NFL Nation: Josh Brown

In case you haven't been paying attention, the New York Giants are going to look a lot different in 2014. You can make the argument that's a good thing, given how bad they were in 2013, but I'm not sure the extent of the roster overhaul in East Rutherford is being sufficiently understood by outside observers.

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George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesThe Giants and general manager Jerry Reese are in unfamiliar territory in terms of roster turnover.
The Giants project to have new starters at nine positions -- center, left guard, wide receiver, tight end, running back, cornerback, outside linebacker, defensive tackle and defensive end -- plus a new slot cornerback, a new kick returner and a new punt returner. At the present time, there are only 13 players on the Giants' roster who played in their Super Bowl XLVII victory over the Patriots 25 months ago.

That's serious turnover, folks, and while it was inevitable and warranted, it creates a level of uncertainty with which this continuity-based franchise has not been familiar over the past decade.

The Giants have relied in large part on their locker room culture to help them through tough times and elevate them to postseason greatness. But the locker room is going to have more new faces in it in 2014 than it's had in quite some time. Key leaders such as Justin Tuck, Terrell Thomas and David Diehl, have departed, leaving guys like Antrel Rolle, Jon Beason and of course Eli Manning to keep steering the ship in the right direction when it veers off course.

Now, many of the players the Giants have signed look to be upgrades over their predecessors at their individual positions. And from the group of new guys, it's likely a leader or two will emerge. But it's worth noting that the sheer volume of the turnover creates an unfamiliar situation for the people who run the team.

GM Jerry Reese doesn't like to build a roster through free agency. He prefers to use the draft to build and maintain a deep roster and develop players so they're ready to fill in when holes open up. But the past couple of years haven't worked that way, either because of poor drafts, insufficient development or both, and the roster Reese carried into this offseason was in need of widespread repair. He has had no choice but to stock up through free agency, even as he remains well aware of the pitfalls. And while he's maintained some key principles in an effort to minimize the inevitable risk (the only player of the 16 free agents they've signed who's over 30 is kicker Josh Brown), Reese surely knows not every move he's made will work out. His best hope is the majority of them do, and this time next year he's confronted with less than half as many holes.

Tom Coughlin is in for an unusual season as well. The Giants have tremendous faith in their head coach's ability to lead men and shape a team, and Coughlin's task once training camp opens in July will be to get all of the new pieces mixed in smoothly with the old pieces and make sure everyone's rowing in the same direction. This is what Coughlin gets paid to do, and he's very good at it, but some of the things that may have run on autopilot in recent years when the roster wasn't turning over at all aren't going to do that anymore. It's going to be a very different year for Coughlin and his coaching staff, a decent chunk of which is also new, by the way.

If you're a Giants fan, this is an exciting time, because your team is taking shape and you can imagine the great things the exciting new players who are being brought in can do together. It's an exciting time for the people who run the Giants, too. Things will feel fresh and new once this group gets together, and that's always fun. But a lot still rests on the ability of them to bring all of these pieces together and make it all work.

Big Blue Morning: Happy New Year

March, 11, 2014
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Yeah, that's right. Free agency begins today at 4 pm ET along with the start of the new NFL league year. That means the New York Giants, who by my count need at least 10 new starters and a whole bunch of depth, are going to get busy figuring out what their 2014 roster is going to look like.

The industry scuttlebutt this morning is the Giants will sign a center quickly, as they did three years ago with David Baas when the market opened. They have decided to release Baas, as you learned Monday, and with nothing behind him on the current roster, center becomes a priority item. The Packers' Evan Dietrich-Smith makes a lot of sense and could be the guy they sign right away, within minutes or hours of the opening of the market. Dietrich-Smith turns 28 in July, and new Giants offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo knows him from their work together in Green Bay. The Giants also have spoken with the agents for Saints free-agent center Brian de la Puente and others.

The Giants also are known to be looking at cornerbacks. They are close to an agreement with Trumaine McBride, who became a starter for them last year after Corey Webster and Aaron Ross got hurt. But they see McBride as a valuable reserve or swing corner who can play inside or outside. They'd prefer not to have to rely on him as a starter on the outside if they can help it. Now, obviously, the biggest name on the cornerback market all of a sudden is Darrelle Revis, who is apparently about to get cut by the Buccaneers. If the Giants want to play in the deep end of the cornerback pool, they would have to at least check on Revis. My guess is that he'll cost more than they want to pay, but they'd be crazy not to look into it. The Giants have about $25 million in salary cap space right now, and while they have a lot of needs, that's enough to enable them to afford anyone.

The Giants also continue to work on a new deal for linebacker Jon Beason, though it seems as if he's interested in finding out what else is out there for him. Remember, because Beason is acting as his own agent, he hasn't yet been able to have the conversations with teams that other agents have had about their players for the past three days. So, assuming everyone's been following the rules, Beason doesn't yet know what his market is. Once he finds out, he could decide the Giants' offer is the best he'll do. But he owes it to himself to find out.

Other than McBride, it seems the only Giants free agents who'll be locked up by 4 pm ET are kicker Josh Brown and possibly running back Peyton Hillis. That means Beason, Justin Tuck, Linval Joseph, Terrell Thomas, Stevie Brown, Hakeem Nicks and all the rest should be on the market when it opens. Of that list, I'd guess Beason and Brown are the most likely to be back, and I wouldn't rule out Tuck just yet. The others are looking for bigger paydays than the Giants are willing to offer right now.

Stay tuned throughout the day, of course. We'll have plenty of coverage, including a live chat with all of our NFL reporters that runs from 2 p.m. ET to 10 p.m. ET. I'll be popping in and out of there as news warrants, but the chat should be active all day with news from around the league. Stop by at this link right here. Catch up with you later.
The deadline for NFL teams to designate franchise players for 2014 is 4 p.m. ET on Monday. If I had to guess right now, I would say the New York Giants don't use it this year.

It's been clear for a while that the Giants are trying to get linebacker Jon Beason locked up before free agency starts, and NJ.com is reporting Monday that Beason is priority No. 1 right now. Assuming Beason is indeed their front-burner item right now (and again, that's in line with everything we've heard for the past few weeks), in a vacuum he'd be a guy they'd consider franchising if they couldn't get their deal done by 4 p.m. Monday.

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AP Photo/Evan PinkusIt's unlikely the Giants use the franchise tag on Jon Beason -- or any of their other players.
But I don't see that as a legitimate fallback plan for the Giants, and the reason is the number. The franchise tag for linebackers this year is $11.455 million, which is a considerably higher salary than the Giants can (or should) pay Beason in 2014. If you were Beason and you were talking with the Giants about, say, a three-year deal worth $3 million or $4 million per year, and all of a sudden they tagged you for one year and $11.455 million, what you'd do is halt negotiations and play for that number. It's simply not realistic.

I predict that the Giants will get something done with Beason at that aforementioned reasonable price. They seem to want him back, he seems to want to stay, and both sides know what the market is for inside linebackers these days. There's no reason to play games, and to those who have asked me on Twitter why it hasn't been done yet if both sides do indeed want it, the answer is as simple as "these things take time." No deadline has yet been missed. And while Monday's franchise-tag deadline does offer the Giants an opportunity to make sure they don't lose Beason to another team, the cost of the tag renders that a non-sensible option for them. They have until 4 p.m. on March 11 to sign Beason before he hits the market.

I also don't see them using a $9.654 million franchise tag on defensive tackle Linval Joseph or a $12.312 million tag on wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. If they were close to a new deal with kicker Josh Brown, it's not insane to think they might tag him for $3.556 million as the Jets did last week with kicker Nick Folk. But while they like Brown and want him back, there doesn't seem to be any reason to use the tag on him. I predict that the 4 p.m. deadline comes and goes with all Giants free agents untagged.

Franchise/transition tags: Giants

February, 17, 2014
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Monday is the first day NFL teams can designate franchise or transition tags in an effort to keep players they deem most valuable off the market. (They have until March 3 to decide whether to do it.) Teams don't have to use the designations, and most don't. But if they do, they have the choice to use the exclusive franchise tender, the non-exclusive franchise tender or the transition player designation, which no one uses anymore. A team can pick only one player, at most, on whom to use one of these designations per year. A brief explanation of the differences between the three can be found here.

What we want to figure out here, however, is the likelihood that the New York Giants will use one of these designations this year. We'll ignore the transition tag, because it's outdated and no longer used, and instead focus on the franchise tag. Historically, the Giants have used the franchise player designation as a means of holding a player in place because they believed they were making good progress with that player on a long-term deal and didn't want him to hit the market. Example: Two years ago, nearing completion on a new deal with punter Steve Weatherford, they used the franchise tag on him at the deadline but shortly after announced a long-term deal that superseded it.

They could do that this year if they find themselves in a good position in negotiations with one of their many free agents. Linebacker Jon Beason is a player they'd like to bring back and with whom they've discussed a long-term deal. The franchise-tag salary for linebackers is likely to be more than $10 million, though, so they'd have to feel confident about their chances of signing Beason long-term (they'd have until July 15 to do so) if they were to risk paying him that much on a one-year deal.

Defensive tackle Linval Joseph is another pending free agent who's a candidate for the franchise tag, which for his position should be around $9 million. If they're doing a long-term deal with Joseph before the market opens, it likely would be for less than that, but they could conceivably risk carrying him at that number. I do not believe they will use the franchise tag on wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, for whom the tag could be worth more than $11 million.

It's possible that the strongest Giants candidate for the tag could be kicker Josh Brown, since using the tag for kickers and punters is generally a palatable $3 million or so. The Giants like Brown and could try to sign him to a multi-year deal, using the tag in the meantime as they did with Weatherford.

Josh Brown is an NFC Player of the Week

December, 24, 2013
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New York Giants kicker Josh Brown, whose 45-yard field goal in overtime delivered a 23-20 victory against the Lions in Detroit on Sunday, has been named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week.

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Brown kicked three field goals in the game -- a 52-yarder and a 41-yarder, in addition to the 45-yard winner. He became the first kicker in Giants history to kick three field goals of 40 yards or longer in the same game.

It's the fifth time in his career Brown has won a Special Teams Player of the Week award, and the first time since Week 8 of the 2009 season, when he was with the Rams. He's the first Giants player to win NFC Special Teams Player of the Week since kick returner David Wilson won it in Week 14 of 2012. He's the first Giants kicker to win it since Lawrence Tynes in Week 3 of 2012.

Brown is also the fourth Giant this week to win an NFC Player of the Week award. Cornerback Terrell Thomas was NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 8. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul won the same award in Week 11, and defensive end Justin Tuck won it in Week 13.

Rapid Reaction: New York Giants

December, 22, 2013
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DETROIT -- A few thoughts on the New York Giants' 23-20 overtime victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field:

What it means: Anyone wondering whether the Giants have given up on their season or on their coaches has the answer. The Giants are outmanned and overmatched pretty much every week, and Sunday was no exception. But in spite of having their offense choked off after halftime, they pushed the game into overtime, where Josh Brown won it with a 45-yard field goal.

Stoch watch: Will Hill, up. After reportedly being arrested Friday night on charges related to child support, the Giants safety played in and changed Sunday's game. With five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Hill intercepted Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and ran in from 38 yards for a touchdown. The ensuing extra point tied the game. The Giants were doing absolutely nothing on offense in the second half behind a shredded offensive line, and scoring on defense turned out to be their best option.

Tough Tuck: Defensive end Justin Tuck appeared to injure his neck in the third quarter but remained in the game in spite of being in clear discomfort. It's worth pointing out that Tuck, who is free-agent-eligible at the end of the season, wanted to tough it out in a game like this with the Giants already eliminated from postseason contention. It backs up his team-first talk. Tuck's big second half of the season has helped his chances of returning next year.

What's next: The Giants mercifully close out their season with a 1 p.m. ET home game Sunday against Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins at MetLife Stadium. They beat the Redskins 24-17 in Washington in Week 13.

Rapid Reaction: New York Giants

October, 27, 2013
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PHILADELPHIA -- A few thoughts on the New York Giants' 15-7 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles:

What it means: The Giants have won two games in a row for the first time since Weeks 7 and 8 of last season. This was their first road win since Oct. 28, 2012, in Dallas. Their defense hasn't allowed a touchdown since Week 6 in Chicago. And Eli Manning has played two full games without throwing an interception after throwing 15 in his first six. The Giants also picked up four sacks of Eagles quarterbacks Sunday, a stunning number considering they had a league-low six sacks as a team coming into the game and only nine sacks in their past 12 games dating back to last season. They have played teams the past two weeks that have major quarterback issues, but give the Giants' defense credit for taking advantage of their opponents' problems.

Stock Watch: Peyton Hillis: up. With Brandon Jacobs inactive again, Hillis got the bulk of the workload at running back for the second week in a row. Hillis isn't a very dynamic runner, but he's an asset in the passing game as a receiver out of the backfield and as a blocker in pass protection. With Andre Brown due back after the bye, it'll be interesting to see how things get divided in the backfield.

Turning it over: Another thing with which the Giants' defense has struggled this season is forcing turnovers. But the first two they forced Sunday -- an Antrel Rolle interception of Michael Vick and Jacquian Williams' recovery of Terrell Thomas' strip-sack of Matt Barkley -- were critical. And the third -- Will Hill's interception with 13 seconds to go -- sealed the game.

Eventful day: Rolle had a sack and an interception and recovered an onside kick in the fourth quarter after the Eagles cut the lead to 15-7. A big enough all-around contribution to mitigate the incredibly stupid group celebration he led after the interception that cost the Giants 15 yards in the first quarter.

Getting his kicks: Josh Brown's five field goals tied his career high and came one short of the Giants' team record set by Joe Danelo in 1981.

What's next: The Giants have a bye next week. They'll gather in East Rutherford for their regular Monday meetings and film sessions, but then they're off again until they return to practice next Monday. Their next game is Nov. 10 at home against the Oakland Raiders.

Upon Further Review: Giants Week 4

September, 30, 2013
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An examination of four hot issues from the New York Giants' 31-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs:

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AP Photo/Charlie RiedelAside from a Victor Cruz touchdown the Giants failed to get inside the red zone all game.
The fourth-down call: The initial call was first down -- that the Giants had converted a third-and-17 with a pass from Eli Manning to Victor Cruz over the middle. But the Chiefs challenged the call and won, which brought up fourth down and less than a yard to go for the Giants on their own 30-yard line. With 1:55 left in the third quarter and the Giants trailing just 10-7, Giants coach Tom Coughlin decided to punt instead of going for it. "If I would have gone for it on fourth down and didn't make it at that point in the game, it would have been a foolish error," Coughlin said, and he was right. He'd effectively have been handing the Chiefs at least three points. But it says a lot about where the Giants are with their offense, making Coughlin's call the obvious and easy decision. Coughlin talked about the offense being unable to get into a rhythm, and perhaps if he felt it was, he'd make a different call there. But given how tough it's been for the Giants to gain yards, this was an easy decision. It just looked really bad when Dexter McCluster ran the punt back 89 yards for a touchdown.

On a related note: Earlier in the third quarter, the Giants had a third-and-1 at their own 45 and called a play on which running back David Wilson bounced out to the right behind three tight ends. But none of the tight ends could make a single block to free Wilson, who was tackled for no gain, and the Giants had to punt then too. Just another example of an offense that has no reason to feel it can get a yard when it needs to get one. The Giants were 1-for-14 on third downs.

Looks like a misprint, but isn't: The official stat sheet shows the Giants 0-for-0 on red zone attempts, and it's true. They didn't run a single play that began inside the Chiefs' 20-yard line. Other than Cruz's 69-yard touchdown catch, the closest they got to the end zone all day was the 26, from which Josh Brown missed a field goal at the end of the first half. Only eight of the Giants' 61 offensive snaps came in Kansas City territory.

How about the defense? The Giants did force three turnovers from a Chiefs team that had none in the first three weeks. But where's the pressure? Their one "sack" was a Spencer Paysinger tackle of Alex Smith at the line of scrimmage on a Smith scramble. They hit Smith just three times all game. Jason Pierre-Paul has one sack in his last 11 games. When the Giants don't pressure the quarterback -- and it's been quite some time -- they have a poor defense.
The New York Giants are signing veteran kicker Josh Brown on Wednesday, according to a report in The Star-Ledger, which almost certainly means the end of the Giants' tenure of kicker Lawrence Tynes. Tynes is a free agent who told the team he was looking to test the market. And as the Giants so often do when a player tells them that, they wished him good luck and moved on to another option.

Is it a good move? Who knows? Brown's a kicker. He's been great at times, disappointing at times. Has a big leg. All kickers have good years and bad years, and if 2013 is a good one for Brown, it'll be looked at as a good move. If it's not, they'll replace him, maybe even before the end of the season. We don't have a crystal ball here, and if we did it wouldn't work on kickers.

I did this post because it's worth saying something about Tynes. If this is the end for his run with the Giants, it was a pretty special run as kickers go.

Tynes spent six seasons with the Giants, and during that time he kicked the game-winning field goal, in overtime, in the NFC Championship Game, twice. The Giants would, of course, go on to win the Super Bowl in each of those two seasons, defeating the Patriots both times and authoring one of the standout chapters in franchise history. And while those Giants Super Bowl teams will always be remembered for Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning and the fearsome defensive linemen, Tynes will occupy a place in fans' memories at which few kickers ever get to arrive. He'll appear on historical highlight videos. He'll get to come back on anniversaries and be introduced as a two-time Super Bowl champion, and everybody will remember the kicks in Green Bay and in San Francisco that put the team in the Super Bowl.

There aren't too many kickers who get to go out as heroes, but Tynes is a guy who managed to pull that off in New York. Whatever awaits him in free agency, his time with the Giants will be remembered well.
Here are some news and notes from around the division:

RAVENS: The $1 million roster bonus for receiver-returner Jacoby Jones is expected to be picked up this week, according to The Baltimore Sun.

BENGALS: The Bengals need to find a new backup quarterback after Bruce Gradkowski signed a three-year deal with Pittsburgh. ... Outside linebacker Manny Lawson, a starter for the past two seasons for the Bengals, signed a four-year deal with the Bills. He had 91 tackles and 3.5 sacks in his Bengals career. The Bengals weren't expected to bring him back this season. ... Kicker Josh Brown signed with the Giants.

BROWNS: The Browns added tight end Gary Barnridge, according to the Charlotte Observer. He caught six passes for 78 yards and one touchdown last season, when he played for Rob Chudzinski and the Panthers. ... Some details for Paul Kruger's five-year, $10.5 million deal. It includes a $6.25 bonus this year and guaranteed base salaries in 2013 ($700,000) and 2014 ($7 million).
One of the big decisions for the Bengals this offseason was kicker. They apparently made their choice Sunday, when they reached an agreement with Mike Nugent.

According to the team's official website, the Bengals will sign Nugent to a two-year deal. It will officially be announced Monday.

The Bengals chose Nugent over Josh Brown, a decision that may come as a mild surprise because Brown was one of the Bengals' late-season heroes. I'm sure the Bengals' comfort level with Nugent, who has been with the team for three seasons, over Brown, who was with the team for five weeks, played a factor.

Nugent, 31, had one of the best seasons ever for a Bengals kicker in 2011, when he set team single-season records for points (132) and field goals (33). After getting the franchise tag last year, he wasn't as effective, making 19 of 23 field goals. His conversion rate (82.6 percent) ranked 20th in the NFL.

The biggest concern with Nugent is durability. He has finished two of the past three seasons on injured reserve.

Brown, who will turn 34 next month, was signed by Cincinnati in December when Nugent injured his right calf practicing an onside kick. Brown converted 11 of 12 field goals (91.7 percent), with his only miss coming on a desperation 56-yarder in Pittsburgh. His 43-yard field goal with four seconds left on Dec. 23 in Pittsburgh clinched a playoff berth for Cincinnati.

This was obviously a close call. Since Nugent came to the Bengals in 2010, he has connected on 67 of 80 field goals (83.7 percent). Over that same three-year period, Brown was 65 of 79 (82.2 percent).

It's apparent that special teams was a focus for the Bengals. The agreement with Nugent comes two days after the team signed punter Kevin Huber and long snapper Clark Harris to five-year contracts.
Rookie kickers have made 86.7 percent of field goal attempts over the past five seasons. Veteran kickers have made 83 percent over the same period.

That is something to keep in mind when wondering what veteran kicker the San Francisco 49ers might pursue after releasing David Akers this week.

While the 49ers likely will sign a veteran, they should consider using one of their league-high 12 draft choices -- a total expected to rise when the NFL distributes compensatory selections -- for the best rookie kicker they can find.

Those percentages for rookies versus veterans say as much.

Of course, field goal percentages aren't everything because all attempts aren't created equal, even when from the same distance. It's also possible an aversion to trusting rookie kickers has removed from the pool all but the exceptional ones, distorting comparisons to a broader field of veteran kickers.

But that 86.7 percent success rate should get the 49ers' attention as they seek low-cost alternatives to an acclaimed veteran such as Akers, whose 69 percent success rate ranked 34th out of 36 qualifying kickers last season.

Minnesota's Blair Walsh (92.1 percent), Baltimore's Justin Tucker (90.9) and St. Louis' Greg Zuerlein (74.2) combined to make 86.3 percent as the only rookies to attempt field goals last season.

Filtering for venue and distance, I noticed that rookies made 29 of 42 (69 percent) field goal tries since 2008 when kicking outdoors on natural grass from longer than 40 yards. Veterans made 621 of 913 (68 percent).

The results cited here are far from conclusive, which is the point. A rookie kicker might not be a bad option for the 49ers.

Phil Dawson, Rob Bironas, Nate Kaeding, Lawrence Tynes, Nick Folk, Josh Brown, Mike Nugent, Jason Hanson, Ryan Longwell, Shayne Graham, Olindo Mare and Nick Novak are among the veterans without contracts for 2013. Check out our Free Agent Tracker Insider for ranks of kickers Insider and all free agents.

Bengals to sign kicker Josh Brown

December, 6, 2012
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An onside kick during practice will likely cause the Cincinnati Bengals to be without their top kicker for the next two games.

Mike Nugent reportedly strained his right calf Wednesday while trying an onside kick. It's not believed to be serious, and might only be a tweak. But the schedule isn't helping Cincinnati. The Bengals play the Cowboys on Sunday, but then face a short week with a trip to the Eagles on Thursday night. Nugent should be available when the Bengals play the Steelers Dec. 23 in a game that could decide the final playoff team in the AFC.

Cincinnati signed veteran Josh Brown, who beat out Billy Cundiff and Neil Rackers in Thursday's tryout. Brown kicked the past four seasons for the Rams and was cut in August by the Jets after losing the preseason battle with Nick Folk.

Last season, Brown made 21 of 28 kicks (75 percent). The Bengals won't be able to rely on Brown for long kicks. He was 8 of 14 (57.1 percent) last season from beyond 40 yards. But Nugent wasn't much better this season, hitting 7 of 11 (63 percent) from beyond 40 yards.

To make room for Brown, the Bengals released center Jeff Faine. He had lost the starting job to rookie Trevor Robinson, and injured starter Kyle Cook (ankle) could return as soon as Sunday after his first full practice Wednesday.

Redskins make a change at kicker

October, 9, 2012
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The Washington Redskins have signed former UCLA kicker Kai Forbath, according to multiple reports and Forbath's own Twitter account. The Redskins have announced that Billy Cundiff, who has missed four field goal attempts in the past two weeks including a pair of 31-yarders, has been cut.

Forbath was the Lou Groza Award winner in 2009 and was with the Dallas Cowboys in training camp in 2011 but was injured and still has not attempted an NFL kick. So it's a flier, based on a tryout Tuesday that apparently included former NFL kickers Olindo Mare and Josh Brown. Possible this works out brilliantly. Possible the Redskins change kickers again in two weeks. Kickers must be one of the more frustrating things about being a builder of NFL rosters.

Anyway, on Cundiff: As we have discussed at length, the Redskins signed him at the end of the preseason because they wanted someone who could give them a touchback on pretty much every kickoff, and he did that. But when you sign a guy for kickoffs, you kind of do so under the presumption that he's going to make the 31-yarders, and he did not do that. So it's a don't-let-the-door-hit-ya scenario for the former Ravens kicker who set a league touchbacks record last year but also missed the kick that cost Baltimore a chance to go to the Super Bowl. Pretty rough eight and a half months for the guy, and it makes you wonder if he'll ever rediscover that touch.

Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

August, 2, 2012
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Jeff Fisher experienced plenty during 16-plus seasons as an NFL head coach, but his initial team meeting in St. Louis represented a career first.

The Rams' new leader was addressing a room filled with players he didn't know.

"That was different, but you could tell within the first three minutes of him being up there, with his presence, that the team was his," assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said.

Fisher won over the Rams, and not with a fiery speech or with bold promises.

"It's something that you can't put your hand on and touch it, but it's palpable," McGinnis said.

It's called quiet confidence born of experience, and it's what the Rams needed from their next coach after posting a 15-65 record over their previous five seasons, all under less experienced leadership. There's an authenticity to Fisher that resonates. Quarterback Sam Bradford first saw it during a nearly two-hour meeting with Fisher, conducted before Fisher agreed to take the job.

"I think the biggest thing for me when we met was, there was no nonsense," Bradford said. "Everything that he has said has been valuable information. There is never that talk just to talk. That is what everyone really respects about him."

Thanks to Fisher, the feeling at Rams camp has shifted from "if" the team can right itself to "when" it will happen.

THREE HOT ISSUES

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Jeff Curry/US PresswireQB Sam Bradford has some new young talent to work with this season at the skill positions.
1. Can the Rams help Bradford? It's easy to forget that Bradford had two 300-yard passing games in his first five starts last season. The high-ankle sprain he suffered in Week 6 changed the trajectory of his season. Bradford wasn't the only one hurting. The Rams suffered more losses to injury in a season than all but one NFL team since 2002, according to Football Outsiders. They had no chance.

The plan this season will be to take pressure off Bradford with a run-first offense. That approach represents a philosophical about-face from the thinking former coordinator Josh McDaniels promoted last season. McDaniels' offense would have worked better under different circumstances. In retrospect, the Rams lacked the personnel to make it work, particularly after losing key players to injury.

The offensive personnel could be better this season. Young prospects at running back (Isaiah Pead) and on the perimeter (Brian Quick, Chris Givens) give the team fresh options. But no one is quite sure what the team has at wide receiver. It's also unclear whether young tackles Rodger Saffold and especially Jason Smith can give Bradford the protection he needs when the Rams do put the ball in the quarterback's hands.

The Rams have additional first-round draft choices over the next couple seasons. There's a good chance they'll use them mostly to bolster the offense. In the meantime, they'll protect Bradford through the design of their offense.

2. Another year, another offensive scheme. The Rams are learning their third offensive system in three seasons. Last season, the idea was for Bradford to help get the Rams into the perfect offensive play for whatever defense the opponent was running. This season, Fisher and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer want the Rams to run the ball for the sake of running it, even against loaded fronts.

This could be the Rams' most run-oriented offense from a philosophical standpoint since the team moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season. Longer term, it's fair to wonder whether this is the best offense for a franchise quarterback to realize his full potential as a passer. For now, though, the philosophy will play to the team's offensive strength (Steven Jackson) while minimizing a primary weakness (pass protection).

"This offense is ground, pound and we’re in your face," Jackson said. "Regardless of how much a team studies about us, they are probably going to be able to tell, out of this formation, this is what they like to run. So now the mentality has gone from trying to be tricky or crafty to more so, 'This is my hole, this is where I’m going, stop me.' Completely different attitude."

3. Are the Rams OK at outside linebacker? St. Louis is set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, a player the organization wants to build around (expect a new contract for him soon). The question is whether the outside linebackers -- Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh -- represent much of an upgrade for a team seeking to improve its run defense.

Another question: How much does it really matter? The league isn't exactly brimming with elite outside linebackers in traditional 4-3 schemes. The position has been de-emphasized. The Rams will run their defense through Laurinaitis. Dunbar will remain on the field with him on passing downs.

The Rams could use ascending young talent on the outside. They had too many more important needs this offseason to justify throwing precious resources at a position of lesser value.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeChris Long
Jeff Curry/US PresswireLeft end Chris Long, coming off a 13-sack season, anchors a promising young defensive line.
Head coach and quarterback are the two most important figures in a football operation. The Rams have the right people in those positions. That gives them a chance.

The Rams also have the pass-rushing talent Fisher needs to run his aggressive defense. Left defensive end Chris Long is coming off a 13-sack season. On the right, 2011 first-round choice Robert Quinn is serving notice, at least in practice, that he's the best pure pass-rusher on the team. His ability to close on the quarterback even when off-balance or falling sets him apart from most.

I wondered coming into camp whether last season inflicted irreparable damage to Bradford. That was not the case. There hasn't been a more impressive player on the practice field to this point. It's stunning, in retrospect, that a team with such a talented quarterback could suffer through a 2-14 season. So many things had to go wrong.

Day after day, play after play, Bradford impresses even the most seasoned observers. Receivers coach Ray Sherman, most recently with the Dallas Cowboys, has been around accomplished quarterbacks throughout his coaching career. The list includes Warren Moon, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Boomer Esiason, Randall Cunningham, Brett Favre, Steve McNair and Tony Romo. He used the word "special" to describe Bradford.

"His temperament is just so calm," Sherman said of Bradford. "He has a demeanor about him and Brett was like that -- when he spoke, guys listened. They tune in. They know, 'We take care of this guy, he's going to take us a long way. He's going to do some special things.'"

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Look at the schedule. Road games against Detroit and Chicago in the first three weeks. Green Bay, New England and San Francisco during a three-game stretch at midseason. Four of the final six games on the road. Only seven true home games overall, the New England game having been moved to London.

No one said this job would be easy for Fisher and his veteran staff.

Danny Amendola looks like the best receiver on the team. He's a terrific slot receiver, but with an 8-yard career average per reception, he won't strike fear into opponents. Quick and Givens, though promising draft choices, are rookies nonetheless. It's an upset if either becomes a force right away and a bonus if veteran Steve Smith fights through recent knee troubles to become a factor.

Bradford has the talent to rack up yardage when healthy, but he might not have the weapons to finish drives with touchdowns. Think back to the game at Green Bay last season. Bradford threw for 328 yards with a 64.4 completion rate at Lambeau Field, but the Rams still lost, 24-3.

Also, the Rams are going to a run-first offense at a time when the passing game is king in the NFL.

"Sitting in our first offensive meeting, it was made clear that our identity as an offense, we’re going to be known as being a physical unit that can run the ball versus whatever," Bradford said. "It doesn’t matter if people put 8-9 in the box, we’re going to run the ball. That’s what we’re going to do, and we’re going to pound them and we’re going to wear them out, and then we’re going to take our shots."

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins might already be one of the three or four most talented players on the team. He's starting opposite free-agent newcomer Cortland Finnegan. "He is game-ready," Finnegan said. "I think he’s one of those special guys."
  • Brandon Gibson has been one of the better receivers in camp. That was the case a year ago, and it might have said something about the quality of the position overall. I'm looking at Gibson as a barometer for the position this season. It's good for the Rams if other receivers pass him on the depth chart.
  • The Rams won't know for sure until they put on the pads, but they're hopeful rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers can be more than just a run stuffer. They need him to factor as an inside pass-rusher as well. Having three relatively recent first-round picks on the defensive line -- Long, Brockers and Quinn -- gives Fisher and the defensive staff talent to work with.
  • Speaking of the defensive staff, I never heard Gregg Williams' name come up once during the first four days of camp. The NFL suspended Williams before he could get much work done as defensive coordinator. Fisher has never been one to panic. He's as cool as they come. The Rams moved on long ago. McGinnis: "I've been with Jeff when we were 10-0, and I’ve been with him when we were 0-6 and came back and won eight of our last 10. He doesn’t change. That type of self-confidence is transferable to a group. It’s transferable to individuals. That excites me."
  • Jackson, down to 235 pounds with 5.1 percent body fat, appears fresh in camp at age 29. Thomas Jones was that age when he rushed for 1,119 yards in Schottenheimer's offense with the Jets. Jones followed up that season with 1,312 yards at age 30, and 1,402 yards at age 31.
  • Rookie running back Pead stands out as an obvious talent. He's shifty. The question is whether he can pick up the offense quickly enough for the team to trust him in pass protection. The academic calendar at the University of Cincinnati prevented Pead from participating in organized team activities. He's behind from that standpoint, but he's got talent, and Schottenheimer likes using two backs. Those Jets teams referenced above had enough carries left over for secondary backs to gain 400-500 yards per season.
  • Long and Quinn had their way with the Rams' offensive tackles in pass-rushing situations. That could change some once players put on pads. Offensive linemen can become more aggressive at that point. I would expect the trend to continue, however. I'm expecting Long and Quinn to reach double-digit sacks.
  • Defensive end Eugene Sims played 25 percent of the Rams' defensive snaps last season. Look for that number to rise in 2012. The Rams' new staff likes his athleticism.
  • Jason Smith needs to become more patient as a pass protector at right tackle. He too frequently wants to bury the opponent. That's not necessary in pass protection. It's dangerous, in fact. Line coach Paul Boudreau went into the archives to produce a highlight reel showing former Rams great Orlando Pace letting opposing rushers come to him. Smith lacks Pace's talent, but if he can emulate Pace's patience, the Rams will have a better chance keeping Bradford upright.
  • "Gee-zee" would be rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein. Some are calling him "Greg the Leg" as well, and for good reason. Zuerlein has been powering through field goal tries from the 60-yard range. He made 23 of 24 attempts at Missouri Western State last season, including all nine tries from 50-plus yards. We'll see how it translates to the NFL. For now, though, the Rams aren't missing veteran Josh Brown.
  • The Rams have the youngest roster in the NFL, including the youngest specialists. They could be counting on a rookie, Johnny Hekker, to punt away from Patrick Peterson. That sounds risky, and it is, but the results can only get better. Peterson returned two for touchdowns against the Rams last season.

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