NFL Nation: Camp Confidential

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- During the spring, Matthew Stafford admitted there was a lot to pick up in the new offensive system, only the second one he’s had to digest in the NFL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s fair.”

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

Three reasons for optimism:

  • [+] EnlargeJim Caldwell
    AP Photo/Carlos OsorioPlayers are buying into new coach Jim Caldwell's focus on efficiency.
    This team appears to truly believe in Jim Caldwell, at least for now. Yes, it is easy to speak positively of a new regime before a regular-season game has been played, but the players are buying into his focus on efficiency. From his elimination of stretching periods in practice to his promise that he’ll treat every player equally, the Lions have been appreciative of Caldwell's approach compared to the previous regime under Jim Schwartz. Accountability has been a big focus for Caldwell, and so far it has worked.
  • Megatron. It might sound simplistic, but if this team has a healthy Johnson, that is a massive reason for optimism because of what he is able to do to opposing defenses. Johnson has looked impressive through the first two weeks of camp, making jaw-dropping plays essentially every day. This is typical for Johnson, who has been doing that since his freshman year at Georgia Tech in 2004. But Johnson looks healed from his offseason knee and finger surgeries, and the Lions are being smart with his repetitions during practice. As long as Johnson is healthy, Detroit can feel good about its passing game.
  • Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley have been dominant. Both entered camp in great shape and are playing for future contracts this season. If the Lions receive first-round efforts from both Suh (expected) and Fairley (questionable) in 2014, Detroit could have the dominant defensive front it has sought since it drafted them in back-to-back first rounds.
Three reasons for pessimism:

  • If Stafford gets hurt, the Lions are in major trouble. Yes, many teams can say that about their starting quarterback, but in previous years Shaun Hill gave Detroit a level of confidence that it could remain competitive if Stafford were to go down. So far, No. 2 quarterback Dan Orlovsky has looked somewhat rough both in practice and in one preseason game. Kellen Moore showed some flashes of potential in the preseason opener, but he was mostly facing players who won’t make Cleveland’s 53-man roster. More than any other season, Stafford’s health is of supreme importance right now.
  • [+] EnlargeDetroit's Matthew Stafford
    Leon Halip/Getty ImagesA lot of the Lions' success in 2014 will depend on how well Matthew Stafford picks up the new offense and if he can stay healthy.
    The secondary is still questionable. The Lions are set with their starters here, but the depth is still up in the air at both cornerback and safety. Beyond Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay -- and even with them -- the Lions have no sure things at cornerback and in a division with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, that is not good for Detroit. Safety appears to be a little stronger both in starters (Glover Quin, James Ihedigbo) and also depth (Don Carey, DeJon Gomes, Isa Abdul-Quddus) but lacks a top-end playmaker.
  • The offense has still looked a little shaky. Stafford has practiced well, especially with Johnson, but the defense has looked stronger than the offense on multiple occasions. There is still a large learning curve, but considering what the Lions have put into their offense in the offseason, that might not bode well for a team trying to score points in bunches. Part of the issue might come from Detroit’s multiplicity offensively, with players lining up in different spots on almost every play. Early on the defense has looked stronger.
Observation Deck:

  • Detroit has stayed mostly healthy through the first two weeks of camp. Part of that might have to do with the way Detroit has practiced this summer -- short, efficient, smart splitting of reps and days off for veterans. So far, Caldwell has taken care of his players.
  • Eric Ebron is coming along. He had a rough first week of camp, dropping passes and looking lost at times. Since then, the first-round pick has been much better both with ball security and route running. He has probably the most challenging camp of any player on the team as he’s a rookie and lining up in four different spots within the Lions offense. He is making progress.
  • The kicking situation has the potential to be a mess and, at best, an untested situation. Neither Nate Freese nor Giorgio Tavecchio has kicked in a regular-season game. Freese is a rookie and Tavecchio has been cut the past two camps. Both have looked decent-to-good in practice thus far, but it’ll be interesting to see how much the Lions trust an inexperienced kicker the first time the game is on the line. Punter Sam Martin has been impeccable at camp, though, and looks to have improved from his strong rookie performance.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Lovie Smith finished 10-6 in his final season with the Chicago Bears before being fired. Marc Trestman comes in and leads the Bears to an 8-8 record in 2013. Yet expectations soar here on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University, where crowds for training camp practices routinely swell to 10,000.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OBSERVATION DECK

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

The Tennessee Titans are lowly regarded by plenty of fans and media nationally. But they have a lot going on that they feel those people have not paid attention to.

With Ken Whisenhunt and his staff at the helm, new schemes on both sides of the ball, a schedule that doesn’t include some of the powers they faced a year ago and a division with two other rebuilding franchises, they might have a chance to surprise.

."You say each and every year, 'Feels different, feels different, feels different,'" safety Michael Griffin said. "Just, you can see every day, people out there talking, we always have guys picking people up. Each and every day there is competition. There are little side bets here and there -- who’s going to win this period and things of that nature. The whole time we’re all trying to get each other better.

"Again, it just feels so much different in this locker room, and everybody has the same goals in mind, and that’s a positive around here."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeKen Whisenhunt
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsNew coach Ken Whisenhunt brings a solid résumé and a strong coaching staff to the Titans.
1. Whisenhunt isn’t Vince Lombardi or Don Shula, but the Titans' new coach is a significant upgrade from Mike Munchak, who was unsteady in his first three years as an NFL head coach. Whisenhunt had success in the role during his six seasons in Arizona, and he is a well-regarded offensive mind who will do more with what the Titans have than his predecessors.

Whisenhunt had the connections and the interviewing skills to hire a staff that appears to be filled with strong teachers, including a few quality holdovers. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is turning the Titans into a less predictable 3-4 and comfortably works his way into different sections of practice when position work is unfolding. I've watched these coaches teach and I've seen them connect with players.

Whisenhunt may field a complex offense that's hard to defend, but he's good at keeping things simple. I don't see any changes in how the Titans function that aren't for the better at this point.

2. The Titans don’t have players the fans are going to pick to captain their fantasy squads, but Tennessee should have a good array of quality weapons on offense. Kendall Wright topped 1,000 yards in his second season, and now the team’s best receiver will be sent on a wider variety of routes, not just inside slot stuff. He's been excellent so far in camp. Justin Hunter is doing better getting his legs under him and is catching the ball more comfortably. He got behind Atlanta's defense a few times in the recent joint practice and should be a constant deep threat. Nate Washington is showing he remains a versatile, productive guy.

Beyond the receivers, tight end Delanie Walker and running backs Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey will be good pass-catching options. When the Falcons gave the Titans a lot of room underneath, Jake Locker hit McCluster with a pass over the middle, and he had a ton of space to take. The Titans have invested a great deal in their offensive line over the past two seasons. They have one more tackle than they need after signing Michael Oher and drafting Taylor Lewan. There should be better protection for the quarterback and better holes for the running backs.

3. The 4-3 defense in recent years lacked a star pass-rusher on the edge who an offense had to fear every snap. The Titans still don’t seem to have that guy. They have to find him, but even if he doesn’t emerge from this group, the overall production out of the pass rush should be better. Who is rushing and who is dropping into coverage? In the 4-3, opponents pretty much knew. In this 3-4, it won’t be nearly as clear on a regular basis. Jurrell Casey, who notched 10.5 sacks as a tackle last season, will work as an end now. He's worked on speed rushes off the edge as well as his bread-and-butter quick power stuff in camp.

Sure, some good quarterbacks can diagnose who is rushing and who isn’t, no matter the front. But outside of Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck (twice), the Titans don’t face any A-list quarterbacks coming off big 2013 seasons this time around. They don’t see Seattle and San Francisco this season either.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Locker is a really likable guy who works hard, says the right things and desperately wants to prove he is the long-term answer for the Titans at quarterback. But in two seasons as the starter, he's missed 14 games while dealing with shoulder, hip, knee and foot injuries. He's practiced pretty well, but there are plays splashed in that can be killers on a Sunday afternoon.

Getting 16 games out of him is hardly a certainty for the Titans. Even if they do and he fits well with what Whisenhunt is asking him to do, he has not been accurate or poised enough when he has played. He sometimes tries to do too much and isn’t poised under pressure. Though he moves well and is very fast, putting him on the move puts him at more risk of another injury. Behind him are more question marks. Charlie Whitehurst has had no real success in just 13 games in eight seasons and often fails to step into his throws. Rookie Zach Mettenberger has a great arm but slipped to the sixth round for several reasons and is rotating with Tyler Wilson as the third-team QB. (Update: Wilson was released Wednesday.)

2. The offensive weaponry looks good, but for those five pass-catchers to give the Titans the nice smorgasbord of options, they need to stay healthy. Also, guys like Hunter (second year), Sankey (a rookie) and McCluster (first year with the Titans and Whisenhunt) need to show that their potential and practice play translate into NFL Sundays in a Tennessee uniform. Wright was the best player on offense last season and should grow more. Can the others become known quantities?

Who is the star of the defense? DT-turned-DE Casey is a strong, quick rusher who was healthy and productive in 2013. He is going to land a big-money contract -- either soon from Tennessee or on the market next spring. There are some nice pieces around him, but the Titans need veterans to have their best seasons and youngsters to emerge, all simultaneously. In Georgia, no defender stood out and regularly gave the Falcons more than they could handle.

3. Forty-seven percent of the current 90-man roster has been in the league for two years or less. Youth is generally good, but it needs to be quality youth and it needs to be surrounded by quality veterans. The Titans lack experience in a lot of spots. There aren't kids in camp who weren't high picks but have forced their way up the depth chart to this point.

Maybe it’s a great mix of players and a good share of the inexperienced people can blossom together. But with new coaches and new schemes, it could be asking a lot for all that to happen in the first season.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeJake Locker
    Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsJake Locker needs a healthy season if he hopes to become the long-term answer at QB for the Titans.

  • Locker said he feels more comfortable speaking up and being vocal, and he has shown himself to be more confident in how he carries himself. After one throw that looked to be too long for an undrafted rookie, Locker pointed to tell Julian Horton where he should have gone. He still has bad moments in practice, but the preseason has not started, and he is progressing.
  • The Titans have moved running back Jackie Battle to fullback, where he can offer some needed versatility. He appears to have a sizable lead on incumbent Collin Mooney, who has had, at most, a handful of first-team snaps.
  • Among long-shot late additions, veteran receiver Derek Hagan has been consistently good and Brian Robiskie is also gaining notice. He's competing for the fourth and fifth wide receiver spots with Marc Mariani and Michael Preston. Maybe they'll keep six.
  • Sankey is learning quickly how to be a pro, and he has shown a bit of everything the Titans said they expected when they made him the first running back selected in the draft. His first day in pads he looked like an experienced NFL-caliber pass protector. He has good vision and makes good decisions on when to go and when to cut. He also catches the ball well, can run inside and outside.
  • Weakside outside linebacker Shaun Phillips has not worked at all with the first team when Kamerion Wimbley has been practicing.
  • Tommie Campbell was politely mentioned with Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson as a contender for the starting right cornerback spot that opened when Alterraun Verner signed with Tampa Bay. But it’s a two-man competition, and Campbell has struggled horribly.
TAMPA, Fla. -- There’s a perception out there that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can’t wait to let quarterback Josh Freeman walk away after this season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE HOT ISSUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

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

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

They have enough talent to get to the playoffs.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

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

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

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

OBSERVATION DECK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE HOT ISSUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

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

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

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

OBSERVATION DECK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE HOT ISSUES

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

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

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

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

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

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

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

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

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

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

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

OBSERVATION DECK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE HOT ISSUES

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

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

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

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

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

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

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

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Denard Robinson is listed as a running back, a quarterback, a receiver and a kick returner on the team’s initial depth chart. The team already has tried to trim his workload -- he’s not involved as a punt returner for now -- to help him get good at a smaller role, and so he can really concentrate on ball security. They will definitely use him in the Wildcat. But Caldwell said he’s not really expecting anything from Robinson early on.
  • All the receivers are learning all the spots. So while Sanders and Brown both look the part of slot guys, don’t pigeonhole either as strictly inside guys. And while Shorts and Blackmon look the part of outside guys, they could well get opportunities lining up inside, too. Mohamed Massaquoi and, to a larger degree, Jordan Shipley don’t seem to be very big factors right now.
  • Alualu looked good as an end when I focused on him. Hopefully his knee is sound and he will be able to put things together in his fourth year. Meanwhile, Jeremy Mincey is going the other direction. He has added about 15 pounds and his primary role is likely to be as a nickel tackle.
  • After what he did, and failed to do, in his chances in Houston last season, cornerback Alan Ball seemed like an uninspired signing to me. But he has been better through camp so far than I would have expected.
  • Undrafted rookie linebacker LaRoy Reynolds is flashing regularly at practice. At this point, I expect he’s on the team and given a chance to be a special-teams ace. Maybe he even pushes starter Russell Allen. Look for six to eight undrafted guys to make the initial 53-man roster.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For the first time since 2004, the San Francisco 49ers are conducting training camp without Alex Smith as part of the quarterback equation. Throw in a long, growing list of injuries, and the NFC West's most established team is tougher to recognize.

I spent two days in camp without seeing starters Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis or Jonathan Goodwin practice. Receiver Michael Crabtree was already out, of course. A.J. Jenkins, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams and Kendall Hunter also were not practicing. Third cornerback Chris Culliver, meanwhile, suffered a torn ACL.

Fortunately for the 49ers, it's still early August. They know how to develop talent and coach to players' strengths. But for San Francisco to win a third consecutive NFC West crown, the team could use better luck with injuries from this point forward.

Beyond the injury concerns, all signs point toward a continued rise for quarterback Colin Kaepernick. This is becoming his team because of the way he works and because he's such a talent. Offensive and defensive players alike say so. Kaepernick often shows up for work before 6 in the morning. He dusts teammates up the hills they run in nearby San Jose.

Outsiders tempted to brand Kaepernick -- after 10 NFL starts -- as a one-read quarterback or a read-option quarterback aren't seeing what coordinator Greg Roman is seeing.

"He doesn't look at things in a rote fashion," Roman said. "He can see big picture. He understands the trickle-down. Say you give him a play, he is going to look at it in his mind versus all different coverages. All those little acetates are going to fall down at once in his mind, and then he understands the impact and 'hey, maybe we should put this guy in this spot, let him run this and let what's-his-name do this.' He is very interactive."

The 49ers still plan to use two backs frequently and lean hard on the running game, but it's not so much because a young quarterback is limiting their options. The collaborative aspect Roman referenced is telling in that regard.

"Last year, I started to bounce things off him because I started to really trust him," Roman said. "I liked what I was hearing and seeing. Now, he has a hand in the pot, too. That is what you want. He is the quarterback. You can evolve with him, and he'll be part of that evolution process. I just love getting him thinking, because he is great."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeAnquan Boldin
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezAs injuries mount at receiver, the offseason signing of Anquan Boldin looks better by the day.
1. Attrition at wide receiver. Every 49ers fan should be sending letters of gratitude to general manager Trent Baalke for acquiring receiver Anquan Boldin before the team absolutely, positively had to have him.

The situation at receiver is going to improve as Williams, Jenkins and Manningham in particular get healthy. Crabtree might even return late in the season.

For now, though, the 49ers have the following behind Boldin at the position: Austin Collie, Lavelle Hawkins, Charly Martin, Chad Hall, Ricardo Lockette, Marlon Moore, Kassim Osgood, Chuck Jacobs and Quinton Patton, who has one healthy hand and is running routes under orders not to catch any passes.

The 49ers need Jenkins to be a factor, but that's not going to happen until the 2012 first-round choice returns from a sore hamstring. Jenkins got safety Donte Whitner's vote when I asked Whitner which of the young wideouts would emerge. Whitner said he thought Jenkins' speed would allow him to "take the top off" opposing defenses. Again, that can't happen with Jenkins on the sideline.

San Francisco does have the ability to use two tight ends and/or two running backs, lessening the need for multiple wideouts.

2. Secondary concerns. Culliver's injury and free safety Dashon Goldson's departure in free agency could make the 49ers worse in the secondary for the short term. The team has leaned on its dominant front seven to protect the back end. That will be the preferred formula this season.

Pushing first-round pick Eric Reid into the lineup at free safety sounds good in theory. He's going to be the starter eventually. Why not let him play? Craig Dahl has much more experience. C.J. Spillman and Trenton Robinson are in the mix, too.

One consideration: San Francisco opens the season against Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck before making a trip to St. Louis, where the Rams beat the 49ers last season. The 49ers will want to let the safety race play out through preseason before making a decision.

At corner, Nnamdi Asomugha appeared likely to step into Culliver's spot as the third corner, but Tramaine Brock was the player defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called upon first. Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers are the starters, with Rogers shifting inside in sub packages.

As for Asomugha? He made plays on the ball when I visited practice, but the ever-direct Fangio offered a mixed assessment.

"He's had some good days out here and some days where you weren’t sure if he was going to still have it," Fangio said. "I think we're kind of in between with him right now. Hopefully, he'll be able to still have some gas left in his tank to go out there and play like he did prior to going to Philadelphia. So, I think the jury is still out there."

Fangio passed on an opportunity to blame Asomugha's struggles with the Eagles on the scheme Philadelphia was running.

"I think there's some of that, but Nnamdi is at this stage in his career where some guys start losing, their physical skills start to diminish. We just have to see if that’s entering into his picture, too, or not."

3. Potential defensive tweaks. Defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald rank among the NFL's top five defensive linemen in total snaps played over the past two seasons, counting playoffs. The heavy use might have contributed to the torn triceps Smith suffered late last season.

The defense wasn't the same with Smith on the sideline, and was limited upon his return. The plan this season calls for expanding the rotation along the line. Ian Williams and free-agent addition Glenn Dorsey will be key to making that happen. And once second-round choice Tank Carradine gets healthy, San Francisco will have another option to help keep its veterans fresh.

The 49ers have gone away from the more traditional 3-4 scheme they employed when Aubrayo Franklin was their two-gapping nose tackle a few years back. They still run a base 3-4, but the front is more aggressive in getting up the field. Dorsey, who appeared miscast in the 3-4 scheme Kansas City ran after drafting him fifth overall in 2008, should fit better with San Francisco.

"You have a lot more freedom," Dorsey said of the 49ers' scheme relative to the Chiefs' old scheme. "There's not just staying on blocks. It's taking on blocks and you get to penetrate a lot more, go off in gaps and stuff like that and then move around. A lot of stunts and stuff. It's fun."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The 49ers have the front office, coaching staff, quarterback, offensive line, running backs and defensive front seven to contend for a championship. They also have one of the NFL's most dynamic tight ends, Vernon Davis. Just about every team in the league should envy the 49ers' roster even with the injury concerns. Kaepernick appears supremely driven. He should improve given the support system around him. Also, the 49ers have most of their tougher-looking games at home, where they should be expected to win a high percentage of the time. A relatively easy road schedule could help San Francisco gain in the standings against Seattle and St. Louis. Those teams face tougher road schedules.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

[+] EnlargeBoone
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesThe 49ers have been resourceful in finding starters like Alex Boone.
The injury situation is a concern. Competition within the NFC West will be fierce. The 49ers have more questions to answer this offseason after parting with Delanie Walker, Goldson and a few role players. Change isn't always bad, of course. This organization has consistently found upgrades such as Alex Boone and Bowman when flushing out starters. Still, there is some uncertainty, at least until the 49ers see how the replacements perform. And if the pace of injuries keeps up, the incline could become too steep.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • British Olympic discus champion Lawrence Okoye will need time to develop. His musculature stands out even among his fellow defensive linemen, but his football inexperience shows on the practice field. He's still learning technique and how to make his 6-foot-6 frame work for him.
  • Boone, listed at 6-8 and 300 pounds, is about as impressive looking as Okoye. He had the other linemen laughing and shaking their heads when he ended a post-practice soak in a ground-level ice tub by launching his body upright from a lying position in one violent motion, sending water and ice flying. He stuck the landing, too.
  • Strong safeties and fullbacks tend to relish contact. I enjoyed watching Whitner and Bruce Miller cross paths at speed during drills featuring only minimal contact. They clipped one another hard enough to pop their pads without putting themselves at risk for injury or attracting heat from coaches.
  • One of the traits separating Frank Gore from other running backs is his ability to maneuver amid heavy traffic on inside runs. Left tackle Joe Staley: "I've never seen a better runner in NFL history between the 'A' gaps. He finds that tiniest crease. One of the other things that sets him apart is that he can make cuts in the 'A' gaps, too. You see other runners go through the 'A' gaps and they just try to smash into someone and it's a 3-yard gain. Frank gets to that 'A' gap and he makes a quick cut and all of a sudden a 3-yard run turns into a 12-, 14-yard run."
  • Back in March, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh had high praise for Lockette, a receiver the team signed from the Seattle Seahawks last season. I took note when Harbaugh appeared to be offering forcefully delivered corrections to Lockette during practice. The head coach probably wouldn't bother if he thought the player wasn't worth the trouble. Harbaugh obviously sees something in Lockette, but how will that translate?
  • Left guard Joe Looney and center Daniel Kilgore worked together with the starting offensive line Friday while starters Mike Iupati and Jonathan Goodwin sat out (Goodwin is recovering from injury, while Iupati sat out a few plays after limping off). Seeing Looney and Kilgore work together with the starters brought into focus the line's longer-term future. Will the team work out a contract extension for Iupati? Players such as Kaepernick and Aldon Smith could become higher priorities to re-sign after this season. Just a thought.
  • Change-of-pace running back LaMichael James is catching the ball well at this point.
  • It's not yet clear how quickly second-round pick Vance McDonald will develop as a reliable blocker. Boldin's ability in that area provides flexibility.
  • Players off-limits to contact typically wear black jerseys so teammates know to avoid hitting them. Patton, a rookie fourth-round pick, was in another category. He was running pass routes as usual, but the coaching staff told him to let the quartebacks' passes sail past him. The team wants Patton to get reps without risking further injury to a finger. Patton caught one pass anyway. I saw him catch another ball with one hand. Patton was the only player wearing a blue jersey, making him particularly easy to spot.
  • Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely, 37, recently said one of the team's rookies confessed to mistaking Feely for an assistant coach all offseason. I'll admit to briefly mistaking the 49ers' 38-year-old kicker, Phil Dawson, for a team staffer when he arrived at the post-practice interview tent wearing running shoes with no socks and a pullover on his 5-foot-11 frame. Dawson, who is new to the 49ers, said he obsesses over weather conditions, to the point that he is constantly checking them using an app whose manufacturer he wouldn't reveal. Although Candlestick Park is known for rough conditions, the winds blow almost constantly at team headquarters -- something to keep in mind when the 49ers move into their new stadium across the street in 2014.
  • Linebacker Nick Moody, a sixth-round pick, has stood out early, but he's transitioning from safety and will need time to develop. Fangio put it best: "I think he’s got a lot of good tools in his toolbox. He just isn’t a union carpenter yet."
  • The talk of tight end Davis taking reps at wide receiver was pretty much just that: talk. Davis will remain a tight end. However, I did see him line up outside the yard-line numbers a couple times in one practice. He has the speed to do that on occasion. His route-running has improved over the years as well. A third season in the same offense is another important factor for expanding Davis' game. Still, he's going to be a tight end.

Camp Confidential: Seattle Seahawks

July, 30, 2013
7/30/13
11:45
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RENTON, Wash. -- This training camp marks the Seattle Seahawks' first since 2009 without some form of a starting quarterback competition. So comfortable, mature and in command is Russell Wilson this summer that you'd swear he's been the starter for a decade.

It's sometimes as though Wilson is 24 years old going on 42.

Wilson naturally took the driver's seat in the van Seattle players used when shuttling to the offseason practices Wilson organized in Los Angeles. While teammates joked around in the back like kids on a field trip, Wilson was their chaperone.

Asked during this camp what he knew of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick from their time together shooting a commercial and appearing at the ESPYS, Wilson, nearly 13 months Kaepernick's junior, described his rival as someone who loves football and is a good person to be around.

"Great kid," Wilson added.

Reporters can forget about prying a colorful quote from the player teammates have nicknamed "the robot" for his methodical approach to the job. Wilson has been known to favor coachspeak even inside Seattle's quarterback meeting room.

"We joke around all the time," backup Brady Quinn said. "There are some times when he'll state the obvious. We try to make sure he realizes that is a given. Like, for example, 'Hey man, guys gotta stay healthy this year.' Well, yeah. They always need to stay healthy. That's a big part of a team doing well, people not getting hurt. Times like that, you've gotta keep him on his toes, make him laugh a little bit, give him a hard time."

One year after Wilson won a three-way competition against Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson, the player receiver Sidney Rice sometimes calls "the president" is running unopposed at this Seahawks camp.

"He's a champion when he steps out there on that field, even in practice," Rice said. "I’ve seen him run, I believe, 80 yards on one play on a scramble to try to get away and get us a first down. He is going to do whatever it takes. You have seen him running down the sideline blocking for Marshawn [Lynch] numerous times. That is the kind of guy you want leading your team."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargePercy Harvin
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenThe Vikings aren't sure what to expect from their former receiver, Percy Harvin, who is expected to be in Seattle's lineup on Sunday.
1. Percy Harvin's health. The Seahawks were already a good team before they acquired Harvin. They became a popular pick for the Super Bowl once the versatile receiver and return specialist joined their roster in March. Now, with Harvin seeking a second opinion that could lead to season-altering surgery on his sore hip, those projections seem a little more tenuous.

How Harvin will proceed from here is not clear. His sometimes rocky past in Minnesota invites questions and fuels his critics. Is he smartly erring on the side of caution, as coach Pete Carroll seemed to suggest in initial remarks about the injury? Or, is this another one of those tough-to-explain Harvin plot twists like the ones that seemed to pop up regularly during his Minnesota tenure? With Harvin set to seek that second opinion Tuesday, Carroll noted that safety Kam Chancellor played through a similar injury last season. Was he saying Harvin should do the same?

"Guys around here trust [Harvin] and believe in him," Rice said. "It's nothing like coming out here and taking days off and doing his own thing. I don’t think he’s that type of person. You get that perception from people that don’t really know what's going on, and they just hear stuff and they just create their own [impression]."

Harvin is, by all accounts, plenty tough and competitive. If this is an injury Harvin can manage, it appears he'll do so on his terms, not on the Seahawks' terms. That surely wouldn't surprise the Vikings, even though Rice, himself an ex-Viking, said his teammate is misunderstood.

2. Bruce Irvin's position. There has been some confusion, at least on my end, regarding the role Seattle envisions for 2012 first-round draft choice Irvin. The team drafted Irvin with plans to use him initially as a situational pass-rusher, and later as the successor to Chris Clemons in the "Leo" position as a stand-up rusher in Carroll's defense.

Irvin collected eight sacks as a rookie in the situational role, as planned. He'll continue to play that role within the nickel defense while adding responsibilities as an outside linebacker in base packages. It's not so much that Irvin will be playing the strong side or weak side. Rather, he'll be one of two outside linebackers positioned on the line of scrimmage in what will look like a 3-4 scheme. He'll be asked to set the edge in the running game, rush the passer, match up man-to-man or cover the flat.

First, though, Irvin will have to serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on anabolic steroids and related substances.

3. Depth on the offensive line. The Seahawks drafted offensive lineman James Carpenter 25th overall in 2011 when they could have taken a quarterback such as Andy Dalton or Kaepernick. Finding Wilson a year later absolved the team from second-guessing on the quarterback front, but the Carpenter selection was still looking like a regrettable one heading into this camp. Injuries were threatening Carpenter's career, and he wasn't exactly dominant even when healthy in his rookie season.

Perceptions are beginning to change after Carpenter reported to camp in good enough shape to participate fully from the beginning. I noticed Carpenter running from one drill to the next when he could have jogged. It seemed like evidence Carpenter was feeling good and was eager to salvage his career. He's been working with the starting unit at left guard between Pro Bowlers Russell Okung and Max Unger. Adding a healthy Carpenter to the mix would upgrade the line's longer-term prospects.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Seattle has one of the NFL's best quarterbacks, best running backs and best defenses. That's a winning combination just about every time. Last season, Wilson struggled through his first few games while hamstrung by remedial game plans. He did not start to hit his stride until Week 8 at Detroit. Wilson did not break out all the way until leading 97- and 80-yard touchdown drives to win at Chicago in Week 13. That's the quarterback Seattle will have behind center from the beginning this season. That is why the Seahawks like their chances.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Potential depth issues at tight end, offensive tackle, weakside linebacker and defensive end (for now, while Clemons rehabs and Irvin faces a suspension) probably aren't serious enough to send the Seahawks plummeting into mediocrity. However, the margin for error within the NFC West figures to be small. Harvin, at his best, was supposed to put Seattle over the top. Now, the Seahawks can't be sure they'll have him for the regular season.

OBSERVATION DECK
    [+] EnlargeRed Bryant
    Steven Bisig/USA TODAY SportsRed Bryant, who had treatment for sleep apnea this offseason, says he has better stamina in practices.

  • Defensive end Red Bryant appears more comfortable, for good reason. Bryant had treatment for sleep apnea this offseason after former trainer Sam Ramsden, now the Seahawks' director of player health and performance, recommended testing for larger players. Bryant, who wears a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask when he sleeps, says he's feeling refreshed and has better stamina later in practices. This is a pivotal season for Bryant, who struggled with a foot injury last season after signing a $35 million extension. At Carroll's suggestion, Bryant has recommitted to his identity as a dominant run-stuffer after feeling pressure to improve as a pass-rusher upon signing his new contract.
  • Rookie fourth-round receiver Chris Harper didn't seem to be a factor in the first couple days of camp. The first time I really noticed him was when he caught a touchdown pass on the third day of practice. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was also the first day this summer that the Seahawks practiced in pads. Harper, oddly proportioned for a receiver at 6-foot-1 and 234 pounds, relishes the physical part of the game. Some young receivers flourish in shorts and struggle in pads. Harper might have it the other way around.
  • The Seahawks claimed off waivers former Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield despite a $1.3 million salary and a history of injuries. Seattle had a middle-rounds grade on Schofield entering the 2010 draft even though Schofield was rehabbing from a torn ACL suffered in Senior Bowl practices. The Cardinals used a fourth-round pick on Schofield just ahead of the range where Seattle was considering taking him. The Seahawks are continually looking for "Leo" defensive ends in the 6-3 and 245-pound mold. Schofield, 26, fits the profile and has a chance to earn playing time in a rotational capacity while Clemons recovers from knee surgery and Irvin serves a suspension.
  • Irvin's speed showed up in practice when he chased down rookie running back Christine Michael to force a fumble some 40 yards past the line of scrimmage. Michael ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at the combine. He has appeared to be one of the more explosive players in camp. Irvin caught him despite outweighing Michael by about 25 pounds, 245 to 220. Raw speed isn't the question for Irvin. He has plenty. The question is whether he can handle some of the coverage and run-stopping responsibilities associated with his evolving role.
  • Remember those offseason stories about Lynch skipping chunks of the voluntary offseason conditioning program? They're pretty much irrelevant now, as anticipated.
  • Nothing has changed the perception that Jackson will beat out Quinn for the No. 2 job behind Wilson. Trading Jackson a year ago was tough in some respects because Jackson was so popular among teammates. I see no reason for the Seahawks to make the same decision again unless Quinn vastly outplays Jackson.
  • Between the practice field and the locker room sits a cart with a laptop connected to a sensor atop a stand. The setup from GPSports allows teams to monitor player performance in real time. Team owner Paul Allen's other professional Seattle sports team, Sounders FC, has used the technology. The GPSports website says systems include a GPS, accelerometer, magnetometer, heart rate sensor and a wireless transmitter. The company says its product can "accurately measure distance, speed, acceleration, heart rate, bodyload and impacts all in real time."
  • Former Cardinals receiver Stephen Williams is doing what he sometimes did while with Arizona: impressing during camp by making spectacular leaping catches. Williams has the talent, but he has been unable to make it transfer to the regular season. Working with a top NFL quarterback cannot hurt. Williams arrived in Arizona the year after Kurt Warner retired.
  • Linebacker K.J. Wright has stood out in past camps, but not so much in this one, except for the big hit he delivered on rookie fullback Spencer Ware.
  • Speaking of Ware, he has some work to do before making veteran fullback Michael Robinson expendable, at least from early indications. The offense didn't look the same or as good with Robinson and tight end Zach Miller sitting out. Robinson and Lynch have a special feel for one another. Ware, more of a halfback type for most of his college career, has dropped a few passes and is still adjusting to the physical nature of the position.
  • The offseason buzz about rookie Jesse Williams possibly starting at defensive tackle seems to have subsided for the time being. Veteran Tony McDaniel and 2012 fourth-rounder Jaye Howard have stood out more.
  • Is that really assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable? He has dropped a significant amount of weight since having back surgery, and he said after one practice, "You can’t imagine how nothing hurts on me. It’s awesome."
  • Richard Sherman, although sometimes combative when facing receivers, projects unfiltered joy other times. He is the player most likely to groove along to the music Carroll plays at practice. Sherman thrilled the crowd during one practice when he picked off a pass and lateraled to Earl Thomas during the return. Football is fun to Sherman, and it shows.
  • There aren't many open passing lanes in practice against the Seattle defense. This team is stacked at cornerback. If this keeps up in preseason, and there's enough depth that it should, Seattle could be in position to trade one of its backups.

Camp Confidential: Cardinals

August, 23, 2012
8/23/12
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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- One quarterback at Arizona Cardinals camp was fighting to win back the starting job he'd never really earned. The team had paid millions to him, but questions persisted over his toughness, durability and leadership.

Another quarterback at Cardinals camp had outperformed his status as a late-round draft choice. He was bigger and had a stronger arm. Teammates responded more favorably to his presence on the field, it seemed, but he wasn't the most accurate passer, which was a concern.

If those descriptions stirred thoughts of Kevin Kolb and John Skelton, respectively, you'd be correct. But the same passages applied to the Cardinals' ill-fated 2010 quarterback race between Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson. Back then, Arizona cut Leinart, struggled with Anderson and finished with a 5-11 record.

The comparison naturally did not sit well with Ken Whisenhunt, the Cardinals' sixth-year head coach. He sees a team that has won with both Kolb and especially Skelton behind center. He sees a team returning a 1,000-yard rusher, a fleet of perimeter playmakers featuring the incomparable Larry Fitzgerald and a defense that dominated during a 7-2 run to finish last season.

"The biggest difference, in 2009, we were a damn good football team at 10-6, but how many [key] players did we lose after that year, five?" Whisenhunt said.

Four, if we count Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle.

"This year, we didn’t lose that," Whisenhunt said. "That is the biggest difference in how I feel from 2010 and the way I feel in 2012."

How the quarterback situation plays out will largely determine whether Whisenhunt is right.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Kolb's adjustment. Going from Philadelphia's West Coast system to the Cardinals' offense has been tougher than anticipated for the Cardinals' would-be starting quarterback. The goal seems so simple: Find ways for Kolb to remain in the pocket and trust the offense. But the instincts Kolb developed with the Eagles keep getting in the way. That could explain what Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly indelicately called "skittishness" -- the tendency for Kolb to bail from the pocket at the first sign of trouble.

Learning the Cardinals' offense hasn't been a problem. Unlearning what he did in Philly? That's another story.

"It's just the way they create the pocket, there versus here," Kolb said. "They teach us to really push up in the pocket in Philly. Two, three hitches up in the pocket when you get up there. You can see that. If you watch Mike [Vick], he has got two really big hitches into his throws. If it’s not there, it’s go or throw, you know what I mean?

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb and John Skelton
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinJohn Skelton, right, appears to have the upper hand over Kevin Kolb for the Cardinals' starting quarterback job.
"Here, when you get to that 8-yard range [on a drop-back], they want you to hang in that vicinity and just stay there. It is just a different deal. A lot of it is rhythm. As a quarterback, you always want to be on rhythm."

Coaches would rather have Kolb throw the ball away immediately than take off running without clear purpose. The line has a hard enough time protecting Kolb when it knows the quarterback's location. Unscripted relocation has proved costly.

Kolb has a firm command of the offense. He's football savvy and fully capable of processing information at the line of scrimmage. That's what makes his difficulties confounding.

"There haven't been any problems mentally," quarterbacks coach John McNulty said. "He is on top of things, he anticipates things. I think sometimes it’s not as clean or as clear as he wants and then all of a sudden you start moving. And when you make those big, violent moves when the line is not expecting it, then you’re kind of on your own. If we’re not making plays out of it, they’re not worth doing, because all you’re going to do is get hit or go backwards."

2. Shaky offensive line. The Cardinals were auditioning left tackles as camp broke after Levi Brown suffered a potentially season-ending torn triceps tendon. For all the criticism Brown has taken over the years, he was clearly the best offensive tackle on the team. The line was a concern even before Brown's injury. Now, it's bordering on a crisis.

Jeremy Bridges, D'Anthony Batiste, Bobby Massie, D.J. Young and Nate Potter are the other tackles on the roster. Bridges has started 55 regular-season NFL games. Batiste has started four. Massie and Potter are rookies. Young has no starts after entering the NFL in 2011 as an undrafted free agent.

One more time: The Cardinals have drafted zero offensive linemen in the first three rounds over the past five drafts. They did not draft an offensive lineman in any round of the 2011 or 2010 draft. The 2012 draft didn't fall right for them when it came to adding a tackle early. They got Massie in the fourth round, which seemed like good value. He'll start at right tackle eventually, and perhaps right away.

3. Running back health. Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams are coming off knee surgeries. The Cardinals felt good enough about their prospects to sail through the offseason without addressing the position. That seemed a little risky.

Likely troubles in pass protection could lead the Cardinals to lean more heavily on their ground game, at least in theory. Wells and Williams would appear to carry greater injury risks than backs without recent knee troubles. Utility back LaRod Stephens-Howling was banged up during camp.

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

The team showed dramatic improvement, particularly on defense, while finishing with that 7-2 record over the final nine games last season.

Sometimes momentum doesn't carry over. In the Cardinals' case, however, there are reasons to expect sustained improvement.

The 2011 team was breaking in a first-time defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, following a lockout-shortened offseason. Players needed time to grasp the concepts. They got better late in the season. They should be better yet following a full offseason.

Arizona has front-line talent at every level of its defense. End Calais Campbell, inside linebacker Daryl Washington and cornerback Patrick Peterson are dynamic young players on the rise. End Darnell Dockett and strong safety Adrian Wilson are in their 30s now, but both remain productive.

The team has gone 7-4 with Skelton as its starter. That figure doesn't even count Skelton's most impressive performance of the 2011 season, when he replaced an injured Kolb and helped Arizona upset San Francisco.

Skelton might not be pretty to watch, but six game-winning drives in 13 career appearances give him credibility in the locker room. Whisenhunt was with the Pittsburgh Steelers when the team won ugly with a young Ben Roethlisberger. Skelton is not Roethlisberger, but he is a big, strong quarterback with some moxie.

The Cardinals have big-play threats on offense. They finished last season with 15 pass plays of at least 40 yards, more than New England and every team but the New York Giants (18), Detroit Lions (16) and Green Bay Packers (16).

Greater consistency from the quarterback position isn't out of the question. If the Cardinals get it, they'll surprise skeptics.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

The team that finished last season on that 7-2 hot streak also went 1-6 to open the season.

And let's face it, the Cardinals, while unfortunate in a few instances early in the year, were fortunate to win seven of their final nine. They claimed four of those seven victories in overtime. Five came against teams with losing records at the time.

[+] EnlargeLevi Brown
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireThe Cardinals may have lost arguably their best offensive tackle, Levi Brown, for the season.
The young talent on defense is backed up with the oldest reserves in the league. The offensive line is solid at center and left guard, but the other three positions should strike more fear in the Cardinals' quarterbacks than in the opposition. Removing Brown from the equation was devastating, given the already tenuous nature of the tackle situation.

Kolb hasn't been able to stay healthy or produce when on the field. That isn't going to change with the floodgates likely opening at both tackle spots.

Skelton has shown greater ability to keep his wits against pressure. Whichever QB starts will need every bit of resourcefulness he can muster against a schedule featuring a long list of able pass-rushers: Jared Allen (22 sacks last season), Jason Babin (18), Aldon Smith (14), Chris Long (13), Chris Clemons (11), Julius Peppers (11), Cliff Avril (11), Trent Cole (11), Mark Anderson (10), John Abraham (9.5), Cameron Wake (8.5), Kyle Vanden Bosch (8), Justin Smith (7.5), Clay Matthews (6) and Mario Williams (5).

OBSERVATION DECK

  • William Gay appears to be running unopposed at right cornerback. Opportunistic rookie Jamell Fleming, a third-round choice, will factor one way or another at the position. Fitzgerald: "[Fleming] is extremely talented. The thing I like about him is he can move around. They’ve got him playing inside a little bit, playing outside. What it shows you is that he is intelligent, he can pick up the defense. He understands terminology, what’s going on, and he plays fast. And the ball just seems to find him."
  • Coaches noticed a big jump from the spring to June to training camp in Skelton's ability to handle pre-snap responsibilities. They hope that progress can help him fare better early in games. One theory holds that Skelton's grasp of a game would improve as he had a chance to study photos of opposing formations on the sideline between possessions. By the fourth quarter, he was up to speed. "We're trying to get to where we have the handle before the game," McNulty said.
  • Losing Brown hurt, but center Lyle Sendlein is arguably the offensive lineman Arizona can least afford to lose. He has started every game over the past four seasons and, like many centers, holds everything together up front. Left guard Daryn Colledge: "If we had to replace one guy, he would be the worst one probably on the whole football team. He is the key cog, especially for this offensive line. He is the captain and he is our guy. Without him, the wheels just might come off."
  • Sixth-round choice Justin Bethel, a free safety, looks like a keeper after making a positive impact on special teams.
  • Inside linebacker Stewart Bradley appears more comfortable in the Cardinals' defensive scheme, but the team still appears to value Paris Lenon as the starter next to Washington. That arrangement is more palatable after Bradley, one of the team's big free-agent signings in 2011, took a pay reduction.
  • First-round draft choice Michael Floyd hasn't stood out yet. Fitzgerald will continue to carry the passing game. Rob Housler will emerge as more of a threat at tight end. Andre Roberts and Early Doucet give the team two strong inside options. Getting Floyd going will be one key to unleashing Roberts from the slot. Roberts has good quickness and instincts. The Cardinals' quarterbacks like the way he moves within zones, but they need to do a better job locating him.
  • The Cardinals think they have a great one in Peterson. The physical attributes are obvious. Peterson also has the necessary desire. Arizona saw it last season when Peterson played through an Achilles injury suffered at Cincinnati.
  • This season as last, the Cardinals are counting on young outside pass-rushers O'Brien Schofield and Sam Acho. Schofield is fighting through knee problems, a potential concern given the career-altering surgery he underwent coming out of college. He played 38 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Arizona will need him to play a much higher percentage in 2012. Can Schofield hold up? Clark Haggans, 35, is the backup.
  • Arizona should be strong at nose tackle with a leaner Dan Williams and underrated backup David Carter at the position.
  • It's tough to envision Kolb emerging as the starter based on what we've seen to this point. There's no clear indication Kolb is close to breaking through. "The only thing I can do is stay patient, know that it’s all part of God’s plan," Kolb said. "My mentality is that I’m going to get through the bad to get to the good. Something good is going to come of it."

Camp Confidential: 49ers

August, 16, 2012
8/16/12
1:35
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- One school of thought says the San Francisco 49ers got the most they'll ever get from quarterback Alex Smith last season.

What if last season was only the beginning?

That question ran through my mind while watching Smith fire passes on time and on target during a recent three-day stay at 49ers training camp. The answer became clearer every time Smith connected with newcomers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, which was frequently. He appeared more accurate, more confident and more in command than I can ever recall seeing Smith during a training camp -- or any other time, for that matter.

"He's letting the ball go, he's making the right decisions and he's not afraid," tight end Vernon Davis said. "He's playing ball, he's having fun."

Of course, it figures a quarterback would look better throwing to proven targets than when operating without them. Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams, Brett Swain and Joe Hastings were the only wideouts available to Smith in the NFC Championship Game last season. Williams, now fighting for a roster spot, ranked second among the 49ers' wide receivers with 20 catches during the regular season.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Ed Szczepanski/US PresswireThe 49ers brought in more weapons for Alex Smith to work with on offense.
Life for Smith is better now.

"If you watch our team last year, we were kind of one-dimensional as far as offense," left tackle Joe Staley said. "The passing game went through Vernon and Crabtree. The running game was Frank [Gore] and Kendall [Hunter]. We've added a lot of talent. The more weapons you have, the more versatile you can be. Our coaches are very creative."

Smith proved last season he could be a trusted extension of the 49ers' coaching staff. He threw five interceptions in 445 pass attempts, playing to the team's strengths on defense and special teams.

Smith has what offensive coordinator Greg Roman calls a "unique" ability to grasp a game's dynamics in real time for the purposes of managing risks. On the surface, that sounds like a creative way to avoid slapping the dreaded "game manager" label on a quarterback with limited skills. The 49ers don't see it that way at all. They think Smith has demonstrated all the intangibles great quarterbacks should possess: mental and physical toughness; an off-the-charts football IQ; a level head no matter the circumstances; a passion for preparation; and the ability to perform in the clutch. They see him leading an offense that wasn't as bad as advertised, one that should only get better.

"Without an offseason here, we finished 10th in the NFL in scoring [actually 11th] and fourth in time of possession," Roman said. "That is in spite of being poor on third down, which is pretty remarkable.

"We're going to be opportunistic, strike when we feel it's time to strike," he said. "The other part of it is, when we make decisions on offense, it's big picture. The offense, defense and special teams are all intertwined. But we have an offseason under our belt now and are working through our second camp together. We certainly expect a lot of ourselves this year."

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Crowded offensive backfield. Frank Gore is going to get his carries. Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James will be competing for what's left over. Their roles haven't solidified, but Hunter has enjoyed a tremendous camp. He caught my attention this week by hauling in a deep pass up the sideline, the type of play running backs rarely make. Hunter is going to play. James, as a rookie, figures to need time.

Jacobs, signed from the New York Giants, has been getting work in short-yardage situations, an area in which Anthony Dixon struggled in the postseason.

After collecting two Super Bowl rings in five seasons with Kevin Gilbride as his coordinator, Jacobs has been blown away by Roman's ability to showcase each player's individual strengths. That is a recurring theme among 49ers players.

"That is what this staff does the best," Jacobs said. "'G-Ro' is a genius, man. I've seen it, mainly these last couple days, we started doing some different things on offense, things out of different formations and basically putting the defense in sets he wants them to be in, versus what they want to be in."

Based on what he's seen, Jacobs said he thinks Gore would have six or seven Pro Bowl appearances by now, instead of three, had this 49ers staff been in place the whole time.

[+] EnlargeRandy Moss
Ed Szczepanski/US PresswireAfter sitting out for a season, Randy Moss joined a revamped 49ers receiving corps.
2. Role for Randy Moss. The passing game went through Crabtree and Davis last season. Both are in the primes of their careers. Neither figures to see his role diminish appreciably. With Manningham joining the mix and rookie first-round choice A.J. Jenkins lurking, a rotational role for Moss appears likely.

The sentiments Jacobs expressed regarding Roman and the 49ers' coaching staff could be important to keeping Moss from growing frustrated. Moss never has been one to suffer fools, even perceived ones, especially if the ball stopped coming his way. He did buy into "the New England way" when the Patriots' offensive staff was at its best and the team was winning. Moss also was catching balls left and right from an all-time great quarterback back then, circumstances the 49ers will not replicate.

The question then becomes whether Moss, 35 years old and coming off an idle season, will put team goals ahead of personal ones no matter what.

Davis, probably the most emotionally authentic player on the team, said he "loves" Moss for having "a great heart" and being a selfless teammate.

"Not only has he extended some knowledge to me, he has shown me that being great requires you to work even when you've had tons of success, with people saying you're a potential Hall of Famer, first ballot," Davis said of Moss.

3. Potential sophomore slump. Aldon Smith has incurred a DUI arrest, suffered stab wounds at a party and been carted off the Candlestick Park field with a preseason hip injury since setting a franchise rookie record with 14 sacks last season. That sounds like a sure-fire recipe for a sophomore slump.

Smith has been getting around slowly with the help of a forearm crutch. Hip injuries can be terribly painful. Athletes as lean as Smith have so little padding in that area. On the positive side, Smith has bounced back quickly from injuries in the past. He missed three games after suffering a cracked fibula during the 2010-11 season at Missouri.

The 49ers are asking Smith to transition from situational pass-rusher to full-time outside linebacker. Missed practice reps could slow that transition in the short term.

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

The 49ers brought back all the important players from a team that finished 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game last season. They added weapons at receiver and running back after falling short offensively.

Both sides of the ball figure to benefit from a full offseason after scrambling to learn new schemes on the fly following the lockout.

The progress Davis showed late last season comes to mind as an extreme example. Adapting to yet another offense was tough in the beginning, but once he grasped the concepts more fully, there was no stopping him (10 receptions, 292 yards and four touchdowns over two playoff games).

Finishing 13-3 again would break from precedent, but all signs point to the 49ers as NFC West favorites.

Much will hinge on whether the offense improves, and to what degree.

The line appears in position to take a step forward. Four of the five starters played at least 92 percent of the offensive snaps last season. The new starter, right guard Alex Boone, is entering his third season with the team. The best offensive lines play together for years. This one increasingly has continuity. There's talent, too, with first-round choices in three of the five spots.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

Niners fans should be familiar with the warning labels by now.

Injuries: The 49ers were unusually healthy last season. Alex Smith took a league-high 44 sacks and somehow started every game. He started 16 games in a regular season for the first time since 2006 and the second time in his career. The defense suffered very few meaningful injuries in 2011-12, but the hip bruise Aldon Smith suffered last week highlighted the implausibility of a repeat on that front.

Turnovers: History says San Francisco's plus-28 turnover differential will be unsustainable.

Targets on backs: The 49ers are going from hunters to hunted. Opponents will be gunning for them. Opponents will also have fuller, more accurate reads on the schemes Jim Harbaugh and staff brought to the NFL from Stanford. The unconventional shifting and personnel combinations San Francisco unleashed on opponents might not have the same effect a second time around. That might have begun to happen last season, when the 49ers proved far less dominant when facing opponents a second time.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Tarell Brown has been the best cornerback in camp. Teammates say he puts in the prep time. It shows when the 49ers do situational work. The more specific the situation, the better Brown seems to fare. Brown is also probably the 49ers' best corner in press coverage, an asset in short-yardage situations, whereas the other starting corner, Pro Bowl choice Carlos Rogers, tends to prefer off coverage.
  • Jacobs has run effectively in short-yardage situations. I did notice rookie linebacker Kourtnei Brown rocking Jacobs twice in one-on-one pass-rush drills during the team's recent Fan Fest practice.
  • When the 49ers enter their locker room from the practice field, a sign meets them with a list of five points: work hard, stay loose, stay focused, be accountable and take care of one another. The sign greeting them as they leave the locker room reads, "You are getting better or getting worse. You never stay the same."
  • Versatile corner Perrish Cox is making a strong push to unseat Chris Culliver in the nickel role. No matter what happens, Cox figures to play this season. He's made an impact on special teams as well. Seeking continued improvements in the secondary was additionally important with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, Drew Brees and Tom Brady on the schedule this season.
  • While Harbaugh has defended Jenkins from premature and unfair criticism, all indications point to a gradual assimilation for the receiver San Francisco selected in the first round. Veteran safety Donte Whitner: "When he gets there, I would compare him to a guy like Robert Meachem. He's not really big in stature, but he has a lot of speed. He has some quickness."
  • Safety Michael Thomas could be an undrafted free agent to watch for the 49ers this season. He knows the defense after playing for coordinator Vic Fangio at Stanford. Whitner: "If I was a betting man, at the end of the season, he'll be somewhere around this football team, whether it be on practice squad or on the 53[-man roster] because he wasn’t drafted, he’s not the biggest guy, not the fastest guy, but he has football instincts and he has football smarts. He’s around the football in practice."
  • The 49ers do a good job maximizing roster spots. They used nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga at fullback in power packages last season. Staley and Sopoaga caught passes. Bruce Miller successfully converted from college defensive end to starting fullback. Defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs is the latest project. He's working as a blocking tight end and could conceivably push Nate Byham for the third roster spot at that position. Harbaugh: "He's definitely far enough along. We still don't know what that ceiling is yet."
  • The defense has a firmer grasp of Fangio's playbook entering a second season together. The team had 42 defensive calls installed when this week opened. That's not an unusual number, but Fangio should be able to call more of them with confidence.
  • Every player I spoke with -- Alex Smith, Davis, Williams, Jacobs, Staley and others -- mentioned putting team goals before individual ones. Harbaugh and staff have ingrained that mindset in players. It's a storyline to watch now that the 49ers have additional offensive weapons, a strong personality in Moss and higher expectations overall.

Camp Confidential: Houston Texans

August, 16, 2012
8/16/12
12:30
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HOUSTON -- For a long time, the Texans were a popular pick to break through.

Coming off the season in which they finally did, they now rank as a favorite to repeat as AFC South champs.

But the tone in Houston hasn’t changed a bit.

Steady coach Gary Kubiak’s talked about starting from zero again, and though salary cap issues and free agency dented them a bit, this confident team knows it will need to show some grit to build off of last year’s experience.

“The window is open,” said quarterback Matt Schaub, who missed the team’s final six games and the playoffs after suffering a serious foot injury. “We have the talent, we have the people, we’ve got to go out and do it. It’s the next link in the chain…

“We’ve got the right mindset to keep everyone focused. If we see someone not focusing on the next job, we make sure he gets it right.”

Camp carried a confident vibe and the team was fortunate to dodge long-term issues when receiver Andre Johnson (groin) and defensive end J.J. Watt (elbow) suffered injuries.

There’s been some Super Bowl-or-bust talk, and this season will present the Texans with a chance to measure themselves against the teams they could see in the AFC playoff bracket: New England, Baltimore and Denver.

If the right side of the offensive line was not being replaced and if Schaub was a little bit more of a sure thing, they’d be a popular pick to represent the AFC in New Orleans.

Even with those issues, it doesn’t take much imagination to see them there.

THREE HOT ISSUES

The offensive line: The franchise’s zone-blocking scheme is really what the whole franchise is built on, and last year’s offensive line was among the league’s very best, producing the NFL’s No. 2 rush offense.

Right tackle Eric Winston was let go to save some serious salary cap money and right guard Mike Brisiel left for Oakland when the Raiders offered an above-market deal. The favorites to replace them, Antoine Caldwell and Rashad Butler, have significant time in the system, and everyone seems to think it can be a seamless transition.

Rookie Brandon Brooks, a third-round pick, brings uncommon size and could challenge Caldwell. Derek Newton, a seventh-rounder from a year ago, is on Butler’s heels. They won’t both win, but one could.

The Texans did allow 33 sacks, ranking 20th in sacks per pass play. There is room for improvement there no matter who's playing.

The receivers: Johnson dealt with separate injuries to each hamstring last season, then needed offseason knee surgery, then lost camp time to a groin strain. If he’s on the field, the team has enough at receiver to supplement him. If he’s not, then it’s a question.

[+] EnlargeHouston's Andre Johnson
Brett Davis/US PRESSWIREThe Texans need Andre Johnson on the field for the rest of their receiving corps to be effective.
Kevin Walter is a fine No. 2 if Johnson is on the other side of the field, which allows Walter to run precise, shorter routes and throw quality blocks. If Johnson’s out, Walter isn’t as dynamic, and the three youngsters vying for the third spot become more important. Keshawn Martin's had the best camp to this point, but DeVier Posey and Lestar Jean are also in the mix.

Johnson missed nine games in 2011. The Texans couldn’t really rely on Jacoby Jones week-to-week (and released him in the offseason). With tight end Owen Daniels and running back Arian Foster playing big pass-catching roles, they still did fine.

Coverage: Johnathan Joseph is an excellent corner who will be asked to track the top wideouts on the other teams. The list will likely include Demaryius Thomas, Kenny Britt, Greg Jennings or Jordy Nelson, Anquan Boldin or Torrey Smith, Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker, Reggie Wayne and Percy Harvin.

The combination of their quality pass rush, Joseph’s good work and some help may often get the job done.

But on the other side, Kareem Jackson has been more comfortable in zone coverage than man, and had a security blanket platoon system in place with Jason Allen. Allen’s now in Cincinnati, and early indications suggested the new veteran, Alan Ball, won’t be as much of a help.

There is good depth in the secondary. Brice McCain is a solid nickel and Brandon Harris is an improving backup for him. Troy Nolan is a capable third safety after Glover Quin and Danieal Manning.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

This team has firepower and star power, which make it tough for plan for, tough to stop and difficult to move against.

Johnson and Foster rank in the top three in the NFL at their positions and Daniels remains a very effective weapon. The defense is loaded with stars who’ve produced: Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin, Joseph, Brooks Reed and Watt. The third outside linebacker, Whitney Mercilus, is a first-round pick.

There isn’t a bad egg or an out-of-control ego on the list.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Outside of the division, the Texans road games are at Denver, at the Jets, at Chicago, at Detroit, at New England. I don’t think the Jets are going to rate as one of the league’s best teams, but those other four may well be in the top 10.

I don’t think expectations are going to be a problem. But a year ago they played 13 of 16 games at noon CT and just once outside of Sunday. This time they’ve got four night games and a Thanksgiving Day game, and four of those five are away from home.

That’s a different deal that could prove a test.

[+] EnlargeHouston's Johnathan Joseph
AP Photo/Pat SullivanJohnathan Joseph is getting more comfortable with the Texans.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Joseph is far more outspoken on the field than he was last year. It’s a testament to his comfort level and confidence. That people on both sides of the ball listen shows how respected he is.
  • Defenses and nickelbacks won’t be able to come into a game against the Texans anticipating one particular receiver in the slot. Different plays, different motions and different matchups will mean Walter, Johnson and Martin all get looks there.
  • Something will really have to go wrong for Justin Forsett not to be the third running back behind Foster and Ben Tate. He’s really shifty and Forsett could easily be part of a committee elsewhere. In a red zone period I watched him catch a short pass in the flat, slam on the brakes and allow Reed to fly past, then accelerate to the end zone.
  • Brooks, the rookie guard, impressed me. He can really hold his ground, and while speed gave him problems a few times, he’s mature beyond his years. I think he’s got a real shot at nudging Caldwell out of the right guard spot.
  • I’d like to see the Texans throw to James Casey more. He’s not really a fullback, though he is capable of doing what they ask and need. He’s got great hands and can make more plays that he gets called for him.
  • It’s hard to envision Trindon Holliday holding up based on his history and size. If he can, and he can master ball security, he’ll be a nice weapon as a returner. If being able to contribute as a receiver in a pinch is a requirement of the job, I can’t see it. Defensive backs will relish a chance to muscle a 5-foot-5 player at the line, rendering his speed largely irrelevant on any route that involves timing -- and don’t they all?
  • Houston gets enough out of the Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell defensive tackle combination. But it still seems like one of maybe only two spots in the base defense where the Texans could actually benefit from an upgrade.
  • There are not a lot of depth questions on this roster, and it’s a team that saw the value of quality depth last season, over and over. Inside linebacker’s an issue with Darryl Sharpton (hip) out. Cushing is close to indispensible. Left tackle Duane Brown is a guy the team might struggle without. But the Texans have won minus Schaub and without Johnson, and can win without Foster. The defensive line wouldn’t be the same minus Watt (out for the preseason with an elbow injury) or Antonio Smith. That said, what would the reaction have been last year at this time if we hypothesized Mario Williams would miss all but five games?
  • Rookie kicker Randy Bullock has plenty of leg. Considering they picked him in the fifth round, he’d have to fall flat on his face the rest of the way for the team to choose Shayne Graham over him, right?

Hurney tempering Carolina optimism

August, 16, 2012
8/16/12
11:29
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My trips to training camps are over and all four NFC South Camp Confidential profiles have run on the blog. I’ve got lots of leftovers in my notebook and on my tape recorder and I’ll be using some of that for our season previews that run in a few weeks.

But I’m going to start rolling out some bits and pieces of what I’ve collected in the coming days. Let’s start with a conversation I had with Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney in Spartanburg, S.C.

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneMarty Hurney knows expectations are high for the Carolina Panthers this season.
It’s no secret that there’s a lot of optimism among Carolina fans. Nationally, a lot of media members are calling the Panthers a team on the rise and some even give them a chance to finish ahead of the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons.

So what does Hurney think about all this?

Well, let’s preface it with a little background. By nature, Hurney is one of the most superstitious people I’ve ever met. He has an inner confidence, but, on the outside, it always seems like Hurney is fearing the worst.

That brings to mind a story from the 2005 postseason. The Panthers were playing the Giants in the wild-card round. It was late in a game that the Panthers went on to win 23-0. Hurney was sitting directly behind the Carolina media in the Giants Stadium press box when a former co-worker I’ll call “Stan’’ did what a veteran reporter should do in that situation. He picked up the phone and started booking a hotel room in Chicago, where the Panthers would play the Bears the next week.

“Olson, hang up that phone now,’’ a red-faced Hurney started screaming.

A defiant -- perhaps “oblivious’’ is a better description -- sort, “Stan’’ simply continued booking his room. When finished, he turned to Hurney and said, “Relax, Marty, this one’s over." Hurney muttered something about it never being over until it’s over as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

So, as you might expect, the rest of the Carolinas are excited about this season, but Hurney is something closer to cautiously optimistic.

“If we stay healthy, we have a chance to compete,’’ Hurney said. “I think the excitement comes from the offensive production we showed last year. We showed we have the ability to score points and you have to score points to win in the league these days. We have that and we feel like our defense and special teams have improved.’’

The real reason for the excitement among fans might be the presence of quarterback Cam Newton, who probably will go down in history as the best player Hurney ever drafted. That move surprised many because Hurney previously was perceived as being too cautious to take a chance on a quarterback that had many critics as last year’s draft approached. But Hurney did extensive homework on Newton and concluded that there weren’t any problems. It sure looked like Hurney was right as Newton went out and was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

“His competitiveness brings an energy to the whole team,’’ Hurney said. “When that dynamic player plays the quarterback position, that’s going to impact your team more than anywhere else because that’s the guy that has the ball in his hands every play. That confidence has a domino effect through the entire football team.’’

So Hurney is as optimistic as he can be about the offense. Although he made some personnel moves and the Panthers got some injured players back, Hurney’s not ready to say the defense has arrived.

As we wrapped up the interview, I thought about having some fun with Hurney. I thought about pulling out my cell phone and pretending to book a hotel room in New Orleans (site of this season’s Super Bowl) for late January or early February. But I decided against it, mainly because equipment manager Jackie Miles wasn't nearby to give me a set of ear plugs for me to drown out the aftermath.

“We made a step offensively last year,’’ Hurney said. “Now we have to deal with increased expectations and it’s an important year for us.’’

That’s as close to optimism as you’re going to get from Hurney.

Camp Confidential: Seahawks

August, 13, 2012
8/13/12
11:01
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RENTON, Wash. -- Terrell Owens' arrival at Seattle Seahawks training camp commanded national headlines.

It commanded the Seahawks' attention as well, not just on the field but in the meeting room, where coach Pete Carroll made Owens the leading man in an entertaining prank.

But when the Seahawks' first exhibition game kicked off Saturday night against Tennessee, the focus returned to where it needed to be: quarterback. For while Owens might not even earn a roster spot, let alone an important role on the team, the situation behind center will determine whether Seattle breaks from its recent 7-9 form.

The way Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson played against the Titans showed Seattle has a chance to do just that. It was only one game, and one whose outcome was meaningless. But it affirmed some of the evidence collected to this point.

Flynn, non-descript through organized team activities and minicamps, had responded favorably when Carroll gave him the first-team practice reps last week. He was sharp in practice and efficient while completing his first eight passes against the Titans. Flynn's lone interception resulted from a rookie running back failing to sell the play fake, allowing linebacker Colin McCarthy to drop into coverage without concern for the run.

Wilson, sensational for a rookie during the offseason program, hadn't stood out as much in camp. But when the lights went on Saturday night, he looked like the best player on the field. Wilson showed the pocket presence needed to move just the right distance at just the right times, extending plays. He scored on a 32-yard bootleg and threw a 39-yard touchdown pass from the pocket. Only an ill-advised interception over the middle prevented a full Wilson lovefest from breaking out. But it's early, and Wilson is just getting started.

Seattle has seen enough to think one of its new quarterbacks can provide an upgrade from Tarvaris Jackson, who remains on the roster as insurance.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Owens or Edwards? The Seahawks want a receiver with dominant size to fill the role Mike Williams played during the 2010 season. Owens is one candidate. Braylon Edwards is another. Second-year pro Kris Durham might still emerge as third, but he has struggled to gain traction in camp to this point.

Braylon Edwards
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireBraylon Edwards, on his fourth team in the past four seasons, has been impressive in camp.
Edwards has stepped up his game markedly following Owens' arrival, no coincidence. He has to realize the Seahawks aren't going to keep two veteran receivers with no value on special teams. Owens has the bigger name and better credentials, but Edwards has the inside track for a roster spot if both play well. That is because Edwards is nine years younger and could conceivably project as a factor beyond this season. It's also because Owens has been a higher-maintenance player.

Edwards was scrapping like an undrafted free agent during the game against Tennessee. He was a willing blocker -- too willing at one point, drawing a penalty. He rewarded Wilson's trust by making a strong play on the ball for that 39-yard touchdown reception. Owens will get his chance in the coming weeks. This competition is only beginning.

2. What to do with Jackson. Carroll has shown sensitivity for Jackson after the veteran quarterback played through a torn pectoral muscle last season. The grit Jackson showed won respect in the locker room. As much as the team wanted to look at Flynn and Wilson this summer, Carroll gave Jackson an equal portion of the reps through the first week of training camp.

Carrying a three-man race through the exhibition schedule would have been impractical. That is why Flynn and Wilson took the meaningful reps in practice last week. It's why Flynn and Wilson took all the snaps during the exhibition opener. Jackson represents the known. He's the baseline for a team seeking improvement at the position. Jackson, for all his toughness, wasn't effective enough when it counted last season (no touchdowns, six interceptions and nine sacks in the final two minutes of halves).

Jackson is scheduled to earn $4 million in salary for the 2012 season. Flynn and Wilson are going to be on the roster. They will most likely fill the top two spots. The team still likes developmental quarterback Josh Portis. Something has to give, and logic says it'll be Jackson.

3. Health concerns at tight end. The Seahawks envision running quite a few personnel groupings with two tight ends. Assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable values H-back types. The expectation this season was for Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow to provide Seattle with a diverse duo at the position. That still might happen, but with Miller now suffering from his fourth concussion in less than three calendar years, there are suddenly renewed health questions at tight end.

Winslow's chronic knee problems limit how frequently he can practice. While Winslow hasn't missed a game to injury over the past three seasons, he is 29 years old and doesn't figure to gain durability from this point forward, especially in light of his knee issues.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The Seahawks have upgraded at quarterback and in their ability to rush the passer. Those were the two areas most responsible for holding them back in the recent past. They're also more settled on the offensive line.

How much Seattle has upgraded at quarterback remains unknown, but even if Jackson were to somehow emerge as the starter in a sort of worst-case scenario, at least he would be healthy. The Seahawks aren't asking their quarterbacks to carry the team. They want efficient play from the position. The early returns suggest Flynn can provide that, and that Wilson might be able to provide more.

Newly acquired defensive tackle Jason Jones has already improved the pass rush. Rookie first-round choice Bruce Irvin has been the most difficult player to block in one-on-one pass-rush drills. He has the speed to beat tackles to the outside. He's got better power than anticipated for a player weighing less than 250 pounds. The combination of Jones, Irvin and leading sacker Chris Clemons will be tough at home in particular.

Seattle's defense already ranked among the NFL's top 10 in points allowed, yards allowed and yards allowed per play. This was a mostly young defense on the rise even before Jones and Irvin arrived to address the pass rush.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Matt Flynn
Steven Bisig/US PresswireMatt Flynn was 11-for-13 against the Titans on Saturday night, but he is still largely untested in the regular season.
There's faith involved in projecting how well unproven quarterbacks will perform.

A year ago, division-rival Arizona was convinced Kevin Kolb would fix its problems at the position. At the very least, the Cardinals would become average at quarterback, it seemed. Surely that would be enough to make them a playoff contender once again.

Flynn might be better than Kolb, but what if he's not? What if it becomes clear a month or two into the season that Flynn, with only two career regular-season starts, isn't ready to manage an NFL offense from week to week? That's not such a stretch.

Wilson has appeal as an alternative, but how far can a team with a 5-foot-10 rookie quarterback go in an NFC featuring Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, Michael Vick, Jay Cutler and Cam Newton?

Sure, the Seahawks have a powerful ground game and a potentially dominant defense, but the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, right? The five most recent Super Bowls featured Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Brees, Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner as the starting quarterbacks. None was trying to decide between a player with two starts (Flynn) and a rookie third-round choice (Wilson).

Even if Flynn or Wilson emerges as viable this season, Seattle could realistically have the third-best quarterback in the division this season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The red non-contact jersey Sidney Rice wears in practice invites questions about his availability coming off two offseason shoulder surgeries. Rice seems to be moving and catching well, however. My read is that the team is being cautious, and there are no pressing concerns.
  • Rice needs to do a better job of protecting himself. He tends to land awkwardly, exposing himself to unnecessary contact. The plan was for the shoulder surgeries to enable more aggressive weight lifting, allowing Rice to strengthen his lithe frame. While the shoulders are a concern, Rice also suffered two concussions last season.
  • Seattle continues to show an uncanny ability to find important roles for obscure defensive players. Defensive end Red Bryant became a success story after converting from defensive tackle over the past couple of seasons. Clinton McDonald, a former college linebacker acquired from Cincinnati in the Kelly Jennings trade, is now a factor. McDonald stands ahead of Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch as the fourth defensive lineman in the nickel package. McDonald is backing up Mebane in the base defense.
  • Bryant's outgoing personality makes him a natural leader on defense. Mebane, his quieter teammate on the line, emerged in that area last season, after the team released veteran linebacker Lofa Tatupu. Leroy Hill: "A lot of times in the huddle, Mebane is the one talking. It's odd because he never did that role, but last year he stepped up and people fell in behind him. ... People listen to what he's got to say."
  • Left guard John Moffitt could miss the next few weeks after requiring elbow surgery. My initial take was that his replacement, Deuce Lutui, would provide an upgrade. That could be true in pass protection especially. One question, however, is whether Lutui fits the profile for Cable's zone blocking scheme. Moffitt appears to be a better fit that way. He might be best suited for center, actually, but the team is set there with Max Unger, who recently signed a long-term extension.
  • Seattle has apparently hit on two seventh-round choices this year. Greg Scruggs has a chance to stick on the defensive line. J.R. Sweezy has improbably made a quick conversion from college defensive lineman to NFL guard. Seattle gave him time with its starting line against Tennessee in the preseason opener. Sweezy played surprisingly well. He projects as a good run-blocker for Cable's scheme. Rishaw Johnson is another obscure offensive lineman to watch along those lines.
  • We've made it this far without mentioning Marshawn Lynch, the offensive player Seattle relied upon most heavily last season. Rookie Robert Turbin has gotten more attention as the projected backup. The Seahawks haven't heard whether Lynch will face a suspension in relation to his pending DUI case. Teams wouldn't have to fear the ground game nearly as much if Lynch missed time.
  • Speaking of middle linebacker, rookie Bobby Wagner remains the favorite to start, in my view. He has outstanding speed and strong hands for taking on blocks when necessary. Veteran fullback Michael Robinson even compared Wagner to a young Patrick Willis. Wagner's preseason debut was a bit of an adventure, however. He overran a few plays and didn't stand out.
  • The offensive line should be fine as long as left tackle Russell Okung remains healthy. Okung was looking good early in camp one year ago, only to suffer an ankle injury during an Aug. 11 preseason game against San Diego. The torn pectoral he suffered late last season counts as a fluke. Philadelphia's Trent Cole, frustrated by Okung's edgy style, unleashed a judo move on him. The longer Okung can go without landing on the injury report, the better Seattle can feel about his long-term prospects.
  • Cornerback Walter Thurmond and offensive lineman James Carpenter could make an impact later in the season. Both are coming off serious injuries. Neither will factor early in the season. Playing Carpenter at left guard has long-term appeal. He and Okung would form a massive combination on the left side. Carpenter is still limping around with a heavy brace on his surgically repaired knee, however.
  • Carroll's extreme commitment to competition shows up in his willingness to play young players at key positions, including middle linebacker and even quarterback. The effect is felt throughout the roster. Lutui: "Rookies, first-year guys, he puts them in. I’ve never seen that on any level. That pushes the older guys. Everybody is not comfortable. Everybody is not complacent. It doesn’t matter if you have a new contract. Everybody is on an edge. You know have to better yourself. And that is good to see."
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- If you care to think the Jaguars are a mess and going to be in the running for the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, they’re fine with that.

As they worked through the early days of Mike Mularkey’s first training camp, they repeated the new coach’s mantras (like, “we just want to get a little bit better every day”), fell in line with his policies (like potential $10,000 fines for answering media inquiries about injuries) and gave team-first answers to questions about the absence of their two biggest names -- Maurice Jones-Drew (holding out for a new contract) and Justin Blackmon (unable to strike a rookie deal).

Sure, they don’t have much choice but to buy in, but there is an undertone that suggests they have a secret to spring on the league in a couple of weeks.

Every team at this stage of camp thinks it can be good. In Jacksonville, a significant improvement from 5-11 is certainly possible, no matter what the popular storylines are. Honest.

Theirs is a defense loaded with quality, front-line talent. Beyond middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, most of it remains largely unknown. But if you don’t know linebacker Daryl Smith or cornerback Derek Cox or defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, that’s not the Jaguars' concern.

“If anyone feels we are not in a proper place or we have problems, that’s OK,” Posluszny said. “We feel like inside these walls we’re doing everything that we can to be a very successful team.

“Mularkey’s done a great job for us. He’s a former player who’s been through it. To me, that all means a ton, because he knows exactly what we are going through and what it takes to be successful.”

While the offense is being revamped, and Mularkey and his assistants are trying to reformat quarterback Blaine Gabbert after a horrific rookie season, the defensive system and bulk of the staff have been in place for a while now.

Gabbert has nice moments, but his overall inconsistency at practice halts any proclamations that he made a significant offseason jump.

No matter how much players and coaches talk about his gains in leadership, no matter how much faith the organization has in him, no matter how patient they are, it comes down to making throws under pressure.

The early snapshot says the defense can be really good, but that a limited offense could be the obstacle to the surprise the Jaguars would so like to produce. There is a lot of time to work on what’s been installed, to find what works and to run it better than it’s been run so far.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Phil Sears/US PresswireBlaine Gabbert finished his first season with 12 TD passes, 11 interceptions and a 50.8 completion percentage.
1. Is Gabbert good enough? He folded under pressure too often last season, but the rush wasn’t all he was facing. The team drafted him 10th overall intending for him to sit and learn for a season, but that plan didn’t pan out and Gabbert was hurried into the starting role for 14 games during which he had poor pass protection and very limited receivers.

There were big distractions off the field, too: Jack Del Rio got fired and the team was sold.

Mularkey was hired in large part because he’s developed quarterbacks, and he, coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson have to get steadier play from Gabbert and get his arrow pointing up. His good moments look very nice, but there are still too many bad ones that leave you shaking your head. A kneel-down would seem less disheartening in many of those instances.

It’s a slow process, installing a new offense and rebuilding a quarterback’s confidence. Exactly how slow is the question we need answered.

Mentions of mechanical or technical adjustments by his coaches have been well-received, and he acts on them quickly. That’s great, but when the rush turns live and the pocket starts collapsing, will he have open people he can stand in and find? We simply can’t know yet.

2. The missing pieces. Jones-Drew is demanding a new contract. The Jaguars have said they won’t give him one with two years left on the old one. Boom -- a stalemate. I can’t see the team altering its stance unless he holds out into the season and it struggles horribly without him. He’s got an ego that will make it hard for him to return without any contract alteration, so this could drag on.

Blackmon is a rangy target who can go get the ball, and missing early camp is helping no one. He got a DUI after being drafted fifth overall, and the team wants insurance against any further troubles. Blackmon's unwilling to give the Jaguars what they are looking for, though.

So we’re seeing second-year man Cecil Shorts work in the Z spot where Blackmon will eventually be, with veteran addition Laurent Robinson at the X. Rashad Jennings is the lead back without Jones-Drew in camp, and is a bigger guy who also ranks as a power runner. I liked what I saw and heard from him.

3. Will there be enough of a pass rush? The Jaguars had 31 sacks last season, and to reach their potential on defense they need more in 2012. More consistent pressure and more sacks will come with improved coordination from the defensive linemen.

Their line coach, Joe Cullen, said they just missed on a bunch of chances last season, and another season together and the work they are doing now will result in better communication. The Jags face Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton in addition to two games against Matt Schaub and two against hotshot rookie Andrew Luck this season, and they won't win many of those without consistent pressure.

The relentless Jeremy Mincey promises the production will increase. Andre Branch was drafted in the second round to help, and looks like a quality player. Depth off the edge remains a concern. Austen Lane suffered yet another injury while I watched practices, during which John Chick walked the width of a practice field dragging heavy weight as he rehabilitated his knee.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeMike Mularkey
AP Photo/John RaouxNew head coach Mike Mularkey and his staff have made a positive impression on the players.
Mularkey and his staff. There is planning and logic to everything going on here, and the new staff has genuine concern for players on and off the field. Players are being told what the plan is and the right way to execute it. They felt that was lacking with the previous regime, and welcome it.

Position coaches like Olson, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and one of the key holdovers, linebackers coach Mark Duffner, are true teachers, and they have guys under them who want to learn. That leadership and teaching faltered in many areas at the end of Del Rio’s tenure. It’s present in full force now. If guys follow and doing so produces results, it’ll snowball.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

A lot more is in place for Gabbert, and everyone has a stake in his performance: the GM who traded up to draft him needs him to succeed; the new coach who was hired to polish him needs him to succeed; the high-priced free-agent receiver and first-round draft pick receiver need him to succeed; the talented defense needs him to succeed.

Gabbert’s saying the right things and working hard, and you can see improvement on some drop backs. But there are still enough dud plays sprinkled into practices to make you wonder if he can succeed. The team wants him to avoid turning the ball over -- staying away from the worst-case scenarios -- and it's a smart goal, but will it make Gabbert too cautious?

Can you ask him to be careful and function as a game-manager type when the best attribute he has is a big arm that can get the ball into tight windows? It might turn out to be complicated.

Also, there is not great roster depth. I have particular concerns about the offensive line, defensive end and safety if someone goes down.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The team appears to be high on undrafted rookie linebacker Julian Stanford out of Wagner. With Clint Session’s future in doubt because of post-concussion issues, Russell Allen is likely to start opposite Daryl Smith outside. Stanford could make the team as a special-teamer who can provide depth. Brandon Marshall, a fifth-round pick, also has what looks to be an NFL-ready linebacker frame.
  • Mike Thomas needs Blackmon signed, in camp and taking the bulk of the snaps at one of the two outside receiver spots. I’m convinced that to get his head right, Thomas needs to be given the slot role and allowed to focus on it exclusively. His snaps were cut down during my visit, with Shorts working at the front of the line in Blackmon’s Z spot. The slot is what Thomas is best suited for, and his performance has slipped when he’s been expected to do more. He had a lot of drops early in camp, and Mularkey agrees with the potential for less to be more with Thomas.
  • Josh Scobee has the leg to get a lot of touchbacks and Bryan Anger has the leg to force a lot of fair catches. The Jaguars obviously still have to work on covering kicks and punts, but how often will they actually be covering kicks and punts? If the offense can produce some first downs, we should see more scoring, and more scoring will mean more kickoffs from Scobee and less work for Anger.
  • The depth at tight end is interesting after No. 1 Marcedes Lewis. Colin Cloherty got a lot of work as the No. 2 early on, and Zach Miller is another move guy who’s very intriguing, though Miller is rarely healthy. Zach Potter is giant, but hasn’t earned a lot of time, and undrafted rookie Matt Veldman is also extra large.
  • Posluszny is the centerpiece of this defense. He covers a ton of ground and makes big hits. He’s a model for doing things the right way, which is a major point of emphasis for Mularkey and his staff. Posluszny was a solid signing last season, and continues to deliver just what the team hoped for. That helps offset the fact Session, who also came to Jacksonville for a big contract in 2011, might not be on the field any time soon, or ever again.
  • The cornerbacks look good. Cox is really solid, and Aaron Ross and Rashean Mathis will be effective as the Nos. 2 and 3. The depth grew with last season's injury onslaught, and William Middleton and Kevin Rutland can play, too.
  • Branch, the rookie pass-rusher, came into the league facing questions from many teams about his ability to stand up against the run. The Jaguars have no such concern at this point. He’s got to be an effective part of a four-man group at end with Mincey, Lane and Chick. Branch certainly looks the part, but so did former Jaguars bust Derrick Harvey, so we can’t put much on the early eyeball test.
  • Along with Stanford, running back Jalen Parmele caught my eye. He’s spent time with Miami and Baltimore.

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