NFL Nation: 2014 NFL Camp Confidential

Camp Confidential: Seattle Seahawks

August, 14, 2014
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RENTON, Wash. -- For the first time in franchise history, the Seattle Seahawks went into training camp as the reigning Super Bowl champions.

How the players react to that lofty status will go a long way to determining whether they can become the first team in 10 years to win back-to-back Super Bowls.

This training camp has been just as intense and competitive as any other since Pete Carroll became the head coach in 2010, so there is no evidence of complacency.

"I think that’s what’s so unique about being around this place," receiver Percy Harvin said. "Coach Carroll does a great job at putting the task right in front of our hands. It’s not about today or tomorrow or the future. When tomorrow comes, worry about tomorrow. We’re worried about what’s in front of us."

What’s right in front of this team in training camp is figuring out how to fill the gaps with younger players. The Seahawks lost 10 players who were part of the Super Bowl roster, and that doesn’t include cornerback Brandon Browner. Those 10 players had a combined 56 years of NFL experience.

Although most of the starters are back, the Seahawks' depth will be much younger and less experienced this season.

Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman, who signed a $56 million contract extension in the offseason, was looking for specific things at training camp.

"You just want to see growth," Sherman said. "You want to see guys take the next step, and I think they have this camp. I think a lot more guys will get more opportunities than they have had in the past. They’ll take advantages of those opportunities. It’s good to see what they can do."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Russell Wilson: He is starting his third season as an NFL quarterback and already has set numerous records to go along with leading the franchise to its first Super Bowl victory. Wilson gets a bad rap, often referred to as a game manager -- a guy who doesn’t make mistakes but also doesn’t put up a lot of impressive statistics. But the Seahawks are a power-running team that throws the football far less than most teams in this pass-happy era. However, Wilson is an underrated passer who has only scratched the surface of how good he can be.

[+] EnlargePercy Harvin
AP Photo/Paul JasienskiThe Seahawks are excited about the possibility of a healthy season from receiver Percy Harvin.
2. A healthy Harvin: The Seahawks traded for Harvin last season believing he was the explosive player they needed to win the division and reach the Super Bowl. For the most part, they did it without him. Harvin was injured most of the season after having hip surgery last summer. But Harvin is 100 percent healthy now, and it shows. He has wowed everyone with spectacular catches, blazing speed and his ability to elude tacklers. Harvin alone is a reason Wilson will put up bigger numbers, but the offense also added rookie receiver Paul Richardson, who might be faster than Harvin and gives the Seahawks two legitimate deep threats.

3. The best defense could get better: The Seahawks had the best defense in the league last season, and by all indications in camp, it should be as good or better this season. The Legion of Boom secondary arguably has three of the best players at their respective positions in Sherman, free safety Earl Thomas and strong safety Kam Chancellor, and all three still are young. Chancellor and Sherman are 26, and Thomas is 25. The team also has a young linebacking corps led by the man in the middle, Bobby Wagner, who is starting his third season. Outside linebackers Malcolm Smith, the Super Bowl MVP, and K.J. Wright are 25. The coaches believe Wright is headed toward a Pro Bowl season. And defensive end Michael Bennett had 8.5 sacks in 2013, leading to a new $28 million deal.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Uncertainty up front on offense: The offensive line was the weakest link of a Super Bowl-winning team. The line lost starting right tackle Breno Giacomini to the Jets in free agency and now will start rookie Justin Britt, a second-round pick. Britt is more athletic than Giacomini and has looked good in camp, but a rookie going against the talented defensive ends in the NFC West is a tough challenge. The other starters are solid, but depth is an issue. Seattle signed veterans Eric Winston and Wade Smith during camp to try to provide some insurance up front.

2. Injury unknowns: Four key starters (Russell Okung, Malcolm Smith, Chancellor and linebacker Bruce Irvin) had offseason surgery. Okung and Chancellor returned to practice full speed on Aug. 12, but they probably won’t play much in preseason. Irvin is rehabbing from hip surgery and might not be ready for the start of the regular season. Smith is hoping to get back to work next week. And Wagner has missed most of camp with a hamstring injury. The Seahawks are hopeful all of these guys will be 100 percent for the season opener, so they are being very cautious.

3. Defensive line depth: The Seahawks had the deepest defensive line in the NFL last season, but three veterans who combined for 90 tackles and 11.5 sacks last season are gone -- defensive ends Chris Clemons and Red Bryant and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald. Seattle had an eight-man rotation and no one played much more than 60 percent of the snaps, which kept everyone fresh and more effective at the end of the season. The Seahawks want to do the same thing this season, but they will need young players such as Greg Scruggs, Jordan Hill and rookie Cassius Marsh to step up. Adding veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams before the start of camp should help.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • [+] EnlargePaul Richardson
    AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenRookie receiver Paul Richardson has been a pleasant surprise in training camp.
    No young player in camp has been more impressive than Richardson, the second-round draft pick from Colorado. His blazing speed was obvious from the start of rookie minicamp. He has consistently beaten defenders, including the starting cornerbacks, deep on long touchdown receptions. Richardson is rail-thin at a listed 180 pounds but has shown signs that he can hold his own in blocking and getting hit.
  • The biggest surprise of training camp has to be undrafted rookie linebacker Brock Coyle of Montana. Coyle was a huge long shot entering camp, but he took advantage of his opportunity to show what he can do at middle linebacker while Wagner was out with a hamstring injury. Coyle is strong, quick, smart and tough. He is as fundamentally sound a rookie as you will ever see.
  • Wilson has seen enough at camp to believe the offense has improved. "I definitely believe we’re better than a year ago," Wilson said. "I think that the receivers, tight ends and running backs are extremely good right now. Everybody’s just on the same page. I think that we’re more in control in terms of how we practice. It’s all about the details, and we really harp on that."
  • Running back Marshawn Lynch missed the first eight days of camp because of a contract holdout, but he’s in good shape and appears ready to carry the load again this season. "Marshawn is such a disciplined runner," Seahawks running back coach Sherman Smith said. "He understands the run game and understands what he has to do. Marshawn knows what his reads are, and that’s his big thing. Marshawn has been there and done it. He’s got a track record of being able to make plays. I think one of his special skills is making something out of nothing. That’s what he does."

Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

August, 14, 2014
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As one of the few training camps in the league at which music doesn't regularly blare through temporary speaker setups, the soundtrack to the St. Louis Rams 2014 camp is limited to the sounds of pads cracking and the ensuing trash talk.

It's a drastic departure from last year's camp, when the Rams attempted to turn their offense into a spread-based passing attack flinging the ball all over the field.

That experiment failed miserably but also cleared the path for the Rams to forge their current identity, which is regularly on display on the Rams Park practice fields.

At an early August practice, the sight of running back Zac Stacy and tight end Cory Harkey consistently dropping their pads and creating collisions with defenders set a physical tone that manifested into a fight between cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and receiver Austin Pettis.

As residents of the NFL's toughest and most physical division, the NFC West, the Rams permanently adopted the approach they used in the season's final 12 games. Which is to say, they want an offense based on a power-rushing attack and an aggressive defense.

If that plan sounds similar to what Seattle and San Francisco do, it's because it is. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

"Obviously, that's the way we're built," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "We've always been built that way. That's what we're going to be based on -- play great defense, run the football. Our play-action game comes off of that."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Defensively, the Rams have the pieces in place to be one of the league's elite groups in 2014. Coordinator Gregg Williams gives Fisher's Rams the chance to move from a middling group to a top-10 or even top-five unit in the NFL. Even without Williams' aggressive guidance, the Rams have combined for more sacks than any team in the league over the past two seasons. With the additions of defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Alex Carrington, the defensive line is the deepest and best in the league. Defensive end Robert Quinn is already one of the best pass-rushers in the league and should get better. That group should be good enough to wreck game plans on a weekly basis.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Jeff Roberson/AP PhotoSam Bradford is on track to be fully recovered from injury when the regular season begins, and he has an offensive line with the potential to be among the league's best.
2. The aforementioned shift to a run-centric offense should be buoyed by the offseason addition of No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson and running back Tre Mason, as well as the retention of guard Rodger Saffold. With a line built to run the ball and an offense that now knows what it should be, the run game should be better and more consistent.

3. The advancements in modern medicine should benefit the Rams, as quarterback Sam Bradford and left tackle Jake Long are on track to be ready when the season begins. Both are coming off major knee surgery, but you'd hardly know it from watching them move around on the practice field. Bradford is facing a huge season and knows this is the time to finally prove he's the long-term answer at quarterback. Long played at a Pro Bowl level for most of the past season, especially in the run game, and is critical to ensuring that Bradford stays healthy. Having both back this early would have been a big surprise in the past but is a welcome sight in St. Louis.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. For the second straight season, the Rams' offensive line has the potential to be among the best in the league. But the dark injury cloud hovering over that projection remains. Long, center Scott Wells and Saffold are each either coming off an injury, have a lengthy injury history or both. Although line coach Paul Boudreau has a gift for making it work with whoever is playing, he has a group of question marks behind the starters. Guard Davin Joseph is the only backup on the line with substantial experience.

2. Among the many positions in which the Rams are young, perhaps none are of greater concern than the secondary. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins is headed into his third season and third as a starter, which makes him the elder statesmen of the group. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson and safeties Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald have experience, but they've also been spotty in terms of performance. The Rams are banking on the pass rush to help the secondary, but it's unrealistic to think the defensive backs won't have to stand on their own in key moments.

3. Attempting to project what any team will do in a season based on the previous year's result is a fool's errand, but it's hard to ignore the on-paper strength of the Rams' schedule, particularly in the NFC West. Like last year, it's possible the Rams will be better than the past season but left with nothing to show for it in terms of record or postseason appearances.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeSam
    Michael B. Thomas/Getty ImagesThe media circus expected to engulf Rams rookie Michael Sam at training camp has not materialized.
  • All that talk about defensive end Michael Sam being a distraction for this team has been just that: talk. Sam has earned nothing but positive reviews from his teammates and coaches for his work ethic and desire to improve. He still faces a battle to make the roster, but aside from a couple days of increased media attention, the circus many expected has never materialized.
  • Once again, the Rams are almost wholly unproven at wide receiver, but they believe they are ready to change that this year. Kenny Britt has been a pleasant surprise, both in performance and leadership, and has had a particularly positive effect on Brian Quick. Breakout is a relative term with this group, given that the Rams won't be airing it out like other teams, but big plays will be needed to complement the run game.
  • The Rams will miss young receiver Stedman Bailey as he serves a four-game suspension to start the season. He's been the most consistent wideout in camp and looks poised for a much bigger role upon his return.
  • Donald might not start, but he is going to play a lot. He has wowed coaches and teammates with his advanced technical skills and maturity. Some in the organization believe he could become Defensive Rookie of the Year.
  • Looking for an undrafted rookie or two who could win roster spots? Look no further than tight end Alex Bayer and defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks. Both flashed potential in the spring, and it has carried over into training camp and the preseason.
  • Although Stacy and Mason garner most of the attention at running back, Benny Cunningham should not be overlooked. The Rams like him a lot, and he returned to St. Louis bigger, stronger and faster. He's another year removed from a serious knee injury and could play a more integral role in his second season.
Take away the first seven games of last season, and the Arizona Cardinals were another miracle story for first-year head coach Bruce Arians.

Arizona went 7-2 over the final nine games, and the offense, a complex system that Arians installed after being hired in January 2013, was finally understood and, as cliché as it sounds, began clicking on all cylinders.

It's just gotten better during this season's training camp.

Quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald have said it. Arians has repeated it. The Cardinals are “light years” ahead of where they were last year at this time. It's obvious in the route running, which is crisper, and the formations, which aren't discussed by receivers pre-snap.

A major difference is the Cardinals have the pieces in place to make a serious run at the NFC West title, no matter how hard Seattle and San Francisco fans are laughing right now.

Despite it being a preseason game with no preparation and basic sets, the Cardinals gave a glimpse of how well-oiled the offense is against the Houston Texans on Saturday. Even Arians, usually one to temper expectations, talked about how well it executed.

With more time, the offense will only get better.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. The entire defensive line returned this season -- the same line of Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams and Calais Campbell that finished last season ranked No. 1 in the NFL. With a year under its belt in defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' single-gap scheme, the trio has been ironing out wrinkles during training camp and adding minor variations to the system. But what could make this line more dangerous than a year ago is the depth. When he's healthy, nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu will back up Williams again, and draft picks Kareem Martin and Ed Stinson will get some quality time backing up Campbell and Dockett, while veteran Frostee Rucker is still playing at a high level.

[+] EnlargeTed Ginn
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinTed Ginn adds speed and veteran experience to an already solid receiver corps in Arizona.
2. Arians has long preached that he can't teach speed. But he can sign it. The Cardinals saw that speed was a major deficiency in their offense in 2013, and they set out this offseason to change it. Add Ted Ginn and John Brown, and they now have two of the faster receivers in the league. That means more deep throws over the top and more opportunities to spread out the defense and allow Fitzgerald to work inside. Ginn is poised for a breakout year as a receiver, and Brown, a rookie out of Division II Pittsburg State, has been turning heads all camp.

3. While their defensive line counterparts were atop the league's rankings last season, the secondary was sitting at 14th. But that's about to change this season. Arizona basically vacuum sealed its secondary through free agency and the draft. Patrick Peterson will have free-agent addition Antonio Cromartie across from him at corner, and whenever Tyrann Mathieu returns from injury at free safety, he will be playing alongside either Tony Jefferson or rookie Deone Bucannon at strong safety. Arizona could have three Pro Bowlers roaming the secondary, which Peterson already has dubbed the "No Fly Zone."

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. On paper and especially in theory, the offensive line's issues were supposed to be solved this offseason with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer and return of left guard Jonathan Cooper. But Cooper has struggled all camp and at times has been replaced by Earl Watford. Center Lyle Sendlein is out with a calf injury but should return in a week with hopes it doesn't linger. But the right side of the line has looked the strongest. Paul Fanaika has been consistent enough to win the job at right guard, and right tackle Bobby Massie returns to the starting lineup after a one-year hiatus.

2. The tight end room, which was once a high point for the Cardinals this offseason, became an area of concern when Jake Ballard decided to retire. Arizona went from two strong run-blockers starting -- Ballard and John Carlson -- to being forced to start Rob Housler, who hasn't lived up to expectations. It's just a matter of time until rookie Troy Niklas gets up to speed after missing most of the offseason workouts with injuries. As their fourth tight end, the Cardinals have promoted Darren Fells, a former basketball player who's never played in an NFL game.

[+] EnlargeJohn Brown
Matt York/AP PhotoJohn Brown, a rookie wide receiver out of Division II Pittsburg State, has exceeded expectations in Cardinals training camp.
3. The biggest surprise on last season's defense -- actually, on the whole team -- was linebacker John Abraham. But Abraham isn't in camp for reasons not yet disclosed by the team. He was arrested in late June on a charge of DUI. In what shape he returns will be the difference between another Pro Bowl season and possibly the end of his career. But his impact on the defense will be noticeable. Arizona struggled with an edge pass rush last season until he was inserted into the starting lineup, and the result was 11.5 sacks.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • Two words: John Brown. The rookie wide receiver has proved in training camp that he was worth a third-round pick. His speed is natural, as is his passion for the game. The Cardinals already had a stout wide receiver corps featuring Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Ginn. Brown has the fourth spot all but locked.
  • Veteran linebacker Larry Foote was said by Arians to be just a two-down linebacker when he was signed. That's changed. He's shown that even at 34 he can still be a three-down 'backer alongside his young compatriot Kevin Minter.
  • The battle at safety is strong, but the product will be great depth. Jefferson is making it hard for the coaches to bench him in favor of Bucannon, and Rashad Johnson is playing like he was through the first few games of 2013, before Mathieu entered the starting lineup.
  • Veteran kicker Jay Feely may be coming up on the end of his tenure in Arizona. Rookie Chandler Catanzaro has been kicking well, and Arians said if the field goals are even that he will take the better one on kickoffs, which Catanzaro has been thus far.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Jim Harbaugh is always good for supplying a vivid verbal painting.

The San Francisco 49ers’ unconventional fourth-year coach was in rare form as the team opened camp July 24. Harbaugh’s theme for the start of camp was “rebirth.” He enthusiastically went into great detail of what he was feeling as the 49ers assembled to kick off the season.

"It's the start of the new year in football. It's like it's your own birthday,” Harbaugh said with zeal only he can exude. “Like it's a family reunion. It's like a rebirth. Feel like you come out of the womb and [are] reborn into football. … It's such a positive happening, that first day. Imagine you're kind of in the comfort of the offseason, like being in the comfort of the womb. You get plenty to eat in there, it's warm, very cozy. And then you're born, into somewhat of the unknown. A lot of people looking at you, lot of faces looking at you, lot of excitement. It's light, it's bright, it's noisy, it's the crazy world of football. Again, it's a real happening. Wish everybody could experience it."

As Harbaugh and his team moved headfirst into the season, in many ways the feeling is more about completing a mission than starting one.

The 49ers have been to three NFC title games and one Super Bowl under Harbaugh. This training camp is designed to be the beginning of ending that mission with a Super Bowl crown. Anything less would be failure.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
  1. [+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
    AP Photo/Nick WassColin Kaepernick should benefit from having a deep group of 49ers receivers this season.
    Passing game: At no point last season did the 49ers’ aerial attack look as strong as it has during this training camp. Actually, it’s stunning to see how much better this area is than it was last season. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is surely benefiting. A few examples: As a rookie, Quinton Patton was the No. 3 receiver last year. This year, he’s improved, but he might be the sixth and final receiver on the 53-man roster. Jonathan Baldwin was a frontline receiver for a spell in 2013. This year, he was cut 10 days into training camp. The additions of veterans Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and explosive fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington to go with holdover starters Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin make for a pretty special group. It has showed in camp.
  2. Deep roster: General manager Trent Baalke said three days into camp the 49ers had about four or five openings on their 53-man roster. Imagine that -- an NFL team knowing up to 49 of its regular-season players six weeks before the start of the season. That wasn’t hyperbole by Baalke. Take a gander at this roster. It is stacked. Almost every position is full of plus players. There is little weakness on this team, and it has shown in the level of competition in camp. The 49ers have been feisty. Kaepernick said it’s because there is so much talent, and the intensity level is heightened because people are fighting for just a few jobs.
  3. The rookies: The 49ers are poised to get immediate help from some rookies. Their first-round pick, defensive back Jimmie Ward; second-round pick, running back Carlos Hyde; third-round picks, linebacker Chris Borland and center Marcus Martin; and fourth-round picks, Ellington and cornerback Dontae Johnson, have all been factors in camp. All of them can be contributors in the regular season. That is a major shot of youth for a veteran-stacked team.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
  1. Injuries: Yes, the 49ers are deep, and they need to be. They have gotten knocked around in what has been a physical camp. Running back Kendall Hunter (torn ACL) was lost for the season, and running back LaMichael James (dislocated elbow) was lost for the preseason in the first weekend of camp. A week later, standout nose tackle Glenn Dorsey was lost for the majority, if not all, of the season with a torn biceps. The defense was already working from behind with inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman set to miss about half of the season as he recovers from an ACL tear. The good news for the 49ers is they are deep at their injury spots, but trouble could be brewing if the rash of injuries continues.
  2. Flux on offensive line: The 49ers’ offensive line has been an NFL gold standard. That has not been the case in training camp. Guard Alex Boone is holding out, and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight. Joe Looney has taken his place at right guard. Looney has been decent in camp, but he was overpowered at Baltimore in the first preseason game. Next to him is Jonathan Martin, who has had a rough go at right tackle. He is playing for Anthony Davis, who is out until Week 1 as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. At center, Daniel Kilgore is a first-time starter. All the change has been reflective in camp.
  3. Backup QB plan: Here’s the bottom line: Kaepernick better not go down. Blaine Gabbert is who he is. He has had his moments in camp, but when the lights of the preseason came on, he struggled badly. But Gabbert is essentially guaranteed to be on the roster because he is getting paid $2 million. Gabbert, acquired in March in a trade with Jacksonville, can still improve under Harbaugh and his staff. But if he continues to struggle, the confidence level in him will be low.
OBSERVATION DECK
  • [+] EnlargeTank Carradine
    AP Photo/Tony AvelarTank Carradine, left, and Quinton Dial have opened eyes during training camp.
    Johnson and Hyde both have shown an aptitude for blocking. The 49ers expect prime blocking from their receivers and running backs, so they are good fits.
  • Young nose tackle Mike Purcell is getting a lot of work because of the injury to Dorsey. Still, Purcell is a work in progress, and the best-case scenario for him is likely as a rotational player.
  • The 49ers look strong on special teams again. They have a veteran, savvy group, and it shows in camp.
  • The 49ers would probably like to see more from Martin, who was acquired in a trade with Miami after the infamous Dolphins bullying case. He is struggling as a starter, but I think he has to gain the 49ers’ trust even as a backup.
  • Second-year defensive tackle Quinton Dial has been a star in camp. He has been overpowering people. Dial has a chance to get a lot of playing time. The same goes for fellow defensive lineman Tank Carradine. The 2013 second-round pick is healthy and looks very much like the top-15 prospect he was before he suffered a torn ACL in 2012 at Florida State.
  • Fellow defensive lineman Lawrence Okoye is still very raw. The former British Olympic discus thrower is in just his second season of football. He will probably end up on the practice squad.
  • One player who seems to be flourishing under the 49ers coaches is cornerback Chris Cook. The former second-round pick underachieved in Minnesota. He has no interceptions in four NFL seasons. Cook has worked extensively on his ball skills with the coaches. It has paid off. He has several interceptions in camp and had one in the first preseason game.

Camp Confidential: Atlanta Falcons

August, 13, 2014
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FLOWERY BRANCH, GA. -- There is no doubt the Atlanta Falcons have gotten tougher this season just based on the bigger bodies along the offensive and defensive lines and the nastier attitudes players have brought to training camp.

But will that translate to a return trip to the postseason in 2014?

The Falcons still have some questions to answer, some wrinkles to iron out after last season's 4-12 finish. If all goes as planned, Matt Ryan will play like one of the top-tier quarterbacks in the league because he won't have to throw under such duress and he'll have his top threat back in Julio Jones. If all goes as planned, the running backs, led by Steven Jackson and rookie Devonta Freeman, will help give the Falcons much-needed offensive balance.

If all goes as planned, newly added defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson will help shut down the run, forcing opponents to be one-dimensional and allowing defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to find creative ways to get pressure on quarterbacks and create turnovers.

And if all goes as planned, Devin Hester will prove he's still the greatest return man in the game and will help the Falcons win a few games simply on his own dynamic talent.

We'll see how it all unfolds.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellJulio Jones is fully healthy,which is bad news for the rest of the NFC South.
1. Jones' return: You can't overstate how much Jones means to this offense. The Falcons sorely missed his big-play ability last season as opposing defenses had it easy. With Jones back and looking fully healthy coming off a second foot surgery, the Falcons have their explosion back. Jones put on 10 pounds of muscle and still has his breakaway speed. Where he really might thrive more than ever is the red zone, given that Ryan no longer has Tony Gonzalez as his security blanket. Also expect Jones to draw his share of defensive holding penalties against outmatched cornerbacks.

2. Jake Matthews' arrival: The rookie first-round pick brings more stability to what was a pathetic offensive line last season. Throughout training camp, the right tackle has been like a brick wall in pass protection and has been equally impressive as a run blocker. There are still questions about how the line will fare as a whole. But there's no doubt Matthews has perennial Pro Bowler written all over him. With veteran right guard Jon Asamoah next to Matthews, the right side of the line should be the least of the Falcons' concerns.

3. No-nonsense coaches: Offensive line coach Mike Tice and defensive line coach Bryan Cox are new to the staff -- and they don't take crap from anyone. Some players need a kick in the butt rather than positive reinforcement, and Tice and Cox have no issue raising their voices. The players seem to respect them both. The offensive linemen have taken well to Tice tweaking their techniques. Maybe the defensive linemen aren't so enthused about Cox making them do up-downs after mistakes, but it's only going to make them more mentally focused.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Although no one should doubt Nolan's unique ability to be creative with his packages, the simple fact is the Falcons don't have a dominant pass-rusher. Sure, Jonathan Massaquoi has a lot of promise and veteran Osi Umenyiora slimmed down and seems to have a good year left in his body, but there's not a guy who strikes fear in opposing offensive tackles. With Drew Brees and Cam Newton in the division and Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco also on the schedule, pressure will be imperative.

2. There continues to be a concern at inside linebacker. Paul Worrilow should be fine and will have a place in the lineup for a lot of years to come. But Joplo Bartu, currently alongside Worrilow in the 3-4 setup and in the nickel defense, has some strides to make. Bartu has had a good training camp and can cover tight ends with no issues. But he's still learning on the fly, coming from outside linebacker last year. The Falcons have a lot of faith in rookie Prince Shembo, but he's also transitioning from outside to inside and will have a learning curve. There's a lack of depth at the position, too, with Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles) and rookie Marquis Spruill (ACL) out for the season.

3. Injuries took a toll on the Falcons last season with players such as Jones, Jackson, Weatherspoon, Roddy White and Kroy Biermann all either being shelved for the season or at least missing games. The injury bug has again bit the Falcons in training camp with three players (safety Dwight Lowery, linebacker Pat Angerer and offensive tackle Terren Jones) suffering concussions, two players (Gabe Carimi and Tim Dobbins) suffering ankle injuries, and one player (Spruill) tearing an ACL. The Falcons can't have a rash of major injuries this season. If they do, at least they'll have better depth than a year ago.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • Although 6-foot-3-inch, 302-pound center Joe Hawley was pushed around a little bit in the preseason opener against Miami, the Falcons can live with that for a couple of plays a game because Hawley brings so much toughness and is so quick and athletic when it comes to pulling.
  • Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford continue to evolve as a duo and should be one of the most feared cornerback tandems in the league for years to come. Expect them to be much more physical this year.
    [+] EnlargeDesmond Trufant
    AP Photo/Joe RobbinsDesmond Trufant teams with Robert Alford to give the Falcons a top-notch CB tandem.
  • Some folks wondered about White's health because he seems a little hobbled and continues to wear a light brace on his left knee. But White showed no ill-effects against the Dolphins and looked like the Roddy White of old.
  • Robert McClain appears to be ahead in the battle for the third cornerback right now, with Javier Arenas maybe a tad ahead of Josh Wilson at this point. Wilson has to start making more plays.
  • No one is panicking over Hester fumbling the ball in his first exhibition. The defender got a good hit on him. Hester, historically, has been secure with the ball on returns.
  • Safety Kemal Ishmael continues to impress the Falcons, specifically with his tackling. If Lowery's concussion issues resurface, Ishmael should be more than capable to handle a starting role next to strong safety William Moore.
  • Explosive running back Antone Smith deserves more touches. Enough said.
TAMPA, Fla. – On a day near the middle of training camp, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith walked into his post-practice news conference and delivered a message.

"There's nothing really I can give you today," Smith said.

Smith wasn't being condescending or rude to the media. He simply was being truthful. Tampa Bay's camp hasn't had any major news or controversies. It has been downright boring at times -- but it beats the alternative.

We saw the other side of things last year, and it wasn't pretty. There was plenty of news and a ton of distractions. Former coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman were in the early stages of a feud that would end in divorce one month into the season. And it wasn't just Freeman who was having issues with Schiano's style. Numerous players had problems with Schiano's rigid ways and never fully bought into the coach.

That quickly caught up to Schiano, who was fired after two lackluster seasons. Enter Smith, who is the anti-Schiano in just about every way. Smith is calm and treats his players like adults, and you already can see the results of that. There have been no controversies.

Amid the tranquility, players are singing the praises of Smith. The coach brings back memories of Tony Dungy, who guided the Bucs to their first era of sustained success. That's no coincidence. Smith was the linebackers coach in Dungy's early years in Tampa Bay and has an approach similar to Dungy's.

People already are comparing defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to Warren Sapp and linebacker Lavonte David to Derrick Brooks. Smith's hiring has brought enthusiasm to a fan base that hasn't had much to be excited about in recent years. But that fan base has pleasant memories of what things were like in the Bucs' glory days.

On several occasions, Smith has said that one of his goals is to make the Bucs relevant again. If things go according to Smith's plans, the Bucs might be boring, but they'll be good.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Smith is known for being a defensive coach, and he has some good ingredients to start with. McCoy and David were All-Pros last year, and they play two of the most important positions in the Tampa 2 defense Smith is bringing back to the Bucs. McCoy and David give Tampa Bay a nice start, but some other players are going to have to come through. The coaching staff believes strong safety Mark Barron is ready to be a star. If some role players come through, this could be a very good defense.

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDoug Martin is back from a shoulder injury, but he shouldn't have to shoulder all of the load in a deep backfield.
2. Doug Martin is back from a shoulder injury that kept him out for about half of last season. That should provide a huge lift for the offense. Martin rushed for more than 1,400 yards as a rookie in 2012, and he has looked sharp in training camp. Under Schiano, the Bucs often overused Martin. That’s not going to be the case with Smith. The Bucs have made it clear that Martin will remain as the feature back but that they’ll rotate in some other backs to keep him fresh. Rookie Charles Sims, Bobby Rainey and Mike James could be in the mix for playing time.

3. After using their first two draft picks on wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the Bucs have one of the biggest receiving corps in the league. Williams, Seferian-Jenkins and Vincent Jackson each are at least 6-foot-5. They're going to present coverage challenges for defensive backs.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The offensive line hasn't looked very good in the preseason, and that's a huge cause for concern. The Bucs are especially thin at guard. All-Pro Carl Nicks left the team after not being able to recover from a toe injury. That leaves four guys without a lot of experience vying for two starting spots. Oniel Cousins, Jace Daniels, Patrick Omameh and rookie Kadeem Edwards have been rotating at the guard spots, and two of them will emerge as starters, unless the Bucs bring in some help from the outside.

2. Smith went out on a limb when he signed quarterback Josh McCown as a free agent and immediately named him the starter. McCown, 35, has been a backup most of his career, but he did play well in Chicago last year when Jay Cutler went out with an injury. McCown threw 13 touchdowns with just one interception. It's too much to expect him to keep up that kind of pace, especially with an unsteady offensive line. Smith, who coached McCown in Chicago, believes he can be successful over the course of a full season. But that's something McCown has never done.

3. Smith's philosophy is to play great defense and be efficient on offense. That worked well enough to get Smith to a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears. But that philosophy might be antiquated. The league has become quarterback-driven. The Bucs are in the same division as New Orleans' Drew Brees, Carolina's Cam Newton and Atlanta's Matt Ryan. McCown and this offense might not have enough firepower to stay competitive in the division.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • McCoy has had an outstanding training camp. He consistently has gotten into the backfield as a pass-rusher and has been stuffing running plays. But it remains to be seen whether McCoy's excellent play is simply the byproduct of the weakness at the guard spots.
    [+] EnlargeVincent Jackson
    AP Photo/Bill KostrounVincent Jackson, in his third season with the Bucs, will have a third starting QB throwing to him.
  • The chemistry between McCown and Jackson has been noticeable. In addition to the offseason program, the two spent a lot of time in the spring and summer working out at a local high school.
  • The Bucs have gotten almost nothing out of defensive end Da'Quan Bowers since taking him in the second round in 2011. But they are trying something new with Bowers this year. They're going to use him inside at defensive tackle in obvious passing situations.
  • The Bucs have high hopes for sixth-round draft pick Robert Herron. But don't look for the receiver/return man to get a lot of playing time early on. Herron has had ball-security issues in camp. He needs to hold on to the ball if he's going to earn playing time.
  • Herron will make the 53-man roster. So will Jackson, Evans and Chris Owusu. Eric Page also probably will stick thanks to his return skills. That probably leaves one spot to be filled from a group of receivers who have shown promise in training camp. Tommy Streeter, Louis Murphy, Lavelle Hawkins and Solomon Patton all have shown flashes, but at least a couple of them won't make the roster.
  • Hamstring injuries have kept cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Mike Jenkins out for a big chunk of training camp. But there's a flip side to that, and it's positive. Second-year pro Johnthan Banks has gotten a ton of work with the first team and has looked good. Banks didn't have a great rookie year. But his performance in camp probably will keep him in the starting lineup.

Camp Confidential: Carolina Panthers

August, 13, 2014
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It wasn't a long message, but it spoke volumes about where the Carolina Panthers are mentally.

"Don't sleep on the Panthers," Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert said.

The Panthers nationally have been dubbed the NFL team most likely to take a big fall. After Carolina lost its top four wide receivers, its starting left tackle and three-fourths of its secondary, many predict four to five fewer wins than its 12-4 2013 season.

Throw in offseason ankle surgery for quarterback Cam Newton and legal issues involving Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy and one easily could argue that the Panthers have had the worst offseason of any team in the league.

That they've never put together consecutive winning seasons since coming into the league 20 years ago doesn't help.

Coach Ron Rivera uses this as motivation. His players use it as a lack of respect.

They're playing the underdog role to the hilt.

"We put a lot of work in last year and a lot of people didn't give us a chance," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. "So this offseason [there have been] a lot of questions about what we're doing next and it's sort of the same thing. We're just starting over refocusing. That's something that is going to be incredible for us."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Even Rivera admitted he was concerned when Carolina failed to sign wide receivers Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon after releasing all-time leading receiver Steve Smith. He went as far as to say the team didn't need a true No. 1. That seems like a distant memory. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin has emerged as a legitimate No. 1. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant have brought in the leadership and consistency. This group is closer than last year's that averaged slightly less than 10 catches a game. With more talent at tight end, it will open up the entire offense.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneKelvin Benjamin has the makings of being a true No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
2. General manager Dave Gettleman likes what he calls "hog mollies" -- big players on both sides of the line. He has put together a group on the defensive front that is deeper than some of the best units he had while with the New York Giants. Carolina has eight or nine players who could play for most teams. Having the luxury to rotate big, fast bodies in without suffering a significant drop-off should help the league's No. 2 defense -- No. 1 in sacks -- in 2013 maintain its elite status.

3. Led by Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, Carolina has a solid core on both sides of the ball. Newton is more confident and poised than ever as he enters his fourth season. The left ankle that was surgically repaired in March should be stronger, making him more dangerous as a runner. Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has been compared to some of the all-time greats, such as Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis. He is a tackling machine who lives and breathes football. He makes everybody around him better. So does Newton.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Kalil laughed when I asked him about all the questions surrounding the restructured offensive line, saying the line has been a question mark since he arrived eight years ago. The difference is Carolina had Jordan Gross at left tackle all those years. The Panthers don't now. Regardless of how the battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler shakes out to replace Gross, Carolina will have two undrafted players starting at the tackle positions because the other will start on the right side. No other team probably can -- or wants to -- say that.

2. The Panthers haven't had consecutive winning seasons since they began playing in 1995. Their average win total the season after their previous four winning seasons is 7.5. That there's never been a repeat winner in the NFC South doesn't bode well, either. That Atlanta and Tampa Bay should be stronger, and New Orleans should be solid once again, will make repeating last year's 5-1 division record tough. The overall schedule should be tougher, as well, particularly an Oct. 12-30 stretch of at Cincinnati, at Green Bay, Seattle and New Orleans.

[+] EnlargeJordan Gross
AP Photo/Mike McCarnReplacing retired Jordan Gross remains a priority for the Panthers.
3. Back to the offensive line: It's a fragile situation. Although the starters could surprise, the depth outside of Garry Williams (T/G) and Chris Scott (G) is suspect. This team can't afford to lose three guards, as it did early last season, and still succeed. It especially can't afford a loss at tackle. Plus, it is depending on rookie Trai Turner out of LSU as the starting right guard. As consistent as he has looked in camp, he's still a rookie.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • Benjamin and Newton have formed a bond off the field that obviously has helped their chemistry on it. It's a relationship Newton never had with Smith.
  • Benjamin has made more spectacular catches in his first few weeks of camp than arguably any receiver in Carolina history.
  • Despite being found guilty on domestic violence charges, which he is appealing, Hardy has remained popular among fans seeking autographs.
  • The addition of free agent Ed Dickson and the emergence of Brandon Williams to go opposite Greg Olsen makes the Panthers deep at tight end. They'll go with a lot of two-TE sets that will force teams to put eight in the box and open up the entire offense.
  • Replacing Ginn (Arizona) as a kick returner remains a challenge.
  • The Panthers love the leadership of Charles Godfrey, but if he doesn't show improvement in his transition from safety to the nickel corner, they'll love somebody else. Maybe rookie Bené Benwikere.
  • Running back Jonathan Stewart has spent so much time on the stationary bike rehabbing injuries the past three training camps that some are wondering whether he's training for the Tour de France.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees' strained oblique must have been one of those balance-in-the-universe things.

Although the New Orleans Saints quarterback is expected to be healed in plenty of time for the start of the regular season, the injury that has kept him sidelined for the past two weeks feels like one of those yin-and-yang type of deals. Like something had to go wrong to keep the Saints' training camp from going too smoothly.

Because aside from a handful of injury issues that have crept up this summer, the Saints' camp has been as idyllic as the cool mountain air in their new West Virginia training camp site.

Breakout young talents such as rookie receiver Brandin Cooks and second-year left tackle Terron Armstead have injected some new life into an offense that needed a boost in those two position groups. Meanwhile, the Saints' defense appears to be in better shape than ever during the Sean Payton-Brees era, with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan heading into his second season with even more talent at his disposal.

No, the image of Brees throwing passes to prized free-agent safety Jairus Byrd in street clothes before the start of the preseason opener wasn't exactly an awe-inspiring sight. But if they're both back to 100 percent by the start of the real opener, this team indeed has the feel of a bona fide Super Bowl contender.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Cooks has been everything that was advertised and then some. The first-round draft pick from Oregon State has repeatedly flashed his dynamic speed in practices, in the scrimmage and in the preseason opener, when he embarrassed two St. Louis Rams defensive backs with a wicked stop-and-go move. Cooks has also caught almost every pass thrown his way, including some trickier back-shoulder throws and some balls he had to go up and get behind safeties and corners. And he has remained humble and hardworking, demonstrating that the hype isn't going to his head. Although you never want to put too much on any rookie's plate, Cooks really looks like a guy who will help fill that big-play void that started to show up for the Saints last season.

[+] EnlargeCooks
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesIn the preseason opener, Saints rookie Brandin Cooks had five receptions for 55 yards and a TD.
2. The Saints' run game looks as if it could be a legitimate strength -- or at least a decent complement to the passing game. The blockers and runners alike have hit the ground running this summer after finishing strong last season. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson thrived in the preseason opener -- and that was without Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs in the lineup because of undisclosed injuries. Armstead is emerging as a tremendous young asset. And more than anything, you can tell there is a confidence among all the players and coaches after they figured out what worked (and what didn't) last season when they transitioned to more of a zone-blocking scheme under new line coach Bret Ingalls.

3. The simple law of averages says the Saints have to force more turnovers than in 2013, when they had only four takeaways over their last 11 games, including zero in the playoffs. But they're not just counting on a change in fortune. It's been a huge point of emphasis this offseason, starting with the Byrd signing. You constantly hear players and coaches cheering turnovers on the field or chattering about the opportunities they missed. One of the highlight moments in camp came early, when the entire secondary wildly celebrated after a great team effort by Champ Bailey and Rafael Bush to force, save and recover a fumble.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Brees' injury isn't expected to linger into the start of the regular season. And, in his 14th NFL season, he of all people should be able to handle missing preseason games. But it's obviously not ideal for him to be thrown off his routine. And it's a sobering reminder of how fragile the Saints' title chances are if anything happens to their future Hall of Fame quarterback.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Chris TilleyThe Saints' offense is in good hands -- as long as QB Drew Brees is healthy and ready to lead the charge.
2. Another future Hall of Famer, cornerback Bailey, has been dealing with an undisclosed injury that leaves his future -- and the Saints' No. 2 cornerback job -- in limbo. The good news is the Saints have some other decent options, including former starters Patrick Robinson and Corey White. And Robinson, especially, has looked good in his return from a 2013 knee injury. But in general, that No. 2 cornerback job remains as big of a question mark as it was to start the offseason.

3. Let's go with injuries one more time. It was unsettling to see both Evans and Grubbs out of the lineup for much of the past two weeks. Ideally, neither of their ailments will affect the regular season. But it's another reminder the Saints are getting older across the line -- and this coming on the heels of an inconsistent performance across the board in 2013, in part because of Evans' injuries. I still consider the Saints' line a strength. But they are counting on a healthy line since they don't have much proven depth to fall back on beyond their five starters.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • Jimmy Graham remains the Saints' most potent playmaker, even though he missed all of the organized team activities and minicamp in a contract dispute. Graham had the fastest time of any player in the team's conditioning test at the start of camp. And safety Kenny Vaccaro said he thinks Graham looks faster and stronger on the field. Don't forget, Graham is now healthier after dealing with a painful foot injury for the second half of last season. Another monster season could be on the way.
  • The Saints have a lot of young defensive stars still on the rise who could be talked about in similar terms to Graham (end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis, outside linebacker Junior Galette, Vaccaro and end Akiem Hicks among them). Lewis and Galette seem to be off to the hottest starts so far among that group. But I wouldn't be surprised to see any one of them in the Pro Bowl.
  • None of the Saints' other draft picks has stood out yet. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, linebackers Khairi Fortt and Ronald Powell, and safety Vinnie Sunseri have all had their moments in practice and have shown some flashes of long-term potential. But they're also still in that "thinking too much to play at full speed" mode. If I had to pick a first-year player to make an early impact other than Cooks, I might go with Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball, a safety/special-teams asset.
  • The center battle between Jonathan Goodwin and second-year pro Tim Lelito is still too close to call. But both players have looked good, for the most part, so the winner should be worthy. This doesn't feel like a significant area of concern.
  • The Saints were hoping the kicker battle wouldn't be a tough call. But veteran Shayne Graham hasn't locked down the job yet in his battle with younger hopeful Derek Dimke, thanks in part to a missed 33-yard extra point in the preseason opener.
  • Second-year quarterback Ryan Griffin has looked great so far, giving him the early edge over veteran Luke McCown in the battle to become Brees' backup. Ideally, neither one of them will see the field this season. But either should be capable of keeping the Saints' loaded offense competitive if needed in a pinch.
MANKATO, Minn. -- The biggest question surrounding the Minnesota Vikings when Mike Zimmer took over as head coach in January was the team's future at quarterback. The tallest task facing Zimmer when he accepted the job on Jan. 15 might have been remaking the Vikings' defense.

Zimmer's résumé as a defensive coordinator earned him the chance to work with a group that allowed more points than any in the NFL last season, and more than all but one defense in the Vikings' 53-season history. The coach began a detailed remodeling process almost as soon as he got the job, walking scouts and front-office members through what he'd need to succeed, and the trademark of his on-field work with players over the past two months has been an exacting adherence to details. The first concrete signs of progress came in the Vikings' preseason opener last Friday night, when the first-team defense forced a pair of three-and-outs against the Oakland Raiders. When he watched the film the next day, Zimmer saw some semblance of what he'd outlined for Vikings decision-makers months ago.

"It was a little bit like I envisioned this football team to look like. We didn’t make many mistakes on defense until later on in the ball game. We competed very well; we got up in people’s face on defense," Zimmer said. "I think that we are starting to develop a physical mindset with this football team. I like how we practice and the way we practice is showing up when the lights come on and we get ready to go play. We need to continue to practice at the same tempo, we need to continue to improve on the mistakes and we've still got a long way to go."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. If Matt Cassel (or Teddy Bridgewater) can help the Vikings move beyond the quarterback turmoil of 2013, the team has enough weapons to catch up to the prolific offenses in the NFC North. Cordarrelle Patterson could be in for a breakout season in Year 2, Greg Jennings worked well with Cassel last season and Kyle Rudolph dropped 15 pounds in an effort to adjust his game to offensive coordinator Norv Turner's downfield passing game. The Vikings, of course, still have Adrian Peterson, and they're excited about the potential of third-round pick Jerick McKinnon, who could be the change-of-pace back Turner has typically had in his offenses.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's Anthony Barr
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Barr should start at strongside linebacker, though the Vikings night unveil some creative packages for the rookie.
2. First-round pick Anthony Barr should start at strongside linebacker, where he'll be featured as part of a defense that should be more aggressive than recent Vikings teams. While he was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati, Zimmer sent five or more pass-rushers just 172 times last season (the seventh-fewest in the league), according to ESPN Stats & Information, but he'll bring pressure from more places than the Vikings did under Leslie Frazier. The Bengals, for example, blitzed a defensive back on 30 more snaps than the Vikings did last season.

3. General manager Rick Spielman has picked seven players in the first round of the past three drafts, assembling a core of young talent that could help the Vikings improve as quickly as it can develop. Third-year safety Harrison Smith is back from a turf toe injury that cost him half the season, second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes is a good fit with Zimmer's press coverage scheme and Sharrif Floyd could become the Vikings' answer to Geno Atkins, the outstanding three-technique tackle Zimmer had in Cincinnati.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The Vikings will be counting on better depth in the secondary than they had last season, which means a number of unproven players will have to fill large roles. After the Vikings' experiment with Josh Robinson at slot cornerback backfired last season, he should be more comfortable on the outside, where he could start or play in the Vikings' nickel package once Captain Munnerlyn moves inside. But Robinson hasn't been asked to play much man coverage in his career, and the Vikings will need Rhodes to be their top cover corner in Year 2. They'll also need a starting safety to emerge alongside Smith, though the signing of 34-year-old Chris Crocker could help there.

2. There's little set at the linebacker position, where Chad Greenway is trying to rebound from the worst season of his career, Barr is developing as a rookie and Jasper Brinkley, in his second tour with the Vikings, is trying to hold off third-year man Audie Cole for the middle-linebacker job. In a scheme that leans on active linebackers, the position is one of the most unsettled on the roster.

3. Of course, there's the quarterback position. Cassel performed respectably at the end of last season, and seems comfortable in Turner's offense, but probably hasn't been among the top half of the league's quarterbacks since 2010. If he isn't faring well at the beginning of the season -- and the Vikings get off to a rough start against a schedule that includes dates with Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers by Oct. 2 -- how soon do the Vikings turn things over to Bridgewater? Whether they're counting on a veteran whom they signed last season as a backup or a rookie, the Vikings again begin the season as the only NFC North team with uncertainty about its starting quarterback.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIf Matt Cassel struggles, how quickly will the Vikings turn to Teddy Bridgewater?
OBSERVATION DECK
  • The Vikings have used Barr as a defensive end in pass-rushing situations and could unveil more creative packages for the rookie this week. Zimmer has plenty of flexibility with his defensive fronts, considering Everson Griffen has played defensive tackle in the nickel package and Corey Wootton and rookie Scott Crichton have rushed from the inside. The Vikings have also toyed with dropping defensive end Brian Robison -- who began his college career as a linebacker -- into coverage in their nickel package.
  • Zimmer wants safeties who can hold up in coverage, and he has unveiled a few nickel packages that feature three safeties and two corners. Considering how much time teams spend in nickel packages, safeties who can cover slot receivers and hold up against the run provide some additional flexibility. That's why Crocker -- who has played the past seven seasons for Zimmer in Atlanta or Cincinnati -- is back with him again.
  • Depth at tight end could be a concern, especially early in the season; Chase Ford looked like he could be a solid receiving option behind Rudolph until he broke his foot before the start of training camp, and the Vikings cut promising undrafted free agent AC Leonard last week. Rhett Ellison has mostly worked as a run blocker so far in his career. Especially if Ford starts on the physically unable to perform list, the Vikings will have to hope Rudolph stays healthy a year after missing half the season with a broken foot.
  • Running back Matt Asiata could carve out a role for himself in the Vikings' offense, especially now that Toby Gerhart is gone to Jacksonville and the Vikings need another running back who can hold up in pass protection. Asiata ran for 115 yards in the Vikings' final game of the 2013 season and has shown some ability as a downhill runner between the tackles.
  • With punt returner Marcus Sherels nursing a hamstring injury, second-year receiver Adam Thielen has shown he can be a solid No. 2 option, returning three punts for 53 yards in the Vikings' preseason opener. As a receiver, Thielen has been one of the big stories in Vikings camp, displaying sure hands over the middle of the field and working well with Bridgewater in front of the same fans who cheered him at Division II Minnesota State, which hosts Vikings training camp.

Camp Confidential: Green Bay Packers

August, 12, 2014
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- They're taking water breaks and serving snacks during training camp practices. They're using a GPS system to monitor players' movements.

They changed their practice plan, flip-flopping their Friday-Saturday in-season schedule, and even within those individual practices they moved drills that used to be at the beginning to the end, and vice versa.

All for one reason: To reduce the injuries that have befallen the Green Bay Packers in recent years.

And what good has it done?

They already have lost two players -- rookie receiver Jared Abbrederis and offensive lineman Don Barclay -- who almost certainly would have been on the opening day roster. Both suffered torn anterior cruciate ligaments within the first two weeks of practice.

Some injuries -- no matter what the training staff does to keep players energized for practice and regardless of how coach Mike McCarthy designs his schedule -- just have to be chalked up to bad luck.

"Watch either one of those things as it happened, it wouldn't give any sort of indication that it was going to be a bad deal," Packers general manger Ted Thompson said. "It's just the way it turned out."

But so far in camp, the number of missed practices due to muscle or fatigue-related injuries has been low. A year after hamstring pulls were the order of camp, the only serious muscle pull in the first two weeks was an oblique strain suffered by starting strong safety Morgan Burnett.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsA rejuvenated Aaron Rodgers is showing no aftereffects -- so far -- of last season's broken collarbone.
1. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers turned 30 in December and is coming off the worst injury of his career (a broken collarbone), but you would never know it by watching him now. He has been humming along in training camp as well as he ever has. His command of the offense is so great that McCarthy has been able to cut several practices short because they have not been forced to repeat plays ruined by mental errors. Rodgers reported to camp about 11 pounds lighter than he was last season, thanks to a combination of workouts (which included yoga) and diet.

2. If there's such a thing as a distraction-free training camp, this has been it. They addressed their No. 1 contract concern by signing receiver Jordy Nelson to a four-year, $39 million extension on the morning camp opened. A few days later, they locked up Thompson with a multiyear extension and said McCarthy would be next. And perhaps they have finally put any bad vibes from Brett Favre behind them when they announced last week that their former quarterback will have his number retired next summer, when he also will be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame. All of that has allowed the team to focus on its preparation without anything getting in the way.

3. The biggest area of concern last year, the safety position, now may be one their strengths. Micah Hyde's switch from cornerback has gone better than expected, and first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix looks game-ready. Then there's third-year safety Sean Richardson, who has made perhaps more big plays in practice than anyone on defense. If Burnett comes back soon from his oblique strain -- and finally starts to perform like the Pro Bowl-caliber player they thought he was when they gave him a four-year, $24.75 million extension last summer -- then there should not be any concerns.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The Packers still do not know -- and may not know for a while -- whether JC Tretter can handle the starting center job. After a rough start to training camp, the second-year pro seemed to settle into the position and was solid in the preseason opener. But given the opener is at the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in perhaps the loudest stadium in the league, there's probably nothing that can prepare Tretter for what he will have to deal with in Week 1.

2. As good as the Packers feel about Nelson, receiver Randall Cobb and running back Eddie Lacy, they don't have many other proven weapons for Rodgers. No one from the tight end group has emerged as the favorite to replace Jermichael Finley, although Andrew Quarless, Brandon Bostick and rookie Richard Rodgers have had their moments (both good and bad). And among the receivers, Jarrett Boykin has been no better than average in his quest to replace James Jones as the No. 3 receiver. Every time it looks like rookie Davante Adams may take that job from Boykin, he drops a ball.

3. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews participated in every practice during the first two weeks but still is not ready to proclaim his twice-broken right thumb 100 percent. Perhaps it's more of a mental hurdle for Matthews, but he needs to be able to use his hand without restrictions in order to return to his Pro Bowl level. It's hard to tell if Matthews is babying the injury, but in the first two weeks of practice, he took only two reps in the one-on-one pass-rushing drill and lost both. He played a few snaps early in the preseason opener against the Titans and did not seem to have any issues.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Raji
AP Photo/Morry GashB.J. Raji, back at nose tackle after spending last season at defensive end, has had an impressive camp.
OBSERVATION DECK
  • B.J. Raji looks re-energized after moving back to nose tackle. He signed just a one-year contract (worth $4 million) after the free-agent market proved soft, and might be motivated by another chance to test free agency next offseason.
  • Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is preparing second-year pro Datone Jones for a big role. Last year as a rookie, the first-round pick played almost exclusively in the sub packages and hardly ever played in the base 3-4 defense. Now, Jones has been penciled in as a starting defensive end while also playing as an inside rusher in the nickel and dime defenses.
  • If there's a high draft pick who might struggle to get on the field early in the season, it's perhaps third-round defensive tackle Khyri Thornton. Much like defensive end Josh Boyd last season, Thornton might not be ready for playing time from the get-go. Last season, Boyd was inactive for the first five games and seven of the first nine before he found a role.
  • The same could be said for fourth-round pick Carl Bradford. The outside linebacker from Arizona State has struggled to make many impact plays.
  • Last year, safety Chris Banjo was signed a few days into training camp and made the team. Receiver Gerrard Sheppard has a chance to do something similar. He was claimed off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens five days after camp opened and has made some impressive catches.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- During the spring, Matthew Stafford admitted there was a lot to pick up in the new offensive system, only the second one he’s had to digest in the NFL.

Through two weeks of training camp, though, Stafford has not shown many issues. Anything positive that happens for the Detroit Lions this season will start with the improvement of Stafford, who needed to show better decision-making and efficiency in practice and in games.

So far, not bad. He has not thrown an interception during any serious team or seven-on-seven periods in the first two weeks of training camp.

“I’m being coached differently,” Stafford said. “Our drops are different. Our reads are different. Our plays are totally different. It was kind of nice to scrap everything and start from the new way they wanted me to do it.

“I tried to embrace myself in that as hard as I possibly can and it’s been fun.”

That Stafford has shown this already -- along with strong rapport with receivers Golden Tate and Kevin Ogletree to go with Calvin Johnson -- is a massive positive for the Lions as they search for offensive efficiency.

Both Stafford and his offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, understand that pressure is on Stafford every play in practice. So far, he’s handled it.

“That’s the quarterback position,” Lombardi said. “All of the pressure is always going to be on him [Stafford]. Like all competitive people, and he’s a highly competitive guy, they put more pressure on themselves than anyone else does.

“It’s fair.”

It also needs to continue as Stafford continues to learn the offense.

Three reasons for optimism:
  • [+] EnlargeJim Caldwell
    AP Photo/Carlos OsorioPlayers are buying into new coach Jim Caldwell's focus on efficiency.
    This team appears to truly believe in Jim Caldwell, at least for now. Yes, it is easy to speak positively of a new regime before a regular-season game has been played, but the players are buying into his focus on efficiency. From his elimination of stretching periods in practice to his promise that he’ll treat every player equally, the Lions have been appreciative of Caldwell's approach compared to the previous regime under Jim Schwartz. Accountability has been a big focus for Caldwell, and so far it has worked.
  • Megatron. It might sound simplistic, but if this team has a healthy Johnson, that is a massive reason for optimism because of what he is able to do to opposing defenses. Johnson has looked impressive through the first two weeks of camp, making jaw-dropping plays essentially every day. This is typical for Johnson, who has been doing that since his freshman year at Georgia Tech in 2004. But Johnson looks healed from his offseason knee and finger surgeries, and the Lions are being smart with his repetitions during practice. As long as Johnson is healthy, Detroit can feel good about its passing game.
  • Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley have been dominant. Both entered camp in great shape and are playing for future contracts this season. If the Lions receive first-round efforts from both Suh (expected) and Fairley (questionable) in 2014, Detroit could have the dominant defensive front it has sought since it drafted them in back-to-back first rounds.
Three reasons for pessimism:
  • If Stafford gets hurt, the Lions are in major trouble. Yes, many teams can say that about their starting quarterback, but in previous years Shaun Hill gave Detroit a level of confidence that it could remain competitive if Stafford were to go down. So far, No. 2 quarterback Dan Orlovsky has looked somewhat rough both in practice and in one preseason game. Kellen Moore showed some flashes of potential in the preseason opener, but he was mostly facing players who won’t make Cleveland’s 53-man roster. More than any other season, Stafford’s health is of supreme importance right now.
  • [+] EnlargeDetroit's Matthew Stafford
    Leon Halip/Getty ImagesA lot of the Lions' success in 2014 will depend on how well Matthew Stafford picks up the new offense and if he can stay healthy.
    The secondary is still questionable. The Lions are set with their starters here, but the depth is still up in the air at both cornerback and safety. Beyond Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay -- and even with them -- the Lions have no sure things at cornerback and in a division with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, that is not good for Detroit. Safety appears to be a little stronger both in starters (Glover Quin, James Ihedigbo) and also depth (Don Carey, DeJon Gomes, Isa Abdul-Quddus) but lacks a top-end playmaker.
  • The offense has still looked a little shaky. Stafford has practiced well, especially with Johnson, but the defense has looked stronger than the offense on multiple occasions. There is still a large learning curve, but considering what the Lions have put into their offense in the offseason, that might not bode well for a team trying to score points in bunches. Part of the issue might come from Detroit’s multiplicity offensively, with players lining up in different spots on almost every play. Early on the defense has looked stronger.
Observation Deck:
  • Detroit has stayed mostly healthy through the first two weeks of camp. Part of that might have to do with the way Detroit has practiced this summer -- short, efficient, smart splitting of reps and days off for veterans. So far, Caldwell has taken care of his players.
  • Eric Ebron is coming along. He had a rough first week of camp, dropping passes and looking lost at times. Since then, the first-round pick has been much better both with ball security and route running. He has probably the most challenging camp of any player on the team as he’s a rookie and lining up in four different spots within the Lions offense. He is making progress.
  • The kicking situation has the potential to be a mess and, at best, an untested situation. Neither Nate Freese nor Giorgio Tavecchio has kicked in a regular-season game. Freese is a rookie and Tavecchio has been cut the past two camps. Both have looked decent-to-good in practice thus far, but it’ll be interesting to see how much the Lions trust an inexperienced kicker the first time the game is on the line. Punter Sam Martin has been impeccable at camp, though, and looks to have improved from his strong rookie performance.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Lovie Smith finished 10-6 in his final season with the Chicago Bears before being fired. Marc Trestman comes in and leads the Bears to an 8-8 record in 2013. Yet expectations soar here on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University, where crowds for training camp practices routinely swell to 10,000.

It’s easy to see why. For a fan base accustomed to hard-nosed defense and shaky-at-best offense, Trestman flipped the script in 2013, taking Chicago’s attack to new heights with a major assist from general manager Phil Emery’s shrewd personnel moves.

The Bears broke record after record on offense last season, and the defense stumbled to historic lows.

If Trestman and Emery could basically work a miracle on offense in just one season, why can’t they do it on the other side of the ball in 2014?

“[I] feel very good about the competitive depth and the fights for positions that we're going to have,” Emery said. “Out of the three camps, I would say this camp has the best competitive level among the roster from 1 to 90.”

Emery achieved that by loading up on defenders: acquiring a mix of players poised to hit the sweet spot of their careers in Lamarr Houston and Willie YoungJared Allen, and drafting potential stars such as first-round pick Kyle Fuller. The Bears bolstered those moves with an overhaul of the scheme and additions to the defensive coaching staff.

“We started [with], ‘What could we do to get this team better?’” Trestman said. “I sat down with Phil [Emery], and we began to lay out a road map together on how we were going to rebuild this football team, and here we are at a stage where I don’t think there’s a player in our meeting room who doesn’t feel like there’s hope and high expectations. Now, it’s time to go to work.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJay Cutler is more comfortable in coach Marc Trestman's system, and all of his offensive weapons are healthy and ready to go.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Jay Cutler’s grasp of the offense is firmer in Year 2 of Trestman’s system, and his performance this year at camp is significantly different from in 2013. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said Cutler is his own problem solver and is making on-field adjustments so instinctively that he doesn’t need guidance from the staff. In his first camp under Trestman, Cutler misfired routinely, and there were concerns about whether he’d be effective in the regular season. After one particularly bad session in 2013, Trestman gathered Cutler and the other quarterbacks in the middle of the field in what could be described as a turning point. That’s not happening this year at camp as Cutler has become a bona fide field general.

2. Brandon Marshall is Brandon Marshall. He wasn’t at camp in 2013. He was coming off hip surgery that hindered his season preparation. Fully healthy now with an offseason to condition, Marshall is ready to go -- and with full comprehension of the offensive system. Throw in Alshon Jeffery’s ascension and you have the makings of something lethal on offense. The duo has certainly looked that way at camp as both routinely make so many eye-popping plays that Cutler could almost throw it up blindly and one of them would come down with the ball.

3. There’s a nastiness on defense and intense focus reminiscent of the units put on the field in Smith’s heyday. Practicing against one of the best offenses in the league, the defense should be losing more than it does at training camp. But this group routinely bests the offense, with dominating play by the front seven as a hallmark. Chalk it up to a combination of personnel additions and a culture shift brought about by an overhaul of the scheme and the acquisition of no-nonsense, get-in-your-face coaches such as Paul Pasqualoni, Reggie Herring and Clint Hurtt.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mundy
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe Bears brought Ryan Mundy in to compete at safety, but the position, at least in camp, continues to look shaky.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The defensive line makes plays at training camp. The corners and linebackers make plays. But you rarely see the safeties making an impact. That could be a result of a lack of chemistry because, with both spots up for grabs, the Bears are using several combinations at the position involving players such as Ryan Mundy, rookie Brock Vereen, Danny McCray, Adrian Wilson and M.D. Jennings. Horrid play at this position in 2013 contributed significantly to the defense’s demise, and we haven’t seen many indications at camp that the Bears will turn that around in 2014.

2. Protecting Cutler could become an issue if some of the injuries suffered by the team's offensive linemen linger. Guard Kyle Long (ankle) and tackle Jordan Mills (foot) missed the preseason opener, and the latter was seen wearing a walking boot when the club returned to training camp after that game. Reserve center Brian de la Puente is expected to miss time to a knee injury, and reserve guard/tackle Eben Britton still hasn’t returned from a strained hamstring suffered earlier at camp.

3. Cutler hasn’t played an entire 16-game season since 2009. So naturally, you’d think at some point in 2014 the Bears will have to turn to the backup quarterback. The problem is the candidates vying for the No. 2 job -- Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen -- have done little to inspire confidence the way Josh McCown did last year at training camp. For the most part, Palmer and Clausen have been merely average at camp, misfiring on occasion and making mistakes typical of players acclimating themselves to a scheme. The duo needs to pick it up or the Bears could wind up looking outside the current roster for a suitable No. 2.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • Chris Conte says he’s the best athlete in Chicago’s secondary. He needs to prove it, which he'll finally have a chance to do now that he's off the physically unable to perform list. Conte certainly possesses the athleticism to be a playmaker on the back end, provided he regains his confidence. But time is running out for Conte to make a real push for one of the two open jobs at safety. What Conte has going for him right now is that none of the safeties vying for the starting jobs is making plays at camp.
  • The Bears hired martial arts expert Joe Kim to teach the defensive linemen hand fighting techniques as part of the scheme overhaul that requires the front four players to be technicians with their hands. It’ll be interesting to see how the results manifest themselves on the field. Every day after practice at camp, several defensive linemen -- and even some defensive backs -- work intricate hand fighting moves with Kim for several minutes. The players say the moves become almost natural once routinely put into practice on the field. We’ll see whether Kim’s assistance plays a role in the front four anchoring a run defense that finished last in 2013.
  • Zach Miller and Matthew Mulligan are pushing Dante Rosario hard for the No. 2 job at tight end. Miller is more of a move tight end, and Mulligan is a classic in-line blocker who shows some impressive skills as a receiver. The two have received extra reps because of Martellus Bennett's suspension.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles took a leap of faith last year, trusting that coach Chip Kelly’s unorthodox ways would work at the NFL level.

That faith was rewarded with a 10-6 record, an NFC East title and a firm belief in how Kelly does things. So the Eagles entered their second training camp under Kelly feeling comfortable with his methods, but restless, because as LeSean McCoy and others put it, the season “ended too soon.” The Eagles view their playoff appearance -- one-and-done against the New Orleans Saints -- with regret rather than satisfaction. And that’s a good thing.

“I think if you’re content with 10 wins and winning the division, you’re probably shortchanging yourself and the team,” Kelly said. “We did that. What’s the next step? How can we improve upon that? We’re trying to get a bunch of guys that are never complacent in terms of, ‘All right, we’ve arrived.’ We haven’t arrived.”

That lack of complacency has been evident in the early going at camp. The defensive players, who were figuring out where to line up in a new 3-4 scheme last summer, are beginning to play with some attitude this year. The offensive players, who feel challenged by concerns about the departure of wide receiver DeSean Jackson, want to prove they can pick up where they left off without taking any backward steps.

Practices are efficient, but up-tempo and challenging. Hitting is a thing of the past, but everything is done with a sense of purpose that is obvious to even the casual observer. That sense of novelty that hung in the air last summer has been replaced. These Eagles are all business, and determined to build on last year’s progress.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
AP Photo/Matt RourkeLeSean McCoy looks as strong as ever in Eagles camp.
1. McCoy looks better than ever. After leading the NFL in rushing last season, McCoy decided he wanted to be a little quicker in 2014. He lost a few pounds and worked on his agility. The results show, even during routine camp drills. McCoy seems better at getting out into pass routes and catching the ball. He teases defenders who try to cover him, then got into a brief fistfight with linebacker Trent Cole after Cole knocked him over during a no-tackling drill. That’s a lot of intensity for early August.

2. Nick Foles looks comfortable as the No. 1 quarterback. A year ago, Foles was the underdog in the competition against veteran Michael Vick. And Vick won the job. But Foles wound up starting 10 games, leading the Eagles to the division title and putting up amazing numbers. He might not throw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions this season, but he doesn’t have to. Foles seems to be in control of the offense during every session, and his teammates sound excited about seeing how good the former third-round pick can be.

3. The defense really seems to have received an injection of swagger during the offseason. Last year’s transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 meant a lot of people were playing out of position. Now the players seem acclimated to their roles. They also built some confidence after playing much better in the second half of the season. The tentative, awkward first six games now look like part of the process the defense had to endure. It survived, and the players seem to have grown from this experience.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Jeremy Maclin was never DeSean Jackson, so it’s kind of unrealistic to expect him to replace Jackson’s production -- 82 catches, 1,332 yards, 9 touchdowns. In fairness, Kelly expects a combination of players -- Darren Sproles, rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff, tight end Zach Ertz, as well as Maclin -- to make up for the loss of Jackson. But until someone shows the speed and big-play ability that made Jackson special and put a strain on defenses, questions about this offense will remain.

2. The Eagles didn’t add much to a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Safety Malcolm Jenkins was a solid player with the Saints, but they let him walk and signed Jairus Byrd instead. First-round pick Marcus Smith shows promise as an edge defender, but he didn’t exactly come into the league like Jadeveon Clowney. The Eagles are counting on overall improvement from their defense in Year 2 under coordinator Bill Davis, but it might turn out that some playmakers would have helped as well.

3. The Eagles caught some breaks last season that are unlikely to be repeated. The Giants had a decidedly off year, with Eli Manning especially struggling more than usual. Washington went through the end of the Mike Shanahan era, which rendered Robert Griffin III harmless. And Dallas was without QB Tony Romo the night the Eagles beat the Cowboys to claim the division title. A tougher schedule (Indianapolis, Seattle, among others) and a tougher NFC East could make for some serious challenges.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smith
AP Photo/Matt RourkeThe expectations were kept low for first-round pick Marcus Smith, but he's fulfilled them.
OBSERVATION DECK
  • Marcus Smith came into camp as the Stealth First-Rounder, third-team on the depth chart and with no real pressure to make an impact this season. But that’s all part of Kelly’s methodology. To listen to teammates and coaches, Smith is having a very good first camp and should get a chance to make an impact right from the start. Better to be a pleasant surprise than a letdown.
  • Perhaps the hit of camp so far has been second-round draft pick Jordan Matthews, a 6-foot-3 wide receiver from Vanderbilt. It remains to be seen if Matthews can be as impressive when there’s a safety bearing down on him at full speed, but the early signs are good. Matthews is smart, conscientious and possesses good speed and very good hands.
  • It’s kind of a double-edged thing. If Allen Barbre is more than adequate at right tackle while Lane Johnson sits out his PED suspension, then the Eagles probably shouldn’t have used the fourth pick of the 2013 draft on Johnson. But if Barbre can fill in competently for four weeks and Johnson can reintegrate with his linemates smoothly, the Eagles will have better depth on their offensive line.
  • It’s hard to say how the competition between safeties Nate Allen and Earl Wolff is going. There has been no hitting so far. Wolff’s occasional appearances with the first team turn out to be nothing more than the coaches getting a look at the various possible combinations. In other words, it will come down to game performance. Allen earned the upper hand with an interception during Friday night's preseason opener in Chicago.
  • Injuries tell a story. Last season, the Eagles had three ACL tears in the first week or so of training camp practices. This year, there have been no major injuries. Most of the injuries, in fact, have been to wide receivers. When there is little contact, you don’t get major injuries. But the guys who have to do all the running wind up with muscle pulls and foot injuries.

Camp Confidential: Dallas Cowboys

August, 11, 2014
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OXNARD, Calif. -- Every move Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has made in training camp has been watched. That's nothing new. What's new is how those moves are interpreted.

Coming off a second back surgery last December, Romo has not taken every training camp snap with the first team as he did coming off the first back surgery in the spring of 2013. It has led to confusion and speculation as to how much the 34-year-old quarterback has left.

What has been lost in the interpretations is how Romo has played when he has practiced. He has looked very much like the same quarterback who threw 31 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions last year.

Much has been made about Wade Wilson's comments about Romo's inconsistency on the deep ball in camp, but two of his noticeable throws have led to a deep completion and a touchdown. Romo threw 16 passes last year that traveled more than 31 yards. He had 25 in 2012. The Cowboys' passing game is not about go routes. It's about the intermediate game and Romo has no problems with those throws.

 There should be natural concern as to whether Romo can make it through a season. Back injuries ended Troy Aikman's career at 34. Romo said he has another four, five or six years left in him. He has to follow a detailed protocol each day to make sure the back is strong. He takes multiple trips to the ice tub a day. He does specific hamstring, gluteus and abdominal exercises to strengthen his core and take the stress off his back.

Romo does not doubt he will be the same guy, but there are skeptics; just as there have been since he took over for Drew Bledsoe in 2006.

"Not everyone knows but once you have back surgery you kind of have to change the way you do things," Romo said. "You have to constantly work on your glutes, your hamstrings, your abs and strengthen everything around that area and so life will be different after that. But that doesn't mean you can't do the things that it takes to be successful on the field or whatever you want to do. There's been plenty of people who've done it. You just got to go do it. It just takes work."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsTony Romo should benefit from the best offensive line he's had since 2007 -- if he can make it through the season.
1. The Cowboys have their best offensive line since 2007 when Flozell Adams, Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode made the Pro Bowl. They have rebuilt the line over the past four years with three first-round picks in Tyron Smith (2011), Travis Frederick (2013) and Zack Martin (2014). They are big-school, prototype players and will give Romo time to throw the ball, Dez Bryant time to get down the field and DeMarco Murray space to run it. It will also give the defense plenty of time on the sideline. The commitment to the run by new playcaller Scott Linehan must be on display to truly believe the Cowboys will change their ways, but the line gives them a dynamic they have not had since Romo's first full year as a starting quarterback when they went 13-3.

2. Last year, Bryant became the first Cowboys wide receiver with back-to-back 90-catch seasons. He also earned his first Pro Bowl spot. Over the past two years he has 25 touchdowns. In training camp he has been just as good if not better. Bryant can do things athletically that only a few receivers in the NFL can do with his size, speed and athleticism. He can run through and by corners. He can jump over and around them. He gives Romo the ability to throw a bad pass and turn it into a long completion. He still has to fine-tune his route-running, but he is taking the role of leader in the receivers' room seriously now that he is the most experienced Cowboy. Linehan's past with Calvin Johnson should also help shake Bryant free from certain double-teams.

3. Not since 2002 have expectations been so low for the Cowboys, and that is a good thing. After missing their window for success from 2007 to 2010, the Cowboys have been overhyped for most of the past four playoff-less seasons. Because they have a visible owner, play on national television a ton and have recognizable names, many have kept calling the Cowboys one of the most talented teams in the NFL even if that wasn't true. After three straight 8-8 seasons and the losses of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee on defense, calls for 6-10 or worse have been heard more than calls for anything better than 8-8. The Cowboys went 5-1 in the NFC East last year with the worst defense in franchise history. With just a tad better play defensively, the Cowboys believe they can make the postseason.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Jerry Jones said more than once that the defense will be better in 2014 because it can't be worse than it was in 2013. Well, he's right. They can't be 33rd in a 32-team league, but the numbers can be worse. Without Ware and Hatcher, with Henry Melton coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament and with Anthony Spencer doubtful to be ready for Week 1, the Cowboys do not have a proven pass-rusher. Losing second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence was crushing. When Rod Marinelli's scheme has worked best, it's been because of the four-man pass rush. Without a dynamic rusher, the Cowboys will rely on waves of rushers but that is based more on hope than reality. With no pass rush, the secondary, which has concerns, could be exposed again.

2. Jason Garrett is in the final year of his deal and Jones is in no rush to offer an extension. Nor should he be with Garrett posting a 29-27 record in three-plus seasons. Garrett has fended off questions about his future over the past year and Jones has expressed optimism that Garrett could be his long-term coach. If the Cowboys get off to a slow start, then Garrett's future could be an almost daily topic and become a distraction. Jones has said there is no playoff mandate for Garrett to keep his job. Garrett has done a good job re-tooling the roster and has had the Cowboys within a Week 17 win of making the postseason in each of the previous three seasons but hasn't gotten the job done. If he doesn't get it done in 2014, it's hard to imagine he will be around in 2015.

3. If the Cowboys do not get off to a decent start with six of their first nine games at AT&T Stadium, then it could be a long year -- and the $1.2 billion stadium has not been much of a home-field advantage. Two of the first four opponents are San Francisco and New Orleans, among the favorites in the NFC. The Cowboys have a trip to Seattle and host Arizona, which was a 10-win team a year ago. Three of the last four games are on the road and December games have not been kind to the Cowboys.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • Murray looks primed for another 1,000-yard season. Health will be an issue until he proves he can get through a 16-game season, but he has been strong and decisive in camp. Something clicked in him late last season and he stopped leaving yards on the field. The last time the Cowboys had a runner with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons was Emmitt Smith in 2000-01.
  • [+] EnlargeJason Garrett and Jerry Jones
    Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT/Getty ImagesDistractions could loom large quickly for Jason Garrett if the Cowboys get off to a shaky start.
  • Losing Lee was a major blow. He was by far their best defender. Justin Durant has done decently as Lee's successor, but it looks as if the Cowboys want Rolando McClain to win the middle linebacker job. He was about to get a lot of looks with the first team before minor leg injuries slowed him down. The interesting part of McClain at the Mike is that Durant was about to move to the weakside spot, which would put Bruce Carter on the bench. Carter has yet to turn it on enough at camp.
  • Losing Lawrence for at least the first three regular-season games is a tough blow. He was developing quickly and was ready to supplant Jeremy Mincey as the starting right defensive end. Without Lawrence, the Cowboys don't have a pure right end. They have solid left defensive ends and solid inside rushers, but not that 10-sack guy. Mincey, however, has some juice as an interior rusher in nickel situations, as does Tyrone Crawford. Melton will have to return to his Pro Bowl form for the pass rush to take hold.
  • The Cowboys could make things interesting at cornerback if they truly start the best two players. Orlando Scandrick has had a good camp and was the best corner last year. Morris Claiborne has been more competitive this year but has given up plays. Brandon Carr missed the first two weeks of camp to be with his ailing mother. The Cowboys made Claiborne the sixth pick of the 2012 draft and gave Carr $50 million the same year. Could one of them be the third corner?
  • There should be no worry about Terrance Williams as the No. 2 receiver. He has done everything asked of him. The No. 3 job has the look of a committee with Cole Beasley serving as the leader on it, followed by Gavin Escobar, Dwayne Harris and rookie Devin Street.
  • With a defense that needs all kinds of help, the Cowboys will need their special teams to come through with short fields. Harris is an adept returner but there is a drop-off after him in the punt and kickoff game, with Beasley and Street on punts or Lance Dunbar or Joseph Randle on kickoffs.

Camp Confidential: New York Giants

August, 11, 2014
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There's a tricky balancing act going on here in New York Giants training camp this summer. The team is trying its best to wash away the memory of a disappointing 7-9 season, but to do that they're asking for a lot of help from a lot of people who weren't even on that team.

"Obviously, we did a lot of work in the offseason and tried to turn the roster over a little bit," said Giants GM Jerry Reese, whose team signed more free agents than any other in the NFL this offseason. "But there are plenty of guys who were here last year for that 0-6 start and have a bad taste in our mouths."

Among those are quarterback Eli Manning, who threw 27 interceptions in the worst season of his career, and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who struggled through back and shoulder problems and recorded just two sacks in the 11 games he played.

 They are the biggest keys to potential success on each side of the ball for the Giants, and each has a fresh energy in this camp. Pierre-Paul says he's "110 percent" because he's fully healthy for the first time since October 2012. Manning is invigorated by the new scheme being installed by new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.

"It's different, and you come into the season a little nervous," Manning said. "It's a different feeling at this time of year than in previous years. We still have a lot of work to do, a lot to improve on, but I'm excited about that challenge."

Three reasons for optimism

1. The secondary: The Giants spent big to upgrade at cornerback, signing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie from the AFC champion Denver Broncos, Walter Thurmond from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and Zack Bowman from the Chicago Bears. They also re-signed Trumaine McBride, who was a starter for them last season, and still have 2011 first-round pick Prince Amukamara. The Giants believe the cornerback group is a strength, and, on paper, it appears to be so. "Now," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell asked last week, "can we get them to play together?"

[+] EnlargeJason Pierre-Paul
Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsJason Pierre-Paul, fully healthy for the first time in nearly two years, is eager to regain his form and bolster the Giants' pass rush.
2. Jason Pierre-Paul: The Giants had just 33 sacks last season, and Justin Tuck, who's now with the Oakland Raiders, had 11 of them. The pass rush has to improve in order for the secondary to thrive. That's why the Giants are so encouraged about the health and attitude of Pierre-Paul. Back surgery in June 2013 and a shoulder injury suffered in Week 10 last season combined to make it "a lost year" in Pierre-Paul's own words. But if he's back to full health, they have reason to hope he can return to the form he flashed in 2011, when he had 16.5 sacks and the Giants won the Super Bowl.

3. The line can't be any worse: The total collapse of the offensive line was the biggest reason for the Giants' 0-6 start and 7-9 record in 2013. With Chris Snee having retired the day before camp, they have a question mark at right guard, but they believe they're better with Geoff Schwartz at left guard and J.D. Walton at center than they were in those spots last season. Moreover, the signings of veterans Charles Brown and John Jerry and the second-round selection of Weston Richburg have the Giants convinced their backups are better in case the line is ravaged by injury again. The key might be a rebound season for left tackle Will Beatty.

Three reasons for pessimism

1. Is it all too much too soon? The Giants project to have six new starters on offense and six on defense, as well as a new offensive coordinator. They didn't dip their toe into the free-agent waters this offseason -- they dove in headfirst and stayed in until their fingertips wrinkled. Most teams -- including the Giants -- will tell you that big free-agent sprees aren't the way to build teams. They had to sign a lot of guys because their roster had hollowed out, but it's folly to think they could have possibly solved all of their problems in one offseason. There are likely to be lingering questions to answer next spring.

2. Inexperience on offense: Rashad Jennings has never been a No. 1 running back in the NFL. Odell Beckham Jr. is a rookie at wide receiver, and Rueben Randle is a starter for the first time there as well. They have no established starting tight end on the roster. They have inexperience at center and right guard, and right tackle Justin Pugh is entering his second NFL season. The new scheme is simple and quick and could be fun to watch, but there are reasons to wonder whether the Giants have the right personnel to make it all work.

3. Leadership void: Many of the players who left or retired were significant leaders on the field and in the locker room. Tuck, Snee, Terrell Thomas and Kevin Boothe were all players to whom teammates looked for guidance in good and tough times. Jon Beason and Antrel Rolle return to captain the defense, and Manning takes a leadership role behind the scenes on offense, but the absence of several of the players who helped keep chins up during last season's 0-6 start as well as they did during recent Super Bowl runs creates a challenge for Tom Coughlin and his coaching staff.

Observation deck
  • Jennings is the clear No. 1 back, but now that neck injuries have forced David Wilson to retire, the Giants are trying to sort out the running back depth chart behind him. Their preference is for rookie fourth-rounder Andre Williams to show enough to claim the No. 2 spot. He looks good running the ball but not so good catching it, and, as any rookie back would, he has work to do in pass protection.
  • [+] EnlargeRashad Jennings
    AP Photo/Seth WenigRashad Jennings gets his first shot at being a No. 1 running back. Meanwhile, the Giants' depth chart behind him has yet to be sorted out.
  • Larry Donnell is leading the uninspiring pack at tight end, especially with Daniel Fells laid up with an injury. Donnell has the surest hands of the group and is a good downfield blocker, though he could stand to show more power at the point of attack in the run game.
  • Surprise young stars of camp include rookie fifth-round linebacker Devon Kennard, who could push for playing time at strongside linebacker, even after Beason returns from injury and Jameel McClain gets bumped back outside, and wide receiver Marcus Harris, who's making a strong push for the roster spot once thought ticketed for the still-gimpy Mario Manningham.
  • Beatty has done much more than the Giants expected him to do at this point in his recovery from his broken leg, and he's determined to put his disappointing 2013 season behind him. He has held his own against the revitalized Pierre-Paul in recent practices.
  • Jacquian Williams, once strictly used as a coverage linebacker in nickel packages, has progressed to the point where the coaches consider him their starting weakside linebacker in the base defense. His speed is a major asset.

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