NFL Nation: Andre Carter

Andre Carter's insight on Patriots

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
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John Keim, who covers the Washington Redskins for ESPN.com's NFL Nation, posted a Q&A with defensive end Andre Carter today. Carter, of course, spent five seasons with the Redskins.

Carter
Carter has been one of the Patriots' most well-liked players in his two stints with the team, first in 2011 and then in 2013. He still has hopes of playing again in 2014.

Carter shared some Patriots-based insights in the Q&A.

"Being with New England gives you a different perspective, especially this year," he said. "We had a lot of major injuries and a lot of key guys out. We could have turned it in early. But Bill [Belichick] kept us humble and hungry. He took guys not as talented as the other players who were out, but they worked their butts off.

"When a group of men believes in one another and you do your job, that's what we did. We did our job. There's no secret pill or drink we took. We just focused and tried to out-execute our opponents. If we had taken that mentality [in Washington] and used it to our advantage, who knows what we could have done? Live and learn from experience."

Carter also touched on the role of the Patriots' coaching staff.

"One thing the [Patriots] do so well is they evaluate themselves from a coaching standpoint and in evaluating players," he said. "When I got there in 2011, one coach had worked there 10 years. Another had been there 12 years. Another guy learning to be an offensive line coach had been there for three or four years. The staff was such a tight-knit group and they worked together.

"It's tough when you don't have consistency in coaches. The philosophy and style changes. The play-calling changes. The scheme changes. It's like starting over. That's one of the toughest things from a team standpoint to go through. With the Patriots, you knew who we had and who they could trust and when you have that consistency it makes things so much easier."

Catching up with: Andre Carter

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
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Andre Carter has a simple routine these days: Wake up, help his son do homework, work out and "do whatever my wife tells me." No, he's not retired but he's not far away from it either. Carter spent five seasons in Washington, arriving as a prized free-agent defensive end. He exited after one year as an ill-fitted outside linebacker in a 3-4. In between he recorded 34 sacks, with 10.5 (and four forced fumbles) coming in 2007, which also happened to be a playoff year for Washington. Other than that season, Carter experienced a lot of losing.

Here's what Carter had to say on:

[+] EnlargeAndre Carter
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsAndre Carter, a 13-year veteran, isn't ready to hang up his cleats just yet.
Whether he’d like to play again: I would still like to play. I haven’t officially retired. There’s still that one goal, which is to win Super Bowls. I know I’m not a younger pup, even though I still play like one. I’m realistic how the league moves over; everyone is going younger. My main goal and objective this offseason is to stay in shape, just because I love staying in shape. It gives me something to do. At the same time I have to shift my mind to the future and life after football and continue to make that transition. It’s a healthy balance.

Crossing that line from player to retirement: It’s not hard to cross that line. I talked to one of my former teammates, Bryant Young, after the season and he said what are you going to do? I said if someone wants me to play, I play. He said that’s good if you still have that fire, then by all means go ahead. Guys have said they know when they’re done because they said, ‘I had nothing left in the tank. My body is beat up. I don’t have the patience to keep the offseason training.’ I’m not there yet. I still feel as far as my durability and the knowledge of the game and the love of playing is still there. That’s something I’ll take to heart and know that in the end if a team does want me I’ll be ready.

Life after football: I have been talking to a lot of people I have a relationship with in TV and radio as far as commentating. It’s something I’m constantly working on, the craft of learning how to speak and be engaging, the mechanics of opening your mouth and analyzing the game. One of the good resources I have is [NFL Network’s] Mike Silver and my old high school coach is Tim Ryan. Those two are such a big part of my life. I connected with Tim when the Chargers played the Colts and I saw how he and his colleagues worked on the radio side [for Westwood One]. It was good to see. I wondered can I do this as a career and I was like I know I can. It’s a matter of do you want to do play-by-play or color or the pregame show. So many avenues.

Classes he’s taken to prepare: I’m working with a voice speed coach to try and understand annunciations, little things you may take for granted but are very important if you’re going into TV or radio, to project your voice and make sure you sound clear. I have a low voice so when I look at interviews I cringe because I understand what I’m saying, but does the audience understand what I’m saying? That’s why I’m doing technique exercises and drills, reading out loud. The reps help.

Why he wants to do this: To stay connected to the game. Your foot is still in the door, you’re still having fun, you’re still around the guys. It’s not the locker room, but it’s still fun. So why not? I would love to coach. But coaching is a lot of hours. It’s a big commitment. That’s something I’ll look at down the road once my son [now 6] graduates. Until then I’ll enjoy my family.

The best part about playing in Washington: I enjoyed just meeting the guys that came back, the old-school players. You name it, they were there and that just showed these guys really care about the tradition and really cared about continuing the legacy, that Redskins pride. That’s important. It brings a lot of camaraderie and a sense of pride about yourself. We were not only representing ourselves, but those guys that made the Redskins name.

The toughest part about playing in Washington: For as much talent as we had, it was disappointing when we were unsuccessful. Being with New England gives you a different perspective, especially this year. We had a lot of major injuries and a lot of key guys out. We could have turned it in early. But Bill kept us humble and hungry. He took guys not as talented as the other players who were out, but they worked their butts off. When a group of men believes in one another and you do your job, that’s what we did. We did our job. There’s no secret pill or drink we took. We just focused and tried to outexecute our opponents. If we had taken that mentality [in Washington] and used it to our advantage, who knows what we could have done? Live and learn from experience.

The difference in organizations: One thing the [Patriots] do so well is they evaluate themselves from a coaching standpoint and in evaluating players. But when I got there in 2011, one coach was here had worked there 10 years. Another had been there 12 years. Another guy learning to be an offensive line coach had been there for three or four years. The staff was such a tight-knit group and they worked together. It’s tough when you don’t have consistency in coaches. The philosophy and style changes. The play-calling changes. The scheme changes. It’s like starting over. That’s one of the toughest things from a team standpoint to go through. With the Patriots, you knew who we had and who they could trust and when you have that consistency it makes things so much easier.

Lining up Patriots 2014 free agents

February, 27, 2014
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With various top free agent lists starting to surface, let's narrow things down to the Patriots with a snapshot look at the team's free agents:

1. CB Aqib Talib -- Difference-maker when healthy and added a different dynamic to the cornerbacks room since November of 2012. A top priority for the team.

2. WR Julian Edelman -- Deserves everything coming to him after a terrific 2013 season. Patriots would obviously like him back, but if another team ups the bidding, he's probably gone.

3. RB LeGarrette Blount -- Mutual interest in his return. A player who seemingly has more value to the Patriots than most others, which makes us think it's a greater likelihood he's back.

4. LB Brandon Spikes -- The way 2013 ended makes it unlikely he returns.

5. C Ryan Wendell -- A scrappy heady performer, Wendell maximizes his talents. I don't evision the Patriots extending their budget to ensure his return, but if a market doesn't develop for him, he'd surely be welcome back in a situation where there might be top competition for the No. 1 job.

6. TE Michael Hoomanawanui-- Played his role well in 2013. Would think he's back unless another team unexpectedly ups the ante.

7. LB Dane Fletcher -- One of the Patriots' best special teams players. Would think there is a competitive bid to retain him.

8. DE Andre Carter -- They don't get much better from a locker-room perspective, but we'd be surprised if the team makes his return a priority at this point.

9. TE Matthew Mulligan -- More of a blocking presence, he filled his role well in 2013. Although the Patriots will probably look to add to the position, it wouldn't be a surprise if Mulligan competes for a roster spot again.

10. WR Austin Collie -- Veteran was dependable and should warrant serious consideration to re-sign.

11-. OT Will Svitek -- Smart, versatile veteran probably will see his spot go to a youngster, unless Sebastian Vollmer's recovery doesn't look promising.
When New England Patriots players were asked "Which NFL player would you most like to see play in a Super Bowl that has never been there?" many of them looked to the same place: the locker near the exit to their weight room.

That's where veteran Andre Carter dressed.

Carter was a popular player when he played for the team in 2011, and his return in October this season was well received. The respect he has among players was evident.

While Carter was the Patriots player who topped the list, other non-Patriots candidates who had the most momentum were Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (before Seattle made the Super Bowl this season), Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Lions receiver Calvin Johnson.

Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is also an obvious choice.

For any player who respects the game and has that type of production over such a long period of time, it would be nice to see him get his shot at the Super Bowl stage.

Quick-hit thoughts on Pats & NFL

December, 8, 2013
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY SportsRob Gronkowski still remembers a miscue against Cleveland his rookie season.
1. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said that seeing the Browns on the opposite sideline today will remind him “this is where it all started.” It’s easy to forget now, but the last time these two teams met (Nov. 7, 2010), Gronkowski was a still-developing rookie involved in a miscue that contributed to a surprising 34-14 blowout loss. Gronkowski was playing as part of the wedge on the kickoff return team when he signaled for a fair catch of a short, high-arcing kickoff early in the first quarter. The only problem was that running back Sammy Morris came up behind him and did the same, the two had a miscommunication, and the ball landed on the ground untouched and the Browns recovered. (Cleveland quickly turned it into a touchdown and the rout was on.) Gronkowski was peppered by the media afterwards, facing the most adversity of his young NFL career at that point, and he relived the memory this week, reminding that his response came the following week in a game against the Steelers, when he finished with five catches for 72 yards and three touchdowns. We saw signs before that Gronkowski could be special, but that was arguably the biggest breakthrough.

2. When it comes to their potential role on game day, Patriots players are often kept on edge by the coaching staff during the week. The idea is that they should all prepare as if they will be front-line contributors, which hopefully leads to a sharpened focus. That’s how this past week has unfolded for running back Stevan Ridley, who after running into issues hanging onto the ball was a healthy scratch last Sunday in Houston. As the Patriots came off the practice field for the final time Friday, Ridley was still unsure if he’d be on the 46-man active roster today. Our educated guess is that he will be on the 46-man game-day roster as part of an overall plan to ease him back into the mix -- probably not as a lead back but more as part of a pure committee.

3. Since tearing his ACL on Oct. 3, quarterback Brian Hoyer hasn’t traveled with the Browns to road games. That changes today as Hoyer, the former New England backup (2009-2011), will be at Gillette Stadium for the Browns' contest against the Patriots. When the 2013 season began, and Hoyer envisioned the possibility of winning a starting job in Cleveland (he eventually did and provided a winning spark), this was naturally a game he had circled on the schedule. He has fond memories of his time in New England and the trip, in addition to helping his Browns teammates, provides a rare in-season chance to catch up with several former Patriots teammates and coaches.

4. The average time of a Patriots game this season is 3 hours and 14 minutes, which continues a theme we’ve seen in recent years of longer-than-we’re-used-to games. We used to think of NFL contests as fitting in a nice three-hour window, but only four of the Patriots’ 12 games this season have come in under the three-hour mark. The length-of-game thought was sparked because the Patriots are coming off a stretch in which they sandwiched their two shortest games (2:51 vs. Carolina and 2:54 vs. Houston) around their longest game (3:53 vs. Denver). The Patriots’ overall average is skewed, in part, by their two overtime games -- against the Jets and Broncos.

5. In a storyline that might fascinate me more than others, it’s been interesting to watch from afar how Mike Lombardi has transitioned from a visible media role at NFL Network in which he was regularly conducting insightful radio interviews (such as on Boston sports radio station WEEI) to “undercover” Browns general manager. Lombardi has hardly spoken with the Cleveland press this year, only doing so for an introductory news conference, pre-draft news conference, and once in training camp. He’s essentially disappeared from a media perspective after being ever-so-visible. Part of it could be that Lombardi is a lightning-rod of sorts in Cleveland from his previous tenure with the team, and this is part of a go-undercover-to-help-rebuild-the-image approach.

6. “So much of this is timing.” Those were words spoken by Patriots receiver Julian Edelman this week and he is one of the NFL’s shining examples of this in 2013. Edelman entered this week tied for eighth in the NFL with 70 receptions, which few projected this past offseason when he was an unrestricted free agent and drew interest from just two teams -- the Patriots and Giants. The offers were far from overwhelming -- essentially one-year deals at the minimum with modest incentives -- because the biggest knock on Edelman was that he couldn't stay healthy. He’s healthy now and also one of the NFL’s most productive pass-catchers. If he continues this pace, it seems safe to say he’ll have more than two teams interested in him after this season, because so much of this NFL business is about timing.

7a. Did you Know, Part I: The Patriots are one of five teams unbeaten at home this season, joining the Saints, Seahawks, Broncos and Bengals. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only season in the last 80 years during which five teams went unbeaten at home was in 1973.

7b. Did you Know, Part II: ESPN’s Stats & Information points out that the Lions, with a one-game lead in the NFC North, haven’t won a division title since 1993. That is the second-longest active streak behind the Browns.

7c. Did you Know, Part III: Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, at 40 the oldest player in the NFL, has 1,968 career points. That puts him two points shy of John Kasay for eighth place on the NFL all-time scoring list and 15 points shy of Jason Elam for seventh place.

7d. Did you Know, Part IV: The Saints, who host the Panthers tonight, are 10-0 in home prime-time games over the last four seasons.

8. The Bills have played one regular-season home game in Toronto each of the last six years, and this year’s produced the lowest attendance (38,969), raising questions on how smart it is to continue with such an arrangement. In theory, the idea of regionalized growth is a good one for the Bills, creating potential new revenue streams for one of the league’s small-market franchises. But the execution might be off, and one consideration could be playing the game earlier in the year. Four of the six Toronto games have been in December, when the Bills are pretty much out of the playoff hunt.

9. When Bill Belichick led off his Wednesday news conference by saying, “I have a lot of respect for the entire Browns organization, starting with Jimmy Haslam at the top,” it was a reminder that the Patriots coach and Browns owner have a connection that goes back some time now. We also remember that Haslam, shortly after being approved as Browns owner in 2012, spent time with Patriots owner Robert Kraft at Gillette Stadium. They’ll all meet up again today.

10. I thought it was neat to see veteran Patriots defensive end Andre Carter bring his kindergarten-aged son, Quincy, into the locker room on Friday and have a few teammates, such as LeGarrette Blount, call Quincy over as if he were a member of the team. “It’s a family-oriented type of team. Guys with kids can bring them here, and it reminds me when I was young and my dad [Rubin] played for 12 years [in the NFL] and I’d be waiting for him outside the locker room,” Carter said, in a reminder that sports can create a unique bond for fathers and sons across multiple generations.

EXTRA POINT: Best wishes to Brian Lowe of Patriots.com, whose final day with the team was Friday after 13 years. Brian, an all-around great guy, is embarking on a career in public relations and will be missed in the press room at Gillette Stadium. It was a neat gesture by Patriots Vice President of Media Relations Stacey James to allow Lowe to ask the first and last questions at Bill Belichick’s Friday news conference as part of a final send-off.

Closer look at Andre Carter's contract

October, 24, 2013
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On Wednesday, the New England Patriots officially announced the signing of veteran defensive end Andre Carter, who also played for the team in 2011.

Carter
Later Wednesday afternoon, Carter revealed that if the Patriots had not signed him, he would have opted for retirement over playing for a different team.

Here's a look at the one-year contract signed by Carter to rejoin his old club.

Terms: One year, $940,000

Notes: The contract doesn't include any guaranteed money or a signing bonus, though that isn't uncommon for a veteran player signed in the middle of the season. It does, however, include a minimum salary benefit, which means that while Carter's salary is $940,000, his cap hit is a much reduced rate (roughly $630,000). The minimum salary benefit was implemented in the collective bargaining agreement as a mechanism for veteran players making the minimum base salary for a player of their tenure to have equal leverage to players who are in just their first or second season. While teams have to pay these players more money in terms of salary, the cap charge doesn't adversely affect their salary cap more than a first or second-year player would.
Most significant moves: The Raiders were one of the more intriguing teams in the NFL on cut-down day because they have so many holes and ongoing competitions. There were a lot of significant moves. The Raiders are desperate for pass-rushers, and they cut two who were expected to make contributions. Veteran Andre Carter (expected to be a leader on a young team) and seventh-round pick David Bass were cut. Coach Dennis Allen recently said the team was counting on Bass. Tight end Richard Gordon had a chance to start, particularly because he is a good blocker on a team with a bad offensive line, but he was cut. Jeron Mastrud is the starter for now with David Ausberry coming back from a shoulder injury. The punting battle has yet to be settled. Both veteran Chris Kluwe and youngster Marquette King were kept. Either Oakland will let the two battle it out another week or cut one of them when the team makes roster additions. Perhaps the Raiders are even trying to swing a trade. Since King has made it this far, he might stick around. The team wanted to see improved consistency and he has shown it.

Crowded quarterback room: The Raiders are keeping four quarterbacks. The team kept both fourth-round pick Tyler Wilson of Arkansas and undrafted free agent Matt McGloin of Penn State. It would be highly unusual for a team to keep four quarterbacks. Some just keep two. That’s three players who most likely won’t be playing on game day. That is not ideal for a team with major depth issues. McGloin outperformed Wilson and became the No. 3 quarterback. But the decision to keep Wilson comes down to the Raiders not waiting to give up on a quarterback who was a fourth-round pick. I understand. It would be admitting a huge mistake, and perhaps Wilson (many thought he could push to start as a rookie during the offseason) will figure things out. Keeping four quarterbacks adversely affects this roster. The truth is, none of the current quarterbacks in Oakland -- including Matt Flynn and Terrelle Pryor -- may be the ultimate answer for the franchise. But the Raiders are reluctant to make any decisions now.

What’s next: The Raiders are thin and will likely look for players for the next several weeks. I would not be surprised if this team adds four or five players this week. Prime need areas are tight end, the offensive line and pass-rusher. There are a lot of interesting tight ends available, including Tony Moeaki (talented, but injured), D.J. Williams (who was in Green Bay with Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie) and Clay Harbor. Possible offensive line targets include Jake Scott and Danny Watkins.

Players cut: DE Andre Carter, LB Omar Gaither, CB Joselio Hanson, T Tony Hills, S Reggie Smith, DL Ryan Baker, DE David Bass, LB Billy Boyko, CB Chance Casey, G Jason Foster, TE Richard Gordon, WR Greg Jenkins, S Shelton Johnson, TE Brian Leonhardt, G Lamar Mady, K Justin Medlock, DT Kurt Taufa'asau, LB Chase Thomas, WR Conner Vernon, RB Deonte Williams and T Willie Smith. G Tony Bergstrom was put on injured reserve. WR Andre Holmes is serving a four-game NFL suspension.
NAPA, Calif. -- The Oakland Raiders are basically starting over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE HOT ISSUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OBSERVATION DECK

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

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC West team?

DENVER BRONCOS

Offense: The Wes Welker Factor
Peyton Manning has a new toy. But with the wealth of options in this offense, it seems unlikely Welker will match his production from his days with Tom Brady. Manning will love exploiting the mismatches Welker creates from the slot. Welker’s experience in New England's up-tempo offense should pay off as Denver transitions to a similar pace. It is difficult to find weaknesses in the Broncos’ offense right now.

Defense: Pass-rush issue
Elvis Dumervil is now playing for Baltimore. Von Miller is one of the league’s premier defensive players and pass-rushers, but more is needed. Where will it come from? Derek Wolfe showed some flashes as an inside pass-rusher during his rookie season and on passing downs. Robert Ayers should also be effective when moved inside. Will the edge player opposite Miller -- Ayers on early downs and Shaun Phillips, most likely, on passing downs -- be able to produce? The wild card here is rookie Quanterus Smith.

Wild card: Pass coverage in the middle
Denver had a lot of problems last season covering opposing tight ends in the middle of the field. On paper, it doesn’t look as though the problem has been addressed. Denver’s safety play is average at best, but the middle linebacker spot manned by Joe Mays is the real issue. Look for opposing offenses to keep Denver in base defensive personnel and attack the middle of the field.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Offense: The Alex Smith Factor
Smith needs plenty of resources to be successful. But if he just makes fewer mistakes at the position than Matt Cassel did a year ago -- something that seems highly likely -- then Kansas City will be much more competitive. Smith also has underrated running skills, and the Chiefs should orchestrate plenty of designed quarterback movement and runs.

Defense: Interior pass rush
The Chiefs were among the worst defenses in the NFL last season at creating pressure on the quarterback between the tackles. Although the team made drastic changes across the roster, this area was not addressed. Unless Dontari Poe steps up in his second season -- and pass rush isn’t really his game -- little should change for Kansas City.

Wild card: Secondary receivers
The Chiefs are very light at wide receiver outside of Dwayne Bowe. They have three strong tight ends and could employ plenty of multiple tight end sets. Jamaal Charles should see plenty of passes thrown his way, but another outside threat needs to step up. Donnie Avery has the speed to open up room for others, but his hands are highly inconsistent. Jon Baldwin and Dexter McCluster have yet to find their place in this league. Keep an eye on Devon Wylie.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Offense: Man-blocking scheme
For some unknown reason, the Raiders switched in 2012 from a predominantly man-blocking scheme, in which Darren McFadden thrived, to a zone-blocking scheme. That was a failed experiment, especially for McFadden, who is entering the final year of his contract. Switching back could allow him to be the foundation of Oakland’s offense.

Defense: No pass rush
I fear the Raiders will be among the worst defenses in the NFL next season at rushing the passer. Lamarr Houston is a very talented player, capable of greatness, but he isn’t a typical edge pass-rushing defensive end. Andre Carter has had success in this area, but his best days are behind him. I like the additions of Pat Sims and Vance Walker at defensive tackle, but both are run-stuffers. Opposing quarterbacks are going to have a lot of unobstructed time in the pocket this season. Calling Jadeveon Clowney...

Wild card: Building blocks
The Raiders are not going to win the Super Bowl. Instead, they must determine which players are their building blocks. I was impressed by the way the front office, despite many limitations, addressed the team's needs during the offseason. But many of their signings were only one-year deals. Which players do they want to bring back? Many players on Oakland’s roster are auditioning this season.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Offense: Pass protection
Philip Rivers needs to be protected, which San Diego hasn’t been able to do lately. Although the Chargers used a first-round pick on D.J. Fluker, who is a much better run blocker than pass blocker, I don’t see noticeable upgrades on the offensive line. I also don’t see much upside or potential star power in the group. Changing scheme could help by getting the ball out of Rivers’ hands quicker, but he could be headed for another punishing season.

Defense: Time to step up
The Chargers have several promising young defensive players who could be ready to break out. Eric Weddle is among the league’s best safeties, and Corey Liuget has already established himself as a real force on San Diego’s defensive line. Kendall Reyes might not be far behind Liuget and should become more of a household name this season. Manti Te’o could have an instant impact in his rookie season and pair with Donald Butler to be one of the better inside-linebacker tandems in the league.

Wild card: Receiver situation
Antonio Gates isn’t what he once was, but he still makes plays, and Rivers trusts him. The Chargers have many other receiving options now: Danario Alexander, Malcom Floyd, Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, John Phillips, Ladarius Green, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown. How will that sort out? My favorites are Allen, Vincent Brown and Green. Getting these young weapons plenty of reps could pay off in the long term for San Diego.
For the second straight year, as the new brass tries to rebuild, the Oakland Raiders will likely undergo major change this offseason.

A place where serious change could occur is on the defensive line as the team tries to get younger and cheaper all the while trying to get better. A couple of years ago, the Raiders had one of the most physical, fiercest defensive lines in the NFL. But in 2012, the unit got old, and it its overall production waned.

Thus, change is in store.

Defensive tackle Richard Seymour is a free agent and very likely will not return. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly’s production fell as well in 2012, and he is a top candidate to be cut, because Oakland is currently over the salary cap for 2013. Kelly, 32, reportedly has a salary cap number of more than 11 million in 2013. He has two years remaining on his contract. The Raiders reportedly could save more than $7 million if they cut Kelly.

So, at this point, it would be surprised if he is kept.

The change on the line doesn’t just affect the inside players. Defensive end Matt Shaughnessy is a free agent. He was once considered a potential standout, but his play slipped in 2012 and he lost playing time to fellow free-agent Andre Carter, who was signed during the season.

Desmond Bryant is also a free agent. At times, he was one of Oakland’s best defensive linemen last season. Bryant could get interest on the open market.

Thus, Oakland might have to find a way to replenish a lot of positions on the line. Its anchor is Lamarr Houston, who, at times, looks like an upper-echelon lineman. Houston is versatile and can play across the line.

The Raiders will give 2012 draft choices Christo Bilukidi (defensive tackle) and Jack Crawford (defensive end) a chance to develop in 2013. They showed nice promise as rookies.

There is a strong chance Oakland will use the No. 3 overall pick on a defensive lineman. The top candidates are ends Damontre Moore (Texas A&M), Barkevious Mingo (LSU) and Bjoern Werner (Florida State), and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (Utah).

Change is a theme in Oakland again, and it might start on the defensive line.

Raiders DE Andre Carter is inactive

September, 30, 2012
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Defensive end Andre Carter will not make his Oakland Raiders’ debut Sunday at Denver.

Carter is among the inactive players for the game. It's not a total shock. He signed with the team on Wednesday and hasn’t played since suffering a serious quadriceps injury last December while with New England.

I expect Carter should be ready to play Oct. 14 at Atlanta when the Raiders return from their bye week. Carter is expected be a rotational pass-rusher. The Raiders could use him as they have three sacks in three games.

Oakland Raiders cut-down analysis

September, 1, 2012
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Click here for the complete list of Oakland Raiders' roster moves.

Most significant move: Putting starting linebacker Aaron Curry on the reserve/physically unable to perform list. He has been out all camp with knee problems. This is good news, because there was a thought he could end up on the injured reserve. Now Curry can come back to practice Oct. 16. He will likely be replaced in the starting lineup by fourth-round pick Miles Burris. I think Oakland will look for some linebackers in the coming days as well. As expected, young tight end David Ausberry made the team and he will continue to develop. They are high on sixth-round pick, defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi. He is raw, but he has big potential and he can learn without urgency because he is on a top-notch line. Cornerback Bryan McCann made the team and he could be the starting punt returner. As expected, punt returner Roscoe Parrish, who was cut by the Chargers on Monday and quickly signed by the Raiders, was cut after he fumbled two punts Thursday at Seattle.

Onward and upward: Defensive lineman Dominique Hamilton was caught in a numbers game. He was impressive in the preseason but he is likely headed to the practice squad. Rookie free-agent receiver Derek Carrier is probably not headed to the practice squad at this point. The team was very high on him after the draft, but he fell behind other rookie receivers such as fifth-round pick Juron Criner and fellow undrafted rookie Rod Streater. Both those players made the team and should be part of the rotation. However, rookie receiver Brandon Carswell could be practice-squad bound. Rookie linebacker Chad Kilgore could also be headed to the practice squad. He looked good in the preseason. Linebacker Nathan Stupar, a seventh-round draft pick, was a surprise cut after he had a strong preseason. I could see him being claimed elsewhere. If not, I'm sure Oakland will try to put him on the practice squad.

What’s next: I expect the Raiders to be very busy in the next few days. Depth is a big problem because of a salary-cap issue and a lack of draft picks the past two years. The Raiders’ lack of depth was a serious problem in the preseason. I think the Raiders could use help at running back, tight end, the offensive line, and linebacker and in the secondary. Yes, they could be busy. Among the players Oakland could look at include Rock Cartwright, Tim Hightower, Joselio Hanson, Justin Miller and Chris Cooley. Oakland could also be on the lookout for a pass-rusher. It worked out Andre Carter recently, but he reportedly isn’t healthy enough to sign anywhere.

Ranking team needs: Patriots

February, 29, 2012
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The AFC East blog continues its series this week on ranking team needs in the division.

On Wednesday, we take a look at the reigning AFC East champion New England Patriots, who finished 13-3 last season.

No. 1 need: Cornerback

Analysis: If you watched the Patriots all season, this shouldn't come as a surprise. New England's 31st-ranked pass defense was horrific last year. Even casual observers who only watched the Patriots in the Super Bowl saw New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning carve up New England and earn MVP honors. New England starting cornerback Devin McCourty took a big step back last season. Kyle Arrington had a lot of interceptions but also gave up plenty of big plays. McCourty is young and can still improve, but I don't think his ceiling is high enough to become a Darrelle Revis-type corner, who can shut down one side of the field. If New England feels it can get that caliber of corner free agency or the draft, the team should jump on it.

No. 2 need: Safety

Analysis: Many would argue safety is New England's biggest need, and it's certainly a valid debate. However, the reason I put cornerback over safety is because corner is more valuable in today's NFL. In my opinion, cornerback is the second-hardest position to play behind quarterback. You take the corner over the elite safety every time. But there's no avoiding New England's need at safety. Patrick Chung is a good, young player who needs someone next to him to take the pressure off on the back end. This is a great year for safeties in free agency. Therefore, New England could have this need filled before the draft.

No. 3 need: Pass-rusher

Analysis: This need could be helped if New England retains free-agent defensive end Mark Anderson, Andre Carter, or both. The Patriots' two best pass-rushers are set to hit the open market. Anderson most likely will generate more interest due to Carter’s season-ending quad injury. He had a great year with the Patriots and registered 10 sacks. But even if New England keeps Anderson, the team needs another threat on defense to get to the quarterback.

That is our list for the Patriots. Using our SportsNation poll, let us know if you agree or disagree on team needs for New England.
Good afternoon. NFC West blog headquarters will be relocating from the Northwest to Indianapolis for Super Bowl week.

The plane I'm riding in, a Boeing 757, is traveling 565 mph at 35,637 feet, according to tracking software. I'll be connecting through Atlanta, so this will be a full travel day.

Once situated in Indy, I'll be helping with our Super Bowl coverage, with an eye toward this division. Josh McDaniels, David Baas, Bear Pascoe, David Carr, Rocky Bernard, Jimmy Kennedy, Deon Grant, Antrel Rolle, Isaiah Stanback, Deion Branch, Niko Koutouvides, Tracy White and Andre Carter are among the NFC West alumni currently with the Super Bowl participants.

Quite a few current NFC West players will be filtering through Indianapolis for various events during the week. I'll be catching up with some of them.

The week will conclude with Hall of Fame voting, followed by the Super Bowl itself. I don't have a strong feeling as to which team will win the game. Both should like their chances. I did pick New England to win it all before the season -- one of the few predictions that remains on track -- so I'll likely stick with the Patriots when ESPN solicits staffers' predictions later in the week.

Here's hoping this Sunday treats you well.

2011 All-AFC East Team

January, 5, 2012
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Darrelle Revis/Rob Gronkowski/Brandon MarshallGetty ImagesDarrelle Revis, left, Rob Gronkowski, middle, and Brandon Marshall shined in 2011.
The 2011 season was an interesting one filled with ups and mostly downs for the AFC East. Only one team finished with a winning record.

But that doesn't mean the AFC East lacked great individual performances. For example, the division produced an MVP candidate at quarterback who threw for more than 5,000 yards and another stellar season from the best cornerback in football.

Here is our All-AFC East Team for 2011:

Quarterback: Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Analysis: There is no question about this one. Brady set a new career-high with 5,235 passing yards, which surpassed Dan Marino's old record. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (5,476) finished with more yards and has the new record. Brady is the single biggest reason the Patriots are 13-3 and have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. His performance carried New England through injuries and inconsistencies in other areas. Brady will be chasing his fourth Super Bowl title in the playoffs.

Running back: Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills

Analysis: This might be a controversial pick, because two other running backs -- Reggie Bush and Shonn Greene -- had 1,000-yard seasons. But Jackson was the best running back I watched this season. He simply had some bad luck, suffering a season-ending leg injury. He was on his way to making his first Pro Bowl. Jackson rushed for 934 yards and six touchdowns in 10 games. He had an additional 442 yards receiving. His numbers would be off the charts if he'd played the final six games.

Fullback: Charles Clay, Dolphins

Analysis: Clay was one of the surprise rookies from Miami's draft class. He was a good blocker for Bush, has great hands and knows what to do with the football. Clay caught 16 passes for 233 yards. He averaged 14.6 yards per reception, which is astounding for a fullback. John Conner of the Jets is the best blocking fullback. But Conner is not a receiving threat.

Receivers: Wes Welker, Patriots; Brandon Marshall, Dolphins

Analysis: The best receivers in the AFC East this season are a pair of Pro Bowlers. Welker had an unbelievable year. He set a new career high with 1,569 yards. He also caught 122 passes and was one of the league's most sure-handed receivers. Marshall, in contrast, wasn't sure-handed. He had plenty of big drops, but still had a good season. Marshall caught 81 passes for 1,214 yards and six touchdowns. What's even more impressive is that Marshall put up big numbers despite Miami's in-season quarterback switch from Chad Henne to Matt Moore.

Tight end: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots

Analysis: Gronkowski showed flashes as a rookie. But no one knew he would explode the way he did in his second season. "Gronk" set an NFL record for tight ends with 17 touchdowns. He averaged more than one per game, despite many teams' focus on stopping him late in the season. Gronkowski finished with 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and made his first Pro Bowl. Considering he's only 22, it will most likely be the first of many Pro Bowls.

Center: Nick Mangold, Jets

Analysis: Jets head coach Rex Ryan says a lot of things. But we believe him when he says Mangold is the best center in the NFL. Mangold fought through an ankle injury but had another solid season. He was named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl. The Jets' offensive line was up and down but completely fell apart when Mangold missed two games. New York's entire running game and blocking scheme is built around its center -- and for good reason.

Guards: Logan Mankins, Patriots; Andy Levitre, Bills

Analysis: Mankins, who made his fourth Pro Bowl, stayed healthy right up until the end and played 15 of 16 games. He should be ready for the playoffs. Levitre was one of my favorite players to watch because of his versatility. He's a very good guard, a solid offensive tackle and struggled at center. Levitre was forced to play all three positions in Buffalo this season because of injuries.

Offensive tackles: Jake Long, Dolphins; Matt Light, Patriots

Analysis: Long played through injuries all season. His back bothered him, and he ended up on injured reserve after tearing his biceps. But Long at 80 percent is still better than most left tackles, and he was good enough to make his fourth Pro Bowl in four years. Light gets our last tackle spot over New York's D’Brickashaw Ferguson. The Pro Bowl nod went to Ferguson. But Ferguson struggled at times this season and didn't play up to his usual standards. I think Ferguson got in on reputation and name recognition.

Defensive ends: Andre Carter, Patriots; Mark Anderson, Patriots

Analysis: No one flinched when the Patriots quietly signed a pair of veteran defensive ends in free agency to bolster their pass rush. Most of the focus was on big-name acquisitions such as receiver Chad Ochocinco and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. But two of New England's best signings were Carter and Anderson. Each finished with 10 sacks, and Carter made the Pro Bowl despite a late, season-ending quad injury. For all of New England's issues on defense, arguably its biggest strength was rushing the passer. The Patriots registered 40 sacks, and Carter and Anderson combined for half of that total.

Defensive tackles: Vince Wilfork, Patriots; Sione Pouha, Jets

Analysis: Wilfork, 30, continues to improve with age. He combines strength and smarts to play defensive tackle/nose tackle. Wilfork finished with 52 tackles and 3.5 sacks. But it was his two interceptions this season that were most memorable. Wilfork rumbled for 28 and 19 yards, respectively, on his two picks. The second defensive tackle was one of the most difficult selections. But we went with Pouha over Miami's Paul Soliai. Pouha's numbers were more impressive for a nose tackle. He recorded 58 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. Soliai played well for Miami but registered only 27 tackles.

Outside linebackers: Cameron Wake, Dolphins; Calvin Pace, Jets

Analysis: It was a down year for outside linebackers in the AFC East. Wake and Pace were the best of a thin crop. Wake's sack numbers dipped from 14 to 8.5 this season. Teams put more focus on Wake, and he faced more double teams. Pace stayed healthy this season but recorded his lowest sack total (4.5) since 2006. Pace's backup, Aaron Maybin, led the Jets with six sacks.

Inside linebackers: David Harris, Jets; Karlos Dansby, Dolphins

Analysis: Harris continues to be one of the most underrated players in the NFL. Harris was the Jets' most consistent defensive player outside of Darrelle Revis. He was always around the football and recorded 86 tackles, five sacks and four interceptions. The second inside linebacker was another tough call. But we think Dansby had a slightly better season than New England's Jerod Mayo. A tailback getting 100 yards against the Dolphins' defense was rare, in large part due to Dansby. He established a physical presence in the middle for Miami and recorded 103 tackles and two sacks.

Cornerbacks: Darrelle Revis, Jets; Kyle Arrington, Patriots

Analysis: What more can you say about Revis? He had another great season for the Jets. He led New York with 21 passes defended, and tied for the team lead with four interceptions. One pick was returned 100 yards for a touchdown. Teams opted to attack Revis more this season, which allowed more chances for him to make big plays. Arrington was this year's version of Devin McCourty. New England gave up a lot of passing yards, but Arrington made the most of his interception opportunities. He led the Patriots with seven picks and had 88 tackles.

Safeties: Yeremiah Bell, Dolphins; George Wilson, Bills

Analysis: The safeties struggled in the AFC East this season. But Bell was probably the most consistent in the division. He led Miami with 107 tackles. He also had two sacks and one interception. Wilson played lights out at times, particularly early in the season. He set a career high with 106 tackles and tied a career mark with four interceptions. Wilson did all of this despite missing three games with injuries.

Punter: Brandon Fields, Dolphins

Analysis: Fields was spectacular this season. He averaged 48.8 yards per punt and had 32 punts inside the 20. Fields was the only Dolphins player exciting to watch during Miami's ugly 0-7 start. Fields had a Pro Bowl season. But Oakland Raiders punter and Pro Bowler Shane Lechler is probably the best punter in the NFL.

Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots

Analysis: Fantasy football players fell in love with Gostkowski this season. New England's high-scoring offense constantly put Gostkowski in position to rack up points, and he usually came through. Gostkowski led New England in scoring with 143 points. He made 28 of 33 field goals and all 59 extra points. The pressure of the playoffs always is different for kickers. But Gostkowski has shown no signs that he will be bothered by it.

Return specialist: Joe McKnight, Jets

Analysis: McKnight was a must-see because something exciting could happen every time he touched the ball. McKnight was fun to watch in the open field. He averaged 31.6 yards per kick return and is a Pro Bowl alternate on special teams. His longest of the season was a 107-yard touchdown return. The next step for McKnight is to develop as a running back. With LaDainian Tomlinson a free agent, McKnight could get a chance to backup Greene next season.

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