carroll will go young this season for several reasons. One, he has more than one year to turn around the Seahawks. The organization isn't going to give Carroll the Mora treatment, in other words. Two, an affinity for youth is one value that made Carroll and new general manager John Schneider a good fit together. When Schneider was with Green Bay, the Packers annually fielded one of the NFL's youngest teams. When Carroll was at USC, he was continually getting younger players ready to take over. Three, some of the Seahawks' best players are young. Rookie Golden Tate comes to mind.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Red Bryant's successful conversion. The 2008 fourth-round draft choice was a top-heavy defensive tackle until the Seahawks' new coaching staff took a look at him. Converting Bryant into a two-gap defensive end seemed somewhat dubious on the surface given Bryant's massive girth. Bryant proved up to the challenge, however. His body appears more proportional and he looks like a good fit for the five-technique spot on the line. "My worry was as far as speed," Tatupu said. "You get a really athletic or fast tackle and he gets around him and that edge isn't set. But with what we are asking Red to do, he is our two-gapper. I haven't seen anybody two-gap better than him. Oh, my God. If he's on one side, he will either throw that guy or he will push that guy into the running back and squeeze the hole. He'll do it with one arm. The running back can't go inside, so he'll go outside and Red will just make the tackle one-on-one. It's just impressive. That's why I'm a player and they are the coaches."

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Injuries at linebacker. The Seahawks have proven again why restraint is appropriate when directing praise toward their talented group of linebackers. Aaron Curry missed 10 days of camp after suffering a concussion. He is only now returning. A knee injury has sidelined Leroy Hill. A hamstring issue has sidelined Tatupu recently. This potentially star-studded group failed to last even one game together last season. Curry was out after only one day of training camp, so the group hasn't gotten time together this summer, either. At least David Hawthorne is looking good. He'll start the opener while Hill serves a suspension. It's possible Hawthorne could remain in the lineup even after Hill becomes eligible.

OBSERVATION DECK
Russell Okung
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonRookie Russell Okung has lived up to his high draft status during training camp.

  • Rookie left tackle Russell Okung's strength is obvious when he locks onto a smaller man. He threw down Reed so violently that Reed's head almost took out quarterback J.P. Losman's left knee during practice Wednesday. Another time, Okung pulled left and couldn't find cornerback Walter Thurmond, who dropped under him and made the tackle.
  • Nose tackle Kevin Vickerson has worked with the first-team defense part of the time. The fact that the Tennessee Titans considered Vickerson expendable speaks to the state of the Seahawks' defensive line, but Vickerson has looked good in camp.
  • The Seahawks haven't had enough size at cornerback to match up with bigger receivers, especially Larry Fitzgerald. They took a chance on Oregon cornerback Walter Thurmond, who was coming off a catastrophic knee injury, and the gamble could be paying off. Thurmond has shown a fearless, aggressive style in breaking up passes. He could command playing time on passing downs as a rookie. Continued health appears to be the only issue for Thurmond, a fourth-round choice who might have gone in the second if not for the knee injury.
  • Seattle is running a 4-3 defense with 3-4 tendencies. Even players have a hard time labeling it.
  • Rookie strong safety Kam Chancellor picked up the defense quickly during organized team activities. He has old-school safety size at about 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds. Milloy will likely start at strong safety this season, but Chancellor is a long-term candidate at the position.
  • Earl Thomas has shown freakish range from his free safety spot. There's no question about the rookie first-round choice's physical ability as a coverage safety. Thomas has also shown a grasp of the defense. The Seahawks would like him to become more proactive in communicating his alignment to the linebackers, who need to know where their help is coming from. Thomas' abilities in coverage give the staff flexibility because Thomas can slide outside to cover wide receivers one-on-one.
  • Tate has made big plays just about every day in camp. He's at the point where rookies sometimes wear down, but the Seahawks' lighter camp schedule could help him sustain his fast start. "He's small, he's not the best route runner, but he makes plays," Houshmandzadeh said. "Every day, he makes plays. ... He just makes plays, period."
  • Curry's play as a rookie dropped off significantly once Tatupu, the quarterback of the defense, suffered a season-ending injury. Seattle has talked about using Curry as a pass-rusher, but it's also important for him to become a good strongside linebacker. "I think they have asked him to do that here," Tatupu said. "We have seen him excel at that."
  • Cornerback Marcus Trufant appears healthy after an injury-affected 2009 season. Seattle does not have enough talent, most likely, for Trufant to become a leading interceptor and challenge for the Pro Bowl. But there's reason to expect Trufant to become a good starter again.
  • The Seahawks have better quality depth at quarterback with Losman in the No. 3 role, but Charlie Whitehurst has yet to seriously challenge Hasselbeck for the starting job. That isn't a huge surprise. Whitehurst never beat out Billy Volek in San Diego. But it's important for Whitehurst to make progress. I think he'll play one way or another in 2010.

Camp Confidential: Washington Redskins

August, 10, 2010
8/10/10
1:00
PM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 20

ASHBURN, Va. -- It’s 7:15 on a Friday evening at Redskins Park and coach Mike Shanahan has taken a short break from watching film of the morning's practice. The man who always appears to be five minutes removed from a tanning session is discussing a philosophy that’s served him well over the years, but came into question when he was fired in Denver after 14 seasons and two Super Bowl titles.

Now Shanahan and his hand-picked quarterback, Donovan McNabb, want to prove that both of their previous employers made a mistake. We’re talking about two of the most prideful men in the league, and in two separate conversations with the NFC East blog last Friday, they essentially said the same thing.

“Yeah, both of us are here to win a Super Bowl,” Shanahan said. “If you’re not in it to win a Super Bowl, then you need to find something else to do. I’m not ever going to comment on how things were done here before, but we had a philosophy that worked in Denver, and that’s what we’re going to follow.”

It’s worth noting that two years ago, players were hailing the unorthodox approach of Jim Zorn. He played music during practice and delivered lectures on designer jeans. He was sort of the lovable hippie -- right up until the team started losing. In ’09, the Redskins became the most dysfunctional organization in professional sports. Zorn couldn’t be shamed into resigning, so the Redskins simply stripped him of his dignity (and play-calling duties).

Dan Snyder hired Bruce Allen and Shanahan because he has lost so much credibility with Skins fans. Allen and Shanahan immediately began changing the culture at Redskins Park. This was a team crying out for some form of discipline, and Shanahan has delivered in spades. If a player doesn’t hustle between drills in practice, Shanahan will call their names after practice and tell them to run extra sprints. He also makes sure that every player keeps his shirttail in during those sessions. Shanahan can get away with this because of those two rings.

With one hire, the Redskins are once again relevant in the NFC East. Now, let’s take a closer look at their chances of making the playoffs:

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeDonovan McNabb
Win McNamee/Getty ImagesQuarterback Donovan McNabb is working on building a rapport with his new group of receivers.
1. Can Donovan McNabb elevate this pedestrian group of receivers to new heights? There’s a reason that Santana Moss seems to have a perpetual smile on his face these days. He didn’t even have time to complete routes last season because of the Redskins’ woeful offensive line. Now, coaches are showing him film of the Texans’ Andre Johnson and saying he could do similar things. McNabb invited Moss and the rest of the receivers to work out with him in Phoenix early last month, and you can already see the benefits on the playing field.

“I told them to bring their wives and girlfriends because I wanted it to be a family affair,” McNabb told me. “When you’re around the facility, you always feel like you’re being watched. I thought it was a great opportunity for us to bond away from everyone else and start developing some chemistry.”

But Moss is the only thing close to a sure thing. We're still waiting for former second-round draft picks Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly to show some consistency. For now, they're listed on Shanahan's depth chart as third-stringers. McNabb may have to rely on the 38-year-old Joey Galloway to play a significant role in the offense. The good news for Skins fans is that McNabb once took receivers such as Freddie Mitchell and Todd Pinkston to NFC title games on a regular basis.

2. When will Albert Haynesworth crack the starting lineup? Shanahan bristled when I asked him if Haynesworth was causing a "circus," but the coach must realize that the defensive lineman has dominated the headlines. I think the players were watching closely to see how Shanahan dealt with the brooding star. Now that he's finally passed the infamous conditioning test, Haynesworth will work as a backup defensive tackle. He'll eventually start at right defensive end, but it's not going to happen overnight.

Haynesworth could be a huge part of Jim Haslett's defense if he buys into what the coach is doing. I am eager to see whether this knee issue goes away in the preseason. Haynesworth needs more game repetitions than usual because of all the time he missed. If the knee prevents him from getting on the field, it will become another distraction.

[+] EnlargeTrent Williams
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIRookie tackle Trent Williams has drawn rave reviews from coaches and teammates.
3. Have the Redskins solved their issues on the offensive line? I think a lot of this season hinges on whether three new additions to the line play well. Jammal Brown was a Pro Bowl player for the Saints at one point, but he hasn't played since '08. He'll have to knock off some rust while learning how to play right tackle. Rookie Trent Williams has a ton of ability, but he's working with a much thicker playbook now. There were questions about his work ethic at the University of Oklahoma. So far, he's said and done all the right things in Washington.

And we'll see how Artis Hicks performs at right guard. I always thought he was a better option than Mike Williams (out for the year), but this unit needs a lot of work in the preseason. McNabb will bring a lot to this team, but he can't win a lot of games if he's constantly on his back. Ask Jason Campbell about that.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

I was thoroughly impressed with free safety Kareem Moore. He was a sixth-round pick in '08 who didn't make much of an impact in his first two seasons. Now, it looks like he'll lock down a starting spot. He's had an excellent camp. He plays with a lot of confidence and he'll allow LaRon Landry to play closer to the line of scrimmage.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

You knew that one of the veteran running backs would probably be out of the mix, but I didn't expect it to happen so early in the proceedings. Willie Parker is officially listed at the Skins' fourth-string running back. Hard to imagine him making the final roster unless there are injuries.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIAfter recording 581 yards last season, Larry Johnson is turning in a solid camp in Washington.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • I talked to one longtime Redskins observer who actually thinks Larry Johnson will have more carries than Clinton Portis this season. I don't see that happening unless Portis suffers an injury, but it's obvious that Johnson's in excellent shape. He's finishing off every run and he actually has shown a burst at times.
  • Lorenzo Alexander and Andre Carter have a nice little battle going on at left outside linebacker. Alexander has been running a lot with the first team, but Carter, 31, will get plenty of playing time. You knew Carter would have a little trouble in coverage, but he's actually been step for step with running backs on a couple of occasions.
  • Haslett is the best thing that could've happened to Carlos Rogers' career. The cornerback thought his career in Washington was over, but now Haslett believes he can turn him into an Antoine Winfield-type player. Haslett will take advantage of Rogers' size and he'll let him blitz more than in the past. (Adam Schefter has more on Haslett.)
  • Brian Orakpo told me after practice Friday that Haslett's playbook has at least 20 more blitzes than Greg Blache's old version. He said it was a little overwhelming at first, but now he's not thinking as much. Orakpo had a nice rookie season, but he's about to become a breakout star. It's pretty amazing to have this many elite pass-rushers in the same division.
  • Kedric Golston and Adam Carriker were running with the first-team defense Friday. It looked like the Redskins were working on their dime package, which features two down linemen. I think Haslett will be very creative with his fronts. He'll have some of the same concepts that we've seen from Dick LeBeau and the Steelers.
  • Cornerback Justin Tryon made a nice recovery on a fly pattern to Roydell Williams on Friday. But Tryon hasn't done a lot in this camp to move up the depth chart. I think he's behind Kevin Barnes and maybe even Ramzee Robinson at this point.
  • If you need a "Rudy" type of player to root for, let me point you in the direction of former Kansas State receiver Brandon Banks. At 5-foot-7, Banks isn't exactly a red zone target, but he's quick and appears to have good hands.
  • John Beck rolled right and fired a bullet to tight end Lee Vickers in team drills. Former TCU linebacker Robert Henson reacted with some loud expletives because he came close to breaking up the pass. Beck had too many balls batted down when he was with the Dolphins. His arm angle's been too low in the pros, so we'll see if Kyle Shanahan can fix that problem.

Camp Confidential: Philadelphia Eagles

August, 9, 2010
8/09/10
2:01
PM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 17

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- On a Tuesday afternoon last week, Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb watched one of his star wideouts, Jeremy Maclin, get carted off the field. The same thing had happened to DeSean Jackson a couple days earlier. You would think Kolb might be worried, but that's not an emotion that suits him. Kolb spent the three weeks before camp playing out every possible scenario in his mind so that setbacks like these wouldn't affect him.

"I tried to play out the good situations and the bad situations in my mind," Kolb told the NFC East blog. "I need to stay consistent as the quarterback of this team, so I imagined what all could go wrong and sort of told myself how I was going to react. Only 32 guys in the world that will get this opportunity, and I don't want the opportunity to pass me by."

If you were expecting a wide-eyed quarterback trying to grow into a job, you've come to the wrong place. Handed the task of following the best quarterback in the history of the franchise, Kolb just doesn't seem fazed. With Jackson and Maclin both out of Wednesday's practice, Kolb started firing balls to rookie Riley Cooper. Kolb entered the league in the same rookie class as linebacker Stewart Bradley and Brent Celek in 2007, and everyone's known those players would eventually take over the team in terms of leadership. But it was still stunning when the Eagles pulled the trigger on the biggest trade of the offseason.

Kolb has reached out to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to ask him about following an elite quarterback. And he's also struck up a texting friendship with Cowboys Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, which may make a few fans queasy. Recently, Kolb spent hours watching an old tape of Aikman because "he was unbelievably accurate."

Kolb is relishing the Eagles' new underdog role and he understands that a lot of that has to do with him being the starter. He understands there's added pressure playing quarterback in a city that seems to base its identity on how the Eagles are performing. But he seems to have the right temperament.

"I played in front of 15,000 people when I was 15," said Kolb. "I think playing high school football in Texas gives you a good foundation. And now that I'm a little older, I think I'll be able to handle 70,000."

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb
Brian Garfinkel/Icon SMIThe Eagles have high hopes for Kevin Kolb, who threw for more than 300 yards in each of his two starts last season.
THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Will this offensive line have any continuity heading into the season?

When the Eagles lost center Jamaal Jackson last year in the playoffs, the offensive line was in trouble. Nick Cole had done a nice job at right guard, but he was thrown into a bad situation at center. Jackson is still recovering from a knee injury and will likely be sidelined to start the season. Cole's been banged-up in practice and it's not like Mike McGlynn and A.Q. Shipley inspire a lot of confidence. The most consistent player on the offensive line last season, left guard Todd Herremans, has missed the first part of camp with a foot injury. You don't want Kolb lining up behind an offensive line that features a different player every week.

2. Do the Eagles have the best receiving corps in the league?

When Maclin and Jackson are healthy, the Eagles may have the most dangerous group in the league. Jason Avant is one of the best third receivers in the league, and he can bail out a quarterback on third down. Kolb's biggest strength is his accuracy. He knows how important it is to deliver the ball to Jackson and Maclin in stride. If you're wondering why this team seems to have such a quiet confidence, just look at these receivers. Throw in the fact that Kolb and Celek are best friends and you have the makings of a Tony Romo-Jason Witten combination.

[+] EnlargeAllen
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIThe Eagles hope Nate Allen is the answer at safety.
3. Can rookie Nate Allen solve the issues the Eagles had at safety?

The Eagles never recovered from the loss of Brian Dawkins via free agency last season. They tried just about everyone at his old position, but it was a nightmare. Allen has looked like a starter from the day he stepped off the bus. He's mature beyond his years and moves with a grace that belies his inexperience. I think the Eagles made great use of the Donovan McNabb pick (No. 37) in landing Allen. And the former South Florida star doesn't appear to feel any added pressure because of where he was taken. It's easy to see that he would've been starting in front of Marlin Jackson even if he'd remained healthy.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

I know it's tough to call a first-rounder a "surprise," but Brandon Graham has exceeded everyone's expectations. I love how he's spent time in the film room studying some of the shorter defensive ends around the league. And then he immediately takes some of the moves (Elvis Dumervil) to the field. The Eagles' offensive line doesn't know what to do with Graham, and I think other NFC East offensive tackles will have the same issue. Graham is learning how to use his arms at this level and he already gets incredibly low to the ground when he's turning the corner. He's been the story of camp in a lot of ways. Can't wait to see him in a game. And one more surprise: Ellis Hobbs is having an excellent camp after returning from a neck injury.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

There's nothing that really jumps out at this point other than the offensive line issues. But I'd like to see more from Darryl Tapp. The defensive end was hoping to jump-start his career after coming over in a trade from Seattle. He just looks out of place in Sean McDermott's defense right now. In the practice sessions I observed, he didn't really make anything happen.

[+] EnlargeRiley Cooper
Howard Smith/US PresswireRookie Riley Cooper has stepped up when called upon in training camp.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Cooper is taking full advantage of the extra repetitions. He made the catch of the day last Wednesday when one of Kolb's passes was tipped by Tapp. Cooper cut off his route and made a diving catch in the flat. Seems like he's quickly becoming a fan favorite and he could actually play himself into the rotation this season. General manager Howie Roseman's a Florida grad, so look for the Gator connection to continue. I don't think Hank Baskett is long for this roster, but he and Kolb did hook up on a deep ball.
  • I talked to second-year running back LeSean McCoy about how he's improved his lower-body strength. He thinks he left a lot of yards on the field because he didn't break enough tackles. I think it's helping McCoy to have Duce Staley in camp serving a camp internship.
  • Rookie free safety Kurt Coleman out of Ohio State has made a favorable impression but was called for pass interference Wednesday when Kolb used an excellent play-action fake to free up McCoy down the sideline. You can tell that McCoy's going to show up in the passing game a lot more this season.
  • This is the only camp I've attended where fans tailgate in the parking lots between morning and afternoon practices. Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell seemed to get caught up in the moment when he remembered that he'd visited the Lehigh University campus when he was deciding on colleges a few years back.
  • Bradley destroyed Eldra Buckley when he made the mistake of trying to jump over a pile. And when Buckley made a catch in the flat, former Lions linebacker Ernie Sims lit him up. Sims stared down at him like Chuck Bednarik once did to Frank Gifford. As I noted in my observations last week, Andy Reid's team hits harder than any of the other teams in the division during camp. We're not simply talking about thuds. I'm talking about linebackers taking ball carriers to the ground. This is how things were done about 20 years ago across the league. Roseman told me that the Eagles felt like it was important to quickly introduce the rookies to how physical the league is.
  • I watched Reid take Kolb aside Wednesday and have a long conversation. I think he and McNabb had such an understanding that they rarely had to have a lot of long discussions. But I'm not saying that's a negative about Kolb. It seems like Reid's sort of rejuvenated by the thought of having to coach a quarterback all the way through practice. I remember Bill Parcells saying that about Romo all the time. "You have to coach him all the way through the game," Parcells would say. Reid didn't think that was a big deal when I brought it up, but it's obvious he's spending more time with Kolb. And the two seem to have a great rapport. In fact, Kolb already takes the sharp stick to Reid at times.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers call it taking ownership.

Coach Mike Singletary sets aside a portion of practice for players to step forward and coaches to step back. Quarterback Alex Smith gets to call whichever offensive play he thinks will work for the situation. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis makes the call on defense.

"Good ownership, Alex," Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis hollered as he ran back upfield after snatching Smith's 40-yard pass in the back of the end zone Friday. "I like that ownership. You're part of the team now, baby!"

Smith isn't nearly as outspoken, but in his own way, he made sure Willis, the 49ers' Pro Bowl linebacker, knew which side's play call prevailed. And if anyone remained unsure, all he had to do was consult Davis, one of the brashest and most freakishly athletic players anywhere. Davis, and his mouth, always seem to be open.

"Vernon brings an attitude now that we're going to out there and we're going to make plays and we're going to shove it down your throat," Smith said. "And when we make plays, you're going to hear about it. We're going to be hooting and hollering. I'm not going to do that, but those perimeter guys are. You love that attitude."

Even the 49ers' defensive players love it. They know how hard Davis works and, besides, this team is tight. For all the offensive coaching changes the 49ers have endured -- five coordinators since Smith entered the NFL in 2005 -- the team's core players have been together for at least three seasons in most cases.

All the key components are back from a team that finished 8-8 last season. An improving offense and questions elsewhere in the division give the 49ers their clearest shot at a playoff berth since the days of Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens. Just ask Davis.

"You have Ted Ginn outside with a lot of speed and you have to keep an eye on him," Davis said. "Then you have [Michael] Crabtree, who is just like a cat in the night. I mean, he just runs his routes so well. Then you have to worry about Josh Morgan. When all of us are on the field and Frank Gore, I mean, they can't stop us."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesThe 49ers need rookie tackle Anthony Davis to make a quick transition to the NFL.
1. How will Frank Gore's role evolve? Gore rushed for 1,120 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, so it's not like he wasn't a big part of the offense. Still, perceptions linger that Gore and Smith weren't particularly compatible. Smith seemed most comfortable operating from looser formations. Gore has always preferred running behind a fullback out of a more traditional offense. To answer the question, though, check out Gore's stats over the final four games of the 2009 season. He averaged 23 carries for 113 yards in those games. Expect the 49ers to continue feeding Gore as long as the running back holds up physically. That was where the offense was headed in December.

2. What impact will Ted Ginn Jr. have on the offense? Forget about what Ginn accomplished -- or failed to accomplish -- with the Miami Dolphins. In Miami, Ginn was measured against expectations for a first-round draft choice. The expectations aren't the same in San Francisco, where the 49ers already have established offensive stars (Davis and Gore) and one of the better up-and-coming wideouts in second-year pro Crabtree. All Ginn has to do for the 49ers is use his speed to attract safety help against the deep ball. Ginn has been able to do that in practice. His speed is obvious, and it should lead to more favorable coverages for the other receiving targets, notably Davis and Crabtree.

Frank Gore
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireExpect Frank Gore to remain the centerpiece of San Francisco's offense.
3. Will the offensive line improve? The three hottest questions in 49ers camp concern the offense. That is fitting for a team whose defense has held up its end in recent seasons. While the 49ers are excited about adding first-round linemen Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, both players face learning curves as they transition to the NFL. The 49ers play three of their first four games on the road, where communication can be difficult and experience helps a great deal. Iupati and Davis will upgrade this line over the course of the season, but the line could face some issues early on.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Nate Clements. The veteran cornerback seems like his old self: confident, outspoken, having fun. He's been bantering with Davis and seems to have moved past a difficult 2009 season. Clements spent his offseason training in Arizona, with an emphasis on fundamentals. He looks good so far.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers' franchise player remains unsigned. It's a given that Franklin will report before the regular season. Singletary has confidence Franklin will report in good condition, so there won't be any Albert Haynesworth-style conditioning issues. But with the team setting aside $7 million for Franklin this season, it would be nice to have him in camp.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Shawntae Spencer could be the best cornerback on the team even if Clements regains past form. He played well last season and should gain momentum in his second season back from knee surgery.
  • [+] EnlargeTaylor Mays
    Kevin Terrell/Getty ImagesThe 49ers are in no rush to make rookie Taylor Mays a starter this season.
    Cornerback-turned-safety Reggie Smith is getting significant reps as an extra defensive back in camp. I'm not sure what that means for rookie second-round choice Taylor Mays, but it would be foolish to think the 49ers will not find playing time for Mays this season. It's just a matter of how quickly they feel comfortable working him into the defense. There's no rush to make Mays a starter as long as veteran Michael Lewis is healthy.
  • Brandon Jones has a chance to make the situation at receiver more interesting. Crabtree and Morgan are the starters. Ginn appears likely to earn a spot among the top three or four. Jones, a disappointment last season after an injury set him back, has the talent to become more of a factor. He seems to be having a good camp so far.
  • The 49ers' low-stakes gamble on Travis LaBoy suffered a setback when the veteran pass-rusher suffered a concussion early in camp. Concussion problems factored into the Tennessee Titans' decision against re-signing LaBoy years ago. The 49ers might not have an elite pass-rusher, but they ranked third in the NFL for sacks last season, and their outside linebackers have very good quickness. Diyral Briggs has stood out recently and could provide depth for a group featuring Parys Haralson, Manny Lawson and Ahmad Brooks.
  • Brit Miller has made a positive impression early in camp, but it's an upset if veteran Moran Norris isn't the starting fullback.
  • One upside to Franklin's absence: Ricky Jean-Francois is getting significant reps at nose tackle. As Franklin proved, the 49ers can develop players at that position.
  • Singletary drew national attention for physical practices last summer when he unveiled nutcracker drills in which players rammed into one another. That storyline has run its course. Singletary has modified the drills and limited reps for linemen, who are already doing plenty of hitting. Technique is the primary point of emphasis in the drills.
  • Spread passing games in college have made it tougher to evaluate inside linebackers for 3-4 schemes, but the 49ers think they've found a potential good one in third-round choice Navorro Bowman. They're working him at the "Ted" linebacker position as a possible successor to dependable veteran Takeo Spikes.
  • Backup running back Glen Coffee added weight this offseason in an effort to improve upon what he considered a subpar rookie season. He hasn't stood out in camp to this point, however.
  • New special-teams coach Kurt Schottenheimer has slid under the radar to this point. That will change if the team suffers continued problems in the return game. Ginn should upgrade kickoff returns. Preseason games should tell us whether rookie receiver Kyle Williams can salvage the punt-return game. Williams could stick as the fifth or sixth receiver if he can make a positive impact on punt returns this summer.
  • Iupati stands out for his run blocking, but he's getting lots of reps and could wear down in the short term. Incumbent starter David Baas continues to miss time with a concussion.
  • Veteran Barry Sims and slimmed-down second-year tackle Alex Boone could be competing for the ninth and likely final spot among offensive linemen. Once Iupati and Davis become starters, the top three backups would likely become Baas, Adam Snyder and Tony Wragge.

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 7, 2010
8/07/10
11:30
AM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 29

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- If the measure of a good team is roster stability, then, well, we know where the Detroit Lions stand. General manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz spent most of their first year together operating like an expansion franchise, using their roster to sift through dozens of nomadic no-names and aging veterans while effecting a near-weekly rotation at a half-dozen positions -- left guard, defensive end, cornerback and safety chief among them.

So as they reported to training camp this summer, the Lions were hoping to slow that train and accelerate the installation of permanent building blocks in their lineup. Schwartz remains realistic about the job ahead of him but is certain the Lions are pointing in the right direction.

"Hope isn't a strategy," Schwartz said. "You need good players. I think what we proved last year is that we weren't ready to accept sub-par performance. We were willing to make changes and things like that. I think that was an important statement to make. In a perfect world, all of our positions would be solidified and you would feel good about it every week. Probably 32 NFL teams are going to be dissatisfied with a couple positions ... but I think the sign of a good team is having less spots that you look at and say, wow, what are they going to do there?"

After a few days at Lions training camp, it was evident the Lions are not there yet. But they're closer than they were last year, having upgraded at receiver, running back, tight end, left guard and along the entire defensive line. Questions remain at linebacker and in the secondary, but the Lions are working methodically to narrow that gap.

"We have a big sense of urgency," Schwartz said. "I don't want to say we've been patient. We just haven't deviated from our plan and we haven't gone too much for immediate gratification."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Lions are counting on Matthew Stafford to make progress from his rookie season.
1. Can Matthew Stafford make the jump the Lions need? Stafford's rookie season wasn't unusual for a highly drafted quarterback. Playing on a bad team, he threw 20 interceptions in 10 games. Injuries cost him six starts. But after surrounding him with receiver Nate Burleson, tight end Tony Scheffler and running back Jahvid Best, the Lions are expecting a much more positive second-year experience.

Stafford spent the early part of the offseason studying the causes of each interception, concluding that the majority of them were "trying to make a play when it wasn't there," he said. He added: "A lot of them were on third-and-long. I've got to be better on third-and-long to trust our backs, to throw a checkdown and let him run and go get it. I have to know that the best teams in this league are 35 percent [conversion rate] on third-and-long. Not everybody's making it every time. The goal this year is to stay out of those as much as possible."

The potential is there. Stafford has spent the entire offseason working with receivers, putting a special emphasis on developing chemistry with Calvin Johnson. He has taken every first-team snap in practice and has a set of skill players that can rival other NFC North offenses.

"We have a lot of weapons this year," he said. "It's up to us to get some rhythm and get it going."

2. Can an overhauled defensive line compensate for uncertainty at linebacker and safety? I like to compare the Lions' defense to an episode of "Hoarders." When Mayhew and Schwartz opened the front door, they found a mass of junk. So they picked one corner, the defensive line, and starting digging their way out.

As training camp opened, the Lions had NFL-caliber starters at right end (Kyle Vanden Bosch) and nose tackle (Corey Williams), along with a potential superstar in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. But remember, the Lions are the only team since the 1970 merger to finish with the NFL's worst defense in three consecutive years. In order to move up significantly in those standings, they'll need their line to be so good that it overshadows inexperience at linebacker and another year of patchwork in the secondary.

"If this defense is going to be good, it's going to be on us up front, and we're just going to have to wreak havoc," Vanden Bosch said. "We're going to have to bring energy to every practice and we're just going to have to keep on pushing each other and make improvements."

As we discussed earlier this week, it's schematically possible for an elite pass rush and strong run-stoppers to reduce the strain placed on other positions. Based on how the rest of the Lions' defense is shaping up, they'll need nothing less.

[+] EnlargeLouis Delmas
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesLouis Delmas has noticed a change in attitude with this year's team.
3. Can the Lions expunge what safety Louis Delmas referred to as a "ho-hum attitude?" If you're keeping track, the Lions have lost 28 of their past 30 games and 37 of their past 40. You often hear about new attitudes in training camp, so take this for what it's worth. After jettisoning a number of veteran players this offseason, Delmas said that now "everyone wants to be here and they want to learn." He added: "That's something I don't think we had last year. Guys were just here. The coaches are motivating us to go out there and get better. We've got a great attitude."

As for low expectations among national observers, Stafford said: "I don't think anyone here believes that. They play the games for a reason. The season hasn't started yet. Everybody is 0-0. Come the first Sunday, it's go out there and prove it and see what we can do."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Tight end Brandon Pettigrew tore an anterior cruciate ligament on Thanksgiving Day 2009. A little more than eight months later, Pettigrew was back on the field doing much more than at least I would have expected. He's practicing at least once per day and participating in some contact drills, even while wearing a brace on his knee.

If he has a hitch in his gait, it's barely noticeable. And on at least one play this week, Pettigrew displayed enough speed to get past linebacker Julian Peterson and catch a nice seam pass from Stafford. "He's had a really good rehab and we don't want to set him back by trying to do too much too soon," Schwartz said. At this rate, it seems quite reasonable to expect Pettigrew to be ready for a significant role in the season-opening game at Soldier Field. That has to be the best-case scenario the Lions could have imagined when the injury first occurred.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Two key parts of any defensive improvement the Lions will have this season weren't on the field for any part of the five practices I watched. Delmas hasn't practiced since the spring because of a groin injury that Schwartz said has healed but impacted his conditioning. But Delmas is an "established" player who probably could get away with missing a portion of training camp after starting 15 games last season. Linebacker DeAndre Levy, however, needs every practice rep he can get while making the permanent transition from the outside to the middle. Levy reported to training camp with tightness in his back, and he was pulled from practice this week. There is no long-term concern at this point, and the Lions must hope nothing develops. At this point, there are no viable internal options to turn to. Levy's backup is veteran Vinny Ciurciu, an undersized career special-teams player.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAdditional weapons on offense should open things up for Calvin Johnson.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Burleson signed a five-year, $25 million contract in the offseason that included $11 in guaranteed money. Then, in one of the first meetings of the Lions' reconfigured receiver position, Burleson stood up to speak. "There's a lot of things that can get between players when new guys come along, especially when money's involved," he said. "So I made an announcement that I've been in the league long enough to know, as a guy who just got paid, I'm going play a lot. So my goal is to prove I'm worth more than what they paid me. I'm here for the team, not to pat myself on the back." In part because No. 1 receiver Calvin Johnson is so quiet, Burleson has taken on the leadership role of this group.
  • Johnson is hopeful that coverages will loosen on him this season, but it will require players like Burleson, making big plays to do it. Burleson doesn't think it will be a problem. "My goal is to come in and make enough plays to where Calvin will get more single coverage and Bryant [Johnson] will make plays," he said. "You hear about [Terrell Owens] and Chad [Ochocinco] in Cincinnati. I'm going to say firsthand that we will be the most-respected receiving corps after it's all said and done." Wow.
  • Suh is one serious man. During a news conference to announce his arrival to camp, a reporter asked a pretty standard first-day question for a top draft pick: "What are you going to treat yourself to after becoming a millionaire?" Most players bite and say they bought a new car, or a house for their mother or some such splurge. Suh? Here's what he said: "I'm treating myself to getting on this field and getting ready." OK then.
  • Vanden Bosch makes it a point to touch the ball on every practice play from scrimmage. Sometimes that happens at the line of scrimmage. But whether the play comes directly toward him or goes 30 yards downfield, he chases without fail. If that means sprinting 40 yards, so be it. Although the Lions didn't necessarily sign Vanden Bosch for that reason, he sets an excellent example for a historically moribund defense. "You don't get any points for that," Schwartz said. "But if I was a professional football player, I would hope that I would practice and I would play the way Kyle Vanden Bosch does. I think it is contagious for sure and I think that it's tremendous leadership. I think it makes the running backs better. The running backs are now finishing their runs deeper down the field because they don't want him catching them."
  • Right tackle Gosder Cherilus, the Lions' No. 1 draft pick in 2008, might be down to his final chance to lock down a permanent starting job. He's sharing repetitions with veteran Jon Jansen, and a decision might not come until the end of the preseason.
  • Linebacker Zack Follett is on his way to locking down the weakside linebacker job a year after he nearly cost himself his career with a poor showing in training camp. "I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off," Follett said. "This year, it's 100 percent different."
  • Poor Chris Houston. As the Lions' erstwhile No. 1 cornerback, Houston finds himself lined up against Johnson in 1-on-1 drills more often than not. That's not even fair. I saw Houston make some decent plays against other receivers, suggesting he deserves to be on the field as a starter. But few teams have a true No. 1 cornerback, and the Lions aren't one of them.
  • With Delmas injured, the same four players made up the first-team secondary during my visit: Houston and Jonathan Wade at cornerback, with C.C. Brown and Marvin White at safety. One thing I'll say is that Wade is feisty, even if he is a bit undersized. Delmas noticed the same thing. "He gave up a big play on Calvin," Delmas said. "And then he came back to us as a group and said, 'We can't do that! I can't do that!' Then he went out and didn't give up another big play. In order to be one of the best secondaries in the NFL, we have to start with that."
  • In an earlier post, I suggested that rookie receiver Tim Toone had looked sharp and ranked him no worse than No. 4 among the Lions' receivers. In the comments section, some of you suggested that second-year receiver Derrick Williams was having a better camp than I gave him credit for. All I can say is that every time I looked, Williams was dropping a pass while Toone was catching one. Regardless, there is a long way to go for both players.
  • One beneficiary of Suh's holdout was second-year defensive tackle Sammie Hill. Schwartz said Hill "has taken the biggest step that I've seen him take." Assuming those weren't just kind words for a player destined to cede his first-team status to Suh, this development offers the Lions a level of depth they didn't have last season.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 22

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In the kindest of terms, fans and media are referring to the Carolina Panthers as a team in a youth movement.

There’s some basis for that as they opened camp with the league’s third-youngest roster after saying farewell to popular veterans such as Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme and Brad Hoover.

In the harshest of terms, fans and media have referred to those departures as a “bloodletting’’ and are talking about the Panthers as a team without an identity, a team that’s not going to be very good.

Now, let’s turn to two guys who beg to differ.

“How do you say we’re going through a youth movement, when we beat those teams late in the season using the same key components?’’ running back DeAngelo Williams said. “People can say what they want to say. But we know what it takes to win and we have what it takes to win.’’

“The way I look at it is, I like our core guys,’’ linebacker Jon Beason said. “I think we have a great nucleus. Now we’re looking for a few good men, a few young guys who are talented. For those young guys, it’s an opportunity to come in and do great things.’’

Maybe Beason and Williams have valid points. They’re two team leaders with a pretty good feel for the pulse of the locker room. They also have impressive résumés. Williams was one of two Carolina running backs (Jonathan Stewart was the other) to run for 1,100 yards last season. Scouts, coaches and players everywhere will tell you Beason is one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

Can you really call the Panthers a team without a face?

That’s kind of a difficult statement to make when you look at Carolina’s roster and see Beason and Williams. Then, keep looking and you see Stewart, left tackle Jordan Gross, center Ryan Kalil, right tackle Jeff Otah, receiver Steve Smith and cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall. Those are all guys the Panthers view as core players. Look around the league and see how many teams have that many core players in place.

“There are question marks, sure,’’ coach John Fox said. “Anytime you have question marks, the expectations on the outside might not be that high. But on the inside, we know we’ve got some very good core players and those core players are going to have to have big seasons.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMatt Moore
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireThe Panthers' confidence in quarterback Matt Moore appears to be growing.
1. Can this team win with Matt Moore as the quarterback? Let’s cut to the chase. This team already has won with Moore as the quarterback. Moore started the final five games of last season after Delhomme was injured. The Panthers won four of those games and Moore looked sharp the entire time.

Sure, that’s not the longest of track records and the Panthers did draft Jimmy Clausen in the second round. But this isn’t the Carolina camp of 2001, where the Panthers were kind of expecting Jeff Lewis to fail and to hand the job to rookie Chris Weinke.

Williams’ point about the youth movement taking place last year might be right. Moore won this job with his play down the stretch and, so far in camp, the team’s confidence in him is only growing.

“Matt Moore is a gamer,’’ Williams said. “When he mentally locks in, the game comes easy for him. All quarterbacks in the league are pretty much the same. They can all throw the ball or they wouldn’t be here. The thing that separates the good ones from the bad ones is decision making. Matt Moore can make decisions. Matt’s going to be fine.’’

Let’s keep one other thing in mind. With an excellent offensive line, two very good running backs and Smith at wide receiver, Moore has a pretty strong supporting cast. He doesn’t need to be Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. He just needs to keep mistakes to a minimum and the job can be his as long as he wants.

2. Can the defensive line be any good? For much of Fox’s tenure, the defensive line has been the foundation of the team. But Peppers was the last in a line of supernovas that used to include Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner. There are no current stars on this defensive front.

But Fox and the Panthers don’t appear to view that as a bad thing. They’re not expecting any single guy to come in and replace Peppers. They believe they can get quality out of quantity and are hoping the defensive front can attack in waves. They’ve got high hopes for Charles Johnson and Everette Brown, and rookies Eric Norwood and Greg Hardy have been very impressive in camp. They brought back Tyler Brayton for a bit of continuity, but they feel they’ve got some pass-rushers who can emerge.

They also have a better feeling about defensive tackles Louis Leonard, Tank Tyler and Ed Johnson than a lot of people realize. This might not be the traditional Fox defensive front with a huge run-stuffer in the middle and a big name on the outside. But, keep in mind, the Panthers brought in Ron Meeks as defensive coordinator last year and his system is based more on speed than power up front.

“We were eighth in the league in defense a year ago with a new scheme,’’ Fox said. “It’s kind of early to tell, but we should be better with our scheme the second time around.’’

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonJohn Fox owns a 71-57 record in eight seasons with the Panthers.
3. Does all this talk about Fox being in the last year of his contract really make a difference? Not at all. Fox is a creature of habit and he’s going to coach the way he always has coached.

He’s a confident guy with a pretty solid résumé. He’s not losing sleep because he knows he can get another job if it comes to that. But he wants to make it work in Carolina, a place where his family has set down roots. Keep in mind, Fox never has had a truly bad season. There have been some disappointing years, but the record’s always been close to or above .500. He’s sometimes stumbled a bit when expectations were high, but he always has done his best job when people weren’t counting on much out of the Panthers.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Greg Hardy. The defensive end was a sixth-round draft pick because his college career didn’t end all that well. But the Panthers took a shot because they thought there was uncommon physical talent sitting out there late in the draft. So far, they feel as if they might have hit a home run. Hardy has looked great in camp. Coaches are noticing him and so are other players. There were some questions about Hardy’s ability to focus on football at the pro level. But so far, so good on that end. Brayton, Johnson and Brown are competing for the starting jobs, but Hardy appears to be carving out some playing time.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Dwayne Jarrett. As they’ve been doing for his entire career, the Panthers are hoping the light suddenly comes on for this wide receiver. He’s still running with the first team, but all indications are it’s just not happening for Jarrett. There’s still some work to be done and polish to be added, but the Panthers are starting to think rookie Brandon LaFell is their best option at the starting position opposite Smith. Jarrett basically is fighting for a roster spot at this point. The fact he’s still making mental mistakes this far into his career means there’s a good chance he’s gone before the preseason is over.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Clausen
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireCarolina has been pleased with how Jimmy Clausen has looked in the early part of camp.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • As mentioned above, the Panthers are singing Moore’s praises and that’s all very legitimate. But behind the scenes, the Panthers also are thrilled with what they’ve seen from Clausen. His physical skills and mechanics are as solid as expected and Clausen’s doing everything right on and off the field. There’s not a sense of urgency to play him because Moore has looked so solid. But the Panthers believe they got a steal when they took Clausen in the second round.
  • There’s been a lot of hype about third-round draft pick Armanti Edwards. Understandable because he was a college quarterback and came from Appalachian State, which automatically makes him popular in the Carolinas. The Panthers aren’t disappointed with Edwards by any means, but the reality is he’s just feeling his way as a receiver and a return man. Don’t look for him to be a huge contributor instantly. There’s big upside here because Edwards is so dynamic and he might be in a few packages early on. But it’s going to take some time for him to become a staple in this offense.
  • The Panthers let go of Keydrick Vincent, who played every snap at right guard last season, for a reason. He was older and they had Duke Robinson waiting in the wings. Coaches, players and the front office believe Robinson can be a punishing run-blocker. Put him on the right side with Otah and the Panthers believe that side of the line can be just as good as the left, where Gross and Travelle Wharton are outstanding.
  • If you’re looking for a long shot to make the roster, I’ll throw out Trent Guy’s name. This is a tiny wide receiver, but every time I looked up during my visit to Wofford College, Guy seemed to be making a play. He’s got rare speed and good hands, and also could be a factor in the return game.
  • Thomas Davis, who had major knee surgery in June, has been hanging around at camp and working hard at his rehab. The Panthers haven’t ruled out a possible return for him later this season, but I don't see that happening for a guy who has torn his ACL twice in less than a year. The Panthers wouldn’t have moved Beason from the middle to the weak side unless they thought he’d stay there for the long haul. At the moment, they’re happy with what they’ve seen from Dan Connor in the middle and James Anderson on the strong side. That better stay that way because, aside from Jamar Williams, there’s no real depth at linebacker.
  • A lot of people have questioned why the Panthers would take Beason out of the middle where he’s been such a dominant player. The answer is simple. Under Meeks, the Panthers run the “Tampa 2’’ defense. In that scheme, everything goes through the Will linebacker. Think Derrick Brooks.

Camp Confidential: Arizona Cardinals

August, 4, 2010
8/04/10
11:46
AM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 15

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- You know what the 2010 Arizona Cardinals are not.

They're not the team with Pro Bowl-caliber talents Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle. They're not the team with established veterans Bryant McFadden, Chike Okeafor, Bertrand Berry and Mike Gandy. They're not the team that won the past two NFC West titles and posted a 4-2 postseason record.

They're not dead, either. Who are these new-look Cardinals? A trip to training camp at Northern Arizona University provided some clues.

This team will be easy to underestimate for those analyzing from afar. What I saw up close was a team with strong leadership -- both vocally and by example -- throughout its roster. The Cardinals are accountable to one another. I saw an organization with a track record for developing young talent (think Calais Campbell, Steve Breaston and Early Doucet, to name three). I saw a head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, who loves a challenge and thinks the Cardinals will do just fine in one of their favorite roles -- underdogs.

This team has an edge to it. The Cardinals will compete and they can make another playoff appearance with a little help from their quarterback.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeLeinart
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireThe Cardinals have confidence that Matt Leinart can succeed in this offense.
1. What's up with Matt Leinart? Let's take a listen to Whisenhunt: "You see it in his body language, you see how he handles himself in the huddle and then you also see it in the confidence when he takes a step and he throws the football, or even when he makes the checks in the run game. There is not the hesitation that there used to be." If you think that quote reflects renewed confidence in Leinart heading into the 2010 season, you'd be wrong. That's what Whisenhunt said about Leinart in training camp two years ago, before the Cardinals switched to Warner and won back-to-back division titles.

What's he saying now? Whisenhunt dismisses Leinart's shaky 2009 performance against Green Bay in Week 17 as a product of unusual circumstances (the Cardinals watered down their game plan with an eye toward playing the Packers in the wild-card round). He points to Leinart's performance against the Tennessee Titans last season -- 21 of 31 passing for 220 yards and an 88.1 rating -- as evidence the quarterback knows the offense well enough to succeed even without getting practice reps (Warner was scratched from the lineup shortly before kickoff). For that reason, Leinart will not get extra playing time during the upcoming preseason. Whisenhunt doesn't think it's necessary.

"I feel like there's a hurdle you have to cross as a young quarterback where no matter what situation you're thrown into, you have to perform," Whisenhunt said. "He is at a point with our offense where he is comfortable and he may not get the reps."

Leinart has four seasons in Whisenhunt's offense. He's playing for a new contract, backed by two productive running backs and one of the NFL's elite receivers in Larry Fitzgerald. Leinart will never be Warner, but he will not have to be. He'll be leading a re-made offense with increased emphasis on the running game. I'm not entirely sold. Leinart has much to prove.

"The last two years, I've learned really how to prepare mentally and studying and all that," Leinart said. "I finally get to take that to the field every single day and get the reps and make mistakes, but come back and learn from them. I worked extremely hard just to get to this point."

2. What does Joey Porter have left? The former Pro Bowl pass-rusher showed up for training camp in vastly better condition than he appeared during offseason minicamps. His speed and quickness stunned me during the Cardinals' afternoon practice Monday. Porter even kept pace with Fitzgerald on a special-teams coverage play 35 yards downfield. And he stayed home defending bootlegs.

The team's training camp practice jerseys do not feature players' names across the backs, and with so many new faces in camp, I double-checked the roster to make sure No. 55 was indeed the 33-year-old Porter. It was him.

The Cardinals knew they were getting a fiery personality and potential mentor for some of their younger players. The first few days of training camp have given them reason to think Porter might have more left physically than first anticipated. He had nine sacks for the Miami Dolphins last season and 17.5 the year before. Arizona will put him on the same side as Campbell, who had seven sacks at defensive end. There's potential for Porter to help this defense more than expected. Let's see if he can sustain the fast start.

[+] EnlargeWashington
AP Photo/Matt YorkRookie Daryl Washington may be called on early to contribute.
3. Are the Cardinals in trouble at inside linebacker? Veteran Gerald Hayes called out defensive teammates after a rough stretch of practice Tuesday. They were getting pushed around by the offense in the running game. There's reason to wonder if the Cardinals should expect more of the same, on a larger scale, when the regular-season schedule serves up Steven Jackson and Michael Turner in the first two weeks.

Hayes could return from back surgery by then. The Cardinals will find playing time for second-round choice Daryl Washington. They'll lean on veteran Paris Lenon. They'll move strong safety Adrian Wilson into the box for run support as needed.

It might not be enough.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Rashad Johnson. The second-year safety appears more physical and closer to contributing. His rookie season was a wash. Johnson might not be needed for extensive snaps, but they might not have to dread turning to him in a pinch.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Hayes' injury status. The Cardinals downplayed their key run defender's back situation during the early stages of the offseason. They hoped Hayes would overcome the back problems that slowed him last season. Hayes finally underwent surgery. He's a spectator and the Cardinals miss him.

OBSERVATION DECK
[+] EnlargeLarry Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Matt YorkWide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is one of several veteran leaders on the team.

  • Guard Deuce Lutui was arguably the Cardinals' best offensive lineman last season. He could have a hard time staying active for games in 2010. Alan Faneca's addition at left guard sent 2009 left guard Reggie Wells to the right side at Lutui's expense. If Lutui fails to win back the starting job -- contract issues kept him away from the team this offseason and he reported to the team overweight -- his inability to play another position on the line could make it tough for the Cardinals to make him one of the two active backups for games. Jeremy Bridges can play guard or tackle. Rex Hadnot can play center or guard. Even Wells could play tackle in a pinch.
  • This team has strong, outspoken leaders everywhere. Fitzgerald organizes offseason workouts with Cris Carter, Jerry Rice and various current NFL stars, setting a standard for receivers. Faneca provides the offensive line with a needed voice and identity. Wilson is the enforcer in the secondary and the most credible leader on the team. Porter adds veteran leadership and attitude at linebacker. Darnell Dockett holds the defensive line accountable.
  • The Cardinals do not fear the truth. They confront issues directly. Free agent Kerry Rhodes came to Arizona with a reputation as Mr. Hollywood. Even Rhodes acknowledged that former New York Jets teammate Kris Jenkins was likely targeting him with comments suggesting the team had added "real men" to replace the "women" they had lost. Rhodes didn't like it much when Dockett questioned his work ethic amid globe-trotting tweets from the vacationing safety. Whisenhunt's response? No big deal. "Besides," Whisenhunt said of Rhodes' reputation, "our guys have been on him hard enough about it that they're not going to cut him any slack."
  • Speaking of Rhodes, the Cardinals think he can be a good blitzer for them, particularly in combination with Wilson.
  • Fitzgerald's capacity for self-motivation borders on the ridiculous, but it works for him. "I'm getting older. The window of opportunity is closing. I was sitting around talking to Cris Carter this offseason and it seems like seven years has gone by so fast. The hourglass is turned over on me now. The sand is going down and my career is on the downward side now. I have to really pick it up and try to help this team get a playoff win and win a Super Bowl."
  • Faneca, 33, struggles in one-on-one pass-rush drills. The Jets released him even though his salary was guaranteed, making a strong statement as to what they thought he had left. The Cardinals couldn't pass up adding Faneca to their line. They can benefit from his leadership and experience. I just wonder whether he'll be one of the two best guards on the team this season, particularly once Lutui rounds into shape.
  • Beanie Wells benefited from his first full offseason in the NFL. Graduation rules at Ohio State prevented him from joining the team until mid-June last offseason. Wells then reported to training camp slightly late and immediately suffered an injury. He appears much better prepared for the upcoming season. Wells is still fine-tuning some aspects of his pass-protection skills. He catches the ball well, though, and his running will set him apart this season. The versatile Tim Hightower remains the starter early in camp and Wells will have to beat him out. I expect that to happen.
  • The Cardinals ran more four-receiver personnel groups than any team in the league last season. I noticed one four-wide play in five practices and that was with backups playing receiver. Teams tend to focus on base packages early in camp. That could partially explain the proliferation of two-receiver personnel groups. Still, the offense appears different from last season and that will carry over into the regular season.
  • Arizona emphasized continuity over the past two seasons, particularly on its offensive line. Only the Seattle Seahawks have fewer players returning from Week 17 last season, however. Center Lyle Sendlein is the only starting offensive lineman returning at the same position.

Camp Confidential: New York Giants

August, 3, 2010
8/03/10
1:00
PM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 16

ALBANY, N.Y. -- The New York Giants are going through an identity crisis. Just when we had them pegged as a perennial playoff team, they went out and lost eight games in one season.

There are plenty of players on the roster who own Super Bowl rings from the '07 season, but some of them also took the field in disgraceful losses to the Panthers and Vikings to close out '09. Coach Tom Coughlin seemed invincible two years ago, but it's not a stretch to say that his job's on the line heading into this season. Co-owner John Mara has suggested that's not the case, but it's hard to envision Coughlin surviving another .500 season.

The good news for Giants fans is that Coughlin's been here before, and he's come out on the other side. He told me Monday that two books he read over the summer -- a biography of Harry Truman and a remarkable story involving four Navy SEALs -- have had a profound effect on him. He'll spend the next three weeks in training camp attempting to inspire his players to be "uncommonly good."

"I don't remember anyone saying I was on the hot seat when we were 5-0," he said Monday. "But believe me, the most intense pressure comes from within. The outside stuff doesn't affect me."

Coughlin has personally challenged veteran players such as defensive end Justin Tuck to get out of their comfort zones and take larger leadership roles. He also brought in fiery defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to create more energy on the practice field. The former Bills assistant can be heard from across the University at Albany campus shouting at his players and he even tried to throw a block for cornerback Corey Webster during an interception return Monday.

"With our group of players, a coach has to do something phenomenal for us to wholeheartedly follow you," Tuck told me Monday. "[Fewell] had to win our trust. But every day, he shows us how much he loves the game with his actions. And when you see a guy with that much energy, it's hard not to get behind him."

Shortly after Fewell was hired, Tuck stopped by his office to say hello. When he walked into the room, he said Fewell grabbed a marker and started drawing plays on the board.

"He went through a bunch of different scenarios and then asked me how I thought they might work this season," said Tuck. "I got more and more excited as he talked about all the possibilities."

Tuck didn't want to give too much away, but he did disclose that one of the scenarios involved him and Osi Umenyiora both playing linebacker at the same time. But keep that confidential if you would.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeOsi Umenyiora
Rich Kane/Icon SMIOsi Umenyiora is in a battle to regain his job as a starter.
1. What happens if Osi Umenyiora doesn't win back his starting job? For the first two days of camp, Umenyiora was all smiles. He's only practicing once a day in order to manage his hip injury, but he doesn't think the injury will keep him out of any games. Umenyiora's a prideful player who felt humiliated by losing his job to Mathias Kiwanuka last season.

The good thing is that Fewell's going to be up front with all of his players and let them know where they stand. Coughlin remembers how the Giants came at teams with waves of pass-rushers in '07 and '08. Tuck, Umenyiora, Kiwanuka and first-round rookie Jason Pierre-Paul have the talent to be a special group. But last year players along the defensive line started trying to do too much individually and didn't play as a unit. I don't see any circumstance where Umenyiora embraces a reserve role, so that will put the coaching staff in an interesting situation. My guess is that Umenyiora meets the challenge and wins back his job.

"Osi's in for a fight because Kiwi's not going to back down," said Tuck. "Those two are going to push each other and I think that's a good thing."

2. Is former second-round pick Will Beatty ready to take over at left tackle?

Coughlin and general manager Jerry Reese love creating competition and it's going to be interesting to see if David Diehl can hold onto his left tackle spot. The good news for Diehl is that he's going to end up starting on the offensive line no matter what happens in that competition. Coughlin's going to do whatever's best for the team, and I think that will ultimately be Beatty at left tackle and Diehl at left guard. Beatty, a second-year player, has shown a lot of quickness in the first three practices of training camp.

It won't be a completely smooth transition, but I believe he has the athletic ability and size to succeed at left tackle. The Giants have had a lot of continuity along the offensive line, but that won't keep Coughlin from pulling the trigger on a move. In talking to Reese, I get the feeling he's enjoying this competition quite a bit.

3. Can the Giants re-establish the running game?

[+] EnlargeBradshaw
Geoff Burke/US PresswireA healthy Ahmad Bradshaw could see more carries in 2010.
Of all the things that went wrong last season, the lack of a consistent running game might have been the thing that disappointed Coughlin the most.

The Giants went from the No. 1 rushing team in the league in '08 to a No. 17 ranking in '09. They averaged almost a full yard less per carry in '09, which put too much pressure on Eli Manning and the passing game.

Tiki Barber told me early last season that he'd advised Brandon Jacobs to learn how to protect his body more on runs. It may have been solid advice, but Jacobs appeared tentative in '09 and began to doubt himself as the season unfolded. If he looks tentative early in this season, I believe a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw will be prepared to take over as the featured back.

I've been impressed with how quick and decisive he's looked in camp. And Andre Brown appears to have regained his speed after missing last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Brown should be a good change-of-pace back and he has soft hands that could make him a decent option on third down.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

I think the most pleasant surprise so far is the Giants appear to have a ton of competition at cornerback. Aaron Ross missed so much time last year because of hamstring issues that he sort of faded out of the picture. Now, he's getting his hands on lots of footballs and he's regained that quickness that we saw a couple seasons ago. The problem for him is that Terrell Thomas and Webster have both been excellent in this camp. Webster was a disappointment last season, but he's been one of the best players in camp through three practices.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

It's hard to give up on someone after three practices, so I'll go with an injured player in safety Kenny Phillips. He has an excellent attitude, but the fact that he's on the physically unable to perform list isn't a great sign. He was on the verge of stardom before a serious knee condition required microfracture surgery. The Giants brought in plenty of insurance for Phillips this season, but it would be really disappointing if he's not able to make a full recovery.

OBSERVATION DECK
[+] EnlargeKeith Bulluck
AP Photo/Mike GrollLinebacker Keith Bulluck (53) has looked comfortable in the early stages of camp.

  • If you think the Giants are going to slowly bring along Pierre-Paul and Linval Joseph, think again. They want Joseph breathing down Rocky Bernard's neck this season. And so far, Joseph's done a tremendous job soaking up a lot of information. But when Coughlin's standing a few feet away, Joseph had better know when he's supposed to be in a drill. Reese told me Monday afternoon that Pierre-Paul and Joseph have to help out immediately.
  • I thought former Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck would look a little stiff since he hasn't done any live scrimmaging since his ACL surgery last December. Instead, he's moved around really well and seems to be comfortable in Fewell's defense.
  • Second-year tight end Travis Beckum's going to get every opportunity in the world to contribute, but it's not good to flat-out drop a ball when Rhett Bomar threads the needle in team drills.
  • Defensive end Dave Tollefson is one of those steady players who refuses to go away. Nothing flashy, but he's relentless in pursuing the quarterback. I noticed that he's added a little inside spin move to his game. Some of the young offensive linemen haven't known what to do with him.
  • Sixth-round draft pick Adrian Tracy is a fish out of water at linebacker. The former William & Mary defensive end has some athleticism, but he could use a redshirt (practice squad) year.
  • Former Cowboys defensive end Chris Canty is in remarkable condition in this camp. Even Coughlin marveled at how Canty breezed through sprints. Canty has some close friends with the Cowboys (Jay Ratliff, Stephen Bowen, Jason Hatcher) and he'd like to send a message that Jerry Jones made a mistake in letting him walk.
  • I've given up trying to cut Sinorice Moss. I already have him on my 2013 projected Giants roster. It's crowded at receiver again, but the little guy won't go away. And he had a really nice day Monday.
  • If Ramses Barden ever finds a way to take his practices to the games, the Giants will have a remarkable weapon in the red zone. Manning told me Monday that Barden has won him over. He has some Plaxico Burress-like tendencies -- and I'm talking about the good tendencies. Even when he's covered, Barden has a knack for making catches. He's just an enormous target.
  • Reese refuses to give up on linebacker Gerris Wilkinson. The former Georgia Tech player has teased the Giants with his athleticism, but his career has been hampered by injuries and inconsistency.
  • Fullback Madison Hedgecock has a little competition in rookie Jerome Johnson. Hedgecock drops way too many passes. If Johnson shows anything in the passing game, this thing could get interesting.
  • I don't know if he'll hold off Bulluck, but middle linebacker Jonathan Goff looks so much more confident to me in this camp. He's doing a great job communicating and he's done a nice job in coverage.
  • Clint Sintim went through some growing pains last season, but he looks the part of a starter now. He hasn't let any of the Giants' misdirection plays fool him.
  • Either Antrel Rolle is really, really good at safety or I spent too much time watching C.C. Brown and Aaron Rouse chasing cars last season. I think Rolle's an excellent fit for Fewell's defense. If Phillips can return to form, he and Rolle could be one of the best tandems in the league. Deon Grant was a good pickup because of his durability. He just doesn't miss any games, and the Giants need more of those players.
  • I know Steve Smith had a breakout season, but Hakeem Nicks looks like a No. 1 wide receiver to me. I thought it was telling that he was the one receiver whom Manning asked to join him at the Manning Passing Academy. Those two are putting on a show early in camp.

Camp Confidential: Saints

July, 31, 2010
7/31/10
12:27
PM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 2

METAIRIE, La. -- As the New Orleans Saints finished their first camp practice Friday morning, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a man known for holding back nothing on or off the field, unloaded. He wanted to get something off his chest. Heck, out of his body, out of his mouth and out into the open.

Without ever really being asked anything that would prompt the issue, Williams started talking about why the Saints can repeat as Super Bowl champions. He’s tired of hearing the reasons they can’t and the repeated reminders that the follow-up season hasn’t been good to many Super Bowl teams in recent history.

“I keep on hearing you guys talk about this Super Bowl hangover and it’s starting to chafe me a little bit,’’ Williams said. “It really is and I’m being real honest. The reason being is, if you could see behind the scenes of our offseason program from April 19 and to see every single practice we’ve had, I don’t have any qualms about the way our defense is because all they did was show up with more hunger, more fire, wanted me to be a bigger jerk and get on their (butt) more. They begged for me to get on their (butt) more. So far, I’ve seen nothing that would indicate that we can’t make another run at this.’’

Williams may be one of the organization’s more vocal figures, but you quickly get the feeling he’s not alone on this idea. Sure, the Saints spent a good portion of the offseason celebrating the first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Sure, recent history is stacked against them. No team has repeated since the 2004 Patriots.

Confidence -- some even have suggested arrogance -- was a big part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season. That hasn’t changed. Unlike a lot of recent Super Bowl teams, the Saints really didn’t lose much in free agency and they didn’t have their coaching staff picked apart. There really hasn’t been much turnover of faces or attitude.

“There was a really good locker room here before I got here,’’ Williams said. “There’s a better locker room now. The guys that we brought in this year, they fit into that locker room because Jon Vilma and Drew Brees aren’t going to let the wrong kind of people be in that locker room. They’re just not going to do that.’’

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJabari Greer
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesA healthy Jabari Greer could help the defense be more consistent.
1. Can a defense that was opportunistic but far from dominant become more consistent? Sure, there is some bravado that comes with Williams. That’s part of his nature and it’s part of what makes him a good coach. But what he’s saying isn’t just bluster.

The Saints really should be much better on defense this season. All they really lost was linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive end Charles Grant. They showed Grant the door and probably upgraded the position by signing veterans Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson. They’ll line up on the other side from Will Smith. Brown and Wilkerson aren’t dominant pass-rushers, but they’re consistent in that area and play the run very well. Fujita was a key contributor, but the Saints believe they have a group of promising linebackers (Troy Evans, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Stanley Arnoux) and believe one of them will rise up.

Plug in a healthy Sedrick Ellis in the middle of the defensive line and the Saints should have a solid front seven. But the defensive backfield is where the Saints really could be outstanding. They’ve assembled one of the best collections of secondary talent in the league. Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter might be the best cornerbacks no one outside of New Orleans has heard of. When healthy, they both can be shut-down guys. Both were banged up last season, and that’s one of the reasons the Saints drafted cornerback Patrick Robinson. That move also has allowed them to move last year’s first-round pick, Malcolm Jenkins, to free safety, where he might get the chance to beat out Darren Sharper. If you can put Sharper, a possible future Hall of Famer on the bench, that’s a pretty big statement. People talk about New Orleans’ offense being explosive, but the defense has a chance to be every bit as dynamic.

2. Can the offense live up to last year’s standards? Brees remains the quarterback and, as long as that’s the case, this offense is going to be great. Brees clearly is in his prime and his pairing with head coach/offensive genius Sean Payton makes magic possible on every play.

This is an offense that can hit you from every angle -- Brees throwing short or long, Pierre Thomas running inside and Reggie Bush outside and an offensive line filled with Pro Bowlers. Keep in mind that the Saints had some injuries at the skill positions last year, but they still were phenomenal on offense. If they can keep Bush, Thomas, Marques Colston, Heath Evans and Jeremy Shockey healthy, last year’s production could be eclipsed.

[+] EnlargeJahri Evans
Larry French/Getty ImagesJahri Evans is part of a dominant offensive line that makes up for any weakness at left tackle.
3. Is left tackle really that important? The Saints used to have a Pro Bowl left tackle. His name was Jammal Brown and they traded him to Washington in the offseason. That happened after Brown missed all last season with an injury and the Saints got by with Jermon Bushrod quite nicely.

The Saints aren’t touting Bushrod as a franchise left tackle, although he’s the favorite to be the starter. They also drafted Charles Brown, and Zach Strief, who filled in when Bushrod slumped a bit last season, also is in the mix. The Saints gave Bushrod plenty of help last season and they’re prepared to do it again for him -- or for Brown or Streif. But the lesson that came out of last year is, in this offense, it’s not a necessity to have a dominant left tackle.

But that’s partly because the Saints have the league’s best guard tandem (Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks), a Pro Bowl right tackle (Jonathan Stinchcomb) and an excellent center (Jonathan Goodwin). Throw anyone out there at left tackle and the rest of the line and Brees will make him look good.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Jimmy Graham. The Saints took what seemed like a bit of a leap when they drafted the tight end in the third round. He played basketball at the University of Miami before deciding to switch to football in his final year. The conventional wisdom was that Graham would be a bit of a project and would take a year or two to really have an impact. But there already is a buzz among the coaching staff and other offensive players about Graham. Everyone knew he had great athletic ability coming in, but he’s picked up things faster than anyone expected and he got some first-team work with Brees in June workouts. He might play a bigger role faster than anyone expected.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Clint Ingram. When the Saints signed Ingram, a lot of fans instantly thought he would be the automatic replacement for Fujita. Ingram had been a starter in Jacksonville, so the logic was solid. But Ingram was injured when the Saints signed him and he still hasn’t been on the practice field, except while riding a stationary bike. That has allowed Troy Evans, Dunbar and Arnoux time to make a good impression. Unless Ingram gets healthy very soon and makes a huge impression on the field, he might not even get a roster spot.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Darren Sharper
    James Lang/US PresswireDarren Sharper wore down toward the end of last season and had offseason microfracture surgery.
    I know this might sound like blasphemy to Saints fans because Sharper is very popular and had a huge impact last year. But the fact is he’s 34 and coming off micro-fracture knee surgery. I’ve suggested before I think there’s a good chance Jenkins takes his place in the starting lineup. But I’ll take it one step further here and say -- I’m not promising this will happen -- I can see a scenario where Sharper doesn’t even stay on the active roster. The Saints are high on Jenkins. They also like Usama Young and are hopeful about Chip Vaughn, who missed his rookie year with an injury. Ideally, the Saints would like to keep Sharper around for his leadership. But if his knee doesn’t come along, he could spend part of the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, the injured-reserve list or maybe even be released or retired. Even with all his credentials, Sharper can’t contribute if his knee isn’t right. The Saints have a lot of other safeties with young legs.
  • The Saints used a three-headed backfield with Bush, Thomas and Mike Bell last season. Bell is gone, but the playing time division should be pretty similar this year. Just plug Lynell Hamilton into Bell’s place. The Saints wouldn’t have let Bell go if they didn’t think Hamilton was ready. I don’t want to tease you and say this is the year Bush shows he can run between the tackles. But remember how well he ran in the playoffs and how he was more physical than at any time in his career? That was because he was completely healthy. That seems to still be the case, so don’t be surprised if you see Bush’s numbers go up a bit. This guy can do a little bit of everything.
  • Shockey’s always been an easy target and there’s no doubt he’s brought some of that on himself. But he appears to be in very good physical shape. Shockey hasn’t really been a distraction in New Orleans like many thought he was when he was with the Giants. He’s just been banged up for much of his time with the Saints. Maybe –- and I’m just saying maybe -- Shockey might have matured and might be taking better care of himself in an effort to stay on the field.
  • It really didn’t get much attention, but the best move the Saints made in the offseason might have been signing Patrick Ramsey to serve as Brees’ backup. Veteran Mark Brunell was a good fit in that role for a couple of years, but the Saints needed to get a little younger. The Saints hope and pray nothing ever happens to Brees. But, if he were to miss some time, the New Orleans offense might not suddenly fall apart. Ramsey’s a guy who has bounced around the league. He got messed up by Steve Spurrier early in his career in Washington, but he still has some talent. This is a quarterback-friendly offense with all sorts of weapons and Ramsey could win games for the Saints -- if that ever becomes necessary.
  • For a couple years, special teams were a bit of a question. That has changed. Kicker Garrett Hartley and punter Thomas Morstead were heroes in the Super Bowl. They’re still young and should only continue to get better.
  • It’s very early in camp, but one player who has intrigued the coaching staff is defensive end Junior Galette. He’s an undrafted rookie and very undersized at 258 pounds. But this guy is showing great speed and there’s a chance he could land a job as a pass-rush specialist. Yeah, Bobby McCray also is supposed to fit that description. But McCray had 1.5 sacks last season and actually was cut because of a high salary before he basically begged his way back (at a reduced salary). If the Saints cut McCray once, there’s no reason why they couldn’t do it again.

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