NFL Nation: Eight in the Box

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each AFC South team as training camps get underway.

Houston Texans: Right tackle. There is a lot to sort out at linebacker, and we don’t know who the third receiver is going to be. But we’ll go to the right side of the offensive line, where Derek Newton is coming off knee surgery and third-rounder Brennan Williams has battled a knee injury of his own. Ideally the two would slug it out through camp, but we don’t know when they both will be ready to make a full push for the position. That could give sixth-rounder David Quessenberry the chance to win the job, at least at the start, or prompt the Texans to turn to middling veteran Ryan Harris. It’s a key position that will have a big bearing on how Arian Foster runs and the protection offered to quarterback Matt Schaub.

Indianapolis Colts: Receiver. There is a lot to sort out on the offensive line. But the Colts have question marks at receiver for Andrew Luck in his second season. Reggie Wayne is locked in as the super-reliable top option. But Darrius Heyward-Bey is No. 2 and never lived up to his draft status in Oakland. With a good quarterback in a new system, could he blossom? T.Y. Hilton did some good things as a rookie, and if he minimizes his drops, he can really be productive, particularly from the slot. After that, things thin out. LaVon Brazill is suspended for the first four games. Griff Whalen missed his rookie year hurt.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Quarterback. Once again, the team will be trying to find the guy who can perform best: Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne. But new general manager David Caldwell, new coach Gus Bradley and a new staff don’t have the investment in Gabbert, the 10th pick in the 2011 draft. Henne has more experience. Both guys played their best when they first started last season. Gabbert fizzled on a bad team, got hurt and was shut down. Henne had a couple of big games, but ultimately didn’t offer much more. Coordinator Jedd Fisch’s system will allow the quarterback to make plays on the move more, which should be advantageous to Gabbert. Mike Kafka and Matt Scott are unlikely to pull an upset.

Tennessee Titans: Cornerback. Although Jason McCourty is locked in as the top guy, the second cornerback slot is up for grabs. Incumbent Alterraun Verner is a smart player with a good knack for slot play. But the team is moving toward more aggressive man-to-man play, and that’s not his forte. Tommie Campbell is physically gifted and fits the mold. The question is whether he can handle it mentally. New senior assistant/defense Gregg Williams did good work as the Titans' defensive coordinator (1997-2000) when there was a similar question with Denard Walker. Rookie third-rounder Blidi Wreh-Wilson also will get a crack at the job.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each NFC South team as training camps get underway.

Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons are pretty well set at the offensive skill positions, but one guy to keep an eye on in training camp and the preseason is running back Jacquizz Rodgers. With the arrival of Steven Jackson, will Rodgers have a role as the third-down back? Jackson has a strong history of catching passes out of the backfield, but the coaching staff likes Rodgers and believes he has home run potential every time he touches the ball.

Carolina Panthers. From a fantasy standpoint, the issue is whether DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart will be the primary ball carrier. If both are healthy, they’ll split carries to some degree. But Stewart’s health remains a big question. He’s coming off surgery on both ankles and has had an assortment of injuries throughout his career. Williams had a strong finish last season and that may put him in the good graces of the coaching staff.

New Orleans Saints. The departure of Devery Henderson leaves the Saints looking for a third receiver after Marques Colston and Lance Moore. This position is critical because the Saints use so many three-receiver sets. Joe Morgan and Nick Toon appear to be the leading candidates for this job. Morgan seemed to have the advantage in minicamp, but the competition likely will go through camp and the preseason. Morgan is a long strider who has shown an ability to make some big plays. Toon, who missed his rookie year with an injury, is more of a possession receiver.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Veteran tight end Dallas Clark wasn’t re-signed and that means there will be a preseason battle for playing time at tight end. Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree appear to be the front-runners, but neither has produced much yet. The Bucs believe Stocker can do a little bit of everything and could blossom. But they also think that Crabtree, who was brought in from Green Bay, can be a productive pass catcher. Still, from a fantasy standpoint, drafting a Tampa Bay tight end probably isn’t a great idea.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC South team?


Offense: Reshuffled offensive line
Center Todd McClure retired and right tackle Tyson Clabo was released. The Falcons elected to go with youth and stick with guys already on their roster. Second-year pro Peter Konz should be fine at center after spending much of his rookie season at guard. But the right side is a question mark with Garrett Reynolds ticketed for guard and either Mike Johnson or Lamar Holmes at tackle. If the new starters don’t step up, this offensive line could have problems.

Defense: Pass rush
It seems reasonable to expect defensive end Osi Umenyiora to fill the shoes of John Abraham. But the Falcons need the pass rush to come from other areas, as well. Kroy Biermann likely will be used as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, and he has some pass-rushing skills. Second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi also has some potential. But defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might need to get more creative and blitz his linebackers and defensive backs more often.

Wild card: Kids have to be ready
The Falcons used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. The Falcons need one of them to start right away, and the other likely will get a fair amount of playing time. Opponents are likely to test the rookies, so safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore might have to provide a lot of help early on.


Offense: Establishing an identity
The Panthers opened last season using a lot of read-option with quarterback Cam Newton. After a 2-8 start, they switched back to a more conventional running game and had much more success. I expect that trend to continue under new coordinator Mike Shula. Newton has the skills to be a very productive passer if this offense is executed the right way.

Defense: Secondary questions
Aside from free safety Charles Godfrey, no one has a clear-cut starting position in the defensive backfield. There are lots of candidates, such as Drayton Florence, Josh Norman, Josh Thomas and Captain Munnerlyn, at cornerback. But some of those guys will have to elevate their games for the Panthers to have success in defending the pass.

Wild card: Missing links?
With defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, Carolina has the potential to have one of the league’s best front sevens. But that is largely contingent upon rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. If they live up to the hype right off the bat, this front seven could be special.


Offense: Left tackle an open competition
After letting Jermon Bushrod go in free agency, the Saints have a glaring hole at left tackle. Charles Brown and Jason Smith haven’t done much in their careers, and rookie Terron Armstead is also in the mix. The Saints are hoping one of those three can step up. If not, the Saints might have to scramble to find a left tackle elsewhere.

Defense: Unit a question mark
After finishing last in the league in overall defense last season, the Saints brought in coordinator Rob Ryan and switched to a 3-4 scheme. The changes are probably a good thing, mainly because things can’t get much worse than they were last season. But it remains to be seen whether Ryan has the type of personnel to make his defense work.

Wild card: Payton’s return
If nothing else, Sean Payton’s suspension last year illustrated the true value of a head coach. He’s back now, and that should be a major positive. Payton is great with X's and O's, but he also is an excellent motivator. I expect Payton and the Saints to use what happened last year as fuel for this season.


Offense: Franchise quarterback?
It clearly is a make-or-break year for quarterback Josh Freeman as he heads into the last year of his contract. Freeman has done some very good things, but he has struggled to deliver the kind of consistency coach Greg Schiano wants. The Bucs have a strong running game with Doug Martin and two good receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. There will be no one else to blame but Freeman if this offense doesn’t prosper.

Defense: Pass rush
The Bucs let last year’s leading sacker, Michael Bennett, walk in free agency. It was a calculated gamble because the Bucs have a lot invested in Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers and believe they can be a strong duo at defensive end. They'd better be right. If they’re not, the revamped secondary might not be as good as it looks on paper.

Wild card: Leadership void
Aside from recently retired Ronde Barber, this team hasn’t had a lot of obvious leadership in recent years. Even Barber was more of a leader-by-example type than a vocal leader. The Bucs need some other players to step up. Newcomers such as cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson seem to be the most likely candidates to fill the leadership void.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC West team?


Offense: Top running backs
Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams have combined for one ruptured patella tendon (Williams), one torn ACL (Mendenhall) and one shoulder surgery (Williams) during the past two seasons. Williams has played five games in two seasons. Mendenhall missed 10 games last season (one to suspension) after returning from his knee injury. So while new quarterback Carson Palmer rightly commands much of the attention heading into camp, the running backs deserve our attention as well.

Defense: Coaching change
The coaching change from Ken Whisenhunt to Bruce Arians cost the Cardinals their defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, just as the defense was gaining momentum. Arizona ranked third behind Chicago and Denver in defensive EPA last season. New coordinator Todd Bowles comes to Arizona after a difficult 2012 season with Philadelphia. Can the Cardinals sustain their recent defensive success under new leadership?

Wild card: Kitchens' health
Quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens underwent emergency heart surgery in early June after experiencing chest pain during practice. Last we heard, Kitchens was recuperating and expected to return sometime during camp, perhaps on a limited basis at first. Kitchens' health is a leading issue for the Cardinals even though the team has enough depth on its coaching staff to cover for him.


Offense: Second-year second-rounders
Two second-round picks from 2012 will help determine the Rams' trajectory on offense. Receiver Brian Quick and running back Isaiah Pead each started one game as a rookie. Quick played 174 snaps and caught 11 passes, two for touchdowns. Pead played 39 snaps and had 10 carries. It's time for both to become meaningful contributors. They should have increased opportunities after St. Louis parted with veterans at their positions.

Defense: Rookie safety T.J. McDonald
The Rams will want to get McDonald up to speed quickly. They did sign veteran Matt Giordano for insurance, but McDonald, a third-round choice from USC, is the player they envision in the lineup. Coach Jeff Fisher has experience putting rookie safeties into the lineup right away. Tank Williams started all 16 games as a rookie under Fisher with Tennessee in 2002. Michael Griffin started 10 games as a rookie under Fisher with the Titans in 2007. Williams was a second-round choice. Griffin was a first-rounder.

Wild card: O-line health
The Rams are young just about everywhere except along their offensive line. That's OK as long as those veterans avoid some of the injury troubles they've suffered in recent seasons. Left tackle Jake Long has had two arm surgeries the past two seasons. Right guard Harvey Dahl is coming off a torn biceps. Center Scott Wells has had two surgeries on his right knee, plus a broken foot, in the past year and a half. Tackle Rodger Saffold has had a torn pectoral and a neck injury since late in the 2011 season. The group should be healthy going into camp. Will the good health last?


Offense: Developing wideouts
Eight wide receivers have played in games for the 49ers during two seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. The list -- Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham, Ted Ginn Jr., Josh Morgan, Braylon Edwards and Brett Swain -- includes zero players the team drafted and developed under Harbaugh. The team will be looking to develop young wideouts A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette while Crabtree and Manningham recover from serious injuries. Jenkins and Patton were draft choices under Harbaugh. Lockette was signed last season.

Defense: Roles on the D-line
General manager Trent Baalke has suggested the team could stand to expand its rotation on the defensive line. How will that play out once the 49ers are on the field and the coaching staff takes over? What role will newcomer Glenn Dorsey play to that end? Starters Justin Smith and Ray McDonald could benefit from a little more rest now and then. They rank among the NFL leaders in total regular-season and postseason snaps played in the past couple of seasons. Smith, in particular, is hugely important to the defense's success.

Wild card: Eric Mangini
The coaching staff will have a different feel with Mangini as the new senior offensive consultant. Harbaugh has kept together his staff for two seasons, an upset for a team that has enjoyed so much success on the scoreboard and in scheming. We easily could have credited Harbaugh for staying the course in the name of continuity. Adding a coach with Mangini's profile shakes things up. It'll be interesting to see how Mangini assimilates.


Offense: James Carpenter
Carpenter's health is a key variable for the future of the offensive line. Coach Pete Carroll has indicated Carpenter should be available for the start of training camp after missing nine games last season and seven as a rookie. Drafted to play right tackle, Carpenter's future is at guard if he can get healthy, stay healthy and regain quickness. Having Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung and Pro Bowl center Max Unger flanking a healthy Carpenter would give Seattle a line more like the one Carroll envisioned.

Defense: Cliff Avril's transition
Seattle will be looking to see how pass-rushing defensive ends Avril and Bruce Irvin fit at linebacker as the coaching staff promotes versatility through the front seven. Avril is particularly important in the short term because Irvin faces a four-game suspension to open the season while starting defensive end Chris Clemons continues to rehab from the torn ACL he suffered during the wild-card round last season. Carroll has hinted that Clemons could return in time for the season, but that's a best-case scenario.

Wild card: Keep it clean
All NFL players must submit to testing for performance-enhancing drugs when they report for training camp. That's significant for the Seahawks after Irvin became the fifth Seattle player since 2011 to incur a PED-related suspension. What are the chances another player tests positive?

Eight in the Box: Offseason regret

July, 12, 2013
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the one offseason move each team in the NFC West needed to make, but didn't:

Arizona Cardinals: Pass-rushing outside linebacker is one position where the team could have upgraded more aggressively. Using a fourth-round pick for Alex Okafor addressed the position to some degree. Sam Acho, O'Brien Schofield and Lorenzo Alexander are the other players expected to factor on the outside in 3-4 looks. The Cardinals haven't been hurting for sacks. Their defensive front could generate pressure more directly if the responsibilities for ends Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett evolve as expected. But with inside linebacker and leading 2012 sacker Daryl Washington serving a four-game suspension to open the season, Arizona might need more pass-rush presence from the perimeter.

St. Louis Rams: The Rams appear set on defense except at safety, where Darian Stewart and 2013 third-round choice T.J. McDonald are the projected starters after the team parted with 2012 starters Craig Dahl (signed by San Francisco) and Quintin Mikell (released for salary reasons). Stewart played 83 percent of the defensive snaps in 2011, but his playing time fell to 7 percent last season. McDonald is just getting started. Safety is one position the team could address by adding a veteran as the summer progresses. For now, it's a question mark. We should note, however, that rookie linebacker and first-round pick Alec Ogletree adds considerable range and coverage potential to the defense. He could wind up drawing some coverage responsibilities.

San Francisco 49ers: This roster doesn't have many holes, so we'll have to reach a little. Some thought the 49ers needed to upgrade more at cornerback, but the team thought restoring its front seven would plug some of the leaks that sprung in the secondary late last season. On offense, hindsight says the team could have moved even more aggressively at wide receiver, but there was no way to know Michael Crabtree would suffer a torn Achilles tendon during routine offseason workouts. Even then, San Francisco was proactive by acquiring Anquan Boldin before Crabtree's injury. Swing tackle was one position where the 49ers arguably needed another option. Re-signing Adam Snyder provided some insurance there.

Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks, like the 49ers, have a roster without many holes. They addressed key needs for a nickel corner (Antoine Winfield) and pass-rush help (Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett). The offensive line is one area where the team arguably could have moved more aggressively. An injury to one of the starting tackles could force guard Paul McQuistan to play out of position while taxing depth on the interior, particularly if 2011 first-round pick James Carpenter doesn't shake significant injury concerns. The Seahawks believe in line coach Tom Cable's ability to make just about any situation work. He's their insurance policy.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC West team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Arizona Cardinals: Patrick Peterson is back as the starting left corner in a revamped secondary. The team must discover during training camp which corner will start opposite him. Newcomers Antoine Cason and Jerraud Powers are the leading candidates. Arizona has quite a few options. Rookie Tyrann Mathieu figures prominently into the Cardinals' plans as a hybrid corner-safety type. Slot corner Javier Arenas, acquired from Kansas City, and 2012 third-round choice Jamell Fleming are also in the mix. The Cardinals will have three new starters in their secondary after parting with cornerback William Gay, free safety Kerry Rhodes and strong safety Adrian Wilson. Greg Toler, James Sanders and Michael Adams are also gone. Those six combined to play nearly 70 percent of the snaps in the secondary last season. Rashad Johnson was starting to overtake Wilson. He projects as the likely strong safety, with veteran newcomer Yeremiah Bell at the other safety spot. Bell played under new coordinator Todd Bowles previously.

St. Louis Rams: Cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins provide the foundation for a secondary that expects to play quite a bit of man coverage behind an aggressive front seven with improved speed. Finnegan is the most accomplished and highest-paid member of the secondary, but he insists Jenkins is the best defensive back on the team by a wide margin. That might be true from a talent standpoint. The team will be looking for Jenkins to demonstrate improved consistency in his second season. Trumaine Johnson, a third-round choice in 2012, also figures prominently. A DUI arrest and previous off-field troubles in college raise questions about his long-term reliability, however. The situation at safety is ... different. The Rams want to develop third-round pick T.J. McDonald quickly. Darian Stewart projects as the other primary safety. The team signed veteran Matt Giordano as insurance. Former starting safeties Craig Dahl and Quintin Mikell are gone. The Rams must determine this summer what they have at safety.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers demonstrated by their actions this offseason a general belief that the secondary's issues late last season stemmed more from a diminished front seven than from talent deficiencies on the back end. Dahl, signed from the Rams this offseason, provides a veteran insurance policy in case rookie first-round pick Eric Reid isn't ready to start immediately at free safety. San Francisco must replace former starter Dashon Goldson, who signed with Tampa Bay in free agency. C.J. Spillman, primarily a force on special teams to this point in his career, also factors as an option there. The 49ers have never appeared particularly concerned about losing Goldson over the years, but trading up 12 spots to select Reid showed they value talent at the position. Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner return as the other three starters. Beyond identifying an immediate starter at free safety, the 49ers need to figure out this summer whether free-agent addition Nnamdi Asomugha can help them.

Seattle Seahawks: All four starters return from arguably the best secondary in the NFL. Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and new nickel corner Antoine Winfield have all earned Pro Bowl or Associated Press All-Pro honors within the past three seasons. Jeremy Lane and Walter Thurmond are talented backups with limited starting experience. The team must figure out this offseason whether Thurmond factors in for the long term. Thurmond beat out Sherman for the starting job heading into the 2011 season. However, repeated serious injuries have derailed his career. Winfield is probably safe as the nickel corner this season, but the gap between Winfield and the team's other options is smaller than Winfield's credentials would suggest.

Eight in the Box: Biggest questions

June, 14, 2013
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The major question facing each team in the NFC West as summer break looms:

Arizona Cardinals: What form will the defense take? Todd Bowles is the new coordinator after taking over for Ray Horton. Bowles said from the beginning he would only "tweak" the 3-4 scheme Horton put into place with success. Defensive lineman Darnell Dockett has responded to those tweaks in a manner suggesting his life will be completely different -- and much better -- as an attacking, up-the-field force. From the outside, it looks like the Cardinals have acquired personnel suited to play in a scheme with 4-3 tendencies. Perhaps we're overthinking things here. I'm definitely curious to see how the defense comes together and whether Bowles can build upon the solid foundation Horton seemed to establish.

St. Louis Rams: Does the team need some veteran depth? The Rams have the NFL's youngest roster. They're young just about everywhere but along the offensive line, where Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl and Jake Long provide some seasoning. Depth at linebacker and safety appears a bit tenuous, however, and that has led the Rams to consider free-agent options. Linebackers Takeo Spikes, Will Witherspoon and Chris Gocong have joined safeties Sherrod Martin, Matt Giordano and Abram Elam as free-agent visitors to Rams headquarters, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

San Francisco 49ers: How will the wide receiver situation shake out? Second-year receiver A.J. Jenkins performed to positive reviews during the recently completed organized team activities and minicamp. Ricardo Lockette was another young receiver catching the 49ers' attention. The team has question marks at the position while Michael Crabtree recovers from a torn Achilles tendon. The 49ers ran former Indianapolis Colts receiver Austin Collie through a workout this week. Collie is recovering from knee surgery. He has a history of concussions. The 49ers are lining up contingencies, it appears, as they prepare for training camp.

Seattle Seahawks: Who becomes the No. 2 quarterback behind Russell Wilson? Tarvaris Jackson's addition this week gives the team two veteran quarterbacks competing for the job. The Seahawks posted a 7-7 record when Jackson was their starter during the 2011 season, before Wilson arrived. Brady Quinn posted a 1-7 record while starting for Kansas City last season. Jackson already knows the Seahawks' offense. He has strong relationships with Seattle players and with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. He looks like the favorite for the job, even though Quinn has been the one practicing with the team this offseason.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A first-year player who has turned heads in OTAs/minicamps.

Buffalo Bills: Rookie wide receiver Robert Woods was one of my favorite players in this draft, and he is already living up to his reputation of being an NFL-ready player. Buffalo's second-round pick and former USC product is gaining the inside track for a starting job during organized team activities. Woods is putting his stamp on the position by running solid routes, making plays and displaying good hands. That is what the Bills are looking for opposite 1,000-yard receiver Steve Johnson. Buffalo has a trio of rookie receivers in Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Da'Rick Rogers, who are all looking to make an impact.

Miami Dolphins: It's early, but Miami may have a steal in fifth-round draft pick Mike Gillislee. The former Florida running back is showing good burst and vision during OTAs. Gillislee is the type of downhill runner Miami wants in its West Coast offense. He is decisive, physical and had a reputation in college for usually falling forward after contact. Gillislee is definitely in the mix to share carries with starter Lamar Miller and backup Daniel Thomas. Several of Miami's rookies are injured and have not done much work in practice. First-round pick Dion Jordan is recovering from shoulder surgery in February and second-round pick Jamar Taylor has a sports-hernia injury. Third-round pick Dallas Thomas (shoulder) just got on the practice field for the first time this week. That leaves more of an opportunity for lower-round picks like Gillislee to stand out.

New England Patriots: It's been a mixed bag for Patriots rookie Aaron Dobson in OTAs, but he is showing enough early to offer hope at the wide receiver position. Dobson is making the tough transition from playing at small-school Marshall to arguably the most demanding and precise offense in the NFL. Dobson is making athletic plays in practice but also some rookie mistakes. The No. 2 and No. 3 receiver jobs are wide open in New England. Dobson is competing with fellow rookie Josh Boyce and veterans Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones and Lavelle Hawkins. Dobson has a higher ceiling than all of these receivers and is showing it with big plays. But Dobson, like most rookies, must work on consistency.

New York Jets: Head coach Rex Ryan loves his defense, and so far first-round pick Sheldon Richardson has impressed. The former Missouri defensive lineman has displayed strength and a quick first step off the ball in spring practices. He has the potential to be disruptive, and this is what made Richardson the No. 13 overall pick in April's NFL draft. Due to a need at quarterback, the Jets reportedly considered drafting Geno Smith with the No. 13 pick but took the higher-rated player in Richardson. It was a wise choice, because New York landed Smith in the second round with the No. 39 overall pick and got a good defensive lineman prospect in the process. The Jets are a young, rebuilding team and Richardson is projected to be in the starting lineup in Week 1 of the regular season.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A first-year player who has turned heads in OTAs/minicamps:

Atlanta Falcons: Second-round pick Robert Alford has made a very positive impression in the OTAs and could be putting himself in position to challenge for a starting cornerback spot. First-round pick Desmond Trufant isn’t allowed to take part in OTAs until his University of Washington class graduates, and veteran Asante Samuel hasn’t been around for all of the voluntary sessions. That has allowed Alford to get plenty of first-team reps, and he’s made the most of them. He’s held his own against receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, and the coaching staff has been very impressed with his speed and quickness.

Carolina Panthers: Every time coach Ron Rivera is asked about young guys who are making a good impression, he mentions safety Robert Lester and cornerback Melvin White, who were signed as undrafted free agents. Lester is the one I think is worth keeping a close eye on. Though he wasn’t drafted, Lester has some pedigree. He played on two national championship teams at Alabama and was an important part of the defense. Charles Godfrey is the only sure thing the Panthers have at safety. Lester has a chance to compete with D.J. Campbell and Mike Mitchell.

New Orleans Saints: Outside linebacker Rufus Johnson stood out during this week’s minicamp. He’s the product of a small school (Tarleton State), but he certainly looks like he has the tools to play in the NFL. He has a nice combination of size and quickness and has been working at the “Jack" linebacker spot behind Will Smith and Martez Wilson. Smith is nearing the end of his career, and Wilson is unproven. Johnson appears to have the potential to develop into a strong pass-rusher and could take on a bigger role in the future.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: While Darrelle Revis works with the trainers on the sideline to rehabilitate his knee, rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks has been getting a fair amount of first-team work. Banks hasn’t been flawless. But at times he’s held his own against starting receiver Mike Williams, and that is an encouraging sign. At 6-foot-2, Banks has the size to match up with the division’s bigger receivers like Marques Colston, White and Brandon LaFell. If Banks can continue to impress, there’s a good chance he’ll end up starting opposite Revis, and Eric Wright will slide inside to play the nickel position.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player entering a contract year on each NFC West team who must deliver in 2013:

Arizona Cardinals: O'Brien Schofield. An ankle injury against the Green Bay Packers last season ended Schofield's season prematurely after nine games and four sacks. The outside linebacker still set a career high for playing time with 471 snaps. The Cardinals' new coaching staff will be watching to see whether Schofield can stay healthy and produce in a tweaked scheme. Schofield's career was steadily gaining momentum through his first two-plus seasons after the 2010 fourth-round choice recovered from an ACL injury suffered at the Senior Bowl. Then, in Week 9 last season, Schofield was chasing Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers after beating his man off the ball when teammate Darnell Dockett dove toward Rodgers, spinning around and inadvertently chopping down Schofield at the legs. The team used a fourth-round pick this offseason for Alex Okafor, who could push Schofield eventually.

St. Louis Rams: Rodger Saffold. The Rams once planned to build their line around Saffold and Jason Smith at the tackle spots. Smith flamed out and is no longer with the team. Saffold has appeared in 35 games, starting all of them, since the Rams made him the first player selected in the second round of the 2010 draft. However, injuries have forced him to the sideline for a combined 13 games over the past two seasons. Saffold enters the final year of his rookie deal as the projected starter at right tackle. He started on the left side most recently, but the newly signed Jake Long will man that spot for the foreseeable future. Saffold needs to stay on the field and play well if he hopes to maximize his value with the Rams or another team beyond this season.

San Francisco 49ers: Donte Whitner. Coach Jim Harbaugh went into free agency this offseason saying the team valued Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson. He said Goldson was the type of player a team wants to reward. There still wasn't money in the budget for Goldson, who signed with Tampa Bay in free agency. Whitner is the 49ers' other hard-hitting safety, perhaps best known for the crushing hit he put on New Orleans' Pierre Thomas during a playoff game two seasons ago. He has started all but one game for the 49ers over the past two seasons, and he will be 28 this season -- hardly ancient by NFL safety standards. The 49ers have had tough choices to make on defense, however, and they'll have more to make in their secondary in the not-too-distant future. Cornerback Tarell Brown is also unsigned beyond 2013.

Seattle Seahawks: Golden Tate. The receiver set career highs in 2012 with 45 receptions for 688 yards and seven touchdowns. He averaged 15.3 yards per reception, a gain of more than four yards over his previous career average. The Seahawks loved what they saw from Tate, but that did not stop them from acquiring Percy Harvin from the Minnesota Vikings and making Harvin the highest-paid receiver on the team. Harvin's arrival invited questions about whether Tate figured into the Seahawks' long-term plans. It also invited questions about whether the team would continue paying fellow receiver Sidney Rice at Rice's current rate. The Seahawks think Harvin's arrival will create better matchups for Tate. Whatever the case, Tate needs a strong season to validate what he accomplished in 2012. Otherwise, the Seahawks and other suitors can point to Tate's first two seasons when trying to set his value.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player entering a contract year on each AFC East team who must deliver in 2013:

Buffalo Bills: The Bills know that Eric Wood is a quality center. What they don’t know is if Wood is durable enough to handle the trenches for all 16 games year in and year out. The 2009 first-round draft pick is playing out the final year of his rookie contract. Wood has had multiple knee and leg injuries during his career. He has never played more than 14 games in a season during his four-year career. Wood, 28, has some wear and tear, and that should factor in when the Bills go to the negotiating table. But talented centers are hard to find. So it’s very possible that the Bills do not wait until next year. Buffalo has cap room, and Wood and Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd are two in-house players who could get contract extensions before September.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins took a calculated risk this offseason when they signed cornerback Brent Grimes. Miami signed Grimes to a one-year, "show-me" contract before he fully recovered from last season's Achilles injury. Two months later, Grimes is closer to 100 percent and making plays on the practice field. He made the Pro Bowl two years ago with the Atlanta Falcons, and the Dolphins are hoping Grimes can return close to that form. Miami was ranked 27th in pass defense last season and needs Grimes to take a leadership role and stay healthy for a full season. Veteran corners Richard Marshall and Dimitri Patterson are questionable starting options, and rookies Jamar Taylor and Will Davis still have a lot to learn.

New England Patriots: Cornerback Aqib Talib is in a similar situation as Grimes. After spending half a season with the Patriots in 2012, Talib signed a one-year extension to prove he can be the long-term solution at cornerback. Talib was clearly New England’s best cornerback last season. He has the size and athleticism to shut down opponents. However, prior off-the-field issues while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the Patriots hesitate to offer a long-term contract in March. If Talib performs well and stays out of trouble again this season, New England will have no choice but to give Talib a multiyear extension or another team will.

New York Jets: The Jets simply do not have a lot of talent. So it’s hard to pinpoint a player in the final year of his contract who must perform in order to stick around. The best I can come up with is offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse. He was taken in the second round in 2009 and is still trying to learn the NFL game. The Jets are hoping Ducasse can develop into a starting guard, but progress has been slow. If Ducasse doesn’t show anything this season, it's unlikely he will come back to New York. The Jets already drafted guard Brian Winters this year in the third round. That’s a strong warning sign for Ducasse. There are several high-priced players, like starting receiver Santonio Holmes and quarterback Mark Sanchez, who are signed beyond 2013 but could be released if they don’t perform. But as far as players in a contract year, Ducasse is one to keep an eye on.

Eight in the Box: RB status check

May, 24, 2013
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC West team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Arizona Cardinals: This is a transitional year at the position for Arizona. Free-agent addition Rashard Mendenhall gets a shot to revive his career following a disappointing finish with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's familiar with Bruce Arians' offense, giving him a head start over the competition. Ryan Williams has a shot at the job, too, but he's been injured and recently admitted to playing scared last season while trying to protect his surgically repaired knee. General manager Steve Keim was a huge fan of the speed and cutting ability Williams offered coming out of college. Knee and shoulder injuries have taken a significant toll. Can Williams bounce back? Arians wants his backs versatile enough to play on third down as well. The team used a 2013 fifth-round choice for Stanford career rushing leader Stepfan Taylor with that in mind.

St. Louis Rams: Youth will be served in the Rams' offensive backfield now that Steven Jackson has left in free agency. The Rams could have kept Jackson, but they let him out of his contract with an eye toward building a younger roster. Rookie fifth-round pick Zac Stacy will get every chance to earn a prominent role on early downs. Isaiah Pead, a second-round choice in 2012, projects as more of a change-of-pace back. Daryl Richardson, a seventh-rounder last year, should also figure into the mix. The Rams anticipated moving forward from Jackson with a committee setup. It's an upset if one of the backs on the roster commands a huge majority of the carries. The Rams have assumed more of a fast-break look at the skill positions without Jackson as an offensive centerpiece.

San Francisco 49ers: Frank Gore remains the primary back at age 30 after holding up physically through a 19-game season in 2012. The 49ers have set up themselves for life after Gore by drafting Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore in recent seasons. The position has obviously been a priority for San Francisco. The 49ers know what the numbers say about running backs declining in their late 20s. Gore has resisted the trend to this point and doesn't seem to be declining. The dynamics behind Gore are fluid. Hunter could remain the No. 2 back if he can bounce back from ACL surgery, but James demonstrated during the playoffs why he should factor as well. Lattimore, a fourth-round pick this year, will get the full 2013 season to recover from a career-threatening knee injury suffered in college. This amounts to a redshirt year for him.

Seattle Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch blows off postgame interviews, shows up for the Seahawks' offseason program at his leisure and has a DUI case pending in the courts. He is even tougher to tackle on the field. The Seahawks know they have a great thing going with the hard-charging Lynch -- for as long as it lasts. They've been hedging their bets for two years running. Robert Turbin, a fourth-round choice in 2012, fits the power mold and has a promising future. The same goes for 2012 second-rounder Christine Michael. And if those picks weren't enough, Seattle used a 2013 sixth-rounder for Spencer Ware, who projects as a combination halfback/fullback. Lynch is arguably the best back in the division. Michael's addition gives the Seahawks outstanding young depth, too.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC East team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Buffalo Bills: The Bills have one of the NFL’s strongest duos in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. They complement each other very well. Spiller is a dynamic, home-run hitter, while Jackson runs hard between the tackles. Both players are also versatile enough to catch out of the backfield. Former Bills head coach Chan Gailey could never figure out how to effectively use both players. Spiller was mostly underused on Gailey’s watch until the second half of last season. New head coach Doug Marrone is expected to learn from Gailey’s mistakes. Spiller as the primary ball-carrier, with Jackson as the backup, would make a dangerous combination.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins have an intriguing situation at running back. After 2012 starter Reggie Bush left Miami for the Detroit Lions in free agency, the Dolphins are left with three relative unknowns at tailback. Second-year player Lamar Miller is the projected starter. He showed tremendous flashes during his rookie season in 2012 and led Miami with 4.9 yards per carry. Miller fits Miami’s West Coast offense well, but needs to do a better job in pass protection as an every-down back. Backup Daniel Thomas never lived up to his high draft status, but isn’t bad as a second or third option. Thomas will compete with 2013 fifth-round pick Mike Gillislee, whom many think is a nice sleeper pickup for the Dolphins. This is an unknown group that could end up better than advertised.

New England Patriots: The Patriots are well-stocked at running back. It starts with starter Stevan Ridley, who led the Patriots with a career-high 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012. Ridley fit in well with New England’s up-tempo, spread offense. Backup Shane Vereen is expected to fill the third-down role vacated by Danny Woodhead, who signed with the San Diego Chargers in free agency. New England also added burly tailback LeGarrette Blount, who can add toughness and help in short-yardage situations. Leon Washington is the fourth running back on the team, but is primarily a kick returner. The running game could be even more important in 2013 now that New England had a major makeover at wide receiver and injury concerns with tight ends Rob Gronkowski (arm, back) and Aaron Hernandez.

New York Jets: The Jets are in a tough spot at running back. Free-agent signee Mike Goodson was arrested last week and faces drug and weapons charges. Goodson was expected to compete for the starting job in New York, but now his future with the Jets is uncertain. Jets first-year general manager John Idzik is trying to change the culture in New York and could make an example of Goodson for poor off-the-field behavior. That would leave New York with a not-so-impressive trio that includes projected starter Chris Ivory, and backups Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight. This is not a trio who will scare an NFL defense. The Jets are in the middle of a long rebuild, and that includes not having many weapons on offense.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at key players for each NFC South team who are coming back from injuries:

Atlanta Falcons: Bradie Ewing was ticketed for the starting fullback job as a rookie last season. But he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, and the Falcons were forced to juggle fullbacks. That’s one reason why the running game never really got on track last season. The Falcons want a more consistent running game this season, so they brought in running back Steven Jackson to replace Michael Turner. But Ewing is a key component to the running game. If he’s back at full strength, he’s going to get a lot of work as Jackson’s lead blocker.

Carolina Panthers: Linebacker Jon Beason has had three surgeries in the past 17 months, and has played in only five games over the past two seasons. But Beason is only 28, so it’s possible he can get back to being an impact player and a leader of the defense. However, Beason is going to have to do that while switching positions. Luke Kuechly is firmly established at Beason’s old middle linebacker position. Beason will move to the outside. If Beason is healthy, he, Kuechly and Thomas Davis have a chance to become one of the league’s best linebacking corps.

New Orleans Saints: Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was slowed by knee problems the past two seasons. But Vilma has said the knee issues are a thing of the past, and he feels better than he has in several years. If that turns out to be true, that could be a huge boost for a defense that ranked No. 32 in the league last season. But Vilma, 31, is going to have to make some adjustments to his game as the Saints switch to a 3-4 defense. It’s a scheme Vilma did not thrive in when he was with the New York Jets early in his career.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tampa Bay’s vision of having the league’s best guard tandem went out the window when guard Davin Joseph suffered a season-ending knee injury last preseason. But the vision is back with Joseph set to make his return. If Joseph and Carl Nicks, who missed the final nine games of last season with a toe injury, can get back to full strength, Tampa Bay should be dominant in the middle of the offensive line. It’s scary to think what running back Doug Martin can do with a pair of Pro Bowl guards in front of him.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at key players for each NFC West team who are coming back from injuries:

Arizona Cardinals: Levi Brown, left tackle. A torn triceps sidelined Brown last season. The Cardinals expect him to be full strength for 2013. A healthy Brown makes a happy Bruce Arians, it appears. Former coach Ken Whisenhunt was always quick to defend Brown from critics who expected more from a player drafted fifth overall. Arians, entering his first season as the Cardinals' coach, has taken the pro-Brown rhetoric to another level, calling the seventh-year tackle an "elite" player. Arizona improved its depth on the line. The team could conceivably get through the upcoming season with Nate Potter at left tackle. However, the Cardinals don't want to merely "get through" the season. They want Brown to play a key role on a line now featuring first-round pick Jonathan Cooper.

St. Louis Rams: Jake Long, left tackle. The Rams ran Long through a thorough physical examination before signing the Pro Bowl left tackle in free agency. They are banking on a return to health restoring Long to his previously dominant ways. Long, like Brown in Arizona, is coming off triceps surgery. Injuries have slowed him over the past couple seasons. The Rams think a healthy Long can stabilize their line, putting quarterback Sam Bradford at ease after three often difficult seasons for the offense. Having Long in the lineup would allow incumbent left tackle Rodger Saffold to play on the right side, upgrading two positions. That's important for the Rams in a division featuring top defenses.

San Francisco 49ers: Justin Smith, defensive end. The 49ers' defense sagged considerably once Smith suffered a partially torn triceps during a late-season game against New England. Smith, who had surgery this offseason, has worked well in tandem with outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Both were hurting late last season. The entire defense suffered as a result. The 49ers tried to address the issue in the draft by loading up on front-seven players. That made sense for the long term. More immediately, the team could use one more season of dominance from Justin Smith, one of their most important players on either side of the ball.

Seattle Seahawks: Chris Clemons, defensive end. The Seahawks' defense wasn't the same in the playoffs after Clemons suffered a torn ACL against Washington in the wild-card round. Seattle addressed the issue this offseason by adding Cliff Avril in free agency from the Detroit Lions. Avril's addition could put the Seahawks in position to bring along Clemons at a measured pace. Whatever the case, Seattle will want -- and possibly need -- Clemons near full strength for a playoff run, if not sooner. No other defensive end on the roster plays the run and pass as well as Clemons plays both. He's been a big part of Seattle's defensive success.