NFL Nation: Bobby Carpenter

IRVING, Texas -- Free DeMarcus Ware?

Sounds strange, doesn't it? For all of the Pro Bowls, for all of the sacks, for all of the goodwill he earned in his first eight seasons, one poor season has Ware in the cross hairs.

He is on the wrong side of 30. He missed the first three games of his career. He had a career-low 40 tackles. More importantly he had a career-low six sacks.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware has reached double-digit sacks for seven consecutive seasons, but he'll need four sacks in the final three games to keep the streak alive.
AP Photo/James D. SmithThe Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware had just six sacks in 2013 and turns 32 in July.
With the Cowboys needing to clear salary-cap space, Ware, who is set to count $16.003 million against the 2014 cap, is one of the obvious targets for creating that room. The question is how they do it. The Cowboys can simply cut him and save $7.4 million in space. They can have him take a pay cut but offer a way to earn back some of that money through incentives. They can restructure his contract like they have the last few years.

Cutting him sounds the easiest but then you have to ask who would replace him? If you think he's done, then that's an easy question. But Ware dominated Tyron Smith every day in Oxnard, Calif. He had four sacks in his first three games before stinger, back and quadriceps injuries took their toll. The Cowboys do not have somebody who can roll out of bed and get six sacks let alone the nearly 14 a year he put up on average in his first eight seasons.

Ware already said he would not take a pay cut, amending his feelings a day after the season-ending loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Offering incentives could be a last resort type of move. Ware and his agent would have to see what kind of market would be out there for a defensive end coming off a down season and turns 32 in July. Osi Umenyiora signed a two-year, $8.5 million deal with the Atlanta Falcons last year with $5 million guaranteed. He had 7.5 sacks in 2013. John Abraham signed a two-year, $4.6 million deal with the Arizona Cardinals that included a $1 million signing bonus. He had 11.5 sacks.

Restructuring Ware's contract again would add to his already large cap figures in 2015-17. The last two years of the deal will void if he is on the roster 23 days before the 2016 league year begins. If the Cowboys restructure Ware's deal, then they could save close to $9 million against the cap but add $2.82 million to his cap number in the final three years.

Is it worth it? It might be. For the sake of this argument, let's say the Cowboys choose this route again. They can cut him after the 2014 season and save roughly $6.5 million against the cap. If they would rather make him a June 1, 2015 cut, then they could save about $14 million against the cap with $7.7 million in dead money carrying over to the 2016 cap.

Finding pass-rushers is difficult. The Cowboys have not exactly been adept at finding anybody but Ware. Anthony Spencer was a first-round pick in 2007 and had one double-digit sack season. Greg Ellis was a first-rounder in 1998 and he did not max out until Ware arrived. Bobby Carpenter, drafted in the first round in 2006 to play outside linebacker opposite Ware, did not pan out.

The chances of Jason Hatcher, who led the Cowboys with 11 sacks in 2013, re-signing are slim. Spencer's price tag will be low because of a knee injury that cost him all but one game last season but is he damaged goods? Can you bank on another seven sack season from George Selvie? Can Tyrone Crawford come back from his Achilles tear?

There is no doubt that the Cowboys would be taking a gamble by restructuring Ware's contract and pushing more money into the future.

It would be more of a gamble to not have Ware at all.
The reigning AFC champion New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills will host their preseason openers Thursday night against the New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins, respectively.

Here are four things to watch for in these exhibition games:

No. 1: Patriots' defense

Analysis: New England’s defense, ranked 31st last season, will take the field for the first time in 2012. The last time we saw this group, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was carving up the Patriots in the Super Bowl. New England invested a lot of draft picks and free-agent dollars into this defense. Expect to see several new faces, such as first-round picks Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones, and free-agent signings Steve Gregory and Bobby Carpenter. The Patriots’ starting defense will get a good test against Saints Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees, who performed well against New England during joint practices this week.

No. 2: Who will emerge at running back?

Analysis: Expect the Patriots to give a lot of carries to their young running backs Thursday night. Second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are competing for the starting job vacated by former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Ridley and Vereen bring different skills to the table. So far, Ridley has looked the best in training camp. But this battle will be won in the preseason games. Therefore, one of these young tailbacks must perform well to separate himself.

No. 3: Debut of Buffalo's revamped defensive line

Analysis: Buffalo’s starters may only play a few series. But it will be a good chance to see how the Bills’ new-look and dynamic defensive line is coming along. Stud defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus were joined by big free-agent signings Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. This group has the potential to be one of the top defensive lines in the NFL. Washington will provide a good test in the debut of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. He is one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the league. So if Buffalo’s defense can pressure Griffin and keep him at bay, it can corral just about any quarterback.

No. 4: Who will step up as Buffalo's No. 2 receiver?

Analysis: If Buffalo has a legit No. 2 receiver, it’s time for that player to come forward. The Bills need someone to be a threat opposite Steve Johnson, who will face plenty of double teams this year. There have been mixed results in training camp. Different players have flashed but no receiver has shown enough consistency. Receivers such as Marcus Easley, Donald Jones and rookie T.J. Graham need to step up. Performing in the preseason is the quickest way to impress Buffalo’s coaching staff.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- You would think there was a playoff game at Gillette Stadium this week.

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

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

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

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

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

THREE HOT ISSUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reason for optimism

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

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

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

Reason for pessimism

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

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

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

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

OBSERVATION DECK

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

Carpenter can help the Patriots most with depth. New England's 31st-ranked defense was thin last year behind starters Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich. Carpenter has experience playing in 3-4 and 4-3 defenses.

Carpenter, who was taken No. 18 overall in 2006, spent four seasons with the Cowboys and bounced around the past two years with the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions. Carpenter has 10 career starts, totaling 165 tackles, 3.5 sacks and one interception.

Last season Carpenter started three games for Detroit and recorded 29 tackles and an interception.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions’ latest stunning victory, a 34-30 win over the Cowboys:

What it means: What should we call the Lions? Maybe they’re the NFC North’s Kardiac Kitties. Last week, they made up a 20-0 halftime deficit against the Minnesota Vikings. Sunday, they trailed the Cowboys 27-3 with 12 minutes, 27 seconds remaining in the third quarter and came back for the win. They’re 4-0 for the first time since 1980, on an eight-game regular-season winning streak for the first time since 1953-54 and one of two undefeated teams in the NFL pending the Green Bay Packers’ late result against the Denver Broncos.

MegatronWatch: Receiver Calvin Johnson’s leaping 1-yard touchdown catch won the game for the Lions with 1 minute, 39 seconds remaining. Johnson has two receiving touchdowns in each of the Lions’ first four games, an NFL record for consecutive multi-touchdown games by a receiver. His 23-yard scoring reception in the third quarter came in between three defenders. Can we please, please stop all of this silly talk about where Johnson belongs in the NFL hierarchy of receivers? Pretty please?

Defensive spark: The Cowboys gashed the Lions' defense for most of this game, but three huge interceptions were the equalizer. Linebacker Bobby Carpenter and cornerback Chris Houston each returned their interceptions for touchdowns in the third quarter, and linebacker Stephen Tulloch tipped a pass to himself late in the fourth quarter when Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was inexplicably throwing with a lead. Tulloch’s play set up the Lions’ winning possession. Yardage doesn’t count when you have players who can make up the difference like that.

Injury report: The Lions played much of the second half without safety Amari Spievey, who had a leg injury.

Stafford Watch: Quarterback Matthew Stafford managed only 88 yards in the first half, clearly unsettled, possibly because he was playing in his hometown. But he was cool during the Lions' comeback and capitalized repeatedly when the Cowboys put Johnson in single coverage. Unofficially, Stafford threw for 158 yards after halftime.

What’s next: The Lions will host the Chicago Bears on "Monday Night Football." They last played at night on Dec. 11, 2005, a 16-13 overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers. Their last Monday night game was in 2001, and their last victory on Monday night was in 1998.

NFC North free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
3:33
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC North team:

Chicago Bears
  1. Assemble a starting offensive line: As we've noted many times, the Bears have held off any public discussion about their five linemen pending the results of free agency. Well, we're here. It's time for the dominoes to start falling. The first will be whether center Olin Kreutz re-signs. It's generally expected, but nothing is guaranteed. Then, the Bears need to decide whether to pursue any starting-caliber guards or tackles. You would think they'll seek at least one new starter. Will they raid the Atlanta Falcons' glut of linemen? Might they take a flyer on Robert Gallery? We'll know soon enough.
  2. Establish a strongside linebacker: The position has largely been held by Pisa Tinoisamoa and Nick Roach over the past two years, but both have expiring contracts. It makes sense to re-sign at least one given the lack of offseason work for a presumptive new starter, and Roach is the younger of the two. If the Bears have another player on the roster they've targeted for this job, it's not readily apparent. While they're at it, the Bears should seek depth at defensive tackle following the release of Tommie Harris. They did draft Stephen Paea, but the Bears might pursue Seattle Seahawks free agent Brandon Mebane as well.
  3. Sift through receivers: From a media perspective, at least, there has been more offseason talk than ever suggesting the Bears will/should/might/ pursue a free-agent receiver. This year's class is deep, from Sidney Rice to Santonio Holmes to Randy Moss, and a number of other veterans could be available via trade. Coach Lovie Smith has said he wouldn't mind a receiver bigger than his current trio of sub 6-footers, and Devin Hester has lobbied publicly to sign Santana Moss. I think the increased discussion is largely a product of lockout boredom, but it wouldn't hurt the Bears to add depth so that Hester can be used more efficiently.
Top five free agents: Center Olin Kreutz, safety Danieal Manning, punter Brad Maynard, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Detroit Lions
  1. Sign a starting cornerback: The Lions' top cornerbacks under contract are Alphonso Smith and Nate Vasher. Chris Houston, who started 15 games last season, is a free agent, so it's possible the Lions will bring Houston back. Or they could seek an outside upgrade, be it Nnamdi Asomugha or Ike Taylor or Johnathan Joseph. Lions Fever would spike if they can land Asomugha, but they would have to use most of their salary-cap space to do it. For several reasons, the odds are against it.
  2. Sort out the linebacker position: DeAndre Levy is the only linebacker assured a 2011 starting job, but even Levy can't be totally sure if he will play outside or in the middle. That answer will come only after the Lions sift through the available free agents. They could pursue one with a background in the middle, perhaps Stephen Tulloch. Or they could seek an outside linebacker to replace the released Julian Peterson. One of their outside positions is likely to be decided by a training camp competition among incumbents.
  3. Evaluate right tackles: Early indications have been that Gosder Cherilus has made progress from microfracture surgery on his knee. If there is any question, however, the Lions might want to bolster their depth. Corey Hilliard did a decent job as Cherilus' replacement late last season. But keeping quarterback Matthew Stafford healthy is at a premium this season. Do the Lions want to face the possibility of opening the year with a backup plan at right tackle?
Top five free agents: Linebacker Bobby Carpenter, cornerback Chris Houston, linebacker Landon Johnson, quarterback Drew Stanton, safety John Wendling.

Green Bay Packers
  1. Stay the course: It's been well-documented that general manager Ted Thompson hasn't participated much in free agency over the past few years, and it's hard to imagine him changing tack dramatically this summer. Thompson's most important decisions will be deciding which of his pending free agents to re-sign and which ones he should allow to depart.
  2. Re-sign place-kicker Mason Crosby: Thompson gave Crosby a second-round tender in February in the event Crosby wound up as a restricted free agent. That move suggested Crosby is in the Packers' future plans and makes re-signing him one of the first orders of business now that he is an unrestricted free agent. Crosby has had some difficulties over the years, but kicking in Green Bay is difficult given the weather and he has made some important adjustments. Concerns about his kickoffs should be minimized by the NFL's decision to move them up 5 yards.
  3. Think twice: The Packers appear set to let defensive end Cullen Jenkins depart. They can do so knowing they have a number of intriguing young players to compete for that job, from Mike Neal to C.J. Wilson to Jarius Wynn. But another player the Packers might lose, Daryn Colledge, doesn't have an obvious replacement. Would the Packers shift T.J. Lang from backup tackle to guard? Would first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod, their projected left tackle of the future, get a crash course on step down? It's something to think about and, given the lack of an offseason, might spur further discussion about re-signing Colledge.
Top five free agents: Guard Daryn Colledge, place-kicker Mason Crosby, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, receiver James Jones, running backs John Kuhn/Brandon Jackson.

Minnesota Vikings
  1. Address receivers: Are the Vikings about to bid farewell to receiver Sidney Rice, a 24-year-old who is one year removed from an 83-catch Pro Bowl season? There is nothing they can do to stop it at this point, and Rice seems intent on at least testing his value on the open market. The Vikings spent most of last season searching for a suitable replacement when Rice was injured, and that job will intensify this summer. They have added an additional pass-catching threat in rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph. But if they lose Rice, the Vikings must either sign or trade for an established veteran to join Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian (if he makes the team).
  2. Find a kicker: The Vikings made no known effort before the lockout to re-sign veteran Ryan Longwell, who has converted 43 of 46 kicks over the past two seasons. It's possible they'll make their move now. But they did not draft a kicker, and if Longwell signs elsewhere, the Vikings will have to scour the always-murky free-agent market. I'm guessing they already have a plan on this issue, but we haven't smoked it out yet.
  3. Establish QB depth: We all know that rookie Christian Ponder eventually will assume the starting job. But are the Vikings comfortable with Joe Webb and Rhett Bomar as their only alternatives should Ponder need some development time? I'm not sure about that. I also wonder if making Webb the No. 2 quarterback would limit his opportunities to contribute in other ways, perhaps as a receiver or a kick returner. For that reason, it would make sense for the Vikings to seek a quarterback with more experience to pair with Ponder.
Top five free agents: Defensive end Ray Edwards, linebacker Ben Leber, place-kicker Ryan Longwell, receiver Sidney Rice, nose tackle Pat Williams.

Draft Watch: AFC West

April, 7, 2011
4/07/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: history in that spot.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos’ top pick is No. 2 overall. Here are the previous seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: DT Ndamukong Suh (Lions)

2009: T Jason Smith (Rams)

2008: DE Chris Long (Rams)

2007: WR Calvin Johnson (Lions)

2006: RB Reggie Bush (Saints)

2005: RB Ronnie Brown (Dolphins)

2004: OL Robert Gallery (Raiders)

ANALYSIS: This is the Broncos’ first top-five pick since 1991 when they took linebacker Mike Croel at No. 4. The Broncos would love to have the success Detroit had last year with the pick. Suh looks like a unit changer and Denver needs a similarly dominant defender. Detroit is the only team to have great success at No. 2 in the past seven years. Along with Suh, Johnson is a fabulous player. There are some good players on this list, though, with no flat-out duds. The Rams hope to see progress in Smith and Long, who made strides in 2010.

San Diego Chargers

The Chargers’ top pick is No. 18 overall. Here are the previous seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: C Maurkice Pouncey (Steelers)

2009: LB Robert Ayers (Broncos)

2008: QB Joe Flacco (Ravens)

2007: CB Leon Hall (Bengals)

2006: LB Bobby Carpenter (Cowboys)

2005: LB Erasmus James (Vikings)

2004: DE Will Smith (Saints)

ANALYSIS: This is an interesting group. It shows teams can find franchise players at No. 18, but they can also make a major mistake with the pick. Flacco was a tremendous value for Baltimore in 2008. Pouncey looks like he’ll be at center in Pittsburgh for the next decade. Smith has also had a terrific career and was a solid pick at No. 18. James was a terrible pick, Carpenter wasn’t worth it and the jury is still out on Ayers. The Chargers know they have to pick smart. They took linebacker Larry English at No. 16 in 2009 and are waiting for a payoff. It’s interesting that there are four defensive ends/linebackers on this list. That’s exactly the position the Chargers will be looking for with the No. 18 pick.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs’ top pick is No. 21 overall. Here are the previous seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: TE Jermaine Gresham (Bengals)

2009: C Alex Mack (Browns)

2008: T Sam Baker (Falcons)

2007: S Reggie Nelson (Jaguars)

2006: RB Laurence Maroney (Patriots)

2005: WR Matt Jones (Jaguars)

2004: DT Vince Wilfork (Patriots)

ANALYSIS: The Kansas City Chiefs are not used to drafting this low. Kansas City has picked in the top five the past three years. However, Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli is plenty familiar with having the No. 21 pick. He was with New England when it had the choice in 2004 and 2006. Pioli has seen teams both score and whiff with the pick. Wilfork was a tremendous choice while taking Maroney was a blunder. However, the pick has paid solid dividends in recent years. This doesn’t appear to be a bad spot to be in.

Oakland Raiders

The Raiders’ top pick is No. 48 overall. Here are the previous seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: QB Jimmy Clausen (Panthers)

2009: S Darcel McBath (Broncos)

2008: TE Fred Davis (Redskins)

2007: LB Justin Durant (Jagaurs)

2006: DB Cedric Griffin (Vikings)

2005: LB Odell Thurman (Bengals)

2004: LB Dontarrious Thomas (Vikings)

ANALYSIS: It’s interesting that a quarterback was taken at this spot in 2010. Clausen was the third quarterback taken last year. If a quarterback such as Washington’s Jake Locker or Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett takes a similar tumble, we could see a quarterback taken at No. 48 again. This pick has been hit-or-miss, so it could be worth taking a gamble. Oakland picked at No. 47 two years ago and is still waiting for safety Mike Mitchell to develop. Last year, Oakland took defensive lineman Lamarr Houston at No. 44 and he had a terrific rookie season. In 2007, Oakland took standout tight end Zach Miller at No. 38. The Raiders know they can find talent in the second round.
NEW ORLEANS -- The truncated NFL owners meeting still allowed for a 90-minute coaches breakfast Tuesday morning, one that gave us an opportunity to assemble reams of information for future blog posts. I plan to sift through it over the coming days and weeks, and we'll start with what I thought was the most interesting part of the 20 minutes I sat with Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz.

Many of you have noted the Lions' depth deficiency at outside linebacker and wondered if the team would be tempted to move middle linebacker DeAndre Levy to that position, especially if the Lions draft or sign a starting-quality middle linebacker later this spring or summer. Levy has told Detroit-area reporters that he wouldn't fight the change, which would return him to the position he played at Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Levy
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMiddle linebacker DeAndre Levy could end up moving to the outside if the Lions don't add upgrades at the position.
When asked Tuesday, Schwartz noted how comfortable he is with Levy calling defensive signals and getting players lined up. But notably, he wouldn't rule out the possibility of a position change.

"Part of our criteria for linebackers is we like multidimensional players," Schwartz said. "And that means the ability to play inside and outside. That means the ability to play pass and run, all those things. One of the reasons we drafted him is that he is a multidimensional player. He's a little bit like [quarterback] Matt Stafford. We just need to keep him on the field. When he's played and he's been healthy, he's done very, very well for us. He could move around a lot of different places."

The Lions have released 2010 starter Julian Peterson, and Zack Follett's neck injury makes him a wild-card at best to resume his role as a starter in 2011. The Lions have two reserves who could figure into the equation, Ashlee Palmer and Bobby Carpenter, but a big-picture look at their roster still suggests outside linebacker is a top offseason priority.

Moving an established middle linebacker might not be your first choice, but it might be the Lions' best option depending on how the draft plays out.

"We're very happy with him inside," Schwartz said. "One of his strengths is his ability to control the defense. It's something we were very pleased with when he was a rookie [in 2009]. ... It's very rare that a rookie can do the things that he did. ... [Then] he was very, very impressive in our offseason program, just in getting us set, what our checks were, all those different things. He's a very, very good communicator. So there is also a value to having him in the middle of your defense."

Schwartz said he didn't talk to Levy about changing positions before the lockout started, but added: "I don't need permission."

If all things are equal, my guess is the Lions don't want to move Levy. The middle linebacker is the quarterback of a 4-3 defense, and Schwartz has been talking about him playing this position since the day of the 2009 draft. Chances are, Levy isn't going anywhere. But if multiple breakdowns occur elsewhere, the Lions can be comforted knowing they have this option.

Draft Watch: NFC East

March, 17, 2011
3/17/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: draft rewind -- examining the past five drafts.

Dallas Cowboys

Best choice: Mike Jenkins, CB, first round (2008). The Cowboys have selected 40 players over the past five drafts. Jenkins is the only one to earn Pro Bowl honors. Check back in a couple seasons to see whether receiver Dez Bryant has joined him. Doug Free, a fourth-rounder in 2007, made a run at this distinction after emerging as a solid starting left tackle in 2010. Jenkins suffered through a down season and needs to bounce back.

Worst choice: Bobby Carpenter, LB, first round (2006). The Cowboys got very little from Carpenter and their 2006 class overall. Carpenter started three games for Dallas in four seasons with the team. The Cowboys traded him to St. Louis before the 2010 season in a deal that brought them penalty-prone tackle Alex Barron.

On the bubble: Felix Jones, RB, first round (2008). By bubble, we’re not talking about job security, but rather about Jones’ status as a player seeking to realize more of his potential. The weight Jones added last season might have slowed him. He has the talent to take the next step. Improved play from the offensive line would help.

Washington Redskins

Best choice: Brian Orakpo, OLB, first round (2009). Two Pro Bowl appearances in two seasons make Orakpo the clear choice for Washington among the 33 players drafted since 2006. Some of the others are productive, of course, but none has earned Pro Bowl honors.

Worst choice: Chad Rinehart, G, third round (2008). Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly made this a three-way race. The Redskins have used only nine choices in the first three rounds of the past five drafts. I wasn’t going to single out later-round picks as disappointments. Rinehart suffered a broken fibula during his second season. He had a DUI arrest shortly after Mike Shanahan arrived as head coach. The Redskins released Rinehart before last season.

On the bubble: Kevin Barnes, CB, third round (2009). Barnes has only two starts, but he finished strong last season after getting a look at safety. Barnes picked off a pass against Jacksonville to set up the winning field goal in overtime. A sign of things to come?

Philadelphia Eagles

Best choice: DeSean Jackson, WR, second round (2008). Jackson is a threat to score from anywhere on the field. Making two Pro Bowls in three seasons is particularly impressive for a receiver. Lots of receivers put up good numbers, but few can match Jackson in the big-play department. He is a game-changer.

Worst choice: Tony Hunt, RB, third round (2007). Hunt was a curious selection because he didn’t seem to fit the Eagles’ offense. The team tried Hunt at fullback before releasing him during the 2008 season. Hunt has recently resurfaced in an Austrian league. Seriously.

On the bubble: Kevin Kolb, QB, second round (2007). Kolb enters a crossroads season with the Eagles after losing the starting job to Michael Vick. It was nothing personal -- Vick simply outplayed him. Will the Eagles trade Kolb or keep him around?

New York Giants

Best choice: Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, seventh round (2007). Bradshaw broke out with 1,235 yards and eight touchdowns last season. That was terrific production for any back, let alone one selected with the 250th overall choice. Bradshaw lost five fumbles in the first 10 games of the season, however, and lost his starting job.

Worst choice: Sinorice Moss, WR, second round (2006). Moss started only two games and caught three touchdown passes during four seasons with the Giants. A hernia injury sidelined Moss last season, and the team released him. He has not played in a game since 2009. The Eagles signed Moss earlier this offseason.

On the bubble: Aaron Ross, CB, first round (2007). Ross has only two starts with no interceptions over the past two seasons, a sharp downturn from his first two seasons. Injuries have played a leading role in Ross’ diminished production. A hamstring injury bothered him in 2009. Plantar fasciitis was a problem last season. He needs to get healthy.

How I See It: NFC North Stock Watch

October, 27, 2010
10/27/10
10:06
AM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Qualifications for linebacker in Detroit: The Lions signed free agent Bobby Carpenter during their bye last week. This week, it's possible he'll be in their starting lineup because of Zack Follett's neck injury. Much is left to be decided this week during practice, and Carpenter has more pedigree than the average player you sign off the street in midseason. But the bottom line is he flamed out as a 2006 first-round draft choice for the Dallas Cowboys and made it through only five games this season with the Miami Dolphins before being released. When a player walks in your door one week and has a chance to start the next, you know your depth at the position is far from adequate.

2. Tolerance for interceptions in Minnesota: Last summer, the Vikings signed the quarterback who has thrown more interceptions than any other in NFL history. They were the beneficiaries of a one-year aberration in 2009; Brett Favre threw seven in what was the best season of his career. But what they've gotten this year -- 10 in six games -- is closer to Favre's career-long habit. The big problem for 2010 is not the interceptions, but the fact that Favre has made less big plays to even out the mistakes. Still, no one in the Vikings organization, from coach Brad Childress on down, should be complaining at this point. If you're not going to tolerate the occasional (or even somewhat frequent) head-scratching throw, then Favre wasn't the right quarterback to bring in.

3. Numbers on the Detroit Lions' injury list: The Lions emerge from their bye with the likelihood that two key players who have missed most of the season will return. Quarterback Matthew Stafford (shoulder) and linebacker DeAndre Levy (ankle) are on pace to play Sunday against the Washington Redskins. Hopefully, we'll get a chance to see Stafford play the Lions' final 10 games and observe the progress for ourselves that the team has suggested he made in the offseason. Levy will help settle down a position that has been in disarray, but it's critical for the future of the franchise to get a better handle on where Stafford is and how far he might be able to take it.

RISING

1. Tramon Williams, Green Bay Packers cornerback: How confident are the Packers in Williams' ability to hold down this position? We got two big clues last week. First, the Packers didn't seem compelled to rush back former starter Al Harris from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list for Sunday's game against the Vikings. Second, it was Williams -- and not All-Pro Charles Woodson -- who was matched up most frequently against Vikings receiver Randy Moss. Williams helped hold Moss to three catches for 30 yards, and overall has been the best cover corner on the Packers' roster this season. That's right. From a coverage standpoint, at least, Williams has surpassed Woodson.

[+] EnlargeGreenway
Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireChad Greenway has spent more time this season in opposing teams' offensive backfields.
2. Chad Greenway, Minnesota Vikings linebacker: Greenway has always run up high tackle totals, but I think close observers would note he has taken his game to a higher level in 2010. In the past, I've noted that Greenway's tackle totals didn't often include many of the game-changing plays that big-time linebackers make. But this season, Greenway has made more plays behind and close to the line of scrimmage than I've ever seen from him. He already has seven tackles for a loss, one behind his career high for an entire season. Three of them came Sunday night against the Packers, and on a fourth play he stopped Brandon Jackson for a 1-yard gain and forced a fumble. Greenway leads the Vikings with 65 tackles through six games and might be on track for Pro Bowl recognition.

3. Interception totals in Chicago: Quarterback Jay Cutler held himself to three over the Bears' first six games, causing some of us to wonder whether he had put behind his irrational gun-slinging habits. Oops. Four second-half interceptions Sunday against the Washington Redskins, all to cornerback DeAngelo Hall, reaffirmed that Cutler's self-destruction gene is still active and operating. The quarterback isn't always fully responsible for every interception, and FOX analyst Troy Aikman blamed Bears receivers for two of them during the live broadcast. But this was Cutler's third four-interception start in his first 22 games with the Bears. Sacks are one thing. As with Favre, we're willing to tolerate some interceptions if they're balanced with a requisite number of big plays. But Cutler now has 33 interceptions during his short Bears career. It will be impossible to consider him a long-term franchise quarterback at that pace.

Bonamego firing bothers Westhoff

October, 8, 2010
10/08/10
9:49
PM ET
From one special teams coach to another, Mike Westhoff sent his regards to John Bonamego.

The Miami Dolphins fired Bonamego on Tuesday morning. Westhoff, the New York Jets' coordinator, said he reached out to let him know others were thinking of him.

"I'm the guy to do it," said Westhoff, who's in his 28th NFL season. "I've been around the longest. I think I know enough that I can talk from experience on both sides of it, from having good days and bad days. ... I know one thing. I know he appreciated it when we talked."

[+] EnlargePat Chung
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyBrandon Fields' blocked punt was just one of three special teams disasters that plagued the Miami Dolphins on Monday.
The Dolphins fired Bonamego hours after the New England Patriots annihilated them 41-14. The Patriots scored 21 points off special teams gaffes: a 103-yard kickoff return, a blocked punt and a blocked field goal.

Westhoff called a play that helped the Jets block a Dolphins punt the week before. As a result, the Dolphins cut linebacker Erik Walden supposedly for not picking up Jets safety Eric Smith on that punt block.

"I helped it happen," Westhoff said of the Bonamego's dismissal, "but it's happened to everybody."

Westhoff coached for the Dolphins from 1986 to 2000. His tenure ended when Dave Wannstedt fired him.

Westhoff said he was disappointed in the Dolphins' decision and sounded bothered Bonamego took the fall alone, with no players getting released, too.

One Dolphins player was at fault for two of the three special teams implosions, Westhoff claimed.

"It's interesting that there was one particular guy that was involved in two of those major breakdowns," Westhoff said. "Frankly, I don't think he could play. I don't want the guy either."

Who could this player be?

"I'm not going to tell you," Westhoff said. "That wouldn't be fair, but there was a common denominator."

Let's try to figure it out.

We can eliminate the blocked field goal as a play Westhoff was referring to for two reasons: 1) It was pretty obvious left wing Lydon Murtha simply let Patriots safety Pat Chung blow right past him; 2) nobody on the field-goal unit was on for punt protection or kickoff coverage.

Only four players were on both the punt and kickoff units: Bobby Carpenter, Patrick Cobbs, Lex Hilliard, Tim Dobbins and Tyrone Culver.

We can eliminate Dobbins and Culver from the discussion because they lined up on the right side for the punt, and Chung's block came through the left. Carpenter was the left tackle. Hilliard was the left wing. Cobbs was the personal protector.

On Brandon Tate's 103-yard kickoff return up the sideline, when he "broke around the edge, he had two unblocked guys," Westhoff said. "Make the tackle."

Carpenter was the first to miss. Nolan Carroll appears to be the other unblocked pursuer Westhoff referred to, and he's not on the other units.

Carpenter, a backup linebacker, was the first-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys in 2006, when Dolphins consultant Bill Parcells and general manager Jeff Ireland were there.

"If they had included some personnel with [Bonamego's dismissal], I might have not felt so bad," Westhoff said. "That bothers me. I know the guy worked hard. It's their business. It's not mine. They have the right to decide their own. I respect that, but I'm disappointed when those things happen."

Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

August, 20, 2010
8/20/10
1:34
PM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 32

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The quivering hand pressed against Jason Brown's backside belonged to the first player chosen in the 2010 NFL draft.

Alas, the week before St. Louis Rams training camp was tough on quarterback Sam Bradford's nerves.

The No. 1 overall draft choice could not be sure when his agent and the team would reach a contract agreement, and by the time Bradford finally arrived, the other quarterbacks had a couple days' head start on him. All eyes were on the franchise savior from Oklahoma when Bradford lowered himself under center for the first time during camp.

Bradford might have appeared cool and in command from afar, but one veteran teammate had a better, uh, feel for the situation.

"You couldn't see it on his face, but I knew he was nervous because when he got under center and put his hand underneath my rear end, his hand was shaking -- it was quivering," Brown said. "And of course, I didn't say anything, but it's a very awkward feeling for me as well when someone has their hand shaking underneath your rear end."

Brown didn't say anything to Bradford because he figured the quarterback would settle down quickly. Bradford did, and he appears well on his way to earning the starting job heading into the regular season.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Scott Rovak/US PresswireSam Bradford's teammates appear to be confident the quarterback can hold his own as a rookie.
In fact, if anyone has reason to quiver at this point in camp, it's the defensive backs trying to defend passes they sometimes do not see coming -- as when Bradford laced one between Oshiomogho Atogwe and Craig Dahl before the safeties even turned around. It's not Bradford's accuracy or timing that have caught defensive backs' attention so much as the combination of those all-important quarterback traits. Early indications suggest the Rams could have the best quarterback in the division sooner rather than later.

"You see a lot of greatness in him -- what he brings, his skill set, very talented, very intelligent," Atogwe said.

Several of Bradford's teammates have experience breaking in first-round quarterbacks elsewhere. Brown (Joe Flacco), tight end Billy Bajema (Alex Smith), center Hank Fraley (Brady Quinn), defensive end James Hall (Joey Harrington), defensive tackle Fred Robbins (Eli Manning) and guard Jacob Bell (Vince Young) pointed to Bradford's maturity, intelligence, competitiveness, demeanor and accuracy.

The way they freely praised Bradford suggested genuine excitement, not the obligatory kind.

"I played with Steve McNair [in Tennessee] and with Ben Roethlisberger [at Miami (Ohio)]," Bell said, "and I thought, 'This guy, the way he throws the ball, man, I haven't seen anybody in person like that on the practice field, ever.' "

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. When will Bradford become the starter? It's an upset if Bradford isn't the No. 1 quarterback from the beginning of the regular season even though veteran A.J. Feeley remains the starter for now. Feeley and Bradford are sharing first- and second-team reps in practice. The team doesn't want to rush Bradford, but all signs point to the rookie grasping the offense quickly. The Rams think he's mature enough to handle what figures to be a rough rookie season. Why delay the inevitable if Bradford is looking good?

2. Can this team defend the pass? The Rams appeared to beef up the middle of their defense by adding Robbins, but the NFL is a passing league and the Rams could struggle to get pressure consistently. They have two pass-rushers -- Chris Long and Hall -- and their secondary has battled injuries throughout camp. Long should continue his improvement. Hall's sacks fell off to 4.5 last season as he transitioned from backup to starter. He is 33 years old. Kevin Dockery has exceeded expectations at cornerback, where rookie Jerome Murphy has also shown promise. But with Atogwe still rounding into form following injury, the secondary is a bit of a question mark.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
Jerry Lai/US PresswireSteven Jackson's health remains instrumental in the Rams' success this season.
3. What happens if Steven Jackson gets hurt again? The Rams do not have a proven running threat behind Jackson, even though 2009 seventh-round draft pick Chris Ogbonnaya performed well against the Arizona Cardinals late last season. Ogbonnaya might be a good third-down back because he protects the passer well and can catch the ball, but the Rams could be in trouble if they needed a starter to replace Jackson for a few games. Jackson appears fully healthy so far, but he's coming off back surgery. Brian Westbrook's decision to sign with the 49ers hurt, but the Rams saw him mostly as a third-down back at this stage of his career, anyway. Expect the Rams to monitor the waiver wire for running backs as teams reduce to 53 players on Sept. 4.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Danny Amendola. There's enough uncertainty at receiver for this position to qualify under the "Hottest Questions" heading, but Amendola appears to have found a home as the slot receiver in the Rams' personnel groupings with more than two wideouts. Injuries forced Amendola to play multiple positions last season. Camp practices have convinced me -- and the Rams -- that Amendola's quickness can make him a threat. Said Feeley: "He has polished his game. Some of these guys discover themselves after a year of playing and realizing what they can do. The guy is a special player. The guy is going to make plays and have a lot of catches this year ... a poor man's Wes Welker trying to establish himself. He fits that mold right now. The guy is cat quick."

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Offensive line continuity. The way the Rams' line struggled during the exhibition opener against Minnesota was deceiving. Rookie Rodger Saffold was making his first start at left tackle (against Jared Allen, no less). Right tackle Jason Smith had only recently returned from injury and the team knew he might wear down as the game progressed. Brown was filling in at right guard. These mitigating factors point to a broader problem: continuity. Only this week have the Rams gotten their projected starting five linemen on the field together. That must change as the Bradford era gets under way.

OBSERVATION DECK
[+] EnlargeFendi Onobun
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonTight end Fendi Onobun has made a positive impression in camp.

  • Multiple fights broke out during a recent Rams practice and that has to be a welcome sign for a team without enforcer types. The Rams have spent the past couple of years putting into place building-block players with apparently solid character. Long, Smith and James Laurinaitis qualify as "safe" draft choices along those lines. The team has now added some veteran seasoning -- think Robbins, Feeley, Na'il Diggs and Fraley -- but there's still something missing. The next step for St. Louis could be to add some players with a few rough edges. The best teams tend to have a few good players teammates fear. The Rams need more of them.
  • Jackson rehabbed from back surgery with a vengeance and he's looking strong as ever. Jackson also sounds happy. He clearly appreciates coach Steve Spagnuolo's evolving approach to training camp. Spagnuolo polled coaches and players anonymously for ideas after last season. Some complained that a tough 2009 training camp featuring live tackling left the team with weary legs heading into Week 1. Spagnuolo listened, putting limits on some of the contact and giving players more time between practices. Longer term, Spagnuolo wants to reach a point where young players know how to practice without the staff having to manufacture intensity.
  • Looks like the Rams might find a role in their offense for rookie tight end Fendi Onobun. Considered a project coming out of college, Onobun has shown he's further along than the Rams anticipated. The leaping end-zone grab he made in practice this week wasn't out of the ordinary for Onobun. Rookies often must contribute on special teams to earn spots on the 45-man game-day roster. Onobun made a positive impression as a gunner in the exhibition opener.
  • Rookie receiver Mardy Gilyard will bring needed swagger if his body holds up. Gilyard has his own style and doesn't seem to worry about what others think. He practices wearing abbreviated gym shorts over bicycle shorts for a distinctive 1980s look. Gilyard has stepped up his production in practice this week. An arm injury remains a potential concern.
  • Long appears more comfortable with himself and his status on the team. As a rookie and even last season, I sensed Long felt the pressure of being a No. 2 overall draft choice, to the point that he sometimes sounded apologetic about it while finding his way as a pro. Long showed obvious improvement late last season, however, and he appears to be asserting himself more readily. He played a prominent role in recent camp fights and called out Bajema for chipping him unexpectedly.
  • After last season, the Rams were thinking receiver Brandon Gibson might develop into an important part of their offense. They can't be so sure at this point because Gibson has missed an extended period with a hamstring injury. The Rams need Gibson to get on the field and produce during preseason. The team is cautiously optimistic about some of its prospects at receiver, but injuries were a concern last season. Donnie Avery, who bulked up this offseason to become more durable, took a hard shot in practice and came back strong the next play. Rookie free agent Dominique Curry has great size (6-foot-2, 224 pounds) and stood out at times. But I sense the Rams' fingers are crossed at this position. "If they play to their ability, we'll be OK," general manager Billy Devaney said.
  • Atogwe dropped multiple interception chances in practice, which is unusual for him. He's among the team's more conscientious players, though. Atogwe stayed after every practice I watched to work on catching passes. He was the last guy out there.
  • The Rams hoped to get something from linebacker Bobby Carpenter after acquiring him from Dallas in the Alex Barron trade. That's a tough sell at this point. Carpenter isn't working with the starters. The first time I noticed Carpenter in practice was when someone knocked him on his back.

Cowboys’ offense allergic to end zone

August, 13, 2010
8/13/10
8:01
AM ET
ARLINGTON, Texas -- It's too bad we can't get those 60 minutes of our lives back. The Cowboys' first-team offense once again failed in the red zone, and the backups didn't do any better in a 17-9 loss to the Raiders. With the Cowboys having played Sunday, it was obvious they didn't belong on the field Thursday night.

The defense certainly had its moments, but the story of the game (from my vantage point) is that Tony Romo was sacked three times and the running game was non-existent. Other than that, it was a wonderful night of football. The Cowboys have nine days before playing a preseason game in San Diego. Maybe we'll get a better feel for where this team is at that point. But in the interest of producing a blog entry before most of you arrive at work, here are a few observations from Thursday's contest:
[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/LM OteroTony Romo was sacked three times in Thursday's loss to Oakland.

  • The Cowboys were 0-for-4 in red zone efficiency, including a quick trip inside the 20 before Romo was sacked for a 9-yard loss. Dallas gave up six sacks in the game, three on Romo. The most disturbing to me was seeing Raiders defensive end Matt Shaughnessy beat Doug Free on a speed rush and then drag down Romo with one arm. Free was with Shaughnessy the whole time on the play, but he never delivered a solid punch. Shaughnessy's a nice second-year player out of Wisconsin, but he's not Trent Cole, Justin Tuck and Brian Orakpo. Free needs to clean things up before he meets any of those players. At least two of the three sacks on Romo were coverage sacks. He needs to do a better job of unloading the ball in those situations.
  • Linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking were both excellent in coverage in the first quarter. James was throwing his body all over the place and Brooking was superb in not letting anyone get separation from him. Brooking still moves really well. I hope Sean Lee is watching Brooking's every move right now. The rookie needs to get past this quadriceps injury and return to the practice field. Otherwise, he's not going to have a chance to earn time in sub packages. Bobby Carpenter was replacing Brooking in the nickel last season, but right now I wouldn't replace him with anyone.
  • Raiders safety Tyvon Branch was a mismatch for Jason Witten. The Pro Bowl tight end got plenty of separation and Romo hit him in stride for a big play on the first drive.
  • Miles Austin made a beautiful adjustment to a ball thrown slightly behind him in the first quarter for a 24-yard catch. Austin brought a lot of energy to the field Thursday and ran some excellent routes. On the twisting grab, he beat cornerback Chris Johnson. The Raiders are vulnerable on that side of the field.
  • Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston had one of the sacks on Romo. He was able to sneak in the backside and crunch the quarterback. Romo didn't feel the pressure coming on the play. He just seemed content to stay in the pocket, and that wasn't helping matters. Of course, everyone in the stadium gasped when he took off running up the middle of the field on one play.
  • It was a good night for kicker David Buehler. He nailed a 42-yard field goal and then connected on two short ones. He also recorded three touchbacks. The 42-yarder was a good sign because that's a distance that plagued the team during a miserable stretch in '09. Buehler has all the confidence in the world. If he'll trust his leg, the distance will be there.
  • Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick might be the best tackler of all the defensive backs. He does a really nice job of wrapping up and you don't see guys bounce off him. Scandrick decked wide receiver Louis Murphy early in the game. Then he absorbed a blow from James. The Cowboys were flying to the ball early.
  • The running game was awful, but I did see Marion Barber put a nice little move on cornerback Stanford Routt in the first quarter. He froze Routt with a little stutter-step. Barber stumbled after that and only gained 2 yards.
  • Romo and Austin have tremendous chemistry on the slant. On a third-down play, Austin got Johnson on his hip and then made a nice grab across the middle. Even when cornerbacks see it coming, they have an awful time getting inside position.
  • All the goodwill that Kevin Ogletree earned in the offseason is being wasted early in the preseason. He's not making contested catches and it just seems like there's a lack of concentration. I still think he'll make the roster as the fifth receiver, but he hasn't seized some of these extra repetitions that were created by Dez Bryant's absence.
  • Linebacker Victor Butler picked up a personal foul on a punt return. The officials will not have any tolerance this season for those blindside hits on defenseless players. There's just too much of a risk for head and neck injuries. Butler must have better awareness on that play.
  • In the first quarter, cornerback Terence Newman closed quickly to break up a Jason Campbell throw in the flat. Newman was in position to make the interception, but he opted for knocking down the ball with one arm. It was a very instinctive play and it caught Campbell by surprise.
  • Free-agent rookie Bryan McCann out of SMU had one really nice punt return (28 yards) late in the second quarter when he allowed Ogletree to set him up with a good block. McCann's also getting a lot of opportunities with the second-team defense. He was late on a Campbell throw to Murphy, but you can tell that he's not far away from making those plays. I get the sense that Wade Phillips is really pulling for McCann.
  • I was eager to see how former third-round draft pick Robert Brewster performed at left tackle against the Raiders. And once again, he turned in a dud. Not even the optimistic Phillips will be able to praise Brewster after Thursday's showing. His feet are stuck in neutral and there's absolutely no anchor. When you watch him, he's getting pushed directly toward the quarterback. He's most susceptible to an outside speed rush right now, and that's not a good sign. Brewster will keep getting chances, but I thought that was a poor showing. Brewster was also penalized for grabbing a defensive end as he raced past.
  • Butler does an excellent job getting pressure on the quarterback. He's so much more consistent this season in causing problems for the offensive line. And the other linebacker who caught my eye Thursday was Leon Williams. He's just a really tough player who brings some attitude to the field. Inside linebacker Jason Williams is still a work in progress, but he did race through and make a nice play against running back Michael Bush.
  • Safety Mike Hamlin suffered a neck strain and a concussion in the third quarter, according to ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon. Some folks in the organization thought Hamlin might challenge Alan Ball for the starting role, but that hasn't happened so far in camp. The good news for the Cowboys is that Hamlin was the only player injured. That's a lot different situation than what took place against the Bengals.
  • Roy Williams and Romo weren't on the same page in the first quarter. On one play, Romo rolled right and wanted Williams to come back to him. Williams sort of posted up the cornerback along the sideline and hoped for the best. There wasn't any rhythm to his routes against the Raiders. By the way, Bryant gave Williams and the rest of the receivers some new shoes.
  • In one of the Cowboys' four trips inside the red zone, Jon Kitna rolled right and threw to Deon Anderson in the flat. It was a poorly conceived play on fourth-and-1. Linebacker Thomas Howard applied the pressure to Kitna.
  • I thought safety Danny McCray did a really nice job hustling over to break up a deep ball to Johnnie Lee Higgins. McCray's been a camp phenom, and I'm eager to see if he can keep it up in Oxnard, Calif., next week. The Beast will be on the ground in Oxnard beginning Sunday evening.
  • The Cowboys were 3-for-16 on third down. The lack of a running game put the Cowboys in third-and-long situations far too often. Losing in the preseason isn't a big issue, but this red zone issue is something that goes back to last season. The Cowboys need a touchdown from the first-team offense against the Chargers next Saturday.
  • Guard Pat McQuistan simply doesn't play with any power. Every time I watch him, he's getting thrown toward the quarterback. It's about time to move on without him. The Cowboys have invested a lot of time in him, but I don't think he'll ever be a starter. And he doesn't seem like a reliable backup. On the other hand, I like the backup center, Phil Costa. The guy will stand his ground and he seems to have a little attitude. Give me that guy over McQuistan any day. I also liked the way rookie Sam Young played.
Larry Fitzgerald, Frank Gore and Patrick Willis US PresswireLarry Fitzgerald, Frank Gore and Patrick Willis are the three front-runners to become the NFC West's Player of the Year for 2010.
Thirty-eight players and two offensive lines had drawn mention by Wednesday morning after I asked for candidates -- sleeper and otherwise -- for 2010 NFC West player of the year.

Some of the sleeper suggestions bordered on ridiculous (Olindo Mare). Another (John Skelton) crossed the border and established residency.

There were also some solid cases made for players deserving mention alongside the five sleepers I outlined (Beanie Wells, Alex Smith, Matt Hasselbeck, Michael Crabtree and Matt Leinart).

norcal114 made a good point about the Seattle Seahawks' LenDale White being in a contract year. Seattle fans remember how well Shaun Alexander performed when a payday was on the line. Alexander was also running behind a formidable offensive line, but for as bad as Seattle appeared up front last season, Justin Forsett still averaged 5.4 yards a carry.

"LenDale White definitely merits inclusion, if not the top spot," TitoKohout wrote. "He's going back to Pete Carroll, [for whom] he played his best, he's in shape, he's the No. 1 back, he's in a contract year and the Seahawks have a pretty easy schedule. Barring injuries, I wouldn't be surprised to see him hit 1,000 yards."

Rushing for 1,000 yards won't qualify anyone as player of the year, of course, but White still probably deserves at least some acknowledgment.

"No mention of Sam Bradford?" Facebook friend Brian wrote. "I'd say he would be player of the year if he could manage 20 TDs with the personnel and coaching he has to work with."

Few rookie quarterbacks have tossed 20 touchdown passes and Bradford would deserve acclaim if he could hit that mark, but in focusing on the most legitimate candidates, I settled on the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald as the favorite, with the San Francisco 49ers' Frank Gore next on my list (more on them in a bit).

Steven Jackson is a worthy candidate even after recent back surgery, but I question whether the Rams can win enough games to give Jackson a more realistic shot.

What about defense, you say? Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. can help.

"Gore is a great choice for sure and even though he has QB concerns, Larry Fitzgerald is real hard to bet against," Williamson said, "but I will go with Patrick Willis. I expect San Francisco's defense to take a big step up this year (maybe a top 5 defense?) and Willis to be leading the way. As much as I like Gore -- especially this season -- I still don't trust him to dress for 16 games."

The 49ers' defense does have that type of potential, but I'm not seeing many defensive upgrades in San Francisco this offseason. Rookie linebacker Navorro Bowman could surprise in a situational role. Rookie safety Taylor Mays could add flair to the secondary.

"I'm not real excited about those two pickups, per se," Williamson said, "but I do expect the offense to control the football much better and I also expect the defense to be a year older/better across the board, especially with the pass-rushers at outside linebacker."

Those rush linebackers would include Ahmad Brooks, one of the 38 players mentioned as potential POY candidates. The others: the 49ers' Smith, Gore, Josh Morgan, Kentwan Balmer, Manny Lawson, Crabtree, Willis, Ted Ginn Jr. and Vernon Davis; the Cardinals' Wells, Ben Patrick, Darnell Dockett, Joey Porter, Skelton, Kerry Rhodes, Fitzgerald and Leinart; the Rams' Bobby Carpenter, Chris Long, Donnie Avery, James Laurinaitis, Bradford and Steven Jackson; and the Seahawks' Aaron Curry, David Hawthorne, Golden Tate, J.P. Losman, John Carlson, Josh Wilson, Forsett, White, Leon Washington, Lofa Tatupu, Hasselbeck, Mike Williams, Mare and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The offensive lines for the 49ers and Seahawks were also mentioned.

(Read full post)

NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

NFC West teams have acquired 10 veteran players by trade this offseason. Which one will have the greatest impact in 2010?

Let's define impact first.

[+] EnlargeRhodes
Kirby Lee/US PresswireSafety Kerry Rhodes is expected to start in Arizona.
Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes, acquired from the Jets, has the best chance to finish the 2010 season with the most snaps played among players acquired by NFC West teams. He'll start and presumably be an every-down player on defense.

Seahawks running back Leon Washington and 49ers receiver Ted Ginn Jr. have the best chance to make an electrifying play or two, perhaps swinging a game in their team's favor. Washington first must overcome a broken leg. Ginn scored two touchdowns on kickoff returns for the Dolphins last season. He had a 53-yard TD reception last season and a 40-yard scoring run in 2008.

Charlie Whitehurst, the quarterback Seattle acquired from San Diego, could make the greatest impact -- positive or negative -- based on the nature of his position. Early returns suggest Matt Hasselbeck will hold off Whitehurst for the starting job, but injuries have slowed Hasselbeck over the past two seasons. If Hasselbeck is banged up again, the Seahawks will presumably turn to Whitehurst.

A quick look at the veteran players NFC West teams have added and subtracted this offseason:
Arizona: added Rhodes; subtracted receiver Anquan Boldin.

St. Louis: added linebacker Bobby Carpenter and safety Kevin Payne; subtracted tackle Alex Barron and defensive lineman Adam Carriker.

49ers: added Ginn; subtracted quarterback Shaun Hill.

Seahawks: added Whitehurst, Washington, running back LenDale White, defensive end Chris Clemons, defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and defensive end Robert Henderson; subtracted guard Rob Sims, defensive end Darryl Tapp and quarterback Seneca Wallace.

Seattle has been the busiest NFC West team in the trade market this offseason. I think that is because the Seahawks are the only team in the division with a new coaching staff and new general manager. They wanted to shake up the roster.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider