NFL Nation: Demetrius Bell

The evidence against Gregg Williams continues to mount, renewing questions about whether the indefinitely suspended defensive coordinator can credibly resume his career in the NFL.

The latest revelations -- profanity-laced recorded comments Williams made to New Orleans Saints players before their playoff game at San Francisco -- are chilling in their specificity. Time and again, Williams encouraged players to injure specific opponents, from Michael Crabtree to Frank Gore to Alex Smith to Kyle Williams.

Given these recordings, it's for the best that Williams, now with the St. Louis Rams, declined to appeal his suspension relating to the Saints' bounty scandal. There can be no defending what he said.

Pro Football Talk has transcribed some of the comments. Yahoo! Sports' Mike Silver also has a column on the matter. I listened to the comments and transcribed them for this item.

"Every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect the head," Williams told Saints players one day before the 49ers defeated New Orleans in the wild-card round. "Early, affect the head. Continue, touch and hit the head."

There was more. Much more.

"We need to find out in the first two series of the game, the little wide receiver, No. 10, about his concussion," Williams said, referring to Kyle Williams. "We need to [expletive] put a lick on him right now."

Williams also indicated the Saints should take out Crabtree's knee.

"We need to decide whether Crabtree wants to be a fake ass prima donna or he wants to be a tough guy," Williams told players. "We need to find it out. He becomes human when we [expletive] take out that outside ACL."

On and on it went.

Williams encouraged players to hit Smith under the chin, referring back to the "big eyes" Smith got when the Saints hit him repeatedly during the exhibition opener. He wanted the Saints to take out all the 49ers' key players, noting repeatedly that his team should not apologize for how it plays the game.

"We need to decide on how many times we can beat Frank Gore's head," Williams said.

Williams allegedly punctuated some of his comments with a hand gesture indicating he would pay cash for injuring the 49ers. These are damning tapes further cementing Williams' reputation for crossing the line.

Looks like we'll have even more than anticipated to discuss on the blog Thursday.

Elsewhere in the division ...

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News offers thoughts on the 49ers not facing the Raiders in the preseason.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Reggie Smith's departure from the 49ers in free agency further guts what remains of the team's 2008 draft class. Barrows: "According to a source, Smith, an unrestricted free agent, told the 49ers in his exit interview in January that he was not interested in returning to the team, presumably because he knew his chances of starting were slim with Dashon Goldson on the roster. The 49ers made Goldson their franchise player, although he has yet to sign the tender. The top three safeties for 2012 appear to be Goldson, strong safety Donte Whitner and C.J. Spillman. Madieu Williams, who also is a free agent, could return."

Taylor Price of 49ers.com says players are working out informally at team headquarters in advance of the voluntary offseason workout program.

Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis quotes new Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan saying he wanted to play for Williams. Finnegan: "Every player you talk to says what a great coach he is. I was so excited to have a chance to play for him. He has a great defense and players love playing in that defense."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says recently retired former Rams receiver Torry Holt downplayed talk about the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Holt: "Shoot, we've got to get Cris Carter in the Hall, we have to get Andre Reed in the Hall, we've got to get Tim Brown in the Hall before we even start mentioning anything about Torry Holt being in the Hall."

Also from Thomas: notes from Holt's retirement news conference. Holt on whether signing a one-day contract would let him suit up: "I was speaking to Carla, my wife, and said, 'You know what? It would probably be cool if I called (equipment manager) Jimmy Lake and I had him set up my locker and get my cleats, and get my gloves, get my baggy shorts, and let me run one more deep seven (route). Shoot it out of the JUGS machine and I could catch it for a touchdown.' ... You know what? That'd be too much. Let's act like an adult here, I guess."

More from Thomas: The Rams have interest in free agent receiver Jerome Simpson.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune makes available draft analyst Rob Rang for a discussion focusing mostly on the Seahawks. Rang: "I believe Coby Fleener is going to wind up as a top 20 pick. There are few teams with obvious needs at TE to warrant such a pick, but coming off a 2011 season in which Gronk, Graham, etc. demonstrated just how effective these matchup nightmares can be, I believe some team is going to shock everyone. That team could be Seattle. If you're going to build a team around a relatively weak-armed QB, he'd damn well better have some weapons."

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle explains why he thinks the Seahawks' were true to form in letting David Hawthorne sign with New Orleans.

Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times says the Seahawks met with Patriots free agent defensive back Antwaun Molden.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic has this to say about the Cardinals' preseason schedule: "It will be the eighth time in the past nine seasons that the Cardinals have played the Broncos in the final preseason game."

Also from Somers: Levi Brown re-signed with the Cardinals shortly after the team visited with free-agent tackle Demetress Bell. Somers: "Coincidence? Maybe. The Cardinals paid Brown a $7 million signing bonus. Earlier in free agency they signed guard/tackle Adam Snyder to a five-year deal that included a $5 million signing bonus. The Cardinals remained interested in Bell, but it was questionable if they were going to write another big check for an offensive lineman."

More from Somers: The Cardinals have their key specialists under contract.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com looks at options for Arizona on the offensive line. He quotes line coach Russ Grimm on Adam Snyder: "He was tops on our free agent list as far as offensive line was concerned. He’s a big physical guy, he's smart, he has played a number of positions. Right now we have him penciled in at right guard but if we have to move it around before camp we’ll move it around."
Part of the fallout from the Philadelphia Eagles' signing of tackle Demetress (nee Demetrius) Bell is that the Washington Redskins, who'd wanted to sign Bell to fortify their offensive line, will not. The Redskins, as Mike Jones points out, have missed on a number of offensive line targets in free agency this year and right now would start the same five offensive linemen they started in Week 1 last year. That's okay from the standpoint that the line played very well in the first four games before injuries set in. But it's less okay from the standpoint of left guard Kory Lichtensteiger trying to recover from two torn knee ligaments and right tackle Jammal Brown dealing with a persistent hip problem.

So, while we know the Redskins' first pick in the draft three weeks from tonight will be a quarterback, and that they don't have a pick in the second round, I don't think it's unfair to suggest that, once they start picking again in Round 3, they start picking offensive linemen.

The aforementioned quarterback -- be he Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck -- is going to need help. As great as those guys project to be down the road, the Redskins' starting quarterback in 2012 is going to be a rookie, and he's going to need protection. The Redskins' offensive line last year, when fully healthy, played fairly well. It blocked for the running game and did a good job of protecting the passer. But the passer, in those first four games, was a veteran NFL quarterback somewhat used to the speed of the game and the complex looks he was seeing from opposing defenses. The offensive line in front of Griffin or Luck will have to be even better than it was in 2011.

The Redskins know this, and it's why they were looking at upgrades over Lichtensteiger and Brown. They wouldn't mind finding a new center, moving Will Montgomery out to guard and deepening their personnel across the whole line -- maybe even giving Lichtensteiger and Brown a little more time to get whole. Best available offensive lineman, regardless of position, looks like the way for Washington to go in the third round, and maybe even with one of their fourth-round picks as well. The only other area I think they'll specifically target is the secondary, but they actually had some success there in free agency, so it's less of a priority than the line.
Torry Holt got the timing right for his retirement news conference Wednesday at St. Louis Rams headquarters.

The Rams' seven-time Pro Bowler offered a formal goodbye while NFC West teams searched for receivers with comparable skill.

The latest 2012 NFL mock draft Insider from Mel Kiper Jr., a two-rounder with explanations for every selection, sends three receivers to NFC West teams in the first round alone.

We get the hint even though this division features a couple all-time greats in Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald. The Rams in particular need upgraded weapons, but the other teams in the division could use help as well.

And while Kiper did not send a receiver to Seattle in the first round, knowledgeable Seahawks fans know their team hasn't had a Pro Bowl player at the position since Brian Blades in 1989 (another receiver, Alex Bannister, made it as a special-teamer in 2003).

The symmetry with Holt and the Rams is striking. The team drafted Holt sixth overall in 1999, and a trade-down with Washington this offseason has given them the sixth pick again this year. That is where we pick up the conversation, using Kiper's mock as a starting point.

6. St. Louis Rams: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma St.

Kiper's give: The possibility remains that St. Louis could move off this spot, but if they stay here and get Blackmon, they'll immediately upgrade a huge weakness, which is the lack of talented options for Sam Bradford in the passing game. Blackmon's speed is adequate, but his smarts, ball skills, route-running and work habits translate to a guy that can contribute immediately, which is what this offense desperately needs.

Sando's take: Kiper had cornerback Morris Claiborne heading to the Rams in his previous mock. Blackmon went to Cleveland at No. 4 in that scenario, but with running back Trent Richardson working out impressively following knee surgery, Kiper has the Browns taking Richardson instead of Blackmon. That left Blackmon for the Rams. We've debated on the blog whether Blackmon would be a reach with the sixth pick. We do know Blackmon would address a primary need, and that most analysts consider him a legitimate choice among the top 10 selections. The Rams are trying to bolster the position in free agency to diminish the need heading into the draft, but they aren't going to find a young talent such as Blackmon on the market at this time. The Rams own the 33rd and 39th picks as well, giving them an opportunity to find playmakers beyond the sixth choice, should they prefer to do so. Kiper had the Rams taking Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and Ohio State tackle Mike Adams in the second round.

12. Seattle Seahawks: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina

Kiper's give: Even if [Boston College linebacker Luke] Kuechly is still on the board, it would be tough for Seattle to pass on perhaps the safest 4-3 DE option available. Coples has prototypical size, can play every down as a pass-rusher and has a solid arsenal of moves to get to opposing quarterbacks, but with the size and discipline to be a force against the run. Seattle can't go wrong here with either the top LB or DE available. This defense is close to being considered among the NFL's finest.

Sando's take: The word "safest" isn't particularly comforting for Seahawks fans. Aaron Curry was considered the safest pick in the 2009 draft. Coples was my choice for Seattle in the recent NFL Blog Network mock. Then, Kuechly was not available. Kiper previously had Seattle taking Ryan Tannehill in this spot, but Tannehill was off the board this time and the Seahawks weren't in the QB market, anyway, after signing Matt Flynn. Some have criticized Coples for inconsistent effort. Pete Carroll constantly emphasizes competition, but the Seahawks have shown they can get good results from defensive players with varied résumés and reputations. Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Alan Branch come to mind. The draft plot thickens considerably for Seattle if Kuechly does slip past the top 11 choices. The word "safe" has applied to Kuechly as well. The Seahawks have obvious needs for a pass-rusher and a linebacker, so Coples and Kuechly make sense as projected picks. Kiper had the Seahawks taking Oklahoma linebacker Ronnell Lewis in the second round.

13. Arizona Cardinals: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame

Kiper's give: Another pick I'll stick with, Floyd is a great complement to Larry Fitzgerald and will help Arizona maximize the options for Kevin Kolb. The offensive line could use help, but Floyd has proven that he'd be a good value here. Think of Atlanta getting Julio Jones to take some pressure off Roddy White last year. Floyd could fill a similar role.

Sando's take: Some might recall Kiper sending Stanford tackle Jonathan Martin to the Cardinals a couple mocks ago. Martin fell from the first round entirely in Kiper's next version before resurfacing in the 20s of this one. The Cardinals need help at tackle after failing to address the position in free agency. (Demetress Bell's agreement with Philadelphia takes away one option under consideration for Arizona.) I get Kiper's thinking on Floyd. Arming Kolb with sufficient options is important. I've offered a counterpoint in the video posted atop this entry. In short, the Cardinals have already armed Kolb with highly drafted weapons at running back, receiver and tight end. The case can be made that Kolb needs to make better use of the existing weapons. To do that, he'll have to gain a stronger grasp of the playbook this offseason. He'll also need to stay on the field, something he hasn't been able to do. Improved pocket awareness would help. Landing a tackle seems like a necessity, but how? I sent Courtney Upshaw to the Cardinals in our Blog Network mock, figuring pass-rushers are more valuable than receivers or offensive linemen. Stanford guard David DeCastro was available to Arizona in Kiper's latest mock. Would the Cardinals draft him to play guard, then move Adam Snyder to right tackle? Kent Somers raised that possibility and it's an interesting one. I'm not sure Snyder projects as the long-term solution at guard, let alone tackle.

30. San Francisco 49ers: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech

Kiper's give: Hill is the biggest home-run threat in the draft when you combine his speed and size, and it's no secret the 49ers need some help at wide receiver, even with the additions of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. He'll need an adjustment period as he gets used to doing more in terms of scheme than he was asked at Georgia Tech, but he's the kind of weapon this offense needs to expand.

Sando's take: The thinking makes sense, but the 49ers have options in this spot. Players drafted this late in the first round will likely need time before developing into starters. There's no pressure to target the most immediate need on the roster. Landing a receiver does have appeal. Moss is 35 years old and might not offer much at this stage. But the 49ers can count tight end Vernon Davis as one of their receiving options. They use two tight ends frequently. This team does not run a spread offense requiring three top-flight wideouts, in other words. And there's still a chance Michael Crabtree will take another step forward after finally getting a full offseason in the 49ers' offensive system. The team has flexibility heading into the draft, in other words. San Francisco could target just about any position with the 30th choice (quarterback would be a surprise). The 49ers can sit back and wait to see which talented players with question marks fall to them. Kiper had the 49ers taking Brandon Brooks, a guard from Miami of Ohio, in the second round. The need for guard help could subside if the 49ers sign a veteran in free agency, however. They've visited with a few.

I guess this is why you save up your cap room -- in case your left tackle's season gets blown up by a late March injury and you have to go out and sign the best remaining tackle on the free-agent market in early April.

The Eagles announced Wednesday that they have signed left tackle Demetress Bell (whose name was Demetrius Bell up until this morning, when as part of the signing announcement the Eagles told us we've all been spelling it incorrectly for years) to a five-year contract. Obviously, the reason they did this was because their starting left tackle, Jason Peters, ruptured his Achilles tendon while working out last week and might miss the season.

We don't know the details of the Bell contract at this point, but while it's surely not a real "five-year contract," it's likely worth more than Bell was looking at getting from the Redskins or Steelers or Cardinals or any other interested teams at this time last week. The Eagles had a major need, and while Bell isn't close to the same player Peters is, he was their best option for filling that need. My guess is that, once the numbers come out, we'll find this deal doesn't lock the Eagles into too much responsibility beyond 2012, as they expect Peters to return by 2013 if not sooner.

It would have made little sense for the Eagles to alter their first-round draft pick plans and take a tackle, since few of the available tackles in that round appear to be ready to start right away and the Eagles need someone who can. And while they might have been able to turn up a starter in a later round, that's a lot of pressure to put on a mid-round rookie. Bell was the best solution to a bad situation, and while he won't give them what Peters gave them last season, he brings a veteran's competence and experience to a crucial position.

While the left side is not quarterback Michael Vick's "blind side," since Vick throws left-handed, the offensive line's performance in 2011 was a big reason for LeSean McCoy's monster season at running back. Bell's most important job will be jelling as quickly as possible with the rest of the Eagles' offensive linemen -- all of whom are returning 2011 starters -- and helping them continue to open holes for McCoy the way they did last season.

The Redskins, as I mentioned, were interested in Bell as a right tackle. But given their sudden level of desperation in the wake of the Peters injury, the Eagles surely were willing to offer more than the Redskins wanted to pay their right tackle. So I don't think this is a case of Washington running short on cap room because of the penalties. I think it's a case of an unforeseen event tipping the market in Bell's favor.

One of the topics our man Adam Schefter addressed in his regular SportsCenter spot Monday morning was the Philadelphia Eagles' effort to replace left tackle Jason Peters, who ruptured his Achilles tendon last week and could miss the entire 2012 season. Adam notes that free-agent Demetrius Bell was in for a visit this weekend but didn't sign, and that Bell also has visited the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Washington Redskins, and he says the Eagles might not be willing to pay him what he seeks.

Schefter also discusses free-agent Marcus McNeill, but he says injury concerns have knocked him out of the picture for Philadelphia.

Schefter indicates he believes the Eagles could address the tackle position in the draft, which is an interesting idea. We did our bloggers' mock draft last week, and it'll be posted soon. I gave the Eagles Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox at No. 15 in the first round, and then after the Peters news broke I was going to change it. But I don't think the Peters injury, as devastating as it is, changes the Eagles' approach in the first round. Stanford's Jonathan Martin or Georgia's Cordy Glenn are options, but if I'm the Eagles, I don't feel I need to solve this problem with my first-round pick.

The Eagles have two second-r0und picks, first of all. And it's important to remember that offensive line coach Howard Mudd seeks specific types of linemen. He found his starting center, Jason Kelce, in last year's sixth round, and afterthought free-agent signing Evan Mathis became a star at left guard. It's entirely possible the Eagles could find a viable starting tackle in the middle or late rounds if they strike out in free agency, trusting in their system to get the best out of a player on whom other teams passed.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are no longer quiet in free agency.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers had their first free-agent visit of the year today, bringing in Bills offensive tackle Demetrius Bell.

He is the best offensive lineman available in what began as a weak free-agent market for tackles. Bell, 27, is an intriguing talent who has played parts of the past two seasons at left tackle.

Drafted in the seventh round by the Bills in 2008, Bell had struggled for the most part before last season. He only started six games in 2011 for the Bills, but those were perhaps his best games with the team. In seven games last season, he only allowed a half of sack and didn't commit a penalty.

There's no guarantees that Bell will continue to play at such a high level, but this could potentially be a strong first move by the Steelers. Pittsburgh is the only team in the AFC North not to sign anyone in free agency, which began 17 days ago.

The Steelers have a connection to Bell. Offensive line coach Sean Kugler spent two seasons working with Bell before leaving Buffalo for Pittsburgh.

Adding an offensive tackle isn't a necessity, but it would bolster the position. Right now, the Steelers are looking to move Marcus Gilbert from right to left tackle, and start Willie Colon on the right side. Colon has played in one game the past two seasons because of injuries, and Jonathan Scott is the top backup.
The Philadelphia Eagles announced Friday that star left tackle Jason Peters ruptured his right Achilles tendon while training earlier this week and will have surgery Monday to repair it. This is a crushing blow for an Eagles team that believed its offensive line would be a strength in 2012. The Eagles didn't announce a timetable for recovery, but it's safe to assume that Peters will miss most and possibly all of the 2012 season.

Ponder
Peters
Peters is one of the very best tackles in the NFL and will be nearly impossible to replace. But replace him they must. They re-signed free-agent King Dunlap to a one-year contract Friday, which will help because he's their best backup tackle. But Dunlap doesn't project as a 16-game starter for a team with championship dreams, so they'll have to look at other options.

They have two second-round picks in addition to the 15th overall pick in the first round of next month's draft, so it's possible they could package some picks and move up in the draft to get someone like Iowa's Riley Reiff. The Minnesota Vikings have indicated a desire to trade out of the No. 3 spot in the draft, so if the Eagles wanted to really get crazy, they could trade all the way up there and pick USC's Matt Kalil.

But those are big deals and tough to pull off, and the Eagles' efforts to make such a move likely would be hampered by the fact that everyone now knows they need a tackle. So they're more likely to look at other options. The best remaining tackle on the free-agent market is Demetrius Bell, who's had offers from teams to play right tackle but may have been holding out for a left tackle job (or at least left-tackle money). The Eagles have the cap room to sign someone like Bell, and if Peters were to come back during the season or next year they'd have impressive depth at tackle.

Regardless of what they do, the Eagles will be hurt by this. Peters was one of the few reliable players they had in 2011, and because he's so good and so athletic in a division that features so many great edge pass-rushers, his was a spot that inspired supreme confidence -- not just a lack of concern. The Eagles had planned to return their entire 2011 offensive line intact, and now the other four members of it will have to get used to a new left tackle, and whoever the new left tackle is will have to get used to them and to Howard Mudd's unique blocking schemes. Won't be easy, but it now becomes one of the major offseason issues facing the Eagles.

NFC West free-agency assessment

March, 30, 2012
3/30/12
11:00
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Arizona Cardinals

Key additions: OL Adam Snyder, CB William Gay

Key losses: CB Richard Marshall

Sando's grade so far: C-minus. Arizona gets credit for making a strong run at Peyton Manning and securing a visit with him at Cardinals headquarters. That was a bold move and one that could have instantly transformed the Cardinals into a contending team. But it did not work. Coach Ken Whisenhunt had a point when he said the Cardinals were comfortable moving forward with Kevin Kolb and John Skelton as their quarterbacks. However, it was still telling that Arizona would aggressively pursue another quarterback eight months after allocating $12.4 million per year to Kolb. Most of the other teams making big investments in quarterbacks last offseason sat out the Manning sweepstakes.

Overall, Arizona has done little to upgrade its roster. Committing $19 million in bonus money to Snyder, Levi Brown and Kolb will not make the team $19 million better. Marshall was a valued contributor and the MVP on defense last season, according to coordinator Ray Horton. He'll be missed after signing with Miami. On the other hand, the Cardinals did win seven of their final nine games last season. Perhaps they have fewer holes than conventional wisdom suggests.

What’s next: The Cardinals need help at offensive tackle and have shown interest in Buffalo Bills free agent Demetrius Bell. The team would be fortunate to address the position before the draft. Whisenhunt has consistently defended Brown, who has played both tackle spots since 2007. The team's decision to give Brown a $7 million signing bonus as part of a streamlined contract showed Whisenhunt wasn't bluffing. But another starting tackle would help.

The Cardinals have yet to reach a long-term agreement with franchise player Calais Campbell. Getting a deal done with Campbell would reduce the defensive end's salary-cap charge ($10.6 million for now). It would reward a rising young player and head off future headaches associated with using the tag a second time next offseason.

Receiver and possibly outside linebacker are also areas where the Cardinals could use reinforcements.

San Francisco 49ers

Key additions: WR Randy Moss, WR Mario Manningham, RB Brandon Jacobs

Key losses: Snyder, WR Josh Morgan, ST Blake Costanzo

Sando's grade so far: B-plus. The 49ers had relatively few holes on their roster after a 13-3 season. Pursuing Manning provided a temporary distraction without inflicting long-term damage. The 49ers needed to keep together their core, and they accomplished that goal. Alex Smith's re-signing to a three-year deal was key. Smith will return to the team, maintaining continuity and giving the 49ers' offense a chance to build on last season. But the contract terms will not limit the 49ers' options beyond this season, a plus.

The 49ers succeeded in re-signing Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers after using the franchise tag to retain Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson. Those moves solidified the secondary. Addressing the situation at wide receiver was a top priority heading into free agency. Moss and Manningham were low-risk, high-reward additions. Both have the potential to provide qualities the 49ers were lacking last season, but neither carried a high price tag. Retaining receiver Ted Ginn Jr. restored firepower to the return game.

What’s next: Using the draft to improve the long-term outlook at receiver still could be an option. But with Moss, Manningham and Ginn on the roster, the 49ers should not feel pressured to select a wideout with the 30th overall choice in the draft. The team now has flexibility. There has been no indication that the 49ers or any team will seriously pursue Pittsburgh Steelers restricted free agent Mike Wallace, who reportedly wants Larry Fitzgerald money.

The 49ers could use a veteran right guard for insurance in case Daniel Kilgore isn't ready for the starting job. They have visited with Leonard Davis and Deuce Lutui, both former Cardinals. Keeping Snyder would have been nice, but the Cardinals paid a $5 million signing bonus to get him. That price was too high for the 49ers, who similarly balked last offseason when the New York Giants gave center David Baas an $8.5 million bonus.

St. Louis Rams

Key additions: CB Cortland Finnegan, C Scott Wells, DT Kendall Langford, WR Steve Smith

Key losses: WR Brandon Lloyd, P Donnie Jones, OLB Chris Chamberlain

Sando's grade so far: B. The Rams would get a higher grade for their offseason in general, but this item focuses on free agency. That excludes from consideration Jeff Fisher's hiring as head coach, and general manager Les Snead's ability to maximize value for the second overall pick in the draft. The Finnegan and Wells signings give the Rams welcome leadership while upgrading important positions. Langford should help the run defense.

The Rams have yet to address their playmaking deficiencies. They did not land any of the high-profile wide receivers in free agency. There's a chance Smith will recapture old form in his second season back from microfracture knee surgery, but the Rams are not counting on that. They will almost certainly emerge from free agency without even marginally upgrading the weaponry for quarterback Sam Bradford. That is a disappointment.

What’s next: The outlook remains bright for St. Louis. The team owns the sixth, 33rd and 39th choices in the 2012 draft, plus two first-rounders in each of the following two drafts. There will be time and opportunity for the Rams to add the offensive firepower they need so badly, perhaps with Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon or Alabama running back Trent Richardson at No. 6 overall.

Much work lies ahead. The Rams emerged from this week with eight fewer players on their roster than the average for the other 31 teams. Using free agency to address holes at outside linebacker and left guard would provide flexibility heading into the draft. The Rams still need a backup quarterback as well. Bradford is the only QB on the roster. It's looking like the team is serious about bringing back right tackle Jason Smith despite injury concerns and a fat contract that will presumably require adjustment.

Seattle Seahawks

Key additions: QB Matt Flynn, DT Jason Jones

Key losses: TE John Carlson, DT Anthony Hargrove

Sando's grade so far: B-plus: The Seahawks knew for months that Manning would probably hit the market and still could not secure a meeting with him. Their pursuit included a flight by coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider to Denver in a desperation move that failed to impress Manning. That was a rare disappointment for Seattle in free agency.

Re-signing Marshawn Lynch before the signing period took off much of the pressure. Re-signing Red Bryant without using the franchise tag rewarded the Seahawks for a disciplined approach to the market. That approach paid off again when the Seahawks landed Flynn without rushing into an imprudent contract. Flynn spent five days on the market before signing with Seattle. The Seahawks got him for about half as much per season as Kolb cost a year ago, without even promising him the starting job. That was impressive.

What’s next: Quarterback and pass-rusher were Seattle's top two needs heading into free agency. Flynn solved one of them for now, at least. Jones, an inside pass-rusher signed from Tennessee, should help the other area. But the need for outside pass-rush help persists. The team could use the 12th overall choice in the draft for a defensive end.

Linebacker is another obvious position of need for Seattle. Market conditions favor Seattle's re-signing veterans David Hawthorne and Leroy Hill at reasonable rates. Both were starters last season. Hawthorne visited Detroit and New Orleans in free agency, but those teams subsequently signed other linebackers. Hill turns 30 in September, has had some off-field issues in the past and should have more value to Seattle than to another team. Still, it's an upset if the Seahawks do not address linebacker in the draft.

NFC East free-agency assessment

March, 30, 2012
3/30/12
11:00
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Dallas Cowboys

Key additions: CB Brandon Carr, S Brodney Pool, QB Kyle Orton, FB Lawrence Vickers, LB Dan Connor, G Nate Livings, G Mackenzy Bernadeau

Key losses: WR Laurent Robinson, TE Martellus Bennett, FB Tony Fiammetta, CB Terence Newman, G Kyle Kosier (cut)

"You ain't a beauty, but hey, you're all right": Rather than go big for the biggest names out there, the Cowboys took a more directed, focused approach to free agency this year. They did spend a lot to bring in Carr, but they had a glaring need at cornerback and they believed Carr was the best one on the market. The two guards were specifically targeted by Cowboys' scouts and new offensive line coach Bill Callahan, and Connor was brought in to address a need at inside linebacker while 2011 draft pick Bruce Carter continues to develop.

The only loss that they didn't upgrade is that of Robinson, who signed with the Jaguars after coming out of nowhere to catch 11 touchdown passes from Tony Romo in 2011. The Cowboys will hope that one of the young receivers on their roster fills that No. 3 wide receiver role, or that they can catch lightning in a bottle again this year as they did with Robinson last year. They could miss Kosier's leadership on the offensive line, but he was getting old and injured and they needed to keep getting younger on the line.

What's next: While they'll keep an eye out for a bargain-bin receiver to replace Robinson, and they could try and find another tight end to replace Bennett, the Cowboys' main focus the rest of this offseason is likely to be on defense. They could add to the safety or cornerback mix in the draft or with another free agent. They'll keep looking to upgrade the pass rush, either with another outside linebacker or a defensive lineman. Those are the likely areas in which the Cowboys will focus their efforts in the draft.

Otherwise, it's going to be about sorting things out, especially on the offensive line. They need to find a pair of starting guards from a group that includes the two newcomers and the two youngsters -- David Arkin and Bill Nagy -- they drafted last year. Training camp should help sort out what needs to be sorted out on the offensive side of the ball. The draft will be for adding more pieces to Rob Ryan's defense.

New York Giants

Key additions: TE Martellus Bennett

Key losses: RB Brandon Jacobs, WR Mario Manningham, CB Aaron Ross, T Kareem McKenzie

"Reason to believe": The Giants don't like to make big free-agent splashes, and since they're up against the salary cap they also have little choice. But their second Super Bowl title in five years should help ease any concerns fans might have about if they're doing enough in the offseason. The Giants' way is to establish fair prices for the positions they need to fill and to be patient until they find players willing to play for their number. They'd have loved to have Jacobs or Manningham or Ross back, but not for the kind of money those guys found in free agency. They'd love to have linebacker Jonathan Goff and defensive end Dave Tollefson back, but if they get big-money deals elsewhere, the Giants will let them go too.

They targeted Bennett right away and signed him on the second day of free agency, since they saw in him a young talent at a position where they lost two players to major knee injuries in the Super Bowl. And they re-signed cornerback Terrell Thomas and punter Steve Weatherford, two of their offseason priorities. But since then, the Giants have been quiet, content that they have a good, deep, championship roster and willing to let the market come to them.

What's next: The areas of concern, if there are any for the Giants, are linebacker and offensive line. And if Goff comes back, they like what they have at linebacker with the incumbents and last year's rookies. With McKenzie leaving, they could move David Diehl from left tackle to right tackle, but they'll still need to add depth at tackle as they look to the future on the offensive line.

There remains the chance that the Giants could trade defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who was disgruntled about his contract this time last year and now only has one year to go. If they did that, they could move Mathias Kiwanuka from linebacker back to his old pass-rushing spot on the line. But the Giants would have to be really blown away by an offer to move Umenyiora, who has relaxed a great deal about his contract situation and said he'd like to stay.

Philadelphia Eagles

Key additions: LB DeMeco Ryans (trade), G Mike Gibson

Key losses: DE Juqua Parker, WR Steve Smith, QB Vince Young

"We take care of our own": The Eagles' focus so far this offseason has been internal. They extended the contracts of right tackle Todd Herremans and defensive end Trent Cole, signed wide receiver DeSean Jackson to a long-term deal and re-signed free-agent guard Evan Mathis. The Eagles believe last year's team was a good roster that underachieved, and they basically are taking a mulligan and hoping it works this time.

The one exception is a big one -- the trade that brought them Ryans from Houston in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick. The Eagles were pitifully weak at linebacker last year, and that weakness hurt their otherwise successful implementation of the "Wide 9" defensive line formation. They could get to the passer with their front four, but teams were able to attack the middle of their defense at will. The addition of Ryans, a veteran middle linebacker who was a productive tackler and beloved leader with the Texans, should help solve a lot of those problems.

What's next: There remains a strong chance the Eagles will trade cornerback Asante Samuel before or during the draft. They can afford to do so because they'd still be left with Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as starting cornerbacks and the underrated Joselio Hanson at nickel corner. Other than that, the Eagles figure to be fairly quiet the rest of the way.

They're most likely to use their first-round pick on a defensive player, though Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who'd be a great addition, now looks likely to be gone by the time they pick at No. 15. So they could pick up another veteran linebacker and use the draft to add to their defensive line rotation. It's also likely they add a veteran safety and a veteran running back to back up LeSean McCoy, who's next in line for a new contract.

Washington Redskins

Key additions: WR Pierre Garcon, WR Josh Morgan, CB Cedric Griffin, S Brandon Meriweather

Key losses: S O.J. Atogwe (cut), S LaRon Landry, WR Donte' Stallworth

"When the change was made uptown and the big man joined the band": The Redskins' biggest move of the offseason was the draft-picks trade they made with the Rams, sending three first-round picks and a second-round pick to St. Louis in exchange for the No. 2 pick in this year's draft. That pick ensures that Washington, which has been looking for a franchise quarterback for a couple of decades, will be in position to take one of the two quarterbacks in this year's draft that projects as a franchise guy. They're most likely getting Baylor's Robert Griffin III, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner who's got Redskins fans in a tizzy already.

The Redskins' first big moves when free agency opened were aimed at building a new offense for their rookie quarterback to run. Garcon and Morgan are, the Redskins believe, receivers with big-play talent who will fit well into the offense they like to run. The other two big additions -- Griffin and Meriwether -- were brought in to beef up the secondary, which lost its two starting safeties. It's possible Griffin could play safety, though he played cornerback in Minnesota.

What's next: The Redskins continue to try to re-sign veteran linebacker London Fletcher, and they're confident they can do that. They also want to bring back running back Tim Hightower, assuming he's recovered from his ACL injury, and they're in talks with him about doing just that. If they fail in either or both of those efforts, they'll need backup plans, as they'll lack depth at running back and inside linebacker.

Washington still could stand to add to its secondary and find help for the offensive line. Right tackle Jammal Brown has injury problems, and the team is looking for a better option. Demetrius Bell remains on the market and is a player Washington likes for that right tackle spot.
ThompsonAP Photo/Mike RoemerPackers GM Ted Thompson appears to be relying more on the free-agent market this offseason.

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- In recent years, I would arrive at the NFL owners meetings in late March to annual questions on the Green Bay Packers' apparent abdication of the free-agent market. What are the Packers up to? That's what officials from other teams wanted to know. My answer was always the same: This isn't Packers season. That starts at the end of April.

This year? Not so much. Last week, center Jeff Saturday became the first unrestricted free agent to sign with the Packers in three years. The team also hosted defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove on a visit, and reports suggest defensive end Dave Tollefson and offensive tackle Demetrius Bell could also visit in the next week or so.

Already, it's the most active stretch of free agency for general manager Ted Thompson since 2006, when he signed defensive lineman Ryan Pickett and cornerback Charles Woodson. Indeed, as of Tuesday, Pickett, Woodson and Saturday remain the only players on the Packers' roster to have been acquired as an unrestricted free agent.

What has gotten into Thompson? Did the Packers' early exit from the 2011 playoffs spur a change of philosophy? Did somebody sprinkle the Lambeau Field coffee with extra caffeine?

Not if you ask Thompson, as a few of us did this week here at the NFL owners meetings. Thompson smiled and said: "I know you guys don't believe me. But we're always active in free agency."

Right. And I hit the treadmill every day, too.

Thompson added: "There have been years, a couple years in a row when we haven't actually signed anybody. It doesn't mean that we weren't active, pursuing leads, trying to understand the market, doing all of that. … Sometimes the market runs away from you, and you keep your hands in your pocket."

[+] EnlargeJeff Saturday
AP Photo/AJ Mast, FileCenter Jeff Saturday agreed to a two-year contract with Green Bay.
In all seriousness, it's not as if the Packers have stayed pat as a rule over the years. In 2009, for example, they expressed interest in defensive lineman Chris Canty but wouldn't make him an offer before he visited Green Bay, as he demanded.

Still, it's hard to look at what's happened so far in 2012 and write it off as random. Given his druthers, I think we know Thompson would prefer to remain in the background in March. So I see at least a couple issues at play here.

First, and most important, the Packers have encountered what I could call "Ted Thompson's Imperfect Storm." The Packers have specific needs at important positions where depth is thin and the draft provides an untenable risk. That was certainly the case at center, a position that might rank second to quarterback in order of importance in the Packers' offense and had no obvious heir on the roster.

Thompson acknowledged that teams have found immediate starters at center in the draft, but that player almost certainly couldn't shoulder the play-calling responsibilities of a Packers center even if he was physically ready to compete with NFL-caliber defensive linemen.

In his typical understated way, Thompson said: "I think it's an important position. The whole makeup on our offense. We asked [former center Scott Wells] to do a lot. We'll ask Jeff to do a lot. … I do think in free agency you're able to target more specific things as opposed to the draft when we try to take the best player."

The same could be said of the Packers' clear focus on pass-rushers. The Packers have a clear need for a right end and an outside linebacker to play opposite Clay Matthews. But in the current pass-happy era of the NFL, you better believe that the other 31 teams are deeply in need of pass-rushers as well. Now more than ever, the Packers would be foolish to close the door on every possible avenue for upgrades.

Second, I wonder if the Packers weren't at least cautioned by their experience with former defensive end Cullen Jenkins last year. Their anticipated succession plan, 2010 second-round draft pick Mike Neal, suffered a training camp knee injury and made little impact. It's difficult to project injuries, even for a player like Neal who has endured more than his share. But the Packers' diminished pass rush made a huge impact on their defensive struggles, thus highlighting the risk in counting on unestablished players at key positions.

Every team would love to follow the Packers' style from recent years, relying almost entirely on drafted players to win the Super Bowl. But you wonder if they were the exception to the rule. Even the best teams need help from the outside at least occasionally, and credit Thompson for acting on that -- even if he did it with his nose pinched and his eyes closed tightly.

Yes, Thompson admitted that he wasn't at Lambeau Field when Saturday arrived last week for his recruiting visit. He was at Iowa's pro day instead. He called Saturday to make sure there would be no hard feelings about his absence and said it was more critical for coach Mike McCarthy to handle the visit. To quote one of my favorite movies: Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.
The two weeks remaining before NFL free agency will feel like two months at the current pace of activity.

Don't bother with the disclaimers, either.

Yes, history says the best teams build through the draft over time, that free agency can be a fool's errand and bad money gets spent this time of year. We still want action.

I hadn't even arrived home from the combine Monday when free-agent hunger pangs led me to call Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. with an idea: singling out for discussion one potential free agent for each NFC West team, with the Houston Texans' Mario Williams in the spotlight.

Williamson was game. He's here with a quick free-agency fix to get us through another day.

Seattle Seahawks

Free agent to consider: Mario Williams, OLB/DE, Houston Texans

Quick primer: Williams, barely 27, could hit the market while the Texans focus their limited salary-cap resources elsewhere. He has 48.5 sacks in his last 66 games and would, at least in theory, help the Seahawks address their most glaring deficiency beyond quarterback.

Williamson's first take: Jacksonville has a chance and New England will be really involved. Seattle is a good one, but I'm not sure exactly where Williams fits. The way they play their scheme, they have Chris Clemons as that 'Leo' guy, the tweener type, and the other end is like a Red Bryant, a big guy. But they clearly need more pass rush. Clemons is fine. Williams is really versatile and that is why he is a great fit in New England. They play so much 3-4. Seattle is a goofy scheme because they do not have two perimeter guys.

Sando's counter: Clemons' contract runs through the 2012 season only. He is 30 years old and probably has some good years left, but Williams could project as their next Leo. In the meantime, the staff would find a way to get the best 11 players on the field. Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley have shown an ability to adapt. They converted Bryant from top-heavy defensive tackle to a pretty much immovable player at the five-technique.

Williamson's followup: The Leo would be a great role for Williams. You could play more base 3-4 stuff. They do need pass-rush help, but right now I do not see a wonderful fit for Williams. Where does he start?

San Francisco 49ers

Free agent to consider: Robert Meachem, WR, New Orleans Saints

Quick primer: Meachem, 27, has a 16.1-yard average per reception and would, in theory, give the 49ers a needed speed element at wide receiver. The 49ers ran low on healthy wideouts last season. They have acknowledged needing help at the position.

Williamson's first take: Quite a few of the top free-agent receivers could become franchise players. All of a sudden, Meachem and Mario Manningham could move up the list. All these receivers have warts. Marques Colston is a free agent, but he has had multiple knee surgeries. DeSean Jackson is fast, but he is little and a pain. Vincent Jackson has been suspended. I think Meachem moves on and winds up being a starter for somebody. His skill set would be real opposite Michael Crabtree. Crabtree is a big, physical, move-the-chains guy. Meachem can run. He gets deep. Even though Alex Smith is not a big-arm guy, Meachem is the type of wideout they should pursue.

Sando's counter: Meachem fits the profile also because the 49ers would rather target middle-tier free agents than spend huge sums on the big names. That is why I don't really see them paying what it would take for Mike Wallace, particularly if a trade were involved. The 49ers are picking only 30th in the draft, so they cannot be certain a top wideout will be there for them. They will be best off addressing the position in free agency, then considering their options in the draft without feeling pressure to find an immediate contributor.

Williamson's followup: The draft also sets up well for them at the position. They have to say, 'We are a contender, let's make a move in free agency.' Mike Wallace would make sense, too. They have to add a receiver of some sort, maybe in free agency and the draft.

St. Louis Rams

Free agent to consider: Cortland Finnegan, CB, Tennessee Titans

Quick primer: Finnegan, 28 last month, has given the Titans' secondary a tough edge in recent seasons. Finnegan played for Rams coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee. He has started 16 games in four of the last five seasons. He has 14 interceptions, six sacks, one Pro Bowl (2008) and a reputation for nastiness.

Williamson's first take: They are obviously familiar with Finnegan. They do need wideouts and playmakers, but they could add Justin Blackmon after trading back from No. 2 overall. They have quantity at wideout. They need a stud. There is no use in getting Joe Blow C-plus free agent at that position. Corner is a huge need, too. I think Finnegan goes with St. Louis or Detroit. The Lions are a dirty team and Finnegan fits that persona. The Rams have more money to spend and I'm sure they would like to get Morris Claiborne, but not with the top pick. It would be nice to add a solid corner you can count on.

Sando's counter: The Rams liked the top of their depth chart at this position heading into last season, but things have changed. Ron Bartell is coming off a career-altering neck injury. His salary is $6.2 million this season, more than I would anticipate the Rams paying under the circumstances. Bradley Fletcher is a good player when healthy, but he's coming off ACL surgery. Adding Finnegan or another free-agent corner would make sense. The Saints' Tracy Porter played for Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in New Orleans. I doubt the Atlanta Falcons would let Brent Grimes get away, but he's someone the Rams would through their new general manager, Les Snead. The team needs a starting corner.

Williamson's followup: After Jim Schwartz left Fisher's staff for Detroit, he went out and signed Kyle Vanden Bosch. Fisher could sign Finnegan and essentially say, 'This is what I expect. This is how we are going to play defense around here. Watch Cortland.' They will bring in some of their own guys. This is clearly a need position.

Arizona Cardinals

Free-agent to consider: Jared Gaither, LT, San Diego Chargers

Quick primer: Gaither, 25, has all the physical qualities a team would want in a left tackle. He is also 6-foot-9 and 340 pounds. Gaither played well in five starts with San Diego last season, but he has been a tease throughout his career. Baltimore and Kansas City gave up on him.

Williamson's first take: The Cardinals' needs aren't crazy. They could add another outside linebacker type to the mix, but the two youngsters played pretty well. They will get Ryan Williams back at running back. Quarterback is the problem, but I just don't know if they will do anything about it. Their line needs to be rebuilt. Levi Brown, as much as I dislike him, did play better late in the season. I still think he is one of the worst starters in all of football when you look at every game he has started in the NFL. He is not a starting-caliber player. Russ Grimm is a good line coach. Gaither is the most volatile guy out there, but when he is right, he is a top-10 left tackle. Maybe Grimm can harness that. Gaither played well late and should not be overly expensive.

Sando's counter: The Cardinals haven't gotten much from Deuce Lutui or Brown, two players with talent. I'm not sure there's any evidence to suggest Arizona would suddenly get maximum value from another offensive lineman with question marks. Brown's return appears likely, but he will have to take a pay cut. The team doesn't really have another starting tackle, in my view. Brandon Keith's injury situation is a concern. The Cardinals basically have no young talent to draw from at the position because they have loaded up on older vets, largely ignoring offensive linemen in the draft. But they cannot be sure a starting-caliber tackle will be there for them with the 13th overall choice, either.

Williamson's followup: Gaither has some issues, but look, Joe Thomas is not available. They are not going to get Jake Long. They could use a first-round pick on one, too. I don’t know what Gaither's issues are, if he is a bad guy or just unmotivated or what. He was a very good left tackle in Baltimore and they cut him. The last tape of Gaither we saw was good. San Diego might want to keep him. Maybe he turns the corner after being cut by a couple teams. There will be a market for him. Another good tackle who may never leave his current team is Demetrius Bell from Buffalo. He was drafted as a project and is gradually getting better. Last year, he showed he can be an NFL left tackle. His best football might be ahead of him, too.

Tom Brady listed 'probable' vs. Bills

December, 30, 2011
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Shoulder-gate is coming to a close in New England.

Brady
Brady
Patriots starting quarterback and MVP candidate Tom Brady is listed as probable for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills. He missed Wednesday’s practice with a left shoulder injury and was limited on Thursday.

The Patriots (12-3) need this win to solidify home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The key for New England will be to take a big lead early and sit their starters in the second half. The Patriots have two weeks to rest Brady after Sunday's game.

In other injury notes, New England will be without starting offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back, foot) and guard Logan Mankins (knee). Both are ruled out. The Bills (6-9) will be without receiver Brad Smith (hamstring) and offensive linemen Kraig Urbik (knee) and Demetrius Bell (knee).

Final Word: AFC East

September, 9, 2011
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

[+] EnlargeC.J. Spiller
Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesRunning back C.J. Spiller could help Buffalo slow down Kansas City's pass rush.
Handling Hali: Something to watch carefully when Buffalo visits Kansas City is how the Bills handle linebacker Tamba Hali. If left alone, he will torment Bills left tackle Demetrius Bell. If Buffalo designates a tight end next to Bell to assist with Hali or assigns a running back to chip him, that leaves the rest of Buffalo’s protection scheme vulnerable against pass-rushers Justin Houston, Glenn Dorsey and Wallace Gilberry. Kansas City also has a strong secondary. I have a hard time believing that Buffalo will have much success through the air this week. One guy who could really help their cause if used properly is running back C.J. Spiller.

Inexperienced Cowboys: Dallas visits the Jets on Sunday night. This is a terrible matchup for the Cowboys’ offense. Instead of older, heavy-footed road graders up front, the Cowboys' offensive line has an influx of athletic, but very young, starters. This could pay off in time, because they should be much better equipped to pass-block and get out on the screens and draw plays that favor Felix Jones. But for now, I expect huge growing pains. Ultra-talented Cowboys first-round pick Tyron Smith will not play because of a knee injury. I expect Dallas’ protection schemes to have plenty of breakdowns. That is an awful situation against a defense coached by Rex Ryan. Compounding matters for the Cowboys are the matchups on the perimeter. Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are as good a pair of starting wideouts as you will find. But Austin isn’t 100 percent healthy, and Darrelle Revis will shut down whichever wide receiver he covers. Antonio Cromartie is a very good man-to-man cover man who thrives against bigger wide receivers like Austin and Bryant. However, it should be noted that New York’s third-down defense last season gave up too many big plays.

Test for New England: New England travels to Miami for the early "Monday Night Football" game. Although it struggled this preseason, particularly against the Lions, I still consider New England’s offensive line one of the very best. But they will be tested in a huge way on the road. In the Miami heat, the fatigue factor will favor the home team. Miami has an extremely physical and deep 3-man defensive line. Led by Cameron Wake, the Dolphins’ edge pass-rushers are a real handful for any protection scheme. New England might be without starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, so we might see first-round pick Nate Solder in his first action.

Pressure from Patriots: When Miami has the ball, I expect Bill Belichick to dial up a lot of front-side pressure. Chad Henne is not very mobile, and he can struggle with pressure right in his face. Jake Long returns, after missing the preseason, to man his left tackle spot. I worry about the right side of the Dolphins’ offensive line, particularly starting right tackle Marc Colombo. He should be out-manned by players such as Shaun Ellis and Jermaine Cunningham, let alone the added front-side pressure. Compounding the problem, right guard Vernon Carey has little experience at guard. Anthony Fasano is an excellent blocking tight end and will have to spend much of his time on the right side, but the Miami running backs are either small and lacking physicality (Reggie Bush) or lacking experience (Daniel Thomas) in protection.

Stopping the run: The Bills' defense was awful against the run last season, but I am betting that it improved with the drafting of Marcell Dareus and some other additions. I expect the run defense to be particularly stout up the middle, where Dareus, Kyle Williams and Nick Barnett play. However, the changes might not pay off big against the Chiefs because Jamaal Charles is such a great runner outside the tackles. I also expect Dexter McCluster’s role as a ball carrier to increase.

Bills back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
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» NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Bills will need every moment they can find to prepare for the season. Their offensive skill players gathered at quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's home in April. A larger contingent convened in Western New York for casual workouts in May.

Biggest challenge: Buffalo must find a defensive identity quickly. The Bills switched from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 with bad results last year. As it became obvious they had the NFL's worst run defense, they mixed their fronts. Head coach Chan Gailey has said that they will be a hybrid defense leaning toward a 3-4 base. Then he hired longtime 4-3 mastermind Dave Wannstedt -- not to replace defensive coordinator George Edwards, but as assistant head coach and linebackers coach.

Line in the sand: The Bills have a tenuous offensive line, although all the late-season starters are back. The line mostly has been mediocre and often riddled with injuries. Demetrius Bell has been a bargain at left tackle, but far from dominant. Right guard Eric Wood could eventually shift to center.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Inside linebacker Paul Posluszny and safety Donte Whitner have been two of the Bills' most prolific tacklers. Cornerback Drayton Florence is an overlooked free agent who could be popular on the open market. Disappointing former first-round pick John McCargo is a goner.

Lockout has Bills tackle Bell on hold

May, 25, 2011
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ELMA, N.Y. -- Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn't the only Buffalo Bills player who was anxious while watching last month's draft.

Bell
Bell
Left tackle Demetrius Bell was in a similar mental place.

Had the Bills drafted a tackle within the first three rounds, fans wouldn't have complained. They hadn't taken one higher than the fifth round since 2002, choosing instead to rely on a series of projects and castoffs.

Bell, a 2008 seventh-round draft choice with a lengthy injury history, started all 16 games at left tackle last year.

The Bills gave Bell a vote of confidence when they didn't draft a tackle until Clemson's Chris Hairston in the fourth round. Hairston's probably headed to right tackle.

"This is my position to lose at this point," Bell told me this week at Sahlen's Sports Park in suburban Buffalo, where he hooked up with 30 or so teammates for informal workouts. "They didn't draft a tackle in the high rounds. I look at last year as something to build off of and this is my year to breakout."

But with that comment, Bell winced. He knows that at this stage of his career, he badly needs structured workouts and instruction from coaches. As the lockout drags on, more sessions will get scrubbed. Minicamps are in danger. Training camp sessions and preseason games would be next.

The longer the lockout lasts, the more it will curtail Bell's development.

"The lockout is hurting me," Bell said. "I'm still in my learning stages. I'm still picking up the game, still getting stronger. I'm not where I want to be, and this lockout is hitting me hard. I have to find ways on my own to keep my stride, to keep learning, to keep improving."

On a positive note, Bell said he's 100 percent healthy and doesn't know of a single lingering injury anywhere on the offensive line.

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