NFL Nation: 2011 Camp Confidential

Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

August, 22, 2011
8/22/11
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Unfazed by the NFL lockout and energized by a new offense, Sam Bradford shatters perceptions of him as a young player scrambling to make up lost ground.

"We’re going to push the ball down the field," the St. Louis Rams' second-year quarterback says with some excitement. "I think we’re going to be aggressive."

Building steadily for the long term isn't the focus for Bradford and the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels. They're living week to week, play to play.

It's a mindset change for Bradford and any quarterback transitioning away from a West Coast offense. Kevin Kolb is going through a similar adjustment after leaving Philadelphia for Arizona. Instead of honing a timing-based system designed to out-execute any defense, they're learning to change up their plan, sometimes dramatically, for each opponent. And they are reveling in the possibilities.

"We are not going to just keep the same stuff in from week to week and say, 'This is what we run, stop it,'" Bradford says. "We could come in and we could have 30 new plays in on Wednesday and they’re all designed to attack what the defense’s weakness is."

McDaniels retained portions of the offense Bradford learned as a rookie last season. The terminology for personnel groupings is largely the same. McDaniels also inherited most of the staff from former coordinator Pat Shurmur. But this will not be a 1-2-3 progression passing game to the degree it was last season. Bradford said he likes the changes in part because the new offense more closely resembles the one he ran at Oklahoma.

"Last year in the West Coast, you started in the same place every time, and no matter what the coverage is, you just kind of work through it and find the open guy," Bradford said. "This year, we still have progression plays where it is like that, but it’s a lot more, 'OK, if the defense gives us 2, this is exactly what we want. We’re going to work off the 'Mike' and we’re going to high-low it and we’re going to go right there. I really like that."

In another big change, Bradford will take over responsibility for making all of the pass-protection calls at the line of scrimmage. He previously leaned on his offensive line to make adjustments based on where specific defenders were lining up. That means Bradford, still only 23, will carry a heavier mental burden against a formidable schedule. The Rams play the Eagles, New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints among their first seven opponents. They'll find out quickly whether Bradford is ready for the new responsibilities.

"Giving it all to me, it’s definitely a lot more, but at the same time, it almost makes it easier once you get everything figured out," he said, "because you know exactly what could happen with all the different scenarios."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesSteven Jackson's role will change in Josh McDaniels' one-back offense.
1. Steven Jackson's role. The Rams' Pro Bowl running back has been an outspoken advocate for running behind a fullback in a traditional two-back offense. Jackson realized life would change as McDaniels installed what will be primarily a one-back system. He expects a less regimented running game and less reliance on pounding the ball between the tackles. More of his receptions will come by design instead of on checkdowns, flares and the like.

"This offense allows me to open my whole repertoire of talent and put on display the things I can do outside the tackles," Jackson said. "You don’t have a fullback and I hate to lose Mike Karney, but at the same time, it allows me on a bigger stage to show my overall talent as a football player."

The Rams ran one-back offenses earlier in Jackson's career. He'll have to set up his blocks instead of relying on a fullback to clear the way. A basic play called "Big Jab" illustrates the differences. It's a strongside run masquerading as an inside-zone play to the weak side. The back must freeze the weakside linebacker with his eyes long enough for the offensive lineman to reach the second level.

"Things like that, you can’t pick up on a live game, of course, but on the coaches’ film, it makes a difference," Jackson said.

2. The thinking at wide receiver. The Rams ran out of viable receiving options during their forgettable Week 17 defeat at Seattle last season. With an ascending young quarterback in place and multiple Rams receivers coming off injuries, this offseason seemed like a good time for the organization to invest heavily in a dynamic receiver.

Sidney Rice was available, but the Rams didn't flinch when the division-rival Seahawks signed him to a five-year contract. The Rams signed Mike Sims-Walker to a one-year deal and went to camp with a mostly undistinguished group.

"A lot of people think we have to have some guy that runs 4.25 [in the 40-yard dash] and weighs 230 pounds and he’s 6-foot-5," McDaniels said. "You don’t have to have that guy. You can do it different ways and that is what we are going to try to do."

Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Sims-Walker, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas are heavy favorites to earn roster spots if healthy. Mardy Gilyard, Donnie Avery and Danario Alexander are fighting for one or two roster spots. None commands double-team attention or special game planning from opposing defensive coordinators.

Tight ends factor heavily into the Rams' plans for the passing game. The team envisions a "12" personnel grouping with Lance Kendricks and Mike Hoomanawanui at tight end with two wideouts and Jackson in the backfield. If teams stick with the base defense, the Rams expect Kendricks and Hoomanawanui to create coverage mismatches. If teams choose to play nickel, they can prepare to see a 6-foot-3, 240-pound running back coming their way. Either tight end could shift to fullback for another dimension.

3. Seeking to upgrade run defense. The Rams shelled out top dollar for only one free agent this offseason. Safety Quintin Mikell, who broke into the NFL with Philadelphia when current Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo ran the Eagles' secondary, brings a physical presence. The Rams are paying him $6.5 million per year because Spagnuolo pretty much had to have him.

[+] EnlargeQuintin Mikell
AP Photo/Jeff CurryThe Rams hope Quintin Mikell (27) can help improve the team's tackling in the secondary.
"I don't know if anyone else would be able to feel this or see this, and I can't remember when he was a rookie if he already had these mannerisms, but he plays the game like Brian Dawkins," Spagnuolo said. "His mannerisms, the way he's a knee-bender. He plays fast, he loves the game, he's matured."

Sitting in his office following a recent practice, Spagnuolo cued up a 2004 play he shows annually to defensive backs. Green Bay, facing first-and-goal from the Philadelphia 7-yard line in a 2004 game at Philadelphia, hands off to Najeh Davenport around the right side. One of the Packers' big tight ends engages No. 46 for the Eagles at the line of scrimmage. Before this year, Spagnuolo never revealed No. 46?s identity to his Rams players. It’s Mikell, far lighter than his opponent, disengaging from the block and cutting down Davenport for a 1-yard loss."

"Boom, bang, bang, get out of here, and make the tackle," Spagnuolo says, taking on the voice of narrator. "I want to teach the smaller guys that size isn't a big deal, that it's about power and leverage, and if you run fast at 200 pounds and a 300-pounder is running slow, you can do that."

The Rams gave up too many long runs last season. They're expecting Mikell and fellow defensive newcomers Justin Bannan, Daniel Muir, Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga to upgrade that area.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Gibson's development at receiver. The Rams have felt better about their restraint at receiver in part because Gibson, 24, showed up for camp ready to build on a 53-catch 2010 season. Gibson and the tough, steady Amendola have been the two best receivers in camp.

"Gibby has had a great camp," Bradford said. "He looks faster than last year. He looks more confident."

Gibson's 83-yard touchdown reception against Tennessee in the Rams' preseason game Saturday night was more than twice as long as any pass he's caught in a regular-season game.

"His route running has been great, he’s picking up schemes, learning how to block and he’s more of a complete receiver than he was," said Mikell, Gibson's former teammate in Philadelphia.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Jerome Murphy's broken ankle. Bradley Fletcher and Ron Bartell arguably give St. Louis the best starting cornerback tandem in the division, at least until Patrick Peterson gets up to speed in Arizona. Depth is a concern after the Rams lost Murphy. Al Harris, 36, adds toughness and experience, but there isn't enough depth to comfortably weather another injury at the position. The Rams would be wise to monitor the waiver wire for cornerbacks and consider potential trade options as the regular season approaches.

[+] EnlargeHarvey Dahl
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonThe Rams expect Harvey Dahl to give the offensive line more of an edge.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Rams added veteran right guard Harvey Dahl to upgrade their talent and give their offensive line an edge. NFC West fans should remember Dahl. While with Atlanta, he enraged then-49ers coach Mike Singletary to such a degree that Singletary got into a verbal sparring match with Dahl during a game. The Rams would have reason to celebrate if Dahl's mean streak rubbed off on third-year right tackle Jason Smith.
  • Dahl's reputation as a brawler created an image in my mind of a player supplementing average talent with toughness. Dahl is better than that physically. He looks more like a tackle than a guard, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing about 305 pounds. He has thicker legs than Smith and has showed good athleticism in camp. McDaniels favors big guards.
  • Veteran newcomers have transformed the Rams from one of the NFL's youngest teams to one of the older ones, based on average age. The team took advantage of a flooded market in free agency. Most veterans signed one-year deals without salary-cap ramifications beyond this season. With so many veterans taking one-year deals around the league, a similar market could await next offseason. Teams like the Rams can have it both ways. They're relying most heavily on a young core featuring Bradford, Smith, Rodger Saffold, James Laurinaitis, Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Fletcher and others. But they also have veteran depth.
  • Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood are giving Jackson something he hasn't had in the recent past: veteran backups who command respect through their accomplishments. Jackson: "Yeah, coming here, they had their hands full. I think between my mentality on the field and how I felt as a player about the organization and what I would like to see, I think I kind of showed them in a way without saying it, 'Go fill the other areas of need and I’ll take care of the running back position. I can hold down the fort and when we feel comfortable enough, then go get another running back or two.' "
  • Laurinaitis is seeking to become more aggressive now that he has a fuller grasp of the defense entering his third season under Spagnuolo. ESPN credited him with four tackles for loss in 2009 and eight last season. Laurinaitis wants that number to climb. "We would rather have tough, physical play where you are attacking downhill than being assignment perfect every time," he said.
  • Long made an interesting observation about players the Rams have added in recent years. Several were coming off recent Super Bowl victories. Fred Robbins, Poppinga and Harris are three. Long: "I don’t think that’s an accident."
  • Quinn has a chance to play about 40 percent of the defensive snaps if all goes to plan. The Rams aren't counting on him for every-down production as long as veteran James Hall remains productive. Quinn couldn't have a better mentor. Hall, 34, still goes out to practice early for one-on-one work with retired defensive tackle La'Roi Glover.
  • Kendricks' addition through the draft raised questions in my mind about whether Hoomanawanui still figured prominently in the Rams' plans. He does. Bradford shot me an are-you-crazy look when I shared those thoughts with him at camp. "There is definitely a place for him," Bradford said.
  • Jackson's carries per game could fluctuate more in McDaniels' offense because so much of the plan hinges upon what the opposing defense offers. Jackson: "That is exactly what this will represent."

Camp Confidential: Dallas Cowboys

August, 21, 2011
8/21/11
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' coaches don't just announce drills during training camp practices, hollering out "9-on-7s!" as the horn blows and players shift from one field to the other. They're calling out situations. Two minutes to go, one timeout left, second-and-6 on your own 35. The players either huddle or hustle between plays, depending on what the called-out situation calls for. While these are drills only, they're intended to simulate game conditions as closely as they possibly can.

"Will we ever be able to completely re-create a game situation? No," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "But we're going to try our best in practice, and I think all these situational periods had been really good for us. Not only have we created initial situations, but stuff comes up that isn't scripted, and I think our team has handled those well also."

What strikes you when you spend a few days in Cowboys camp is how normal things seem, how businesslike. Sure, they were in San Antonio for a while and now are splitting practice time between the steamy outdoor fields at Valley Ranch and the air-conditioned luxury of Cowboys Stadium. But it's nothing like last year, when they spent August bouncing between those places as well as Canton and California, brimming with the highest possible expectations, proclaiming with confidence the goal of being the first team ever to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.

A 6-10 record and a new coach can humble you, for sure, after a summer like that, and there's no doubt these Cowboys are humbled by the way things went in 2010. But if the end result is the atmosphere Garrett has created in his first training camp as head coach, there are worse things.

"We certainly want an atmosphere where guys like to coach and play football, but we absolutely want to be organized and prepared," Garrett said after Friday morning's workout at the stadium. "We want it to be businesslike when we're out there doing our work, out there on the field and also in the meeting rooms. We want to create a nice, professional atmosphere where we feel like we can function the best."

Garrett exudes both confidence and competence. He has waited his whole life for this chance, but he doesn't seem over-eager or phony about the way he's putting his long-held ideas about how to be a head coach into practice. He is smart, knowledgeable and self-assured, and it's emanating throughout the building. Around a team that often, throughout its history, has been known for something of a circus atmosphere, the mentality this August is straight lunch pail.

"Everybody here knows, whatever we get, we're going to have to work for it," right guard Kyle Kosier said. "Whether it's your spot on the roster or in the starting lineup or a Week 1 win or a playoff spot, it's about putting in this time right here and working. And that's all that's on anybody's mind right now."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireRob Ryan will be expected to improve a defense that was one of the worst in the league last season.
1. Can the defense learn Rob Ryan's scheme in time? The Cowboys brought in Ryan to be their new defensive coordinator. And while they signed free-agent safety Abram Elam and free-agent defensive end Kenyon Coleman -- both played under Ryan in Cleveland the past two seasons -- the group they're bringing back on defense is otherwise the same as the one that allowed the second-most points in the league last season. Ryan is charged with fixing that, but of course the lockout denied him the opportunity to use spring minicamps and organized team activities as part of his installation process. The defense is trying to cram a whole offseason's worth of learning into one month, and there's a lot to learn. Ryan's defense is based on multiple and ever-changing looks, and a complexity designed to make things as confusing as possible for opposing offenses. But Garrett said he has faith in the quality of his defensive personnel and the ability of his flamboyant new coordinator to teach.

"It's difficult. There are a lot of looks," Garrett admitted. "But the other part to that, too, is that I think he grew up in very fundamentally sound system in the NFL -- linebacker coach for New England for four years during their Super Bowl era in the early 2000s. So he has a very good feel for base defensive football, and then he has an ability to evolve in different situations and make it more difficult for opposing offenses. So we feel excited about that, and we're excited to see our players play within this system."

2. Can they put together an offensive line? There are some new and inexperienced pieces here. Rookie Tyron Smith, the ninth overall pick in this past draft, will start at right tackle. Every day Smith gets an extra tutoring session with offensive line coach Hudson Houck and a series of rotating instructors that has included Kosier, linebacker DeMarcus Ware, left tackle Doug Free and others. Smith is ultra-talented but needs work on his footwork and learning the schemes. And as with the players learning the new defense, he has to cram. The Cowboys moved Kosier from left guard to right so he could work more closely with the rookie, but now they need a left guard. And while that still has a good chance to be Montrae Holland or Phil Costa, later-round rookies David Arkin and Bill Nagy have been getting first-team reps lately and one of them could end up starting Week 1.

3. Who is the No. 3 wide receiver? One of the first things the Cowboys did when the lockout ended and free agency began was cut receiver Roy Williams to help create cap room. That also created a vacancy at the No. 3 wide receiver spot behind Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. Kevin Ogletree appears first in line to grab the opportunity, though Raymond Radway and Dwayne Harris have shown flashes. Some have suggested the Cowboys need to go out and get a veteran to fill the spot, but with tight end Jason Witten a near-lock for 90-plus catches, running backs Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray potential factors in the passing game and depth at both of those positions, the Cowboys feel as though the No. 3 wide receiver might be the No. 5 target for Tony Romo for most of the season.

THE BUTLER CAN DO IT

Third-year linebacker Victor Butler has been an eye-opener in camp, and some have suggested he might be a threat to Anthony Spencer's starting spot on the side opposite Ware. More likely, he's a guy to add to the pass-rush mix and give them depth and the ability to vary those looks even more. If anything, the camp Butler is having could serve to motivate Spencer to return to his 2009 form after a disappointing 2010.

"You can never have too many pass-rushers on one team," Ware said. "When the Giants won against the Patriots, they had several really great pass-rushers. Pressure is what gets things going. So to be able to develop another third-down guy will really help us out a lot."

TURNING UP A CORNER

[+] EnlargeOrlando Scandrick
John Albright/Icon SMIOrlando Scandrick has been a surprise in training camp and could provide much-needed depth in the Cowboys' secondary.
The Cowboys did not sign free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, though they tried, and they'll go with Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman as starting cornerbacks again. The problem is, injuries have kept both Jenkins and Newman sidelined so far in camp, and Newman is out until at least the regular-season opener. This is a spot where the Cowboys struggled mightily in 2010, and they're not going to have their defense the way they want it until they get Jenkins and Newman back on the field. The one positive to come out of this is that backup corner Orlando Scandrick has looked very good in a starter's role so far in camp, so maybe they have some quality depth there that they didn't know they had.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Cowboys might have more at defensive end than we thought immediately post-free agency. Coleman looks as if he's poised to steal Igor Olshansky's starting spot from him, and Jason Hatcher has looked rejuvenated and been an asset in the pass rush. Letting Stephen Bowen go to the Redskins felt like a loss at first, but re-signing Marcus Spears and Hatcher and bringing in Coleman might have made them deeper than they'd have been if they'd stayed pat.
  • The kicking competition looks miserable, with neither David Buehler nor Dan Bailey having seized the opportunity and Kai Forbath unable to get on the field because of injury. Don't rule out the possibility that the kicker the Cowboys go with this season isn't on the roster yet.
  • Jones and Romo aren't new or exciting names around here, but they look as good as anyone in camp on offense. When I watched them practice against the Chargers on Thursday, the Cowboys were using Jones around end a lot, and he looks like he has great burst. The offensive linemen I spoke with all hope he gets a chance at full-time carries, because they believe he and Bryant can be "spark plug" guys.
  • Elam was a critical signing, as he'll be responsible for the secondary calls and has been vitally important in helping the holdover players understand the language Ryan is speaking. I'm interested to see if the secondary looks more organized Sunday night having had an additional week-plus practicing with Elam.
  • The Cowboys are serious about Nagy, who was a seventh-round pick after not playing much in his senior season at Wisconsin. He was seriously hurt in a moped accident as a junior and then was passed on the depth chart by a few other guys, so much of the action he saw as a senior was actually at tight end. But the Cowboys love his athleticism and maturity. They could start him at guard early in the season, and there are some who think he could eventually start at center for them down the road.

Camp Confidential: New York Jets

August, 20, 2011
8/20/11
12:45
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan said it his first day on the job, and he’ll keep saying it until it actually happens -- the New York Jets are going to the Super Bowl.

Early on, Ryan’s bravado was a breath of fresh air. Now, after two consecutive losses in the AFC Championship Game, the brash coach will be perceived as a windbag if the Jets don’t get it done in 2011.

One more miss and the honeymoon is over.

“This is the best roster we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Ryan said.

That’s debatable. The Jets are older and slower at wide receiver, depth is a concern at some key spots and they have middle-of-the-field issues in pass coverage. That said, they have a young quarterback on the ascent -- Mark Sanchez -- and improvement in his play could compensate for other deficiencies.

Win or lose, the Jets are a marquee team. HBO’s “Hard Knocks” show isn’t around this summer to record every word and action, but the team still is generating national news -- Sanchez’s GQ cover, Plaxico Burress' return to football, Ryan’s brash quotes, etc.

You’re just not hearing the R-rated language.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Can Mark Sanchez become a four-quarter quarterback? He already has won four playoff games in two seasons -- impressive stuff -- so you know he can win big games. His problem is consistency, playing well from week to week and quarter to quarter in the regular season.

Yes, quarter to quarter. The Jets didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the first quarter over their final 15 games (counting playoffs), and a lot of that falls on Sanchez. Part of that could be attributed to inexperience, needing time to adjust to defensive wrinkles, but a lot of it stemmed from his inaccuracy. He completed only 55 percent of his pass attempts, about six or seven points below where the Jets want him to be.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesThe Jets need to see more consistency from quarterback Mark Sanchez.
If Sanchez can eliminate the inconsistencies and settle down -- he led the league in dropped interceptions -- the Jets will have a real chance to do something special. We already know he can make plays in the fourth quarter, but now he has to play the first like the fourth. Problem is, he lost 75 percent of his receiving corps before camp opened, putting the onus on him to familiarize himself with a new group. That takes time.

2. Can the Three Amigos (Egos?) co-exist? On paper, the Jets have one of the best receiving corps in the league: Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason. They’ve combined for more than 1,700 receptions and 24,000 yards, not to mention two Super Bowl-winning catches (Holmes and Burress). But now there will be a transition period, especially for Burress and Mason.

Not only are they learning a new system, they’re adjusting to life as secondary options. That’s not always easy for a receiver accustomed to being No. 1. Naturally, they’re all saying the right things, insisting they’re in it for the team, not themselves. We’ll see. Holmes is the No. 1 guy in these parts, and his new teammates will have to deal with that. If not, it will put a lot of pressure on Sanchez, who realizes he has a lot of mouths to feed.

That Burress missed two weeks with a sprained ankle really slowed the process.

3. Do the Jets have a pass rush? This question really bugs Ryan because, as he likes to point out, the Jets finished eighth in sacks (40). Not bad, right? But sacks don’t mean everything, as coaches like to point out when it benefits their agenda. For instance: The Jets led the league in most big plays allowed on third down, and the primary reason was the lack of a consistent pass rush.

The Jets didn’t acquire anyone to help the pass rush, unless you count first-round defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, but he’s really not an edge rusher. He’ll be more of a first- and second-down run defender than a pass-rusher in the sub packages. If anything, the Jets lost some pass rush because they released Jason Taylor and didn’t replace his five sacks.

What to do? Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine are masters of the blitz, designing clever pressure packages that confuse quarterbacks. They manufacture pressure, and sometimes simulate pressure, to rattle quarterbacks. For the most part, it works, but it’s a dangerous way to live, as the Jets discovered last season. They have fantastic cover corners in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, which makes it possible to employ that kind of scheme, but sooner or later the lack of a big-time rusher will catch up to them.

The Jets took a flyer on former Bills No. 1 pick Aaron Maybin, signing him to a minimum contract, but let’s be honest: He’s not the answer. It’ll be an upset if he makes the team.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

The Jets parted ways with two of their longest-tenured players, defensive end Shaun Ellis (Patriots) and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (Steelers). They were two of the most respected players in the locker room, players you always figured would retire as Jets.

Cotchery, unhappy in his role as the No. 3 receiver, requested his release. The Jets didn’t handle it well, cutting Cotchery before securing Mason, but it worked out in the end. They offered Ellis a one-year deal for the minimum salary, which he found insulting. He wound up signing with the rival Patriots, a PR hit for the Jets.

[+] EnlargePlaxico Burress
AP Photo/Julio CortezA sprained ankle has slowed Plaxico Burress since the start of training camp.
It makes them look cold, but the Jets evidently felt it was time to move on. The Cotchery decision could come back to bite them because he’s 29 and still can be an effective player.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

After a 20-month prison sentence that cost him two seasons, Burress needs practice more than anyone. But he missed the first two weeks of camp and the first preseason game with a sprained ankle, a significant setback as he attempts to regain his form and learn the Jets’ offense.

The Jets hope Burress, who's 6-foot-5, can cure their red zone issues, but he and Sanchez are having trouble connecting in practice. This is going to take time. Don’t be surprised if Burress is a part-time player in the first month of the season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Revis is having the best camp of his career. Yes, it’s true, this is only his third, holdout-free training camp. But know this: He’s locking down receivers with the same determination he did in 2009, when he shut down No. 1 receivers on a weekly basis. This bodes well for the 10 players around him.
  • Burress is making most of the headlines -- Plax this, Plax that -- but the real prize of the offseason shopping spree is Mason. Ryan gets excited about reclamation projects, but let’s be honest: Burress hasn’t played in two seasons because he was in prison, and now he expects to come back to the pre-prison Plaxico. Whoa, let’s hold everything. Burress might turn out to be a good pickup, but it’s going to take time. Give him a few games into the season. In the meantime, they’ll ride Holmes and Mason.
  • You may not know this name -- Rob Turner -- but the Jets will miss him. He backs up at center and guard, plays tight end in the “jumbo” package, lines up on defense in goal line and blocks from the wedge on kickoff returns. In short, he does everything but mop the floors. Unfortunately for the Jets, Turner broke his leg in the preseason opener and will be lost for at least two months. It’s a big loss, even though the average fan might not think so.
  • The Jets are going to be vulnerable in the middle of the field in pass coverage. The safeties have suspect speed and the front seven also is short on the quicks. Opponents with athletic tight ends and crafty slot receivers are going to cause major issues for the Jets.
  • The run defense could be vulnerable up the middle. Dependable nose tackle Sione Pouha is hobbled by a sprained knee (not serious, but a nuisance) and inside linebacker Bart Scott is taking some time off with what’s believed to be a high-ankle sprain. Again, it’s not serious, but when two of your inside guys are hurting, it’s never a good thing.
  • Aside from Sanchez, the key player is running back Shonn Greene, the new feature back. No doubt, Greene has the talent to be the No. 1 tailback -- and he is -- but what about his durability? That always has been a question that dogs Greene. He’ll have to bring his A game every week -- assuming he recovers soon from a skin infection on his right foot. When you’re a ground-and-pound team, you need a workhorse -- and LaDainian Tomlinson, 32, probably is too old to be that guy.
  • Remember this name: Jeremy Kerley. He’s a diminutive receiver/kick returner from TCU, and he will bring a lot of electricity. He’s only 5-foot-9, if that, but he has tremendous acceleration and change of direction. He’ll be an immediate factor on punt returns and, if needed at receiver, he has the ability to make plays from the slot.

Camp Confidential: Chiefs

August, 19, 2011
8/19/11
2:18
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ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Been looking for post-lockout, smash-mouth NFL action?

Hope you didn’t come to Chiefs camp during the past three weeks.

Kansas City's training camp wasn’t the most excfiting place in the NFL. The Chiefs started very slowly, only going to pads last Sunday. The team’s starters did virtually nothing in a 25-0 loss to Tampa Bay last Friday night. Coach Todd Haley said he may take the same approach this Friday at Baltimore.

It’s a lockout-caused plan by Haley as the Chiefs take the big-picture approach and begin their AFC West title defense.

Haley was concerned about the length of the lockout and he didn’t want to rush his team into action because of the lost time. He wants this team to be fresh for the season. Other teams have crammed in as much physical play as possible. Haley, known for his physical camps in his first two years in Kansas City, is taking a much different approach.

At this point, he said, getting his team conditioned to make up for lost time is more important to him than practicing hard. Haley said he will concentrate on heavy football drills toward the end of the preseason to ensure the team stays as healthy as possible heading into the regular season.

The coach is taking some heat for taking the cautious approach. Many fans are concerned the Chiefs will not be ready when they open the regular season against visiting Buffalo on Sept. 11.

“I’m sticking to my convictions,” Haley said. “This is what is best for this team. I believe we will be ready for the season.”

The Chiefs picked up the intensity in practice this week, but they will not turn their starters loose until the third preseason game. There is even a chance the starters will play in the final preseason game, which routinely doesn’t happen around the league.

“This is the approach coach Haley wants us to take,” Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel. “We are fully behind him.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Work with the quarterback: Cassel’s development is still the No.1 priority for this team and camp time is essential. There is no doubt Cassel progressed last season, but he fell off at the end of the season and now has to get used to working with new quarterback coach Jim Zorn after a one-year stint with Charlie Weis as a his offensive coordinator. Weis now has the same job at the University of Florida. Cassel and Zorn lost valuable time due to the lockout. However, they are said to have built a good relationship and gotten comfortable working together this summer.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel
Kirby Lee/US PresswireChiefs quarterback Matt Cassel will have plenty of options when distributing the ball this season.
2. Spread the ball around: The Chiefs are spending this camp getting their varied passing-game weapons in order. This can be a dangerous passing offense and this camp is being spent on how to best utilize it. Cassel has many directions to look. It starts with No.1 receiver Dwayne Bowe, but the Chiefs have given him help by drafting Jon Baldwin in the first round and signing slot receiver Steve Breaston, who played for Haley in Arizona and caught 77 passes in 2008 under Haley’s guidance. Add tight end Tony Moeaki and running back/receiver Dexter McCluster and there are a lot of options. Figuring out the best ways to utilize all of them is what camp is for.

3. Figuring what’s best for Charles: It has driven many Kansas City fans crazy that the Chiefs don’t give Jamaal Charles more carries. Thomas Jones had 245 rushing attempts last season while Charles had 230 carries. Jones fell off toward the end of the season, but Charles was spectacular. He had 1,467 rushing yards rushing, which was second in the league. The Chiefs want to increase Charles’ numbers but also want him to stay fresh and healthy, so don’t expect his workload to fly through the roof. To help both Charles and Jones, who will likely get 8-10 carries per game, the Chiefs signed former Baltimore fullback Le'Ron McClain, who runs the ball more than the average fullback. The Chiefs are working all three backs during this camp to figure out the most advantageous carry distribution.

ARE THEY GOING TO JARED?

The Chiefs’ camp got interesting last week when the team picked up former Baltimore left tackle Jared Gaither. Known as an above-average left tackle, Gaither missed all of last season with a back injury. The Raiders considered signing him early in camp, but they passed because of his back.

The Chiefs signed Gaither during camp and he is now practicing with the second team. If his back holds up, there is a strong chance Gaither could move into the starting lineup and send Branden Albert to right tackle. Albert, a first-round pick in 2008, has been a decent-but-not-great left tackle. The Chiefs have long considered making him a right tackle, where many scouts think he’d flourish. If he moves to right tackle, Albert would replace Barry Richardson. If the massive (6-foot-9, 340 pounds) Gaither is healthy and motivated, this could be a significant move for Kansas City.

CHIEFS MAY NEED TO BACK IT UP AT QB

The Chiefs are keeping a close eye on backup quarterbacks Tyler Palko and rookie Ricky Stanzi during camp. The two struggled in the preseason opener last week. If they continue to struggle, Kansas City could potentially consider bringing in a veteran backup such as Jake Delhomme to be the No. 2 quarterback. Still, Stanzi, a fifth-round pick from Iowa, should be a lock to make the team. Palko will have to increase his production to survive the final cuts.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The team loves the addition of nose tackle Kelly Gregg. He has been a leader and he has been working hard in camp. He has been a positive influence on young players, including draft pick Jerrell Powe.

  • The Chiefs are working on increasing their turnover numbers on defense. They had the eighth-fewest takeaways in the NFL last season.
    [+] EnlargeKansas City's Jon Baldwin
    Denny Medley/US PRESSWIREFirst-round draft pick Jon Baldwin, along with new acquisition Steve Breaston, are expected to make an impact this season.

  • Baldwin was hampered by some minor issues. Camp observers said he struggled early in camp getting off the line of scrimmage, but the coaching staff is confident the No. 26 overall pick in the 2011 draft will catch up quickly. Baldwin had a reputation for being difficult in college, but the Chiefs haven’t seen any of indications of that and are more than satisfied with his attitude.
UPDATE: ESPN’s Adam Schefter confirmed that Baldwin is doubtful for the rest of training camp after a locker-room fight with Jones. Baldwin’s incident occurred after the Chiefs’ brass praised his attitude. This event has to be alarming for the team.

  • Veteran backup Jerheme Urban has been running with the first team with Bowe as Baldwin and Breaston get acclimated. Don’t expect that to last. Baldwin and Breaston were brought in to play a lot of snaps.

  • Haley has paired veterans with rookies to help the younger players through camp. The players room together, and Haley often matches up players from opposite sides of the ball to help team continuity.

  • Veteran Andy Studebaker has been working with first team at outside linebacker opposite star pass rusher Tamba Hali. The Chiefs are going to use several players to pressure the quarterback, but Studebaker has a chance to have a key role while rookie Justin Houston learns the team’s system.

  • McCluster has been working mostly out of the backfield as Haley suggested he would in May. Still, expect McCluster to line up at receiver some as well. The Chiefs are looking to create as many matchup problems as they can with McCluster, especially on third downs.

  • Rookie DE Allen Bailey has a chance to contribute right away as a pass rusher. He has been working in that area diligently in camp.

  • Rookie offensive lineman Rodney Hudson has been looking good. The second-round pick could play at guard and at center.

  • The team also likes the progress of second-year guard Jon Asamoah, who has a chance to shine in the aftermath of the release of Brian Waters.

  • Former San Diego inside linebacker Brandon Siler is making a push for major playing time. He is a solid talent who also helps on special teams.

  • Linebacker Cameron Sheffield has played well. And he could be a contributor. He missed all of last season after suffering a neck injury in the preseason.

  • One undrafted free agent to watch is Temple linebacker Amara Kamara. He has caught on to the defensive scheme very quickly.

  • Cornerback Jalil Brown, a fourth-round pick out of Colorado, has been impressive and he has a chance to be contributor in some packages and on special teams.

Camp Confidential: Baltimore Ravens

August, 19, 2011
8/19/11
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- How close are the Baltimore Ravens?

Consider this: For three consecutive years, they were eliminated in the postseason by the eventual AFC champions.

That is why the Ravens' mindset is all about getting over the hump in 2011. Since 2008, Baltimore has fallen a step or two short of making a Super Bowl run. A pair of playoff losses to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers and one to the Indianapolis Colts have overshadowed an otherwise stellar three-year period.

This season, the Ravens have another good team with high expectations. Baltimore should be in the playoff mix again, barring significant injuries. But it probably will come down to whether the Ravens can beat other title contenders -- like Pittsburgh -- in big games.

"The Steelers are one of the best teams in the league, and we're right there behind them," Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said this week in a conference call with season-ticket holders. "Our goal is to get there. We understand that. It's a high bar having them in our division like the Orioles have had the Yankees and the Red Sox in their division for 30 years. We'd rather have it no other way. It's just the way it is."

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Will Joe Flacco take the next step? If this week was any indication, Flacco is easily the most discussed athlete in Baltimore this summer. Nearly every time I turned on the radio, Flacco was being anaylzed or compared with other quarterbacks.

The "Bash Flacco" bandwagon started in the offseason, when Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley and former Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones criticized Flacco. It hasn't stopped since.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDespite a 4-3 postseason record in his first three seasons, the Ravens expect more from Joe Flacco.
Flacco has responded by showing a newfound edge. The fourth-year quarterback has also become a more vocal leader.

Although his stats have steadily improved, Flacco's postseason performances have not. That's where he needs to take the next step. Flacco is 4-3 in the playoffs, but played well in only one of those games -- a wild-card victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last January.

2. What to do on the offensive line? There are no easy answers for Baltimore's offensive line. The tackle spots are the biggest problems.

Oniel Cousins has not proved to be the answer at right tackle. Now, the Ravens are experimenting with rookie third-round draft pick Jah Reid to see if he's ready. Reid is expected to get his first NFL start Friday night against the Chiefs.

Former first-round pick Michael Oher was a stellar right tackle as a rookie. But the Ravens moved Oher to left tackle out of necessity in 2010, with mixed results. Baltimore hopes Oher improves in 2011.

Starting guard Marshal Yanda has been dealing with back spasms but could return as early as next week. He's a candidate for right tackle if things don't go well for Reid. Veteran center Matt Birk is out following knee surgery but is expected to be ready for the regular-season opener against Pittsburgh.

Baltimore’s offensive line is a hodgepodge group. But the Ravens’ goal is to have clarity by their regular-season opener on Sept. 11.

"We're going to try to work out the best five in some combination," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said this week. "It may not be ideal, but it's probably our best alternative."

3. Is the defense improved? Baltimore’s defense was ranked No. 10 in the NFL last season. A top-10 ranking is nothing to sneeze at. But the bar for the Ravens' defense is higher.

A leaky secondary and a struggling pass rush were Baltimore's two issues in 2010. Both hurt the Ravens' ability to close out games in the fourth quarter.

Baltimore invested a first-round pick in former Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith. He's big, fast and physical. The Ravens haven't had a corner with all of those attributes since former Pro Bowler Chris McAlister.

Also keep an eye on Cary Williams, another big corner who had a good training camp. Williams began working with the first team this week.

"When they prance out there, it's very comforting," Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said of Smith and Williams. "You've got two 6-1, 6-2 guys out there with long arms and guys that can run. It makes it really difficult. When you play tight coverage, it forces the quarterback to put it in tight windows and makes it really hard for the receivers to get off the line."

Pass rush is the biggest lingering issue. The Ravens recorded just 27 sacks in 16 games last season. They didn't add any significant help getting to the quarterback in the draft or free agency.

Pro Bowl linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs (11 sacks in 2010) will do his part. The situation gets murky after that.

Second-year linebacker Sergio Kindle may be an option. He was Baltimore’s top draft pick in 2010 but suffered a fractured skull and missed his entire rookie season.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Rookie receiver Tandon Doss consistently made plays in practice this week. By all accounts, he did the same throughout camp.

Doss has really good hands. He made both tough and routine catches over defenders. Speed was an issue, according to college scouting reports. But Doss was quicker and a little faster than I expected.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

The Ravens had high hopes for Cousins. Baltimore anticipated that the fourth-year lineman could solidify the right tackle spot this season. But after a full training camp and one preseason game, Cousins failed to step up to the task.

[+] EnlargeLee Evans
Jeff Moffett/Icon SMIBaltimore hopes to use former Bills receiver Lee Evans as a downfield threat in the passing game.
Cousins allowed two sacks in Baltimore’s preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. The coaching staff moved Cousins to right guard this week and hopes he can provide depth there.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Keep an eye on the developing chemistry between Flacco and new receiver Lee Evans. Baltimore recently acquired Evans in a trade with the Buffalo Bills. The timing was off in their first full week together. Flacco is still getting used to Evans’ speed and missed him on several throws in practice. Evans told the AFC North blog this week that he’s confident they will get on the same page. Evans makes his Ravens debut Friday night against Kansas City.
  • My early impression on Reid is that he looks the part at right tackle, but he's still very raw. At times, Reid still seemed like his head was spinning in practice, working with the starters. Strength and size are Reid's biggest assets. But he still needs to play faster and improve his footwork. You also have to consider that Reid didn't get any offseason work or minicamps because of the NFL lockout. Now the Ravens are hoping the third-round pick can earn a job with the starters two weeks into the preseason.
  • Cameron says new Ravens fullback Vonta Leach reminds him a lot of former fullback Lorenzo Neal. We agree with the comparison. Leach is well-built and very physical. He will provide a good thump at the line of scrimmage that the Ravens were lacking last season. Leach, who went to the Pro Bowl last season, will also help with pass protection.
  • I’ve been impressed with rookie quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He consistently made plays in practice this week and showed promise in Baltimore’s first preseason game. The Ravens are high on the sixth-round pick. Taylor will make the team. But is Baltimore comfortable enough to go into the season with a rookie as the No. 2 quarterback?
  • Another player to look out for is Bernard Pollard. He is a big safety who is very physical. Pollard fits well with Baltimore’s defense. Free safety Ed Reed covers a lot of ground in the secondary. That allows Pollard to fly around and hit people, which is what he does best.
  • The Ravens should be improved in press coverage this year. Smith and Williams are similar in size and showed good jams at the line of scrimmage this week. Previously, Baltimore gave up a lot of size to receivers. But that won’t be the case when Smith and Williams are on the field.
  • Baltimore is suddenly very deep at corner. In addition to Smith and Williams, the Ravens have Lardarius Webb, Chris Carr and Domonique Foxworth, who is coming off ACL surgery. The latter three all have starting NFL experience but could begin the year as backups.

Camp Confidential: Miami Dolphins

August, 19, 2011
8/19/11
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The one major question about the Miami Dolphins the entire offseason was never sufficiently answered.

So what is the deal at quarterback, anyway?

Chad Henne was the unequivocal choice of general manager Jeff Ireland and coach Tony Sparano at this time last year. There was boundless confidence that the team’s second-round pick in 2008 was ready to take the reins of an offense that was expected to be made more proficient by the addition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall.

The results were not pretty. On five occasions, all at home, Henne had the opportunity to win or tie a close game with a fourth-quarter scoring drive, and on all five he failed. Three of the subsequent losses were to also-rans Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland, leaving Miami with a second straight 7-9 finish.

The failures almost cost Sparano his job, as owner Stephen Ross took a run at Jim Harbaugh, and for a time it seemed Henne might be replaced when Ireland engaged in negotiations for Denver’s Kyle Orton that ultimately came up empty. When the dust settled, former Carolina Panther Matt Moore had been brought in as a backup, but nothing had really changed. Henne was still the one.

The team around him does appear to have gotten better. Coordinator Mike Nolan’s defense, sixth in the league a year ago, has remarkable depth on the defensive line and is better at linebacker with the additions of Kevin Burnett and Jason Taylor. Ireland addressed a deficiency in speed at the skill positions with the acquisitions of Reggie Bush and fourth-round wideout Clyde Gates. First-round pick Mike Pouncey, a center, has brought stability to the offensive line.

But in the 12 years since Dan Marino retired, it has always come back to the quarterback. This year is no different.

Even Marshall, who at one point late last season said he was “not sure” he and Henne could coexist, had good things to say about his beleaguered quarterback who was actually booed at one preseason practice at Sun Life Stadium.

“Chad has been amazing this summer, getting the guys together,” he said. “He’s been the face of leadership.”

Sparano was even more forthcoming.

“I’ve seen more people going to Chad for answers,” he said. “You would have to envision when you’re at Indianapolis or a place like that people are going to Peyton (Manning) for the answers. Well, more people are going to Chad for the answers now, and that’s a direct reflection of what this young man has done.”

Chad Henne and Peyton Manning in the same sentence … now that’s a stretch for even the most loyal Dolphin fan.

Five days after Sparano made those comments, Henne started the first preseason game at Atlanta and was intercepted twice in five throws while Moore, playing both with and against second-teamers, was solid.

It may or may not happen, but certainly all the pieces for a year of quarterback controversy are in place.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireWill Reggie Bush be able to revitalize a stagnant running game?
1. Can Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas make people forget Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams? From 2005-10 either Brown or Williams led the Dolphins in rushing, and four of those six years they finished 1-2. Both were getting older -- Williams is 34, Brown 29 -- and the running game ranked 30th in yards per carry (3.7) and 21st in yards per game (102.7) last season. Ireland decided it was time to move on. Thomas, a second-round pick, led the Big 12 in rushing at Kansas State the past two seasons and at 6-foot and 230 pounds, he can pound the middle. Bush, who has missed 20 games to injury the past two seasons, expressed a desire to be the feature back upon his arrival but seems more likely to line up all over the field. “The lack of experience is definitely a concern,” admitted Sparano, whose stable of backs also includes unproven Kory Sheets and Lex Hilliard.

2. How will the season unfold for Marshall? The simple fact Marshall was perceived to have a down year when he had 86 catches last season -- tied for second in franchise history behind O.J. McDuffie’s 90 in 1998 -- demonstrates how high the expectations are for the man known as “The Beast.” Marshall’s off-field problems, which included the arrest of his wife after Marshall was found stabbed at his home in April, culminated with him being diagnosed and treated for borderline personality disorder this offseason. In camp this summer, it seemed every time Marshall went out for a pass, Henne was the one throwing it. If Gates can be the home-run threat Miami lacked after trading Ted Ginn Jr. last season, Marshall could benefit greatly.

3. Will new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll bring spice to a boring offense? Miami’s top two receivers last season, Marshall and Davone Bess, averaged 11.8 and 10.4 yards per catch. No wonder Henne came to be known as “Checkdown Chad.” But in the Dolphins’ first scrimmage this year, Daboll unveiled four-receiver sets and had Bush lined up everywhere from the backfield to wideout. Despite having Josh Cribbs, Daboll’s offense didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in Cleveland, finishing 29th in total offense and 25th in yards per play. Sparano prefers the ground-and-pound, but Henne and Daboll must demonstrate they can keep up with prolific offensive units such as New England, San Diego and Houston -- which happen to be Miami’s first three opponents.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

If a former first-round pick can qualify as a surprise, then second-year defensive end Jared Odrick has earned that distinction. Odrick was lost early in the opener against Buffalo last season with a broken leg. His comeback was then stopped six weeks later by a broken ankle, ending his season. Worse, it turned out his first injury was eerily similar to one he suffered as a sophomore at Penn State, raising questions as to whether he could remain healthy enough to be counted upon. But in the early weeks of camp, Odrick was a force, as he and partner Tony McDaniel moved ahead of last season’s starters, Randy Starks and Kendall Langford, in team drills. That quartet as well as Phillip Merling and Ryan Baker give Miami inordinate depth at defensive end.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

After losing Justin Smiley to chronic shoulder injuries, the Dolphins had a vacancy at right guard in 2010 and drafted John Jerry out of Mississippi in the third round. Jerry, the younger brother of Atlanta defensive tackle Peria Jerry, got 10 starts but struggled to beat out journeyman Pat McQuistan. When Miami selected Pouncey in the first round of the draft, Richie Incognito, who played both guard spots at times last season, was put on the left side and Jerry was given the opportunity to win the right guard spot. After seeing unsatisfactory results in the first two weeks of camp, Sparano moved Vernon Carey over from right tackle and brought in free agent Marc Colombo, who had been let go by Dallas.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeClyde Gates
    Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe Dolphins hope that pick Clyde Gates will be able to stretch the field like Ted Ginn Jr. did.
    Two relatively obscure rookies provided two of the more intriguing storylines of training camp. Gates, of Abilene Christian, whose father was released from prison last fall after serving a lengthy sentence for first-degree murder, was one. Seventh-rounder Jimmy Wilson of Montana, who spent 26 months in jail before being acquitted of a first-degree murder charge, was the other. Gates, who ran the 40 in 4.37 at the combine despite nursing a sore groin, provides needed speed at wide receiver and Wilson is a big hitter and ball hawk in the secondary.
  • While first-round pick Pouncey was drawing favorable comparisons to his Steeler All-Pro twin brother Maurkice for his blocking and intelligence, his struggles snapping the ball were an ongoing concern as camp progressed. Pouncey, who moved to center as a senior at Florida after his brother left early, had some nightmarish games on shotgun snaps with the Gators and clearly doesn’t have the technique down yet.
  • Marshall isn’t known for being shy around a microphone, but he wasn’t in a talkative mood the first three weeks of camp. He spoke only once, to reveal his diagnosis for borderline personality disorder, and took only a handful of questions. Of course, Marshall was in the middle of the Henne soap opera last season, so there was speculation he didn’t want to stir up the water this year as he continues to undergo treatment for his disorder.
  • The only real battle for a starting job in camp has been at free safety. Third-year man Chris Clemons, last season's starter, was trying to hold off Reshad Jones, who made a favorable impression in limited opportunities as a rookie in 2010. Jones had a sack and an interception against Tennessee in one of his two starts and seems to be more of a playmaker.
  • The biggest mystery in camp surrounded the status of Pro Bowl tackle Jake Long, who was put on the physically unable to perform list early and did not work at all the first three weeks. Sparano said Long’s injury did not involve his knee, which along with his shoulder, required surgery after last season.

Camp Confidential: New England Patriots

August, 18, 2011
8/18/11
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Now in his 37th season, Bill Belichick owns the distinction of having the most NFL experience among current head coaches. That gives him a unique perspective on the evolution of the NFL.

“It’s changed through the years, a lot of things are different from when I started coaching, on a lot of levels -- players, technology, the equipment we use," he said. "That’s the way it is for all of us. Bob Dylan talked about that 50 years ago."

For Belichick and his fellow coaches, Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is a perfect theme song for the 2011 season.

Coaches must adjust to new rules as part of the new collective bargaining agreement, which means there are no more two-a-day practices, fewer full-pad practices and expanded training-camp rosters. And when it comes to Belichick’s New England Patriots club, which he leads for a 12th season, another year has brought unexpected change.

Few saw the acquisitions of controversial defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth and high-profile wide receiver Chad Ochocinco coming. Their arrivals made the start of 2011 training camp different from the norm in New England.

Usually the focus would be squarely on quarterback Tom Brady as camp opened, but in this unusual year, the NFL’s 2010 Most Valuable Player was on the back burner as he returned from January surgery on his right foot.

Indeed, things have changed.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeAlbert Haynesworth
Stew Milne/US PresswireWith a low price tag and modest salary, aquiring Albert Haynesworth was a low-risk move for the Patriots.
1. How does Haynesworth fit in? All eyes were on Haynesworth when he took the field for the first time July 31, and he didn’t disappoint.

The crowd cheered his arrival, which he acknowledged with a wave (almost like a baseball pitcher tipping his cap). Then he dominated a running drill. On the first play, he exploded through the line to blow up the play, which led to an eruption from the crowd. Haynesworth had a few other disruptive plays.

“It's going to be awesome. It's a refresher, and it kind of revived me, playing football again,” said Haynesworth, who was acquired for a fifth-round draft choice after two tumultuous seasons with the Redskins.

Haynesworth’s arrival could change the way the Patriots, who used a 3-4 alignment about 40 percent of the time last season, play defense. There have been more traditional four-man lines used in training camp, with linemen attacking more rather than controlling two gaps. Haynesworth would line up at tackle next to Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork in that type of plan.

The Patriots have managed Haynesworth’s health closely in camp, keeping him out of practice since Aug. 3. Although the reason Haynesworth is not practicing is not clear -- speculation is it’s simply maintenance of his troublesome knee -- Belichick doesn’t sound concerned.

"I think Albert has been great since he's been here,” he told WEEI sports radio Aug. 15. “He's worked hard. He's done more than really what we've asked him to do. He's put in a lot of extra time and a lot of extra effort to get back on the field, to study, to catch up on things from a playbook standpoint that's he a little behind on."

As for Haynesworth’s off-field issues, owner Robert Kraft explained how the organization developed a comfort level in acquiring him.

“I met with him, and I like the guy,” Kraft said. “He didn't come here for the money. He came here to be part of a team and win [and] I think in some ways to improve his reputation. So it's like a lot of meetings I have with these guys, I found him to be genuine and sincere. Now I hope he gets out on the field and does his thing.”

Haynesworth agreed to restructure his contract to consummate the trade. His new deal calls for him to earn a base salary of $1.5 million this season (he can earn more in incentives) before the salary spikes to $6.7 million in 2012. There was no signing bonus as part of the pact, making it a low-risk acquisition for the Patriots.

2. Will Ochocinco conform to the Patriot Way? On his first day on the practice field, Ochocinco tweeted, “It’s 1 thing to jump and be able to land on 2 feet but I had no idea I was landing in Heaven.”
He has quickly integrated himself into the mix, lining up in two-receiver packages with Wes Welker. Veteran Deion Branch joined the mix in three-wide looks.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady and Chad Ochocinco
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesChad Ochocinco is clearly still working on mastering the Patriots' offense.
Although there has been a higher-than-expected total of dropped passes, things have otherwise been smooth as Ochocinco has made the transition from Cincinnati to New England. The biggest challenges have been adjusting to offensive terminology that isn’t numbers-based (like the Bengals) and on-field communication with Brady through various signals.

“Once we’re on the field, there is no talking. I just look in his eyes and that’s it and that’s how we communicate,” said Ochocinco, who restructured his contract and received a $4.5 million signing bonus and base salaries of $1 million in 2011, $3 million in 2012 and $3 million in 2013. “That’s what I like about it here. [It’s] really, really cool.”

Patriots coaches and players have cited Ochocinco’s work ethic and passion for football on a daily basis, with some players laughing at the fun he has had off the field, which included attending a Red Sox/Yankees game and sitting in the front row along the third-base line, requesting a group hug from reporters and announcing that he would be living with a fan who had an Internet connection and Xbox for the first few weeks of the season.

In a classy move, second-year tight end Aaron Hernandez gave up his No. 85 for Ochocinco when the trade was consummated, the Patriots giving up fifth- and sixth-round draft choices in the move. Hernandez didn’t receive anything in return for the jersey swap, which set a positive tone.

3. Can Patriots get over playoff hump? Few would argue the Patriots aren’t top contenders for the Super Bowl. But those who don’t put them atop the list can make a strong case by pointing to their last three playoff games.

  • Feb. 3, 2008: Giants 17, Patriots 14. With the chance to close out their perfect season, the Patriots fall just short.
  • Jan. 10, 2010: Ravens 33, Patriots 14. A stunning home blowout in the wild-card round of the playoffs in which the Ravens stomped all over the Pats.
  • Jan. 16, 2011: Jets 28, Patriots 21. Having earned the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, the Patriots had a chance to bury the Jets early, but two first-quarter miscues halted the momentum. The Jets built confidence and stunned the Pats in the divisional round.

Simply put, the Patriots won’t be able to answer one of their biggest questions for at least five months.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Saying goodbye to veteran tight end Alge Crumpler. The Patriots were so pleased with the addition of Crumpler last season, and the role he played in mentoring 2010 draft picks Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez, they named him a captain a few weeks into the season.

Crumpler’s steadying presence in the locker room was considered key in righting one of the team’s trouble areas from 2009 -- a fractured locker room.

So it was surprising when the team released him a few days into training camp, turning the position over to Gronkowski (10 TDs in 2010), Hernandez and either rookie Lee Smith (fifth-round pick out of Marshall) or Will Yeatman (rookie free agent out of Maryland).

Crumpler played 53 percent of the offensive snaps last season, contributing mostly in the running game. Only three other offensive skill-position players were on the field more.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

[+] EnlargeRon Brace
AP Photo/Michael DwyerRon Brace hasn't been healthy enough in camp to seize a spot in the starting lineup.
It’s a tie between third-year defensive lineman Ron Brace and fifth-year safety Brandon Meriweather.

Brace is a 2009 second-round draft choice out of Boston College who is close to hitting a fork in the road of his NFL career.

For the second year in a row, he has opened camp on a reserve list, not ready to practice. With the team releasing longtime starter Ty Warren, the opportunity was there for Brace (6-foot-3, 330 pounds) to rise up the depth chart, but he hasn’t been able to seize the opportunity.

Meanwhile, the coaching staff seems to be sending a message to Meriweather, a two-time Pro Bowl safety. Meriweather played the entire first half of the preseason opener, even though the club’s other Pro Bowl players -- cornerback Devin McCourty, linebacker Jerod Mayo and Wilfork -- did not suit up for the game.

The team also offered free-agent safety Dashon Goldson a contract before Goldson re-signed with the 49ers, while Meriweather’s practice reps of late have been split with second-year player Sergio Brown.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Great competition at backup quarterback between third-year man Brian Hoyer and rookie Ryan Mallett (third round, 74th overall). Hoyer has been the No. 2 the last two seasons after making the club as a rookie free agent out of Michigan State, and he has solid command of the complex offense. Meanwhile, Mallett’s arm strength and work ethic are notable. He often stays late after practice, working with offensive assistant George Godsey on the finer points of the position (e.g., footwork).
  • It has been a common occurrence to see Mallett carrying the shoulder pads of Tom Brady and Hoyer off the field after practice. Some humble pie for the highly touted signal-caller from Arkansas.
  • Belichick gets involved in a drill in which the goal is for quarterbacks to maintain their concentration and perfect their footwork while under duress, and Belichick creates that duress by firing a blocking pad at them. Belichick has cranked Hoyer and Mallett in the head. No 15-yard penalties for that in practice.
  • A lot of defensive linemen in camp. Counting hybrids, the Patriots have 20 in camp entering their second preseason game, and Belichick acknowledged to Sirius XM NFL radio that the team will probably keep more defensive linemen than linebackers this year.
  • Second-round draft choices Ras-I Dowling (cornerback, 33rd overall) and Shane Vereen (running back, 56th overall) pulled up with hamstrings issues after just one practice, and they haven’t practiced since. Both signed contracts late -- this could be filed under the “lockout effect.” When Vereen was on the field, his speed stood out.
  • Second-year receiver Taylor Price, whose chance to break through for a top spot at receiver was made more challenging by the acquisition of Ochocinco, is stating his case. He has had a solid camp and was the star of the preseason opener (5 catches, 105 yards and a TD). He said his next step is developing the trust of Brady that he’ll always be in the right spot. Right now, he looks like a solid No. 4 option.
  • The Patriots struggled to generate a pass rush off the edge in 2010. Veteran defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter have been solid in that area to this point, providing what looks to be an upgrade over Tully Banta-Cain, who was released.
  • First-round draft choice Nate Solder, the team’s left tackle of the future, has responded well to his crash course since joining the team a week into camp. He’s big (6-foot-8, 319 pounds) and sometimes struggles with an inside move, but the potential is easy to see.
  • Veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden has turned in a solid camp as he returns after missing the entire 2010 season with a torn rotator cuff. A starter at right cornerback opposite McCourty, Bodden has worked in the slot in sub packages, a role he last played in 2007 with the Browns. Bodden’s size (6-foot-1, 193) is a good fit there from a run-support and jamming-receivers perspective.
  • Don’t expect All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins to get too comfortable now that he has signed a six-year, $51 million contract extension. He looks like his typical nasty self on the field, and his early-camp battles with Haynesworth were a highlight.
  • The Patriots had a minor scare when Gronkowski was helped off the field Aug. 8. But he returned a few days later and looks primed to build off his impressive rookie campaign.
  • Sixth-year kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed the last half of the 2010 season with a torn right quadriceps muscle, but his recovery is on track. The right-footed kicker is not yet taking kickoffs -- UMass product Chris Koepplin is in camp to handle those duties -- but he looks strong on field goals. Gostkowski has hit from a long of 53 yards in practice and was good from 43 and 46 yards in the preseason opener.

Camp Confidential: Denver Broncos

August, 17, 2011
8/17/11
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For a franchise that was accused of turning stale a few years ago, the Denver Broncos have become pros at taking fresh approaches.

For the second time in three training camps, Denver has a new head coach. John Fox takes over after the disastrous 23-month Josh McDaniels regime. From 1995 to 2008, the Broncos were the picture of coaching constancy. It was the Mike Shanahan show. Everyone knew it.

But the Broncos have been in flux and have gone from one of the better-run organizations in the NFL to a team that is grasping for an identity. Denver hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2005 season. It hasn’t had a winning record since 2006.

In comes Fox, who is experiencing a rebirth himself after spending the past nine seasons in Carolina. Fox’s biggest task in Denver is to restore normalcy after the rocky McDaniels era and rebuild a winner.

“There has been instability here, good, bad or indifferent, that’s just the way it has been,” said Fox, whose team will be on its sixth defensive coordinator (former New Orleans secondary coach Dennis Allen) in six seasons.

“We have to build our program here. But I think it can be done. There are good pieces here.”

Many Denver players have raved about Fox. They appreciate his professionalism, his structure and his attention to detail. They believe there is a plan in place, and they trust Fox’s experience. The players also seem to appreciate the fact that Fox is simply in Denver to coach. The front office is run by legendary Denver quarterback John Elway and general manager Brian Xanders. Both Shanahan and McDaniels made personnel decisions.

“I get a great feel for Coach Fox,” star cornerback Champ Bailey said. “He’s one of the better coaches I’ve been around ... I like it that he is focused on coaching us on the field. That’s where he wants to be.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireRookie Von Miller will need to play well right away if Denver's defense is going to improve this season.
1. Fix the defense. While the Tim Tebow-Kyle Orton competition has garnered much attention, the real key issue in Denver’s camp has been the defense. This unit was ranked No. 32 in the NFL last season and was generally awful in every major statistical category. Fox and his defensive staff have taken a hands-on approach to improve this group, which is a mix of veterans and youngsters.

If the reconstructed defensive front plays well and rookie linebacker Von Miller makes an instant impact, this group has a chance to improve quickly. It seems to be working early. Denver’s defense has been capable in camp and it looked solid against Dallas in the preseason opener Thursday. Injuries to defensive tackles Ty Warren (who signed to a two-year, $8 million deal) and Marcus Thomas create more uncertainty at a key spot for Denver. It needs to get help there by Kevin Vickerson, Brodrick Bunkley, Jeremy Jarmon and Derrick Harvey in the rest of the preseason. Warren could be out for a long period and Thomas will miss the rest of the preseason.

2. Clarity at quarterback: The Broncos’ camp has been about getting the first-team ready to go with Orton. There is no question Orton is the starter now. If the team struggles, Tebow could enter the picture, but players love playing with Orton and the team thinks he currently gives them the best chance to win now.

Of course, the lack of clarity was team-induced. It spent the immediate days after the lockout trying to trade Orton to Miami. After that fell through, Orton took control of the offense quickly and has given Denver no choice but to make him the starter, TebowMania be dammed.

3. Establish a ground game: Although Fox is a defensive-minded coach, he has a strict philosophy on offense. He believes in stuffing the ball down an opponent’s throat and killing the clock. Denver struggled to run the ball under McDaniels, and Fox said adding a veteran tailback was paramount.

The Broncos jumped on Willis McGahee when he was cut by the Ravens. Expect McGahee and third-year player Knowshon Moreno to combine for plenty of carries. They have worked well in camp, and they combined for 40 yards on six carries in the preseason opener at Dallas. This camp has been spent getting these two involved in the offense as much as possible.

ELVIS IS BACK IN THE BUILDING

The Broncos are raving about the play of Elvis Dumervil. After leading the NFL with 17 sacks in 2009 and getting a contract worthy of that performance, Dumervil tore a pectoral muscle in early August last year and missed the entire 2010 season.

There was concern that his rust and a move back to the 4-3 under Fox could hamper the smallish Dumervil. He flourished in McDaniels’ 3-4 system after being a solid player in Shanahan’s 4-3 defense. Dumervil beefed up to more than 260 pounds, and he‘s been impressive under Fox.

The Broncos expect Dumervil and Miller to become one of the better pass-rush tandems in the league.

RELYING ON THE ROOKIES

[+] EnlargeRahim Moore
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThe Broncos will also be looking to rookie Rahim Moore to shore up Denver's secondary.
One of the most exciting aspects of this camp for Denver has been the play of its rookies. The Broncos thought they drafted well in April, and after three weeks, they are thrilled with what they see.

“I think we had an excellent draft,” Fox said.

Added Dumervil: “This is the best group of rookies I’ve seen here in awhile.”

Leading the way is Miller, who was the No. 2 overall draft pick. The Texas A&M product has been as advertised. Teammates rave about his speed, explosiveness and his ability to make plays. They expect instant success.

Second-round pick Rahim Moore is vying for a starting spot with Kyle McCarthy at safety and has shown he is ready for NFL play. Right tackle Orlando Franklin, middle linebacker Nate Irving, tight end Julius Thomas and safety Quentin Carter are all expected to be major contributors. This is exactly what this 4-12 team needed -- a solid group of youngsters to build around after a couple of shaky years of drafting by McDaniels.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Safety Brian Dawkins may be turning 38 this year, but the Broncos are still getting a lot out of him. He works well with Fox’s staff, and his leadership has been uncanny during camp.
  • Defensive end Robert Ayers has been getting chances to break out in camp, but he has been slow to show progress. He was the No. 18 overall pick in the 2009 draft.
  • Receiver Brandon Lloyd has been slowed by swelling in his knee. Still, the team expects him to contribute. Lloyd had a breakout season in 2010 -- 77 catches for 1,448 yards.
  • The second-round draft class of 2009 has been a bust. Tight end Richard Quinn is hurt and could be the odd man out. Safety Darcel McBath has yet to develop, and cornerback Alphonso Smith (who Denver traded its 20101 first-round pick for) was shipped out to Detroit last year. This was supposed to be the nucleus of future success, and Denver hasn’t seen results.
  • The Broncos’ passing game struggled in red-zone and third-down situations. That has been a point of emphasis during this camp.
  • Veterans Joe Mays and Mario Haggan are competing to hold off Irving at middle linebacker.
  • Franklin has struggled in pass projection. Still, the team is committed to him.
  • Denver is excited about second-year receiver Eric Decker. Expect Decker to get a chance to contribute a lot.
  • The Broncos like what they have in new tight end Daniel Fells. He is solid as a receiver and as a blocker. He should help in both phases of the game.
  • Right cornerback Andre' Goodman has been steady, and the team is confident he can play well in 2011.
  • Second-year center J.D. Walton continues to improve, and he has shown strong leadership for a young player.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Sit down with Mark Dominik even for just a few minutes and you’ll quickly hear his theory on why the term “youth movement’’ shouldn’t come with negative connotations.

“Don’t confuse youth with immaturity,’’ the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers said. “There’s a big difference between those two things. I’m sure we’ve all met 23-year-olds that act like they’re 28 and we’ve met people that are 28 but act like they’re 23. I feel like we’re a mature, young football team, which is important.’’

Yes, the Bucs, who were the NFL’s youngest team last season, are going to be young again. They have only three players 30 or older and they’re counting on big things from a lot of rookies and second-year players.

But this is a team that won 10 games last season with a lot of young players in key roles, and all of them should be a year better. That experience only encouraged the Bucs to continue with their youth movement and steer clear of making any dramatic moves in free agency. Instead of worrying about regressing, like a lot of fans and media are predicting, the Bucs fully expect to take another step forward.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are,’’ quarterback Josh Freeman said. “It matters how well you’re playing and if you have the ability to step up in big situations.’’

Freeman epitomizes what Dominik was talking about. The quarterback is 23, but spend a few minutes with him or think about how he led his teammates through workouts during the lockout and you’d swear he was 28. Or 38.

“It’s about the type of player we’re looking for,’’ Dominik said. “Certainly, the skill level has a lot to do with it. But it’s also very much about the type of player we’re looking for in terms of their demeanor. Plus, I have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff as far as getting guys prepared.’’

The Bucs hit it big when they drafted Freeman, and pickups such as receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount have made quick impacts. That’s part of the reason why they plan to plug rookie Adrian Clayborn in as an immediate starter at defensive end and why they’re willing to put rookie Mason Foster at the all-important middle linebacker position.

“When we talked to Adrian Clayborn and Mason Foster in the draft process, we felt that sense of someone who was wise beyond his years,’’ Dominik said. “It gives you confidence to be able to see a young man who takes his game and his craft seriously and puts time into it and it’s important to him. That's the kind of thing that's important to us. We have a young team that we like very much and we look forward to it growing older together.''

THREE HOT TOPICS

[+] EnlargeGerald McCoy
Brett Davis/US PresswireThe Buccaneers have invested several high draft picks in their defensive line, including the No. 3 overall pick in 2010 on defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
1. Where will the pass rush come from? The Bucs were among the worst in the league at pressuring quarterbacks last season. That’s why they drafted Clayborn in the first round and fellow defensive end Da'Quan Bowers in the second in April. A year ago, the Bucs used their top two draft picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price.

There’s a lot invested in those young defensive linemen and the Bucs expect immediate results. Sure, they wouldn’t mind getting some sacks from blitzes by their linebackers or defensive backs, but it’s not like the Bucs have some other pass-rushing defensive end hidden up their sleeves.

Throughout camp, Clayborn’s looked even better than the Bucs thought he was when they drafted him. Bowers, coming off knee surgery in January, hasn’t been quite at Clayborn’s level. But he has looked better than the Bucs expected him to be at this point. At worst, Clayborn will start right away and Bowers will be used as a situational rusher. At best, Bowers might get on the field more than that and show every team that let him slide to the second round that his knee is fine.

2. Can Blount be a complete running back? That’s the hope and the plan, but Blount is a work in progress. We learned quickly last season that he can run between the tackles. He didn’t take the starting job from Cadillac Williams until midseason, but he still managed to rush for 1,007 yards.

Williams thrived as a third-down back last season, but he left via free agency, creating a void. When Blount was on the field last season, it was pretty obvious the Bucs were going to hand the ball to him. He only caught five passes and the team was hesitant to rely on Blount to pick up on blitzes on pass plays.

Earnest Graham and Kregg Lumpkin can do some of those things, but the Bucs have been working hard to make Blount a more balanced player. The coaching staff said he’s now up to speed on pass blocking and he has worked a lot on catching the ball out of the backfield in camp. If Blount can do everything this season, Tampa Bay’s offensive intentions no longer will be telegraphed.

3. Was Freeman’s first full season as a starter misleading? Not at all. He threw for 25 touchdowns with only six interceptions and pretty much carried an offense that had to do a lot of shuffling through a series of injuries.

Freeman took over as leader of the team last season, and he only reinforced that with the way he kept the Bucs together during the lockout. Those workouts only increased his chemistry with Williams, Arrelious Benn, Sammie Stroughter and tight end Kellen Winslow. Freeman is capable of throwing for 30-plus TDs and passing for more than 4,000 yards.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeDezmon Briscoe
Kim Klement/US PresswireTampa Bay is counting on a big contribution from receiver Dezmon Briscoe this season.
The Bucs had a pretty strong feeling about receiver Dezmon Briscoe when they made the unconventional move of signing him to the practice squad, but paying him like he was a member of the regular roster at the start of last season. Briscoe later earned his way onto the regular roster and has made the Bucs look like geniuses throughout camp and in the first preseason game. The team believes Benn is coming along well after suffering a torn ACL late last season. But the Bucs don’t want to rush Benn. That's why Briscoe could end up starting at the “Z’’ position opposite Williams early in the season. The long-range promise of Briscoe is off the charts because he can play all three receiver spots.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

It’s not so much that the Bucs have been disappointed with what they’ve seen from McCoy and Price when they’ve been on the field. The problem is the two second-year defensive tackles simply haven’t been on the field a lot. The hopes are still high for these two, but Price is coming off a rare surgery on his pelvis and is being brought along slowly. McCoy, who had his rookie season end with a triceps injury just when he was starting to blossom, has missed some of camp with a shoulder injury. Roy Miller is a consistent player and the Bucs don’t mind starting him. But they need McCoy and Price to be on the field and making big plays.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The arrival of Clayborn and Bowers also helps the offensive line. In the old days, left tackle Donald Penn rarely had to break a sweat in practice because he worked against Stylez G. White.
  • There’s concern on the outside about depth in the secondary. A lot of that concern stems from the uncertain situations of cornerback Aqib Talib and safety Tanard Jackson. Talib could face suspension by the league for an offseason incident in which he was charged with aggravated assault, and Jackson is out until at least late September as he finishes a one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. The Bucs have no idea what’s going to happen with Talib. If Jackson returns to them, they view it as a bonus. But the team isn’t nearly as concerned with the depth situation as fans are. Coaches are comfortable with Sean Jones and Cody Grimm as starting safeties and think they’ve found quality backups in Larry Asante and Corey Lynch. At cornerback, the Bucs believe E.J. Biggers could step into a starting role if anything happens to Talib, and there’s hope that second-year pro Myron Lewis could succeed as a nickel back.
  • The Bucs like what they’ve seen from Lumpkin during camp and think he might be a reliable backup for Blount. But Graham is a nice fall-back option. He’s been playing fullback, but played tailback earlier in his career. With Erik Lorig getting time at fullback last season, the Bucs have flexibility to move Graham around.
  • Although Foster is expected to start in the middle, the Bucs aren’t going to overload the rookie. At least in the short term, outside linebacker Quincy Black will wear the radio helmet and call the defensive plays. Part of that is because Black will be on the field all the time, and Foster will come out when the Bucs go to the nickel package.
  • Attention, fantasy football players: Consider drafting Winslow. He was good last season, despite missing a lot of practice time with an achy knee. Winslow said the knee feels better than it has in years. He spent most of the offseason working out with Freeman in Tampa and their chemistry should be even better than last season.

Camp Confidential: Houston Texans

August, 16, 2011
8/16/11
10:58
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HOUSTON -- Yes, they brought in a top-flight defensive coordinator, drafted well and signed some good-looking free agents.

Still, the Texans have been the breakout pick so often in recent years and have come up short that it’s completely fair to ask, even with those changes, why should people believe? Why should they buy this team?

“I couldn’t sell it to anybody,” said Chris Myers, the team’s underrated center. “We’re doing what we do here in camp. If you’re a Texans fan, you’re a Texans fan. Our offense is the same offense that we’ve had and we’re going to try to make it better. Our defense has brought in who we think can change it, take it in the right direction and make us that complete team.

“That’s the pitch. If you’re going to buy it, you’re going to buy it. If not, we’re still rolling.”

To find their way to the playoffs for the first time since the franchise began play in 2002, the Texans need to find the consistency they’ve lacked on many levels -- start to finish in a game, week to week over the course of the season.

That defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, has a great record of turning defenses around. Gary Kubiak carries questions as a head coach, but not as an offensive mind.

It’s a now or never deal for Kubiak, and he’s got a lot of talent on his roster that knows it.

Receiver Andre Johnson, one of the league’s top players, says the team’s spent the past few preseasons talking about breaking through. This time he wants less talk and more action.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1) How quickly can Phillips shape the defense?

He's coming off a poor term as head coach in Dallas, but his track record as a coordinator is excellent.

[+] EnlargeMario Williams and Wade Phillips
AP Photo/David J. PhillipMario Williams is adjusting to life as a stand-up linebacker in Wade Phillips' scheme.
Players on the Texans' defense say he’s funny, yet pointed. He’s already infused the group with confidence, and he quickly identified things that amounted to easy fixes. Mario Williams’ false step should disappear, for example, and Kareem Jackson is unlikely to be seen in press coverages.

“Wade Phillips and [linebackers coach Reggie Herring] have brought a credibility and a confidence to the system that they run,” said end-turned-outside-linebacker Connor Barwin. “I feel like it carries over to us. You know if you do what you’re coached up to do that it’s going to work.”

The change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 isn’t as extreme as some imagine, because Phillips’ 3-4 doesn’t demand a gigantic space-eating nose tackle, and it doesn’t ask linemen to be responsible for two gaps. The linemen are really playing roles akin to what they did in the previous system, with Williams now standing up as an on-the-line backer on the weak side.

Creating that matchup as often as possible is key, and Williams should be the centerpiece of the retooling.

Though Williams didn’t look comfortable in the preseason opener, end Antonio Smith thinks offenses will really struggle with Williams and his bull rush.

“It has not been stopped in camp yet,” Smith said. “Since he decided to do it, I ain’t seem him lose. You know what you need to do to beat a person. I think that throughout this camp, he’s figuring out how to use that. He’s added it into his bag of tricks and he’s going to figure out how to use it along with his other moves.”

Matt Schaub and Johnson have both talked about how many more balls are contested and broken up in a typical practice. That difference suggests the new philosophy’s growing on a unit that’s needed not just players like Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning but also the sort of direction Phillips is providing.

2) Will Arian Foster be able to have another big season on the ground?

It wasn’t long ago that Steve Slaton ran for 1,282 yards. He’s disappeared since the 2008 season, however.

Foster said that what he did over 16 games last season proved him capable and that the notion of a fluke is ridiculous. But for the Texans’ offense to get better, he’ll have to follow up his 1,616-yard season and rushing title with another big showing.

“When you come out and have a season like that, then everybody wants to see what you’re going to do the next season,” Johnson said. “I think that is important for him, to come out and show people that he is the guy that he was last year.

“I think he’ll do it, there is no doubt in my mind. Because he works hard and he plays with a chip on his shoulder.”

Houston’s play-action can be spectacular with Foster running as he did in 2010. His style is perfectly suited for the team’s blocking scheme, which encourages him to cut once and take all he can get.

Another big year will go a long way toward setting the Texans’ course.

3) Do enough guys have killer instinct?

The Texans' slow starts and inability to finish were major issues last season. Better personnel and coaching will need to be accompanied by a killer instinct this franchise has too frequently lacked.

[+] EnlargeDanieal Manning
AP Photo/David J. PhillipThe Texans are counting on Danieal Manning to bring some veteran leadership to the defense.
“You could put it that way,” tight end Owen Daniels said. “There’s definitely never been a lack of effort. I think it’s been missed opportunities at finishing games. ... We need to find something different this year in order to close out those games.”

A guy like Johnson, soft-spoken but intense, certainly has a personality you can win with. But are the Texans, in total, too low key? I think it’s a fair question.

“You’ve got to have that [killer instinct],” said Manning, one of the key newcomers. “... If you believe, all this other stuff is going to come into play: working together, supporting your man, pushing him, making him work hard, holding him accountable. All that stuff goes hand in hand. I’ve never seen a championship team that didn’t believe, that didn’t finish.”

BIGGEST SURPRISE

When they grabbed him during the 2010 season, I don’t think the Texans expected much from veteran cornerback Jason Allen. But the secondary was better with him than it was without him. Now, with a fresh start, he’s mounting a serious challenge to Jackson, the 2010 first-round draft pick. The team would be well served to go with Allen if things come out roughly even. Jackson’s seasoning would be better for now as a role player.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Antwaun Molden looks the part as a 6-foot-1, 200-pound corner. But the team has finally stopped talking up the fourth-year man from Eastern Kentucky. He’s not sturdy enough and doesn’t show enough gumption to be a factor in a group where he’s had a chance to add some depth. He had an interception in the preseason opener, but only after he committed a penalty that washed it away.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Joel Dreessen is consistently underrated. Dreessen can block and, while not as dynamic as Daniels, has a knack for finding open spaces and presenting himself to Schaub. The Texans have a lot of quality tight ends. Look for the team to put three tights on the field at times, when they can operate as a heavy package or shift Daniels, Dreessen, James Casey or Garrett Graham into space, depending on the defensive personnel. Anthony Hill is the blocker of the bunch.
  • After facing questions about durability, Schaub’s played two full seasons. Now the questions are about play in the clutch. He needs to eliminate moments like the one where he threw an overtime pick-six against Baltimore last season.
  • I expect the Texans to look closely at receivers when the league cuts down rosters. Dorin Dickerson currently looks to be fourth in line, but I saw him fighting some passes in practices and he’s still relatively new to the position. Jeff Maehl heads the undrafted group but didn’t look great either. Receiver depth is an issue.
  • Inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton could be the best non-starter on the roster come opening day. He’s in a tough spot behind DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing, though injuries are often in play with Cushing.
  • Myers is a key cog in making the Texans’ offensive line work, and he could be taking his place right alongside Jeff Saturday as an indispensable center in the division.
  • The team could be an injury away from trouble at end and safety.
  • Trindon Holliday’s speed is not enough for him to overcome his size as even a situational receiver. Plus, he seems easily hurt. The return jobs are open if the team wants to avoid using Jacoby Jones as the punt returner and Manning as the kick returner.
  • Undrafted rookie Brett Hartmann beating out veteran punter Brad Maynard is a definite possibility.
  • Count me among those not convinced that Matt Leinart can’t play. If this team needs a few spots starts, I bet he can do OK. One of the NFL’s quarterback-needy teams was foolish not to add Leinart to the mix. He’s better than a lot of guys with a chance to start some games this season.
  • Lawrence Vickers is better equipped to work as the fullback than Casey, and he should get far more frequent opportunities to lead the way for Foster.

Camp Confidential: Buffalo Bills

August, 15, 2011
8/15/11
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills inside linebacker Nick Barnett knew bad news was coming this summer, and he still couldn’t fully accept it. Despite his eight seasons with Green Bay, the speculation was that the Packers had to trade or release him this offseason. Barnett had been placed on injured reserve in both the 2008 and 2010 seasons, and his heir apparent, Desmond Bishop, already was in place. It was a no-brainer move to most observers, even though Barnett was still thinking about the possibility of helping the Packers repeat as Super Bowl champions. “If you read my tweets,” he said, “that’s all I kept talking about.”

These days Barnett is talking about something different -- how he can help the Bills transform one of the league’s worst defenses into a sturdy, reliable unit. No team in the NFL was worse against the run in 2010 (Buffalo allowed 169.6 yards per game), and that was one key reason the team signed Barnett so quickly after the Packers released him in late July. At 30, he still has the quickness and playmaking ability that allowed him to amass 787 tackles, 15.5 sacks and nine interceptions during his Green Bay career. He’s also aware that his energy and leadership will be invaluable to a team that lost its top tackler, Paul Posluszny, in free agency.

Bills assistant head coach and linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt said Barnett already is the team’s best linebacker. Head coach Chan Gailey has raved about his new player’s approach. “He brings experience and speed to this defense,” Gailey said. “He’s a guy who always plays fast.” Added Barnett: “I’m just trying to be myself. I haven’t played since Week 4 [a dislocated wrist ended his season] so I’m still finding my way. But the biggest thing I wanted to bring to this team was an attitude. I want to help the younger guys relax and have fun out there because that’s what I do.”

Though Barnett needed some time to accept his release from the Packers -- “I’ve never been fired from anything before,” he said -- he quickly sensed that Buffalo was the right place for him. He liked the team atmosphere, the family environment and the die-hard fans who are the city’s trademark. In many ways, Barnett felt like he was going to a place quite similar to Green Bay. “The talent level is there,” Barnett said. “But like everything, it’s going to come down to communication and attitude. If we do those things, we’ll be productive.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Will Ryan Fitzpatrick be better? Yes. Fitzpatrick was a decent quarterback in 2010 -- 3,000 yards, 23 touchdowns, 15 interceptions -- especially considering that he was basically thrown into the job after the Bills gave up on former starter Trent Edwards. Fitzpatrick also has far more advantages coming into this season, despite not having an entire offseason to work with coaches. The major areas that he needs to improve? Accuracy and consistency. What he doesn’t have to worry about any longer? Proving to his teammates that he can lead this team and knowing whether the job is his alone. “Last season was interesting, but my whole career has been about being ready to show what you can do when the opportunity comes,” said Fitzpatrick, who spent his first five NFL seasons as a backup before getting his shot as a full-time starter three games into 2010. “One of the good things we have as an offense is that we have a lot of guys who’ve spent an entire season playing together and getting familiar with each other. When you look at the offenses in New England and Indianapolis, that continuity is what makes them so successful, and now we’re one step closer to that.”

[+] EnlargeShawne Merriman
Richard Mackson/US PresswireBuffalo defense is relying on Shawne Merriman to return to Pro-Bowl form.
2. Can Shawne Merriman return to an elite level? As long as he’s healthy. Right now the three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker thinks that the strained Achilles that limited him to only three games last season won’t be an issue. The bigger challenge for him is finding a comfort level after registering only four sacks over the past three seasons. The Bills are banking on his getting up to speed in a hurry. For a team that tied for 27th in the NFL in sacks last season (with 27), having a rejuvenated Merriman harassing opposing quarterbacks would be a much-needed blessing. “I don’t feel like I need to respond to people who’ve been counting me out over the last couple years because all you have to do is watch me practice,” said Merriman, who had 43.5 sacks in his first 60 career games. “It’s definitely been hard [not playing] but I also feel like I’ve done everything I’ve needed to do to get back. I can see good things happening this season.”

3. What role will C.J. Spiller play in the offense? One of the more disappointing aspects of the Bills' offense in 2010 was the lack of productivity from Spiller. Drafted ninth overall in last year’s draft, he was supposed to bring breathtaking speed and elusiveness to the Bills. Instead, Spiller wound up with only 283 rushing yards and 24 receptions in his rookie season. Those numbers should increase now that Buffalo has a less crowded backfield (the team traded Marshawn Lynch to Seattle midway through last season) and a greater sense of urgency about involving Spiller. “We need to get him more touches,” Gailey said. “We need to find more ways to get him in space so he can use that speed. He’s already grown as a runner because he’s better at running inside, and he’s shown more patience. The one thing I’d really like to see him improve on now is ball security. He had some problems with fumbles last year [Spiller had five fumbles and lost three], and we can’t have that.”

WELCOME SIGHT

Roscoe Parrish: The Bills' offensive players know that Parrish has developed into a valuable receiver after being used mainly as a returner early in his career. They realize it even more now that he’s healthy. After missing the last eight games of 2010 with a broken wrist, Parrish has been impressing teammates with his trademark speed and quickness. The explosiveness he brings to the offense after sitting out half a year also hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Now that he’s back, you remember how much he means to this offense,” Fitzpatrick said. “He really adds another dimension.”

PLAYER TO WATCH

Brad Smith: Don’t be surprised if Smith becomes a more dangerous playmaker in the Bills’ offense. He made his name as a kick returner/wide receiver/Wildcat quarterback with the New York Jets, and rule changes should allow him to increase his playing time in Buffalo. The NFL agreed to abolish the rule requiring teams to determine a third quarterback on game-day rosters -- that player could participate only in emergency situations, and his presence would prevent the team from using any other quarterback during a game. Now a player like Smith can be used far more often in Wildcat situations. Even if Smith appears as a quarterback in three or four plays a game, his involvement won’t limit his coaches’ options. “We were going to use him in a similar role anyway, but that rule really helps,” said Gailey, who has gained a reputation for finding creative roles for versatile players. “Now you don’t have to wonder about whether he needs to be listed as a third quarterback who can only play in emergency situations or if he can be used as a Wildcat quarterback whenever we like. It’s going to make a big difference.”

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeMarcell Dareus
    Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesFirst round draft pick Marcell Dareus has impressed his coaches in training camp.
    Rookie defensive end Marcell Dareus hasn’t needed much time to make a strong impression on his coaches. Wannstedt called him a “special kid with the right approach to the game,” and Gailey thinks it shouldn’t take long for Dareus to prove why he was worthy of the third overall pick in this year’s draft. “He’s a big, physical guy and he’s got an edge to him,” Gailey said of Dareus, who's 6-3 and weighs 323. “You have to like that about him.”

  • Even though the Bills lost their second-best tackler from last season -- strong safety Donte Whitner -- the loss may not be as troubling as it looks. Though he was a strong presence in run support, the team thinks strong safety George Wilson can help the Bills more in the playmaking department. When Whitner was injured two years ago, the tandem of Wilson and Jairus Byrd gave the secondary a bigger boost with their pass defense skills.

  • The emphasis on stopping the run is going to put more pressure on the Bills cornerbacks this season. Gailey believes he has the personnel to handle the increased responsibility, and Terrence McGee is essential to this approach. He has spent more time covering slot receivers in training camp, which will allow Leodis McKelvin and Drayton Florence to handle outside receivers when the defense faces three-receiver looks.

  • Wide receiver Donald Jones is another player worth watching. When asked about teammates who have caught his eye early in training camp, Fitzpatrick said Jones had elevated his game in his second season. An undrafted rookie in 2010, Jones was a nice surprise in camp and finished with 18 receptions. This year he’s using his size and strength to make himself a tough receiver to handle at the line of scrimmage.

  • The Bills recognize that their biggest challenge this season will be learning how to change expectations. Gailey has talked about the difference between hoping to win and expecting to win, and his players believe they can make great strides. Fitzpatrick agreed that last season, too many players were worried about losing their jobs as the team transitioned into Gailey’s tenure. This year, there is far more comfort and a sense of purpose on a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 1999. “We definitely need to take the approach that we deserve to win,” Fitzpatrick said. “And we have a chip on our shoulders. We hear all the people talking about how tough the AFC East is, and nobody mentions our name. That can be fuel for our fire, and we have to believe we can surprise people.”

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 15, 2011
8/15/11
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The same question surfaced at every stop on my NFC North training camp tour. In some form or fashion, division rivals wanted to know: Have the Detroit Lions improved as much as advertised?

After all, Lions Fever long ago engulfed the blog/region/nation. A four-game winning streak to end 2010, the return of quarterback Matthew Stafford and an exciting draft class all suggested the Lions were ready to break free from a decade of disappointment.

But even after spending three days in the Detroit suburbs, I still don’t think I’ve seen the 2011 Lions. What I saw was Lions Lite.

By the time I arrived at Lions camp, the team’s top three draft choices -- defensive tackle Nick Fairley, receiver Titus Young and running back Mikel Leshoure -- had been sidelined by significant injuries. Left tackle Jeff Backus (pectoral) wasn’t practicing and neither was backup Jason Fox (foot). Tight end Brandon Pettigrew, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen after suffering an ankle injury.

What’s important, however, is that the franchise had neither panicked nor fallen into a funk. Leshoure’s is the only season-ending injury, and it was obvious even to an amateur observer that the Lions still have a talented collection of players on the practice field, one that romped to a 34-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in its preseason opener Friday night. Many in that collection are entering their third year in the same system, and all them are determined to give us something the NFC North has never seen: a four-team division.

"This team can be great," said receiver Rashied Davis, a part of two Chicago Bears teams that advanced to the NFC Championship Game. "I really think that. It is a great bunch of guys and there really is tons of talent."

THREE BIG ISSUES

1. Backus' status: The Lions are equipped to absorb injuries at many positions, but left tackle isn’t one of them. Fox’s injury has only exacerbated the issue and left the Lions using players who would otherwise be relegated to their third team at the most important position on the line.

Torn pectoral muscles usually require season-ending surgery. The Lions haven’t revealed the severity of the injury, but their insistence that Backus will be ready for the regular-season opener suggests the muscle isn’t completely torn. Backus hasn’t missed a game in his 10 previous seasons, and quite frankly the Lions are banking on his durability in this instance.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMatthew Stafford has looked strong during training camp.
"You've just got to go on history there," coach Jim Schwartz said. "He has started 160 straight games. … Jeff is obviously experienced and is a hard worker and doesn’t need every single rep in training camp. We can afford to take it slow with him and get him back the right way rather than have to rush him back too soon."

In the end, the question isn’t likely to be whether Backus plays, but if the injury has (temporarily) diminished his effectiveness. After all, an offensive lineman needs full extension and strength in his arms to ward off pass-rushers.

2. Stafford's return: I know it might ring hollow for those of you concerned about his health, but Stafford was zinging the ball all over the field during my time in Lions camp. He is now completely at ease in coordinator Scott Linehan’s offense and clearly bulked up this offseason to better prepare for the rigors of a 16-game season.

I saw Stafford loft 25-yard touch passes into the back of the end zone just as easily as he rifled 30-yard ropes over the middle. I realize that practice throws don't always predict game performance, and I know that his biggest challenge is durability and not ability. But to the extent that he could over three days of camp, Stafford sure looked like a quarterback who is ready to break through to NFL stardom.

"It's hard because he’s missed a lot of time on field," Linehan said. "But you can see the ownership he’s taken in this offense. He spends a lot of time with the players, with the system and in the building. It’s not just me talking in the meeting rooms anymore. He’s spot-on. He’s going to have a great career. I really think that."

3. Secondary issues are now secondary: The Lions' systematic rebuild of their defense is now two-thirds complete. They’ve built one of the best defensive lines in the game. They have three credible starters at linebacker. All that remains is the secondary.

Right?

The Lions weren't as worried about their secondary during the early portion of training camp as some other people were. Safety Louis Delmas has been a constant presence, having regained his health following offseason surgery on his groin. Cornerback Chris Houston re-signed after a brief foray on the free-agent market, strong safety Amari Spievey reported to training camp in good physical condition and new cornerback Eric Wright has been a consistent playmaker during team workouts.

I saw Wright end a team drill with a strong anticipatory interception of Stafford. A few days later, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham had this hyperbolic but revealing assessment: "To me, there’s only one athlete like this in the NFL. And he’s old. That’s Champ Bailey. [Wright] is a pure, one of the most outstanding athletes to come out of the draft in a long time."

The Lions have some decent depth behind Wright and Houston. Aaron Berry has again impressed coaches when he has been healthy, and the Lions should get back Alphonso Smith (foot) before the start of the regular season.

The secondary might be a weak link on a relative scale, but it might not be as weak as some might have feared.

BEST RELATIONSHIP

A second consecutive offseason spent working together has left Stafford and Calvin Johnson in position to do some serious damage. It’s obvious to anyone watching Lions practice that the two have developed a level of chemistry that only time can bring.

"I feel like he trusts me that I'm going to put the ball in a good place to give him a chance," Stafford said, "and I definitely trust him when I put it up there that he's going to come down with it or nobody is."

Injuries have limited the two to 13 games over the past two seasons, but there is a feeling in Lions camp that the pair is ready to break out in 2011. The duo got off to a strong start Friday night on a back-shoulder touchdown pass to end the Lions’ first possession.

[+] EnlargeJahvid Best
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesFinding a backup option to running back Jahvid Best remains a priority for the Lions.
UNANSWERED QUESTION

What is the true impact of Leshoure’s injury? It’s hard to know because we’re not entirely sure how the Lions planned to use Leshoure and Jahvid Best. Was Leshoure going to be the change of pace? Or was Best?

If Leshoure continued his early-camp performance, it’s very possible it could have been the latter. Best himself said the team had given him no indication whether he would get 20 carries per game, 10 carries per game or fewer.

"I was figuring that about midway through the preseason it was really going to start to show," Best said.

So what now? For the short term, at least, Best is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 back. In Friday night’s preseason opener, Best was either the ball carrier or the intended target on seven of 11 plays run by the Lions’ first-team offense.

But if the Lions’ aggressive move to draft Leshoure told us anything, it's that they don’t want Best carrying the entire load. The first candidate to be his running mate is newcomer Jerome Harrison, who was the first back off the bench Friday night. It’s too early to know if Harrison is up to the job, but the Lions really want to get Best some help -- from somewhere.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • For the first time in a long time, place-kicker Jason Hanson isn’t guaranteed a spot on the roster. For that matter, the Lions also have a legitimate challenger to punter Nick Harris in Ryan Donahue. But Hanson’s roster battle with Dave Rayner has generated some attention. Schwartz said that "everyone on our 90-man camp roster has a chance to make the team." He noted that Hanson is kicking "very well," as is Rayner. "It’s a good situation for us," Schwartz said. Both kickers were booming kickoffs well into the end zone during my stay at camp. (Given the NFL’s shift of kickoffs to the 35-yarde line, that’s to be expected.)
  • Cunningham joked (I think) that he "took the over" on the pre-camp weight of Spievey and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill. He was pleasantly surprised. The Lions are especially pleased with the way Spievey has taken ownership of his position. He looked lean and active during the early part of camp and appeared healthy as well. "Amari's in great shape," Cunningham said. "His communication skill is much higher than it was, and he and Delmas really know each other."
  • Most linebacker groups have a run-stopping plodder who is an obvious candidate to leave the field in the nickel. But with DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant, the Lions really don’t have one. Tulloch was leaving in the nickel during the portion of camp I watched, but he is a quick linebacker in his own right, and Schwartz insisted the Lions will mix and match their nickel lineups this season. "Our group gives us the flexibility to do that," he said.
  • Coaches couldn’t stop raving about Rashied Davis’ impact on the locker room. "There’s a guy I can’t say enough about," Linehan said. "That’s the kind of pro you want to have. I’m able to show the young guys that this is a 32-year-old veteran that is a special-teamer. Been in this league X amount of years because he just does everything 100 percent and right. That’s just been a great example for those guys."
  • One of my favorite sights of Lions’ training camp the past two years: veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch’s insistence that he touch the ball on every play. Sometimes that means reaching one step over from his current position. Often, however, it means chasing a ball carrier as far as 30 yards downfield. By the way, it appears Vanden Bosch is fully recovered from neck surgery that ended his first season with the Lions.
  • Will Wright re-establish his career with the Lions? He has the raw skills to do so, and now he has a defensive line that will, without question, make his job easier. "The D-line plays hard and it’s relentless," Wright said. "It’s contagious. From a total defensive standpoint, those guys rub off on us, especially the defensive backs."

Camp Confidential: Giants

August, 14, 2011
8/14/11
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's funny to say this about a team that plays where they play, but the New York Giants like it when nobody notices them. They like being forgotten, underestimated, treated as an afterthought. They're OK with the Jets getting all the back-page-tabloid attention and the Eagles being the big offseason story because of their free-agent shopping spree. The Giants believe in their own way of doing things, and if that means lying in the weeds while people on the outside are distracted by other teams that are hot at the moment, that's fine with them.

"We believe in our organization, and we believe in our coaches," said ninth-year offensive lineman David Diehl, who has moved from left tackle to left guard as part of the Giants' offensive line shuffle. "We're not running around doing the free-agency fiasco and all that stuff. Yeah, you hope that, if an opportunity arises, you bring in guys that fit holes. But at the same time, we've got guys that have been here, guys that are a part of this team, guys who know the system."

That's why, even though they lost tight end Kevin Boss and receiver Steve Smith in free agency and didn't sign new guys the way the Eagles did, the Giants say they're not worried. They have a different way of doing things here. They build through the draft and groom their own players to replace the ones who leave. And they have a few guys they think can fill the holes created by their cuts and free-agent defections. It remains to be seen whether they're right, of course, but the vibe at Giants training camp is clear: Go ahead, underestimate us. We'll see how it turns out in the end.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeWilliam Beatty
Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireThe Giants will have a revamped offensive line that includes William Beatty, left, at left tackle.
1. The new offensive line. When they cut longtime center Shaun O'Hara and guard Rich Seubert on the first day of free agency, the Giants signaled a decision to change an aspect of their team that hadn't changed much over the past six or seven years. They signed free-agent center David Baas from San Francisco, moved Diehl inside, and gave the starting left tackle job to 2009 second-round draft pick William Beatty. So there are questions that must be answered about how quickly the newly configured group can jell, how smooth the relationship between Baas and quarterback Eli Manning will be and, perhaps most importantly, whether Beatty in his third NFL season is ready for the responsibility of protecting Manning's blind side.

"In the case of William Beatty, it's time," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "We've had him here. He's talented. He's had an opportunity to learn. He's practiced against some of the best. We've had some defensive ends around here that can play. So it's time. It's his turn."

Beatty started four games in his rookie season and two last season as he was being groomed for this opportunity. He's perhaps the best example of the Giants' belief in their ability to groom their own replacements for departing veterans rather than having to hit the free-agent market to do so. Now, he must prove that their faith in him was justified.

2. Can Osi Umenyiora be happy? Upset about his contract, the Giants' star defensive end has sat out practice and demanded that the team re-work his deal or trade him to a team that will. Neither of those things appears likely to happen, though the Giants have offered an olive branch in the form of some 2011 incentives depending on the number of sacks Umenyiora gets this year. He had his knee checked out last week and there's a sense he could return to practice Monday. The way Jason Pierre-Paul played in Saturday night's preseason opener only helped the Giants' leverage in this situation. They believe Pierre-Paul, their 2010 first-round pick, can be a capable replacement for Umenyiora at the defensive end spot opposite Justin Tuck. Of course, if Umenyiora wants to come back and play, they'll be thrilled to be able to rotate three such weapons at the defensive end spots. It would also enable them to put Mathias Kiwanuka at linebacker and leave him there.

3. Manning's safety valves. As the Giants' passing game evolved over the past couple of seasons, Manning relied heavily on Smith and Boss as targets when things broke down. Both are gone. The Giants hope that 2009 third-round pick Travis Beckum is ready to replace Boss. Beckum is a good receiver, but he doesn't have Boss' size or blocking ability. And they're trying everyone from Mario Manningham to Domenik Hixon to Victor Cruz in Smith's old slot-receiver role in the hopes that someone can play the position the way Smith did. Top receiver Hakeem Nicks appears poised to have another big year, and the Giants can use Manningham on the outside as they did last season. But Manning is justifiably concerned about who will be there for him when a play inevitably breaks down, and tight end and slot receiver are positions that need to be sorted out before camp ends.

"When we've gotten in trouble in the past, we always had Steve in the slot, and that's kind of all we worked on -- Steve's in the slot, there you go, he's got it down," Manning said. "And so last year, when he got hurt, we were in trouble. No one else really knew how to play it. So this year we're putting everybody -- Hakeem is in there, Manningham's getting in here, we're getting a lot of people in there to get them to learn some of it, so that'll probably create some more opportunities for us to move guys around and get some mismatches."

MAN IN THE MIDDLE

[+] EnlargeJonathan Goff
William Perlman/The Star-Ledger via US PresswireJonathan Goff is entering his second season as the starting middle linebacker.
Linebacker has been a weak spot for the Giants the past couple of years. Unable to add outside free agents because of cap concerns, they'll address it by moving Kiwanuka there for first and second downs. But much will still fall on the shoulders of Jonathan Goff, who enters his second season as starter at middle linebacker in the Giants' 4-3 defense. "I'll have better composure this year," Goff said. "Last year, being my first year, was a little bit of a learning experience for me. This year, I think we're all on the same page to move forward as a defense and get better. It's just natural now." Goff is responsible for communicating the calls from the sidelines and for making any front-seven checks. (The coverage checks are the responsibility of the safeties.) He knows he'll need to take a stronger on-field leadership role for the defense to play more consistently this season.

AN 'EXPLOSIVE' PHILLIPS

Two years ago, Kenny Phillips was on the verge of breaking out as one of the top safeties in the NFL. But he lost his 2009 season to a left knee injury, spent the 2009-10 offseason rehabbing the knee and wasn't the same player when he returned in 2010. This year, Phillips said, he was able to condition himself the way he normally would for a season, rather than have to rehab, and believes it has made a huge difference. "Just being more explosive," Phillips said. "Last year, just seeing the field, it was kind of difficult at times, because I'd been away from the game, to be able to break on the ball -- to actually see it and then be able to get to it. But this year, now, everything is just fluid. My technique and everything is sound. I just feel good about everything this year." Phillips said he learned a lot last season playing and working with veteran safety Deon Grant (who remains an unsigned free agent), and that, with his physical ability fully restored, he believes he'll be a better player.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Hixon could be a very important player for the Giants if he's recovered from his knee injury. He showed ability to play that slot receiver position when he was healthy, and will get a chance to show it again, though it seems clear the Giants would like to have multiple options there in case something goes wrong.
  • Linval Joseph, the 2010 second-round pick, would seem to have the playing-time edge at defensive tackle over 2011 second-round pick Marvin Austin. But each brings impressive size and agility to the position, and between them the Giants should be able to capably replace Barry Cofield, who signed with Washington.
  • The starting secondary of Phillips, Antrel Rolle, Terrell Thomas and Corey Webster looks excellent in practice. The question is whether there's enough depth behind those guys if there's an injury. Cornerbacks Michael Coe and Brian Witherspoon and safety Tyler Sash have a chance to earn playing time with Prince Amukamara hurt and Grant not re-signed. Witherspoon has been impressive on special teams and looked good in Saturday's game. Sash appears to be very athletic, but he needs to play with more discipline.
  • Kiwanuka at linebacker is a work in progress. No question he has the ability to play it, but he over-pursued Saturday at times the way a defensive end might.
  • Even before he left Saturday's preseason game with a thigh injury, kicker Lawrence Tynes looked as though he might be cause for concern. Having missed a few practices as he recovers from knee surgery, Tynes was unable to boot kickoffs out of the back of the end zone the way it seems every other kicker in the league has so far this preseason. And he missed a couple of field goals (though the first was a 56-yarder he shouldn't have been asked to try). Worth keeping an eye out to see how he looks the rest of August.
  • As for punters, Matt Dodge has looked better than he did in his difficult rookie season, but it's going to be tough for him to beat out Steve Weatherford, who's just better at the job.
  • GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- It's a new era in Cincinnati. But will it result in more victories?

    That's the question facing the new-look Cincinnati Bengals this season.

    Cincinnati hit the reset button after a disappointing 4-12 campaign in 2010. The Bengals moved on from the Carson Palmer-Chad Ochocinco era, replacing them with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and No. 4 overall pick A.J. Green.

    But going young often brings growing pains. That was evident in Cincinnati's lackluster 34-3 loss to the Detroit Lions in Friday's preseason opener. The Bengals' starters and backups looked shell-shocked and were dominated on offense, defense and special teams.

    "It's our first step in a long, long journey," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told reporters Friday night. "There's a lot of work to do. I knew it coming in. Now we have a chance to coach off the tape and make corrections off the tape and get after it quickly."

    The rebuilding Bengals have nowhere to go but up this season. They were ranked last in ESPN.com's preseason Power Rankings.

    THREE HOT ISSUES

    [+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
    AP Photo/Duane BurlesonCincinnati could face growing pains with rookie QB Andy Dalton.
    1. Is Andy Dalton ready?

    Palmer's unexpected retirement in January thrust Dalton into the starting lineup as a rookie.

    This is unfamiliar territory for Lewis. Lewis sat Palmer, a No. 1 overall pick, during his entire rookie year in 2003.

    I asked Lewis this week about his different approach with rookie quarterbacks.

    "The football team that I took over in 2003 couldn't afford to lose games because of the quarterback," Lewis said. "They had a guy who had been in the seat and a lot of people were very, very comfortable with. Jon [Kitna] had done some good things, so it was a different situation.

    "This football team is put together differently. They're tough, they're physical, they know how to go out there and compete. I didn't know those things coming in 2003. I know what this team is made of now. I know where the leaders are. I didn't know those guys then."

    The Bengals hope to get immediate results from Dalton. He made some rookie mistakes in practice during the week and looked shaky in his preseason debut. Dalton's first throw was an interception. His third pass attempt was a sack. He finished with 69 passing yards and a pick.

    Overall, Dalton is confident and has good presence. But things will not come together overnight.

    2. How is Cincinnati’s new West Coast offense?

    The West Coast offense is known for its precision passing. But expect a heavy dose of tailback Cedric Benson in Cincinnati's system.

    First-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden acknowledges that he wants a power running game to protect his rookie quarterback. Benson is coming off back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons. He is the most reliable offensive commodity the Bengals have.

    If Benson runs well, that should open things up for Cincinnati's passing game. Gruden is particularly high on starting receivers Green and Jerome Simpson.

    Look for Cincinnati's opponents to stack the box against the run this season. But Gruden will not be afraid to take shots downfield with Simpson and Green, based on what I've seen in practice.

    "Those two guys on the outside are very athletic," Gruden said. "You almost have to take a different approach as a quarterback when those two guys are running down the field. If a defensive back has his back turned, you have to give [the receiver] a chance. A lot of times you want to tell a quarterback, 'It's either us or nobody.' But with these two guys you can throw it up high and let them go get it."

    3. Can the defense rebound?

    The Bengals were No. 4 in total defense in 2009. That led to a playoff run.

    In 2010, Cincinnati's defense dropped to No. 15. The Bengals finished 4-12 last season.

    The success of the defense is vital. The Bengals return veterans such as cornerback Leon Hall, defensive lineman Domata Peko, safety Chris Crocker and third-year linebacker Rey Maualuga. The team also added cornerback Nate Clements to replace Johnathan Joseph and new linebackers Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard.

    Improving the pass rush will be key. The Bengals only had 27 sacks in 16 games last season. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap accounted for 9.5 of those sacks.

    Speed on defense also is an issue. Cincinnati is not very fast in the front seven or in the secondary.

    BIGGEST SURPRISE

    I went into Bengals camp unfamiliar with Colin Cochart. But by the end of the week, the undrafted rookie tight end from South Dakota State was one of my favorite players.

    Cochart is an aggressive blocker, a valued commodity. He blocked in every practice as though it was the Super Bowl. That got under some teammates' skin and caused some extra pushing and shoving.

    Cochart's blocking makes him a sleeper to make the Bengals as a third tight end behind Jermaine Gresham and Bo Scaife.

    BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

    I wanted to see more from backup running back Bernard Scott. But he's been sidelined most of training camp with a hamstring injury.

    Many players across the league, particularly speedy ones, are suffering hamstring injuries after the lockout. Scott showed flashes in past seasons. But he needs to stay healthy and be more reliable to back up Benson this season.

    OBSERVATION DECK
      [+] EnlargeA.J. Green
      AP Photo/Carlos OsorioReceiver A.J. Green, a first-round draft pick, has looked as good as advertised so far in camp.

    • Green is the real deal. He is an extremely good athlete with great hands and the ability to go up and get the football. But he needs to work on is his routes. Green relied mostly on athleticism in high school and college. He needs to be more precise getting out of his cuts to get the most out of Cincinnati's West Coast offense. There is little margin for error at the NFL level.
    • Former 2009 first-round pick Andre Smith is in much better shape this year. He is down to 335 pounds. Smith's quickness, footwork and endurance have all improved. This is his first full training camp. He missed the first two camps because of a contract dispute and prior injuries. Smith's weight loss also takes pressure off his surgically repaired foot.
    • Veteran backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski looks like a decent signing. Gradkowski knows the West Coast offense and is making plays in camp. The Bengals are counting on Dalton to be the starter. Dalton's ceiling is higher. But right now there isn't a wide gap separating Cincinnati's top two quarterbacks.
    • Simpson looks ready to bust out. He was one of the best players in practice last week and continues to make highlight-reel catches, even when covered by defenders. Simpson has been quiet for three seasons in Cincinnati. But he finished strong in the final month of last season. Simpson has to prove he can be productive for 16 games.
    • The Bengals can use a healthy Adam Jones this season. The backup cornerback will miss all of training camp after neck surgery. Jones is by far Cincinnati's best athlete in the secondary. It doesn't appear the commissioner will act on Jones' offseason arrest for disorderly conduct. Jones says he was wrongfully arrested.
    • Michael Johnson looks more comfortable back at defensive end. The Bengals experimented with moving Johnson to outside linebacker last season, but he never looked comfortable standing up. Now, Johnson is making more plays in training camp at his natural position. He was listed as a starter on the team's first depth chart.
    • Maualuga is another player who looks better at his natural position of middle linebacker. He has good instincts and is a force against the run. Maualuga sheds blocks well and gets to ball carriers. He had two tackles for a loss Friday against Detroit. The past two seasons Maualuga often was forced to cover tight ends in pass coverage and struggled.

    Camp Confidential: Saints

    August, 12, 2011
    8/12/11
    10:45
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    METAIRIE, La. -- Jonathan Vilma grabbed the question and treated it much the same way he would a running back.

    He grabbed it forcefully and drove it straight to the proper destination.

    “It’s really very, very simple,’’ the middle linebacker for the New Orleans Saints said. “If we want to get back to being the Super Bowl champions, we have to play defense the way we played it in 2009, not the way we did in 2010. We have to go out there and start making turnovers happen again.’’

    [+] EnlargeJonathan Vilma
    Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireJonathan Vilma, right, wants the Saints' defense to return to its 2009 playmaking form.
    It's not as though the 2010 season was a complete disaster for the Saints. They went 11-5 and made the playoffs. But they went out to Seattle for the first round of the postseason and got upset by a team that didn’t even have a winning record. That ended New Orleans’ defense of its first Super Bowl championship, and Vilma puts the reason for that squarely on the defense.

    “Look, we still had [quarterback] Drew Brees and all sorts of weapons on the other side of the ball,’’ Vilma said. “Last year’s problem wasn’t our offense. It was our defense. We just didn’t make things happen the way we did in 2009. We played well at times, but we also left a lot of big plays on the field because, for whatever reason, we just didn’t make the same plays we did the year before.’’

    Vilma points to one statistic to demonstrate his point. In 2009, the Saints were +11 in turnover ratio. In 2010, they were -6.

    They have the personnel to reverse that trend, and Vilma said a little more help from the defense could be all it takes to get back to the Super Bowl.

    “You think of McDonald’s and you think of Burger King, you know what you’re going to get across the world,’’ Vilma said. “So we want people to think of Saints defense, you know what you’re going to get. You’re going to get takeaways, hitting, relentlessness, running to the ball. I think we’re starting to build that brand, we are still working toward it, and one thing we won’t do is take a step back.”

    THREE HOT ISSUES

    1. Can the defense really get back to 2009 form? Yes, it’s very possible. Gregg Williams is one of the league’s best and most aggressive defensive coordinators. When I visited camp recently, the defensive players were picking up every loose ball, even well after plays were done. That’s something Williams brought when he arrived in 2009. It didn’t really stop in 2010. But you can tell the Saints are approaching loose balls with much more gusto in this camp.

    That’s great, but just taking that mental approach won’t be enough. The Saints have made some personnel moves that should make the overall defense better and that should help produce turnovers. The Saints added defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin and suddenly are much bigger on the defensive line. Rotate Rogers and Franklin with a healthy Sedrick Ellis, and the Saints suddenly could be much stronger than they’ve been in the middle of the line in recent years.

    That should help the pass rush, particularly Will Smith, Alex Brown and rookie Cameron Jordan. Smith and Brown didn’t get as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks as the coaches would have liked last season. Pressure is the key to a Williams defense. If the Saints can get pressure, the turnovers will come naturally.

    2. Is the defense really to blame for last year? Not quite as much as Vilma claims. He’s right that the defense wasn’t the turnover machine it was in 2009. But the offense wasn’t exactly the perfectly tuned machine it was in the Super Bowl season. The Saints scored 64 touchdowns in 2009 (and five of those came on interception returns by the defense), but that number dropped to 44 last season. Maybe the defense could have helped a bit more with field position, but this offense had some flaws.

    It’s tough to criticize Brees, who has carried the Saints since his arrival in 2006. But numbers don’t lie, and they’ll tell you Brees had an off year last season. His passing yardage and touchdowns were similar to 2009, but the huge difference was interceptions.

    Brees threw only 11 interceptions in 2009 but had a career-high 22 last season. He never missed any playing time or complained about it, but Brees never seemed to be quite the same after injuring his knee in a Week 3 game with Atlanta. That might have had more to do with his "slump'' than we'll ever know.

    But Brees has had a whole offseason to recover, and I expect him to bounce back. His cast of receivers remains largely the same, and replacing center Jonathan Goodwin with Olin Kreutz should not hurt an offensive line that already is very good.

    [+] EnlargeMark Ingram
    Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireMark Ingram, right, should become a workhorse for the Saints right away.
    3. How will the Saints use their running backs? Whether you loved him or not, Reggie Bush is gone and that’s going to have an impact. Although he never put up huge numbers, Bush was the kind of player who made defenses account for him every time he was on the field.

    It’s easy to say the Saints will try to replace Bush by committee and, to some degree, that’s true. They brought in Darren Sproles to do a lot of what Bush did -- run outside, catch passes out of the backfield and work as a return man. They also have Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, who are pretty solid all-around backs.

    But the biggest offensive move the Saints made this offseason was drafting Mark Ingram. He’s a running back who can do everything well, and he'll probably be used the way Deuce McAllister was in the early years of coach Sean Payton’s tenure. Sproles will inherit the packages Bush was in on, but Ingram’s going to get most of the playing time -- and carries.

    BIGGEST SURPRISE

    Nobody got very excited when the Saints added Will Herring. That’s understandable, because he spent four seasons in Seattle as a backup linebacker and special-teams player. Herring has only seven career starts, but a coaching staff and front office that’s been known to find some steals might have another one. Herring has been getting most of the first-team work on the strong side in training camp, and the coaches have been raving about him. He’s quick and he’s smart, and the change of scenery apparently has him playing better than ever.

    BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

    When he’s healthy and on the field, Tracy Porter is a solid cornerback. But Porter hasn’t been on the field this training camp. He’s been walking around the sidelines with his left knee wrapped as he recovers from offseason surgery. There’s hope that Porter will be ready for the regular season, and there is even higher hope that he’ll be motivated to have a huge year because he can become a free agent after the season.

    But there’s also some skepticism, because this isn’t the first injury for Porter. He missed four games last year and four the year before. Fellow starter Jabari Greer also has a history of injury problems. If Porter and Greer have more problems, the Saints could be thin at cornerback. They signed veteran Fabian Washington, but he’s missed some camp time with an injury.

    The upside is that the absence of Porter and Washington has given second-year pro Patrick Robinson and rookie Johnny Patrick more work. Williams has been praising both of them. If either or both continue to impress and Porter’s recovery lingers, we could see a change in the lineup. That also wouldn't help Porter's chances of earning a big contract and staying with the Saints next season.

    OBSERVATION DECK

    • Wide receiver Robert Meachem was a close runner-up for the biggest-surprise category above. Meachem is coming off ankle surgery for an injury that slowed him last year, and he's having an excellent camp. He’s caught just about every pass thrown his way and seems to be moving much better than a year ago. Meachem was a force as a deep threat in 2009, and it looks like he might be returning to that form.
    • Herring has been working on the strong side and Scott Shanle on the weak side. But nothing’s settled yet. Herring appears headed for a starting job, but Shanle is aging. The Saints have liked what they’ve seen from Clint Ingram and Jonathan Casillas, and they know what they have in Jo-Lonn Dunbar. They’ll probably go through several preseason games before deciding firmly on their starting linebackers. Even then, they could still rotate linebackers because the coaches view all of them as pretty close to equal.
    • One linebacker who is struggling a bit is third-round pick Martez Wilson. You can see he has good athleticism, but he looks lost at times during team drills. The Saints aren’t anywhere close to being ready to give up on him because he has lots of upside. But a lot of fans thought he’d be an instant starter. That’s not going to happen.
    • The Saints never have been afraid to take a shot on a reclamation project, and that’s what they did with Rogers at defensive tackle. He came into the league with a lot of hype back in 2001 but had spent his career stuck with some pretty bad teams in Detroit and Cleveland. Rogers even lost his starting job with the Browns last year, and there have been questions about his conditioning and attitude throughout his career. But this might be a perfect fit. Rogers is on a good team for perhaps the first time in his career, and Williams is a master motivator. Even if Rogers doesn’t work out, I like how the Saints hedged their bet by bringing in Franklin.
    • The Saints also took a shot on another former first-round pick. That’s offensive tackle Alex Barron. But he’s not off to a great start. He’s been sidelined by injury, and unless he comes back soon and makes a big impression, he probably won’t make the roster.
    • Since entering the league in 2009, punter Thomas Morstead has been known as a guy with a big leg. That hasn’t changed. But Morstead put in a lot of work on his directional punting in the offseason, and you can see the results in practice. That should help the defense with field position.

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