NFL Nation: Justin Smiley

Camp Confidential: Miami Dolphins

August, 19, 2011
8/19/11
11:39
AM ET
The one major question about the Miami Dolphins the entire offseason was never sufficiently answered.

So what is the deal at quarterback, anyway?

Chad Henne was the unequivocal choice of general manager Jeff Ireland and coach Tony Sparano at this time last year. There was boundless confidence that the team’s second-round pick in 2008 was ready to take the reins of an offense that was expected to be made more proficient by the addition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall.

The results were not pretty. On five occasions, all at home, Henne had the opportunity to win or tie a close game with a fourth-quarter scoring drive, and on all five he failed. Three of the subsequent losses were to also-rans Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland, leaving Miami with a second straight 7-9 finish.

The failures almost cost Sparano his job, as owner Stephen Ross took a run at Jim Harbaugh, and for a time it seemed Henne might be replaced when Ireland engaged in negotiations for Denver’s Kyle Orton that ultimately came up empty. When the dust settled, former Carolina Panther Matt Moore had been brought in as a backup, but nothing had really changed. Henne was still the one.

The team around him does appear to have gotten better. Coordinator Mike Nolan’s defense, sixth in the league a year ago, has remarkable depth on the defensive line and is better at linebacker with the additions of Kevin Burnett and Jason Taylor. Ireland addressed a deficiency in speed at the skill positions with the acquisitions of Reggie Bush and fourth-round wideout Clyde Gates. First-round pick Mike Pouncey, a center, has brought stability to the offensive line.

But in the 12 years since Dan Marino retired, it has always come back to the quarterback. This year is no different.

Even Marshall, who at one point late last season said he was “not sure” he and Henne could coexist, had good things to say about his beleaguered quarterback who was actually booed at one preseason practice at Sun Life Stadium.

“Chad has been amazing this summer, getting the guys together,” he said. “He’s been the face of leadership.”

Sparano was even more forthcoming.

“I’ve seen more people going to Chad for answers,” he said. “You would have to envision when you’re at Indianapolis or a place like that people are going to Peyton (Manning) for the answers. Well, more people are going to Chad for the answers now, and that’s a direct reflection of what this young man has done.”

Chad Henne and Peyton Manning in the same sentence … now that’s a stretch for even the most loyal Dolphin fan.

Five days after Sparano made those comments, Henne started the first preseason game at Atlanta and was intercepted twice in five throws while Moore, playing both with and against second-teamers, was solid.

It may or may not happen, but certainly all the pieces for a year of quarterback controversy are in place.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireWill Reggie Bush be able to revitalize a stagnant running game?
1. Can Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas make people forget Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams? From 2005-10 either Brown or Williams led the Dolphins in rushing, and four of those six years they finished 1-2. Both were getting older -- Williams is 34, Brown 29 -- and the running game ranked 30th in yards per carry (3.7) and 21st in yards per game (102.7) last season. Ireland decided it was time to move on. Thomas, a second-round pick, led the Big 12 in rushing at Kansas State the past two seasons and at 6-foot and 230 pounds, he can pound the middle. Bush, who has missed 20 games to injury the past two seasons, expressed a desire to be the feature back upon his arrival but seems more likely to line up all over the field. “The lack of experience is definitely a concern,” admitted Sparano, whose stable of backs also includes unproven Kory Sheets and Lex Hilliard.

2. How will the season unfold for Marshall? The simple fact Marshall was perceived to have a down year when he had 86 catches last season -- tied for second in franchise history behind O.J. McDuffie’s 90 in 1998 -- demonstrates how high the expectations are for the man known as “The Beast.” Marshall’s off-field problems, which included the arrest of his wife after Marshall was found stabbed at his home in April, culminated with him being diagnosed and treated for borderline personality disorder this offseason. In camp this summer, it seemed every time Marshall went out for a pass, Henne was the one throwing it. If Gates can be the home-run threat Miami lacked after trading Ted Ginn Jr. last season, Marshall could benefit greatly.

3. Will new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll bring spice to a boring offense? Miami’s top two receivers last season, Marshall and Davone Bess, averaged 11.8 and 10.4 yards per catch. No wonder Henne came to be known as “Checkdown Chad.” But in the Dolphins’ first scrimmage this year, Daboll unveiled four-receiver sets and had Bush lined up everywhere from the backfield to wideout. Despite having Josh Cribbs, Daboll’s offense didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in Cleveland, finishing 29th in total offense and 25th in yards per play. Sparano prefers the ground-and-pound, but Henne and Daboll must demonstrate they can keep up with prolific offensive units such as New England, San Diego and Houston -- which happen to be Miami’s first three opponents.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

If a former first-round pick can qualify as a surprise, then second-year defensive end Jared Odrick has earned that distinction. Odrick was lost early in the opener against Buffalo last season with a broken leg. His comeback was then stopped six weeks later by a broken ankle, ending his season. Worse, it turned out his first injury was eerily similar to one he suffered as a sophomore at Penn State, raising questions as to whether he could remain healthy enough to be counted upon. But in the early weeks of camp, Odrick was a force, as he and partner Tony McDaniel moved ahead of last season’s starters, Randy Starks and Kendall Langford, in team drills. That quartet as well as Phillip Merling and Ryan Baker give Miami inordinate depth at defensive end.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

After losing Justin Smiley to chronic shoulder injuries, the Dolphins had a vacancy at right guard in 2010 and drafted John Jerry out of Mississippi in the third round. Jerry, the younger brother of Atlanta defensive tackle Peria Jerry, got 10 starts but struggled to beat out journeyman Pat McQuistan. When Miami selected Pouncey in the first round of the draft, Richie Incognito, who played both guard spots at times last season, was put on the left side and Jerry was given the opportunity to win the right guard spot. After seeing unsatisfactory results in the first two weeks of camp, Sparano moved Vernon Carey over from right tackle and brought in free agent Marc Colombo, who had been let go by Dallas.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeClyde Gates
    Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe Dolphins hope that pick Clyde Gates will be able to stretch the field like Ted Ginn Jr. did.
    Two relatively obscure rookies provided two of the more intriguing storylines of training camp. Gates, of Abilene Christian, whose father was released from prison last fall after serving a lengthy sentence for first-degree murder, was one. Seventh-rounder Jimmy Wilson of Montana, who spent 26 months in jail before being acquitted of a first-degree murder charge, was the other. Gates, who ran the 40 in 4.37 at the combine despite nursing a sore groin, provides needed speed at wide receiver and Wilson is a big hitter and ball hawk in the secondary.
  • While first-round pick Pouncey was drawing favorable comparisons to his Steeler All-Pro twin brother Maurkice for his blocking and intelligence, his struggles snapping the ball were an ongoing concern as camp progressed. Pouncey, who moved to center as a senior at Florida after his brother left early, had some nightmarish games on shotgun snaps with the Gators and clearly doesn’t have the technique down yet.
  • Marshall isn’t known for being shy around a microphone, but he wasn’t in a talkative mood the first three weeks of camp. He spoke only once, to reveal his diagnosis for borderline personality disorder, and took only a handful of questions. Of course, Marshall was in the middle of the Henne soap opera last season, so there was speculation he didn’t want to stir up the water this year as he continues to undergo treatment for his disorder.
  • The only real battle for a starting job in camp has been at free safety. Third-year man Chris Clemons, last season's starter, was trying to hold off Reshad Jones, who made a favorable impression in limited opportunities as a rookie in 2010. Jones had a sack and an interception against Tennessee in one of his two starts and seems to be more of a playmaker.
  • The biggest mystery in camp surrounded the status of Pro Bowl tackle Jake Long, who was put on the physically unable to perform list early and did not work at all the first three weeks. Sparano said Long’s injury did not involve his knee, which along with his shoulder, required surgery after last season.

Long gets slight edge over Thomas here

June, 14, 2011
6/14/11
1:00
PM ET
Jake Long or Joe Thomas?

It's like deciding between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. They're both elite. You can't go wrong with either pick.

But when you belong to ESPN.com's prestigious Power Rankings syndicate, you have to make tough choices.

In this week's left tackle poll, Thomas edged Long by one point. Long was listed first or second on each of the eight division bloggers' ballots. Three of them, including me, placed Long on top. Thomas received one third-place vote, but amassed five first-place votes to come out ahead.

The ballot I submitted:
  1. Jake Long, Dolphins
  2. Joe Thomas, Browns
  3. Jordan Gross, Panthers
  4. Michael Roos, Titans
  5. D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Jets
  6. Ryan Clady, Broncos
  7. Chad Clifton, Packers
  8. Donald Penn, Buccaneers
  9. Doug Free, Cowboys
  10. Andrew Whitworth, Bengals

Choosing between Long and Thomas is splitting hairs. They've been selected for the Pro Bowl every season in the NFL and are the reigning first-team All-Pros. Thomas was the third overall draft pick in 2007, Long the top choice in 2008.

But I gave Long the edge because of the circumstances he has dealt with in Miami.

Thomas has benefited from playing alongside reliable and steady left guard Eric Steinbach all four years. Steinbach has started 62 of a possible 64 games. For the past two seasons, first-round pick Alex Mack has shined, going to a Pro Bowl last year.

Long has had no such luxuries. He has played next to five left guards in his three seasons: Justin Smiley, Andy Alleman, Nate Garner, Richie Incognito and Pat McQuistan.

The Dolphins have been just as dicey at center. They should have their fourth different opening day starter in four years after drafting Florida center Mike Pouncey. They've used five centers the past three seasons.

Long also played at an All-Pro level last season despite a shoulder injury that had some wondering if he should shut it down.

New England Patriots fans might be wondering why I didn't include Matt Light on my ballot. While he did go to the Pro Bowl as an alternate last year, Stats Inc. blamed him for 10 sacks for 78 yards in losses and four penalties -- all more than his previous two seasons combined.
Williams/GarrardAP Photo/Phil CoaleMario Williams and David Garrard are two of the 53 players under contract in the AFC South slated to make more than $1 million this season.
After being struck recently with how the NFL's labor rift has been cast as billionaires vs. millionaires, I thought I’d look at some players' salaries.

Totaling-up career earnings is quite difficult, and bonus money can be hard to nail down and sort through.

We can still get an interesting snapshot by looking at scheduled 2011 base salaries. I suspect many readers will be surprised that the vast majority of players will earn less than $1 million this fall.

Here, according to the NFLPA, are the players from each AFC South team currently scheduled to make a base salary of $1 million or more in 2011. Keep in mind guys in line for some form of free agency are not part of things here.

Fifty-three of 216 players under contract are slated to make $1 million or more. That’s 24.5 percent of the division.

Houston Texans
Total base salaries of $1 million or more: 13

Total players under contract for 2011: 49

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 26.5

Indianapolis Colts
Total base salaries of $1 million or more: 11

Total players under contract for 2011: 57

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 19.3

Jacksonville Jaguars
Total base salaries of $1 million or more: 13

Total players under contract for 2011: 51

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 25.5

Tennessee Titans
Total base salaries of $1 million or more: 16

Total players under contract for 2011: 59

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 27.1

*Young will be cut or traded, the Titans have announced.
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 13.

Coming out of training camp, Vince Manuwai’s stock was way down. He was a backup, with Justin Smiley starting at left guard for Jacksonville.

[+] EnlargeVince Manuwai
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliVince Manuwai's performance Sunday helped Maurice Jones-Drew run for 186 yards on 31 carries.
But Manuwai returned to the lineup Oct. 18 and has been a key element in the return to prominence of Jacksonville’s running attack. The Jaguars pride themselves on being physical, and when they are the more physical team, they are often the better team.

On Sunday in Nashville, Manuwai helped spearhead a 53-carry, 258-yard rushing game in a 17-6 win over the Titans that got the Jaguars to 7-5 and into first place in the AFC South.

Maurice Jones-Drew, who ran for 186 of those yards, was quick to share the acclaim with his line, tight ends and fullback.

“Without Vinny in the lineup, some of the stuff we are doing now wouldn’t be possible,” Jones-Drew said. “He doesn’t just move a guy 1 or 2 yards off the line. He moves him 4 or 5 yards, which makes it easier for me as a running back. You know you can get 4 or 5 yards when you are going to his side. He’s very physical and he always says, ‘Some people like to do other things, I like to block.’ Glad to have him on my side.”

Any lineman in the league would take satisfaction in hearing his running back talk about him like that.

Final Word: AFC South

September, 10, 2010
9/10/10
4:12
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Big, but not too big: The Texans have been focused on the Colts quite a bit. Teams tend to spend a good deal of time in an offseason thinking about the team they are chasing in the AFC South. Teams tend to spend a lot of time pondering their opening day opponent. On the rare occasion a franchise is 1-15 all-time against an opponent, it probably thinks about it a lot too. Indianapolis is all three for Houston. Here’s hoping Gary Kubiak has managed things inside the building . The Texans need to have the right balance. It’s a giant game, and it’s just one of 16.

[+] EnlargeAaron Kampman
AP Photo/Margaret BowlesThe Jaguars brought in Aaron Kampman for leadership but will need some of their younger players to step up as well.
Looking for leadership: The young Jaguars imported Aaron Kampman for production and leadership, but they need young guys to emerge to go with Kampman and Maurice Jones-Drew. The Titans let a lot of veteran leadership walk, and also need leaders to emerge. Opening day is a good time for some of those guys on both teams to do something to indicate who they will be.

Winners: Guys who won real training camp position battles will want to perform well in the opener so as to not leave any doubts. So watch Jaguars left guard Justin Smiley, Texans kicker Neil Rackers and right guard Antoine Caldwell (though he will yield at times to Mike Brisiel), Titans right cornerback Jason McCourty or Alterraun Verner (thought they could share time) and Colts return man Devin Moore. Poor play by any of them is likely to create debate -- premature as it might be --- about whether the right guy won.

Tight ends: The Texans have star power that matches or surpasses the Colts. But a team is usually held together by the next tier of players, and that’s where the Texans have sometimes been lacking while it’s a department in which the Colts typically thrive. An example for this game could come at tight end. The Colts will look to their second guy, Brody Eldridge, to help out as run-blocker, pass-protector and target. The Texans expect to limit Owen Daniels in his first action since suffering a torn ACL halfway through the 2009 season. They will need quality work from Joel Dreessen and/or James Casey.

Rookie impact: There’s been a good deal of debate in Jacksonville this week about media attention on Broncos rookie Tim Tebow's return to his hometown. A backup or third quarterback, Jaguars faithful said, was not worthy of the sort of attention being bestowed on his visit. People saying that don’t have quite the understanding of stardom required of the situation -- and he's a star without having done anything in the NFL. I suspect Tebow gets in the game and has at least one chance to score. But the Jaguars are home favorites in a game that won’t be blacked out. The Jaguars need a good game from the No. 10 pick in the draft, Tyson Alualu. A good result from the Jaguars could mean more than 1-0.
Three things I’ll be watching for in Jaguars at Tampa Bay:

Guard play: Sounds like we'll see Uche Nwaneri at center in this game, with Kynan Forney at left guard and Vince Manuwai at right guard. The guard who plays the best will be designated the starter on the right side, with Nwaneri on the left and Brad Meester at center. Pretty big stakes for Forney and Manuwai. UPDATE: Tania Ganguli reports Forney won't play. In that case, Justin Smiley will get a chance to make his case. The opportunity remains immense for Manuwai.

A showing from a safety: The idea that the team will shop for a safety on the waiver wire is growing. But they are not going to find two new ones, so it would be great if one of four guys -- Reggie Nelson, Anthony Smith, Gerald Alexander or Sean Considine -- had the sort of game that made coaches confident in him.

Another solid effort from Terrance Knighton: He could be the team’s best defensive player, and he did some nice work in the Jaguars’ loss to Miami. If he keeps it going, he can be the touchstone guy for Tyson Alualu, the defensive front and maybe the whole defense to work off of.

Jaguars waiting on Monroe, Britton

August, 16, 2010
8/16/10
3:55
PM ET
It’s too early to say if Eugene Monroe (right knee sprain) and Eben Britton (right calf strain), the Jacksonville Jaguars’ starting tackles who missed the preseason opener, will be back for Saturday’s home preseason game against Miami.

And the Jaguars would rather they rest and recover now than deal with injuries later.

Still, a team looking to form an offensive line personality and do better protecting quarterback David Garrard is missing quality time to build cohesion with its top two draft picks from 2009 in place.

Coach Jack Del Rio told the Jacksonville media Monday that he and his staff worry about everything but advised reporters not to worry.
Del Rio: “Obviously [I] would love to have those guys in there. Two of our best defensive linemen, two of our best offensive linemen were not available. So the good news is they’re getting better and they’re going to be healthy soon and we’ll be able to continue on. The bad news is that we’re losing this opportunity to kind of do the things that you should be doing this time of year to build the continuity and to understand the way it’s going to be and all that type of things.

“So we’ll have to do the best we can with the situation that we’re in and it’s paramount that our guys stay in it mentally, that they be conditioned as much as they can without aggravating what it is that’s keeping them out, and so we’re doing that to the best of our ability and then you just have to deal with it.

“It’s not the scenario I’d draw up as ideal. We’d like to have everybody working 100 percent and building that continuity, but it is what we’re dealing with and we’re dealing with it the best that we can. The guys are healing, we are conditioning where we can with them, we are keeping them into it mentally and as a football team we carry on. That’s what you always do. Things happen throughout the course of the year. You’ve got to build that mentality as a team, you have to move on.”

Britton was dealing with back and leg issues from early in camp, but Monroe looked fantastic right out of the gate. I expect both to make significant jumps in their second years and for the Jaguars' big offensive line question to center around whether Vince Manuwai can return to form and win the right guard spot or if he’ll lose out to Kynan Forney or Justin Smiley, or if the Jaguars would put Uche Nwaneri back on the right.

We could be a long way off from knowing the answer to that one.

AFC South training camp preview

July, 29, 2010
7/29/10
11:08
AM ET
We see teams go first-to-worst or worst-to-first all the time in the NFL -- except in the AFC South, where the Colts have won the division crown in six of eight chances since realignment and have won 12 games or more seven years running.

Indianapolis’ successes, and its four-time MVP quarterback, make it hard to predict a dramatic, upside-down season in the division.

The question is more about who can close the gap on Manning and the Colts; how the Texans, Titans and Jaguars stack up; and if one of them can find a door into the playoffs as a wild card.

The Texans and Jaguars begin their push with camp practices Friday. The Titans open Saturday, and the Colts are on the field Monday.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
Kevin Terrell/Getty ImagesMario Williams has 35 sacks the past three seasons.
Houston Texans: How does the defense better defend the pass?

Veteran corner Dunta Robinson is gone, first-round pick Kareem Jackson is in as the team’s top corner. Is a secondary of Jackson and Glover Quin at corner, Eugene Wilson at free safety and Bernard Pollard at strong safety enough to slow down opposing offenses? Not without two other major developments.

The defensive front must apply more consistent and effective pass pressure. A monster season from Mario Williams, a big second year from Connor Barwin and more toughness from Amobi Okoye could do the trick. Okoye in particular needs a big camp or he could lose reps to rookie Earl Mitchell. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson and a better run game could help a great deal, too -- if Houston is able to put up big points, some opponents won’t be able to take advantage of that secondary enough to keep up.

Indianapolis Colts: How do the receivers shake out?

If Anthony Gonzalez is healthy and back to form, the Colts could be stacked at receiver. Provided Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie can build on what they did with Gonzalez out for all but the first game last season, the Colts should be four-deep at receiver with those three behind Reggie Wayne. With Wayne leading the way and tight end Dallas Clark also coming off a 100-reception season, Peyton Manning could have his best group of pass-catchers ever.

I think if everyone is healthy, everyone will get chances. Perhaps certain games and certain matchups will call for certain guys to be used more. But I can’t see Gonzalez, Garcon or Collie with a significantly minimized role unless one of them plays his way to the bench or is injured.

Tyson Alualu
AP Photo/John RaouxTyson Alualu was the first of four defensive linemen the Jaguars drafted in 2010.
Jacksonville Jaguars: How will the defensive line rotation develop?

New line coach Joe Cullen will want his best guys on the field the most, but he’s also going to have to get them some rest so they can play fresh. Presuming Aaron Kampman and Derrick Harvey start at end and Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu start at tackle, who will be the guys behind them that ensure minimal drop-off?

Rookie ends Larry Hart and Austen Lane and rookie tackle D'Anthony Smith will all have opportunities as the Jaguars try to get to the quarterback a lot more often a year after collecting just 14 sacks. If the rush is better, watch the linebackers and secondary become better, too.

Tennessee Titans: Have the Titans cured their return game woes?

Things were so bad a year ago that when the Titans found guys who could fair catch punts while backing inside the 10-yard line it was considered a moral victory. Coach Jeff Fisher considers himself a return expert because of his own experience as a player. To his credit, he confessed he botched it last year by being overly reliant on unproven rookies. The solution? The Titans hope it’s unproven rookie Damian Williams, a third-round receiver out of USC.

If he’s muffing punts and kicks in camp, we should also see rookie Marc Mariani fielding punts, and we could see Kenny Britt back to fetching kickoffs. Merely being able to avoid mistakes shouldn’t be good enough. The Titans should expect to make plays in the return games.

HOTTEST SEATS

Colts: Offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars: He’s got the confidence and full backing of president Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell. But replacing legendary coach Howard Mudd is a large charge. And it’s widely held that the group he’s working with isn’t composed of great run-blockers and benefits a great deal in the passing game from Manning’s propensity for getting the ball out quickly. During summer workouts, players said that Metzelaars had already tinkered with some technique and re-energized the group.

[+] EnlargeMichael Griffin
AP Photo/Wade PayneA Pro Bowler in 2008, Michael Griffin had a subpar season in 2009.
Jaguars: David Garrard. Jacksonville’s quarterback is 32 years old, and while his term as a starter began relatively late, he’s at a point where a lot of people give him the underwhelming description of “he is what he is.” If things unfold according to how a play is drawn up, he can be good. But things rarely unfold like that. He can be too inaccurate and doesn’t execute in the clutch often enough. Good season or not, the Jaguars are expected to look to draft a first-round quarterback in 2011.

Texans: Kareem Jackson. You hate to be overly reliant on a rookie, but the Texans have put themselves in that spot. First-rounder Jackson has to be able to cover tightly and find the ball if Houston stands a chance to so much as split with the Colts while Manning is dropping back and looking into the Texans’ secondary. They could have eased the pressure on their new No. 1 corner with an option beyond Eugene Wilson at free safety, but failed to address the position at all.

Titans: Michael Griffin. Tennessee is counting on a lot of young guys who are taking on bigger roles to be productive. But even if they are all good, it may not matter if Griffin, a Pro Bowl safety in his second season, plays as poorly as he did in his third. Distracted by off-the-field personal issues, he bit on play-action, took terrible angles and missed tackles he has to make while the Titans' pass defense fell apart. That won’t work with two games against Manning, two against Matt Schaub and matchups against Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers and Donovan McNabb.

[+] EnlargeBrody Eldridge
WD/Icon SMIThe Colts are hoping fifth-round pick Brody Eldridge can make a difference in the running game.
SECRET WEAPON

Colts TE Brody Eldridge. The Colts did not make a major addition to their offensive line mix after Bill Polian called the group out for its Super Bowl performance. The stretch play, once a staple of their run game, has largely disappeared without edge blockers who can lead it effectively. But fifth-round pick Eldridge can be a big influence in this department. Expect him to displace Gijon Robinson. And watch him work effectively as a pass-catcher as well.

INTERIOR DESIGNS

All four AFC South teams could look different on the interior offensive line on opening day. The Colts are looking at busted left tackle Tony Ugoh as a guard. The Jaguars brought in Justin Smiley, could be finished with aging Brad Meester and haven’t been wild about Vince Manuwai’s play since he returned from a 2008 knee injury. The Texans added veteran Wade Smith and would like second-year man Antoine Caldwell to seize a spot. Those three lines need sorting out.

The Titans, who had a 2,000-yard rusher and gave up only 15 sacks, have also made changes, shifting left guard Eugene Amano to center to replace Kevin Mawae, an unsigned free agent, while inserting Leroy Harris in Amano’s old spot.

It’s possible all four teams run better up the middle and shield their signal-callers from the inside rush better than they did a year ago.

AFC East training camp preview

July, 27, 2010
7/27/10
10:30
AM ET
Can the AFC East send three clubs to the playoffs?

Sure seems possible to me. The past two years have produced different division champs and a third team that reached the AFC Championship Game last season.

The journey will start in a matter of days. The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots blow the air horn on Thursday. The Miami Dolphins start Friday afternoon. The New York Jets open their "Hard Knocks" camp Monday morning.

All four teams have loose ends to tie up before camp. None has signed its first-round draft choice. Patriots left guard Logan Mankins remains unsigned and unhappy.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

Buffalo Bills: Who will be the quarterback?

[+] EnlargeEdwards
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireTrent Edwards played in just eight games for the Bills last season.
New head coach Chan Gailey has stressed there will be an open quarterback competition, but the first depth chart will be known when the Bills begin camp. The campaign would get off to a fascinating start if anybody other than Trent Edwards takes the initial first-team reps. Ryan Fitzpatrick finished last year as the starter, but offers the least amount of upside. He's a sixth-year journeyman backup. Brian Brohm, a 2008 Green Bay Packers second-round pick, provides the most intrigue, titillating Bills fans because he's the unknown quantity. The battle should be a slowly progressing storyline unlikely to be decided until preseason games have been played -- and maybe not until the week before the season opener.

Miami Dolphins: How quickly will receiver Brandon Marshall integrate into the offense?

The Dolphins' prized offseason acquisition missed voluntary workouts and minicamp because of hip surgery the Dolphins didn't anticipate when they traded for him in April. His absence delayed the Dolphins' ability to see how he could transform the offense, forcing any ideas to remain X's and O's on the dry-erase board until training camp. The injury also prevented quarterback Chad Henne from getting fully acquainted with Marshall, a player who can help expedite Henne's development. Henne must get used to Marshall's speed and route angles. How quickly they find their timing on intermediate and longer patterns such as deep outs and posts against a defense will be important to making sure they're totally on the same page when the season starts.

New England Patriots: Will the Patriots show noticeable improvement on defense?

[+] EnlargeDarius Butler
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDarius Butler will compete with Devin McCourty for the chance to start at left cornerback.
The old baseball adage claims championship teams are strong up the middle. The Patriots can say they're formidable in that regard. They have star nose tackle Vince Wilfork, inside linebacker Jerod Mayo and a solid group of safeties. But this ain't baseball. In football, especially with a 3-4 defense, teams need an outside presence. The Patriots are eager to see if they can improve their pass rush and be more consistent at cornerback. Those two areas depend on each other and contributed to the Patriots ranking 22nd in sacks per pass play last year. They'll have to sort through returning outside linebackers Tully Banta-Cain, Derrick Burgess, Rob Ninkovich and Shawn Crable and 53rd overall draft pick Jermaine Cunningham. At the all-important left cornerback spot, unproven sophomore Darius Butler will compete with first-round pick Devin McCourty.

New York Jets: Will quarterback Mark Sanchez take command in his second camp?

As a reckless rookie, Sanchez seemed hell-bent on squandering a team loaded in several key categories: No. 1 defense, No. 1 rushing attack, three Pro Bowlers on the offensive line. But late last season, Sanchez finally bought into what offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer had been preaching and closed the season with a deep playoff run. Knee surgery limited Sanchez's first full NFL offseason, but he participated in minicamp. He'll have two talented receivers, Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, who weren't around at this time last year. How their chemistry develops over the next two months will be crucial.

HOTTEST SEATS

Bills: Demetrius Bell. It's odd to imagine a player drafted in the seventh round as a long-term project being on the hot seat going into just his third season. But Bell plays left tackle, and the Bills can't afford to fool around at such an important position. Bell didn't play a snap in 2008, yet emerged as last year's opening-night starter. He struggled before a knee injury ended his season prematurely. Bell was one of the NFL's most penalized players, and Gailey abhors pre-snap penalties. In eight games, Bell committed six false starts and allowed five sacks.

[+] EnlargeWill Allen
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesHow Will Allen rebounds from a knee injury will be important.
Dolphins: Will Allen. The 10-year veteran started last season as the club's top cornerback, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the sixth game. The Dolphins played out the year with a pair of rookies, Sean Smith and Vontae Davis, at cornerback. While they were frequently broiled by opposing receivers, they are the future and there's something to be said for trial by fire. Allen's contract might doom him. He's scheduled to make base salaries of $5.2 million this year and $5.5 million next year.

Patriots: Laurence Maroney. He has been a polarizing player since the Patriots drafted him 21st overall in 2006. He has looked like a stud running back at times, but not nearly often enough. Maroney's entering his fifth season but has started only 14 games, hasn't cracked 900 rushing yards in a season and fumbles too much.

Jets: Nick Folk. Coaches don't have much patience for an erratic kicker. The Jets parted ways with a good one, letting Jay Feely leave via free agency. They signed Folk, a former Pro Bowler who was a disaster with the Dallas Cowboys last year. He was inconsistent in Jets voluntary workouts and minicamp, already drawing playful ridicule from coach Rex Ryan. If Folk continues to miss kicks, the Jets won't be laughing.

SECRET WEAPON

Patriots receiver Brandon Tate. When considering New England's top targets, the names Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Torry Holt and maybe Julian Edelman come to mind. Keep an eye out for Tate, a second-year pro with one reception. Tate still was recovering from knee surgery when the Patriots drafted him in the third round out of North Carolina. He made his debut in Week 7 and suffered another knee injury in Week 9. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has spoken highly of Tate during the offseason.

CHANGING OF THE GUARDS

The Bills boast one example of stability over the rest of the AFC East -- on the offensive line, no less.

[+] EnlargeAlan Faneca
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinThe Jets' release of Alan Faneca raised some eyebrows.
The Bills enter training camp with the lone left guard in place. Second-year pro Andy Levitre returns as the starter, while each of the other three clubs have uncertainties to address. The Jets and Dolphins are letting players compete for their left guard openings, while the Patriots have a two-time Pro Bowler who has demanded a trade.

In Jets camp, second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse and sophomore Matt Slauson are battling for the vacancy created by the controversial release of nine-time Pro Bowler Alan Faneca.

The Dolphins traded Justin Smiley, their left guard the past two seasons. Nate Garner started eight games, including four on the left side while Smiley was hurt last season. Donald Thomas started 12 games at right guard. Richie Incognito started at right guard for the St. Louis Rams and Bills. The Dolphins drafted guard John Jerry in the third round.

Mankins isn't expected to be at Patriots camp when it begins. He's an unsigned restricted free agent and last month went public with his desire to be traded. Right tackle Nick Kaczur has been working in Mankins' spot.

Big Question: Top AFC East move?

July, 6, 2010
7/06/10
1:00
PM ET
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What was the top offseason move in the AFC East?

We've hit a rare dead period in the NFL, when all the teams have sent their players home to enjoy the summer for a few weeks. Offseason programs are complete. Training camps will begin at the end of the month.

[+] EnlargeMarshall
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireBrandon Marshall's trade to Miami was one of the biggest offseason moves in the AFC East.
Perfect time to review all of the offseason moves. With activity slowed to a crawl, we can safely evaluate the ones that should have the most impact on the upcoming season.

I've taken five decisions from each AFC East club and ranked them based on how important they'll prove to be in 2010.

But this list merely is to provide a reminder of what has happened the past few months. I'd like to see your list in the comments section below. Nominate your favorite move, give me your top five or rank them all.

NOTE: I was remiss in leaving out one of the bigger moves, but thanks to some friendly reminders in the comments section, I have corrected the list by inserting the Dolphins' switch at defensive coordinator at No. 4.

1. Dolphins trade two second-round draft picks for receiver Brandon Marshall.

2. Jets trade a third-round pick for cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

3. Patriots use franchise tag to ensure nose tackle Vince Wilfork's return.

4. Dolphins fire defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni and hire Mike Nolan.

5. Dolphins sign inside linebacker Karlos Dansby.

6. Bills name Buddy Nix general manager and hire head coach Chan Gailey.

7. Jets trade a fifth-round pick for receiver Santonio Holmes.

8. Bills switch to 3-4 defense.

9. Jets pass on re-signing kicker Jay Feely and sign pass-rusher Jason Taylor.

10. Bills draft Clemson running back C.J. Spiller ninth overall.

11. Patriots clean house at tight end, sign Alge Crumpler, draft Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

12. Dolphins move Randy Starks from defensive end to nose tackle.

13. Patriots sign defensive end Gerard Warren.

14. Jets sign safety Brodney Pool, trade Kerry Rhodes.

15. Patriots release outside linebacker Adalius Thomas.

16. Dolphins release outside linebacker Joey Porter.

17. Bills sign defensive end Dwan Edwards.

18. Jets replace running back Thomas Jones with LaDainian Tomlinson.

19. Bills sign inside linebacker Andra Davis.

20. Patriots sign receiver Torry Holt.

On the radar: John Estes

June, 3, 2010
6/03/10
1:00
PM ET
NFC On the Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A player, coach or issue that should be on your radar as training camp approaches.

Jacksonville needs better play from the center position, and undrafted rookie John Estes from Hawaii has a shot to make an impact in the middle of the Jaguars’ offensive line.

[+] EnlargeMeester
Tom Cammett/Getty ImagesBrad Meester, above, may need to fight off undrafted free-agent center John Estes at center.
Brad Meester, 33, has battled a lot of injuries. But even when he was on the field last season, Meester’s run blocking was a problem. Replacing him makes a lot of sense, but at the minimum, Jacksonville needs to put pressure on its current starting center’s hold on the job.

If Meester is replaced, the most likely scenario would be for Uche Nwaneri to move from guard to the pivot. Considering the volatility of this offensive line last year, Nwaneri -- while far from spectacular -- should be considered rather dependable. Plus, Jacksonville did just trade for Justin Smiley, creating is a bit of a logjam at guard with Vince Manuwai and Kynan Forney. So moving Nwaneri seems like a logical move after the acquisition of Smiley.

But where does Estes fit in -- and, to a lesser extent, Cecil Newton, who is a year older than Estes? If Nwaneri can prove that he is the best option for the starting center spot, Meester could be shown the door, which would open up a possibility for one of these youngsters. Estes is the guy I would expect to take advantage of that opportunity.

Estes isn’t a particularly big offensive lineman and Jacksonville certainly does value size up front, but he moves well and is tough and durable while playing the game with a bit of a mean streak. He isn’t extremely powerful, but was a four-year starter, is very aware in protection and has a good feel for maximizing his leverage advantage. There are tons of examples of offensive linemen who enter the league and prove very difficult for their coaching staff to cut from the roster. Estes might just be next.
Vince Manuwai, Wade Smith, Tony UgohGetty ImagesVeteran offensive linemen Vince Manuwai, Wade Smith and Tony Ugoh are expected to take on different roles or positions this season.
Be it running up the middle or stifling pass-rushers coming that way, the AFC South’s looking for change on interior offensive lines heading toward the 2010 season.

The Tennessee Titans, who blocked for just the sixth 2,000-yard rusher in league history, have made an alteration. The Indianapolis Colts, the defending AFC champs who allowed a league-low 13 sacks, are auditioning interior candidates. The Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars both identified the interior line as an area in need of improvement, too.

Yet of 32 draft picks by the four teams, just two were used on offensive linemen -- a fourth-rounder by the Colts for guard Jacques McClendon and a sixth-rounder by the Texans for guard Shelley Smith. And only three veteran additions seem like they can influence the mixes -- Justin Smiley in Jacksonville, Wade Smith in Houston and Andy Alleman in Indianapolis.

Said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.: “Didn't anyone in this division address the interior offensive line during the draft with any pick of substance? That seems odd.”

So here’s a team-by-team look at what’s going on inside, with some thoughts from Williamson:

Jacksonville

The Jaguars appear willing to have true competitions to hash things out.

Last year’s interior trio of left guard Vince Manuwai, center Brad Meester and right guard Uche Nwaneri is back. But the team is willing to shuffle, and at least two others are in play now as well -- Smiley, a guard acquired recently from Miami in a trade for an undisclosed draft pick believed to be a conditional seventh, and Kynan Forney, a backup guard last year.

At minicamp the weekend following the draft, Jags head coach Jack Del Rio and offensive line coach Andy Heck had flipped Manuwai to the right side, figuring he and right tackle Eben Britton are the team’s best run-blockers. With the aid of tight end Marcedes Lewis and fullback Greg Jones, the Jaguars could send Maurice Jones-Drew that direction and dare people to stop it.

But at organized team activities (OTAs) this week, Manuwai wasn’t working with the starters and Del Rio was talking about how the torn ACL the guard suffered back in the season opener of 2008 was still a factor for him.

“I think he’s still a little bothered by that but at some point you’ve got to get beyond that and go and he knows that,” Del Rio said. “I think Vinny still has a ways to go. I think Vinny’s working at it. He’s got his weight down. He’s trying but he needs to play better. I think he knows that. He’s working hard it and trying …

“We clearly [come] out of last year saying, ‘Look, we’ve got to have better play with our line, period,’ and our two young tackles [Eugene Monroe and Britton] we know are going to grow and get better but our interior line needs to pick it up as well. And they are working at it and they are challenging and competing and we expect them to play at a much higher level for us.”

I honestly think it’s wide open, but I’d be very surprised if Manuwai, who can be a very effective run-blocker, isn’t in the starting lineup for the opener against Denver.

Williamson says: “Adding Smiley could pay dividends, as this offensive line (especially on the interior) really was a problem area last year. Their protection up the gut was really poor. While I have some real doubts any more about Meester, I do like Manuwai quite a bit and expect more from him this year.”

Houston

The Texans' run troubles were in large part because of their backs. But they lost guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel early and it’s a tough order for any team to replace 40 percent of its line and keep plugging. Steve Slaton had a miserable year as he tried to deal with a neck injury, couldn’t hold onto the ball and wound up on injured reserve.

Pitts is a free agent who won’t be back and Brisiel has been working as a backup so far in OTAs. The team’s lined up with Kasey Studdard at left guard, Chris Myers and at center and Antoine Caldwell at right guard. But Smith’s been rotated in some early at center.

With offensive line guru Alex Gibbs gone, the team will still be using his principles. But the three remaining coaches who oversee the position -- John Benton, Frank Pollack and Bruce Matthews -- may have fresher eyes and a willingness to shuffle. And odds are it's second-round pick Ben Tate getting many of the carries behind that line.

We should see some real competition for all three slots. I’ve repeatedly hear good things about Myers. And because Caldwell was a third-rounder, I expect the team would probably like to see him stake a claim.

Gary Kubiak said Studdard and Caldwell have earned the right to say they are starters “right now.”

“We are as competitive in there as we’ve ever been as a team,” Kubiak said. “It’s going to be hard to hold a job, and it’s going to be very competitive to get one. So that makes the team better.”

Williamson says: “I thought Myers played real well and he is an excellent fit in this system. Their interior offensive line is loaded with no-name guys, but overall they are well coached and effective enough. Still, an upgrade at one of the starting guard spots would have been a real nice addition. … Smith is an ideal sixth guy, but not a liability as a starter.”

Indianapolis

The Colts paid him a bonus, but still cut Ryan Lilja who seemed pretty effective to me at left guard last season. Team officials have worked hard to deflect the idea the Colts made the move because they want to be bigger on the line. But it’s a sensible time for a change with Pete Metzelaars taking over for Howard Mudd as line coach and the team looking to be more effective in clutch third-and-short situations and the like.

Tony Ugoh, who lost out at left tackle, has worked at left guard in recent offseason practice sessions. Jeff Saturday is entrenched as Peyton Manning's guy at center. Kyle DeVan is the incumbent right guard, who came out of nowhere last season.

Presuming no other tackles are shifted inside and that left tackle remains Charlie Johnson's job, Ugoh and DeVan face their competition from Alleman, McClendon and 2008 second-rounder Mike Pollak.

Bill Polian has talked about throwing everybody out there and seeing what happens. With a new position coach, the fight for roles may not start with any true favorites. While they have to continue to favor pass blocking above all else, I do think it’s in their best interest to be a bit more determined to be able to call for and execute runs in key situations with more success.

Williamson says: “Saturday is obviously the leader and his symbiotic relationship with Peyton carries a ton of weight. He is smart and very technically sound. I do think his game is falling off ever so slightly though. I was shocked that they let Lilja go and thought he was far and away their best guard. Now, they really need to count on youngsters and those youngsters still have a lot to prove.”

Tennessee

[+] EnlargeEugene Amano
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesEugene Amano will be taking over at center for Kevin Mawae.
The Titans had the least concern here as they considered their roster, but with Kevin Mawae getting older and Leroy Harris on the bench and ready to play, they decided to go with youth and size. So last year’s left guard, Eugene Amano, is replacing Mawae at center, with Harris taking over at left guard.

Tennessee loses leadership and experience in the equation, but gains significant strength. Harris is very much an interior guy, but he’s athletic and smart enough that he played effectively at right tackle in a win at San Francisco last season.

A Hall of Famer as a player, line coach Mike Munchak knows when a guy is ready, and he’s fully endorsed this plan or the Titans wouldn’t be going with it. Whether Chris Johnson or someone like LeGarrette Blount is running up the middle, I think they’ll find a bit more daylight. And Vince Young should feel less inside rush closing in on him.

Williamson says: “You have to wonder how much Mawae will be missed. It isn't that he played great -- and clearly he isn't what he once was -- but just from the standpoint of making the calls and especially from a leadership perspective. So, this interior line is in transition. Right guard Jake Scott probably hasn't quite lived up to what Tennessee was expecting to get from him when they signed him in free agency, but he is a quality starting guard. I think Harris has a good amount of ability and could surprise with more playing time.”

How I See It: AFC East Stock Watch

March, 25, 2010
3/25/10
1:00
PM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Falling

Justin Smiley, Dolphins left guard: In this space last week, I selected Dolphins right guard Donald Thomas, who lost his starting job late last season and seemed even more on the spot with the signing of free agent Richie Incognito. But it now appears the Dolphins have identified Smiley as the player they can live without. The Dolphins signed him to a five-year, $25 million contract one minute into the 2008 free-agency period. Over the weekend, the Dolphins told Smiley not to show up for the offseason conditioning program because they were trying to trade him.

Rising

Rex Ryan, Jets head coach: He's getting ready for his closeup. Less than two weeks after undergoing lap-band surgery to control his obesity, Ryan said he already had shed 30 pounds, a difference that was obvious at this week's NFL owners meetings. But be prepared to see more of a lesser Ryan. He'll almost certainly be the leading man on "Hard Knocks" this year. HBO has selected the Jets to be the next subject for its behind-the-scenes training camp series, and I have a feeling Ryan will dominate the scenes.

Should the 49ers pursue McNabb?

March, 25, 2010
3/25/10
12:43
PM ET
Any poker player could relate to the 49ers.

They started with what seemed like a promising hand. They placed a significant amount of chips toward the center and stuck it out even when the hand appeared less promising. They finally realized there was little sense in folding based on how much they had already invested and how little more they stood to lose.

[+] EnlargeDonovan McNabb
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireA quaterback with Donovan McNabb's career record (92-49-1) would be a refreshing change in San Francisco.
They were pot-committed.

Quarterback Alex Smith is that once-promising hand. There's little sense in folding at this point. If anything, the odds for success improved after Smith finished last season with 18 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions playing basically half the season.

But what if the 49ers could ditch this hand in favor of a more proven one? What if the price were not prohibitive? What if they could acquire Donovan McNabb from the Eagles for, say, a second-round choice in the 2010 draft?

The 49ers already have two first-round choices. They could draft the offensive tackle they need and still get a potential starter at another position. The Eagles already have an extra third-round choice. An additional second-rounder would leave them with five choices in the first three rounds, tied with the Browns for the most in the league.

Let's look at this deal from an NFC West perspective. Would the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams rather face the 49ers with McNabb or the 49ers with Smith and whichever player San Francisco drafted in the second round? I think they'd rather take their chances with Smith and the 2010 second-rounder.

Take a look at the last 10 players the 49ers have drafted in the second round: Chilo Rachal, David Baas, Justin Smiley, Shawntae Spencer, Anthony Adams, Jamie Winborn, John Engelberger, Jason Webster, Jeremy Newberry and Marc Edwards.

Some became good players. None could affect games the way good quarterbacks affect games.

Some Eagles fans are tired of McNabb. They think Philadelphia has gotten as far as McNabb can take them. They're ready for a change. The 49ers can have no such complaints. They haven't been a playoff team since 2002. They would gladly "settle" for multiple playoff appearances and a quarterback with a 92-49-1 (.651) regular-season starting record, according to Pro Football Reference.

Fins owner lets Parcells spend whatever

March, 22, 2010
3/22/10
8:35
PM ET
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins have had their share of spending misadventures since Bill Parcells took over football operations nearly 2 1/2 years ago.

We learned Monday morning they're trying to trade left guard Justin Smiley, the player they signed to a five-year, $25 million contract one minute into 2008 free agency. They've already unloaded notable free agents such as safeties Gibril Wilson and Chris Crocker, receiver Ernest Wilford and quarterback Josh McCown.

But when it comes to running football operations, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross trusts Parcells implicitly.

So completely, in fact, that Ross said Monday he doesn't get involved in even the biggest decisions about his cash.

"I'm putting my money with Bill Parcells and our organization," Ross told a small gathering of reporters during a break in the NFL owners meetings. "Nobody bats 1.000. I just look at the bottom line and end results and where we are and what we're spending. The results are in the won-loss record."

Ross suggested he stood aside two weeks ago, when the Dolphins made Karlos Dansby the NFL's highest-paid inside linebacker with a five-year, $43 million deal.

"Bill tells me beforehand," Ross said. "We have salary caps -- this year we don't, but we still have to live in a financial world today -- and I say 'Hey, what counts is on the field.' That's what he's looking to do: deliver winners.

"I don't try to micromanage him. You can't look at every dollar you spend. One thing I found out: Sports is different than business. From a businessman, when it comes to what you do for paying players, you have to have a little different discipline than you'd otherwise have."

Ross can refrain from meddling because Forbes recently ranked the Manhattan real-estate developer the 277th wealthiest man on the planet with an estimated net worth of $3.4 billion.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider

NFL SCOREBOARD