NFL Nation: 2012 Camp Confidential

Camp Confidential: Cardinals

August, 23, 2012
8/23/12
1:03
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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- One quarterback at Arizona Cardinals camp was fighting to win back the starting job he'd never really earned. The team had paid millions to him, but questions persisted over his toughness, durability and leadership.

Another quarterback at Cardinals camp had outperformed his status as a late-round draft choice. He was bigger and had a stronger arm. Teammates responded more favorably to his presence on the field, it seemed, but he wasn't the most accurate passer, which was a concern.

If those descriptions stirred thoughts of Kevin Kolb and John Skelton, respectively, you'd be correct. But the same passages applied to the Cardinals' ill-fated 2010 quarterback race between Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson. Back then, Arizona cut Leinart, struggled with Anderson and finished with a 5-11 record.

The comparison naturally did not sit well with Ken Whisenhunt, the Cardinals' sixth-year head coach. He sees a team that has won with both Kolb and especially Skelton behind center. He sees a team returning a 1,000-yard rusher, a fleet of perimeter playmakers featuring the incomparable Larry Fitzgerald and a defense that dominated during a 7-2 run to finish last season.

"The biggest difference, in 2009, we were a damn good football team at 10-6, but how many [key] players did we lose after that year, five?" Whisenhunt said.

Four, if we count Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle.

"This year, we didn’t lose that," Whisenhunt said. "That is the biggest difference in how I feel from 2010 and the way I feel in 2012."

How the quarterback situation plays out will largely determine whether Whisenhunt is right.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Kolb's adjustment. Going from Philadelphia's West Coast system to the Cardinals' offense has been tougher than anticipated for the Cardinals' would-be starting quarterback. The goal seems so simple: Find ways for Kolb to remain in the pocket and trust the offense. But the instincts Kolb developed with the Eagles keep getting in the way. That could explain what Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly indelicately called "skittishness" -- the tendency for Kolb to bail from the pocket at the first sign of trouble.

Learning the Cardinals' offense hasn't been a problem. Unlearning what he did in Philly? That's another story.

"It's just the way they create the pocket, there versus here," Kolb said. "They teach us to really push up in the pocket in Philly. Two, three hitches up in the pocket when you get up there. You can see that. If you watch Mike [Vick], he has got two really big hitches into his throws. If it’s not there, it’s go or throw, you know what I mean?

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb and John Skelton
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinJohn Skelton, right, appears to have the upper hand over Kevin Kolb for the Cardinals' starting quarterback job.
"Here, when you get to that 8-yard range [on a drop-back], they want you to hang in that vicinity and just stay there. It is just a different deal. A lot of it is rhythm. As a quarterback, you always want to be on rhythm."

Coaches would rather have Kolb throw the ball away immediately than take off running without clear purpose. The line has a hard enough time protecting Kolb when it knows the quarterback's location. Unscripted relocation has proved costly.

Kolb has a firm command of the offense. He's football savvy and fully capable of processing information at the line of scrimmage. That's what makes his difficulties confounding.

"There haven't been any problems mentally," quarterbacks coach John McNulty said. "He is on top of things, he anticipates things. I think sometimes it’s not as clean or as clear as he wants and then all of a sudden you start moving. And when you make those big, violent moves when the line is not expecting it, then you’re kind of on your own. If we’re not making plays out of it, they’re not worth doing, because all you’re going to do is get hit or go backwards."

2. Shaky offensive line. The Cardinals were auditioning left tackles as camp broke after Levi Brown suffered a potentially season-ending torn triceps tendon. For all the criticism Brown has taken over the years, he was clearly the best offensive tackle on the team. The line was a concern even before Brown's injury. Now, it's bordering on a crisis.

Jeremy Bridges, D'Anthony Batiste, Bobby Massie, D.J. Young and Nate Potter are the other tackles on the roster. Bridges has started 55 regular-season NFL games. Batiste has started four. Massie and Potter are rookies. Young has no starts after entering the NFL in 2011 as an undrafted free agent.

One more time: The Cardinals have drafted zero offensive linemen in the first three rounds over the past five drafts. They did not draft an offensive lineman in any round of the 2011 or 2010 draft. The 2012 draft didn't fall right for them when it came to adding a tackle early. They got Massie in the fourth round, which seemed like good value. He'll start at right tackle eventually, and perhaps right away.

3. Running back health. Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams are coming off knee surgeries. The Cardinals felt good enough about their prospects to sail through the offseason without addressing the position. That seemed a little risky.

Likely troubles in pass protection could lead the Cardinals to lean more heavily on their ground game, at least in theory. Wells and Williams would appear to carry greater injury risks than backs without recent knee troubles. Utility back LaRod Stephens-Howling was banged up during camp.

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

The team showed dramatic improvement, particularly on defense, while finishing with that 7-2 record over the final nine games last season.

Sometimes momentum doesn't carry over. In the Cardinals' case, however, there are reasons to expect sustained improvement.

The 2011 team was breaking in a first-time defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, following a lockout-shortened offseason. Players needed time to grasp the concepts. They got better late in the season. They should be better yet following a full offseason.

Arizona has front-line talent at every level of its defense. End Calais Campbell, inside linebacker Daryl Washington and cornerback Patrick Peterson are dynamic young players on the rise. End Darnell Dockett and strong safety Adrian Wilson are in their 30s now, but both remain productive.

The team has gone 7-4 with Skelton as its starter. That figure doesn't even count Skelton's most impressive performance of the 2011 season, when he replaced an injured Kolb and helped Arizona upset San Francisco.

Skelton might not be pretty to watch, but six game-winning drives in 13 career appearances give him credibility in the locker room. Whisenhunt was with the Pittsburgh Steelers when the team won ugly with a young Ben Roethlisberger. Skelton is not Roethlisberger, but he is a big, strong quarterback with some moxie.

The Cardinals have big-play threats on offense. They finished last season with 15 pass plays of at least 40 yards, more than New England and every team but the New York Giants (18), Detroit Lions (16) and Green Bay Packers (16).

Greater consistency from the quarterback position isn't out of the question. If the Cardinals get it, they'll surprise skeptics.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

The team that finished last season on that 7-2 hot streak also went 1-6 to open the season.

And let's face it, the Cardinals, while unfortunate in a few instances early in the year, were fortunate to win seven of their final nine. They claimed four of those seven victories in overtime. Five came against teams with losing records at the time.

[+] EnlargeLevi Brown
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireThe Cardinals may have lost arguably their best offensive tackle, Levi Brown, for the season.
The young talent on defense is backed up with the oldest reserves in the league. The offensive line is solid at center and left guard, but the other three positions should strike more fear in the Cardinals' quarterbacks than in the opposition. Removing Brown from the equation was devastating, given the already tenuous nature of the tackle situation.

Kolb hasn't been able to stay healthy or produce when on the field. That isn't going to change with the floodgates likely opening at both tackle spots.

Skelton has shown greater ability to keep his wits against pressure. Whichever QB starts will need every bit of resourcefulness he can muster against a schedule featuring a long list of able pass-rushers: Jared Allen (22 sacks last season), Jason Babin (18), Aldon Smith (14), Chris Long (13), Chris Clemons (11), Julius Peppers (11), Cliff Avril (11), Trent Cole (11), Mark Anderson (10), John Abraham (9.5), Cameron Wake (8.5), Kyle Vanden Bosch (8), Justin Smith (7.5), Clay Matthews (6) and Mario Williams (5).

OBSERVATION DECK

  • William Gay appears to be running unopposed at right cornerback. Opportunistic rookie Jamell Fleming, a third-round choice, will factor one way or another at the position. Fitzgerald: "[Fleming] is extremely talented. The thing I like about him is he can move around. They’ve got him playing inside a little bit, playing outside. What it shows you is that he is intelligent, he can pick up the defense. He understands terminology, what’s going on, and he plays fast. And the ball just seems to find him."
  • Coaches noticed a big jump from the spring to June to training camp in Skelton's ability to handle pre-snap responsibilities. They hope that progress can help him fare better early in games. One theory holds that Skelton's grasp of a game would improve as he had a chance to study photos of opposing formations on the sideline between possessions. By the fourth quarter, he was up to speed. "We're trying to get to where we have the handle before the game," McNulty said.
  • Losing Brown hurt, but center Lyle Sendlein is arguably the offensive lineman Arizona can least afford to lose. He has started every game over the past four seasons and, like many centers, holds everything together up front. Left guard Daryn Colledge: "If we had to replace one guy, he would be the worst one probably on the whole football team. He is the key cog, especially for this offensive line. He is the captain and he is our guy. Without him, the wheels just might come off."
  • Sixth-round choice Justin Bethel, a free safety, looks like a keeper after making a positive impact on special teams.
  • Inside linebacker Stewart Bradley appears more comfortable in the Cardinals' defensive scheme, but the team still appears to value Paris Lenon as the starter next to Washington. That arrangement is more palatable after Bradley, one of the team's big free-agent signings in 2011, took a pay reduction.
  • First-round draft choice Michael Floyd hasn't stood out yet. Fitzgerald will continue to carry the passing game. Rob Housler will emerge as more of a threat at tight end. Andre Roberts and Early Doucet give the team two strong inside options. Getting Floyd going will be one key to unleashing Roberts from the slot. Roberts has good quickness and instincts. The Cardinals' quarterbacks like the way he moves within zones, but they need to do a better job locating him.
  • The Cardinals think they have a great one in Peterson. The physical attributes are obvious. Peterson also has the necessary desire. Arizona saw it last season when Peterson played through an Achilles injury suffered at Cincinnati.
  • This season as last, the Cardinals are counting on young outside pass-rushers O'Brien Schofield and Sam Acho. Schofield is fighting through knee problems, a potential concern given the career-altering surgery he underwent coming out of college. He played 38 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Arizona will need him to play a much higher percentage in 2012. Can Schofield hold up? Clark Haggans, 35, is the backup.
  • Arizona should be strong at nose tackle with a leaner Dan Williams and underrated backup David Carter at the position.
  • It's tough to envision Kolb emerging as the starter based on what we've seen to this point. There's no clear indication Kolb is close to breaking through. "The only thing I can do is stay patient, know that it’s all part of God’s plan," Kolb said. "My mentality is that I’m going to get through the bad to get to the good. Something good is going to come of it."
LATROBE, Pa. -- The Steelers just completed their 47th training camp at St. Vincent College. Before they arrived, the team reached a contract extension with Mike Tomlin, who is the Steelers' third coach over the past 43 years.

In other words, this organization believes in stability and continuity. That's why changing offensive systems -- switching from Bruce Arians to Todd Haley at coordinator -- has been a different challenge heading into the 2012 season. If the Steelers want to grab hold of their seventh Lombardi Trophy, the players know they have to gain a firm grasp on the new playbook.

No one is saying what Haley's offense will look like. And honestly, you get the feeling that the players really don't know the identity of the Steelers' offense yet.

"I don't, but Todd might," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said without a hint of trying to be coy. "Because a big part is the injuries. We don't know what's going on with all the injuries. So, we don't know yet. Whatever we decide to do, we just want to be the best at what we can be at that."

Training camp has been a series of constant adjustments for the offense. Mike Wallace, the Steelers' top wide receiver, remains a holdout because he wants a long-term contract. During my two days at camp, Isaac Redman, the projected starting running back, couldn't last one full practice because of a groin injury. On the offensive line, only two starters (center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro) are at the same spots they started in the preseason opener.

When the Steelers get healthy, some expect the offense to be a run-heavy attack like the one Haley ran with the Chiefs. Steelers president Art Rooney II said he wants the Steelers to run the ball more consistently this season.

Others see the Steelers relying on Roethlisberger's arm and the playmaking ability of Wallace and receiver Antonio Brown. Haley directed one of the NFL's top passing attacks a few years ago when he was the coordinator with the Cardinals.

Haley's vision for the Steelers appears to be somewhere in the middle of what he did in Kansas City and Arizona.

"I would think that one of our strengths is versatility," Haley said. "You don’t want to do a lot of things just OK. You’d like to do some things real good. I think with some of the ability we have, and if our line continues to jell together and gets better every week, we have a chance to be a pretty versatile group that can hurt you in a number of ways."

Learning a new offense is still a work in progress for the Steelers, although it's not as bad as May, when Roethlisberger referred to Haley's playbook as Rosetta Stone.

After drills, it's not uncommon to see Roethlisberger huddle with his top three receivers (Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery) to go over what happened. Roethlisberger also stays after practice to work on routes with his receivers.

"I feel like I got a pretty good grasp," Roethlisberger said of the offense. "If the regular season started tomorrow, I would be a little disappointed because I would want to be even more comfortable. The good thing is I have three more weeks to get to that point where I feel extremely comfortable."

Roethlisberger added, "Now I'm not going to be as comfortable in this offense, even probably in Week 15, as I would be if it was the same offense I've been [in] for nine years. That's common sense. But I feel like every week and every day, you feel more comfortable in this system and what Todd wants."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMike Wallace
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinIf and when wideout Mike Wallace ends his holdout with the Steelers, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have to spend some extra time getting Wallace used to the new playbook.
1. Mike Wallace's absence. To protest the fact that he doesn't have a long-term contract, Wallace didn't report to training camp, which officially made his holdout the longest by a Steelers player in 22 years. The Steelers suspended talks on a new contract until Wallace returns to the team and signs his $2.7 million restricted free-agent tender. This stalemate is expected to end over the next couple of weeks, so Wallace can be ready to play in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener. That would also allow the sides some time to reach a deal before the season, which could (but probably won't) happen.

While Wallace isn't the most popular person in Pittsburgh for skipping camp, he remains the top offensive player on the Steelers, outside of Roethlisberger. Only two receivers in the past 30 years have gained more receiving yards and scored more touchdowns during their first three years than Wallace: Jerry Rice and Randy Moss.

So how long will it take for Wallace to get ready to play after reporting?

"I think it depends on a lot of things," Roethlisberger said. "I think if they bring him in and he's playing one position and he's been looking at what coach has sent him, I think he'll be able to pick it up and be ready to go. He may not be as ready in Week 1 as the rest of the receivers are. But I will spend some extra time with him if he wants out on the field, throwing and doing whatever we have to do to make sure he's caught up to speed."

2. Who's the No. 2 cornerback? Barring some major developments over the next three preseason games, this spot is expected to go to Keenan Lewis, who's been having a strong camp. He's impressed coaches by paying attention to detail and not having busted assignments. Lewis tightened his grip on the starting job when he hurt his shoulder early in camp and put in a full practice two days later. Toughness always catches the eyes of the Steelers.

Cortez Allen, Lewis' chief competition, has also showed improvement. He's been able to use his athletic ability more this year because he has a better understanding of the defense. Even though he probably won't unseat Lewis as a starter, Allen will get on the field as the team's nickelback. Curtis Brown has faded from this competition after giving up two touchdowns in the preseason opener.

With Ike Taylor starting at the one cornerback spot, the Steelers expect quarterbacks to go after Lewis and Allen. "They'll get tested every week," secondary coach Carnell Lake said. "But if you enjoy playing this game and especially enjoy your job at corner, that comes with it. Actually, you want the challenge because that's what you do."

3. Injuries at running back. The Steelers' top three running backs -- Rashard Mendenhall, Redman and Jonathan Dwyer -- have all missed time in camp because of injuries. There have been times when Pittsburgh has been down to two healthy running backs, Baron Batch and Chris Rainey. It makes you think the Steelers should hold their running back meetings in the trainer's room.

Mendenhall, the team's leading rusher for the past three seasons, was just removed from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list after having ACL surgery in January. Redman is expected to miss Sunday night's preseason game because of a groin injury. And Dwyer came back to practice late last week after being sidelined with a a shoulder injury.

With Mendenhall not expected to play in September, the plan is to go with Redman to start the regular season. An undrafted rookie out of Bowie State in 2009, Redman gained 121 yards in the Steelers' playoff game in Denver. "He’s a big, downhill back that’s excellent in protection," Haley said. "As a runner, you can’t pigeonhole him and say he’s strictly a between-the-tackles runner, because I do think he has a little sneaky burst to the edge."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The Steelers are once again among the Super Bowl favorites, and it goes beyond defensive end Brett Keisel's prediction of sorts. It seems that every time Keisel welcomes a new child, the Steelers go to the Super Bowl. The Keisels welcomed their third child last week. "So, I want that trend to continue," Keisel said.

All joking aside, Pittsburgh is a strong contender this year because its quarterback is entering the prime of his career and its top-ranked defense returns all but two starters. At running back, Redman may end up being a better runner than Mendenhall, who seemed hesitant running between the tackles. And few defenses can match up against Wallace, Brown and Sanders at wide receiver.

"This is probably the most talent I've seen on this team in years," said Taylor, who has been on two of the Steelers' Super Bowl-winning teams.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

[+] EnlargePittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, left, talks with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicThe Steelers offense will depend greatly on how well new offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger get along.
The Steelers invested their top two picks in the draft (guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams) in their offensive line, and this group should be one of the best in a few years. But the concern is that the growing pains on the line could lead to more pain for Roethlisberger, who has endured more sacks and injuries than any other quarterback in recent years. An offensive line that went through a league-high 25 different combinations in the 2011 regular season is already on its second heading into the second preseason game. The Steelers have proved they can win some regular-season games without Roethlisberger, but they won't go far in the postseason unless he's healthy.

While the Steelers have the talent to be a top-10 offense, they need Roethlisberger and Haley to have a solid working relationship to do so. Haley is known for being an in-your-face coach, and Roethlisberger has made it clear that he doesn't need a coach to yell at him. Both also have strong philosophies for offensive success. This is a new situation for Roethlisberger, who was very close with his former coordinator, Bruce Arians. No one truly knows whether the Roethlisberger-Haley pairing will work until the pressure of the regular season arrives.

On defense, the Steelers need to generate more of a pass rush than last year, when they ranked 17th with 35 sacks. Pittsburgh can't allow quarterbacks to have time to target Lewis and Allen in the secondary, which is the weak spot of the defense. The Steelers need a healthy James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to produce a more consistent pass rush. Harrison is considered questionable for the season opener after having his knee scoped.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The biggest beneficiary of Wallace's holdout has been Antonio Brown. Not only did Brown get a long-term deal, but he has developed better chemistry with Roethlisberger in Wallace's absence. Roethlisberger spends time after practice throwing to Brown, and the extra work has paid off. During one red zone drill, both of Roethlisberger's touchdown passes went to Brown.
  • Pouncey is moving around great, which is a sign that his ankle problems have been resolved. He's also in the best condition of his three-year NFL career. "I keep joking with him, saying he's lost some of his baby fat because he's so young," Roethlisberger said. "He came back in great shape."
  • There has been no drop off in going from Casey Hampton to Steve McLendon at nose tackle. McLendon has showed his strength by holding his own in the camp matchup with Pouncey. There's no need to rush back Hampton, who just came off the PUP list after knee surgery in January. Alameda Ta'amu, a rookie fourth-round pick, was originally tabbed as Hampton's eventual replacement, but he has looked like a rookie so far.
  • Tight end Heath Miller was expected to be featured more in Haley's offense, but that remains to be seen after what happened in camp. Miller didn't get many passes thrown his way, and he wasn't even on the field on a third down in a red zone drill.
  • One of the challenges of camp is trying to locate Rainey, who moves all around from running back to slot receiver to returner. Because the rookie is being asked to play so many different roles, it's going to take him time to master them. Rainey has shown flashes of being a dangerous playmaker. "He’s still got a long way to go," Haley said. "We’re not going to start carving the bust yet for Rainey."
  • Lewis, who is expected to win the No. 2 cornerback job, is making fewer mistakes in this camp than previous ones. But during my two-day visit, Lewis always played 6 or 7 yards off the line. One reason for that is he's playing with a separated shoulder. But there will be times when he has to physically match up against the likes of A.J. Green, Anquan Boldin and Greg Little.
  • Fullback Will Johnson is more than just a good story. Out of football last year, Johnson is showing he can run with the ball in addition to being a lead blocker. The Steelers need him to step up after David Johnson went down with a season-ending injury in the preseason opener.
  • Dwyer has slimmed down, and it shows in his burst. Tomlin twice commented on Dwyer's cutting ability during one practice. His improved play could force the Steelers to give him more carries than previously expected this season.
  • Byron Leftwich has done nothing to change the Steelers' mind about giving him the No. 2 quarterback job. It still amazes me that Leftwich has not changed his throwing motion since being drafted in 2003. His windup delivery is slow and awkward.
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- This isn’t a training camp for the leisurely.

Armed with the best roster this franchise has seen in years, the Kansas City Chiefs are moving quickly under new coach Romeo Crennel. For those who visited the Chiefs camp last year, this pace is foreign.

“There are no wasted moments,” said quarterback Matt Cassel.

The final training camp of the Todd Haley era will live in infamy in the Heartland. The Chiefs’ training camp last season was essentially a three-week walk-through exercise. Haley chose to go that route because he wanted to ease the players back into the program after a lost offseason due the lockout. The plan didn’t work as the Chiefs were physically and mentally behind the rest of the league. The Chiefs, who suffered several major injuries early in the season, were clubbed early in the season and it set the tone for a disappointing season.

However, speed is back in vogue as Crennel tries for head-coaching success in the NFL in his second go-around. The tempo change has paid off so far. The Chiefs have looked crisp in practices and they were dominant on both sides of the ball against Arizona in the preseason opener last week.

The idea is to keep the forward tempo moving into the season as the Chiefs try to win the AFC West for the second time in three seasons.

“It’s exciting to see what is happening here,” Cassel said. “We have a lot of work to do, but we are all on the same page and all want to have success together.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The ACL Club: In addition to bringing in several free agents, the Chiefs are getting back three standouts. Safety Eric Berry, running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Tony Moeaki all blew out the ACLs in their knee last September. All of the players are back and on pace to be major contributors this season.

“All of those guys look great,” Cassel said. “They’re going to help us a lot.”

2. Dwayne Bowe’s absence: The Pro Bowl receiver did not participate in the offseason workouts and he was not present for the entire training camp in Kansas City. Bowe has not signed his franchise tender. The general consensus is Bowe will report in early September, just before the season. But there are issues. Bowe has had trouble staying in football shape in the past, so coming in late could be a problem. Plus, he has to learn a new offensive system. The Chiefs want Bowe back, but they are moving forward without him. They know he makes them better, but the team likes its roster and won’t wait for anyone.

[+] EnlargeKansas City's Romeo Crennel
Denny Medley/US PRESSWIREChiefs coach Romeo Crennel has the respect of his players.
3. Good vibrations: This team is in a good place. The players love playing for Crennel. One of the reasons why Crennel was promoted from interim coach was the players’ respect for him. It has continued now that he is the permanent coach. He is a polar opposite of former coach Todd Haley, who was known as somewhat of loose cannon. Crennel is a calm, steady hand. Players love that he’s organized and up front. There is a lot of trust going on in this club.

“They’ve worked hard and they know the possibilities this team has," Crennel said. “Every team feels good about itself this time of year, but this team’s attitude is in the right place.”

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

This is the best overall roster in the AFC West. It is one of the deepest rosters in the AFC. There is proven talent throughout the roster and the team has the right mix of veteran and young players. Still, the Chiefs are the youngest team in the NFL. They are the only team in the league not to have a player over the age of 30.

“When I was on my visit, I just looked up and down this roster and saw so much talent,” free-agent pickup, tight end Kevin Boss said. “It is just loaded with talent.”

You look at this roster, and there isn’t much not to like.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The Chiefs will be banged for not being a playoff contender this year until Cassel proves otherwise. The big reason why many people don’t believe in the Chiefs is because they don’t believe in Cassel, even though he has already delivered a division title in Kansas City. Many scouts don’t think he can be a difference maker and because he is the least talented of the four quarterbacks in the AFC West, he will not be able to overcome the other teams in the division. I am of the belief there is enough talent on the roster to help Cassel lead the Chiefs deep into the playoffs. But he must prove it.

OBVERSATION DECK

  • The rap on No. 11 overall pick Dontari Poe is that the defensive tackle wasn’t productive at Memphis. The Chiefs didn’t feel that way. They reviewed every college snap he ever played and they were impressed that he played 60 percent of the snaps at 346 pounds. For what it’s worth, Poe’s college statistics and combine measuruables compare favorably to Green Bay’s B.J. Raji. He has become a star after being the No. 9 overall pick in 2009. Poe is two inches taller and nine pounds heavier than Raji, yet he ran a 4.9 40-yard dash at the combine compared to Raji’s 5.23. Poe had nine more tackles and four more quarterback hurries than Raji in college despite the fact Raji played 16 more college games. This is not to suggest Poe is going to be a better NFL player than Raji, but it does take away some of the steam out of the argument that Poe wasn’t a productive college player.
  • [+] EnlargeKansas City's Dontari Poe
    John Rieger/US PRESSWIREThe Chiefs like what they've seen from first-round pick Dontari Poe so far.
    With Bowe holding out, Jon Baldwin has been thriving under the professional guidance of veteran receivers Steve Breaston and Terrance Copper. Some folks in camp think Baldwin is making strides, because he is taking cues from Copper and Breaston.
  • Defensive ends Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey are plus players for the Chiefs. No, neither is spectacular and they will always get grief for not living up to their draft billing. Dorsey was the No. 5 overall pick in 2008 and Jackson went No. 3 a year later. But both players are excellent run stuffers and are at their top of the game in that area.
  • While the focus is on Poe at nose tackle, Anthony Toribio and 2011 draft choice Jerrell Powe are also in the mix.
  • Inside linebacker Brandon Siler looks good after missing all of last season with an Achilles injury. He could push Jovan Belcher for playing time.
  • While Haley was known for his ranting and raving on the field, new offensive boss Brian Daboll is also fiery. He scoots around the field, barking instruction.
  • His new teammates love running back Peyton Hillis. His toughness and competitiveness have been a talk of camp.
  • Very quietly, left tackle Branden Albert is becoming the player the former Kansas City regime thought they were getting when they took him No. 15 overall in 2008. I expect the Chiefs to try to extend the pending free-agent at some point. He’s been stellar.
  • I wouldn’t be surprised if the Brady Quinn-Ricky Stanzi battle to be Cassel’s backup continues all season, but with Quinn winning the job initially. The Chiefs like where they stand with both players.
  • The Chiefs are excited about the potential of tight ends Moeaki and Boss. Expect both to have high profiles in the offense.
  • Second-year pass-rusher Justin Houston has been terrific and the Chiefs are bubbling over at what kind of pass-rush combination Tamba Hali and Houston can become.
  • The team appreciates the flexibility of third-year player Dexter McCluster , who has bounced from receiver to running back to receiver again. McCluster may never have a classically defined role, but he will have a role in this offense.
  • Undrafted rookie receiver Josh Bellamy still has a chance to make the 53-man roster, but in a numbers game, he could be practice-squad bound.
  • So far, so good for new center Rodney Hudson. The second-year player looks comfortable playing with Cassel and vice versa.
  • Camp observers believe kicker Ryan Succop has gotten bigger and stronger, which will help with his field-goal range.
  • The team's fourth-round pick, receiver/returner Devon Wylie, is explosive. He will be given a chance to contribute.
  • Keep an eye on defensive end Ropati Pitoitua. He has outplayed 2011 third-round pick Allen Bailey and he may be a keeper.
  • Brandon Flowers’ foot injury has allowed second-year cornerback Jalil Brown to blossom. I expect Brown to be on the field often in the regular season.

Camp Confidential: Houston Texans

August, 16, 2012
8/16/12
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HOUSTON -- For a long time, the Texans were a popular pick to break through.

Coming off the season in which they finally did, they now rank as a favorite to repeat as AFC South champs.

But the tone in Houston hasn’t changed a bit.

Steady coach Gary Kubiak’s talked about starting from zero again, and though salary cap issues and free agency dented them a bit, this confident team knows it will need to show some grit to build off of last year’s experience.

“The window is open,” said quarterback Matt Schaub, who missed the team’s final six games and the playoffs after suffering a serious foot injury. “We have the talent, we have the people, we’ve got to go out and do it. It’s the next link in the chain…

“We’ve got the right mindset to keep everyone focused. If we see someone not focusing on the next job, we make sure he gets it right.”

Camp carried a confident vibe and the team was fortunate to dodge long-term issues when receiver Andre Johnson (groin) and defensive end J.J. Watt (elbow) suffered injuries.

There’s been some Super Bowl-or-bust talk, and this season will present the Texans with a chance to measure themselves against the teams they could see in the AFC playoff bracket: New England, Baltimore and Denver.

If the right side of the offensive line was not being replaced and if Schaub was a little bit more of a sure thing, they’d be a popular pick to represent the AFC in New Orleans.

Even with those issues, it doesn’t take much imagination to see them there.

THREE HOT ISSUES

The offensive line: The franchise’s zone-blocking scheme is really what the whole franchise is built on, and last year’s offensive line was among the league’s very best, producing the NFL’s No. 2 rush offense.

Right tackle Eric Winston was let go to save some serious salary cap money and right guard Mike Brisiel left for Oakland when the Raiders offered an above-market deal. The favorites to replace them, Antoine Caldwell and Rashad Butler, have significant time in the system, and everyone seems to think it can be a seamless transition.

Rookie Brandon Brooks, a third-round pick, brings uncommon size and could challenge Caldwell. Derek Newton, a seventh-rounder from a year ago, is on Butler’s heels. They won’t both win, but one could.

The Texans did allow 33 sacks, ranking 20th in sacks per pass play. There is room for improvement there no matter who's playing.

The receivers: Johnson dealt with separate injuries to each hamstring last season, then needed offseason knee surgery, then lost camp time to a groin strain. If he’s on the field, the team has enough at receiver to supplement him. If he’s not, then it’s a question.

[+] EnlargeHouston's Andre Johnson
Brett Davis/US PRESSWIREThe Texans need Andre Johnson on the field for the rest of their receiving corps to be effective.
Kevin Walter is a fine No. 2 if Johnson is on the other side of the field, which allows Walter to run precise, shorter routes and throw quality blocks. If Johnson’s out, Walter isn’t as dynamic, and the three youngsters vying for the third spot become more important. Keshawn Martin's had the best camp to this point, but DeVier Posey and Lestar Jean are also in the mix.

Johnson missed nine games in 2011. The Texans couldn’t really rely on Jacoby Jones week-to-week (and released him in the offseason). With tight end Owen Daniels and running back Arian Foster playing big pass-catching roles, they still did fine.

Coverage: Johnathan Joseph is an excellent corner who will be asked to track the top wideouts on the other teams. The list will likely include Demaryius Thomas, Kenny Britt, Greg Jennings or Jordy Nelson, Anquan Boldin or Torrey Smith, Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker, Reggie Wayne and Percy Harvin.

The combination of their quality pass rush, Joseph’s good work and some help may often get the job done.

But on the other side, Kareem Jackson has been more comfortable in zone coverage than man, and had a security blanket platoon system in place with Jason Allen. Allen’s now in Cincinnati, and early indications suggested the new veteran, Alan Ball, won’t be as much of a help.

There is good depth in the secondary. Brice McCain is a solid nickel and Brandon Harris is an improving backup for him. Troy Nolan is a capable third safety after Glover Quin and Danieal Manning.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

This team has firepower and star power, which make it tough for plan for, tough to stop and difficult to move against.

Johnson and Foster rank in the top three in the NFL at their positions and Daniels remains a very effective weapon. The defense is loaded with stars who’ve produced: Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin, Joseph, Brooks Reed and Watt. The third outside linebacker, Whitney Mercilus, is a first-round pick.

There isn’t a bad egg or an out-of-control ego on the list.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Outside of the division, the Texans road games are at Denver, at the Jets, at Chicago, at Detroit, at New England. I don’t think the Jets are going to rate as one of the league’s best teams, but those other four may well be in the top 10.

I don’t think expectations are going to be a problem. But a year ago they played 13 of 16 games at noon CT and just once outside of Sunday. This time they’ve got four night games and a Thanksgiving Day game, and four of those five are away from home.

That’s a different deal that could prove a test.

[+] EnlargeHouston's Johnathan Joseph
AP Photo/Pat SullivanJohnathan Joseph is getting more comfortable with the Texans.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Joseph is far more outspoken on the field than he was last year. It’s a testament to his comfort level and confidence. That people on both sides of the ball listen shows how respected he is.
  • Defenses and nickelbacks won’t be able to come into a game against the Texans anticipating one particular receiver in the slot. Different plays, different motions and different matchups will mean Walter, Johnson and Martin all get looks there.
  • Something will really have to go wrong for Justin Forsett not to be the third running back behind Foster and Ben Tate. He’s really shifty and Forsett could easily be part of a committee elsewhere. In a red zone period I watched him catch a short pass in the flat, slam on the brakes and allow Reed to fly past, then accelerate to the end zone.
  • Brooks, the rookie guard, impressed me. He can really hold his ground, and while speed gave him problems a few times, he’s mature beyond his years. I think he’s got a real shot at nudging Caldwell out of the right guard spot.
  • I’d like to see the Texans throw to James Casey more. He’s not really a fullback, though he is capable of doing what they ask and need. He’s got great hands and can make more plays that he gets called for him.
  • It’s hard to envision Trindon Holliday holding up based on his history and size. If he can, and he can master ball security, he’ll be a nice weapon as a returner. If being able to contribute as a receiver in a pinch is a requirement of the job, I can’t see it. Defensive backs will relish a chance to muscle a 5-foot-5 player at the line, rendering his speed largely irrelevant on any route that involves timing -- and don’t they all?
  • Houston gets enough out of the Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell defensive tackle combination. But it still seems like one of maybe only two spots in the base defense where the Texans could actually benefit from an upgrade.
  • There are not a lot of depth questions on this roster, and it’s a team that saw the value of quality depth last season, over and over. Inside linebacker’s an issue with Darryl Sharpton (hip) out. Cushing is close to indispensible. Left tackle Duane Brown is a guy the team might struggle without. But the Texans have won minus Schaub and without Johnson, and can win without Foster. The defensive line wouldn’t be the same minus Watt (out for the preseason with an elbow injury) or Antonio Smith. That said, what would the reaction have been last year at this time if we hypothesized Mario Williams would miss all but five games?
  • Rookie kicker Randy Bullock has plenty of leg. Considering they picked him in the fifth round, he’d have to fall flat on his face the rest of the way for the team to choose Shayne Graham over him, right?

Camp Confidential: Tennessee Titans

August, 14, 2012
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Like everyone in the NFL, the 2011 Titans were hurried together.

Unlike most other teams, they were hurried together by a new coaching staff.

Mike Munchak’s coordinators -- Jerry Gray on defense and Chris Palmer on offense-- had to show patience and restraint. They brought exciting new ideas to Nashville, but they weren’t able to implement much of them in the wake of the lockout. The personnel could only be revamped so much, but more importantly they didn’t have much time.

No offseason, no organized team activities and no minicamps meant sticking mostly to basics.

Now, they say, after a full offseason together, they’ll show us far more.

Whether Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker is at quarterback, we’ll see Palmer implement run-and-shoot concepts while using two tight ends or a fullback. He’ll look to regularly threaten teams deep with what can be a great compliment of pass-catchers: Kenny Britt (presuming he’s healthy and available), Nate Washington, rookie Kendall Wright, Damian Williams, Chris Johnson, Jared Cook and Taylor Thompson.

If the evolution into more of a passing offense pans out, Johnson should get more space when he takes a handoff, and that should help him rebound from a disappointing 2011 season. He’s looked better after participating fully in the Titans' offseason activities for the first time.

Defensively, Gray is looking to allow some players to excel in narrow roles in specific situations. Akeem Ayers, for example, should get to show off his rush skills by lining up as an end in a special rush package. Ideally, free safety Michael Griffin will play more in center field, where he's best.

Do Palmer and Gray have enough people to do what they want? And does what they want to do work? Progress seemed steady in the first couple weeks of camp, but there are still questions to answer.

THREE HOT ISSUES

The quarterback battle: It hasn't drawn the spotlight one might have expected, because it’s friendly and doesn’t pit good versus evil on any level.

The Titans drafted Locker eighth overall in 2010 to be their starter -- for a long time, they hope. It’s not a matter of if he gets into the lineup, but when. If he can take advantage of game situations to show improved accuracy and make plays from the pocket as well as on the move, Locker certainly has a chance to displace Hasselbeck now. He was better by at least a bit in the preseason opener and will start the second game Friday night at Tampa Bay.

But the team feels it’s going to compete for a playoff spot now, and the younger, less experienced quarterback comes with a learning curve. If coaches feel Hasselbeck has a mastery of the offense and is playing effectively, it might be difficult to make the switch heading into an opening month that looks very challenging.

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
AP Photo/Wade PayneLinebacker Kamerion Wimbley looks to be an asset on the field and in the locker room.
The pass rush: Everything the Titans' defense wants to do can blossom out of a more productive pass rush. Gray came to the team determined to beef up the D and get back to run-stopping basics. The Titans certainly want to maintain that theme, but they need a better pass rush to go with it.

They hired Keith Millard to coach not a position but a skill: rushing the passer. I like the concept, but Millard was in Tampa last year and they were a bad pass-rush team. It also has to make you wonder a bit about the pass-rush education defensive linemen were getting from position coach Tracy Rocker.

Kamerion Wimbley looks like a potential difference-maker, but the other projected/expected starter at end, Derrick Morgan, is hardly locked in as a threat yet. He’s been working behind 2011 practice-squader Pannel Egboh recently.

The interior includes very intriguing rush guys in Karl Klug and rookie Mike Martin, and has some depth. Ayers is slated to scoot up and work as an end in some nickel situations, perhaps shifting Morgan inside. However, what hear about Ayers' versatility and what I see from him don’t match up yet.

Britt: A suspension under the personal-conduct policy is looming for Britt after a DUI arrest at a military base. He has not shown he's learned from mistakes and turned into a better decision-maker. And he’s still on the physically-unable-to-perform list, recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered early last season and subsequent cleanup procedures. When healthy and available, Britt is an absolutely tantalizing receiver who can make everyone else’s matchups more advantageous.

His recent rehab work makes him look close to ready. His recent meeting with the commissioner makes us expect an announcement soon about some time on the shelf. Once that’s over, he has to settle down and show up every week while not giving the team cause for concern when he’s away from the facility.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

One big reason the Titans didn’t think cornerback Cortland Finnegan was worth the money he got as a free agent from St. Louis is that his brand of professionalism didn't match up with the team's. Finnegan was beyond feisty at times, and a surly mood and an ego that prompted him to leave the team for a day during camp in 2011 in a contract dispute weren’t things the Titans could overlook.

Know what to do and do it. That’s Munchak’s basic requirement of his players. In guard Steve Hutchinson and Wimbley, the Titans added two more standard-bearers of a message other players should continue to respect and respond to.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Estimating who will be good and who won’t in advance of a season is fraught with peril, but it’s hard not to do. Look at the Titans' first four games and it’s hard not to foresee trouble. The Patriots visit on opening day; any game against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady is a major challenge. Then a trip to San Diego, where the Titans have long struggled. Detroit brings burgeoning quarterback Matthew Stafford to Tennessee before the Titans travel to Houston to face the division favorite.

With their current questions, it’s hard to envision the Titans ripping off a good start against that early schedule. But the league’s unpredictability is its best feature, so the quality of that four-pack is not written in permanent marker.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Titans have invested a lot of time and energy into Rusty Smith, and I don’t doubt they like their third quarterback. It’ll be hard to justify a roster spot for him, though. Third quarterbacks are a luxury, and both Locker and Hasselbeck should be on the team in 2013.
  • Johnson seemed to be back to form in practices, but it’s hard to gauge running backs in practices. He was awful in limited action in the preseason opener at Seattle, failing to press the hole and appearing completely disinterested in the passing game, where he had two drops. That was enough to officially put him back in the “major concern” department for me.
  • Dave Ball contemplated retirement after dealing with another concussion last year. He had another early in camp and is likely fading on the depth chart while missing time. Egboh should be the third end, and guys like rookie Scott Solomon and veterans Leger Douzable and Keyunta Dawson give the Titans some alternatives.
  • [+] EnlargeMike Martin
    Jim Brown/US PresswireRookie Mike Martin helps with pass rushing depth -- and could yet displace veteran Shaun Smith.
    Beau Brinkley is in line to be the long-snapper. The rookie right end out of Missouri takes over for veteran Ken Amato, who was not re-signed after filling the role since 2003. So far, so good for Brinkley, who’s been invisible through camp and a preseason game, which is what you want from a guy in that role.
  • Martin, a third-round pick from Michigan, has gotten some work with the first team and figures to be another piece in a talented group of interior linemen. Though he gives up nearly 20 pounds to Shaun Smith, he could help knock the veteran off the roster. Smith has worked hard at becoming more of a penetrator and turned quiet rather than being the boisterous guy of last season, but his changes may have come too late. The Titans brought him in last year as they tried to get bigger, but had to know he was a space-eater who wasn’t programmed to get into the backfield the way they want tackles to.
  • If Britt is healthy and somehow avoids suspension for his off-field transgressions, he certainly should be an opening-day starter. But if Britt isn't available, I won’t be surprised if Williams is ahead of first-round pick Wright against the Patriots on Sept. 9 at LP Field. Williams has become increasingly assertive and knows what to do, while Wright could need some time to bring an expanded repertoire onto the field.
  • Cook is the more explosive receiver, so he gets talked about. But the Titans’ other top tight end, Craig Stevens, is underrated. He’s a good blocker who may not have receiver speed, but can get open and make some catches when called on.
  • Weakside linebacker Will Witherspoon is a quality veteran guy in the locker room. But he comes and goes as a playmaker. Second-round pick Zach Brown brings tremendous speed. I don’t think he’ll dislodge Witherspoon from the job at the start. He may earn a role in covering tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates, Brandon Pettigrew and Owen Daniels -- players the Titans will be game-planning against in their first month. Tennessee has had some major issues recently covering top tight ends.
  • The Titans have a find in cornerback Jason McCourty, who is going to be good as their lead guy and will help reshape the tone of the defensive backs meeting room. I actually feel better about him and Alterraun Verner as the team’s starting cornerbacks than I do about Griffin and Jordan Babineaux as the safeties. My suspicion is that good offenses are going to find plays down the middle of the field.

Camp Confidential: Lions

August, 11, 2012
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions improved in each of their first three seasons under general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz, progressing from 2-14 to 6-10 to last season's 10-6 playoff campaign. So as they moved through training camp this summer, it was fair to ask: What's next?

"Every team wants to be a champion," receiver Nate Burleson said. "But now we just have to prove we can be consistently [good]. That's the most important thing. We're not that team yet that everybody looks at year in and year out and says we're going to be a contender. We don't have the consistency yet to give off that perception to people outside this facility.

"We don't want to be the team that falls back and be the team that makes mistakes. We don't want to be that successful team that ends up shooting ourselves in the foot halfway through the season."

A few days at training camp revealed the Lions are once again a genuine playoff contender, one whose structure is so routine that coaches had the entire scheme installed in three days. Discussion of an embarrassing offseason has faded, leaving the Lions to focus their attention elsewhere.

Mathematically speaking, the next step for this franchise would be its first-ever NFC North title. But the Lions instead have spent the summer working to shore up the flaws that got them bounced from the 2011 postseason.

"Our goal is to make the playoffs," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "Once you get in the playoffs, you've got a chance to be in it and go win it. You've seen that it doesn't matter whether you win your division or not. It's good to be fighting tooth and nail and trying to find a way to get in. Once you get in, anything can happen. We want to go back to the playoffs and do something when we get there."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJohn Wendling
Carlos Osorio/AP PhotoEarly in the preseason, it appears John Wendling will be the Lions' starting safety.
1. Secondary holes: The Lions had one of the NFL's worst pass defenses over the final six weeks of last season, partially because of injuries to cornerback Chris Houston and safety Louis Delmas. Houston has returned healthy, but Delmas had surgery last week on his left knee and might miss the preseason.

Meanwhile, safety Amari Spievey's camp performance has been uneven enough to allow veteran John Wendling to supplant him as a starter. The Lions are also working to find a replacement starter for released cornerback Aaron Berry, and the most optimistic turn of camp has been the emergence of rookie Dwight Bentley.

In all, the project to repair one of the Lions' primary 2011 weaknesses remains a work in progress.

"It really doesn't matter what they look like in practice," Schwartz said. "It's how they play in games. These next … preseason games will go a long way toward determining how we feel about those guys and how they practice every day and things like that, not what they've done in the past. We’ve got some quality guys back there."

2. On-field judgment: The Lions' issues with penalties last season have been well-documented, and players said Schwartz has been much more vocal during practice to discourage such easily preventable mistakes. At one point last week, right tackle Gosder Cherilus was removed from a team drill after jumping offsides.

"If you do have penalties, you're going to get it," Houston said. "He's going to yell at you."

Meanwhile, it was worth noting that rookie linebacker Tahir Whitehead kept his composure when veteran center Dominic Raiola whacked his helmet after getting tripped. Several defensive players surrounded Whitehead to prevent any escalation, but Schwartz was pleased with Whitehead's response and how quickly order was restored.

"I think that that's a good step, particularly a rookie like Tahir," Schwartz said, "to be able to show restraint and keep focus even when guys were competing. The biggest thing is not letting those things get a hold of you, and I thought that Tahir did a very good job in that situation."

We're not going to declare the Lions a changed team based on one instance where cooler heads prevailed. But camp usually is when the tenor of a team is set. And even if you don't buy that theory, consider it this way: A focused camp where players are concentrating on their assignments is preferable to one where fighting and other chaos breaks the routine.

3. Health at running back: After months of discussion about the potential of a full-strength backfield, the Lions have yet to get Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure on the practice field together. Best remains on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, still not cleared to practice, and Leshoure has missed most of camp because of a strained hamstring.

Leshoure is expected to return to practice next week, but for now the Lions' most likely Week 1 starter is veteran Kevin Smith. In many ways, Smith is an ideal option when a team's top two running backs are sidelined. He keeps himself in excellent condition and once again showed in camp that he is well-versed in the Lions' offense.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

In this era of NFL passing efficiency, any team with a quarterback like Stafford, a receiver like Calvin Johnson and a cast of complementary players at tight end (Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler) and receiver (Nate Burleson and Titus Young), will be competitive. Just as significant to the Lions' hopes, however, is the consistency of their program.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Tim Fuller/US PresswireQB Matthew Stafford & Co. have developed some consistency that should benefit the Lions this year.
Like Schwartz, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham are both entering their fourth seasons with the Lions. Special teams coordinator Danny Crossman joined the team in 2010. That means the Lionshave to teach their scheme only to the handful of newcomers they welcomed onto their roster and can spend more of training camp focused on higher matters.

"It's tough for a rookie probably to jump in," Stafford said, "but the whole playbook is in about three or four days. We have a lot of returning starters who know what to do, and it's on the rookies to pick it up along the way."

Schwartz noted that there are always new wrinkles to work on and adjustments to make, but added: "Our first day of training camp, if we had to go play a game, we probably would have been able to call an entire game on offense, defense and special teams. It gives you a little more leeway. You don't have to start over and you don't have to put things in."

REASON FOR PESSIMISSM

The Lions are a good, playoff-caliber team that plays in what might be the NFL's toughest division. Nothing I saw at training camp pointed to anything other than continued progress toward elite status. The Lions' biggest problem is they will fight for a playoff-caliber record in a division that contains two similar teams, the Packers and Bears.

The Lions are 2-10 over the past three seasons against the Packers and Bears. Conventional wisdom suggests they will have to beat out at least one of those teams in the NFC North standings to earn a second-consecutive playoff berth.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • It seems odd to move through a training camp snapshot without mentioning the player who had one of the best seasons for a receiver in NFL history last year. Johnson looked, well, like Johnson -- a man among boys. Earlier this summer, Burleson said he thought Johnson looked stronger and faster than ever. When I dipped into a media scrum surrounding Burleson's locker last week, he was suggesting that Johnson could outrun Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt if he trained as a sprinter rather than a football player. I'm not sure if Burleson was joking or not.
  • We're almost numb to seeing Johnson make inhuman catches, but we're still getting used to the third portion of the Lions' trio of top receivers. Young, by all accounts, has had an excellent camp. Thursday, I watched him meet a low throw in textbook fashion, snatching it just before it hit the ground with both hands. By grabbing the ball and not diving, Young stayed on his feet and used sideline footwork to earn a first down. "He's always been a very skilled player," Schwartz said. "Very good hands. He's an important player in our offense. … He's a guy that missed all of training camp last year. He had very, very few practices. So this is really his first training camp. We are seeing good signs from him, but also continued development. It's not just flashes. It's been a lot more consistency."
  • The Lions are still working through options to find the best place for second-year defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who is spending time at both defensive tackle and at defensive end in a new "Grey" scheme. Fairley is fully healthy for the first time since breaking his foot last August. When I asked Schwartz if he's seen the player the team thought it had when he was drafted, he said: "I don't want to read too much into practice. He's running well. He's strong. He's still developing in our scheme. This is a very important preseason to evaluate him. Last year even when he was playing with us, he was never 100 percent. He is now, and this will be a good preseason for him to show that."
  • We have often joked in our SportsNation chats about the relative lack of recognition Stafford received after a 5,038-yard, 41-touchdown season. So I laughed when asking Stafford if he had allowed himself a moment to feel good about a 5,000-yard season, he said: "I mean, it means nothing at all. Shoot, I don't even think half the league even knew it happened. It doesn't matter to me."
  • Familiarity with Linehan's offense provides at least one advantage: Players are more likely to know multiple positions, allowing them to rotate more often and minimize defensive adjustments. "At this point," Burleson said, "we know the offense and we know each other's positions. Now we can make it even that much more difficult to guard us by the moving [Johnson] around, moving myself around, moving Titus around, so you can't look at the depth chart and know where we're going to line up day in and day out."
  • Rookie first-round pick Riley Reiff got some first-team work at left tackle, where he will probably replace Jeff Backus one day. But there are no indications that Cherilus is in danger of losing his job, giving the Lions a better backup option than most teams have if a starting left tackle or right tackle is injured.
  • The Lions are hosting a punting competition for the second consecutive season, but no favorite has emerged. Ryan Donahue, who opened last season as the Lions' punter, is competing against the player who replaced him after a quadriceps injury, Ben Graham.

Camp Confidential: Dallas Cowboys

August, 10, 2012
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OXNARD, Calif. -- The one-on-one confrontations drawing the most attention these days in Dallas Cowboys training camp are the ones between running back DeMarco Murray and linebacker Sean Lee. Each of Dallas' young, serious, budding stars sees the other as a daily personal challenge. Murray is determined to finish every run as far downfield as he can, and Lee is determined to make that as difficult as possible. The action is so good, coach Jason Garrett said, that he's using Lee and Murray as examples for the rest of the team: "Look at the way this guy works. Look at the way this guy practices."

The fact that Garrett's examples, in this case, are a third-year linebacker and a second-year running back says a great deal about where the Cowboys are as a franchise. Yes, of course they want to win in 2012. But the sense you get when you spent time around this team is that they're all focused on building a successful and sustainable long-term future.

"Those young guys we have came in right away and just started molding themselves as impact players," star linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "Those are the guys that are going to be here and be that team. And right now, our veteran guys are still in our prime, along with the guys who are going to take your place eventually. So I think we have the building blocks that we need, and I feel like we have that total team this year."

This year could go either way for a Cowboys team that still has questions about its defense, its offensive line and its depth in general. But those who focus only on 2012 and wonder whether Garrett or quarterback Tony Romo would be in trouble if Dallas doesn't reach the playoffs are missing the point. Garrett is, increasingly, in control of the way this team is being put together. And his long-range vision has the support of owner Jerry Jones, who longs for a return to the 1990s dynasty days.

"We're trying to build our football team for 2012, but we're also trying to build a football program," Garrett said. "To put a program in place that's going to have sustained winning for years to come. 'Build' is an important word for us. It's something we've talked about a lot this offseason. I think the values that I have are shared by the people in our organization. We've done it a lot of different ways with the Cowboys through the years, but I would argue that the football character of the Super Bowl teams in the '90s was outstanding. They loved to play football. They worked hard at it. There was great spirit to them. They loved it and they worked hard at it and they understood what 'team' was."

By trying to prioritize character and makeup when choosing which players to draft or sign, Garrett believes the Cowboys are giving themselves the best possible chance to replicate that 1990s vibe. Of course, there's one very important thing this year's team can do to contribute to the long-term goals.

"We've put the good work in when it comes to foundation, but it doesn't mean anything unless we win," Lee said. "We need to win in big situations. We need to get to the playoffs. We need to compete for Super Bowls every year if we want to be a legitimate team. I think we have the character and the talent to do it, but it's a matter of putting it on the field."

THREE HOT ISSUES

Tyron Smith and Bill Callahan
AP Photo/James D SmithTyron Smith, left, will be moving from right to left tackle along the Cowboys' reshuffled offensive line.
1. The offensive line. For all of the well-deserved heat the defense took during last season's collapse, the offensive line was a year-long problem. The Cowboys couldn't find any kind of decent mix on the interior, where they're still struggling with health, strength and the center-quarterback exchange. Phil Costa returns as a somewhat underwhelming starting center, and the hope is that veterans Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings will solidify the guard spots, but to this point they have not. Doug Free struggled so much at left tackle last year that he's been moved back over to the right side, while 2011 first-round pick Tyron Smith has moved to the left. Smith was outstanding as a rookie, and there's little reason to believe he won't be able to handle the transition, but the other four spots on the line remain question marks.

That Romo was able to post big numbers last year behind a struggling line last year says a lot about him, and the Cowboys will once again count on their quarterback to cover some of those weaknesses. But they must be able to protect him, and to open holes for Murray in the run game. NFL history is littered with teams that had great quarterbacks, running backs and receivers but were done in by bad offensive lines. If the Cowboys want to avoid becoming another of those teams, they need to find a serviceable mix of linemen at some point in August.

2. Corner-ing the market. Garrett says that the first thing the Cowboys do when constructing their roster is identify the "money positions" -- the spots on which they're willing to commit major resources. For Dallas, these are quarterback, offensive tackle, pass-rusher, playmaking wide receiver and cornerback. Given that, it's no surprise that they attacked cornerback hard this offseason. They signed free agent Brandon Carr to a huge contract and traded their first-round and second-round draft picks for Morris Claiborne. That's committing major resources to one position, and the Cowboys' hope is that they can build their 2012 defense around two great man-coverage cornerbacks.

"No pressure, right?" Carr joked when asked about the responsibility he carries as the big free-agent signing. "I like it. I came from Kansas City, where we played a lot of man-to-man, and with this front seven we have here we should have an opportunity to go out there and challenge receivers and make plays on the ball."

Claiborne missed the offseason program while recovering from wrist surgery, and a knee problem has kept him off the field for the early part of training camp. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will be able to do a lot of creative things with his defensive front if he can count on Carr and Claiborne being effective in man coverage, so the Cowboys would like to see Claiborne on the field as much as possible this preseason so he can get up to speed on the NFL game.

3. Winning when it counts. The Cowboys lost four of their last five games in 2011, including two to the Giants, and finished one game behind the first-place Giants in the NFC East. It's not hard to figure out what they need to do better.

"That's why we didn't end up making the playoffs and that's why the Giants went on -- because they could make big plays in big situations," Lee said. "We need to be able to do that and be more consistent with it."

Lee, Ware and the linebacking corps look like a bunch of playmakers. The Cowboys think their new cornerbacks can be playmakers. They know Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Miles Austin can be playmakers on offense. But as Lee says, they just need to do it. Austin can't lose the ball in the lights on third down in the home game against the Giants. Somebody besides Ware needs to come up with a sack every now and then. If the Cowboys' lesson of 2011 is that they need to be tougher in big spots, they'll get plenty of 2012 chances to show whether or not they learned it.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Dez Bryant and Tony Romo
Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty ImagesDez Bryant, left, and Tony Romo are among the many playmakers the Cowboys have on offense.
The Cowboys' front-line talent is very good. Romo, Bryant, Austin and Witten all rank among the top players at their positions on offense, and Ware is probably the best defensive player in the entire league. There's reason to believe a healthy Murray can be an outstanding runner, and the offense worked very well last year while he was healthy and starting. Lee looks like an emerging superstar on defense, and we've already talked about the corners. If they can get lucky and avoid major injuries to starters, the Cowboys have as much talent at key positions as anyone in the conference.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The flip side, of course, is that there isn't much depth behind those offensive stars. And guys like Austin, Bryant, Murray and Romo aren't always the picture of health. You can make the point that no team can sustain injuries to key starters, but the Cowboys especially look like a team for which everything really needs to go right. An early training-camp hamstring injury to Austin is a bad sign. Unless they're going to somehow find another Laurent Robinson in the wide receiver bargain bin, they need to keep Austin and Bryant on the field.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • There are interesting battles going on for spots on the defensive line, where Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears are seeing their roster spots challenged by the likes of Sean Lissemore and Clifton Geathers. With Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher looking like sure-thing starters, Josh Brent the likely backup at nose tackle, and third-round pick Tyrone Crawford in the mix as a situational pass-rusher, there may only be two more spots on the roster for defensive linemen.
  • Don't rule Ronald Leary out of the mix for a starting guard spot. He was undrafted, but the Cowboys like him a great deal and the competition at those spots is very much open at this point.
  • Bryant looks like the best player on the field at Cowboys practices. Simple as that. There is nothing football-related that's keeping him from being one of the best wide receivers in the league. Now, if they can just build him an apartment that's attached to the field so he never has to be away from it, they should be all set.
  • This time last year, everybody was worried about the third wide receiver spot, and they plucked Robinson out of nowhere to catch 11 touchdowns. With Robinson gone off to Jacksonville, fans are worried again, but the Cowboys aren't. Even if someone like Kevin Ogletree wins the spot and can't play the way Robinson did last year, they'll find a way to make up for his production. "You can fill it with the second tight end, you can fill it with the backs, and obviously with the third wide receiver," Witten said. "But I don't think it's just one guy. What Laurent did, it's hard for a No. 3 receiver to come in and do that. So I think it's got to be a combination."
  • Barry Church won a starting safety spot in the first week of camp. Yes, Brodney Pool was a disappointment, but part of the reason they cut him so early was that they liked what Church had shown them. So it appears he'll start at safety along with Gerald Sensabaugh. If he can transfer his early-camp performance into real games, that'd be a big bonus for the secondary -- whether or not those corners are locking people down in man coverage.
  • The linebacker group looks like a real strength, even inside. Lee is a big-time playmaker, and both Dan Connor and Bruce Carter have been performing well as they fight for the other starting inside linebacker job. Still not sure if Anthony Spencer can improve as a pass-rusher enough to give them a credible threat opposite Ware, but they should be tough to move the ball against in the middle of the field.
  • The switch from left tackle to right tackle could take a little time for the ultra-talented Tyron Smith. He played right tackle in college and is working on retraining himself on things as simple as which foot to move first. I expect he'll get it figured out in time.
  • The talk early in camp was of using Bryant on punt returns and backup running back Felix Jones on kick returns. The Cowboys have been hesitant to use Bryant on returns because of his value to the passing game, so they're looking at other options. But none is as potentially game-changing as Bryant is with the ball in his hands.
CINCINNATI -- The Bengals' focus this year isn't on battling history. They're quite aware of the franchise's failure to put together back-to-back winning seasons since 1981-82, even though only five players on the current roster were alive at that time.

Coming off a surprising 9-7 season and a trip to the playoffs, Cincinnati has its sights set straight ahead. Way ahead. The players walk around the locker room with shirts that read "DNO." It means Destination: New Orleans, the site of this season's Super Bowl.

"Our guys know that there is more beyond just qualifying for the playoffs," coach Marvin Lewis said. "We all experienced the Houston game and knew what the flight back felt like."

Seven months after that playoff loss in Houston, the Bengals have put together one of the best teams in Lewis' 10 years in Cincinnati. Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green are entering their second seasons as the foundation of the offense. The defense, which ranked No. 1 at one point last season before finishing seventh overall, returns all but two starters.

On paper, this team should produce another winning season, contend for the division title and return to the playoffs. But can this franchise deliver consistency for the first time in three decades?

"I can say all I want to right now. But, to be quite honest, until that first snap on Monday night, we’ll never know," said cornerback Leon Hall, who was on the 2010 team that finished 4-12 after winning the division the previous season. "I’m confident in the team that we have that we can have back-to-back winning seasons and get to the playoffs. But there are a lot of teams that look like an All-Star team, and they don’t do very well. Nobody is walking around like they own everything around here. I think we’re still a humble team, and we work pretty hard."

THREE HOT ISSUES

Armon Binns
AP Photo/Al BehrmanArmon Binns may not be the most physically gifted receiver on the Bengals' roster, but he could be a starter on opening day.
1. Who's the No. 2 wide receiver? Dalton doesn't think there will be one receiver who will start opposite Green. He envisions a receiver-by-committee setup with Brandon Tate, Armon Binns and Mohamed Sanu. Tate had an impressive offseason, which is why he's listed atop the depth chart. Binns, a practice squad player from a year ago, has the size at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. Sanu, a rookie third-round pick, has the most intriguing upside.

"Right now, the way they’ve performed, I have no reservation whatsoever of anybody coming in there," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "My play calling won’t alter one bit if Sanu, Armon or Tate is out there."

Although Tate has become the early favorite and Sanu is probably the future at this spot, don't be surprised if Binns is the starter for the season opener at Baltimore. Binns lacks the flash of Jerome Simpson, last year's No. 2 target, but he's a much more reliable route runner. Regardless, tight end Jermaine Gresham will be the No. 2 target behind Green.

2. Uncertainty in the secondary. A run of injuries and the unexpected release of strong safety Chris Crocker has made the secondary the biggest question mark on a defense that finished ninth in points allowed last season. Only cornerback Leon Hall and free safety Reggie Nelson are guaranteed spots. The other starter at cornerback has been determined by who's healthy. Nate Clements (abdominal strain), Dre Kirkpatrick (leg), Adam Jones (hamstring), Jason Allen (undisclosed), Brandon Ghee (wrist) and Shaun Prater (knee) all have missed time in training camp.

The Bengals are trying both Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles at strong safety, but neither has distinguished himself in the offseason or training camp. Perhaps that's the reason Cincinnati has given Clements, a 12-year cornerback, some reps at safety. Moving Clements would allow the Bengals to get their top four defensive backs on the field. The Bengals believe Terence Newman, who was pushed out of Dallas after nine seasons, still has some productive years left at cornerback. Newman has ties with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who was Newman's coordinator in his first four seasons with the Cowboys.

3. Will Dalton suffer a sophomore slump? Dalton and Cam Newton became the first rookie quarterbacks to reach the Pro Bowl since Vince Young in 2006. Young followed up that season with 17 interceptions the next year, causing some to wonder whether Dalton will stumble in his second season as well.

"You definitely hear it. If you turn on the TV, everybody is talking about me and Cam and is there going to be a sophomore slump," Dalton said. "I don’t see that happening. For me, I feel like it’s the second year and you’ve got that year of experience. You know what’s going on. You should be even better going into Year 2. That’s how I’m treating it."

It hasn't been the smoothest offseason for Dalton. He spent most of the spring defending his arm strength and then struggled for the first couple of days in training camp. Dalton has turned it around in camp, where he has been connecting on some deep shots downfield to prove his point. "I wouldn’t be a starting quarterback if my arm strength was such an issue," he said.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The Bengals are a much better team than the one that shockingly made the playoffs last season. Few teams had a better draft and free-agency period than Cincinnati. Although the Bengals didn't make a big-money splash, they upgraded several key positions.

The biggest improvement should come in the running game, which ranked 27th last season in yards per carry. Instead of re-signing Cedric Benson, Cincinnati added former Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who provides more dependability (no fumbles in his four-year NFL career) and a much-needed punch in the red zone. (His 24 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons led New England.) The Bengals addressed the guard position, which was their weakest spot, by drafting Kevin Zeitler in the first round and signing Panthers free agent Travelle Wharton.

Cincinnati brought in defensive depth by adding former first-round picks in free agency: Terence Newman, Jason Allen and Jamaal Anderson. "We took opportunity to get good veteran players who fit what we do and fit to our guys," Lewis said. This doesn't even take into account that Dalton and Green enjoyed their first full offseason with the team this year and that defensive end Carlos Dunlap is primed for a breakout season.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The Bengals went 0-7 against playoff teams last season, which prompted skepticism in their turnaround. Cincinnati has to beat the Ravens and Steelers to win the division, and that's been a major obstacle the past two seasons. The Bengals have lost seven straight to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, scoring a meager 14.1 points per game during that skid.

"Last year, we were in every game we played against them except for that one game against Pittsburgh [a 35-7 loss in December]," Dalton said. "For me, I know I turned the ball over a couple of times that hurt us, but we were close. This is one of the toughest divisions in football. We have to play our best each week."

In four games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Dalton had an 0-4 record with four touchdowns and five interceptions. Against the rest of the NFL, he was 9-3 with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

OBSERVATION DECK

    Carlos Dunlap
    AP Photo/Al BehrmanAfter an impressive training camp, Carlos Dunlap could be an every-down player this season.
  • I've visited Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati, and Dunlap has been the most dominant defensive player in practice. He spent as much time in the backfield as Cincinnati's running backs. As long as he continues to be this explosive, Dunlap will achieve his goal of being an every-down player this year.
  • Hall has looked impressive in coming back from a season-ending Achilles injury. He is not hesitant making sudden cuts on the field, which was apparent when he covered the slot receiver. Trusting the Achilles is usually a big mental hurdle to overcome.
  • When Green-Ellis gets the ball, he rarely cuts to the outside. He thrives on being a tough, inside-the-tackles runner. But the most impressive part of his game has been his pass protection.
  • Defensive tackle Geno Atkins, aka Geno Sacks in the locker room, was limited this week in camp after limping off the field Tuesday. It's not considered serious, but he's the one player in the front seven that Cincinnati can't afford to lose. Atkins, whose 7.5 sacks were tied for the best among all NFL interior linemen, is special in his ability to collapse the pocket.
  • The Bengals believe that Rey Maualuga struggled in his first season as an NFL middle linebacker because he wanted to be too much like Dhani Jones. "In Dhani’s case, he was so smart. He knew every single person’s job," Maualuga said. "[Zimmer] told me that he didn’t want me to be Dhani or Ray Lewis. I tend to worry about other people’s responsibilities instead of worry about myself."
  • The Bengals' offensive linemen certainly make an impression when they break the huddle. Every starter is at least 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds.
  • Backup running back Bernard Scott was expected to be involved in a running back-by-committee situation this season, but he's been sidelined by a hand injury. That will allow special-teamer Cedric Peerman to get a lot of carries in the first couple of preseason games.
  • Andrew Hawkins, who is the top slot receiver on the team, isn't comfortable being a returner. "I’m a work in progress. I’m new to it," he said. "The more reps you get, the better you get at everything." The safer option seems to be Tate, last year's returner, especially if he comes up short in the battle to be the team's No. 2 wide receiver.
  • Jordan Shipley, who is behind Hawkins as the slot receiver, doesn't appear to have enough burst to get separation from defenders in man coverage. Coming off season-ending knee surgery, Shipley is best at finding soft spots in zone defenses. He needs a strong preseason to get off the bubble.
  • The Bengals' coaching staff is extremely high on undrafted rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the one-time first-round prospect. Playing at a much lighter weight than he did at Arizona State, Burfict is always around the ball in camp.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- You would think there was a playoff game at Gillette Stadium this week.

In front of a packed house, the New England Patriots hosted the New Orleans Saints for a pair of high-quality joint practices. Even famous musician Jon Bon Jovi and supermodel (and Tom Brady's wife) Gisele Bundchen showed up for a glimpse of the action.

The talent on the practice field was immense. You had future Hall of Famers Brady and Drew Brees at quarterback, Pro Bowl tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham and two hungry defenses eager to improve. The tempo was fast and intense.

The Patriots could have easily practiced against themselves this week like the rest of the league. But there is a method to Bill Belichick's madness. It's Super Bowl or bust for New England. And even in August, the Patriots want to test themselves as much as possible against another playoff contender.

"We know that there are a lot of other great organizations and teams and players and coaches out there," Belichick explained. "It’s a good challenge every week, and certainly the Saints are one of the top teams in professional football. As I said, they're well-coached, they have great talent, good players, good scheme [and] they win a lot of games. We played against them two years ago, practiced against them two years ago in their championship season. There isn’t any team we have more respect for than the Saints from top to bottom."

The reigning AFC champions are loaded. Their roster is deeper and more talented than last year's team that finished 13-3. With the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL, the Patriots are expected to match or surpass last season's win total. Some pundits even believe a 16-0 regular season is within reach. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. How much better is the defense? The Patriots' defense has improved. New England was ranked 31st in total defense and 31st against the pass in 2011. So the Patriots cannot get much worse.

The Patriots invested all of their draft picks except a seventh-rounder in defense. The biggest coups were first-round picks Dont'a Hightower at linebacker and defensive end Chandler Jones. Both rookies received a lot of reps with the first team this week and appear to be learning fast. They also provide athleticism and aggressiveness to New England's front seven.

Second-round pick and defensive back Tavon Wilson also has looked better than advertised. Belichick received a lot of criticism for drafting Wilson that high when most projected him to be a fifth- or sixth-round pick. Free agent Steve Gregory also is New England's starting safety and is an upgrade over the rotating door New England had at the position last year.

With a high-powered offense, the Patriots don't need a top-10 defense. But if the defensive-minded Belichick can get this group in the top 20, New England will be very hard to beat.

"We're just trying to be aggressive and be competitive in everything out there," Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty said of improving. "From the front all the way throughout the secondary, guys are just trying to develop an attitude. Defense has a lot to do with attitude and how you approach the game, so we’re trying to keep attitude and trying to do it day in and day out."

[+] EnlargeNate Solder
Stew Milne/US PresswireSecond-year left tackle Nate Solder has shined early in Patriots training camp.
2. Who will man the offensive line? It is difficult to gauge the performance of the offensive line in training camp. About half of training camp practices are in shorts, and that significantly reduces contact in the trenches. But replacements need to be ready because four of New England's starters from last year are injured, retired or contemplating retirement.

New England's offensive line is a mash unit. Starting guards Logan Mankins (knee) and Brian Waters (personal reasons) have yet to practice with the team, and starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has a back injury. Longtime starting left tackle Matt Light retired, and so did free-agent signee Robert Gallery.

The Patriots are trying to find the right combination up front in training camp in preparation for Week 1 of the regular season. So far, the best lineman in camp has been second-year left tackle Nate Solder, who gained some starting experience last year in his rookie season.

Holdovers such as guard Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Marcus Cannon are all trying to carve out roles -- at least until starters Mankins, Vollmer and (maybe) Waters return. Brady and the Patriots will pass the football a lot this year. So development of the offensive line is important.

"We're going to play whoever is here, and whatever happens, we're going to be here working hard," Solder said this week.

3. Who will run the football? Dependable tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis bolted to the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency. That leaves second-year tailbacks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen trying to pick up the slack in 2012. Neither player has much experience. Ridley did pretty well in limited playing time his rookie year, amassing 441 yards and a touchdown. Vereen was injured most of his rookie season and wasn’t a factor.

Ridley has the inside track and has looked impressive. He has good vision and burst. Ball security has been the only question. But Ridley believes those were rookie mistakes that he will fix in Year 2.

"This year I'm going to go and do the best that I can to keep the ball high and tight," Ridley said. "I know that if I can keep the ball in my hands, I'm going to be on the field. So my work is cut out for me."

Backup running back Danny Woodhead also will assist Ridley and Vereen, particularly on third downs.

Reason for optimism

This is the best collection of talented skill players Brady has ever had. If everyone stays healthy, I do not see any reason why the Patriots cannot be near the top of the league in scoring and passing offense. New England should average at least 30 points per game.

Brady has a Pro Bowl tight end in Gronkowski, a Pro Bowl receiver in Wes Welker, a top-five tight end in Aaron Hernandez and a much-needed deep threat in Brandon Lloyd. The Patriots' passing game should be able to do it all. Brady can go underneath to Welker and Gronkowski or deep to Lloyd and Hernandez. It will be very difficult for opponents to game plan.

"We're not taking anything for granted," Brady said. "We're trying to come out and string practices together."

Reason for pessimism

I'm still not confident in New England's secondary. This was the weakest part of the Patriots last year, and 2012 could be a repeat.

Cornerbacks McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Sterling Moore and Ras-I Dowling all have question marks. The Saints’ offense had their way with New England’s corners during this week’s joint practices. No one among the Patriots’ corners made enough plays to really stand out.

Perhaps the biggest problem is New England's corners are not shutdown, man-to-man defenders. That forces New England to play a lot of zone to try to get stops. That leads to a bend-but-don’t-break mentality we saw last year.

Expect many opponents to attack New England's cornerbacks until this group proves it can cover and shut down receivers consistently.

OBSERVATION DECK

    [+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
    AP Photo/Robert E. KleinNot many tight ends have the athletic ability to be a punt returner. The Patriots' Aaron Hernandez does.
  • Speaking of McCourty, he is playing exclusively at corner in training camp. It shows the coaching staff is comfortable that McCourty will bounce back from a shoulder injury and poor play that led to a position change to safety late last season. McCourty is competing hard and trying to get back to his rookie form, when he made the Pro Bowl in 2010.
  • How athletic is Hernandez? New England is experimenting with its No. 2 tight end at punt return and running back. Hernandez did a good job running the football in New England's playoff win over the Denver Broncos. It was a nice wrinkle added by Belichick. Hernandez is elusive in the open field and has good hands. So returning punts could make sense as another way to get the ball in Hernandez's hands.
  • I'm not sure why more teams do not have joint practices in training camp. Both the Patriots and Saints gave rave reviews of how well things went this week. It was well organized, both teams got a lot of work done and there were no injuries. Most importantly, it is a change of pace from hitting your teammates the entire summer. In talking with players, they got a kick out of practicing against an unfamiliar opponent.
  • The Brady-to-Lloyd combination is still a work in progress. Brady missed Lloyd on several opportunities this week, as the first-time teammates continue to work on their chemistry. Lloyd is the best deep threat Brady has had since Randy Moss. Brady and Moss got on the same page quickly in their first season together. Brady hopes for the same results with Lloyd.
  • Keep an eye out for undrafted rookie defensive end Justin Francis. I wasn't familiar with the Rutgers product before my training camp visit. But after a few practices I noticed Francis stood out. Francis has a good motor and athleticism for a defensive end. Francis is a sleeper pick to make New England's 53-man roster. But he must show that he can translate his play on the practice field to the preseason games.
  • The No. 2 quarterback race between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett favors Hoyer at this stage of camp. Hoyer had a solid week of practice leading into Thursday's preseason opener. Hoyer was more accurate and made some nice throws. Mallett has a lot of physical ability but still has a lot to work on. He had trouble with taking some of the velocity off his passes when needed. The preseason games will matter most, but Hoyer has the lead so far.
  • Linebacker Bobby Carpenter has been a pleasant surprise for New England. The former first-round pick has underachieved at his previous stops in Dallas, Miami and Detroit. But Carpenter has fit in well as a backup linebacker for the Patriots in training camp and is in good shape to make the team. Carpenter even got a little work with the first team this week due to injuries.
ANDERSON, Ind. -- What’s next?

As the Indianapolis Colts begin a new era, the centerpiece of change is Andrew Luck.

The impressive rookie quarterback has been sitting in meetings, running through every piece of the offense. Coaches are always looking for acknowledgement that a player gets it before moving forward. Coaches often circle back and go over something again and again and again, but Luck has helped them pick up the pace.

“Everything we’ve given him to this point he’s been able to handle,” coach Chuck Pagano said. “He’s one of those guys that’s probably got a photographic memory or something like that. Because he just gets it. It’s not like you’ve got to come back and repeat something and give it again and give it again.

“The coaches will sit there and they’ll be installing the offense and they’ll be like, ‘Are you with me, do you understand it?’ And he’s like ‘Yeah, yeah, next thing up, next thing up.’ As a coach you’re always looking for affirmation: 'Do you understand? Do you get it?' He’s, ‘Yeah I’ve got it, what’s next? Yeah, I’ve got it, what’s next?’”

What’s next in bigger terms is a preseason debut Sunday against the St. Louis Rams at Lucas Oil Stadium, the continuation of training camp and the buildup to the Sept. 9 opener at Chicago.

As rebuilding teams around the league wonder if they’ve got the right quarterback, the Colts can skip right past that fundamental question.

Luck’s exceptional maturity extends to the practice field as well.

"The day I got him a couple times (with interceptions) at practice, he came up to me and [Antoine Bethea] and said, ‘If I’m tipping off anything presnap or y’all get any read off me during the course of a play, please let me know,’” said the Colts' top cornerback, Jerraud Powers. "'And just let me know if there is any way I can help y’all.'

“That right there, for a guy to be so young and able to realize that, it shows you what type of guy he’s going to be.”

Such interplay was completely natural for Luck.

“It’s been nice to talk to Antoine and Jerraud, maybe once a week, once every two weeks,” Luck said. “Any help I can get as a rookie that doesn’t know the ropes, I’ll try to take it.”

That timetable for learning the ropes is going to be the most interesting thing about the 2013 Colts.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeDwight Freeney
AP Photo/Michael ConroyLongtime defensive lineman Dwight Freeney will be adjusting to a new position in Chuck Pagano's 3-4 scheme.
1. How will Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis fare as outside linebackers? The transition is bigger for Mathis than Freeney. Per Mathis, he will be in the role Jarret Johnson played in the Ravens defense (now filled by Paul Kruger), while Freeney will be in the Terrell Suggs role. (Courtney Upshaw’s there now, while Suggs is out after shredding an Achilles.)

That means far more of an adjustment for Mathis, who will regularly be dropping into coverage as the strongside linebacker, while Freeney will be moving forward from the rush linebacker spot. They are great, veteran football players, and a smart defensive coach like Pagano would not put them into roles that take away their strengths.

But it will take a lot of repetition for them to break old habits and operate in different ways and hop around. Both are excited about being less predictable and expect big production as a result of the element of surprise. The energetic Mathis seems invigorated by the change as he talks enthusiastically about an “exotic” defense after playing in what could fairly be called a bland Tampa-2 scheme in recent years.

2. Can they run? Whether they try a bell-cow approach or a committee, it’s hard to envision Donald Brown, Mewelde Moore, Vick Ballard and/or Delone Carter providing the level of run-game output that Pagano and his staff keep emphasizing.

Also, will a patchwork offensive line with at least three new starters be able to make room for those backs? The Colts gained size with the addition of center Samson Satele, right guard Mike McGlynn and right tackle Winston Justice. But simply being bigger doesn’t complete the change to playing bigger. This is a team that has long had a smaller, more mobile, more finesse line and offensive mentality.

It’s yet another transition to be monitored, and one that was hard to read in the early days of camp.

3. Where is the depth? With massive roster turnover, the Colts could only do so much replenishing with one draft class and minimal money to spend in free agency. They didn’t get much done in terms of big-time additions at cornerback or on the offensive line.

Even if they manage to be alright at those spots in the starting lineup, the depth is very poor. When they suffer injuries and guys miss games, will they have quality backups?

Maybe they will on the defensive line. Maybe there are young options at receiver or running back. Otherwise, they’ll be facing some big problems. Good health would be a big help, but you can never count on that.

Sixty percent of the Colts' 90-man roster right now is new to Indianapolis. That can be a great thing when you’re talking about Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill and Cory Redding, but it’s not great when you’re talking about backups.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Chuck Pagano and Jim Irsay and Ryan Grigson
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThere's nowhere to go but up for the Colts' new regime: Chuck Pagano (left), Jim Irsay (center) and Ryan Grigson (right).
There is nowhere to go but up. Last year was a complete cave-in, and after a 2-14 year with Peyton Manning sidelined by a neck injury, owner Jim Irsay decided it was time for a restart. He booted the powerful head of the organization, Bill Polian, and ultimately changed coaches, too.

Enter general manager Ryan Grigson and Pagano. Manning was let go, and Luck arrived via the No. 1 overall draft pick.

It’s a fresh start in virtually every respect, and the team is swallowing a huge chunk of dead money this year. While no one wants to concede anything, the franchise more or less is playing with house money this year. Things will be better than last year, and as long as the Colts show growth, improvement and direction, it’s 2013 that will be big. That's when they’ll have money to spend on free agents and a second draft class with which to further restock.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Change can be slow. The expectations are high for Luck, but it’s a big transition, and beyond Reggie Wayne, we aren’t sure about his weapons. We have no real idea about how several groups will produce, especially the corners, offensive line and running backs.

While Houston has shown a transition to a 3-4 can be successful quickly, it’s far more common for a team to take time to adjust. The Colts don’t have nearly as many pieces who are natural fits for the scheme as the Texans did. Pagano wants a defense that looks like Baltimore’s, but it will take time to reshape things to fit that model.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Beyond Powers, we can’t be certain the guys who will play corner on opening day are on this roster yet. Maybe it’s Justin King and Cassius Vaughn, but the Colts will certainly be looking at other options who become free agents. Powers and others in the group have rallied around each other, which is what you want. You also want the group to turn over if it needs upgrading.
  • It’s hard to tell much at all about the running game at this point. But Pagano is determined for the Colts to run effectively, to ease pressure on Luck and the defense and establish a physical tone. Brown’s been touted as an every-down back, but it may be more encouragement/hype at this point. He’d like that role but will take whatever he’s given.
  • Antonio "Mookie" Johnson is the lead guy at nose tackle, with Brandon McKinney behind him. Johnson’s up 10 pounds to 330, but the Colts aren’t looking for a mere space-eater. Like the Texans last year in their first incarnation of the 3-4, Indianapolis can be fine without a dominant tackle. And when they go to nickel, they’ll basically look like a 4-3 again, with Freeney and Mathis creeping up to the line, sandwiching Redding, who is likely to kick inside, and perhaps tackle Drake Nevis.
  • I jokingly proposed a pool to the Colts' beat writers with the money to be collected by the guy who prompted anyone within the organization to say anything remotely negative about Luck. They said it would have to exclude Luck himself. That’s great. When you’re the linchpin of an organization and everyone is going to constantly rave about you, even if it’s deserved, you do yourself a great service by being consistently self-critical.
  • Austin Collie is starting off as the No. 2 receiver in a base offense that now features two tight ends. But he will move around, spending time outside and in the slot when the Colts put an extra wideout on the field.
  • One spot that probably hasn’t gotten enough attention as a depth concern is quarterback. The Colts saw how much a bad backup plan can hurt last year, with Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky trying to fill Manning's shoes. Now, Drew Stanton is the guy behind Luck, and he wasn’t very good in the camp practices I watched. Will they look to upgrade as third quarterbacks around the league come free? Or will they feel like camp work for Stanton gives him an experience advantage?
  • I’m not sure how much the tension Polian cast over the organization reached players, but there is certainly a looser atmosphere around the team. When players' families sat on a hillside during a recent practice, one regular observer pointed out how they never would have been allowed there under the previous regime. Minor difference? Maybe, but I think a team with a broader circle of trust and more emphasis on family -- a Pagano and Grigson theme -- can be a healthier environment.
  • Watch Brazill as a punt coverage gunner. He’s had a lot of hands-on work with new special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf.
  • Allen looked excellent in early camp. He will move all over the place as part of Bruce Arians' two-tight end scheme and, like Fleener, can be an impact guy early.
SAN DIEGO -- With the outside perception of the San Diego Chargers taking a major tumble, the team, which for so long was built from the inside, changed philosophy in 2012 in a last attempt to keep that proverbial Super Bowl window from slamming shut and causing major upheaval in the organization.

After two playoff-less seasons and a reprieve from ownership, San Diego general manager A.J. Smith made an uncharacteristically heavy play in free agency. Taking advantage of one of the deepest classes in history, the Chargers nabbed more than a dozen free agents to infuse new life into a roster that was still talented but no longer arguably the stoutest in the NFL.

“I love what they have done around here,” said safety Eric Weddle, one of the Chargers' homegrown mainstays. “We hit the lowest of the lows the past two years by not making the playoffs. Getting new blood in here has helped.”

Among the veterans San Diego brought in were running backs Le'Ron McClain and Ronnie Brown, receivers Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal, linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin.

“The thing about the new guys is they all love football,” San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. “They love it. We need guys like that here. … It gives us a new start. Those guys won’t worry about the past. They weren’t here for the slow starts or the six-game losing streak last year. It’s all a new start.”

If this cleansing of the roster doesn’t work, the next restructuring will likely occur up top with the firing of coach Norv Turner and possibly Smith. Yet, in a season of new beginnings, spirits are high.

“I think we can be special,” Weddle said. “There’s still a lot of talent here, with a bunch of new talent. … People may not be expecting much from us this year because we haven’t done anything, so that’s fair. But it’s kind of nice to be under the radar for once.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRyan Mathews
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireThe Chargers aim to lean even more heavily on running back Ryan Mathews this season.
1. Ryan Mathews' workload: Outside of Rivers, there is likely not a more important player in this camp than Mathews. The Chargers all know if Mathews flourishes in his third NFL season, the team will have a strong chance to be successful. Mathews, the No. 12 overall pick in 2010, had a solid second season as he ran for 1,091 yards and averaged a terrific 4.9 yards per carry. This year, the Chargers want to see Mathews become consistent and stay healthy. He will likely be given the chance to to carry the ball 25 times a game, catch several balls out of the backfield and be a factor on third down and in short yardage. This camp is designed to get him prepared for a heavy workload. From what I saw and heard, it seems like Mathews might be up to the task.

“He’s working hard,” Rivers said. “Ryan knows what is expected of him.”

2. Sparking the defense: While the offense in San Diego needs some tweaks, the bigger fixes are necessary on defense, where former linebackers coach John Pagano is in charge of fixing a unit that fell apart last season. He replaces Greg Manusky, who was fired after one season on the job. The biggest issue -- it is a major point of emphasis in camp -- is getting off the field on third down. San Diego was last in the NFL in third-down defense in 2011. It gave up a first down on 49.2 percent of all third downs -- according to ESPN Stats & Information, the worst percentage in the NFL since the 1995 Cleveland Browns. The Chargers have added several pieces to the defense and it has a chance to be much more active -- particularly on passing downs, when No. 1 pick Melvin Ingram will be given a chance to make an instant impact as a pass-rusher.

3. Protect the quarterback: The San Diego offensive line was in shambles for much of last season, and it was a big reason why Rivers struggled for the first 10 games. Mainly due to poor health, San Diego used 13 offensive linemen last season -- literally taking players off the street at one point in November. With Jared Gaither, claimed off waivers from Kansas City, solidifying the left tackle spot, the unit improved dramatically late in the season. Gaither was re-signed and is being counted on to protect Rivers’ blind side. The steady Tyronne Green takes over for the departed Kris Dielman. Green has fared well when he's had to play. If this unit remains in good health, it should protect Rivers well. If not, trouble could persist. So far, the unit looks good in camp.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The passing game looks to be top-notch. After a sloppy start to last season, Rivers finished 2011 strong. He has looked good in camp, and has an interesting group of receivers. Yes, standout Vincent Jackson is gone, but the Chargers have an ensemble group that includes Malcom Floyd, free-agent signees Meachem (New Orleans) and Royal (Denver) and second-year player Vincent Brown. Together, this group should offer Rivers plenty of help.

“We like what we have there,” Turner said. “We like all the pieces. We think we can get some things done in the passing game.”

If the Rivers-led passing attack is back at an elite level, the Chargers will be a threat to win every game. When Rivers is on, San Diego has a chance to score every time the offense hits the field.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The Chargers must prove they are totally past their doldrums. The team feels good about itself, but it does every summer. We will not know if San Diego is out of its funk until it’s out.

Yes, the depth looks good, but will it be enough if injuries pile up for a fourth consecutive year? Yes, cutting down on turnovers is a point of emphasis in camp, but once the season starts, will the hard work pay off or will the killer interceptions and fumbles continue?

It has gotten to the point where we can’t trust this team until it shows it is has indeed rebounded.

OBSERVATION DECK

    [+] EnlargeEddie Royal
    AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziReceiver Eddie Royal, an offseason pickup, appears to have clicked with Chargers QB Philip Rivers.
  • Tight end Antonio Gates is turning heads on a daily basis. After dealing with foot-related injuries for four years, Gates is finally completely healthy. He’s slimmed down and he is making a lot of plays. If his health remains, the 32-year-old should make a huge impact.
  • Denver might have lost interest in Royal, but there is a place for him San Diego. Expect Royal to get a lot of work. He has impressed the coaching staff this summer and I expect him to be as favorite a target for Rivers during the season as he has been this summer.
  • The Chargers love what they see in Johnson. He is tough, smart and excellent against the run. They think he can bump the defense up a notch.
  • Linebacker Donald Butler looks good after a strong 2011 season, which was essentially his rookie season because he was injured in 2010. He is just another fascinating young defensive piece on this team.
  • Undrafted rookie quarterback Jarrett Lee looks like a keeper. He got extra work because of a knee injury to Charlie Whitehurst. I could see Lee making this roster. The Chargers were burned last year when they tried to sneak undrafted rookie quarterback Scott Tolzien onto the practice squad; he was claimed by San Francisco. If Lee continues to impress, I think the Chargers will find room for him on the 53-man roster. They need to develop a young quarterback at some point and Lee might be it.

  • The Nate Kaeding-Nick Novak battle at kicker will go down to the wire. If Kaeding stays healthy and kicks well in the preseason, he should win the job.
  • The Chargers love the skill level of Meachem. Perhaps he was lost in the shuffle of the dynamic offensive weaponry in New Orleans. He’ll get his shot in San Diego.
  • The Chargers are pumped about McClain, a free-agent pickup from Kansas City. He will play a lot and should be in the mix for some carries. They like the veteran stability he brings to the offense.
  • Center David Molk, a seventh-round pick, is getting some second-team reps. He may have a future.
  • The Chargers are very happy with pre-camp signings Franklin and running back/special-teamer Jackie Battle. Though they both signed late, I see them both being contributors.
  • Keep an eye on ex-Chief Demorrio Williams. The linebacker has been a camp stud, boasting terrific speed. The Chargers like him in coverage.
  • The Chargers will keep their eyes open for help at certain positions, including cornerback and offensive line, as the summer progresses.
  • Third-round pick Brandon Taylor, a safety, might not make an instant impact, but Taylor has impressed and will get some valuable time behind veteran pickup Atari Bigby, who himself has been outstanding this summer.

  • Brown has been getting looks as the third-down back and will be an occasional Wildcat threat.
  • Running back Curtis Brinkley flashed talent at times last season, but because of the logjam at running back, he is a long shot to make the team.

  • Rookie tight end Ladarius Green has nice receiving skills. I can see him making an impact behind Gates and Dante Rosario (a very nice backup). Green, a fourth-round pick, needs to learn to block at an NFL level, but he has terrific hands and natural size.
  • Undrafted rookie tackle Mike Harris has taken advantage of an early camp injury to Gaither, getting some reps with the first team. The UCLA product has a chance to make the team. Rivers has joked that Harris has gotten more first-team reps than any undrafted rookie tackle in the history of the NFL.

Camp Confidential: New York Jets

August, 7, 2012
8/07/12
11:30
AM ET
CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Bart Scott just wouldn't stop talking.

The charismatic linebacker's mouth was running 100 miles per hour during New York Jets practice this past weekend. Scott got on the Jets' quarterbacks, Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez. Scott got on Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. Scott got under the skin of the offensive linemen.

No one was immune in training camp -- and Jets head coach Rex Ryan likes it that way.

"The funny thing is when you talk like that, it puts pressure on you to play well," Ryan explained. "You can tell that Bart feels great about himself, and he feels great about this team. That is why he is the way he is right now. He is all over everybody -- offense, defense, especially offense."

The Jets were humbled by last season's 8-8 record and late-season implosion. But if Scott's mouth is any indication, it appears this team is getting its swagger back.

There have been no Super Bowl predictions and no preseason talk of supplanting the New England Patriots in the AFC East this season. But watching the Jets practice, you sense this team has an edge to it. Sometimes that edginess goes overboard and leads to fighting among the players, which explains the reported 20-player scuffle the Jets had on Monday and a second fight on Tuesday.


The Jets undoubtedly will do damage this year. The question is, will they do more damage to themselves or their opponents? New York must first prove that this group is bonding and will no longer be "team turmoil" in 2012.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Can the Jets handle the Sanchez-Tebow dynamic? Even U.S. President Barack Obama has his concerns about the Jets’ two-headed monster at quarterback. Obama said he doesn’t think Tebow’s immense presence will be good for Sanchez. The Jets, however, say they're unfazed by Obama’s comments.

“He doesn’t play football for the Jets,” New York guard Matt Slauson said.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow, Mark Sanchez
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesTim Tebow is the backup, but there will be times when Mark Sanchez is the QB in the background.
But it is clear the Jets have to keep an eye on the Tebow effect all season. At New York’s teamwide scrimmage this past weekend, 9,200 fans packed in to watch, and Tebow received by far the loudest ovation. The loud cheers while Tebow entered the huddle for the first time had to bother Sanchez to some degree.

It appears Sanchez and Tebow get along fairly well. But things could become tense if Sanchez struggles early in the regular season.

2. Is chemistry still an issue? The Jets didn’t miss the playoffs last year because they lacked talent. New York missed the postseason for the first time under Ryan because they lacked togetherness and chemistry.

Things fell apart for the Jets in the locker room, and it showed on the field. Too often players weren’t on the same page, and Ryan admittedly dropped the ball in fixing those issues. It’s Ryan’s job to make sure those things no longer happen. But there already are ominous signs that the locker room could be combustible again in 2012. In addition to the reported scuffles, cornerback Antonio Cromartie created tension by claiming to be the second-best receiver on the team. These things add up. The Jets need to end the in-house silliness now before it shows up in the regular season.

Sanchez, a team leader, wasn’t particularly happy about the brawl that went down.

“At this point in camp, especially after the scrimmage, tempers flare,” Sanchez said. “That stuff happens; there’s no excuse for it. There’s no throwing the ball at a teammate. There’s no shoving the guy out of bounds into the signs. One, it doesn’t look good, and two, it sends the wrong message to our team. We want to take care of our guys.”

3. Who is the No. 2 receiver? Cromartie apparently thinks he's it. But despite his controversial comments, the Jets have to find other players to step into that role full time. Players such as Patrick Turner, Chaz Schilens, Jeremy Kerley and rookie Stephen Hill are all competing for the role to start opposite Santonio Holmes.

The Jets will rely more on the run than the passing game, but they must make the most of passing opportunities. Holmes’ rib injury will allow other receivers to get more reps. This is a golden opportunity for someone to emerge and provide another target for Sanchez.

Hill appears to have the best chance to fill this role long term. But it may take an experienced player such as Turner or Schilens to step up until Hill acclimates to the NFL.

[+] EnlargeBart Scott
AP Photo/Bill KostrounBart Scott and the New York defense hope to pick up where they left off last season.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM

As noted earlier, New York’s defense looks tremendous. The Jets were the most impressive defense of all the AFC East training camps we’ve visited in the past two weeks. The front seven is allowing few rushing lanes, and the cornerbacks are covering well, as expected.

“I feel great about the defense,” Ryan said.

It’s easy to forget that New York had a top-five NFL defense last year because the Jets didn’t play that way at times. But this defense thinks it can rank No. 1 in 2012. Based on what we’ve seen, that goal is not out of reach. New York’s defense doesn’t have many holes.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The Jets' passing game appears shaky, which could be a major issue for the team this season.

New York wants to ground-and-pound its way to victories. But the NFL is a passing league, and winning by running the ball 40 times is becoming increasingly more difficult. The Jets at some point will have to air it out if they want to score enough to win consistently. The defense is great. But New York can’t win every game 13-10 or 17-14. That puts too much pressure on one side of the ball, and the offense not holding up its end of the bargain is one issue that caused chemistry issues last year.

What if teams stack the box against tailback Shonn Greene and Tebow and the Wildcat? Can Sanchez make enough big throws to keep defenses honest? The Jets were 2-5 last year when Sanchez threw the football 35 or more times. Expect opposing defensive coordinators to keep that stat in mind when preparing for the Jets this year.

Sparano wants to play conservatively and win on the ground first. But defenses won’t make it easy. At some point this year, Sanchez and his receivers will be forced to win games, and this team might not have enough quality personnel to pass the football consistently.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Tebow admittedly never played special teams. But the backup quarterback and former Heisman Trophy winner looks like a natural in the third phase of the game. Tebow will serve as the punt protector, which gives the Jets options on fakes, as Tebow could run or pass on fourth down. Tebow also has been getting work on the kickoff team, and he looks good moving downfield and tracking the ball carrier.
  • New York’s starting offensive line and backups appeared to have been pushed around too often during our camp visit. That should be a concern for Jets fans. New York wants to establish a physical identity on offense, but the line has been unable to establish many running lanes against its defense. Granted, most defenses aren’t as good as New York’s. Preseason games will provide a better indication of where the Jets’ offensive line stands.
  • Hill needs to work on his consistency. There are days in practice when he is a nonfactor and others when he shows why he's a highly touted second-round pick. Hill beat Cromartie and Darrelle Revis on a pair of deep balls in practice in recent days. Yet Hill disappeared in Saturday's teamwide scrimmage. Hill has the physical tools; he just needs to sharpen his routes and bring strong effort consistently. “The route running is still coming. I’m not even going to say I’m perfect on it,” Hill said. “I’m still working and still learning on it. Revis and Cromartie are actually helping me on it, because they’re noticing I do certain things [to tip them off].”
  • One of the most impressive players during our visit to training camp was defensive end Aaron Maybin. The former first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills has really come into his own with the Jets. Last year, he recorded a career-high six sacks, and he looks even better in his second year in the system. Maybin says the “mayhem” is back, and it has looked that way in training camp. He had a sack and quarterback pressure in Saturday’s scrimmage.
  • It's difficult to get a feel for new Jets safety LaRon Landry. His action in camp remains limited because of last year’s Achilles injury that was never surgically repaired. Landry practices with the team about once every three days to stay fresh. He played in Saturday’s scrimmage but wasn’t tested much. The Jets have high expectations for Landry, so we're curious to see how well he moves in exhibition games.
  • Free-agent signing Yeremiah Bell is bringing exactly what the Jets expected at safety. He’s made some big hits and solid plays against the run, but he hasn’t been great in coverage. The combination of Bell and Landry on the back end means the Jets must do a lot of scheming to protect their safeties. That involves a lot of blitzing to get to the quarterback and playing Bell or Landry in the box.
  • The backup running back situation is interesting. Joe McKnight entered camp as the favorite because of his athleticism and experience. But relative unknown Bilal Powell has been outperforming McKnight. Powell has been more consistent, and McKnight still has a penchant for fumbling.
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- A year ago, as excitement swirled around the free-agent-happy Philadelphia Eagles and preseason predictions called for big things, something still didn't feel quite right.

"I didn't think the expectations were too high, but I knew that the timing might not match up as quickly as everyone wanted it to," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said after practice last week. "Because you would hear, 'Oh, they're going to be this, going to be that,' and then you'd come out in practice and you could see us blowing plays. Yes, we could be there, but we weren't there yet. That's what I was feeling in training camp. Right now in training camp, it feels completely different."

Last week, before the Eagles' training camp was rocked by Sunday's news of the death of coach Andy Reid's son Garrett, the atmosphere was serene and businesslike. The players have been practicing together since February, when Asomugha and quarterback Michael Vick were organizing players-only workouts at the University of Pennsylvania. And late July welcomed them to one of the hardest-hitting camps in the NFL. Their motivation is clear and simple -- they were 8-8 last year and believe they should have been better. They admit to being downright angry about the way the 2011 season went.

"Yeah, I think there's a determined effort to try to maximize our opportunity," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. "You see it from the players. You see it from the coaches. You see it from the support staff. And I think last year, maybe you underestimated how long it takes to acclimate."

No such issues or excuses this time around. This is basically the same group as last year's, with new guys at middle linebacker and left tackle. All of the coaches who were new to the team or their roles last year are back. All of the new schemes implemented last year by defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, defensive line coach Jim Washburn and offensive line coach Howard Mudd are familiar by now, and everybody should be more comfortable in them. If the Eagles flop again, there won't be anywhere to look for explanations other than within. That's why this August's focus is internal, and on the things that are important, rather than any hype they might be attracting.

"I don't want anyone buying into anything," Asomugha said. "I just want us to get into this season and just play the way we know how to play. I'll be completely honest with you: Our team looks very good. Obviously it's camp, we're not playing against anybody. But we're under specific instruction: Don't talk. Don't blow this thing up. Don't nothing. Let's just get in the season and let's just start playing football."

Once they do that, the Eagles believe that this time around, everything will be just fine.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Can Vick lead them to greatness? There is no player in the league under more pressure in 2012 than Vick. The brilliance of his 2010 season was away under the disappointment of his injury- and interception-riddled 2011, in which he failed to take that critical next step in his late-career development as a leader and a quarterback. The popular narrative is that this is the first time since 2006 in Atlanta that Vick has had a real offseason as a team's starting quarterback. He began 2010 as the Eagles' backup, and the 2011 offseason was wiped away by the lockout. The result, everyone says, is that Vick has spent more time than ever before at the team facility, working out, studying film and applying himself to details in order to get better.

"It's all evident," Vick said of his 2011 film review. "A lot of the turnovers I had, I think eight of them, were on balls that got tipped, so I need to try and release the ball a little higher, do something differently. There's nothing more gratifying than learning from a mistake. Interceptions are going to happen, but you try to keep them to a minimum and think about ball control."

The more focus on detail, the better for Vick, who has long relied on his unusual and considerable talent to carry him through. As last year proved, being a quarterback is about the little things, and much more than just what you can do with your arm and your legs.

"I see him just being smarter," wide receiver DeSean Jackson said of Vick. "He's taking a leadership role where he can be coached and be taught by other people as well. He's not at a point where he doesn't feel like anybody can tell him anything. He interacts, and he wants to know what it is that he's doing something wrong. And if he is doing something wrong, you can just get on him, just like a regular individual, a regular player."

[+] EnlargeDemeco Ryans
AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelThe Eagles believe veteran DeMeco Ryans will provide the defense with stability at linebacker.
2. The "quarterback of the defense." The big player acquisition of the Eagles' offseason was middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, whom they acquired in a trade with the Houston Texans prior to the draft. Ryans is a well-respected veteran who was emerging as one of the top linebackers in the league before his 2010 Achilles injury. A misfit in the 3-4 defense the Texans implemented during his rehab, Ryans is more comfortable playing the middle linebacker spot in the Eagles' 4-3. He's also healthy and looking like the player who was so universally loved and respected by Texans teammates, who called him "Cap." The Eagles' defense, which started unprepared rookie Casey Matthews as its middle linebacker last September, should benefit from Ryans' veteran presence in the role.

"You see that stability there," Reid said. "The game's slower for him than it would be for a rookie. So he's able to just kind of get everybody lined up, get everybody settled and calmed down."

Roseman said it was a priority for the Eagles to find "the quarterback of our defense," and Ryans is aware that he was brought in to correct 2011's biggest defensive flaw. But he's trying to keep those expectations as calm as he's trying to keep his defensive teammates.

"It's not going to take one person to fix all the problems," Ryans said. "It takes everybody working together and finding out how we can make all 11 guys play better and have a better defense."

Sure, but what they like about Ryans is that he can help teach everybody just how to do that. And who can play a little, too.

"It's not like we just got a guy off the street who has some experience," Asomugha said. "This guy is a big-time player."

3. Replacin' Jason. Left tackle Jason Peters may have been the best player on the Eagles' roster last year, and that's no slight to anyone else. Peters was a monster blocker who was critical to the overall success of the offensive line and to the breakout season of running back LeSean McCoy. But Peters injured his Achilles in the offseason and is out for the year. His replacement is free-agent signee Demetress Bell, who's athletic like Peters and has the potential to be an adequate replacement. Bell's issue has been staying healthy and on the field, but so far his teammates say he's looking good and picking up Mudd's complex blocking schemes.

"I think he's one of the best options we could have had to replace Jason," left guard Evan Mathis said. "He displays great athleticism. He has a hunger to learn and a hunger to get better. And what's good for him is, Jason had a monster season, so he can go look at the film of Jason having a monster season, take what he's learning from Howard, apply it to what he's doing on the field and just try and replicate that and do exactly what Jason was doing. He's making strides daily."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

For all that went wrong last year, the Eagles still managed to finish 8-8 and weren't eliminated from playoff contention until Week 16. Had they managed to hold just one of those blown fourth-quarter leads -- against the 49ers, Falcons or Giants, say -- we might be having a very different discussion about their 2011. They played well enough at the end of last year (and in the first three quarters of their September games) to prove to themselves they can be as good as they think they can be. If they can cut down on the costly mistakes, and if they get the mental boost they say they got from their season-ending four-game winning streak, it's not a long journey from where they were to a division title.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

So much comes down to Vick, and with a backup corps that currently comprises Mike Kafka, Trent Edwards and rookie Nick Foles, it's more important than ever for him to stay healthy. He hasn't played 16 games in a season since 2006, and the Eagles were 1-2 in the three games he missed last year. When he's at his best, Vick gives the Eagles advantages at the position over any team in the league. He can do things with his arm and his legs that other quarterbacks can't. But his relatively small size and his all-out style of play have created a history of injury that can't be overlooked when forecasting his -- and the Eagles' -- season. If he doesn't play well, or if they lose him for an extended period of time, it's going to be difficult for them to compete with the top teams in the NFC.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeJeremy Maclin
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNow fully healthy, WR Jeremy Maclin has the tools to have a career season in 2012.
  • Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is a breakout candidate. He was sick this time last year and wasn't able to get a lot out of training camp, and he had injury issues throughout the season. But he's 100 percent healthy now, and he gives the Eagles a big-time speed threat opposite Jackson in the wide receiver corps. Don't be surprised if Maclin has a better statistical season than Jackson.
  • I think McCoy will miss Peters at left tackle, because the Eagles ran outside a lot last year and Peters' upfield blocking was a huge help to McCoy's ability to break long runs. But having watched the Eagles work on their inside running in camp, I get the impression they're so strong in the middle of the offensive line -- especially given how much better 2011 first-round pick Danny Watkins looks at right guard -- that McCoy will be able to run successfully between the tackles more than he did a year ago.
  • Brandon Graham is the 2012 Eagles in microcosm. Fans are sick of hearing how good he's supposed to be and just want to see it. The 2010 first-round pick looks fantastic in the early going and should be able to make a contribution as part of the rotation at defensive end. Reid says the plan is to rotate eight guys on the defensive line and "throw fastballs, if we can, at the offensive line." A healthy, productive Graham subbing in to give Trent Cole or Jason Babin a breather would go a long way toward enabling that.
  • Jamar Chaney was playing well enough to look like the starter at weakside linebacker before a hamstring injury in the second week of camp sidelined him. So that could be Matthews or Brian Rolle if Chaney can't keep his momentum going. Rookie Mychal Kendricks is supposed to start on the strong side, but the Eagles are taking things slowly with him. Don't be surprised if, as with Watkins a year ago, his role is bigger in the second half than it is at the start.
  • Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the starter at cornerback opposite Asomugha, looks spry and comfortable in his new role. He played the slot cornerback position last year, which he never has before, and should be better on the outside.
  • Rookie Brandon Boykin could win that slot corner job ahead of veteran Joselio Hanson. Boykin is also helping as a kick returner.
  • It's possible the Eagles could go without a fullback. They didn't use one much last year, and they like what backup tight end Brett Brackett has been showing in camp. They could use him or Clay Harbor along with Brent Celek in multiple tight end sets.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- If you care to think the Jaguars are a mess and going to be in the running for the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, they’re fine with that.

As they worked through the early days of Mike Mularkey’s first training camp, they repeated the new coach’s mantras (like, “we just want to get a little bit better every day”), fell in line with his policies (like potential $10,000 fines for answering media inquiries about injuries) and gave team-first answers to questions about the absence of their two biggest names -- Maurice Jones-Drew (holding out for a new contract) and Justin Blackmon (unable to strike a rookie deal).

Sure, they don’t have much choice but to buy in, but there is an undertone that suggests they have a secret to spring on the league in a couple of weeks.

Every team at this stage of camp thinks it can be good. In Jacksonville, a significant improvement from 5-11 is certainly possible, no matter what the popular storylines are. Honest.

Theirs is a defense loaded with quality, front-line talent. Beyond middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, most of it remains largely unknown. But if you don’t know linebacker Daryl Smith or cornerback Derek Cox or defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, that’s not the Jaguars' concern.

“If anyone feels we are not in a proper place or we have problems, that’s OK,” Posluszny said. “We feel like inside these walls we’re doing everything that we can to be a very successful team.

“Mularkey’s done a great job for us. He’s a former player who’s been through it. To me, that all means a ton, because he knows exactly what we are going through and what it takes to be successful.”

While the offense is being revamped, and Mularkey and his assistants are trying to reformat quarterback Blaine Gabbert after a horrific rookie season, the defensive system and bulk of the staff have been in place for a while now.

Gabbert has nice moments, but his overall inconsistency at practice halts any proclamations that he made a significant offseason jump.

No matter how much players and coaches talk about his gains in leadership, no matter how much faith the organization has in him, no matter how patient they are, it comes down to making throws under pressure.

The early snapshot says the defense can be really good, but that a limited offense could be the obstacle to the surprise the Jaguars would so like to produce. There is a lot of time to work on what’s been installed, to find what works and to run it better than it’s been run so far.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Phil Sears/US PresswireBlaine Gabbert finished his first season with 12 TD passes, 11 interceptions and a 50.8 completion percentage.
1. Is Gabbert good enough? He folded under pressure too often last season, but the rush wasn’t all he was facing. The team drafted him 10th overall intending for him to sit and learn for a season, but that plan didn’t pan out and Gabbert was hurried into the starting role for 14 games during which he had poor pass protection and very limited receivers.

There were big distractions off the field, too: Jack Del Rio got fired and the team was sold.

Mularkey was hired in large part because he’s developed quarterbacks, and he, coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson have to get steadier play from Gabbert and get his arrow pointing up. His good moments look very nice, but there are still too many bad ones that leave you shaking your head. A kneel-down would seem less disheartening in many of those instances.

It’s a slow process, installing a new offense and rebuilding a quarterback’s confidence. Exactly how slow is the question we need answered.

Mentions of mechanical or technical adjustments by his coaches have been well-received, and he acts on them quickly. That’s great, but when the rush turns live and the pocket starts collapsing, will he have open people he can stand in and find? We simply can’t know yet.

2. The missing pieces. Jones-Drew is demanding a new contract. The Jaguars have said they won’t give him one with two years left on the old one. Boom -- a stalemate. I can’t see the team altering its stance unless he holds out into the season and it struggles horribly without him. He’s got an ego that will make it hard for him to return without any contract alteration, so this could drag on.

Blackmon is a rangy target who can go get the ball, and missing early camp is helping no one. He got a DUI after being drafted fifth overall, and the team wants insurance against any further troubles. Blackmon's unwilling to give the Jaguars what they are looking for, though.

So we’re seeing second-year man Cecil Shorts work in the Z spot where Blackmon will eventually be, with veteran addition Laurent Robinson at the X. Rashad Jennings is the lead back without Jones-Drew in camp, and is a bigger guy who also ranks as a power runner. I liked what I saw and heard from him.

3. Will there be enough of a pass rush? The Jaguars had 31 sacks last season, and to reach their potential on defense they need more in 2012. More consistent pressure and more sacks will come with improved coordination from the defensive linemen.

Their line coach, Joe Cullen, said they just missed on a bunch of chances last season, and another season together and the work they are doing now will result in better communication. The Jags face Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton in addition to two games against Matt Schaub and two against hotshot rookie Andrew Luck this season, and they won't win many of those without consistent pressure.

The relentless Jeremy Mincey promises the production will increase. Andre Branch was drafted in the second round to help, and looks like a quality player. Depth off the edge remains a concern. Austen Lane suffered yet another injury while I watched practices, during which John Chick walked the width of a practice field dragging heavy weight as he rehabilitated his knee.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeMike Mularkey
AP Photo/John RaouxNew head coach Mike Mularkey and his staff have made a positive impression on the players.
Mularkey and his staff. There is planning and logic to everything going on here, and the new staff has genuine concern for players on and off the field. Players are being told what the plan is and the right way to execute it. They felt that was lacking with the previous regime, and welcome it.

Position coaches like Olson, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and one of the key holdovers, linebackers coach Mark Duffner, are true teachers, and they have guys under them who want to learn. That leadership and teaching faltered in many areas at the end of Del Rio’s tenure. It’s present in full force now. If guys follow and doing so produces results, it’ll snowball.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

A lot more is in place for Gabbert, and everyone has a stake in his performance: the GM who traded up to draft him needs him to succeed; the new coach who was hired to polish him needs him to succeed; the high-priced free-agent receiver and first-round draft pick receiver need him to succeed; the talented defense needs him to succeed.

Gabbert’s saying the right things and working hard, and you can see improvement on some drop backs. But there are still enough dud plays sprinkled into practices to make you wonder if he can succeed. The team wants him to avoid turning the ball over -- staying away from the worst-case scenarios -- and it's a smart goal, but will it make Gabbert too cautious?

Can you ask him to be careful and function as a game-manager type when the best attribute he has is a big arm that can get the ball into tight windows? It might turn out to be complicated.

Also, there is not great roster depth. I have particular concerns about the offensive line, defensive end and safety if someone goes down.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The team appears to be high on undrafted rookie linebacker Julian Stanford out of Wagner. With Clint Session’s future in doubt because of post-concussion issues, Russell Allen is likely to start opposite Daryl Smith outside. Stanford could make the team as a special-teamer who can provide depth. Brandon Marshall, a fifth-round pick, also has what looks to be an NFL-ready linebacker frame.
  • Mike Thomas needs Blackmon signed, in camp and taking the bulk of the snaps at one of the two outside receiver spots. I’m convinced that to get his head right, Thomas needs to be given the slot role and allowed to focus on it exclusively. His snaps were cut down during my visit, with Shorts working at the front of the line in Blackmon’s Z spot. The slot is what Thomas is best suited for, and his performance has slipped when he’s been expected to do more. He had a lot of drops early in camp, and Mularkey agrees with the potential for less to be more with Thomas.
  • Josh Scobee has the leg to get a lot of touchbacks and Bryan Anger has the leg to force a lot of fair catches. The Jaguars obviously still have to work on covering kicks and punts, but how often will they actually be covering kicks and punts? If the offense can produce some first downs, we should see more scoring, and more scoring will mean more kickoffs from Scobee and less work for Anger.
  • The depth at tight end is interesting after No. 1 Marcedes Lewis. Colin Cloherty got a lot of work as the No. 2 early on, and Zach Miller is another move guy who’s very intriguing, though Miller is rarely healthy. Zach Potter is giant, but hasn’t earned a lot of time, and undrafted rookie Matt Veldman is also extra large.
  • Posluszny is the centerpiece of this defense. He covers a ton of ground and makes big hits. He’s a model for doing things the right way, which is a major point of emphasis for Mularkey and his staff. Posluszny was a solid signing last season, and continues to deliver just what the team hoped for. That helps offset the fact Session, who also came to Jacksonville for a big contract in 2011, might not be on the field any time soon, or ever again.
  • The cornerbacks look good. Cox is really solid, and Aaron Ross and Rashean Mathis will be effective as the Nos. 2 and 3. The depth grew with last season's injury onslaught, and William Middleton and Kevin Rutland can play, too.
  • Branch, the rookie pass-rusher, came into the league facing questions from many teams about his ability to stand up against the run. The Jaguars have no such concern at this point. He’s got to be an effective part of a four-man group at end with Mincey, Lane and Chick. Branch certainly looks the part, but so did former Jaguars bust Derrick Harvey, so we can’t put much on the early eyeball test.
  • Along with Stanford, running back Jalen Parmele caught my eye. He’s spent time with Miami and Baltimore.
BEREA, Ohio -- Long before the announcement that Jimmy Haslam was buying the Browns, a new era had already begun in Cleveland.

It started with the Browns moving up one spot in the draft to select running back Trent Richardson third overall. It continued with taking quarterback Brandon Weeden later in the first round. Throw in a couple of second-round picks -- right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and wide receiver Josh Gordon (supplemental draft) -- and the Browns have the potential to start four rookies on offense this season. The rest of the teams in the AFC North may only start a total of four rookies combined.

This offseason rebuilding project in Cleveland has turned an unwatchable, 29th-ranked offense to the city's best attraction since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Drawing the most fans to camp since they started tracking attendance seven years ago, the Browns watched 4,200 fans show up for the second practice. How impressive is that? The Browns' facility only holds 3,000, which meant more than 1,000 fans waited outside for people to leave so they could get a glimpse of the team's future.

"Offense sells tickets," linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said with a smile.

The Browns have certainly generated a buzz. The challenge is keeping fans interested. This franchise has recorded double-digit losses in eight of the past nine seasons, and the Browns are the consensus pick to finish last in the division -- again.

These younger players haven't had to endure the constant losing, but they're just as motivated to prove the skeptics wrong.

"I’ve dealt with it the last few years when Oklahoma State was picked in the middle of the Big 12," Weeden said. "When we did win the Big 12 championship, it felt good to say, 'What now?’ We really don’t listen to it too much. If anything, it sparks a little fire and makes us work that much harder."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMike Holmgren and Pat Shurmur
AP Photo/Amy SancettaWith a change in ownership for the Browns, the job security of Mike Holmgren, left, and coach Pat Shurmur is perhaps in question.
1. Change in ownership. For all the hope surrounding the future, there's an equal amount of uncertainty after Haslam bought the team from Randy Lerner. New owners typically overhaul the decision-makers and put their trusted associates in place. Haslam won't make any changes until he's approved by the NFL owners in either September or October, which makes it seem like everyone is on a one-season audition.

Many predict Holmgren will be gone because Joe Banner, Haslam's unofficial consultant and a former executive for the Eagles, is expected to end up running the organization. General manager Tom Heckert could also be out based on mixed reports of his 10-year relationship with Banner in Philadelphia. And Shurmur might be done if the Browns win a handful of games again this year.

"This thing is headed in the right direction," offensive tackle Joe Thomas said. "Sometimes, it’s hard not to think what the new guy is going to think. Is he going to see what we see?"

2. Loss of defensive tackle Phil Taylor. The 2011 first-round pick is on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list after having surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle in May. The hope is Taylor will be able to return in the first half of the season and perhaps as early as Week 7 at Indianapolis.

While Scott Paxson continues to surprisingly fill Taylor's spot in the starting lineup, no one player is going to fill that void. "I would say we’re going to have to roll a few people in there," Shurmur said. "That’s what we’re trying to find, that right mix."

It's really become a defensive line by committee because each player has a particular strength. Paxson and rookie third-round pick John Hughes are more stout against the run, and rookie sixth-round pick Billy Winn is showing quickness as a pass rusher. Despite this collective effort, it will be hard to replace Taylor.

3. Wide receiver Josh Gordon's impact. The development of Gordon will determine the success of the Browns' passing game. Cleveland used a second-round pick in the supplemental draft on someone who is on the fast track to becoming the No. 1 receiver on the team.

Gordon's three failed drug tests makes him a risk, but it was a risk that the Browns had to take considering they have one of the worst wide receiver groups in the league. Gordon has the size (6 feet 3) and breakaway speed to be a top target, which prompted one league executive to say he has "Randy Moss-like" talents. On one route over the middle, Gordon never broke stride as two defenders bounced off of him. His height will show up on fade routes in the end zone, and his size will benefit him on slant routes.

Expectations have to be tempered by the fact that Gordon is raw. He didn't play last season (although he did practice) after transferring from Baylor to Utah, and he comes from a limited route tree from his days in the Baylor offense. The learning curve might not be as steep because Gordon has proven to be a great notetaker in meetings. He's already working with the first-team offense in three-receiver sets after a handful of practices.

"He’s one of those guys that you can tell to correct something, and he corrects it on the next snap," offensive coordinator Brad Childress. "You can say what you want about him off the field. I found him to be a very good student of the game and able to put into play what you ask him to do immediately."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The way Richardson loves contact in training camp bodes well for the Browns. Richardson brings a physical identity to an offense that struck no fear in defenses last season. The only way the Browns will be able to compete with the Steelers and Ravens is to have an offensive centerpiece who can match the toughness and intensity of those defenses.

Richardson has the look of being the best back to come out of college since Adrian Peterson, only he's stronger. He benches 475 pounds, using that muscle to hold onto the ball (no lost fumbles last season) and break tackles. His success will allow the Browns to shorten games.

Richardson's biggest impact will come around the end zone. The Browns ranked 30th in points scored last season because they lacked punch in the running game. Cleveland scored four rushing touchdowns last season, which was tied for the the second-fewest in the past 15 NFL seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This is why the Browns gave up three picks to move up one spot to get Richardson, one of three players in SEC history to score 20 or more rushing touchdowns in a season.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The only thing that has piled up more than losses since the Browns returned to the league is rushing yards. Over the past 13 seasons, the highest the Browns' run defense has ranked is 23rd. Cleveland allowed 147.4 yards rushing per game last season, which ranked 30th in the 32-team NFL. No other team in the division gave up more than 104.7 yards a game on the ground, and no other AFC North team ranked lower than 10th in run defense.

The Browns' defense is giving up some long runs in camp, a sign that this could be another long season for the Cleveland front seven. The Browns upgraded at defensive end by signing free agent Frostee Rucker, only to lose Taylor for at least the first six games. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard, a menace on the pass rush, has struggled against the run. Another bad sign is three of the Browns' starting front four (Taylor, Rucker and Ahtyba Rubin) have missed time because of injuries and there's only been one full week of camp.

"To be successful in this league and in the AFC North, you have to stop the run," Jackson said. "Around November and December and the weather is bad, it’s going to be a run day. From looking at last year, that’s one thing we’re focusing on from Day One, it’s stopping the run. It’s a quiet confidence you have to build and it starts right here in training camp."

OBSERVATION DECK

    [+] EnlargeBrandon Weeden
    David Richard/US PresswireRookie QB Brandon Weeden has shined at times early in training camp.
  • Weeden's persistence will serve him well. After missing tight end Alex Smith in the back of the end zone, he completed a touchdown pass on the next throw to tight end Jordan Cameron on the same route route.
  • There's been talk that Colt McCoy has improved since last season, but it didn't show during my visit. His throws lacked any zip, especially when following Weeden's passes, and were continually behind receivers. McCoy, who is taking most of the second-team snaps, could be helped by a Holmgren departure. If Holmgren goes, Seneca Wallace would likely follow, which would leave the No. 2 spot for McCoy.
  • Josh Cribbs, the second-leading receiver on the team last season, has disappeared from the offense in camp. "He’s a special teams player that plays receiver," Shurmur said. This is a clear indication that the Browns want Cribbs to focus on being a returner and a core player on coverage teams.
  • The surprise of camp is Sheldon Brown holding onto the starting cornerback job opposite Joe Haden despite being the weak link of the secondary last season. It was assumed Dimitri Patterson would take that starting job after he re-signed with the Browns this offseason, and there's still a chance that Patterson could end up in the starting lineup by the end of the preseason. "Sheldon is starting right now," Shurmur said. The key part of that comment is "right now."
  • Second-round pick Mitchell Schwartz is still on track to start at right tackle even though he has struggled against speed rushers like Sheard. Schwartz split reps with Oniel Cousins early in camp before taking over the job. The Browns would be in trouble if Schwartz couldn't beat out Cousins, a third-round bust from Baltimore.
  • The frontrunner to be the starting free safety is Eric Hagg, although he stood out more in minicamp. It's noticeable that Hagg is talking to strong safety T.J. Ward before and after plays. Strong communication is the key to any successful secondary.
  • Don't be shocked if rookie fourth-round pick James-Michael Johnson gets the nod to replace Scott Fujita when the outside linebacker has to serve his three-game suspension. Johnson's ability to always be around the ball has overshadowed the play of Kaluka Maiava, who started the last five games in 2011.
  • Montario Hardesty has separated himself from Brandon Jackson to be the primary backup to Richardson. Hardesty has more of a burst than last season, especially when hitting the edge and making contact with tacklers. A back who has frequently been injured, Hardesty isn't running hesitant.
  • Cameron is taking full advantage of tight end Evan Moore being sidelined. Leaping to catch balls, Cameron looks like the most improved player on offense. But he isn't close to taking Ben Watson's starting job.
  • There's been speculation that Buster Skrine could overtake Brown as the starting cornerback. He is among the faster players on the team, but he doesn't seem to trust his speed. Skrine too often grabs receivers when he really doesn't need to do it.
  • The perception of wide receiver Travis Benjamin is changing. During minicamps, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Benjamin was relegated to deep downfield routes on the outside. Now, he's going over the middle. During a red-zone drill, he fought off a defender to grab McCoy's touchdown pass. "I anticipated with his natural size that he might get banged around and be less efficient, but he has done a great job," Shurmur said. "I think he handles the traffic pretty well.”

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