NFL Nation: 2013 Camp Confidential

LATROBE, Pa. -- Nestled in the rolling hills surrounding St. Vincent College, the Pittsburgh Steelers seem as though they're isolated from the football world for training camp. But make no mistake, they hear everything.

When it comes to the debate over who's winning the AFC North, the talk is either about the defending Super Bowl champions (Baltimore Ravens) or the team on the rise (Cincinnati Bengals). The Steelers? They're considered too old on defense and too young on offense.

If you expected the Steelers to make a rebuttal, you'd be wrong. They have embraced the underdog role.

"When you lose Mike Wallace, James Harrison and Casey Hampton on a team that went 8-8, you’re supposed to say they’re about to fall," linebacker Larry Foote said. "If I was a writer, I would write the same thing. But football is not played behind a computer in a nice cozy office. It’s played on the field. [General manager] Kevin Colbert doesn’t have two Super Bowls for nothing and this organization has six overall. They know what they’re doing. As players, we have to take it personally."

One player told me that this team was humbled by last season's 8-8 record, especially the losses to Oakland, Tennessee and Cleveland. The confidence, though, remains.

This defense has finished the past two seasons ranked No. 1. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had won 17 of 24 starts before suffering a serious rib injury in November. And the Steelers haven't forgotten about beating the eventual Super Bowl champions in December with third-string quarterback Charlie Batch.

Just don't expect the Steelers players to promote these facts.

"We got our poker face on," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "It’s one of those things where we’re all aware of the talent we have and we’re all aware of what we’re capable of. It’s a matter of doing it."

History is on the Steelers' side. The last two times the Steelers failed to finish with a winning record, they won the division the next season. After the Steelers went 6-10 in 2003, they rebounded to go 15-1 in 2004. Pittsburgh finished 8-8 in 2006 but came back with a 10-6 record in 2007.

"Playing in Pittsburgh, you don’t go 8-8 twice," cornerback Ike Taylor said.

So, what would happen if the Steelers ended up 8-8 again this year?

"It’ll be a clearance sale," he said. "Everyone must go."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicThe starting running back job looks to be Le'Veon Bell's to lose -- as long as he can stay healthy.
1. Battle for starting running back job. The only reason this remains a battle is that Le'Veon Bell hasn't been able to stay healthy this summer. It has become clear that the Steelers want the rookie second-round pick to be the starting running back. The team tabbed him as the co-starter with Isaac Redman on the depth chart a week after Bell was held out of the preseason opener.

The problem is, Bell can't win the job on the sideline. He aggravated a knee injury from last week on Thursday and looks questionable for Monday's preseason game. Durability wasn't a question with Bell at Michigan State. Despite nagging injuries, he led the nation last year with 383 carries.

The Steelers have high expectations that Bell can revitalize their run game, something Redman and Jonathan Dwyer failed to do last season. Bell is the best fit in the Steelers' new outside zone blocking scheme. He has the experience (he ran the stretch play repeatedly in college), patience and footwork to excel in this ground attack, where it's find the hole, make one cut and run.

"We're excited about everything but the fact that he's now had a couple of little nicks," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said.

2. Injuries at tight end. Heath Miller is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list after ACL surgery seven months ago, and Matt Spaeth is out eight to 10 weeks with a foot injury. So, if the Steelers are without their top two tight ends just like the Ravens, why haven't they made any additions like their division rival? It's because of the Steelers' confidence in David Paulson, a seventh-round pick from a year ago. He has impressed the coaching staff with his ball skills and sure hands.

"He's playing behind the right guy in Heath," Haley said. "And he's smart enough to follow Heath around and learn every possible thing he can from him. Guys like that have a way of sticking. He's someone that we're all excited about getting more seasoning."

Fullback Will Johnson also can be used as a tight end after significantly improving as a receiver. Plus, there's a chance that Miller could be back by the fourth or fifth game of the season if he follows Rashard Mendenhall's timetable from last year.

3. A ticked-off defense. The numbers say the Steelers finished as the No. 1 defense in the NFL last season. The perception is this wasn't the best defense in the NFL.

Pittsburgh allowed the fewest yards in the league last season, and it wasn't even close. The Steelers gave up 15 fewer yards per game than any other team. But this wasn't a playmaking defense. The Steelers forced 20 turnovers last season; only seven teams caused fewer. Pittsburgh also recorded 37 sacks, which was tied for 15th in the NFL.

"I have never heard of a No. 1 defense get talked about so negatively ever," Foote said. "The last two years, we’ve been No. 1 but we get shots at us. I don’t understand. Some organizations have never had a No. 1 defense. They’re still throwing stones at us. They want more turnovers and more splash plays. We’re going to give them what they want."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The keys are a healthy locker room and a healthy Roethlisberger. Five of Pittsburgh's eight losses last season were by a field goal. The players believe repairing a fractured locker room will go a long way in making this team hold up better in close games, especially in the fourth quarter. The other part of the equation is making sure Roethlisberger doesn't get hurt, which has been a major problem the past two seasons. The Steelers were 6-3 before Roethlisberger's rib injury last season, 2-5 after it.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There are questions about how the Steelers will fare without linebacker James Harrison and wide receiver Mike Wallace. Although Harrison's play had begun to decline, he was the embodiment of toughness on this defense for years. That's going to be harder to replace than his pass-rush presence, a void that can be filled with first-round pick Jarvis Jones. Some wouldn't consider Wallace a major loss because he was such a distraction last year. What people forget is that no one on the Steelers had more receiving yards or touchdown catches than Wallace in each of the past three seasons. Lack of depth also makes the Steelers vulnerable. Injuries to the offensive line and cornerback position would be a crushing blow.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeEmmanuel Sanders
    Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsEmmanuel Sanders could emerge as the No. 1 receiver to replace Mike Wallace.
    The assumption is Antonio Brown would take over Wallace's role as the No. 1 receiver. But in my two of days at camp, Emmanuel Sanders was the one who stood out the most. Roethlisberger's best deep throws went to Sanders, and the quarterback was in a better rhythm with Sanders on crossing routes. This is a big year for Sanders, who will be a free agent after the season.

  • Safety Troy Polamalu has repeatedly said it doesn't matter if you're healthy during the summer. It's the regular season that counts. Still, watching Polamalu at practice, there were flashes of the old Polamalu, the one who bounced all over the field. The key is staying on the field. He hasn't played a full season in five of his past seven years.

  • All you have to do is watch Bell run one-on-one routes against linebackers and safeties to see why the Steelers are excited about him as a three-down back. He's extremely light on his feet, and no defender could keep up with him. The Steelers haven't had a running back catch more than 26 passes in a season since Mewelde Moore in 2008.

  • The wide receiver who has impressed the Steelers defensive backs the most is rookie third-round pick Markus Wheaton. He is currently the slot receiver on the second-team offense. It wouldn't surprise me if he gets a chance at taking over for Jerricho Cotchery at the No. 3 receiver spot this year. "He doesn’t look like a rookie. He doesn’t play like a rookie," Taylor said. "I can’t wait to see him playing in the season."

  • First-round pick Jarvis Jones has a knack for being around the ball and will make an immediate impact as a pass-rusher. After watching him in full-team drills, I wonder how he will hold up against the run. The Steelers can't play him on early downs if he lets runners get to the outside on him.

  • The hope is that cornerback Cortez Allen (knee) will be ready in time for the season opener. The Steelers can't afford to be without him. I knew there was a major drop-off from Allen to the likes of William Gay, Curtis Brown and Josh Victorian before I made my way to St. Vincent College. But it's an even bigger disparity when you watch them try to match up against Pittsburgh's receivers.

  • Kicker Shaun Suisham had a career year for the Steelers last season. His 90.3 percent success rate was the second-best in Steelers history, and he tied his career long with a 52-yard field goal. Suisham looked strong in camp, hitting one from 60 yards.

Camp Confidential: Indianapolis Colts

August, 16, 2013
8/16/13
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ANDERSON, Ind. -- The Indianapolis Colts did the unexpected last season. Those on the outside know it. The Colts know it too.

They put quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, under center from day one, and he led them to an 11-5 record that included seven game-winning drives. The Colts never lost consecutive games and, most importantly, made it back to the playoffs.

And they did it while dealing with the absence of coach Chuck Pagano, who was battling cancer.

Now there’s no going back for the Colts.

“The bar has definitely raised,” receiver Reggie Wayne said, “as we feel like we are contenders. We feel like we’ve got the right pieces in order. ... We set the stage at a nice, high level. I don’t think teams will treat us the way they did last year.”

Second-year general manager Ryan Grigson isn’t satisfied with what the team accomplished last season. That’s why he went out this offseason and spent $134 million on unrestricted free agent contracts.

It’s also why owner Jim Irsay didn’t hold back his feelings in calling his team out on Twitter over a “crap performance” in its preseason opener last weekend.

“You win 11 games after the circumstances we were under and then you add quite a few players you feel can help us in the mix, then you do the simple math, then yes, we should come back better than we were last year, and we expect to,” Grigson said.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Michael ConroyLast season, Andrew Luck took 41 sacks, a number the Colts would like to cut in half in 2013.
1. Protecting the franchise: Luck was phenomenal last season. He was also sacked 41 times and hit so hard on some of them that you wondered if he would last a full season. Luck took every snap last season. Additions Gosder Cherilus at tackle and Donald Thomas at guard will team with holdovers Anthony Castonzo, Samson Satele and Mike McGlynn to try to keep Luck on his feet. The Colts want to cut Luck’s sacks in half this season.

2. Stopping the run: Opponents averaged 5.1 yards a run and gained 2,200 yards rushing (29th in the league) against the Colts last season. The Colts added more size, signing nose tackle Ricky Jean Francois from San Francisco and linebacker Erik Walden from Green Bay, to help a defense heading into Year 2 under Pagano’s 3-4 scheme. Josh Chapman, a fifth-round pick in 2012, is back after missing last season with a knee injury. The 341-pounder will help clog the middle of the line at nose tackle.

3. Special teams: The Colts were without some of their key special-teams players, but if the Aug. 11 preseason game was any indication, it could be another long season for that unit. Buffalo’s Marquise Goodwin had a 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 53-yard kickoff return. Giving an opponent a short field to work with won’t cut it, even if Luck and the offense are capable of putting up a lot of points.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Scoring points should not be a problem for the Colts. They have weapons at every skill position for Luck to choose from.

They potentially have a dynamic duo at running back in Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard. Wayne will continue to be Wayne -- a steady, reliable, Pro Bowl receiver. He joins Darrius Heyward-Bey and second-year speedster T.Y. Hilton in the receiving corps. Second-year players Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener have the potential to be the best pair of tight ends in the league.

The Colts should easily be able to improve on their 22 points a game, and Luck’s completion percentage should be better than the 54 percent he had last season.

“We are excited about all of our playmakers. ... We feel good about the repertoire of guys that we have, and we’re excited about those guys making plays on game day,” new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The offensive line has to prove it can protect Luck and open up holes for the running backs. Having a strong running game to go with the receiving options Luck has won’t mean much if the line can’t do its job.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeDarrius Heyward-Bey
    Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsThe Colts need more consistency from free-agent addition Darrius Heyward-Bey.
    Indianapolis is supposed to be a fresh start for Heyward-Bey after an uneventful four seasons in Oakland, where he had problems with drops. It's a different team, but he’s still having problems holding on to the ball. Heyward-Bey proved that during Tuesday's practice when he dropped at least four catchable passes from Luck. He bounced back with a strong practice the next day, but the Colts aren’t looking for mixed results. They’re looking for steadiness from Heyward-Bey.
  • The top three receiver positions are set with Wayne, Heyward-Bey and Hilton. The fourth receiver, LaVon Brazill, is suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. The Colts have five other receivers on the roster, but they’re still waiting for at least one of them to separate himself from the pack. Grigson won’t hesitate to look elsewhere if nobody steps up.
  • Hamilton wants to make the Colts a power-running team by using Bradshaw and Ballard in the backfield. Hamilton noted that last year’s Super Bowl teams, Baltimore and San Francisco, were both physical teams. “I believe that we should be able to run the football and commit to running the football, but by no means are we going to not work on being an efficient passing team,” Hamilton said.
  • Joe Reitz has done a good job transitioning back to tackle from guard. He has the skill set and size to play there. The Colts wanted to move Reitz back to tackle in the past, but a lack of depth on the line stopped them from making the switch sooner.
  • Bradshaw, who has two 1,000-yard rushing seasons, has yet to practice with the team. He was added to the active roster Monday after being on the physically unable to perform list while he worked his way back from foot surgery in January. The Colts are fortunate to have Ballard to start until Bradshaw is ready to step in and be the primary back.
  • Something that could become a concern if it continues to linger is free safety LaRon Landry’s health. Landry, who signed during the offseason, has been out more than a week with a knee problem. Like Bradshaw, the Colts need Landry on the field as soon as possible to work on continuity.
  • The battle for one of the starting inside linebacker spots should intensify now that Pat Angerer is off the PUP list. Angerer, who was recovering from foot surgery, had 146 tackles during the 2011 season. He was limited to only 11 games (three starts) last season. Angerer is battling Kavell Conner and Kelvin Sheppard for the starting spot alongside Jerrell Freeman and Walden.
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs and Andy Reid needed each other.

A year ago, as the Chiefs were toiling through their summer preparations, this pairing seemed more than unlikely. It appeared implausible.

The Chiefs were embarking on the Romeo Crennel era. The franchise was focused on salvaging the Scott Pioli leadership by having one of his former New England colleagues take over the coach's headset on a full-time basis after he had guided the team following Todd Haley's dismissal in December 2011. There were no thoughts of Crennel being a temporary caretaker for one of the biggest coaching names in the game. Reid was entering his 14th season in Philadelphia.

But 2012 ended up being an awful year for the Chiefs and for Reid. Change was necessary for both.

When Reid was let go by the Eagles, Kansas City owner Clark Hunt acted swiftly, turning from Pioli and Crennel to Reid. It was a bold move from the Heartland, where the Chiefs usually stay out of the national spotlight.

Hiring Reid was bold. And while technically neither Reid nor his new team has accomplished anything just yet, the fit seems right. Reid is resplendent in red. The Chiefs’ players are energized by the top-notch coaching and energy Reid has brought.

“I don’t look to the past and we can’t look to the future yet; all we got is right now,” Reid said. “And the 'right now' is pretty good. … I really like where we are and what these guys are doing.”

While it is just August, the Chiefs look nothing like the 2-14 team they were in 2012. Most teams that earn the No. 1 overall draft pick look like it the following training camp. Instead, the Chiefs look like a complete team with few holes, one that is ready to make a big move.

“We don’t even talk about 2-14 anymore,” said safety Eric Berry, one of six Pro Bowl players from what was, despite the record, a talented 2012 outfit. “We are all focused on getting better and getting coached by Coach Reid and his staff. … We can’t wait to get out here every day to see how we can get better. Everybody feels that way. We’re all so happy right now.”

THREE HOT TOPICS

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesAlex Smith's smooth transition at quarterback is just one reason behind the Chiefs' bright outlook.
1. The quarterback: Thus far, the transition to Alex Smith has been a success in Kansas City. Of course, we won’t find out anything tangible until we see if he can make a difference in the regular season. But so far, Smith has taken to Reid’s coaching and shown he is the leader of this team. He has been good in training camp, and he was excellent in the first preseason game. If Smith can be the smart, mistake-free player he was in his best San Francisco days, the Chiefs can be a real contender. This team has been screaming for solid quarterback play, and it may be about to get it.

“He’s a smart guy,” Reid said of his quarterback. “He gets it. He makes it easy. He doesn’t run out of gigabytes.”

2. Finding a No. 2 receiver: There aren’t a lot of issues with this roster, but finding a solid No. 2 receiver behind star Dwayne Bowe is a focal point of this camp. Free-agent pickup Donnie Avery will likely be the guy, and he has shown he can be a capable NFL player. He can get open. The team would like to see 2011 first-round pick Jon Baldwin finally develop. He has big ability but has failed to show the consistency to be a top-of-the rotation player. The Chiefs have a varied offense, so this will not be a huge problem, but it would be beneficial if Bowe had some legitimate help opposite of him.

3. Dontari Poe: If training camp is any indication, Poe has a chance to be among the breakout players in the NFL this season. The No. 11 overall pick of the 2012 draft has been terrific. He has taken to the new coaching. The light has come on. The super-athletic Poe is getting the playbook and has been dominant at times. Nose tackle sets the tone for the defense, and it seems Poe is up to the task. To his credit, Poe made strides late in his rookie season and seems to have carried it over to his second training camp.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The Chiefs' roster is loaded. There are not a lot of holes. Sure, the Chiefs could use a deeper group of receivers, a deeper defensive line and a few odds and ends here and there. But in today’s NFL, that is not a deep list of concerns. Add a top coach like Reid, a capable quarterback like Smith and several fine free-agent additions to a roster that featured six Pro Bowl players, and there is a lot to like about this team. This is not your average club trying to rebound from 2-14.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There isn’t much not to like here. The worst thing Kansas City has going for it is simply rebuilding from a 2-14 season. Just how many wins can a 2-14 team expect in the first year of a new regime? The Chiefs will be much better. But what does that mean? A 7-9 season in Kansas City would signify great progress. But if the Chiefs want to make a run at the playoffs, they likely will have to go 9-7 or better. A seven-win improvement is never an easy task in the NFL.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeJamaal Charles
    AP Photo/Gerald HerbertJamaal Charles' role in the offense does not figure to be diminished considering he touched the ball eight times and scored a TD on the Chiefs' first drive of the preseason.

  • The Chiefs like their offensive line. They think they have a lot of depth. Jeff Allen, Geoff Schwartz and Donald Stephenson give the team a lot of options.
  • The Chiefs have no remorse over using the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft on right tackle Eric Fisher. He is a natural talent who works hard and fits in with his teammates. He is a hard-hat player who just happened to be the top pick in the draft.
  • The coaching staff is pleased with the way star running back Jamaal Charles has adapted to the offense. He has embraced the chance to catch more balls out of the backfield. For anyone who thought Charles’ role would be diminished because of Reid’s arrival, just look at the New Orleans game last week. Charles touched the ball on eight of the 14 plays the Chiefs’ first-team offense was on the field.
  • Players love the scheme of new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. It is aggressive and player-friendly.
  • One of the strengths of this team going into camp was the defensive backfield. It continues to be. This is a deep, talented unit.
  • One young player to keep an eye is undrafted rookie receiver Rico Richardson. He is catching everything that comes his way. He's a long shot, but there could be room for him.
  • Reid is pleased with the addition of spread game analyst Brad Childress and consultant Chris Ault. They are focusing on the pistol offense and working with both the offense and defense in installing it.
  • The Chiefs’ special teams look good. The return game was fantastic against New Orleans.
  • Berry came on strong at the end of last season after missing virtually all of the 2011 season with a torn ACL, and he looks to be in top form this camp. Expect a brilliant season from this young star.
  • The team likes the work of fullback Anthony Sherman, who was acquired in a deal with Arizona for cornerback Javier Arenas. Sherman will be a part of the offense.
  • Fourth-round pick Nico Johnson continues to push Akeem Jordan at inside linebacker. The instinctive, bright Johnson has been a camp standout.
TAMPA, Fla. -- There’s a perception out there that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can’t wait to let quarterback Josh Freeman walk away after this season.

Trace it to coach Greg Schiano’s hesitance to firmly endorse Freeman at the end of last season or chalk it up to the quarterback’s lack of consistency or look at the fact that the Bucs are letting Freeman go into the last year of his contract without an extension. But nothing could be further from the truth.

“I have a lot of confidence in Josh," general manager Mark Dominik said. “I know Coach has a lot of confidence. That position is the position in the National Football League. Win or lose, regardless of if you get too much blame or not enough kudos when you do win and people take it for granted, the more time you have to evaluate that player at that position, the more of a chance you have to be correct. I think Josh is looking at it with a confidence and saying he believes in himself and there were some parts of last year he wasn’t happy with, but there were good parts last year. We’ve talked to Josh and his agent, and we feel like we’re at a good spot. Everybody feels comfortable with where we’re at."

Even though they used a third-round draft pick on Mike Glennon, the Bucs desperately want Freeman to succeed. If he plays well, that probably means the team will be in the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season. That would give Dominik and Schiano job security.

It also would give Freeman job security, because the Bucs probably would turn around and reward him with a big contract before free agency starts. That would fit the team’s plan of building from within. (If things go as expected, 18 of Tampa Bay’s 22 starters this year will have come through the draft, off the practice squad or through free agency.)

But it will all come down to Freeman’s performance. He needs to avoid slumps like the three-game stretch late last season when he threw 10 interceptions. He needs to play the way he did when the Bucs got off to a 6-4 start.

“He knows it," Dominik said. “We know it. But I think the thing that’s kind of been lost is some of the great things he did last year. Some of the big games where he played really well and showed he can do it. I think what he’s doing in camp right now is playing really smart with the football. You can’t underestimate the second year in a system. Continuity is so important. If you keep it together, that gives you a chance to have more success."

If Freeman plays well the Bucs will wrap him up, and they’ll have continuity at quarterback. If consistency continues to be an issue, the Bucs will have to start from scratch next year and Freeman will be playing for another team.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeDashon Goldson
Mike Carlson/AP PhotoVeteran Dashon Goldson, who was signed as a free agent this offseason, should provide some depth at safety for the Bucs.
1. Secondary matters. The Bucs poured a ton of resources into their secondary in the offseason. They traded for cornerback Darrelle Revis, signed safety Dashon Goldson as a free agent and used a second-round draft pick on cornerback Johnthan Banks. Those are the types of things you have to do when you’re coming off a season in which your pass defense ranked last in the league.

That should be enough to bring about some dramatic changes. All indications are that Revis is healthy and, if he is, he’s the best cornerback in the league. Banks could start immediately and, if he doesn’t, will be the third cornerback. Goldson’s arrival at free safety means strong safety Mark Barron, last year’s top draft pick, should be able to concentrate on playing more in the box -- where he’s at his best.

The Bucs believe in building from within. But they went outside to patch up the team’s biggest weakness.

2. The pass rush. This goes hand in hand with the secondary. If the defensive backfield really is going to shine, it’s going to need some help from the pass rush.

The Bucs let defensive end Michael Bennett, last year’s leading sacker, walk away in free agency. But that was a calculated move. The Bucs believed Bennett already had hit his full upside. But the team thinks third-year pros Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn are ready to blossom to heights that Bennett never approached.

That’s a leap of faith, because Clayborn is coming off a knee injury and Bowers wasn’t a full-time player in his first two seasons. However, if the Bucs are right about Bowers and Clayborn, the pass defense is going to rank a lot better than No. 32 in the league.

3. The tight ends have to come through. The Bucs have done a nice job of surrounding Freeman with plenty of talent at running back, receiver and offensive line. But at tight end, the cupboard looks close to bare. The team didn’t re-sign last year’s starter, Dallas Clark. Luke Stocker, who seemed to have the inside track to the starting job, has missed a lot of camp with a calf injury.

But the Bucs are quietly optimistic about Tom Crabtree, whom they brought in from Green Bay. The Bucs aren’t going to throw to their tight ends as much as Atlanta and New Orleans do, but they need Stocker or Crabtree to be a threat in the passing game to take some coverage away from the wide receivers.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Bucs have done well stockpiling young talent such as running back Doug Martin.
The team has a surprising amount of individual talent. Revis, Goldson, guard Carl Nicks, guard Davin Joseph, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, running back Doug Martin and receiver Vincent Jackson have been to the Pro Bowl. Plus, the Bucs have plenty of other young talent -- guys like Freeman, Barron, linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster, and receiver Mike Williams.

Tampa Bay has been rebuilding ever since coach Jon Gruden was fired following the 2008 season. There’s no such thing as a finished product, because you’re always looking to upgrade your roster. But the Bucs no longer are in rebuilding mode.

They have enough talent to get to the playoffs.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Schiano still is somewhat new to the NFL and to his players. His hard-edged approach drew all sorts of attention last year, and he has said he’s relaxing things a bit now that he has changed the culture of the locker room.

But this team isn’t completely past the culture shock that came with Schiano. That’s why it’s critical for the Bucs to get off to a fast start. If they do, the players will fully embrace Schiano’s ways.

If the Bucs start poorly, players won’t buy into Schiano and things could fall apart in a hurry.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Bucs are ecstatic with what they’ve seen from McCoy this offseason. He earned a Pro Bowl trip last year, and that seems to have taken his motivation to another level. He worked out harder than ever and came to camp about 10 pounds lighter than last season. He’s emerging as a leader of the defense, and the Bucs think he can become one of the league’s most dominant interior linemen.
  • When the Bucs brought in Gabe Carimi, some fans thought he might end up starting ahead of Demar Dotson at right tackle. That’s not going to happen. Carimi is being looked at as an insurance policy behind Dotson and Penn at left tackle. Dotson is having one of the best camps of any Tampa Bay player, and the Bucs believe he’s only starting to scratch the surface of his potential.
  • Martin had a phenomenal rookie season, but I’m expecting him to be even better this year. Martin rushed for 1,454 yards with Joseph missing the entire season and Nicks missing half of it. With the two guards back, Martin should be an even better runner. Martin also caught 49 passes as a rookie, and I can see that number going up because the Bucs have been throwing to him a lot in camp.
  • The Bucs brought in veteran Peyton Hillis as insurance behind Martin. But Hillis, who hasn’t done much the past two seasons, isn’t a lock to make the roster. Veteran Brian Leonard looked good in the preseason opener, and the Bucs believe sixth-round draft pick Mike James has the potential to be an all-around back.
  • Strongside linebacker was expected to be one of the more competitive spots in camp. But veteran Dekoda Watson has taken the mystery out of that battle. He started off ahead of free-agent pickup Jonathan Casillas and has widened the gap with a strong performance in camp.
  • Kevin Ogletree appears to have the lead over Tiquan Underwood and Chris Owusu in the competition for the third receiver spot. But Underwood and Owusu have had strong showings that could earn them some playing time. Without a lot of certainty at tight end, the Bucs could resort to some four-receiver sets.
  • The addition of veteran Spencer Larsen made me wonder if fullback Erik Lorig's job was in jeopardy. But that’s not the case. Lorig is safe as the starter. The Bucs were very impressed with Larsen’s workout and view him as a quality backup and special-teams player.

Camp Confidential: Denver Broncos

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Live on Colorado's front range long enough, and you live with an unshakable, that's-the-way-it-is truth. That most days, as in 300 or so a year, the sun shines brightly and the skies are blue.

But when the storm clouds come rolling down the mountains, it's an ambush -- they come fast and with menacing intent. And that, really, is the story of the Broncos' offseason.

"Hey, you have to deal with all kinds of things along the way," said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, now entering his 10th season with the team. "And we've had plenty of things to deal with around here over the years; sometimes we've done a good job with it, sometimes we haven't. I tell the young guys all the time, we'll see how we handle things. We can be good, but we have to get to work, because thinking you're good and being good are always two different things."

The Broncos entered free agency as Super Bowl favorites, then they signed Wes Welker to a Peyton Manning-led offense that had already been good enough to be No. 2 in scoring in 2012. They drafted well, and filled some other needs with veteran signees Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Stewart Bradley and Shaun Phillips.

Yep, football sunshine and blue skies.

Then there was Faxgate and Elvis Dumervil's rather messy exit from the team that drafted him in 2006.

Then two high-ranking front-office executives -- director of pro personnel Tom Heckert and director of player personnel Matt Russell -- were arrested on drunken driving charges a month apart. Heckert was eventually suspended a month without pay -- he's due to return to the team Thursday -- and Russell was suspended indefinitely.

Then defensive playmaker Von Miller was slapped with a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, a revelation that came with the rather troubling fact that Miller had previously violated the policy to get to the suspension phase.

Miller's appeal will be heard Thursday by league officials, and a decision is expected before the regular-season opener against the Ravens.

Toss in a pile of injuries, especially to the offensive line, and it's clear coach John Fox's task will be to keep a talented team on track as it wrestles with the expectations around it, as well as the pothole-filled road it has already traveled.

"It's been my experience if you don't expect a lot, you don't get a lot," Fox said. "Keep the bar low, and that's where people go. We're going to keep the bar high -- I don't mind expectations -- and I think the guys have had good focus. They know the work that has to be done, and I know they'll do it."

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Deal with it. Former Broncos defensive end Alfred Williams might have said it best. Williams said the Broncos are the only team in the league "with 20 preseason games."

So true. After a 13-3 finish that included an 11-game winning streak dissolved into a crushing playoff loss to the Ravens, the team's fan base essentially sees the coming regular season as little more than an inconvenience before another postseason chance.

That can be a lot to handle for a team, especially if players and coaches get too focused on the potential lack of appreciation from the outside world for anything that happens along the way. More than one person inside the team's Dove Valley complex has expressed frustration in the past six months over the fact that few folks bring up the 13-3 record, the win streak or the division title, and that it is all Ravens, all the time in any discussion about the 2012 season.

Frustrating indeed, but the Broncos have to find some peace of mind somewhere as they move through the next four months.

[+] EnlargeRyan Clady
Harry How/Getty ImagesWhile the Broncos wait for star left tackle Ryan Clady to return from shoulder surgery, the team has many questions on the offensive line.
2. Front-line issues. Left tackle Ryan Clady, a newly minted five-year, $52.5 million contract in hand, is still working back from offseason shoulder surgery and is not yet 100 percent.

Center J.D. Walton had ankle surgery just before minicamp and isn't expected back in the lineup until late October or early November at the earliest. He was just seen at the Broncos' complex this past week without a walking boot on for the first time since the operation.

Walton's backup, Dan Koppen, tore his ACL in the first week of training camp and is done for the year.

It leaves Manny Ramirez, who just started his first career game at center in the Broncos' preseason opener in San Francisco, and 31-year-old Ryan Lilja, who was signed out of retirement after two surgeries (knee, toe) earlier in the offseason, as the options in the middle.

Given that defensive coordinators routinely believe the best way to pressure Manning is through the middle of the formation, the Broncos will need an answer to protect him.

3. Defense will tell the tale. We get it, it's a quarterback league. The rulebook essentially begs/demands that people put the ball in the air almost nonstop in any situation. Offense puts people in the seats.

Whatever. Remind me, but wasn't the Super Bowl -- a Super Bowl played by the two teams that ran the ball the most during the playoffs -- won on a goal-line stand when an offense couldn't/wouldn't punch it in from the doorstep?

The Broncos put up 35 points this past January and were sent home to the collective couch. And when you get right down to it, in back-to-back playoff losses, the Broncos have surrendered 694 passing yards and nine passing touchdowns with just one interception and one sack combined against Tom Brady to close out the 2011 season and Joe Flacco to close out 2012.

So, Manning to Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker looks nice on a magazine cover, but how the guys on the other side of the ball do will have plenty to say about how far this team goes.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

It's a talented roster with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time behind center and a remember-when defensive talent bursting with potential in Miller. Denver is a balanced team that finished in the top five in both offense and defense last season with one of the great home-field advantages in the league. Oh, and the guy running the team is a Hall of Fame quarterback who knows a thing or two about what a title-winning locker room should look like.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There are some in the league who looked at the Broncos' drama-filled offseason and said they had the tumultuous profile of a team that had won the Super Bowl instead of losing two rounds before the title game. The Broncos have had the infamous fax issues, the off-the-field troubles, a reality show, a looming suspension of a superstar and more than their share of injuries. Maybe when the games count, none of that will matter, but history is littered with teams that put the championship cart before the horse, content to enjoy the fruits of potential rather than the actual title.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeWes Welker
    Marc Piscotty/Icon SMIThere will be plenty of opportunities for Wes Welker in Denver's offense.
    Welker's signing is going to work out -- barring injuries, of course -- exactly the way everybody wanted it to, including Welker. He fits the offense. Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase will even expand Welker's reach in Denver's playbook compared with what Welker did in New England, and Welker has worked hard to fit in. There has been some hand-wringing both near and far about where the "catches" were going to come from for a guy with five 100-reception seasons. The answer is that the catches are already in the offense. Working mostly out of the slot last season, tight end Jacob Tamme and wide receiver Brandon Stokley combined for 97 receptions, 1,099 yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers from Welker would fit quite nicely.
  • The offensive line is an issue to keep an eye on until the Broncos prove it's not. Getting Clady back in the lineup -- he's still on track to start the opener -- will help greatly, but they've struggled to protect the quarterbacks in practice against their own high-end defense, as well as in the preseason opener. If things don't improve, the Broncos will spend an awful lot of time tossing dump-offs to the hot receiver or shallow crosses because they can't protect long enough to go down the field.
  • Miller's potential and ability are almost limitless. Former longtime Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier, the guy who called the shots for the Orange Crush defense, has said Miller has the potential to be the franchise's best-ever defensive player. But Miller, the results of his appeal of his four-game suspension notwithstanding, has to hold up his end of the bargain, both on and off the field, to make that happen. And the Broncos will have to decide over the next season or so -- his contract is up after 2014 -- just how high they'll want to go on an extension and whether the investment will be worth it over the long term.
  • Folks can wish it were different, especially as they wrestle with their fantasy lineups each week, but every indication on the practice field -- as in EVERY indication -- is that Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball are going to share the workload in a variety of down-and-distance situations. And Knowshon Moreno and Jacob Hester figure to at least be in the third-down mix as well at times.
  • Hillman, however, should benefit from Gase's concerted effort to create more impact in the run game outside the hashmarks. The Broncos weren't all that good, or committed, to the outside runs last season. And if Hillman runs with decisiveness and the Broncos can get it done up front -- they brought longtime assistant Alex Gibbs back to help with the zone-run game -- there are some big plays waiting.
  • The games will ultimately be the gauge, but safety Rahim Moore has had a quality camp in an offseason in which many wondered how he would bounce back from the ill-fated leap in the playoff loss to the Ravens. But the bottom line is Moore played more snaps (1,044) than any other player on the defense last season with substantial improvement over his rookie year in 2011, and if everyone else had played their assignments on the Jacoby Jones touchdown, Joe Flacco wouldn't have even thrown the ball that way in the first place. So, those guys should buy Moore a nice dinner for taking the heat and watch him in the starting lineup again.
  • Thomas sported a heady 15.3 yards-per-catch average on the way to 1,434 yards receiving last season. But that per-catch average should go up given the choices defenses are going to have to make with Welker in the formation. If defenses double in the short and intermediate area to deal with Welker, the Broncos' tight ends and Thomas can overpower most defensive backs down the field.
  • Defensive end Robert Ayers has consistently said, since the team made him the 18th pick of the 2009 draft, that he has far more to offer when the opportunity comes. And the opportunity has arrived with Dumervil's departure. Ayers has just 6.5 career sacks in his four seasons and has played for four defensive coordinators along the way, each of whom wanted something a little different from him. But Jack Del Rio is back for a second consecutive year, and Ayers is the starter at rush end. Now's the time.
  • Reports of Bailey's demise are exaggerated, but he is certainly a 35-year-old entering his 15th season. Or as he put it: "I had some plays in the playoff game I should have made, pure and simple. I didn't, but I can let it drag me down or just get back to it. I still think I can play and I think I have shown I can still play at a high level." The Broncos will pick their spots more when they single him up, but he has been top-shelf throughout training camp while running stride for stride with the Broncos' best receivers.
  • The Broncos have an awful lot riding on how Gibbs and offensive line coach Dave Magazu get things worked out on the offensive line. If the Broncos can add some pop out of the play-action run game and consistently protect Manning out of a three-wide receiver set, the points should follow.
  • Some say Welker's presence in the offense means the Broncos will throw more in '13. However, Manning's 400 completions last season amounted to the second-highest total of his career, and his 583 attempts were the third-highest. In a perfect world, the Broncos would like those totals to be slightly lower this time around -- Manning himself has said "we'd like to run it more" -- because it would mean they simply ran the ball to close out games in which they already had the lead.

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 12, 2013
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions opened training camp expressing unprecedented confidence in the direction of their program, and, if anything, their steam has picked up since then. A relatively injury-free camp, the obvious impact of multiple newcomers and a rousing victory in the first week of the preseason have the Lions and many of their fans convinced they will bounce back from last season's 4-12 record.

"We're every bit as optimistic now as we were then," coach Jim Schwartz said late last week, "and probably more so -- particularly with some of our rookies and younger players. Now, we're saying that two weeks into camp, before we've even played a preseason game. The tale of the tape is going to be consistency over the course of time. But certainly our stance hasn't changed."

Importantly, that optimism isn't based solely on anticipation of another year of development between quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson. It's a nod toward the early returns on the fit with tailback Reggie Bush. There is relief that receivers Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles, who both suffered significant leg injuries last season, have returned healthy.

There's more. Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley were unblockable during the practices I watched last week. Rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah returned an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter of his first NFL game action. New safety Glover Quin's leadership is notable, and rookie punter Sam Martin has been perhaps the most impressive newcomer of all.

The good vibes, and presumed results, come at a crucial time for the franchise. The Lions are entering their fifth season under Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew, and there might not be a sixth if this team misses the playoffs.

"I'm a vet," Burleson said. "I've been at this 11 years. I'm trying to get everyone to understand that if we don't do what we need to do, these name plates above these lockers, this furniture, [everything] is going to be shipped up out of here -- including myself. So I've got to be productive, and everybody has to have the mindset that the time is now, so in order for us to do something special and bring something special to this city, we're going to have to win."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRiley Reiff
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Lions are counting on Riley Reiff to protect Matt Stafford's blind side.
1. Offensive line transition: The Lions will have three new starters on the line, and here's the good news: The player in the most important position appears to be making a smooth transition. Riley Reiff, the Lions' first-round draft pick in 2012, has replaced retired left tackle Jeff Backus, and he held his own against the Lions' talented defensive line during my training camp visit last week.

Reiff bulked up this offseason after spending his rookie year in a quasi-tight end role. He might be the most soft-spoken player in the Lions' otherwise-boisterous locker room -- when I asked him about the job, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "They asked me to play left tackle so I'm playing left tackle" -- but he more than passed the eyeball test as a credible left tackle.

The same can't be said, at least not yet, about the wide-open jobs on the right side of the line. The Lions are rotating two players at right tackle and up to four at right guard, and no clear leaders had emerged by the weekend. (It was notable, however, that the Lions played rookie right guard Larry Warford for three-quarters of Friday night's game against the New York Jets.) In this case, time will tell.

2. Stafford's next step: He failed to build on his breakout 2011 season in 2012, but in the big picture, Stafford is an experienced starter who has thrown for 10,005 yards in two seasons and who, at 25, still has plenty of room to grow.

That status, however, has generated rare expectations for a Lions quarterback, leading to training camp reports of missed passes and microanalyses of mechanics in a space once reserved for delineating various levels of incompetence. The franchise endorsed his progress with a contract extension that in essence locks him in for another three years at the helm, but the football world is waiting anxiously to see whether Stafford can elevate his career to an elite level.

My time at Lions camp suggested he is aware of but unaffected by those expectations. I saw no worrisome incompletions, no signs of malaise and an important sense of context as voiced by Schwartz.

"You don't [want to] take him for granted," Schwartz said. "We have a couple of guys new to our organization that come out to practice, and that's one of the first things that they want to say is, 'Holy mackerel, did you see the throw he made here?' It's a little bit like Calvin. You watch him a lot, and you forget how big he is and the plays he made."

3. Special-teams overhaul: Lost in the Lions' busy offseason was a near-total reconstruction of their special teams. New coordinator John Bonamego has welcomed newcomers at place-kicker (likely David Akers), punter (likely Martin) and returner (a wide-open competition to replace Stefan Logan). The Lions also signed longtime special-teams ace Montell Owens to anchor their coverage units.

Akers is working on a limited regimen after an injury-plagued season with the San Francisco 49ers, but he appears healthy and will benefit from both indoor home games and Martin's strong kickoff skills. Martin has been booming punts throughout camp, and his three touchbacks (in as many attempts) in the preseason opener suggest the Lions might have found a long-term answer at the position.

The return game is unsettled and probably dependent on bottom-of-the-roster decisions at other positions. Undrafted rookie Steven Miller has demonstrated elite quickness while getting the majority of reps in training camp, but can the Lions squeeze a return specialist onto their roster? His minimal action as a returner in the preseason opener makes you wonder whether he is a candidate for the practice squad.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Of all the factors I rattled off earlier this post, the most significant might be the attention the Lions placed on their defense this offseason. You're doing pretty well if the worst thing you can say is that the strongside linebacker position is unsettled, especially when you realize that whoever wins the job will come off the field in nickel situations, anyway.

[+] EnlargeGlover Quin
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Lions believe Glover Quin can provide steady leadership as well as solidify the secondary.
The Lions invested heavily at defensive end (drafting Ansah and Devin Taylor, signing Jason Jones and Israel Idonije), cornerback (re-signing Chris Houston, drafting Darius Slay) and safety (re-signing Louis Delmas and acquiring Quin). After two weeks of camp, Stafford said, "This is probably the most talented secondary we've had since I've been here," and Schwartz was lauding the leadership Quin will provide.

"A lot was made a few years back when we signed Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson," Schwartz said, "and the difference that they made on the team was a big part of us making it to the playoffs [the] next year. I think the same thing, when it's all said and done, will be said about Quin because he brings that same kind of leadership, that same sort of professionalism."

We all expect the Lions' offense to score this season. If their defense can keep pace, as it appears it is equipped to do, the Lions will be a playoff team.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Schwartz said "there is no doubt" that the Lions have enough good pieces to make up a competent offensive line. But on the list of potential problem spots that could derail their season, the Lions' offensive line sits most prominently. If you believe in the law of averages, you wonder whether any team could come up with three good starters in one offseason, as the Lions are hoping to accomplish.

Warford has his work cut out to win the right guard job, as many have assumed he would. (The Lions got him 53 snaps in the preseason opener to accelerate that process.) Many have considered Jason Fox the favorite to win the right tackle job, but competitor Corey Hilliard got the first start of the preseason.

It's too early to judge the outcome of this overhaul, but there is no doubting the challenge it entails and the ramifications if it falls short.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Excitement about the Bush acquisition has centered around his receiving skills and ability to break long runs. But you'll have to trust me on this: The Lions are just as intrigued by his ability to run between the tackles. There will be just as many opportunities for that kind of yardage in a Calvin Johnson offense as there will be anywhere else. "The things that Jahvid [Best] was able to do for us, when he got outside of the tackles, Reggie can do those things," Johnson said. "But Reggie can run inside the tackles as well. He's a good overall back."
  • Along those lines, the Lions also are trying to identify a change-of-pace back behind Bush, and my sense is that they're past the point of giving Mikel Leshoure an inherent advantage over Joique Bell because of his pedigree as a second-round draft pick. If Leshoure isn't any more explosive than he was last season -- and I didn't see any evidence of that at camp -- there is a real opportunity for Bell to win the job.
  • One of the more intriguing prospects in camp is rookie running back Theo Riddick, who has a relatively similar skill set as Bush. He is quick, a good receiver, smart in the open field and in contention for a kick return job. And like Bush, he isn't afraid to bust it inside the tackles, either.
  • Another interesting prospect who has gotten plenty of attention is 6-foot-7 tight end Joseph Fauria. He can get to balls no one else on the field can reach, with the exception of Johnson when he leaps, and he is a natural receiver. It will be really tough for him to be a good blocker with his lean build, but the Lions need him to be just good enough. I sensed real optimism that he can qualify for that modest expectation.
  • Players such as Riddick, Fauria, tight end Michael Williams and others will give the Lions some interesting roster decisions. You wonder whether they will find some room by deciding against having a No. 3 quarterback on their roster. Kellen Moore looks improved and Thaddeus Lewis is intriguing, but the only real reason to keep one of them is if he is projected to someday succeed No. 2 quarterback Shaun Hill. Otherwise, that roster spot might be more valuable elsewhere. "It's about talent and about having a plan for guys," Schwartz said. "We're flexible, and that's not just at quarterback. That's all positions."
  • Receiver Patrick Edwards has gotten plenty of work with the first team in camp and has the unwavering support of Burleson, who said: "In my eyes, he is going to be the surprise player that changes games this year." But Edwards didn't show much in 29 snaps Friday night, going without a catch amid two targets. He got a step on Jets rookie cornerback Dee Milliner in the end zone, but Milliner out-jumped him to knock away Stafford's pass. At some point, Edwards will need to demonstrate some game production if he is going to be in the Lions' receiver rotation.
  • Delmas (knees) has worked in a little less than half of the Lions' practices and did not suit up for the preseason opener, but the Lions remain confident his limited schedule will leave him ready to play in games when the regular season starts. Schwartz: "We're working hard to get there right now. ... He's feeling good right now, and we're trying to keep it that way. Lou has the advantage of having played in this defense the past few years, even though we have new wrinkles each year. The terminology is the same. He's a really hard worker. We need to balance being on the field and practicing with the point of diminishing returns. I think we've been very proactive in camp doing that. Time will tell how effective that plan has been."
  • Much like his week at the Senior Bowl, Ansah wasn't nearly as noticeable during practice as he was during the preseason opener. Nothing he did in three days of training camp jumped out to suggest he was on the cusp of being an elite playmaker, but he stood out immediately against the Jets. In addition to his 14-yard scoring return of an interception, he nailed running back Bilal Powell for a 2-yard loss among his 20 snaps.
  • Take this for what it's worth: Even the amateur observer could notice a big upswing in man coverage from the Lions' defense during 11-on-11 drills. Stafford concurred but suggested the shift was more about evaluating the Lions' newly fortified secondary than it was a scheme change. "They're trying to figure out who can cover and who can't," he said. "But they're doing pretty good out there."

Camp Confidential: Washington Redskins

August, 12, 2013
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OrakpoPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesWhile most of the attention is focused on quarterback Robert Griffin III, Redskins fans should be happy that pass-rusher Brian Orakpo is back and healthy.

RICHMOND, VA -- The focus is on the right knee of a certain quarterback. Every day, there’s an update. Every day, there are questions about when Robert Griffin III will do more. And his health is often listed one through five as keys to the Washington Redskins season.

Except that the Redskins are confident in backup Kirk Cousins. And even if Griffin is healthy and productive, there’s another massive key to the season: the development, and success, of the defense.

So it’s good news for the Redskins that Brian Orakpo is back and, for now at least, spry and healthy. His impact on the pass rush is dramatic. The Redskins struggled to generate a consistent four-man rush in 2012 minus Orakpo, who was lost in Week 2 to a torn pectoral muscle.

"Rak being back makes Ryan [Kerrigan] better, makes [Stephen] Bowen better, makes the secondary better,” nose tackle Barry Cofield said.

And it’s good news for them that their rookie defensive backs show promise, with at least one likely to emerge as a starter and a second who could join that group by season’s end. Safety Bacarri Rambo learned in the preseason opener versus Tennessee the need to take proper angles to the ball carrier, but a strength in practice has been his ability to quickly learn -- and to not get beaten deep. Corner David Amerson’s skills are impressive and he fared well in his debut, playing more physically than he did at North Carolina State. Safety Phillip Thomas hurt his foot in the opener and is day-to-day; he, too, needs to learn what angles he must take and how to tackle in the NFL, but the coaches like his progress.

“They’ve been better than advertised,” corner DeAngelo Hall said before the preseason win over Tennessee.

“They all look the part,” Cofield said. “Our future is bright."

It’s also good they can be creative with their linebackers, thanks to depth on the outside. Eventually, their secondary could offer versatility as well. And it’s good news that nine projected starters will enter their third season in Jim Haslett’s system.

But hold on.

It’s not good news that the secondary needed such a youthful infusion or that the team doesn’t have a full-time slot corner (though the flip side is they feel they have a few who can play here). Nor is it good news that defensive end Jarvis Jenkins will miss the first four games. Or the starting defense has rarely worked together because of a secondary that has players who are either returning from surgeries or getting nicked in practice.

Having two rookies, minimum, playing key roles in the secondary equates to many lessons learned. It could pay off in the future, but what will be the impact in the present? There is, after all, a natural learning curve in the NFL.

The defense ranked 22nd in points allowed last season, 28th in yards allowed and 30th versus the pass. But their regular-season performance must be broken down by their performance in the first nine games (a 3-6 record) and the last seven (all wins). The first nine games: 27.6 points per game (27th in the NFL) and 397.9 yards (28th). The final seven games: 20 PPG (ninth), 351.7 yards (19th).

“Guys really honed into the details of the game plan a lot better, understood situational football a lot better,” linebacker London Fletcher said.

Considering the young players in the secondary, another split of first-half and second-half success could be in store this season.

If the Redskins want to return to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1991-92 -- and become a legitimate postseason threat -- the defense must build off those last seven games of 2012.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Steve HelberThere's no question the Redskins' season at least partially depends on the health of quarterback Robert Griffin III.
1. RG III’s health. As a rookie, Griffin was knocked from one game with a concussion, and his knee caused him to exit two games early and miss one full one. And because of his knee, he couldn’t practice in the spring and hasn’t yet worked in 11-on-11 work this summer. He’s a smart and talented player, but missing a full offseason isn’t the best way to progress. And Griffin’s improvement as a passer -- in terms of reading defenses, etc. -- will help propel this offense further. He also needs to be smarter when he runs; many times last season he ran and took hits when he had an open target. He can’t tuck the ball 10 yards behind the line as he did at times last season and take off running. With a healthy Griffin, the Redskins can rightly call themselves Super Bowl contenders. Without him? There are more question marks. Also, will he bristle if the Redskins continue to call designed quarterback runs, as they will do?

2. Defensive backfield. The Redskins will start a rookie safety as much for what they don’t have as for what Rambo offers. It’s a tough spot to place a rookie sixth-round pick, even if his college production warranted him going higher. The corner play was inconsistent last season, to say the least; how much will Amerson help as a rookie? Brandon Meriweather hasn’t been healthy with Washington and has been in and out of practice this summer. There are equal amounts of promise and question marks in the secondary.

3. The pass rush. The Redskins’ secondary struggled in part because of the inability to mount a consistent pass rush in 2012, minus their best pass-rusher, Orakpo, as well as improving end Adam Carriker. Orakpo is back, and his impact should be noticeable in the way he sets up others, even when he doesn’t get a sack. Without him, the Redskins resorted to more blitzes and other tactics, often leaving the secondary more exposed. For the defense to improve, the rush must be more like in 2011 (41 sacks).

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The offense. The Redskins averaged 6.2 yards per play, the best for a Mike Shanahan-coached team, a season ago. It’s not just Griffin; it’s also running back Alfred Morris. Both had standout rookie seasons while still learning the NFL and their own offense. The (so far) healthy return of receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Fred Davis is also important. If Griffin is healthy, the Redskins have a dynamic quarterback. Griffin was raw as a passer in 2012 in terms of reading coverages and going through progressions. Yet he only tossed five interceptions because he’s a smart player and rarely threw into danger. As he improves as a passer, he’ll rely less on his legs, and the offense will evolve. Even if Griffin must sit out, second-year quarterback Cousins has shown good signs of being able to take over for stretches. Morris is not just a product of the zone read. His patience and vision are outstanding, and his strong legs lead to broken tackles.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Griffin’s health/defensive depth. Yes, the coaches are confident in Cousins, and he’s shown little reason to have them feel otherwise. He tosses more picks in practice than, say, Griffin did a season ago. But Cousins is smart, understands the offense and is progressing in the pocket, though he only threw 48 passes as a rookie (four touchdowns, three interceptions). Could he, like Griffin a season ago, avoid the back-breaking turnovers? He’ll have to prove that’s the case. Meanwhile, the defensive depth is thin at inside linebacker and now along the line for the first four games because of Jenkins’ suspension and Carriker’s injury. If everyone stays healthy, the Redskins could have solid depth at corner, but they still have inexperience here. Safety is thin, too, because of injury concerns and/or talent level.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Roy Helu has looked like he’ll help in a big way on third downs. There was some rust in the preseason opener. He was too fast to the hole at times; he failed to lower his shoulder at times. But his skills as a runner in the open field were evident. He can make quicker cuts than the other veteran backs on the roster, which will make him dangerous in space. He had two cuts versus the Titans that showed his quick feet. The screen game could be more interesting for Washington this season. The Redskins lacked such a runner last season, but Helu needs to prove he’s durable. If he is, the Redskins will benefit. They point to his 28-yard touchdown run versus Seattle two seasons ago as proof. To refresh, he hopped over a Seahawk at the line en route to a score.
  • [+] EnlargeRyan Kerrigan
    AP Photo/Tom DiPaceRedskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan has been focusing on his hand work this offseason.
    Linebacker Kerrigan took too wide a path to the quarterback last season, going too much upfield rather than taking a more direct route to the passer (something Orakpo does). But Kerrigan continues to work on his game, and it shows. He’s made it a point to use his hands even more -- especially his left hand on inside counter moves. Kerrigan has shown quick hands in rushes versus right tackle Tyler Polumbus, enabling him to win to the inside.
  • The Redskins used Kerrigan in a four-point stance at left tackle in a nickel package versus Tennessee on the play in which he recorded a sack. It helped that rookie Brandon Jenkins was next to him and Orakpo at right outside linebacker. It provides Kerrigan with another pass-rusher on his side to take away a possible double-team and a pass-rusher on the other side who commands offensive attention. Kerrigan was more successful rushing inside, where his quick hands work well versus guards.
  • Former Tampa Bay starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who was benched by the Bucs last season, has struggled in camp. He’d have to make major strides in order to earn a roster spot. Another veteran former starter, receiver Devery Henderson, is in the same spot. Henderson, once known for his speed, isn’t getting much separation in camp.
  • The Redskins will have some issues at inside linebacker if veteran Nick Barnett doesn’t have much left. Roddrick Muckelroy struggled against Tennessee and worked with the third unit. Bryan Kehl didn’t do much in that game, either, and too often looked a step slow. He looked better last summer, but it’s clear they could be in trouble here if something happens to starters Fletcher or Perry Riley.
  • The Redskins like rookie running back Chris Thompson’s explosiveness, but it’s tough to see it on the sideline, where he’s spent most of camp while still recovering from last fall's ACL surgery. Thompson, a fifth-round pick, did not practice during the spring, either, so he’s far behind when it comes to working in this offense. But former Florida State teammate Jenkins continues to flash as a pass-rusher. The Redskins are already working him in with the first defense in various nickel packages.
  • Tight end Niles Paul is catching the ball much better this season than last. An underrated part of switching from receiver to tight end was that he’d be running routes from different areas and often shorter routes -- so he’d need to turn and catch a harder-thrown pass. Not every pass he dropped last season can be blamed on that, but it was something Paul had to adjust to and, based on camp, he’s done so. Paul has rarely dropped a pass this summer, if at all. He also played fullback with the second and third string against Tennessee. If the Redskins keep only one fullback, as expected, they would need one of their tight ends to play the spot in a pinch.
  • Whether Fletcher can still play at a high level remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt about his desire to compete, especially if you just watch him in practice. When it’s a competitive team portion, Fletcher is vocal and demanding. He even chastised the third unit once for a coverage breakdown during 11-on-11 work. He is not coasting to the end of his career.
  • Don’t be fooled by the numbers Griffin is posting in 7-on-7 work, when he routinely completes at least 13 or 14 passes out of 17. Most of the throws are shorter or checkdowns. When he throws downfield, his accuracy has been spotty. There has to be an impact on missing so many workouts, and this is one of them. He’ll occasionally launch a beautiful deep ball, but it’s the 20- to 25-yard throws on which he’s still shaking off the rust.
  • Morris has had a quiet camp, but don’t read that as him not doing as well. He shows all the same skills. And if Morris weren’t so humble, perhaps there would be concerns about his ability to sustain success. But those who trained with him in the offseason rave about his work ethic (and leg strength). Morris is one of the more in-demand interviews, yet continues to constantly stop and answer questions -- often for 10-15 minutes at a time. When Morris says things like “I’m just Alfred,” it’s not an act. He hasn’t allowed himself to bask in his rookie-year glory.
  • There are still question marks along the offensive line, with Polumbus still needing to prove he can be an effective pass-blocker at right tackle. He needs to do a better job with his hands. He’s not a long-armed tackle, so he can’t bail himself out of trouble if he’s a little off with his technique. His margin for error is smaller. It’s something he worked on in the offseason, but it needs to show up more consistently. Behind him, veteran Tony Pashos has the most aggressive punches of the right tackles, and it’s helped him versus the backup rushers. But after not playing last season and playing hurt the previous, he still needs to become more consistent. The Redskins say they have more depth along the line in general, but it’s young and unproven.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Look at the Tennessee Titans from any angle and the focus winds up on the same spot: starting quarterback Jake Locker.

The Titans did a lot of overhauling after a miserable 6-10 season. All of it puts the third-year quarterback in a better position to succeed.

“I think throwing with confidence makes a big difference, and that’s what I feel like I am doing this year,” Locker said.

The Titans parted with Matt Hasselbeck and brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick as the No. 2. They are confidant Fitzpatrick can step in and win games if needed, but they have no leash on Locker. The entire organization is committed to him and believes he’s the right guy to quarterback the team to a turnaround.

“He’s really taken ownership,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can see he’s a confident guy, and that’s one thing that you really need as a quarterback. He’s really worked at his game mentally. We’re progression-based now, and he’s really trying to take it to the next level in terms of his footwork and accuracy. This whole offseason I’ve definitely seen improvement.”

Locker will be running an easier, more straightforward system. He’s got a "move" tight end in Delanie Walker (not currently healthy) who adds a dynamic the Titans haven’t had since Locker was drafted with the eighth overall pick in 2011. The receivers are deep and talented. The offensive line could be a dominant group, which should mean a Chris Johnson/Shonn Greene run game will provide great balance. And the defense should get Locker the ball back more often and with better field position.

I’ve seen steady progress and more consistent play in recent practices. But he needs to carry that over into games, and he needs to address two things that might qualify as habits: a tendency to start slow, and a propensity to throw more comfortably and more accurately to his left than to his right.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeKamerion Wimbley
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceThe Titans hope to give pass-rusher Kamerion Wimbley a lighter workload this season.
1. The pass rush. The Titans generated a reasonable total of 39 sacks last season, with 6.5 from Derrick Morgan and six apiece from Kamerion Wimbley and Akeem Ayers. The Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens ran the same number of defensive plays (1,086), and they had 37 sacks.

But no single player on the Titans’ defensive front ranked as a scheme-changer that offenses had to account for before every play. And the committee work in conjunction with coverage that was far too soft, far too frequently, played a big role in allowing a league-worst 471 points.

They didn’t change a lot at end. They added size in end Ropati Pitoitua, who figures to play a lot of run downs, and depth in fifth-rounder Lavar Edwards. Ayers will be a much more regular presence as a pass-rusher, and both Morgan and Wimbley will play much less than 80 percent of the snaps, which wore them down a year ago. Does all that and a more aggressive scheme influenced by Gregg Williams turn the Titans into a more threatening pass-rushing team? I can’t say yes yet.

2. Two important coaches. Dowell Loggains took over as offensive coordinator with five games left last season, but it’s not like he could revamp everything Chris Palmer was doing. Given an offseason, he has. These Titans will be less reactive and try to dictate more, and the options routes that complicated things and counted on receivers and the quarterback to read things the same way are gone. Things are tailored to Locker now, and Loggains has more talent at his disposal than Palmer did in 2011 or 2012.

On defense, Williams returns from his year in Bountygate exile with a simple promise he expected would help him win players over: That he can make them better. He’s not the same guy he was back when he was the Titans' defensive coordinator from 1997-2000, but the season suspension certainly made him reflect and he comes back a different guy from the one who was coordinator for the Saints. I suspect he will positively impact key guys on this defense like Ayers, cornerback Tommie Campbell, safety Michael Griffin and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey.

3. The offensive line. Last season was a disaster, as the Titans had to call on more depth than any team can have. But the franchise counted on coach Mike Munchak and another offensive line Hall of Famer, line coach Bruce Matthews, to develop guys. A couple they counted on who never reached the expected level are gone now, and the Titans have much better players in place of Leroy Harris and Eugene Amano.

With a line of Michael Roos, Andy Levitre, Fernando Velasco/Robert Turner/Brian Schwenke, Chance Warmack and David Stewart, Tennessee feels like it has re-identified its identity.

“If we’re going to win, it’s going to be because our offensive line is a lot better than it was last year, and we’re physical, and we’re relentless, and we’re going to move people around on both sides of the ball,” Munchak said at the start of camp.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

They identified last season’s issues and have addressed them all in some fashion. That’s with coaching staff alterations, changes in thinking and scheme, major player additions in free agency and a draft that looks solid. This isn’t a team that sat back and assumed that given another year of seasoning, its 6-10 record could turn into 10-6. It took action. Now we have to find out if the moves and changes total up and produce a big difference in overall outcome.

[+] EnlargeJake Locker and Chandler Jones
AP Photo/Joe HowelThe Titans need QB Jake Locker to make big strides quickly if they are to survive a tough early schedule.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The unproven quarterback and the schedule. The Titans open at Pittsburgh and at Houston, and also play San Diego, a team Tennessee always struggles with, at Seattle and San Francisco before the Oct. 27 bye. It’s impossible to predict how the competition will be. But through the first seven games, 4-3 might qualify as pretty good but might still leave them having to chase to get into playoff contention.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Campbell has looked really good, and his physical makeup is tremendous, but is he ready to handle the mental end of the job? The team wants to play more press, physical coverage, and he’s suited to do so. They hyped him a year ago in camp then didn’t trust him enough to play him. We heard even better things about him this offseason, but recently they’ve put out the word not to count out Alterraun Verner and Campbell was tentative in the preseason opener. If they can’t get Campbell onto the field given his physical characteristics, I’ll question the effectiveness of the coaches who have raved so regularly.
  • Linebacker Colin McCarthy finally climbed back into the starting unit recently, then was sidelined the very next day with a hamstring injury. He’s a good player, but he’s always dealing with something. They are prepared to go with Moise Fokou, and I expect it’ll be very much a two-down job. The Titans are relying on all defenders getting a signal from the sideline, so the coach-to-player communication device won’t be a factor that helps keep a middle linebacker on the field.
  • Undrafted kicker Maikon Bonani has a giant leg, but he has to improve his control. Rob Bironas is recovering from back issues.
  • Weakside linebacker Zach Brown came into the league facing a charge by a prominent draft analyst that he was allergic to contact. He’s been anything but, and his growth as a rookie was a bright spot. He and rookie Zaviar Gooden are blazers at linebacker who can help the Titans deal with some of the tough coverage mismatches created against other offenses.
  • I expect offenses to target strong safety Bernard Pollard in the passing game. He’s an in-the-box safety, though he bristles at conversation about his coverage skills. The Titans plan to use George Wilson also, and he’s a more sound coverage safety. Pollard has brought needed swagger. But I wonder if Wilson won’t ultimately wind up with more snaps.
  • Two eye-catching undrafted rookies at camp have been tight end Jack Doyle and defensive tackle Stefan Charles.
METAIRIE, La. -- The first thing I noticed when watching the New Orleans Saints practice was the silence.

There was no messing around and no coaches screaming at players. Instead, the Saints looked like a veteran team that is intensely focused -- more focused than last year, when chaos surrounded the entire season. Maybe even more focused than in 2009, when the Saints eventually won their first Super Bowl championship.

The quiet practices are a firm sign that coach Sean Payton is back in charge and that this team wants to put last season as far in the past as possible. The bounty scandal that led to the season-long suspension of Payton and a disappointing 7-9 record is over, and the Saints want to return to their winning ways.

“Last year was an apparition," quarterback Drew Brees said. “It was a different time with all the situations that had taken place. This year, just knowing that we’ve got everybody here, this is our team. Nobody’s missing. This is the team that can accomplish great things, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Here’s our window of time to bring it together. We know there’s going to be tough times. We know there’s going to be adversity. Build that attitude, build that chemistry, and get ready to make a run at it.”

Payton’s return alone should make a big difference. He’s one of the league’s best coaches and possesses a brilliant offensive mind. After watching his team from a distance last year, Payton had some strong critiques for his players, even the superstars.

Soon after Payton was reinstated, he called tight end Jimmy Graham and told him that a season in which he caught 85 passes but led the league in drops, according to ESPN Stats & Information, wasn’t good enough.

“First, he called me and I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t pick it up," Graham said. “He was pretty mad because it took like two or three days for me to call him back. The conversation was very serious, talking about his expectations for me and the things that I need to correct from last year and how he’s ready to be back. He’s ready to see my growth even more."

Payton needs to see growth from more than Graham. He’s made it clear that he wants to run the ball more often and that the Saints have to be substantially better on defense.

If the Saints can combine those things with Brees and the passing game, they should be right back in playoff contention.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The defensive overhaul. Payton is an offensive guru, but the first order of business upon his reinstatement was to replace defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Rob Ryan. Spagnuolo’s defense never caught on in New Orleans, and the Saints finished last season ranked No. 32 in total defense.

The Saints aren’t just switching coordinators. They’re switching schemes. With Payton’s blessing, Ryan is installing a 3-4 scheme. The pass rush now will have to come from the outside linebackers, particularly Junior Galette, Will Smith and Martez Wilson, a trio of guys that previously played defensive end.

The secondary also is going through some major changes. The Saints signed free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.

The defense will look a lot different because Ryan uses a lot of exotic looks. If the results are different from last season, the Saints will be in good shape.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere won't be any excuses for Mark Ingram this season, as the Saints plan to keep him involved in their running game.
Ingram’s time? Payton repeatedly has said the Saints need to get back to running the ball more efficiently. They were good in that area in their Super Bowl season but got away from the run last season.

There really is no reason the Saints shouldn’t be able to get production from the running game. They have a good offensive line and three talented running backs -- Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.

The real wild card is Ingram. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis used a first-round pick on Ingram in 2011, but he hasn’t produced a lot in his first two years. I think Payton is going to make it a point to give Ingram more carries this season.

A new age of receivers. A few years ago, the Saints had a receiving corps as deep as any in the league, which came in handy because they use so many three- and four-receiver sets. But Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson left over the past two seasons. Joe Morgan, who had been ticketed for the third receiver spot, suffered a season-ending injury in camp.

That leaves starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore as the only sure things. Beyond them, there’s a lot of uncertainty. But the Saints hope veteran Steve Breaston, who was signed this week, and second-year pro Nick Toon, who missed his rookie season with an injury, can fill the void.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Any team that has Brees as its quarterback is going to be competitive. With weapons such as Graham, Colston and Sproles, the Saints are going to score plenty of points. It would be difficult for the defense to be any worse than last season.

If the Saints can just put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they can be a dangerous team.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Rob Ryan
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsRob Ryan will bring an aggressive new 3-4 attack to New Orleans, but do the Saints have the proper personnel to run it effectively off the bat?
The Saints already have had some tough breaks when it comes to injuries. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman and outside linebacker Victor Butler, who were brought in specifically to fill important roles in Ryan’s defensive scheme, already have suffered season-ending injuries.

Ryan is an aggressive coach, and the 3-4 has had plenty of success around the league in recent years. But I’m not sure Ryan has the personnel to make this defense succeed. It could take another offseason to get this defense fully stocked.

OBSERVATION DECK

One of the brightest spots in training camp has been the play of second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. I saw him make several big plays during my visit. Hicks is going to get his chance to shine in the regular season, and with Coleman out, it looks like he'll be a starter at defensive end.

In another sign that the Saints are serious about running the ball more, Graham has bulked up. The tight end said he now weighs about 270 pounds and that he’s focusing on becoming a better blocker.

The Saints have a history of finding unheralded running backs who end up making a contribution (see Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet). They might have found another one in Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M. Robinson has flashed big-play ability in camp. The Saints have so much depth at running back that it might be tough for him to make the roster, but he could end up on the practice squad.

There was some thought that Jason Smith, a former first-round pick by the St. Louis Rams, could end up as the starting left tackle. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Charles Brown has been getting virtually all the first-team work. Smith has fallen to third on the depth chart and is working behind rookie Terron Armstead. It’s looking like Smith might not even make the roster.

In recent years, the Saints have brought rookie defensive backs along slowly. Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson didn’t play significant roles in their first seasons. But I don’t think the Saints are going to be cautious with Vaccaro. Whether it’s at one of the safety spots or as the nickelback, Vaccaro is going to play a lot this season.
BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns are the NFL experts when it comes to starting over. But even the Browns haven't had this type of makeover.

The Browns just completed a $5 million renovation to their team facility. The organization has committed to spending at least $100 million on upgrades to FirstEnergy Stadium. This is in addition to hiring a new decision-maker (chief executive officer Joe Banner), general manager (Mike Lombardi) and head coach (Rob Chudzinski) in the past year. Under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, the Browns want to attack more down the field. Under defensive coordinator Ray Horton, they have embraced an attacking mindset.

After you walk around the sleek, new glass offices and watch a couple of practices, it's evident that there's a new look, a new energy and a new philosophy being established.

"The ship has been heading in the same direction with a lot of momentum," Banner said. "So, we really felt like we had to do some -- I almost want to use the word ‘radical’ -- things to change the direction of the entire franchise, culture and mindset. We’ve almost created a fresh start, frankly."

If there is a team in desperate need of a fresh start, it's a Browns team that has epitomized futility to a generation of football fans. Since returning to the NFL, the Browns are 73-151 (.326) with one playoff appearance and 11 double-digit-loss seasons. Over the past 14 seasons, the Browns have had four general managers, six head coaches and 18 different starting quarterbacks.

The Browns' players, however, believe this is the time for a reversal of fortune. Despite a fifth straight season of 11 losses or more, Cleveland was 2-5 in games decided by seven points or fewer in 2012.

"One thing at Alabama, they’ll teach you how to finish games," said running back Trent Richardson, who played for the Crimson Tide. "Last year, we didn’t have that, characterwise. This year, it’s going to be big on us to finish games."

So, are the Browns closer to being better than what many outside the Dawg Pound believe?

"I think there’s going to be a big surprise on everybody’s faces," Richardson said. "I think we’re going to be a big surprise to the world."

Team officials aren't ready to make such bold announcements yet. Banner said it was "dangerous" for someone in his position to put a timeline on when the Browns would turn the corner.

"I think people will notice very quickly that the team is better this year, the style of play with the physicality and the aggressiveness of it, will be what winning teams do," Banner said. "I also think there is work left to be done in getting those systems in place and continuing to upgrade the talent before it’s realistic to think we've reached our goal, which is to be a team that’s annually competing with the best teams in the league."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeBrandon Weeden
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Weeden got off to a strong start this preseason, connecting on 10 of 13 passes for 112 yards and a TD.
1. Determining whether Brandon Weeden is the quarterback of the future. Like the rest of the offense, Weeden has had an up-and-down training camp as he learns Turner's system. Weeden acted like he owned the offense in Thursday's preseason opener, completing 10 of 13 passes for 112 yards and one touchdown. Weeden said this week that Turner's system "makes sense" to him. It's an offense that pushes the ball downfield and needs a strong-armed passer like Weeden.

Weeden still has to prove that he can read defenses (his 17 interceptions last season were tied for fifth-most in the NFL) and produce in the most critical parts of the game (third downs, red zone and fourth quarter). The perception is that Weeden has 16 games to convince the new regime he's a franchise quarterback. If not, the organization will have to decide whether to use a first-round pick on the likes of Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel or Tajh Boyd.

"I think time will answer the question," Banner said. "I’m very lucky having Chud as the head coach and Norv as the coordinator. Those are the two best people to both develop a quarterback and evaluate a quarterback than any team in the league has. I think with the strength of their knowledge and background, we should be able to very clearly know what we need to do or not do."

2. The new look and new attitude on defense. Knowing that owner Jimmy Haslam was a minority owner in the Pittsburgh Steelers for years, it's not a surprise that he believes defenses have to be aggressive to succeed in this league. It's also not a surprise that Haslam wanted Horton, who knows the Steelers' scheme as well as anybody. He played six years under Dick LeBeau in Cincinnati and coached under him for seven years in Pittsburgh.

Last year under coordinator Dick Jauron, the Browns had a read-and-react defense that rarely blitzed and was determined not to give up big plays by playing a deep zone. This year under Horton, the Browns' defense wants to keep offenses on their toes with a high-risk and unpredictable game plan that has one goal: hit the quarterback.

In 2012, when Horton was the defensive coordinator in Arizona, the Cardinals blitzed 42.3 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The only team to send five or more pass-rushers more often in 2012 was the Houston Texans (46.9 percent). Compare that to the Browns, who blitzed 26.5 percent of the time last year. That ranked 17th in the NFL.

"This defense has potential to be something really special," said linebacker Paul Kruger, who knows something about highly ranked defenses from his days with the Baltimore Ravens. "I know people around here are used to hearing that. It’s one of those things where, yeah, every year you hear the same thing. From my experience and what I’m watching, we have some guys who can cover in the secondary, we have guys who can rush the passer, we have big, strong guys in the middle. We should be able to pull off some really good games."

3. The uncertain future of Haslam. The dark cloud hanging over this franchise is the federal investigation into Haslam's family-run Pilot Flying J truck-stop business. Will Haslam be found guilty of any charges? Will he be forced to step down as owner? No one really knows those answers at this point, which puts a major question mark at the top of the organization.

Banner insisted that Haslam's legal issues haven't affected the Browns.

"When Jimmy and I got together, we laid out a plan of what his vision and priorities were and how he wanted the team run on a day-to-day basis," Banner said. "None of that has been any different if nothing had ever happened. I don’t think you have to believe me. You just have to look at our ability to function through free agency, the draft and hiring a coaching staff and doing renovation at the facility. But if you’re skeptical, I think actions speak louder than words and it’s kind of clear."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The Browns have assembled one of the top coaching staffs in the league. Turner is an established and successful playcaller, and Horton is an up-and-coming defensive coordinator. It was a smart move to surround a rookie head coach like Chudzinski with a veteran staff that he can lean on for advice.

[+] EnlargePaul Kruger
AP Photo/Mark DuncanPaul Kruger has flashed the pass-rushing skills in camp the Browns paid a premium for in free agency.
There is also renewed hope in the offense as well as the defense. Richardson ran for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns when he was battling injuries to his knee and ribs last season. The Browns are excited to see what numbers he can produce if he is at full strength to start the season.

On defense, the Browns invested $35 million in guaranteed money in Kruger and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant in free agency. The team used its top two draft picks on defense, including the No. 6 overall choice on pass-rusher Barkevious Mingo.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Although the Browns did undergo a lot of changes, you can make the argument that they didn't change enough. Despite having the salary-cap room, Cleveland didn't upgrade at tight end, fullback, guard, inside linebacker, cornerback or free safety. As a result, the Browns bring back every starter from an offense that ranked 25th in yards and 24th in points scored last season.

The schedule also does the Browns no favors. Six of the eight teams that Cleveland will face on the road didn't have losing records, including five playoff teams: the Ravens, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • It didn't take the preseason opener to tell me that Weeden is the starting quarterback of this team. During my two days at camp, it was clear that Weeden is a much better passer than Jason Campbell. Although coaches want Weeden to be more consistent (and have his passes batted down less), he threw the ball where it needed to go more often than Campbell did. Third-stringer Brian Hoyer didn't seem like much of a threat to Campbell's backup job. He struggled repeatedly with his decision-making.

  • Kruger, the team's top free-agent pickup, looked even better than when he was in Baltimore. During a two-minute drill, he would've recorded four sacks if he were allowed to hit the quarterback. The strong finish to last season has carried over into 2013 for Kruger.

  • One of the more underrated moves during the draft was the Browns' getting wide receiver Davone Bess from the Miami Dolphins in a trade. Bess won't record 1,000 yards this season and probably will remain the No. 3 receiver once Josh Gordon is done with his two-game suspension. But Bess will come up big in clutch situations. When it was third down in camp, Bess continually found a way to get open and Weeden looked for him.

  • Joe Haden is primed to be a Pro Bowl cornerback. Even in one-on-one drills, wide receivers had a difficult time getting any separation from Haden. Many believe that he is a man on a mission after last year's four-game suspension for testing positive for Adderall.

  • Before injuring his foot, Chris Owens was the favorite to start opposite Haden at the other cornerback position. What stood out to me was Owen's physical play against receivers. There's still a sense that the Browns will start Owens and rotate him with rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden during games. Buster Skrine, who had his problems last season, has had a strong camp.

  • Even before Dion Lewis was named the starting running back for the preseason opener, he was turning heads by making plays in the passing game. Turner compared the diminutive Lewis to Darren Sproles, but that may be stretching it. Lewis has certainly earned more playing time on offense. He was already going to make the team as the kickoff returner.

  • There's no denying that tight end Jordan Cameron will make big plays on pure athleticism. He finished off one long pass in camp by diving into the end zone. The big question is whether Cameron, who has yet to play a full season in the NFL, is durable enough to handle that position.

  • In the kicking battle, Shayne Graham is a good bet to win the job over Brandon Bogotay. Graham hit a 53-yarder while I was at camp, and converting beyond 40 yards isn't supposed to be his strength.

Camp Confidential: New York Jets

August, 9, 2013
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CORTLAND, N.Y. -- The New York Jets haven’t faced expectations this low since 2006, when they hired a relatively anonymous New England Patriots assistant named Eric Mangini. Somehow, they made the playoffs under the baby-faced head coach.

The odds of duplicating that this season are about the same as seeing two Butt Fumbles in one lifetime.

Even the bombastic Rex Ryan, who once guaranteed a Super Bowl, has refrained from delivering a headline-making prediction. The Jets are rated in many power polls as a bottom-five team, but that stoked Ryan’s fire to only a medium flame.

“If you’re a competitor, how does that thing not get to you?” Ryan said. “How does that not motivate you? It’s almost like, ‘Well, OK, we’re going to show you.’”

In the not-so-old days, Ryan would’ve said something like, “We’ll see who has the egg on their face when we’re in the playoffs.”

Ryan has toned it down because he recognizes the enormity of the challenge.

The Jets, coming off a dysfunctional, Tim Tebow-obsessed 6-10 season, are rebuilding. New general manager John Idzik parted ways with 11 starters (including All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis), tore apart the front office and changed the culture.

Idzik, hired even though he has little background in personnel, instilled a buttoned-down, almost paranoid environment in an organization once known for its wacky ways.

The circus is gone. The Kremlin is here.

It’s a change for the fun-loving Ryan, but he has bought in because he’s coaching for his job. He joked recently that if the Jets are in position to draft Jadeveon Clowney, the presumptive No. 1 pick in 2014, he won’t be around to see it.

Earth to Ryan: You won’t be around if you finish with as many as six wins. Idzik inherited Ryan, at the urging of owner Woody Johnson, and he will hire his own man if the team shows no improvement.

In a way, Ryan is in an almost impossible situation. His roster was gutted, leaving a team many scouts believe has only four top-tier players: cornerback Antonio Cromartie, defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, center Nick Mangold and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson.

Throw in a potential quarterback controversy, and you’re looking at a long year in New York.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
AP Photo/Rich Schultz"He can do more" than Mark Sanchez, one veteran player said of rookie quarterback Geno Smith.
1. Who plays quarterback? The competition is billed as Mark Sanchez versus Geno Smith. In reality, it’s Smith versus Smith. It’s his job to win. If the second-round pick proves capable of functioning in an NFL offense, he’ll be the opening-day starter.

Sanchez will start the first preseason game, but his performance is virtually meaningless. The Jets know what he can and can’t do, and it has been a “can’t-do” situation over the past two seasons. If it weren’t for an $8.25 million guarantee, he probably would have been cut loose in the offseason.

The organization wants a fresh start at quarterback. It went into camp thinking Sanchez would win by default, but Smith, shaking off a lackluster spring, has impressed with his arm strength, accuracy and athleticism. “He can do more” than Sanchez, one veteran player said. The question is whether or not Smith can handle it from a mental and maturity standpoint. When his brain catches up to his arm, it’ll be his team.

2. How will they score points? The Jets finished 28th in scoring last season, and they will be hard pressed to improve that ranking. They have a suspect cast of skill-position players, including past-their-prime pass-catchers (Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow), a lead back who’s never had more than 137 carries in a season (Chris Ivory) and an injured former Super Bowl hero who may never be the same (Santonio Holmes).

New offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is an experienced playcaller, but it’s hard to call plays when you don’t have the talent. The Jets need productive seasons out of wide receiver Stephen Hill and tight end Jeff Cumberland, who have a combined total of 53 career receptions. Holmes could be a factor at some point, but he probably won’t be ready for Week 1 as he continues to rehab a surgically repaired foot. Get the picture? It looks bleak.

Because of the uncertainty at quarterback and the lack of playmakers on the perimeter, the Jets absolutely must be a strong running team. That’s not out of the question -- the line is solid -- but they will see a heavy dose of eight-man fronts and run-blitzing defenses.

3. Can Ryan hold it together? After back-to-back seasons out of the playoffs, Ryan faces a make-or-break year. He has two years left on his contract, meaning he’ll be extended or fired after the season. He has no previous background with Idzik, making it a tenuous situation.

Thinking self-preservation, Ryan has taken control of the defense, becoming the de facto coordinator. He did it this way in 2009, when he felt most comfortable as a head coach. He’ll leave the offense to Mornhinweg, whose pass-happy philosophy might not be a good fit with Ryan’s defensive-oriented approach.

[+] EnlargeIdzik/Ryan
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsRex Ryan, left, will likely need more than last season's six wins if he wants new general manager John Idzik, right, to keep him around.
Ryan’s job security will be an issue throughout the season, especially if the Jets get off to a bad start against a tough schedule. It could become a feeding frenzy for the New York media. It may not be playoffs or bust, but another losing season probably will mean the end of the Ryan era.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Once again, the Jets will rely on their defense -- and that’s not such a bad thing.

Under Ryan, they’ve finished no worse than eighth in total defense, and they have the talent to keep the streak alive. There could be some growing pains as Ryan integrates seven new starters, but the unit should get stronger as the season progresses.

Revis is gone, traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Jets will be OK outside with Cromartie and top pick Dee Milliner. They’re good enough to play man-to-man coverage, which will allow Ryan to crank up his blitzing schemes.

They don’t have a big-time pass-rusher -- the glaring deficiency -- but this is the most athletic defensive line of the Ryan era. And it should be, considering they’ve drafted linemen in the past three first rounds. If Quinton Coples and rookie Sheldon Richardson develop as quickly as Wilkerson, already one of the league’s best 3-4 ends, this group will be fun to watch.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and the Jets’ quarterback situation is as murky as any in the league. It’s a controversy waiting to happen.

Sanchez still has the loyalty of a few holdovers in the locker room, but there are many players intrigued by Smith’s skill set. If Sanchez wins the job and struggles, it could create a division in the locker room.

Nothing drains the energy out of a team more than a quarterback mess. It happened last year with Sanchez and Tebow, although this could be more volatile because Smith -- unlike Tebow -- can actually play the position.

Sanchez has lost the home fans, who booed him mercilessly last season. If the toxicity carries over to this season, it will create a bad vibe, and that can bring down an entire team. A difficult first-half schedule won’t help matters.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Jets are relying on several players with recent injury histories, including Winslow (limited in camp), Edwards (limited), Holmes, guard Willie Colon, wide receiver Clyde Gates and kick returner Joe McKnight. That’s always a dicey proposition.
  • The Jets have been spoiled for two decades at running back, but not anymore. This marks the first time since 1994 that no one on the roster has a 1,000-yard season in his career. It will be backfield by committee, with Ivory (yet to practice because of a hamstring injury), Bilal Powell and McKnight. Mike Goodson was supposed to be a key player, but he’s dealing with undisclosed personal issues and didn’t report to camp. Powell, a pleasant surprise, could end up as the lead back.
  • Remember all the talk last summer about Tebow and the Wildcat? It was all hot air, as the Jets barely used him. Tebow is gone, but the plan remains. They will use the Wildcat with Powell or wide receiver Jeremy Kerley, and they plan to use the read option with Smith. Ironic, huh?
  • Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman will keep opponents guessing by employing different looks. The Jets remain a 3-4 base defense, but don’t be surprised if they mix in 4-3 fronts. They will blitz a lot more than last season, count on it. You also could see three cornerbacks (Kyle Wilson lining up as a safety) in certain base packages.
  • Wilkerson doesn’t garner too many headlines because he doesn’t say much, but he’s a special talent. He felt he deserved to go to the Pro Bowl last season; he’s ready to break through in ’13.
  • Mornhinweg, a Bill Walsh disciple, employs a West Coast offense, but he’s not the stereotypical West Coast guru. He’s an aggressive playcaller and will take deep shots. That should bode well for Hill, a vertical threat who has matured after a disappointing rookie year.
  • The Jets could have three rookies in the opening day lineup -- Smith, Milliner and Richardson. The last time they had as many as two was 2006, Ferguson and Mangold. By the end of the year, Brian Winters could be starting at left guard. It could be a watershed draft
  • Looking for a sleeper? Keep an eye on second-year linebacker Demario Davis, who replaces Bart Scott. Davis is terrific in pass coverage, so good in space that Ryan is thinking about keeping his base defense on the field against certain three-receiver packages.
SAN DIEGO -- Gone is the omnipresent GM lurking from the large deck that hovers over the practice field.

Gone is the comfortable head coach who went at his own pace.

It’s a new day for the San Diego Chargers. There is new energy in America’s Finest City.

Change was badly needed. The Chargers arguably had the best roster in the NFL five years ago, but it never paid off. The lack of success finally cost general manager A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner their jobs after another lackluster season in 2012.

The Chargers’ fans demanded new leadership for the stagnant franchise. They got their wish. The Chargers now have some of the youngest, freshest leaders in football as the team moves past the stale days of the Smith-Turner era.

Smith was famous for watching practice from the deck of his office. New general manager Tom Telesco, 40, watches practice from the sideline. There are no messages of pecking order being sent from the general manager’s office. Telesco, in a camp-issued T-shirt and shorts, could easily be mistaken for an equipment manager.

The head-coaching switch from Turner to Mike McCoy, 41, is almost as distinctive as the change at GM. McCoy’s practices have appeared to be crisper and more detailed-oriented than in the past. There isn’t much downtime in San Diego’s practices. Everyone’s moving at all times. That wasn’t always the case under Turner.

“I think we’re getting a lot done,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Coach McCoy clearly has a plan. It’s been impressive. ... The big thing is everyone has bought in to him. The reality is we are .500 over the past three years. It was pretty easy to buy in what’s now going on here.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargePhilip Rivers
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziPhilip Rivers threw 15 picks last season to just 26 touchdown passes.
1. The quarterback: Rivers is a major focal point of this training camp. Telesco hired McCoy, Denver’s former offensive coordinator, with an eye toward fixing Rivers. The quarterback has struggled the past couple of years, particularly with turnovers. McCoy and new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, the former head coach of Arizona, form a strong quarterback-coaching tandem and quarterback coach Frank Reich is also highly regarded. All three men believe in Rivers, and it seems to be paying off. Rivers has looked fantastic in training camp. His confidence is high, and his passes are accurate. It is vital for both Rivers and the Chargers that he has a good season and the team continues build around him. If not, it could be a crossroads season for both the franchise and Rivers’ career.

2. The offensive line: Because of injuries, this unit has been terrible the past couple of years. No matter how much Rivers improves, he won’t have much of a chance if he doesn't have protection. The Chargers' line has four new starters. It is not a great unit, and there will be some growing pains. But the group is getting rave reviews for being athletic and tough. Rivers is impressed and trusts the group. He thinks it’s deeper with players such as rookie D.J. Fluker at right tackle and veterans King Dunlap and Max Starks competing at left tackle. Dunlap is leading the race. But if there are injuries, this group appears better equipped to weather them than last year's squad.

3. The rookie linebacker: The Chargers are thrilled with inside linebacker Manti Te'o. He will start in the team’s 3-4 schemes. He has looked good in training camp and has fit in with the locker room. The hoax he was involved in at Notre Dame is not a factor. The Chargers love the way he works and practices. He is instinctive, and he plays faster on the field than his combine times suggested. The Chargers think Te’o is ready to make a big impact.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsThe Chargers are happy with the progress of second-rounder Manti Te'o, who's slated to start at inside linebacker.
The Chargers are loaded with young talent on defense. Any defense that has Eric Weddle at safety, Te’o and Donald Butler at inside linebacker and Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes at defensive end is an impressive group.

I think these players will be the core to one of the better defenses in the coming years. The Chargers are doing backflips over the combination of Liuget and Reyes. Liuget is entering his third NFL season, and Reyes is entering his second. Liuget was terrific all of last season, and Reyes showed serious pass-rush potential toward the end of the season.

While this defense has some holes, there are some exciting pieces here.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The Chargers are pretty thin in a lot of places. I think this team is on the rise, but it may not be a quick fix. There are too many positions where depth is an issue.

San Diego has dealt with the injury bug already. Pass-rusher Melvin Ingram, the No. 18 overall pick in 2012, suffered a torn ACL in May. Starting receiver Danario Alexander and backup linebacker Jonas Mouton suffered the same injury during camp.

Alexander's and Ingram’s injuries are particularly worrisome. This team can’t afford to lose high-end talent before the season starts. Other positions vulnerable to injuries include the offensive line (even though the depth is better than in the past), defensive tackle, edge rushers and the secondary. There isn’t much wiggle room on this roster.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Chargers appear to be well-coached. The influx of offensive coaches and the return of several defensive coaches, led by coordinator John Pagano, makes for a nice mix. Most of the new blood was needed on the offensive side of the ball.
  • The team feels great about Dwight Freeney, who was signed to replace Ingram. The Chargers are convinced Freeney still has something left in the tank and will be a difference-maker.
  • The Chargers like the progress of nose tackle Cam Thomas, who they think is ready for a breakout year. Coaches and teammates are talking him up big.
  • San Diego is looking to add depth on the defensive line. Free agent Justin Bannan on is still on the team’s radar. I think we will see the Chargers be active on the waiver wire at a few positions.
  • Free-agent guard Chad Rinehart is showing solid leadership skills.
  • The team loves free-agent running back Danny Woodhead. He has been a camp star and should take pressure off starter Ryan Mathews. Expect to see Woodhead used in several different ways. He could be a poor man’s Darren Sproles, perhaps.
  • Yes, tight end Antonio Gates hasn’t had a superstar season in years because of injuries, but the team likes what they see from him. He may have another year or two left in the tank.
  • Ladarius Green, Gates’ potential successor, is still growing. But he has shown flashes. He has natural pass-catching ability.
  • While there are questions at cornerback, the Chargers feel like Derek Cox and Shareece Wright will be an upgrade over last year’s starting duo of Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason.
  • Rookie quarterback Brad Sorensen has been up and down. He has a good enough arm to keep him on the 53-man roster.
  • Cornerback Johnny Patrick has looked good. He could see a lot of action in nickel situations.
  • Fifth-round pick Tourek Williams is getting looks at both defensive end and outside linebacker. The team would like for him to contribute at linebacker.
  • Robert Meachem, a big-money, free-agent bust last season, has been given new life after Alexander’s injury. Still, I have my doubts that Meachem will make much of a difference. He hasn’t been a standout in camp.
NAPA, Calif. -- The Oakland Raiders are basically starting over.

In the second year of the Reggie McKenzie-Dennis Allen era, the team has hit the reset button. The Raiders kept several high-dollar players at start of the post-Al Davis era in 2012 and saw their decade-long malaise continue. Oakland, which has not been to the playoffs since 2002, lost eight of its final nine games last season and finished 4-12.

McKenzie flushed several players in an attempt to get control -- finally -- of a salary cap that got away from the previous regime. The result is that Oakland, which will be in fine salary-cap shape next year, has questions throughout the roster heading into this season.

Yet, Oakland isn’t ready to give up on another season, waiting for better fiscal times. Oakland is beginning the rebuilding process with several players handpicked by McKenzie and Allen.

The theme of these newcomers is the same: “They love football,” Allen said.

Almost every time I’ve heard Allen talk in 2013, he has mentioned the will and desire of his team. Allen doesn’t dwell on the past, but it is clear he didn’t believe some of the players on his first Oakland roster would totally sell out for the game.

McKenzie said it was crucial to get high-character players in the building.

“This is the only way we are going to get this thing going,” McKenzie said. “We need to get guys who want it. I think this team, as a whole, wants it. You need talent but you need high-desire players. Sometimes, that is more important than talent. Now, we have talent, but the key is to find guys who have both. We think we have the kind of guys who can be here when we turn this thing around.”

It is doubtful Oakland will be a factor in the AFC West this season, but it’s all about the building process. Having players whom McKenzie and Allen believe in is a start.

“We have to build a swagger,” Allen said. “This team has to have a vision and a belief that this is going to be a good football team.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The quarterbacks: Like most positions in Oakland, there is flux at the most important position on the field. The Raiders became a mystery at quarterback when Carson Palmer declined a pay cut. With a sudden hole, McKenzie turned to Matt Flynn in a trade with Seattle. Flynn was with McKenzie in Green Bay. He has two NFL starts under his belt, and he is 28. He has been the most consistent of the Oakland quarterbacks this summer, but he is far from dynamic.

[+] EnlargeOakland's Matt Flynn
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMatt Flynn, who has started two games in a five-year career, has been the most consistent quarterback for the Raiders this summer.
The Raiders hope he can be a solid game manager and a short-term answer. He must show that in camp. The Raiders also have Terrelle Pryor and rookies Matt McGloin and Tyler Wilson. I get the sense that the Raiders have higher, long-term hopes for Wilson, although he has struggled some in camp. If Pryor can find some consistency and Flynn falters, he or McGloin could get a chance. But the same goes for Wilson, a rookie, if there are no better options later in the season. For the immediate future, the Raiders hope Flynn can show he can be an effective starter.

2. Will McFadden have an impact? Running back Darren McFadden has long been Oakland’s best player. The Raiders need him to regain form to ensure this offense can be competitive. If McFadden and the running game don’t take off, there will be immense pressure on Flynn.

McFadden is looking for a bounce-back season. Oakland scrapped the zone-blocking scheme and will employ a power-blocking attack under new offensive coordinator Greg Olson. McFadden has had success in the latter scheme but must remain healthy regardless of scheme. He has missed at least three games in all five of his NFL seasons. If McFadden, who is in his contract year, can play at a high level again, Oakland’s offense will have a fighting chance. This training camp is about getting him prepared to do so.

3. Where’s the pass rush? Defensively, camp is about trying to find a pass rush. Oakland had little pass rush last season, and the team did little to improve in that area in the offseason. The team’s best pass-rushers are veteran Andre Carter and Lamarr Houston. But they are far from elite. Oakland has to find some pass-rushers to emerge in camp, and it also needs improved play in the secondary to help with the pass rush.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM: The back seven on defense appears to be improved. Oakland may have as many as nine new starters on defense and six in the back seven. Oakland feels better about its overall depth at linebacker and in the secondary.

In fact, I get the sense that the team’s brass is most excited about the linebackers and defensive backs.

The exact linebacker rotation is not clear, but the team is really high on middle linebacker Nick Roach and rookie outside linebacker Sio Moore. Roach has been a leader and has shown high intelligence. Oakland thinks Roach will set the tone for an improved defense. Moore, a third-round pick from Connecticut, has the look of a player who can make an instant impact.

Last season, Oakland’s secondary was one of the worst in the NFL. That doesn’t appear to be the case now.

The cornerbacks are much improved with veterans Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter and rookie D.J. Hayden. The addition of safety Charles Woodson gives Oakland hope on the field and in the locker room.

REASON FOR PESSISISM: The roster is not deep, and there are holes and questions all over.

There are some talented players, and some of these young players will emerge. But getting them ready in this camp is daunting.

The key in the NFL is depth. Injuries can occur at an alarming rate. The teams that survive are the teams with the deepest rosters. Oakland doesn’t seem to have a deep roster. McKenzie acknowledges this.

[+] EnlargeOakland's D.J. Hayden
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsFirst-round pick D.J. Hayden has the want-to attitude his coaches are looking for.
“I can’t afford to get too many injuries,” McKenzie said. “We have to stay healthy. If we do, I think we can be OK. Guys will emerge as camp goes on.”

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Raiders love Hayden’s attitude. The No. 12 overall pick has the type of want-to attitude the team is looking for.
  • Cornerback Taiwan Jones, who switched positions from running back in the offseason, is a long shot. But because he plays so well on special teams, he has a chance to make the 53-man roster.
  • It is no sure thing that wide receivers Rod Streater and Denarius Moore will be strong starters this year, but both have big potential. Streater, an undrafted fee agent last year, looks particularly comfortable.
  • I love how center Stefen Wisniewski and left tackle Jared Veldheer are looking. These are two of the better young offensive lineman in the game.
  • I get the sense Allen is very pleased with this staff. This group seems like it is working well together.
  • The punting job probably will go down to the wire as Oakland looks to replace Shane Lechler, now in Houston. As expected, veteran Chris Kluwe has shown consistency, but Marquette King has a stronger leg. King has a chance if he can find consistency in the next several weeks.
  • Seventh-round pick and pass-rusher David Bass has shown some nice burst. He has a chance to develop.
  • The tight end position continues to be in flux. The team’s four tight ends are David Ausberry, Richard Gordon and sixth-round picks Nick Kasa and Mychal Rivera. I’d say Ausberry is the favorite to win the job. Still, it is a work in progress.
  • The team likes what it sees in returner Josh Cribbs. He has a great attitude and is a good influence in the locker room.
  • Journeyman offensive lineman Alex Barron has looked good. Once considered a longshot to make the team, Barron has a chance to play a lot.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Through the late years of Jack Del Rio’s nine-season tenure and Mike Mularkey’s one awful year, plenty of Jacksonville Jaguars lacked faith in the coaches above them.

New coach Gus Bradley believes trust is as important as any ingredient in his team, and in the early stages of a big rebuild he has earned a great degree of it from his players.

“It’s been really refreshing, his whole approach from day one,” said Jason Babin, the team’s most proven pass-rusher. “The way he’s laid out how we’re going to do things, the way we’ll go about our business, the way things are going to be here is genuine. As you know coaches often say one thing, and it’s not always entirely true.”

“To have a coach like that with the genuine sincerity is special. You believe him when he talks to you, and he’s done a great job developing relationships.”

Belief is big for a team that is coming off a disastrous 2-14 season, lacks a proven quarterback and has some areas of questionable talent. Bradley has preached a simple, core theme from the very start. He’s not talking playoffs, he’s not talking wins, he’s not talking success. He’s constantly talking improvement.

Bradley is high energy, and while he’s not trying to stamp his personality on his players, the enthusiasm can’t help but be contagious.

“He’s like a breath of fresh air, it’s like night and day,” tight end Marcedes Lewis said. “I’ve always said you can have good coaches but bad people. He’s actually a great coach and a good person who actually cares about you. You can tell when you come into work. It’s just a better working environment.

"When he first came in and we met him, I thought his enthusiasm was fake. Like it wouldn’t last. But that’s who he is, every single day. You can’t do anything but appreciate it.”

While Bradley would like his team to start fast, his bigger emphasis is on finishing strong. For a team that might not have a lot of success in the standings, it seems a smart approach. Because if you talk all about starting fast and you don’t, then what?

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
AP Photo/John RaouxThis season could be Blaine Gabbert's last chance to assert himself as Jacksonville's QB.
1. The quarterback. The Jaguars steered clear of a quarterback in the draft, as they didn’t see an answer to their issues and had plenty of other areas to address. So they move forward with Blaine Gabbert’s big, and final, chance. The new offense is tailored to help Gabbert be better -- he will roll out and go on the move more. His weapons are better and more reliable, with the emerging Cecil Shorts paired with Justin Blackmon (once he’s healthy and after a four-game suspension to start the season) along with Ace Sanders and Mike Brown, who has been quite good in camp. The protection is far better with No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel at right tackle. The initial depth chart has Gabbert as co-No. 1 with Chad Henne, and the team will pump up the competition for as long as it can. But those boosting Henne and suggesting he’ll win the job haven’t seen practices where Henne rarely seizes real command and is regularly worse than Gabbert.

2. Maurice Jones-Drew’s foot. He looked good during my visit, very much the same guy we’ve become accustomed to. He could easily be the centerpiece of the offense just as he was before he suffered a serious Lisfranc foot injury in the team’s sixth game last season. We need to see him in games, over time show that the foot isn’t an issue. We need to see how effective the rest of the team can be so that it’s not overreliant on him. And we need to see how he takes on the final year of his contract when he desires a big new deal, but exists in a league where even effective running backs are devalued as they approach 30. While the team will run more zone plays, MJD said the rush offense won’t look that different from what we saw in the last few years of Del Rio’s regime.

3. The shape of a new scheme: Bradley ran Seattle’s defense under Pete Carroll, and the scheme put a heavy emphasis on big physical cornerbacks and pass-rushing Leos. Do the Jaguars have the guys to fit those roles? Third-round pick Dwayne Gratz looks like a good get. But Babin is the team’s best rusher, and he was let go by the Eagles during the season last year, not a great sign. The second option at Leo, 2012 second-rounder Andre Branch, remains mostly invisible. Jacksonville had 20 sacks last season. The end pool hasn’t really changed, though Tyson Alualu has shifted outside. The new interior guys -- Sen'Derrick Marks, Roy Miller, Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick -- will solidify the run defense. But will they penetrate and get quarterbacks to move off their spot?

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeGus Bradley and Dave Caldwell
Phil Sears/USA TODAY Sports Coach Gus Bradley, left, and GM Dave Caldwell have made a positive impression as they rebuild the Jags.
David Caldwell and Bradley. The new GM and coach are both in their jobs for the first time. They are enthusiastic partners in building this team, not afraid to say there are things they don’t know yet, as opposed to storming in and claiming they have all the answers. We won’t be able to judge them for a few years as they need to assemble and deploy talent. And we don’t know too much about Bradley’s staff. But people who have worked with Caldwell and Bradley in the past, and people who are working with them now, have great reviews. I’m impressed with both, and they are the best thing the team has going for it right now.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The talent gap. How many Jaguars would start for the two-time defending AFC South champion Houston? Joeckel would be the right tackle. Paul Posluszny, if he fit into a 3-4, could be a two-down inside guy next to Brian Cushing. Shorts would be a top-three receiver. That’s probably it. The Jaguars might be moving in a good direction, but the distance between their talent and the talent at the top of the division, conference and league is substantial. The more talented teams don’t always win, but you’d rather not be the team that has to remind itself that all the time.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Denard Robinson is listed as a running back, a quarterback, a receiver and a kick returner on the team’s initial depth chart. The team already has tried to trim his workload -- he’s not involved as a punt returner for now -- to help him get good at a smaller role, and so he can really concentrate on ball security. They will definitely use him in the Wildcat. But Caldwell said he’s not really expecting anything from Robinson early on.
  • All the receivers are learning all the spots. So while Sanders and Brown both look the part of slot guys, don’t pigeonhole either as strictly inside guys. And while Shorts and Blackmon look the part of outside guys, they could well get opportunities lining up inside, too. Mohamed Massaquoi and, to a larger degree, Jordan Shipley don’t seem to be very big factors right now.
  • Alualu looked good as an end when I focused on him. Hopefully his knee is sound and he will be able to put things together in his fourth year. Meanwhile, Jeremy Mincey is going the other direction. He has added about 15 pounds and his primary role is likely to be as a nickel tackle.
  • After what he did, and failed to do, in his chances in Houston last season, cornerback Alan Ball seemed like an uninspired signing to me. But he has been better through camp so far than I would have expected.
  • Undrafted rookie linebacker LaRoy Reynolds is flashing regularly at practice. At this point, I expect he’s on the team and given a chance to be a special-teams ace. Maybe he even pushes starter Russell Allen. Look for six to eight undrafted guys to make the initial 53-man roster.

Camp Confidential: New York Giants

August, 6, 2013
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The buzzword around the New York Giants the past few years has been "consistency." As in, they need to find ways to be more consistent week-to-week, month-to-month in order to achieve their goal of making the playoffs. When they make the playoffs, the Giants are a threat to win the Super Bowl, as they showed two seasons ago. But in three of the past four seasons, they have failed to qualify for the postseason.

The issue, ironically, is that for all of their in-season inconsistencies, the Giants are actually one of the most consistent teams in the league year-to-year. Their regular-season win totals the past four seasons are 8, 10, 9 and 9. There are teams all over the league that would kill for that kind of consistency -- to stay annually in the division race deep into December and be in position to get themselves into what Giants general manager Jerry Reese calls "the tournament." But for the Giants, it's not good enough.

"I guess we are consistent when you look at it that way. So we need to be better," quarterback Eli Manning said before Giants training camp practice Friday. "We expect to be a team that can get 11 wins, that can get 12 wins in a season. So I think it's really just playing to our potential, is really what we're saying. We've got to avoid the bad games. We should be in every game we play."

There are multiple levels on which to attack the problem. Manning himself says he's working to improve his accuracy, especially insofar as it helps the Giants get back to hitting big plays in the passing game. Around him the offensive line and the receiving corps are working to get and stay healthy and be cohesive. The run game is transitioning to younger players. On the other side of the ball, the Giants hope the pass rush can rebound from a 33-sack season (the Giants' lowest team total in that category since 2009) and return to the dominant form that helped it win the Super Bowl two seasons ago. If that happens, they believe the secondary will play better and a defense that allowed the second-most yards in the NFL last year will necessarily improve its ability to control games and steer away from the annual potholes.

"Since I've been here, we've kind of fallen into that same trap. We've had that midseason letdown," said safety Antrel Rolle, who's entering his fourth season with the Giants. "And I'm not quite sure why that's happened, but we definitely need to break that mind frame and get above the nine, 10 wins, because we're better than that. Our standards are way beyond that."

The Giants are holding training camp this year at their regular-season practice facility, mere yards from the stadium in which the Super Bowl will be played six months from now. The view of hulking MetLife Stadium from their practice fields, along with the Super Bowl countdown clock Reese installed in the locker room, is making sure the Giants keep their very high goals in mind as they prepare for the 2013 season.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeDavid Wilson
AP Photo/Seth WenigDavid Wilson will now have the chance to be the lead back in New York's running attack.
1. Who will carry the ball? With mainstay Ahmad Bradshaw off to Indianapolis, the running game is in the hands of 2012 first-round pick David Wilson and Andre Brown, who was the Giants' goal-line back before an injury ended the 2012 season for him. Wilson has everyone excited because of his game-breaking potential, but it's clear that whichever of these guys shows the most as a pass-blocker will get the bulk of the carries.

"You really can't play unless you can protect the quarterback," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "Fortunately, those two young men as well as our other running backs have had the opportunity to look at Ahmad's film and get a better understanding of the complexities of our protection packages. Those two guys are very, very fast and very skilled, and we definitely believe in the balance theory. To play great football, we're going to have to run the ball."

Expect a carry split not unlike what the Giants have shown in years past. But if Wilson shows he can stay on the field for three downs, he could emerge as a star. No Giants back in recent memory has been as explosive a runner as he is.

2. Can they get to the quarterback? The pass rush is in flux as well. Osi Umenyiora is in Atlanta. Jason Pierre-Paul is recovering from back surgery and may not be ready for Week 1. Justin Tuck has 12.5 sacks in his last 32 games. Mathias Kiwanuka is moving back up to the line after a couple of years in the linebacking corps. And they only had 33 sacks last year. The Giants, historically, do not have the kind of success they intend to have without a dominating pass rush.

Tuck says he's rejuvenated after two tough years -- healthier than he's been in any camp since 2010. He's in the final year of his contract, and if he looks like his old self this year, he and the team will benefit dramatically. Toughening up inside at defensive tackle should help as well, and if Pierre-Paul makes a full recovery, this will be a driven unit capable of much bigger things.

3. Last stand for the old guard? "Me worrying about contracts or things that are going to happen in the future doesn't really help me in the present," Tuck said after practice last Friday. "I've never been a player that played the game for money or played for a big contract. If I did, don't you think I'd have been more inclined to play well the last two years and not have to worry about the contract now? I just want to go out there and prove to people that Justin Tuck can do still do his job very well."

Tuck's feelings echo those of teammates David Diehl and Corey Webster. All three are proud Giant champions who took a lot of criticism for their disappointing play in 2012. All three are determined to play better in 2013. All three are likely done in New York next year if they don't. The Giants are placing a big bet on the professional and personal pride of some of their title-team cornerstones. They're all talking tough in August, but it's got to translate into turn-back-the-clock production for the Giants' key veterans.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
AP Photo/Seth WenigEli Manning has plenty of offensive weapons this season and the unit will be capable of putting up a lot of points.
Manning is always the biggest reason for optimism in East Rutherford. Steady, reliable and capable of making every clutch throw there is, the Giants' franchise quarterback is the sun around which their current universe revolves. With Victor Cruz back in the fold after an offseason contract dispute, Rueben Randle looking good as he prepared for his second season, the young legs in the run game, and a new tight end in Brandon Myers who caught 79 passes in Oakland last season, Manning is surrounded by exciting weapons on offense. And if top receiver Hakeem Nicks can shake his latest offseason injury bout and stay healthy all year, this is an offense capable of scoring a lot of points in a hurry.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The one issue on offense -- and it's a big one -- is the blocking. Bradshaw was a great blocking back, and as we've already discussed we don't know what Wilson and Brown can bring as blockers over a full season. Martellus Bennett was a great run-blocking tight end, and that's not a strength of Myers' game. Diehl is proud, determined and worthy of the benefit of the doubt, but he's coming off a bad season. Interior offensive linemen Chris Snee and David Baas have struggled the past few years with injuries. All of the skill-position talent is exciting, but it could be undone if the Giants can't answer some of their big blocking questions.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Rolle said that when Kenny Phillips went down with his injury problems last year, he had to play a lot in the box while fellow safety Stevie Brown handled the post safety role. Brown did collect eight interceptions in that role, but the Giants want him to be more versatile now that Phillips is gone and he's a full-time starter. Having a full training camp to work as a starter is helping Brown become the kind of interchangeable safety they need him and Rolle to be. "We already know he's a ballhawk and can go and he can go get the ball and do something with it once he gets it," Rolle said. "Now he's showing us that he can play in the box and definitely be a versatile safety."
  • They don't want to talk about it because they don't want to give away their plans, but the Giants have worked on some different alignments of the defensive front seven this camp. Usually a strict 4-3 team, the Giants have tried some 3-4 looks or some hybrid looks that ask their defensive ends to stand up and either play outside linebacker or at least look as though they might. The idea is to confuse the offense and possibly to be in better position to react to the run-heavy, read-option offenses in Washington and maybe Philadelphia.
  • Third-year cornerback Prince Amukamara is healthy and hoping to build on his solid second season. He said his goal is to play well enough that he's able to stay on one side and Webster on the other side of the field for the whole game, rather than having Webster assigned to the other team's No. 1 receiver regardless of where he lines up. The coaches say that's their goal for their cornerbacks as well, and Amukamara's strong camp is leading them to believe they can play that way.
  • Former Eagle Cullen Jenkins has worked some at defensive end as well as tackle. His experience playing different positions in 3-4 and 4-3 fronts could help the Giants if they plan to be varied and have multiple looks on defense.
  • Randle, the team's second-round pick in 2012, is a big-bodied outside threat who could keep Cruz in the slot where he's at his best. It's still premature to project Randle as Nicks' long-term replacement, but from what I saw he's a guy who knows how to use his size and his leaping ability to out-fight a defensive back for a ball in traffic. His speed becomes more of an asset the further he gets down the field, because of his long strides.
  • The biggest-impact 2013 draft pick could be second-rounder Johnathan Hankins, who looks like a valuable part of the rotation at defensive tackle. Third-rounder Damontre Moore is at least a situational pass-rusher at this point, and it's easy to see the way those playmaking instincts help him get off the ball and into the backfield. First-round pick Justin Pugh isn't running with the first team (and he's actually out right now with a concussion), but they have worked him at tackle and guard and they believe he's going to be a valuable long-term piece for them at some position on the line. Right now, though, he's clearly behind Diehl at right tackle.
  • We've come this far without mentioning linebacker, and I don't have much to report. Between their nickel packages, the three-safety looks they like so much, and the possibility that they might show some 3-4 here and there, it's just not a high-priority spot. Spencer Paysinger is making a push for the starting spot at weakside linebacker, with Keith Rivers on the strong side and Mark Herzlich in the middle at least so far. But I think the linebacker alignment could depend on who shows something on special teams.

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