NFL Nation: Ben Graham

Wrap-up: Titans 44, Lions 41 (OT)

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
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A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' wild overtime loss Sunday to the Tennessee Titans:

What it means: The Lions fell to 1-2 amid game-long chaos and an injury to quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Lions became the first NFL team to score two touchdowns in the final 18 seconds of regulation to force overtime, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. They were also the first team in history to give up five touchdowns of at least 60 yards in one game. And in the end, neither of those facts impacted what happened in overtime to give the Titans victory.

StaffordWatch: Stafford departed because of a strained leg muscle suffered as the Titans' Alterraun Verner returned a fumble 72 yards for a touchdown with one minute, 32 seconds remaining in regulation. He told reporters afterward that he wasn't sure if the injury was to his hamstring or glut muscle. Regardless, he couldn't finish the game and his status is uncertain.

Long scores: In addition to Verner's return, the Titans also scored on a trick-play 65-yard punt return by Tommie Campbell, a 105-yard kickoff return by Darius Reynaud and touchdown passes of 71 and 61 yards by Jake Locker to Nate Washington and Jared Cook, respectively.

HillWatch: Backup Shaun Hill proved how valuable he is, completing 10 of 14 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns from that point. His 46-yard Hail Mary pass that landed in receiver Titus Young's hands sent the game to overtime.

"A miscommunication": That's what Lions coach Jim Schwartz called the final play, one in which Hill surprisingly tried a quarterback sneak at fourth-and-1 from the Titans' 7-yard line. A chip field goal would have tied the game and extended overtime. Schwartz said the Lions were trying to draw the Titans offside and were planning to kick if the Titans stayed onside. Apparently, center Dominic Raiola didn't get the message and snapped the ball. To me, it was a foolish decision. With the game literally on the line, don't get cute. Make the kick and continue playing.

Leshoure debuts: Tailback Mikel Leshoure gained 100 yards on 26 carries in his NFL debut. The Lions clearly wanted to focus on him in the first half to help open things up in the second. Leshoure had 17 carries and receiver Calvin Johnson had only one catch at halftime.

Injury report: In addition to Stafford, the Lions also lost punter Ben Graham, who suffered a calf injury on Campbell's punt return. Place-kicker Jason Hanson punted three times for a 36-yard average.

What's next: The Lions will host the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday at Ford Field.

Injuries: Lions lose P Ben Graham

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
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We've had a couple of potentially significant injuries Sunday afternoon in the NFC North.

First, Detroit Lions punter Ben Graham suffered a calf injury during the Tennessee Titans' trick-play punt return for a touchdown. Place-kicker Jason Hanson has replaced him and got off a 37-yard effort on his first attempt. Backup quarterback Shaun Hill will probably take Graham's spot as the holder in a game the Lions currently trail 17-6.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings have lost safety Mistral Raymond to what appears to be a right ankle injury, one that was serious enough to be immediately placed in an air cast before he was carted off the field. You hate to see any injury, but especially a noncontact version like Raymond's. It appeared his right foot got stuck in the Metrodome's in-fill surface as he tried to chase San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore.

Raymond has been replaced in the lineup by Jamarca Sanford. At the moment, the Vikings hold a 7-3 lead over the heavily-favored 49ers.

Camp Confidential: Lions

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE HOT ISSUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

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

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

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

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

REASON FOR PESSIMISSM

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

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

OBSERVATION DECK

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

Arizona Cardinals cutdown analysis

September, 2, 2011
9/02/11
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The Arizona Cardinals have made their initial cuts to comply with the 53-man deadline Saturday.

Surprise move: Nothing too weighty here. The team kept four safeties initially instead of five, an indication that Adrian Wilson might be ready for the regular-season opener despite a torn biceps tendon. Veteran backup safety Matt Ware, signed as insurance when Wilson was hurt, was among those let go. Sixth-round pick Quan Sturdivant appeared to be on the bubble, but he made the initial 53-man roster. A couple veterans, namely punter Ben Graham and fullback Reagan Maui'a, lost roster spots to less-established players.

No-brainers: Deuce Lutui's status became topical throughout camp as he battled weight issues and played deep into the final preseason game. Keeping him around was a no-brainer, I thought, because Lutui can be an above-average starter. The Cardinals have him under contract on their terms after Lutui failed a physical with Cincinnati in free agency. Arizona is better on its line with Lutui as one of its options.

What's next: The Cardinals will be in the market for help at running back after losing rookie Ryan Williams to season-ending injury. Alfonso Smith made the cut initially, joining a group featuring Beanie Wells, LaRod Stephens-Howling and rookie fullback Anthony Sherman.

The team has eight offensive linemen after placing Floyd Womack on injured reserve. That number is one lower than typical for NFL teams, but the Cardinals had only eight on their Week 1 roster last season. They opened their previous three seasons under Ken Whisenhunt with nine.

The secondary is another area to watch after Greg Toler landed on injured reserve earlier in the week. The team has eight defensive backs on its roster, including four corners (Patrick Peterson, A.J. Jefferson, Richard Marshall and Michael Adams). Arizona has had 11, nine, eight and 10 defensive backs on its Week 1 rosters under Whisenhunt.
Kevin KolbChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesSigning Kevin Kolb signals that the Cardinals are ready to bounce back after a transition season.

Kevin Kolb's arrival from Philadelphia gives the Arizona Cardinals renewed hope at quarterback and clear direction following Kurt Warner's retirement.

It provides a fresh start after a forgettable 2010 transition season for Arizona.

So much has changed for the Cardinals since their Super Bowl appearance following the 2008 season. Other rosters around the league have turned over since then, of course, but not every team was coming off a Super Bowl appearance.

Quite a few teams have sought change. For the Cardinals, it just happened.

Warner's departure, while easily the biggest change, was far from the only one. Between five and eight starters from that Super Bowl game project as starters in 2011, depending upon how many of the team's unrestricted free agents re-sign.

When Steve Breaston left the Cardinals for Kansas City this week, drawing attention to the cumulative effect of Arizona's roster upheaval, a Seahawks fan drew parallels between Seattle's post-Super Bowl decline and the Cardinals' plight last season.

"Don't misunderstand," Ricky Frey wrote on my Facebook wall, "I'm a Hawks fan, but it seems eerily familiar to watch this happen and know what happened to Holmgren/Mora. Writing on the wall?"

Not if Kolb has anything to say about it. Acquiring a relatively young, potentially ascending quarterback puts Arizona in position to avoid the decline Seattle experienced as a Matt Hasselbeck struggled with injuries while the roster around him withered away. The NFC West remains in transition overall, and the Cardinals know it.

"It’s obviously winnable, but it’s funny to think that everybody thinks you can just step in and win it," Kolb told reporters Friday. "You’re talking about NFL football teams here. I know last year 7-9 is what won it, but it doesn’t matter. ... The door is open, we know, and we’ll be ready to kick it in when it’s time, but it’s not going to be an easy task."

Larry Fitzgerald, Levi Brown, Darnell Dockett, Adrian Wilson and the recently re-signed Lyle Sendlein started for Arizona in the Super Bowl and remain starters in 2011. Another starter from that Super Bowl game, Gerald Hayes, was released this week. Three more are becoming unrestricted free agents: Deuce Lutui, Bryan Robinson and Gabe Watson.

Six Arizona starters from that game are retired or did not play last season: Mike Gandy, Warner, Edgerrin James, Terrelle Smith, Chike Okeafor and Monty Beisel. Seven more play for other teams: Reggie Wells, Leonard Pope, Anquan Boldin, Antonio Smith, Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle and the recently traded Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Some were role players. Others were tougher to replace.

Breaston was a backup on that team, but he played extensively as the third receiver and finished the season with more than 1,000 yards.

Kolb's addition headlined a flurry of transactions the Cardinals announced Thursday and Friday.

Sendlein, safety Hamza Abdullah, cornerback Michael Adams, tackle D'Anthony Batiste, center Ben Claxton, punter Ben Graham, fullback Reagan Maui'a and tight end Stephen Spach re-signed.

Five draft choices have signed. Guard Daryn Colledge, defensive end Nick Eason, tight end Jeff King, receiver Chansi Stuckey and linebacker Stewart Bradley have signed as free agents from other teams.

Re-signing Sendlein while adding Kolb, Colledge and Bradley suggests the 2011 team is still coming together, not necessarily falling apart.
There was a presumption by some in Jacksonville that Adam Podlesh would be back. Re-signing the punter, some fans said based on team comments, was a mere formality.

Free agent signings are never mere formalities.
http://twitter.com/#!/Adampodlesh03/status/96568557885857792

And Chicago has agreed to terms with Podlesh on a five-year deal that Sean Jensen reports is worth over $10 million.

I don’t know if the Jags were in the running. But they put a serious premium on special teams, so this is a bit of a blow because they liked Podlesh.

Who’s available?

Well one of their 24 undrafted rookie free agents is Brian Saunders from Virginia Tech.

He put up some nice numbers as a senior, but saw no action in his first three seasons. (Side bonus: He has a degree in horticulture.)

There are free agents to sort through as well. Scouts Inc. ranks Ben Graham, Daniel Sepulveda and Steve Weatherford as just a bit better than Podlesh.

Weatherford played five games for the Jaguars in 2008.
Alex Smith and Matt HasselbeckGetty ImagesAlex Smith and Matt Hasselbeck are both eligible for free agency this offseason.
It is possible, even likely, that the NFL and its players will continue their staring contest through the 2011 draft -- even with a ruling from U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson.

The appeals process could take weeks or longer, during which time it's unlikely the league would open for business. We're probably doomed to status quo, in other words.

But if ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson is correct, Judge Nelson will most likely end the lockout, leading to an immediate appeal -- a scenario I think would lead, eventually, to the league opening for business under 2010 rules while the sides continued their battle in the courts.

Those 2010 rules set the bar high for free agency. Only players with six accrued seasons would qualify for the unrestricted market. Starters such as Arizona's Steve Breaston, San Francisco's Dashon Goldson and Seattle's Brandon Mebane would lose leverage and most likely return to their teams under relatively modest one-year deals.

The players listed in the chart -- those with at least six accrued seasons and no contracts for 2011 -- would be free to explore opportunities elsewhere.

Options and implications for this type of free agency in the NFC West:

Arizona Cardinals

Overview: The Cardinals suffered more personnel losses than they could weather last offseason. They would benefit from a return to 2010 rules, however, because the restrictions would keep multiple starters off the market. Their list of potential free agents with six-plus seasons features no front-line players. The Cardinals would be better off focusing on a new deal with Larry Fitzgerald, who is entering the final year of his contract.

Top priority: Finding a veteran quarterback. Derek Anderson isn't expected back. Marc Bulger's name is heard most frequently in connection with the Cardinals. He turned 34 this week and did not attempt a pass in a regular-season game while with Baltimore last season. Bulger struggled during his final seasons with the Rams, but the team was falling apart around him. He last finished an NFL season with more touchdowns than interceptions in 2006. The down year has surely helped him get healthy.

Players in flux: Breaston, starting guard Deuce Lutui and starting center Lyle Sendlein wouldn't have enough accrued seasons to become unrestricted under 2010 rules. The situation is particularly difficult for Breaston, who has battled through knee problems without getting a long-term deal.

Veteran variable: Starting left guard Alan Faneca has considered retirement. The Cardinals invested in veteran guard Rex Hadnot for depth last offseason. The team lacks young depth on the line, but if Lutui and Sendlein return, the Cardinals have some flexibility.

Name to keep in mind: Ike Taylor, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cardinals are hoping Greg Toler can build upon an up-and-down 2010 season. Taylor would give the team options. He played under new Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

St. Louis Rams

Overview: The Rams' most important players tend to be younger starters under contract for the long term (Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Rodger Saffold, Sam Bradford, Jason Smith). Most of their top veterans are also under contract (Steven Jackson, Fred Robbins, James Hall). Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe is out of the picture after signing with the Washington Redskins following his salary-related release.

Top priority: The Rams could use a veteran guard with some nastiness. The team has invested heavily in its line, but this group could use more of an edge. Bringing back receiver Mark Clayton should be another consideration even though Clayton is coming off a serious knee injury. The rapport Clayton had with Bradford was strong.

Players in flux: Defensive tackles Gary Gibson and Clifton Ryan would remain property of the Rams under 2010 rules, as would cornerback Kevin Dockery and receiver Laurent Robinson. Gibson was the only full-time starter of the group last season. The Rams are expected to seek an upgrade at that position even with Gibson coming back.

Veteran variable: Adam Goldberg started all 16 games on the offensive line last season. The Rams could stand to upgrade, but I see value in bringing back Goldberg as a backup. He can play every position on the line but center. Goldberg has also taken an interest in mentoring younger players. His value off the field is a consideration.

Name to keep in mind: Daniel Graham, TE, Denver Broncos. Graham could make sense for the Rams in free agency. He played under the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, and could help upgrade the run blocking. Seattle has connections to Graham as well.

San Francisco 49ers

Overview: The 49ers signed some of their better young players to long-term contracts well before labor pains became so severe. Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Joe Staley come to mind. The lockout has made it tougher for the 49ers' new coaches to get a feel for players. The 49ers like their talent overall and haven't been big players in free agency over the past couple of seasons. That isn't likely to change.

Top priority: Finding a starting quarterback trumps everything else. Alex Smith can become a free agent. Backups David Carr and Troy Smith are not expected back. The 49ers aren't expected to use the seventh overall choice to select or acquire a quarterback. Coach Jim Harbaugh prides himself in coaching up quarterbacks, but he needs quarterbacks to coach.

Players in flux: Goldson, outside linebacker Manny Lawson and defensive lineman Ray McDonald are among the 49ers players that would fall short of the six-season requirement for unrestricted free agency.

Veteran variable: Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin played last season under a one-year franchise deal. The price tag for re-franchising Franklin appears prohibitive. The 49ers took a wait-and-see approach with Franklin because they hadn't seen him perform at a high level over the long term. They'll need a new nose tackle if Franklin departs.

Name to keep in mind: The 49ers' staff is coming mostly from the college ranks, so there aren't obvious connections to players from other NFL rosters. I expect the 49ers to focus more on re-signing some of their own players, from Spikes to David Baas and beyond.

Seattle Seahawks

Overview: The Seahawks have a long list of players without contracts for 2011. That was mostly be design. The team would like to continue turning over its roster without investing too much in older players such as Matt Hasselbeck, Raheem Brock and Olindo Mare.

Top priority: Figuring out the quarterback situation. Hasselbeck is headed for free agency and could leave if another team gives him some of the longer-term assurances Seattle has resisted. The Seahawks have shown some interest in Philadelphia Eagles backup Kevin Kolb, a player they inquired about last offseason. They still have Charlie Whitehurst. They could draft a quarterback early.

Players in flux: Defensive tackle Mebane heads the list of Seattle players who would not reach free agency under the rules used in 2010. General manager John Schneider called Mebane a "steady pro" when asked about him at the combine. That sounded like faint praise and an indication the Seahawks are not yet prepared to pay top dollar for Mebane if, and when, he hits the market.

Veteran variable: The Seahawks have a few of them, including Mare and Brock. But let's focus on offensive linemen Sean Locklear and Chris Spencer. They combined for 31 starts, but neither appears to be a priority for re-signing. Stacy Andrews is a candidate to step in for Locklear at right tackle. Max Unger could replace Spencer. Coach Pete Carroll thinks the team has upgraded its young depth on the line.

Name to keep in mind: Robert Gallery, guard, Oakland Raiders. Tom Cable's addition as offensive line coach makes Seattle a logical destination for Gallery, who has declared his intention to leave the Raiders.

Boldin's status next issue in focus

January, 10, 2010
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Six Cardinals players are warming up on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium about 2 hours before kickoff.

Boldin
Anquan Boldin is not one of them.

The injured receiver's status for the Packers-Cardinals wild-card game remains unknown amid reports that Arizona does not expect him to play.

Beanie Wells, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Anthony Becht, Neil Rackers, Mike Leach and Ben Graham are the only Arizona players on the field at this time. I'll pass along updates as kickoff approaches.

Teams must declare their inactive players 90 minutes before kickoff.
Arizona Cardinals 2009 UFA Candidates
Pos. Age
Kurt Warner QB 37.6
Ben Graham
P 35.3
Bertrand Berry
DE 33.5
Jerame Tuman
TE 32.9
Clark Haggans
LB 32.1
Terrelle Smith
FB 30.9
Monty Beisel
LB 30.5
Ralph Brown
CB 30.4
Scott Peters
OL
30.2
Brian St. Pierre QB 29.2
Antonio Smith
DE 27.3
Eric Green
CB 26.9
Elton Brown
OL 26.7
J.J. Arrington
RB 26.0

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Nine of the Cardinals' scheduled unrestricted free agents are at least 30 years old.

Only the Patriots (13) and Broncos (nine) have as many 30-plus players scheduled to hit the market when the signing period opens. The Rams and Seahawks are close behind with eight apiece. The 49ers have only three.

Antonio Smith is the Cardinals' only clearly ascending unrestricted free agent still in his 20s. The chart ranks the Cardinals' unrestricted free agents from oldest to youngest, with ages rounded down to the tenth.

J.J. Arrington can be an effective player in a change-of-pace role. The Cardinals liked what he brought to their four-receiver package at times last season, as detailed here.

Two players on the list started at least half the games last season: Kurt Warner and Smith.

Kickers are people, too

February, 3, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

The latest Pro Football Hall of Fame class was chosen Saturday. It was the 47th election, and for the 46th time, a full-time kicker or punter wasn't in the group.

They simply don't rate.

That's why Rick Sang founded the American Football Kicking Hall of Fame last year.

"The most impacting statement is that in 90 years of pro football, there's only one kicker inducted," Sang said. "You think about that. It's a major void.

 
  Malcolm Emmons-US PRESSWIRE
  Jan Stenerud is the only kicker on the Hall of Fame.

"The American Football Kicking Hall of Fame was about being proactive and not complaining about what the NFL wasn't doing. Their names aren't even coming up. There's so many guys you have to think about 'Who are they?'

"We just don't want them to be forgotten."

While part-time kickers such as Sammy Baugh, George Blanda and Lou Groza are enshrined in Canton, Jan Stenerud is the only pure leg-swinger to be honored.

The Kicking Hall of Fame inducted its second class two weeks ago. Added to the inaugural class of Baugh, Blanda, Groza and Jim Thorpe were Ray Guy, Pete Gogolak and Ben Agajanian.

"You make fun of kickers for not getting their uniforms dirty, or you say 'They don't hardly play.' And then you turn around and induct an owner," said Sang, also the director of ProKicker.com and a member of the Greater Augusta Sports Council in Georgia.

"It's a team sport, and if you're the best at your position and you impacted the game you deserve to be recognized."

Not acknowledging kickers isn't limited to Canton. Three AFC East teams fete their finest -- the Buffalo Bills have a Wall of Fame, the Miami Dolphins have an Honor Roll, the New England constructed the Hall at Patriot Place -- and none salute a kicker.

With Sang's cause in mind, here are the greatest kickers and punters in each AFC East club's history:

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals fared well at Super Bowl XLIII media day.

Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic didn't flinch when a reporter dressed in drag asked to borrow her lipstick. Cardinals linebacker Monty Beisel also rolled with the media day madness.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic leads his notebook with an item about Anquan Boldin's contract situation.

Also from Somers: a look at the Cardinals' offensive tackles, who face tough work Sunday.

Craig Harris of the Arizona Republic says Kurt Warner's wife knows the Super Bowl routine.

Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic checks in with Cardinals punter Ben Graham, the first Australian to play in a Super Bowl.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic feels the presence of Steelers fans at Super Bowl XLIII.

Also from McManaman: Darnell Dockett's tattoos tell a personal history.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com looks at the Cardinals-related story lines at media day.

Also from Urban: a look ahead at the off-field moves facing Arizona.

More from Urban: the team's online Super Bowl headquarters.

Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune explores Edgerrin James' strange Cardinals journey.

Also from Tulumello: This isn't the Cardinals' first week-long road trip to the East Coast this season.

Scott Bordow of the East Valley Tribune details Larry Fitzgerald's Pittsburgh ties.

Also from Bordow: Cardinals coaches might say there's nothing personal in facing their former team, but Bordow isn't buying it.

Pete1020 of Revenge of the Birds sizes up key matchups in Super Bowl XLIII.

Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' prolonged search for an offensive coordinator does not reflect well on head coach Mike Singletary. Ratto: "Singletary has reached the outer limit of what passes for due diligence on this job search. Whether the impetus is his or those of the candidates, he looks like he is too hard to please ... unless he is simply not a very good salesman. Maybe he drops his pants when he's trying to sell the salary and benefits package."

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says former 49ers receiver Billy Wilson, who died Tuesday, fell short of the Hall of Fame despite Bill Walsh's efforts.

Also from Maiocco: Hue Jackson appears to be the frontrunner to become the 49ers' offensive coordinator. Michael Johnson, who interviewed to coach quarterbacks, left the Ravens' staff after the 2007 season when new coach John Harbaugh decided to hire 49ers castoff Jim Hostler instead.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says people told Wilson he was the most qualified person not enshrined in Canton.

Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune catches up with former Seahawks Jerheme Urban and Chike Okeafor. Both have contributed to the Cardinals' Super Bowl run. Okeafor: "I'm not a, 'I told you so,' and 'this and that' [kind of guy]. Those things seem to work themselves out. I just play the game like a kid at recess, for the love the game." 

John Morgan of Field Gulls continues his look at free agents of interest for Seattle. Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is in the spotlight this time.

Rob Staton of Seahawks Draft Blog looks at potential Seattle draft choices and whether they meet standards outlined by general manager Tim Ruskell.

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says a Rams statue honoring the team's Super Bowl championship is long overdue. Burwell: "I bring this up now because the local artist who sculpted all those familiar bronze masterpieces in front of Busch has been trying to get a similar project off the ground for football for more than six years. Now, Harry Weber has grown tired of running into one frustrating roadblock after another."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch explains, among other things Rams-related, why the Rams probably would not consider a middle linebacker with the second overall choice. Thomas: "You just don't pay $50 million for a guy, if he's sitting on the bench on second-and-long and third-and-long because he can't cover his shadow."

Posted by ESPN.com staff

TAMPA, Fla. -- Aussie Ben Graham, the Arizona punter, says despite his four years in the NFL, his Cardinals teammates still give him grief about his Australian Rules Football past.

"I wanted them to accept me for who I am, not who I was," said the 6-5, 235-pound Graham. "But gradually the DVDs on my Aussie day made the rounds. They YouTubed it. They gave it to me about the tight jersey and little tight shorts.

"All of these guys grew up watching late-night ESPN with these guys in white hats and white coats going like this (thrusts both arms straight out in front of him) wondering what the Aussie game was all about. Now I have that go like this (thrusts arms up in a touchdown signal). I like that better."

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Niners scout Quentus Cumby predicts a Panthers victory over the Cardinals. He think the Panthers' cornerbacks match up well with Arizona's receivers.

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says Tom Rathman has gone from blocking Mike Singletary to coaching with him.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat quotes Rathman as saying he enjoyed a positive experience with the Raiders.

Also from Maiocco: A story about Rathman's hiring topped by a photo of Rathman breaking up a 1999 fight between Derrick Deese and Ken Norton Jr.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee sizes up Rob Chudzinski and Scott Linehan as candidates to become the 49ers' offensive coordinator. Both have enjoyed success as coordinators, but neither would come to the 49ers with much momentum.

Dan Brown of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with Rathman. Meanwhile, a 49ers spokesman said the team did not interview any coordinator candidates Thursday.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Mike Martz would like to become the Rams' offensive coordinator under Jim Haslett. Martz says he wouldn't accept that role under any other coach. Haslett called Martz on Thursday to ask if Martz would consider such an arrangement. 

Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat gives the Rams' defensive line a D-plus grade for its performance during the 2008 season.

3k of Turf Show Times provides a tidy chart showing candidates for the Rams' head-coaching job.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic posts a transcript from his conversation with Cardinals nickel cornerback Ralph Brown, whose interests include financial planning.

Also from Somers: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has matured in his approach to the game since the start of the regular season.

More from Somers: The Cardinals could use Anquan Boldin in a situational role Saturday.

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals safety Antrel Rolle has a knack for finding the end zone once he gets the ball in his hands. Perhaps it's a Miami thing.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says Ben Graham became the third punter in NFL history to punt for three NFL teams in the same season. Graham helped pin the Falcons inside their 10-yard line three times.

Somers and McManaman look at key matchups in the Cardinals-Panthers game.

Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic profiles Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, with input from Warner's wife.

Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer summarizes Tim Ruskell's interview session with reporters covering the Seahawks. Matt Hasselbeck will remain the team's quarterback for the 2009 season, Ruskell said.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Ruskell, entering his fifth season as Seahawks president, does not plan a major overhaul following the team's 4-12 season.

Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune quotes Ruskell as saying he kept a low profile during the season to avoid the appearance of looming over outgoing coach Mike Holmgren.

John Morgan of Field Gulls takes an initial look at the offense Greg Knapp ran in Oakland, a one-play snapshot revealing a few wrinkles less familiar to the Seahawks.

William Tomisser of Seahawk Addicts breaks down the Seahawks' receivers.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Rams coach Jim Haslett clarified remarks he made about Steven Jackson's ability to play a full game. Haslett to reporters in St. Louis:

"I said this yesterday and it got blown out of proportion, he got sore about the 30th play and started dragging a little bit, but his conditioning is actually fine. He did a great job on that, but you could tell he hadn't played in a month and he was a little sore. I commend him for fighting through it and trying to get in there in play. He did a good job when he was in there."

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat expects the 49ers to re-sign linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who cleared waivers.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee wonders whether Aubrayo Franklin played one of his best games against Buffalo. The Bills have had issues at center.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com isn't expecting to see more Edgerrin James in the Cardinals' ground game anytime soon. His source is a good one: head coach Ken Whisenhunt.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic touches on James and new punter Ben Graham. The Cardinals also brought in Tom Rouen and Durant Brooks for punting tryouts. Rouen tried out in Arizona last season as well.

Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says starting offensive linemen Chris Spencer and Mike Wahle might be headed for injured reserve. Starting guard Rob Sims is already there.

Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune says Leroy Hill could miss the Seahawks' game against the Patriots after suffering a stinger injury.

Morning NFC South roundup

October, 29, 2008
10/29/08
8:45
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

FALCONS

The news that left tackle Sam Baker's hip isn't responding to treatment and he's seeking additional medical opinions is more than a little concerning. The rookie has played very well when he's been able to play. But Baker also had problems with a concussion earlier in the season and the Falcons don't have a lot of depth on the offensive line. Veteran Todd Weiner filled in for Baker on Sunday, but his knees are shaky. Look for the Falcons to go out and sign a tackle shortly.

BUCCANEERS

Hardy Nickerson and Doug Williams are among five former Bucs on this year's Hall of Fame ballot. But they're all very long shots. The second Tampa Bay player to follow Lee Roy Selmon into the Hall of Fame will be either Warren Sapp or Derrick Brooks.

PANTHERS

Coach John Fox almost always defers to veterans, but there could be an exception on the horizon. Fox is going to have to choose between second-year pro Dwayne Jarrett and D.J. Hackett as the third receiver when the Panthers get back from their bye. Jarrett made a key catch against Arizona and finally may have worked his way out of the doghouse he's spent his career in. It also helps that Hackett has been injured and hasn't done a lot when he has played.

SAINTS

The team reportedly has cut punter Ben Graham and kicker Taylor Mehlhaff. That's not all that surprising because the Saints have shown very little patience on special teams and the holder/kicker duo was part of a missed extra-point attempt Sunday. Although Mehlhaff, who was a draft pick, has a chance to return at some point (maybe even on the practice squad), the Saints probably have seen the last of Graham. He was a one-game solution, mainly because he had a passport and it was easy to get him to London. The passport could have been the reason the Saints signed Graham, instead of someone like Todd Sauerbrun -- the best punter to ever live, breathe and reportedly hit a cab driver -- on short notice. The Saints will use the bye week to find a new kicker and punter.

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