NFL Nation: Chad Johnson

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Facing arguably the greatest challenge of his 14-year NFL career, stripped of his go-to receiver Wes Welker and then some, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady arrived at training camp hoping to do more.

Never before has the team had such a youthful look at the position, where there have been more struggles than successes in drafting and developing talent. The Patriots opened training camp with 12 receivers on the roster, six of whom are rookies.

Three of those young pups -- second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson, fourth-rounder Josh Boyce and free-agent Kenbrell Thompkins -- have taken more repetitions with Brady through the first three days of training camp than most could have imagined. One reason the results have looked fairly sharp is the extra work that was put in thanks to Brady's early arrival (rookies reported the day before Brady).

It is almost as if Brady is more than just the team's quarterback now; he's part coach, too. Unlike his record-breaking 2007 season, when there was an immediate connection with veterans Randy Moss, Welker and Jabar Gaffney, there is a certain teacher-student dynamic in play now. Brady, a stickler for detail, can be tough to please.

"He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game, so he’s definitely demanding,” said the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Dobson, a smooth-strider from Marshall who the Patriots hope will fill the outside role that Chad Johnson (2011) and Brandon Lloyd (2012) filled the past two years. “[He’s] definitely tough to play for.”

Some used to say the same thing about Miami Dolphins great Dan Marino, and there is a connection in play between Marino and what Brady currently faces. Because Marino had played for so long in Miami (1983 to '99), the offense grew so much each season that it was difficult in Marino’s later years for any young or new receiver to handle. So when go-to receivers Mark Clayton and Mark Duper were no longer in the mix -- they had grown with Marino in the offense -- it was a challenge to find anyone capable of stepping in.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has acknowledged that’s a similar dynamic to what his team is currently navigating. This is Brady’s 14th year in the Patriots’ offense, which has evolved in many layers since his first year in 2000, and there is a lot there for any receiver to handle, let alone a rookie.

That is a big reason why the Patriots were drawn to Dobson and Boyce in the draft, and why Thompkins -- an older rookie at 25 who went undrafted after two years at Cincinnati -- has been an under-the-radar surprise to this point. All have a high football IQ. And so does free-agent signee Danny Amendola, who has developed a quick rapport with Brady that stands out.

Still, the Patriots might have to “trim the fat” in some areas of the playbook, according to Belichick. There will also be times when patience will be tested.

But watching Brady through the first three days of camp, part of it seems to have invigorated him. Those close to him say he is more committed than ever before; he turns 36 on Aug. 3, craves another Super Bowl championship, and knows that if all the receiver changes are going to produce the desired results -- especially with the rookies -- it is going to take extra work.


1. Distractions from tight end Aaron Hernandez.

In an unprecedented move, Belichick called a news conference two days before the team’s training camp practice to address Hernandez’s murder charge and its impact on the franchise. Then Brady spoke to reporters the following day. The goal was to balance the fine line between showing empathy and perspective to something bigger than football, but also position the club to move forward.

Because of that proactive approach, Hernandez wasn’t much of a topic of discussion from a media perspective by the second day of training camp. But will that change as new developments come to light in the case against Hernandez?

As one would expect, Belichick addressed players about the situation in a team meeting at the start of camp.

“He had comments, but that’s between him and the team. If he wants to share it, that’s fine,” said offensive lineman Logan Mankins, one of the team’s captains. (No surprise, but Belichick hasn’t been in the sharing mood.)

Mankins, the third-longest tenured player on the team (nine years) after Brady (14) and Wilfork (10), touched on how players are attempting to move on.

“At the time, you kind of reflect, but now it’s football season and everything goes in a drawer; no matter how you feel about it, it’s put away,” he said. “It’s football, it’s straightforward, and that’s all you can concentrate on or you’ll fall behind. Bill puts so much pressure on everyone and demands so much work and focus that if you’re not just focusing on football, then you’re in trouble.”

2. Void at top of tight end depth chart.

By the time the Patriots had blazed a trail through the NFL in 2011 with their innovative two-tight end offense, Rob Gronkowski had played almost 95 percent of the offensive snaps and Hernandez about 77 percent. The results were impressive, and others around the league considered plans to attempt to duplicate it.

That’s also when the Patriots extended the contracts of both players -- Gronkowski through 2019 and Hernandez 2018 -- with the idea of building their offense around them (over Welker).

The plans obviously haven’t worked out as desired, and if Gronkowski isn’t ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 8 at Buffalo after a surgery-filled offseason, it sparks the questions: Who fills the void, and how does it impact plans to play with multiple tight ends?

[+] EnlargeJake Ballard
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Patriots may lean heavily on former New York Giants TE Jake Ballard early in the season as Rob Gronkowski rehabs from injury.
Former New York Giant Jake Ballard (6-6, 260) and returning veterans Daniel Fells (6-4, 260) and Michael Hoomanawanui (6-4, 260) are the top candidates, while rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld (6-7, 260) is a potential sleeper.

“I don’t want to say this is Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, but that’s the classic story … it’s there if they can do it,” Belichick said.

Still, it would be a surprise if the Patriots run as many multiple-tight end sets as they did in 2011. The numbers were down to about 50 percent last year when Gronkowski and Hernandez missed significant time with injuries.

3. Tim Tebow’s role.

On a scale of 1-10 in terms of importance to the team’s success, No. 3 quarterback Tim Tebow is closer to the “1” than the “10.” Yet there is intrigue.

Tebow hasn’t been consistent as a drop-back passer in practices and appears to be at his best on the move or as a runner. That explains why he has been the only quarterback in the drill in which ball carriers run with the football in a confined space after making a catch, and then the defenders execute proper tackling technique.

Do the Patriots see enough value in him, possibly as a scout-team quarterback, to reserve a coveted spot on the 53-man roster? That’s a hot-button topic that has generated passionate response from both circles.

“He’s a good guy first, a super-nice guy and a good guy to talk to,” Mankins said of Tebow. “He works his butt off, so we’ll see if he can find a role.”


Since Brady is the quarterback, Belichick is the coach, and the team is playing in the AFC East, what’s not to like? And we’ve made it to this point with nary a mention of the team’s defense, which should be improved when factoring in that 10 of 11 starters return and the addition of a few complementary pieces, such as veteran safety Adrian Wilson, who brings size (6-3, 230) and an intimidating presence.

Last year, the Patriots traded up in the first round for defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and they could be difference-makers. Jones was hobbled by an ankle injury for most of the second half of last year and said one of his primary goals this offseason was to improve his upper-body strength. Hightower played 51 percent of the defensive snaps in 2012 but looks primed to possibly become more of a three-down option this year.

Furthermore, cornerback Aqib Talib had a significant impact -- both on the field and in the meeting room -- after he was acquired in November. Having him for a full year, in theory, should help the defense improve.


There has been too much turbulence this offseason, including starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence. Dennard is due in court in Lincoln, Neb., on Aug. 27 to determine if he violated his probation and could potentially face an NFL suspension.

Uncertainty with Dennard, the unknown in the passing game, Gronkowski’s health questions, and layers of the roster that appear thin on depth (interior DL) mean that the margin for error the Patriots traditionally have doesn’t seem as big as before.
Finally, the departed Welker was known for his consistency and durability. The Patriots are hoping Amendola can fill the void -- and the early returns are positive -- but there are questions about whether he can play a full 16-game season based on his injury history.


• The Patriots’ coaching staff returns intact from 2012, marking only the second time in Belichick’s 14-year tenure that has happened. Former Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who joined the Patriots in January, has the title of “offensive assistant.” At times in practice, he’s worked closely with Tebow.

Devin McCourty, the 2010 first-round draft choice who made the Pro Bowl as a cornerback in his first season, appears to be settling into the safety position nicely. McCourty first moved to safety in the middle of last season, and his command of the defense, along with strong communication and sideline-to-sideline skills, make him a solid fit at the new position.

• Teammates call Wilson “The Incredible Hulk” because of his chiseled physique. Wilson and fellow veteran Steve Gregory are the top candidates vying for a starting role next to McCourty at safety.

[+] EnlargeTommy Kelly
Mike Reiss/ESPNDT Tommy Kelly should add some punch to the middle of the Patriots' defense, forming a strong 1-2 duo with Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork.
• Former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly (6-6, 310) projects as a starter next to Vince Wilfork; defensive end Rob Ninkovich called Kelly an under-the-radar player who is making a mark. Mankins said: “He’s been impressive so far, very athletic for his size. He’s quick for an inside guy. I like his work ethic. He’s been giving great effort, and if he gives us that kind of effort all season, I think he’ll have a good season.”

• Running back Stevan Ridley lost two fumbles in the team’s third practice, with Belichick sending him to run two punishment laps. Ridley led all Patriots running backs in playing 45 percent of the snaps last season, and the projection is that he should match that number this year. But if he struggles to hold on to the ball, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount and second-year man Brandon Bolden are the top candidates to step in to that bigger back role. Blount was 2-for-2 in a goal-line running drill on Sunday. Shane Vereen looks primed to fill the void created by Danny Woodhead’s defection to the Chargers to serve as the team’s “passing back.” On Sunday, he was featured as a pass-catcher when the team worked on the screen game.

• The entire offensive line returns intact, although there could be a competition at right guard, where third-year player Marcus Cannon (6-5, 335) has been working with the top unit while incumbent Dan Connolly (shoulder) works his way back.

• Top draft choice Jamie Collins, the linebacker/defensive end from Southern Mississippi (52nd overall), has received his initial work at linebacker. He’s the first linebacker to rotate into 11-on-11 drills, often replacing middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who has been more of a two-down player.

• Former Canadian Football League defensive lineman Armond Armstead opened training camp on the non-football illness list. Belichick said the illness is different from the heart condition that led him to leave Southern Cal in 2011 and land in the CFL, and there is no indication when/if Armstead might join the team at practice. In addition, receiver Julian Edelman and Gronkowski opened camp on the physically unable to perform list.

Leon Washington, who signed with the Patriots after three seasons with the Seahawks, has served as the primary kickoff returner, where the Patriots are banking on improved results after ranking 25th in the NFL last season (21.2-yard average).

• Ballard, who said he played at 278 pounds in New York, is down to 260. The hope is that it doesn’t affect him at the line of scrimmage as a blocker, but makes him faster and takes pressure off his knee.

• Incumbent punter Zoltan Mesko, who is entering the final year of his contract, is joined on the roster by rookie Ryan Allen, the two-time Ray Guy Award winner from Louisiana Tech. Both are lefty punters; Belichick has employed a left-footed punter in each of his 14 seasons as coach.

It turns out former New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins wide receiver Chad Johnson only spent one week in a Florida jail. He had his month-long sentence reduced Monday after issuing an apology to the judge, who felt Johnson’s pat on the butt to his lawyer was a sign he wasn’t taking his court appearance seriously.

Johnson stayed out of legal trouble most of his career but has suddenly fallen on hard times in the past year. He got into a domestic dispute with his former wife, Evelyn Lozada, which led to a divorce and probation. Johnson also violated that probation, which led to a police warrant for his arrest, his infamous court appearance and a subsequent jail sentence.

There's a very good chance that Johnson may never see an NFL field again. He’s a 35-year-old wide receiver past his prime, and many NFL executives view him as immature and a potential headache. Johnson did nothing to dispel those labels during his recent court appearance.

But this is about more than football for Johnson. Hopefully, he learned a life lesson that playtime is over. It's time for Johnson to grow up and be more responsible.

Former New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins receiver Chad Johnson made his first public appearance since his recent arrest, appearing Friday on ESPN's "First Take." Johnson turned himself in to Florida police after a warrant was put out for violating probation stemming from last year’s domestic incident with former wife Evelyn Lozada.

Johnson said it was a "miscommunication" and he will clear it up in court. But “First Take” analyst Skip Bayless brought up a good point that Johnson cannot afford any transgressions, big or small, if he wants to play again in the NFL. Johnson said on “First Take” that he understands and is willing to accept the consequences.

“I’m going to be OK,” Johnson said. “I’m OK now, but I put myself in this situation and I have to deal with everything. With life, I’m at peace with everything. I would love to finish my career off the right way. If it happens, I’m not sure. But I would like to.”

Johnson, 35, was out of football last year after the Dolphins released him in training camp. He is still training and waiting for another opportunity.

Johnson believes he still deserves one more chance to play in the NFL and "go out the right way."

“I’m in a position where I have to prove myself again that I can still play,” Johnson explained. “Can I still do it? I’m at the bottom again, like having to prove myself when I first came in [to the NFL] and I was hungry. I got complacent at some point in my career. I thought I had it right. I thought I had made it and figured it all out. I lost the game that I loved and played for years.”
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones became the latest NFL player to have success on "Dancing With The Stars," finishing third on the ABC television series this month. Jones is back practicing with the Ravens and is looking to avoid following in his predecessors' footsteps.

The four active NFL players to participate on DWTS before Jones -- Jason Taylor, Chad Johnson, Hines Ward and Donald Driver -- failed to play a full season in the year they competed on the show and all were either on different teams or retired by the following season.

Does Jones worry about suffering a similar fate?

“I’m on the younger side,” Jones told the team's official website. “I’ll be fine.”

Jones does have youth on his side. At 28, Jones is the youngest NFL player in "Dancing With The Stars" history (according to DWTS Stats & Information).

Taylor, who was 33 when he went on the show in 2008, finished with 3.5 sacks for the Washington Redskins after recording 11 the previous season. He was released in 2009 and signed with the Miami Dolphins.

Johnson, who was 32 on DWTS and had the last name Ochocinco in 2010, managed 67 catches for 831 yards, the second-lowest during his nine seasons as a starting receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals. He was traded to the New England Patriots in 2011.

Ward, who was 35 on the show in 2011, caught 46 passes for 381 yards and two touchdowns, his lowest numbers in more than a decade. He was released in 2012 and later retired with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Driver, who was 37 on DWTS in 2012, had eight receptions for 77 yards, his worst season since his rookie year. He retired with the Green Bay Packers in 2013.

The Ravens can't afford for Jones to decline this season. He has a chance to become a starting receiver for the Ravens after the team traded Anquan Boldin this offseason. At the very least, Jones will be Baltimore's primary returner, which earned him Pro Bowl honors last season.

Jones only missed one week of on-field workouts because of the show. But he hasn't been part of the team's offseason conditioning program, which began April 15.

“My conditioning is good and I’m not sore,” Jones said. “I’ve just got to get my legs back under me, football-wise. It’s not like dancing. I still don’t feel like me. In a week, I’ll feel like me.”
Former New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins wide receiver Chad Johnson turned himself in to Florida police on Monday. A warrant for his arrest was issued earlier this month for violating terms of his probation stemming from a domestic incident with his former wife, Evelyn Lozada.

Johnson's bond was set at $1,000 and he will be ordered to return to court for a hearing on June 3.

Chances were already slim that Johnson, 35, would get another chance in the NFL. This latest off-the-field incident most likely makes him too toxic for any team to touch the former Pro Bowl receiver.

For more on Johnson, click here for my take on his legal issues after football.

Nine years ago I was a cub reporter covering the Cincinnati Bengals for the Columbus Dispatch. Chad Johnson was entering his fourth season and starting to come into his own.

I watched Johnson come of age with the Bengals and also covered his decline with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins. Now, Johnson has a warrant out for his arrest in Florida this week after skipping probation following last year’s domestic incident and divorce with former wife Evelyn Lozada.

Here is one person hoping this isn’t the beginning of a bad downward spiral for the former Pro Bowl receiver.

Full disclosure: I always liked and got along with Johnson. He’s not a bad guy, just a little left of center and very unpredictable. But as a person who interviewed him on a regular basis throughout his entire career, I always appreciated his originality and viewed him as mostly harmless and comical.

But in the back of my mind I wondered what life would be like for Johnson after football. Johnson is the kind of guy who craves the spotlight and loves being the center of attention. In a weird way, I think that was a large part of his motivation to become such a great receiver. It was never about Super Bowls or the fake Hall of Fame jacket he once wore. Johnson worked hard because he loved to entertain and welcome people to the “Chad Johnson Show” on Sundays.

However, this latest legal issue probably ends any chance of Johnson making an NFL comeback. He's become too toxic for teams to touch and Johnson, 35, isn't getting any younger.

Johnson stayed out of trouble his entire 12-year career but now has two run-ins with the law in the past nine months. I don't think that's a coincidence. Johnson must find structure and purpose in his post-football life -- before it’s too late.

Memo to Patriots: Say no to T.O.

April, 4, 2013
Wide receiver Terrell Owens is working out in Southern California this week with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Owens has been out of the NFL since 2010 and is desperately looking for work. Chances are, Owens is in Brady's ear and letting the powerful Patriot know he can still play.

The Patriots also have a need at receiver after losing both starters from 2012. Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker bolted to the Denver Broncos in free agency, and Brandon Lloyd was released before the Patriots paid him a $3 million bonus.

Still, the Patriots' answer is simple: New England should unquestionably say no to T.O.

Even if Brady provides head coach Bill Belichick a glowing review, New England shouldn't even think twice about acquiring the 16-year veteran. At age 39, Owens is no longer worth the added attention he would bring to New England.

Remember the Chad Johnson experiment? The Patriots recently went down this road before with Johnson, who is Owens’ good friend.

Belichick took in Johnson and demanded that he keep his mouth shut and just play football. The muzzled version of Johnson was never comfortable in New England and flamed out after just one season. New England also would demand the same of Owens, and staying quiet is something he's struggled with most of his career. It's simply not a good fit for Owens or the team.

Lastly, Owens is a ball hog. Even during his last season with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2010, Owens caught 72 passes and was targeted a whopping 139 times. He averaged 137 targets per year in his last five seasons. Would Owens happily accept a limited role in New England where he would only get a small fraction of those opportunities? Probably not.

Owens says he's matured as a teammate and might eventually get one more shot somewhere in the NFL. But that opportunity shouldn't come in New England.
The "Madden NFL 25" cover vote is now on in SportsNation.

This year, there is a new-school and old-school competition.

In the new-school vote, there are some tough assignments for some AFC West players.

San Diego’s Antonio Gates is a No. 16 seed. He goes against top seed Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco. Oakland’s Carson Palmer is a No. 15 seed and he is facing No. 2 seed, NFL MVP Adrian Peterson. Denver’s Von Miller is a No. 6 seed, but he faces the popular Victor Cruz of the Giants, a No. 11 seed. Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles is a No. 6 seed and he is facing Darrelle Revis of the Jets, a No. 11 seed.

In the old-school vote, this one will upset some folks. Marcus Allen is representing the Chiefs and not the Raiders. The Hall of Fame running back played 11 years for the Raiders and five years for the Chiefs. He is a No. 6 seed and faces No. 11 Tedy Bruschi of the Patriots.

Oakland's Tim Brown is a No. 6 seed and he faces Chad Johnson of the Bengals. Denver’s Terrell Davis is a No. 10 seed and faces Buffalo’s Jim Kelly, a No. 7 seed. San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson is a No. 10 seed and he faces Randall Cunningham of the Eagles.
The New England Patriots enter April's NFL draft tied for the fewest picks in the league with five. Three trades for veteran players Aqib Talib, Chad Johnson and Albert Haynesworth have all cost the Patriots selections in this year's draft.

With that in mind, should the Patriots trade out of the first round to acquire more picks? There is certainly a history of doing so under New England head coach Bill Belichick.

New England most recently traded its first-round picks in 2011 and 2009. The 2011 trade was to the New Orleans Saints for a 2012 first-rounder. The Patriots also traded their first-round pick twice in 2009 -- first with the Baltimore Ravens to move down three spots and then with the Green Bay Packers. New England moved its first and fifth-round picks to Green Bay for two second-round picks and a third rounder.

The Patriots love seeking value picks and are not afraid to move down the draft board. New England has the No. 29 overall pick, which could be of interest considering this year's thin quarterback class. Quarterback-needy teams not willing to draft the position in the top 10 could call New England to get back into the first round.

Another option for the Patriots to acquire more picks would be to trade backup quarterback Ryan Mallett. The market for quarterbacks is very thin in the draft and free agency. Mallett has a big arm and was Tom Brady's understudy for the past two years. That could intrigue teams.

The Patriots don't have many draft picks, but they certainly have options to acquire more this year.

Patriots are short on draft picks

January, 22, 2013
It's no secret that New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick loves stockpiling draft picks. But 2013 is one of those rare years where the reigning AFC East champions will be short on currency.

The Patriots made several recent trades involving draft picks for veteran players, and now it's time to pay the bill. New England will lose three picks in this draft in the middle rounds.

New England shipped its 2013 fourth-round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for cornerback Aqib Talib. That trade paid immediate dividends. Talib was New England’s best cover corner in the second half of the season and contributed to the Patriots' playoff run.

But the other two trades didn't go as well. The Patriots shipped their fifth-round pick to the Washington Redskins for former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. He was a major bust in New England and was released after six games. Haynesworth is still out of football.

New England also shipped its sixth-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for receiver Chad Johnson. He lasted one unproductive year with the Patriots and was released. Johnson also didn’t play in the NFL last season.

The Patriots have just four picks in this year's draft to improve the team. New England owns its first-, second- and third-round pick, as well as a seventh-round pick.
Rex Ryan is the NFL coaching equivalent of Chad Johnson.

There is a side of the New York Jets head coach that is fun-loving and harmless. Talk to Ryan for five minutes and you will like him. Watch any news conference, and it's clear Ryan has the charisma and sense of humor to light up a room. The same can be said for Johnson.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNext season will be crucial for Jets coach Rex Ryan, who is 14-18 the past two seasons.
Yet, there is that other side of Ryan that can be too much to take. Ryan, like Johnson, is blunt with no buffer. Ryan, like Johnson, also can display poor taste and do zany things. If Johnson abruptly changes his last name to Ochocinco, Ryan can match that with a head-scratching Mark Sanchez jersey tattooed on his arm. This pair is more alike than you think.

Johnson eventually wore out his welcome in the NFL. His antics no longer matched his production, which led to his being shipped from the Cincinnati Bengals to the New England Patriots to the Miami Dolphins and out the NFL in one year's time.

Is Ryan is heading down that same path with the Jets? Ryan's antics have been a constant. But after back-to-back non-winning seasons, are the headaches Ryan brings trumping his production?

The Sanchez tattoo, which caused national headlines Friday, is just the latest controversy to ruffle the Jets' feathers. Ryan's embarrassing transgressions have ranged from flipping the bird at a mixed martial arts event, rumors of a Ryan video focused on feet, bad-mouthing other head coaches and empty Super Bowl guarantees. There were several smaller brush fires Ryan also created or has been a part of in his four seasons with the Jets that are not worth getting into.

The point is that we keep waiting for Ryan's antics to stop, but they never do. Ryan, 50, is who he is. Ryan is at the "take-it-or-leave-it" stage in his life, and it's up to the Jets to determine how much more of the circus they can take.

That brings me back to Chad Johnson, who was a very good receiver in his prime. The Bengals put up with all of Johnson's antics as long as he could catch touchdowns. But once age caught up to Johnson and he was no longer a top receiver, all of a sudden his antics were too detrimental to the team.

Incidents of "Rex being Rex" will only fly in New York for so long. Ryan is still living off the glory of back-to-back AFC Championship Games in 2009 and 2010. But that is starting to feel like a long time ago. The Jets are currently viewed as a national punchline, a circus atmosphere where anything can happen at any time. In that respect, Ryan has been a contributing part of the problem and not the solution.

I have been a longtime supporter of Ryan because his X's and O's are solid, and players enjoy playing for him. Those are two key ingredients to being a good head coach. However, that support is waning with each incident. It's difficult to preach discipline to your players when the head coach is the one dominating the back pages in New York with distractions.

It's time to officially put Ryan on the hot seat for 2013. Next season will be huge for Ryan's future with the Jets.

Ryan is a mediocre 14-18 the past two seasons. He is poised on the threshold of being more of a detriment than an asset.
The Miami Dolphins have five draft picks in the first three rounds and more than $40 million of salary-cap room this offseason. If this were a poker game, Miami would hold the most chips at the NFL table.

But the person holding all the cards in Miami often makes Dolphins fans nervous. Embattled general manager Jeff Ireland will be calling the shots for the Dolphins during their most important offseason in recent memory. For better or worse, Ireland's decisions over the next few months will significantly impact Miami's franchise for the next three to five years.

[+] EnlargeJeff Ireland
Steve Mitchell/USA Today SportsGeneral manager Jeff Ireland has the resources this offseason to help make Miami a playoff contender in the near future.
Ireland is a polarizing figure in Miami. He is 20-28 since taking over full time for former Dolphins president Bill Parcells in 2010. Ireland's track record the past three years has been inconsistent, and many Miami fans wanted him out before the start of the 2012 season.

Ireland's free-agent signings have been littered with misses. Last year alone, quarterback David Garrard, cornerback Richard Marshall and receiver Chad Johnson were all free-agent busts. Ireland also has been hit-and-miss in the draft. Some of his good picks include rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill and center Mike Pouncey. But Ireland's misses also include tailback Daniel Thomas, receiver Clyde Gates and rookie tight end Michael Egnew. The Koa Misi pick over New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in 2010 also is hard to forget. That poor decision by Ireland only furthered the gap between Miami and its biggest rival.

So is Ireland the right person to manage more than $40 million and 10 total draft picks? His track record proves the Dolphins are taking a risk.

This is a make-or-break year for Ireland, who still has a lot to prove as Miami's general manager. The good news is Ireland is coming off his best draft in Miami. His 2012 picks included Tannehill, starting offensive tackle Jonathan Martin and contributing reserves Olivier Vernon and Lamar Miller. This group helped lead Miami to a respectable 7-9 record and provided optimism for the future.

"I was impressed with Ireland this past offseason and they are loaded with picks going forward," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "I would target 2014 to be highly competitive for Miami. It's very achievable."

Of course, all of that is contingent on Ireland making the right calls in 2013.

Ireland's first order of business is taking care of his in-house free agents. The Dolphins have plenty of cap room because many key players are coming off the books. Starters like left tackle Jake Long, leading rusher Reggie Bush, leading receiver Brian Hartline, No. 1 corner Sean Smith and defensive tackle Randy Starks will look to cash in this offseason. These are all tough calls. Miami cannot pay all of them.

It will be up to Ireland, with some input from rookie head coach Joe Philbin, to determine who stays and who goes. Ireland must walk a fine line of paying enough money to keep his own key contributors but still leave enough cap room to chase outside free agents. It will take some shrewd decisions and masterful self-scouting by Ireland. He cannot overrate or overpay his own players, which is a mistake general managers often make.

One of the most important things Ireland must accomplish is getting the right skill players around Tannehill. The rookie quarterback showed a lot of potential in his first year but was hamstrung by limited receivers and tight ends. Tannehill still managed to throw for 3,294 yards, 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in his first season.

The good news is the wide receiver position is very strong in free agency this year. Free-agent receivers Greg Jennings, Dwayne Bowe and Mike Wallace are possibilities for the Dolphins, who have the money to spend. Jennings played under Philbin for several years in Green Bay and knows the West Coast offense. Bowe is a Miami native who could return home, and Wallace has the deep speed Miami needs. Each player has the potential to fit well in Miami's offense and provide a boost for Tannehill.

"Wallace's speed would be ideal for Miami, but I trust him the least," Williamson said of this year's free-agent receivers. "Jennings is the most familiar but I worry that he might be on a slight decline. Bowe is really solid and from Miami. I would sign one and still draft a receiver high."

Tannehill also needs a better receiving tight end. This was a staple in Philbin's offenses in Green Bay, but Miami was limited with that position last year. Aging tight end Anthony Fasano could not stretch the field and is a free agent who may not return.

Following free agency, the Dolphins will enter the draft with a first-round pick (No. 12 overall), two second-round picks and two third-round picks. Miami picked up an additional second-rounder last summer from the Indianapolis Colts via the Vontae Davis trade. The Dolphins also got an extra third-rounder from the Chicago Bears for trading receiver Brandon Marshall. These key picks will be used to plug additional holes on the roster.

These are exciting and promising times for Miami. The Dolphins are in prime position to close the gap with the Patriots in the AFC East and perhaps make a playoff run in 2013. But it will be up to Ireland to wisely spend Miami's immense offseason resources.
Former Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson told ESPN First Take that he's "fine with it" if he doesn't get a chance to play in the NFL again but believes he'll get another opportunity.

Johnson had seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons with the Bengals from 2001 to 2010 before the Pro Bowl wide receiver disappeared when he was traded to the Patriots. He's been out of football since he was arrested in a domestic violence incident against his ex-wife last summer.

"I messed up. I messed up. Period," Johnson said. "I lost everything. Football, my wife, the family I had, over something that didn't really mean anything. I lost that edge when my focus went away from the game of football. I know that. I understand that."

NFL32: Can Falcons go undefeated?

October, 23, 2012

Wendi Nix and Tim Hasselbeck discuss whether the Falcons can stay undefeated; Jason Taylor breaks down how the Bears can be Super Bowl contenders; and the NFL32 crew discusses which unemployed wide receiver should have a chance to play.

Rapid Reaction: Cowboys 24, Giants 17

September, 5, 2012

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A few thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' season-opening 24-17 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants on Wednesday night at MetLife Stadium.

What it means: That the Cowboys intend to be a factor in the NFC East race this year. They needed this game much more than the Giants did, if for no other reason than to let the Giants and the rest of the world know they don't plan to be the same kind of big-game pushover they were last year. Given their history, it's safe to assume the Giants will recover fine from this, address their issues and remain in the race all year long. But of the three teams expected to compete for the NFC East title this year, the Cowboys are the one that came into the season with the most questions. They get 11 days off now before their next game to feel very good about their initial answer to those questions.

He's No. 3: I don't expect to get quite as many panicked questions from Cowboys fans this week about whether their team will or should sign a veteran wide receiver such as Plaxico Burress or Chad Johnson. The Cowboys believed they had enough depth at receiver, and Kevin Ogletree followed up a strong preseason with the game of his life. Ogletree caught eight passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns, including a 40-yarder on which he got behind the Giants' best cornerback, Corey Webster, and burned him for the score. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo seemed to seek out Ogletree pretty consistently on third down, and Ogletree responded by showing an ability to get open, catch the ball and move the chains. His biggest catch may have been a third-and-12 that converted a first down just before the two-minute warning and prevented the Giants from getting the ball back with time to tie the game. Remember, as you ponder whether or not to add Ogletree in your fantasy league this morning, that the guy who played that position last year put up some pretty big numbers.

Secondary issues: With Terrell Thomas out for the year with a knee injury and Prince Amukamara out for the game with a sprained ankle, the Giants were forced to start Michael Coe at cornerback opposite Webster and put rookie Jayron Hosley on the slot receiver. Webster played Dez Bryant most of the night (I still don't know why he was on Ogletree on the one play), and Coe played Ogletree or Miles Austin, whichever lined up outside. Coe played pretty well, but he hurt his hamstring in the third quarter, and the Giants were forced to go to fourth option Justin Tryon, who got beaten badly by Austin on the fourth-quarter touchdown catch that sealed Dallas' victory. By contrast, the Cowboys' revamped secondary with Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne at corner and Barry Church and Gerald Sensabaugh at safety, covered very well all night. They were even able to get a handful of sacks when they blitzed, which was something they couldn't do against Eli Manning and the Giants last year because they couldn't trust their coverage to stay sound long enough to get to the quarterback. Claiborne looks like he needs work, as you'd expect, especially in run support. But for this night at least, the Cowboys' plan to fix their defense from the back end forward appeared to succeed.

Wobbly champs: Part of the issue Manning and the Giants had on offense was the inability of their receivers to get separation. That speaks to the Cowboys' coverage, of course, but also to a relative lack of options in the passing game. Manning did find Domenik Hixon in coverage for a long gain one time, but it took a spectacular grab by Hixon (and a whiff in coverage by Carr) to complete that one. And none of the Giants' third wide receiver options looked anywhere near as reliable as Ogletree looked for Dallas. Manning targeted Victor Cruz the most by far, and Hakeem Nicks the second-most, and he looked the way of Hixon and tight end Martellus Bennett a fair bit, and Bennett made a nice catch for a late touchdown. But Manning was just a bit off with some of his throws, and overall the Giants' passing game appeared rusty. One has to believe that will turn out to be the least of their problems.

Leaky lines: Both offensive lines looked awful. The Cowboys' guards couldn't hold off the interior pass rush of the Giants, and the tackles couldn't stop committing false starts. Tyron Smith had an especially tough first game at left tackle. The Giants, who ranked last in the league in rush yards last year, couldn't open holes for running back Ahmad Bradshaw (or David Wilson, who got some early carries before fumbling and getting benched) and were unable to sustain drives as a result. The offensive lines still figure to be the biggest areas of concern for both of these teams going forward (assuming the Giants can get their secondary healthy), and it's doubtful either offense will be able to function at its best from week to week if they can't get some of the issues fixed.

Individual stars: DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee, DeMarco Murray and of course Romo all had standout performances for the Cowboys (though I have no idea why Murray turned inside on his long sideline run when it appeared he'd have a touchdown if he kept running straight). Austin and Bryant each made important catches at big times. For the Giants, defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Rocky Bernard each had a sack, and Jason Pierre-Paul was nearly impossible to stop all night. Keith Rivers also was a factor early at linebacker before an injury forced him from the game. Both punters were excellent, and you know how much we love punters on the NFC East blog.

What's next: Dallas will play the Seahawks in Seattle on Sunday, Sept. 16, and they'll hope that this long break between games will be enough to get nose tackle Jay Ratliff and cornerback Mike Jenkins healthy and get their offensive lineman to stop false-starting on every other play. The Giants will be back home that same day to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They'll hope that Amukamara and/or Coe can get healthy by then and they'll have more in the secondary than they did Wednesday night.