NFL Nation: Kelly Jennings

Camp Confidential: Seahawks

August, 13, 2012
8/13/12
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RENTON, Wash. -- Terrell Owens' arrival at Seattle Seahawks training camp commanded national headlines.

It commanded the Seahawks' attention as well, not just on the field but in the meeting room, where coach Pete Carroll made Owens the leading man in an entertaining prank.

But when the Seahawks' first exhibition game kicked off Saturday night against Tennessee, the focus returned to where it needed to be: quarterback. For while Owens might not even earn a roster spot, let alone an important role on the team, the situation behind center will determine whether Seattle breaks from its recent 7-9 form.

The way Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson played against the Titans showed Seattle has a chance to do just that. It was only one game, and one whose outcome was meaningless. But it affirmed some of the evidence collected to this point.

Flynn, non-descript through organized team activities and minicamps, had responded favorably when Carroll gave him the first-team practice reps last week. He was sharp in practice and efficient while completing his first eight passes against the Titans. Flynn's lone interception resulted from a rookie running back failing to sell the play fake, allowing linebacker Colin McCarthy to drop into coverage without concern for the run.

Wilson, sensational for a rookie during the offseason program, hadn't stood out as much in camp. But when the lights went on Saturday night, he looked like the best player on the field. Wilson showed the pocket presence needed to move just the right distance at just the right times, extending plays. He scored on a 32-yard bootleg and threw a 39-yard touchdown pass from the pocket. Only an ill-advised interception over the middle prevented a full Wilson lovefest from breaking out. But it's early, and Wilson is just getting started.

Seattle has seen enough to think one of its new quarterbacks can provide an upgrade from Tarvaris Jackson, who remains on the roster as insurance.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Owens or Edwards? The Seahawks want a receiver with dominant size to fill the role Mike Williams played during the 2010 season. Owens is one candidate. Braylon Edwards is another. Second-year pro Kris Durham might still emerge as third, but he has struggled to gain traction in camp to this point.

Braylon Edwards
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireBraylon Edwards, on his fourth team in the past four seasons, has been impressive in camp.
Edwards has stepped up his game markedly following Owens' arrival, no coincidence. He has to realize the Seahawks aren't going to keep two veteran receivers with no value on special teams. Owens has the bigger name and better credentials, but Edwards has the inside track for a roster spot if both play well. That is because Edwards is nine years younger and could conceivably project as a factor beyond this season. It's also because Owens has been a higher-maintenance player.

Edwards was scrapping like an undrafted free agent during the game against Tennessee. He was a willing blocker -- too willing at one point, drawing a penalty. He rewarded Wilson's trust by making a strong play on the ball for that 39-yard touchdown reception. Owens will get his chance in the coming weeks. This competition is only beginning.

2. What to do with Jackson. Carroll has shown sensitivity for Jackson after the veteran quarterback played through a torn pectoral muscle last season. The grit Jackson showed won respect in the locker room. As much as the team wanted to look at Flynn and Wilson this summer, Carroll gave Jackson an equal portion of the reps through the first week of training camp.

Carrying a three-man race through the exhibition schedule would have been impractical. That is why Flynn and Wilson took the meaningful reps in practice last week. It's why Flynn and Wilson took all the snaps during the exhibition opener. Jackson represents the known. He's the baseline for a team seeking improvement at the position. Jackson, for all his toughness, wasn't effective enough when it counted last season (no touchdowns, six interceptions and nine sacks in the final two minutes of halves).

Jackson is scheduled to earn $4 million in salary for the 2012 season. Flynn and Wilson are going to be on the roster. They will most likely fill the top two spots. The team still likes developmental quarterback Josh Portis. Something has to give, and logic says it'll be Jackson.

3. Health concerns at tight end. The Seahawks envision running quite a few personnel groupings with two tight ends. Assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable values H-back types. The expectation this season was for Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow to provide Seattle with a diverse duo at the position. That still might happen, but with Miller now suffering from his fourth concussion in less than three calendar years, there are suddenly renewed health questions at tight end.

Winslow's chronic knee problems limit how frequently he can practice. While Winslow hasn't missed a game to injury over the past three seasons, he is 29 years old and doesn't figure to gain durability from this point forward, especially in light of his knee issues.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The Seahawks have upgraded at quarterback and in their ability to rush the passer. Those were the two areas most responsible for holding them back in the recent past. They're also more settled on the offensive line.

How much Seattle has upgraded at quarterback remains unknown, but even if Jackson were to somehow emerge as the starter in a sort of worst-case scenario, at least he would be healthy. The Seahawks aren't asking their quarterbacks to carry the team. They want efficient play from the position. The early returns suggest Flynn can provide that, and that Wilson might be able to provide more.

Newly acquired defensive tackle Jason Jones has already improved the pass rush. Rookie first-round choice Bruce Irvin has been the most difficult player to block in one-on-one pass-rush drills. He has the speed to beat tackles to the outside. He's got better power than anticipated for a player weighing less than 250 pounds. The combination of Jones, Irvin and leading sacker Chris Clemons will be tough at home in particular.

Seattle's defense already ranked among the NFL's top 10 in points allowed, yards allowed and yards allowed per play. This was a mostly young defense on the rise even before Jones and Irvin arrived to address the pass rush.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Matt Flynn
Steven Bisig/US PresswireMatt Flynn was 11-for-13 against the Titans on Saturday night, but he is still largely untested in the regular season.
There's faith involved in projecting how well unproven quarterbacks will perform.

A year ago, division-rival Arizona was convinced Kevin Kolb would fix its problems at the position. At the very least, the Cardinals would become average at quarterback, it seemed. Surely that would be enough to make them a playoff contender once again.

Flynn might be better than Kolb, but what if he's not? What if it becomes clear a month or two into the season that Flynn, with only two career regular-season starts, isn't ready to manage an NFL offense from week to week? That's not such a stretch.

Wilson has appeal as an alternative, but how far can a team with a 5-foot-10 rookie quarterback go in an NFC featuring Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, Michael Vick, Jay Cutler and Cam Newton?

Sure, the Seahawks have a powerful ground game and a potentially dominant defense, but the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, right? The five most recent Super Bowls featured Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Brees, Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner as the starting quarterbacks. None was trying to decide between a player with two starts (Flynn) and a rookie third-round choice (Wilson).

Even if Flynn or Wilson emerges as viable this season, Seattle could realistically have the third-best quarterback in the division this season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The red non-contact jersey Sidney Rice wears in practice invites questions about his availability coming off two offseason shoulder surgeries. Rice seems to be moving and catching well, however. My read is that the team is being cautious, and there are no pressing concerns.
  • Rice needs to do a better job of protecting himself. He tends to land awkwardly, exposing himself to unnecessary contact. The plan was for the shoulder surgeries to enable more aggressive weight lifting, allowing Rice to strengthen his lithe frame. While the shoulders are a concern, Rice also suffered two concussions last season.
  • Seattle continues to show an uncanny ability to find important roles for obscure defensive players. Defensive end Red Bryant became a success story after converting from defensive tackle over the past couple of seasons. Clinton McDonald, a former college linebacker acquired from Cincinnati in the Kelly Jennings trade, is now a factor. McDonald stands ahead of Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch as the fourth defensive lineman in the nickel package. McDonald is backing up Mebane in the base defense.
  • Bryant's outgoing personality makes him a natural leader on defense. Mebane, his quieter teammate on the line, emerged in that area last season, after the team released veteran linebacker Lofa Tatupu. Leroy Hill: "A lot of times in the huddle, Mebane is the one talking. It's odd because he never did that role, but last year he stepped up and people fell in behind him. ... People listen to what he's got to say."
  • Left guard John Moffitt could miss the next few weeks after requiring elbow surgery. My initial take was that his replacement, Deuce Lutui, would provide an upgrade. That could be true in pass protection especially. One question, however, is whether Lutui fits the profile for Cable's zone blocking scheme. Moffitt appears to be a better fit that way. He might be best suited for center, actually, but the team is set there with Max Unger, who recently signed a long-term extension.
  • Seattle has apparently hit on two seventh-round choices this year. Greg Scruggs has a chance to stick on the defensive line. J.R. Sweezy has improbably made a quick conversion from college defensive lineman to NFL guard. Seattle gave him time with its starting line against Tennessee in the preseason opener. Sweezy played surprisingly well. He projects as a good run-blocker for Cable's scheme. Rishaw Johnson is another obscure offensive lineman to watch along those lines.
  • We've made it this far without mentioning Marshawn Lynch, the offensive player Seattle relied upon most heavily last season. Rookie Robert Turbin has gotten more attention as the projected backup. The Seahawks haven't heard whether Lynch will face a suspension in relation to his pending DUI case. Teams wouldn't have to fear the ground game nearly as much if Lynch missed time.
  • Speaking of middle linebacker, rookie Bobby Wagner remains the favorite to start, in my view. He has outstanding speed and strong hands for taking on blocks when necessary. Veteran fullback Michael Robinson even compared Wagner to a young Patrick Willis. Wagner's preseason debut was a bit of an adventure, however. He overran a few plays and didn't stand out.
  • The offensive line should be fine as long as left tackle Russell Okung remains healthy. Okung was looking good early in camp one year ago, only to suffer an ankle injury during an Aug. 11 preseason game against San Diego. The torn pectoral he suffered late last season counts as a fluke. Philadelphia's Trent Cole, frustrated by Okung's edgy style, unleashed a judo move on him. The longer Okung can go without landing on the injury report, the better Seattle can feel about his long-term prospects.
  • Cornerback Walter Thurmond and offensive lineman James Carpenter could make an impact later in the season. Both are coming off serious injuries. Neither will factor early in the season. Playing Carpenter at left guard has long-term appeal. He and Okung would form a massive combination on the left side. Carpenter is still limping around with a heavy brace on his surgically repaired knee, however.
  • Carroll's extreme commitment to competition shows up in his willingness to play young players at key positions, including middle linebacker and even quarterback. The effect is felt throughout the roster. Lutui: "Rookies, first-year guys, he puts them in. I’ve never seen that on any level. That pushes the older guys. Everybody is not comfortable. Everybody is not complacent. It doesn’t matter if you have a new contract. Everybody is on an edge. You know have to better yourself. And that is good to see."
Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. broke down the top six needs remaining Insider for each of the AFC North teams. You'll need an Insider subscription to view the entire post, but here's a glimpse of the top three needs:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Horton's top three needs: Cornerback, guard and safety.

Horton on cornerback: The starters in 2011 were Leon Hall, who will be coming off an Achilles injury, and 32-year-old Nate Clements. When Hall went down, Adam Jones filled in, but none of these three make you comfortable in man coverage. Newly acquired free agent Jason Allen will help, but there is a lot of work to be done here.

Hensley's comment: I wouldn't put cornerback as the top need because the Bengals added Allen and re-signed Jones. Allen is an upgrade over Kelly Jennings. Guard is the bigger concern. If the season started today, the Bengals' starting right guard would either be Otis Hudson, Clint Boling or Anthony Collins (who would shift over from tackle).

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Horton's top three needs: Quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

Horton on quarterback: Right now, their options at QB are starter Colt McCoy and veteran backup Seneca Wallace, but nobody expects it to stay that way. With two first-round draft picks, they will almost surely pick a QB with one of them.

Hensley's comment: You could make a strong argument that quarterback, wide receiver or running back should rank as the No. 1 need. My top need for Cleveland is right tackle. The Browns can at least start McCoy, Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Montario Hardesty at those other positions. Right tackle was a weak spot for the Browns last season with Tony Pashos and Artis Hicks, both of whom are now gone. The Browns' starting right tackle at this point is Oniel Cousins, a third-round bust from Baltimore.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Horton's three needs: Inside linebacker, left guard and safety.

Horton on inside linebacker: The Ray Lewis era will be ending soon, and the Ravens need to find his replacement. Jameel McClain was re-signed, and he can play inside or outside, but a three-down linebacker who can play solid pass defense is sorely needed.

Hensley's comment: Left guard is the biggest need on the team, and it's not even close. The Ravens couldn't keep Ben Grubbs and failed to sign Evan Mathis. The fallback option is Jah Reid, a backup offensive tackle last season. Going from a Pro Bowl guard (Grubbs) to a converted tackle (Reid) is a major step down.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Horton's top three needs: Offensive tackle/guard, nose tackle and running back.

Horton on offensive tackle/guard: Center Maurkice Pouncey is the only stable starter on this unit. Veteran tackle Max Starks is coming off an ACL injury and T Willie Colon can't stay healthy, though the coaches hope he can get through a full season at RT with young Marcus Gilbert moving from RT to LT. There is also a big hole at left guard. The Steelers need to get at least one, and maybe two, starters up front.

Hensley's comment: You can't really disagree with this assessment. Left guard Doug Legursky is a backup who performed admirably when Chris Kemoeatu was benched. Gilbert has a good chance of succeeding on the left side, but it's hard to depend on Colon at right tackle with his injury history. The Steelers' options are limited because there is no depth. Jonathan Scott, who has struggled mightily, is the top backup at tackle, and there's no reserves at guard with Trai Essex (free agent) and Jamon Meredith (not tendered as a restricted free agent) off on the roster.
The Bengals decided to keep Adam "Pacman" Jones and his baggage, reaching an agreement with often-troubled cornerback, according to ESPN's John Clayton.

This comes as a surprise, even though there were reports that the Bengals and Jones had been talking.

Jones
Off the field, Jones' latest run-in with the law --he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct in January -- will be reviewed by the NFL, which could impose a suspension now that he has signed with a team.

On the field, the lasting impression of Jones was getting beat on a double move by Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson for a 40-yard touchdown in last season's playoff loss.

So why are the Bengals re-signing Jones? In their mind, he is better than the other options available, like free agent Terence Newman from the Cowboys. Jones was actually solid in the regular season when he replaced injured Leon Hall for seven starts. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones allowed 16 receptions in eight games in 2011.

The Bengals have taken a proactive approach in addressing a cornerback group that has Hall coming off a season-ending Achilles injury and Nate Clements entering his 12th season. Cincinnati also signed Texans free agent Jason Allen and could draft another corner in the first round. The addition of Jones likely means the Bengals won't re-sign Kelly Jennings.

Jones, 28, has been repeatedly arrested during his NFL career. He missed the entire 2007 season with the first of two suspensions from the league.

The Tennessee Titans traded Jones to Dallas before the 2008 draft. An alcohol-related altercation with a bodyguard that the Cowboys assigned to him led to another six-game suspension.

He was out of the NFL for a year before the Bengals gave him the two-year deal in 2010.
The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

1. STEELERS: Pittsburgh had the top-ranked pass defense, and it wasn't all about the pass rush this time. Actually, the pass rush was extremely inconsistent this season, so that No. 1 ranking is more of a reflection of the Steelers' secondary. Cornerback Ike Taylor and free safety Ryan Clark had career years. Taylor's season, though, was marred by a late-season decline that ended with him getting stiffed-armed by the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas on the touchdown that ended the Steelers' season. Clark had the best season of any safety in the division, which is saying a lot when Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are in the AFC North. He finished second in the division with 100 tackles. Polamalu was solid, but didn't play up to his usual spectacular level. William Gay was a pleasant surprise, taking back the starting cornerback job that he lost in 2010. What could change: Gay is an unrestricted free agent, but it shouldn't take much to retain him. Look for rookie cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown to make more of an impact in their second seasons.

2. RAVENS: This group exceeded expectations, and did so in a surprising manner. Instead of starting Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr at cornerback, the Ravens finished fourth in pass defense with Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. Webb was the division's top cornerback, recording five interceptions and breaking up 20 passes (and that doesn't include three interceptions in the playoffs). Williams was a physical presence at corner. The biggest disappointment was Reed, who intercepted three passes -- his fewest in a season where he played more than 12 games. The Ravens' other safety, hard-hitting Bernard Pollard, provided more of an impact than Reed. First-round pick Jimmy Smith endured an up-and-down rookie season. What could change: Smith should take over for Williams as a starting cornerback this season. Foxworth is expected to get cut, and the same could happen to Carr. Both backup safeties, Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, are free agents, but I suspect Nakamura will get re-signed.

3. BROWNS: Joe Haden showed signs of being a shutdown corner, even though he failed to make an interception. He held his own against some of the best receivers in the NFL, from Larry Fitzgerald to Brandon Marshall. His worst games came against Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. While Haden is among the division's best cornerbacks, Sheldon Brown was the worst starting corner in the AFC North. Brown's biggest asset is the experience he provides to a young secondary. The defensive backfield was hurt by the loss of strong safety T.J. Ward, who missed the final 10 games with a foot injury. Teams took advantage of Ward's replacement, Usama Young. Free safety Mike Adams beat out Young for a starting job in training camp. Dimitri Patterson was a reliable nickelback, breaking up a dozen passes. What could change: The Browns might replace Adams, who is a free agent, and they could give rookie seventh-round pick Eric Hagg a shot at doing so. Cleveland is very interested in bringing Patterson back. It wouldn't be a surprise if Patterson starts in place of Brown.
4. BENGALS: Leon Hall is perhaps the most valuable cornerback in the division. In the first nine games with Hall, the Bengals gave up eight touchdown passes. In the last seven regular-season games without him (he had a season-ending Achilles injury), they allowed 12 touchdown passes. The Bengals replaced Hall with Adam Jones, who was extremely erratic in coverage. The Bengals value the veteran leadership of Nate Clements, but the cornerback is looking past his prime. Only nickelback Kelly Jennings struggled on a more consistent basis. Safety Reggie Nelson allowed some big plays early, but he was stingy in pass defense late in the season. The other safety, Chris Crocker, had trouble covering the more athletic tight ends in the league. What could change: The Bengals need to draft a cornerback in the first round to press Clements for a starting role and become his eventual replacement. Nelson is a free agent, but he is considered a priority to get re-signed. The Bengals are expected to part ways with Jones, who is a free agent.

Feb. 20: Special teams

Feb. 21: Defensive line

Feb. 23: Linebackers

For Monday: Offensive line

Counting the ways to build Super team

January, 30, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Super Bowls provide validation for players, coaches and organizations.

There are more ways than one to get there, however.


Top-notch quarterback play can cover lots of blemishes, as the AFC champion New England Patriots proved. They went 13-3 with a defense that ranked 31st in yards allowed and 26th in Total QBR allowed.

General patterns trump black-and-white rules when it comes to building a championship team.

Recent work from draftmetrics.com shows how team composition correlated with 2011 success. I've broken out charts showing where NFC West teams ranked in games started by homegrown draft choices (first chart) and veterans acquired through free agency (second one).

The draftmetrics.com research shows teams succeeding, in general, when their own draft choices started more games. Teams ranking closer to the middle of the pack in starts by veteran free agents also fared better than those on the margins.


The St. Louis Rams jump out right away. They led the NFL in most starts by veterans signed from other teams. They ranked last in starts by their own draft choices. That combination, exaggerated by an unusual number of injuries, helped explain why the Rams finished with a 2-14 record.

The top 10 teams in starts by homegrown draft choices went 89-71 last season, including 13-3 by the San Francisco 49ers. The middle 12 teams went 95-97. The bottom 10 teams went 72-88. Seattle ranked fifth from the bottom, in part because the Seahawks have cut ties with so many draft choices from previous regimes (think Aaron Curry, Kelly Jennings, etc.).

The top 10 teams in starts by veteran free agents went 67-93. Teams in the bottom 10 went 80-80. The middle 12 teams were most successful on the whole, going 109-83. But two teams barely falling into that middle group, New England and San Francisco, pumped up the overall record.

Note: I'm heading over to Radio Row here shortly and hope to run across some NFC West types.

Final Word: NFC West

November, 18, 2011
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

Skelton's opportunity. Arizona Cardinals quarterback John Skelton steps up in class when he faces the San Francisco 49ers' defense. The matchup figures to be a tough one from a protection standpoint, but the Cardinals have found ways to strike for big plays this season. They have seven pass plays of at least 40 yards this season, fourth-most in the league behind Detroit, Green Bay and Houston. The 49ers have given up seven such plays, tied for fourth-most in the league. That gives Arizona a puncher's chance against the 49ers. And if Skelton can somehow pull out a victory, his stock will rise considerably.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
David Richard/US PresswireThe Rams' Steven Jackson has 30 career games with at least 100 rushing yards.
Ganging up on power backs. Steven Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, Beanie Wells and Frank Gore give the NFC West four running backs able to dish out punishment. All are physical runners. I'm most interested in seeing whether Jackson can top 100 yards rushing for the fourth game in a row. He has 30 career games with at least 100 yards, but none against Seattle. That's surprising given that Jackson has faced the Seahawks more times than he has faced any other team -- 14, counting playoffs.

49ers hold their ground. Every NFL team but the 49ers has allowed at least three rushing touchdowns this season. San Francisco has allowed zero. The 49ers are the first team since the 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars to go nine games into a season without allowing one, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Cardinals rank tied for 11th in the league with eight rushing scores, but they have zero in their past two games. Wells' injured knee has robbed power from him. Wells had only 10 carries for 29 yards against the 49ers last season. He did carry 15 times for 79 yards against them as a rookie in 2009.

Cornerbacks in focus. The St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks will play without cornerbacks Ron Bartell, Bradley Fletcher, Jerome Murphy, Al Harris, Walter Thurmond or Marcus Trufant, among others. The team best able to exploit issues in the secondary could prevail. Seattle feels better about its cornerback situation, but the raw talent is questionable. Two of the Seahawks' five players at the position were undrafted. Two others are rookies. None of the five was drafted earlier than the fifth round. That was partly by design, however. The team traded 2006 first-rounder Kelly Jennings and 2007 second-rounder Josh Wilson.

Explosive potential in return game. Patrick Peterson and Ted Ginn Jr. give the Cardinals-49ers game big-play potential on returns. Peterson has helped Arizona go from 27th last season to second this season in punt-return average. He leads the NFL in that category with a 17.6-yard average among players with more than 15 punt returns. His three touchdowns on punt returns also lead the NFL. The 49ers' Ginn ranks third in punt-return average and third in kick-return average among players with more than 15 returns in each category. He also has two touchdowns. The Cardinals' kick returner, LaRod Stephens-Howling, has been quiet this season. He scored three times on returns over the previous two seasons.

Bengals pass defense takes major hit

November, 13, 2011
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CINCINNATI -- The Bengals' surprising season took a major hit, and it goes beyond the loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Starting cornerback Leon Hall is out for the season after tearing his Achilles tendon, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. The Bengals will replace him with either Adam Jones or Kelly Jennings, but they won't really replace him.

Hall is Cincinnati's best all-around cornerback, which is why the Bengals signed him to a $39-million extension in September. Jones can provide playmaking ability, but he's been injury-prone during his short stint in Cincinnati.

The other option is Jennings, who is solid in the nickel defense but failed to establish himself as a starter in Seattle. The Steelers targeted Jennings a couple of times when Hall went out of the game.

With both Hall and Jones out Sunday, the Bengals were extremely thin at cornerback. They had to move starting safety Chris Crocker into nickel-back duty to make it through the game against Pittsburgh.

Cincinnati had the 10th-ranked pass defense entering Sunday's game, and one of the main reasons for the success was Hall. The 18th overall pick of the 2007 draft, Hall hasn't missed a game in his career and had started every game in each of the past three seasons.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is making plans to play against the Titans even though a sprained left foot caused him to miss Wednesday's practice.

Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger told Tennessee reporters in a conference call that he is still in a walking boot and has made plans to wear specialized footwear in order to play. He also said he expected to throw in individual drills Wednesday, but he was one of six injured starters who was listed as "did not participate in practice" for the Steelers.

“We’ll do our best, just take it day by day and see where it goes,” Roethlisberger said in the conference call. “If it’s just a pain tolerance thing, I’m going to be out there. I can deal with pain. We just want to make sure structurally it is sound.”

Roethlisberger injured his foot late in a 17-10 loss at Houston and left the stadium in a walking boot. An MRI revealed the sprain on Monday.

The plan is for Roethlisberger to wear a shoe that is one size bigger with a steel plate on the bottom. He added that the walking boot is a precautionary measure.

Other Steelers starters who didn't practice were: NT Casey Hampton (shoulder), LB James Harrison (eye), LG Chris Kemoeatu (knee), RB Rashard Mendenhall (hamstring), DE Aaron Smith (foot) and WR Hines Ward (not injury-related).
  • Bengals: Starting safety Chris Crocker (knee) and nickel back Kelly Jennings (hamstring) both didn't practice. Rookie pass rusher Dontay Moch, the Bengals' third-round pick, practiced for the first tie since breaking his foot in an Aug. 12 preseason game.

AFC North Stock Watch

August, 30, 2011
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Let's see who's falling and rising after Week 3 of the preseason.

Falling

1. Cleveland Browns' ball security: The Browns were efficient for the most part during the first two weeks of the preseason. But something got into this team in last week's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Cleveland was sloppy and turnover-prone in Week 3. The Browns fumbled three times (lost two on special teams), and quarterback Colt McCoy threw an interception to Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel. The Browns don't have enough talent to overcome so many mistakes in the regular season. The Browns need to get back to playing smart, mistake-free football.

[+] EnlargeTorrey Smith
AP Photo/Matt RourkeRavens second-round pick Torrey Smith is still adjusting to the NFL game.
2. Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens receiver: So far Smith doesn't appear ready to contribute right away to the Ravens. The rookie second-round pick has suffered some early drops and is thinking too much on the field. The hesitancy also is taking away Smith's biggest asset, which is his speed. Receivers often take time to adjust to the NFL. Smith has shown a few flashes but still has a ways to go.

3. Adam Jones, Cincinnati Bengals cornerback: When a significant trade is made in the NFL, that often means the team isn't confident with the player(s) currently on the roster. That's likely the case with the health of Jones, who continues to rehab from two offseason neck surgeries. The Bengals acquired former Seattle Seahawks corner Kelly Jennings this week. Jones missed all of training camp and the preseason. The Bengals were hoping Jones could make it back for Week 1. But Jones could be a candidate for the physically unable to perform list (PUP).

Rising

1. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver: Brown exploded against the Atlanta Falcons last week. He recorded four receptions for 137 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, Brown has been the most impressive AFC North player in the preseason, according to our recent poll. He’s the favorite to land Pittsburgh’s No. 3 receiver role.

2. Tyrod Taylor, Baltimore Ravens quarterback: Taylor is another player whose stock continues to rise. The rookie had another solid outing against the Washington Redskins. Taylor threw for 125 yards and one touchdown and he led the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. The Ravens haven't officially named their No. 2 quarterback. But Taylor is making a very strong case.

3. Crezdon Butler, Steelers cornerback: Butler made a big impression on Pittsburgh's coaching staff with nine tackles and a 95-yard interception return for a touchdown against Atlanta. The Steelers need answers in their secondary before their Week 1 showdown against Baltimore. Starters Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden have been out with injuries. Younger players like Butler and Keenan Lewis need to step up.

Bengals trade for CB Kelly Jennings

August, 29, 2011
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The Cincinnati Bengals made another trade, acquiring former Seattle Seahawks cornerback Kelly Jennings. Cincinnati shipped defensive tackle Clinton McDonald to Seattle.

Here are some thoughts on the move:
  • Jennings is fast, and that's the most important part of this deal. Cincinnati lacks speed on defense and in the secondary. The Bengals lost their best pure athlete in Johnathan Joseph in free agency. Jennings can be the speedster in the secondary Cincinnati needs.
  • Jennings is a former first-round pick with a lot of starting experience. Therefore, he can step in if Leon Hall or Nate Clements is injured. Cincinnati doesn't have a lot of experience on its bench behind the starters. Adam Jones is a former starter but is out with a neck injury.
  • You also wonder what this means for Jones. The Bengals traded for an experienced veteran less than two weeks before the regular season. That could be a sign they're not optimistic about Jones' chances early in the season. Jones had a second neck surgery in June. He may be a candidate for the physically unable to perform list (PUP) to start the season.

On the Seahawks' Kelly Jennings trade

August, 29, 2011
8/29/11
2:59
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Five quick notes/thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' trading cornerback Kelly Jennings to Cincinnati for defensive tackle Clinton McDonald:
  • Size matters: The Seahawks have gone big and tall at cornerback. Jennings is listed at 5-foot-11, but he's slight of frame and struggled in matchups against bigger receivers.
  • Experience does not matter: Jennings was one of two cornerbacks on the Seahawks' roster with significant starting experience. The team has decided to go young -- very young -- and Jennings was practically ancient by Seattle cornerback standards at 28.
  • Roster churn: Jennings' departure leaves the Seahawks with five of their own first-round choices and three from other teams. One of their own, cornerback Marcus Trufant, took a pay reduction from $5.9 million to $3 million recently. One of the others, linebacker Aaron Curry, restructured his contract in a manner that makes him easier to trade or release next year. The other three first-rounders project as long-term starters. James Carpenter, Russell Okung and Earl Thomas were chosen by the team's current leadership. The Seahawks are taking a sledgehammer to the foundation they inherited. Chris Spencer, Lofa Tatupu, Josh Wilson, Lawrence Jackson, Rob Sims and Darryl Tapp were all relatively high draft choices under previous regimes.
  • Money inconsequential: The Seahawks paid a $200,000 signing bonus to Jennings as part of the one-year deal he signed this offseason. That bought little security in the end.
  • NFC West reunion: Jennings heads to a Bengals secondary already featuring NFC West castoffs Taylor Mays and Nate Clements, both late of the San Francisco 49ers. Jennings was never going to live up to his first-round status in Seattle. He has more value to the Bengals without those expectations.
  • Clinton who?: McDonald was a seventh-round choice of the Bengals in 2009. The team had released him previously. He played in eight games last season. McDonald stands just under 6-2 and converted from linebacker in college. Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly, writing for his 2009 draft guide, lauded McDonald for possessing toughness and a mean streak. He thought McDonald would project as a three-technique defensive tackle in a one-gap scheme. McDonald was not expected to earn a roster spot in Cincinnati.

Lots more moves to come. Teams must reduce to 80 players by Tuesday.
The Seattle Seahawks have talked about getting taller at cornerback.

They did something about it Saturday.

Fifth-round choice Richard Sherman, from Stanford, stands 6-foot-2. Byron Maxwell, a sixth-round choice from Clemson, stands 6-0. Throw in fifth-round safety Mark LeGree, who picked off 22 passes at Appalachian State, and it's clear Seattle is remaking its secondary.

Free safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Walter Thurmond began the transformation as draft choices last year. The team traded 5-9 cornerback Josh Wilson last season. Sleight-of-frame cornerback Kelly Jennings, a first-round choice in 2006, is not signed for 2011 and faces an uncertain future with the team.

I'm also curious whether starter Marcus Trufant, who turned 30 last season and carries a $5.9 million salary in 2011, fits into the longer-range plans as Seattle looks to get younger.

Lockout-related rules prevented teams from trading veteran players during the draft, making it tougher to know where some incumbent players stand.

Draft Watch: NFC West

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Arizona Cardinals

Quarterback stands out as the most obvious need for the Cardinals after Arizona suffered through a rough 2010 season with Derek Anderson, Max Hall and John Skelton under center. Acquiring a veteran passer in free agency or trade would clear the way for Arizona to focus on other areas in the draft. But if the labor impasse continues through April, the Cardinals will face more pressure to find one in the draft.

Beyond quarterback, the Cardinals need fresh talent at outside linebacker to improve their pass rush and perimeter run defense. They need help at offensive tackle, where Levi Brown hasn’t played to his status as the fifth player drafted in 2007. Their starting interior offensive linemen are without contracts for 2011, so that area is another concern.

Arizona does not have a starting-caliber tight end. Inside linebacker is another position needing attention.

San Francisco 49ers

Quarterback, cornerback and outside linebacker rank among primary needs for a team that has invested five first-round picks in its offense since 2006, including three over the past two drafts.

David Carr is the only quarterback under contract to the 49ers for 2011. Starting cornerback Nate Clements will not return under his current contract. Will Alex Smith come back for another year?

While San Francisco’s front seven has been strong, the team hasn’t had a player reach double digits in sacks since Andre Carter had 12.5 in 2002. That was also the last time the 49ers posted a winning record. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio likes to build around a pass-rusher and a cover corner.

Nose tackle could become another concern. Starter Aubrayo Franklin played last season as a franchise player. The balloon payment Washington paid to Albert Haynesworth pumped up the projected franchise value for defensive tackles, making it prohibitive for the 49ers to name Franklin their franchise player for a second consecutive season, should the designation exist in a new labor agreement.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams are set at quarterback and picking late enough in the first round -- 14th overall -- to let the draft come to them. They’re in position to benefit when a highly ranked player falls unexpectedly. They should not feel pressured to reach for a position even though they do have needs.

It’s important for the team to arm Sam Bradford with a more dynamic outside receiving threat. Injuries severely weakened the position last season. Front-line talent was lacking at the position even when most of the Rams’ wideouts were healthy.

Defensive tackle and outside linebacker jump out as two additional primary needs. Finding a defensive end to develop behind James Hall would also make sense. Landing a right guard in the draft would solidify the offensive line while letting 2010 starter Adam Goldberg back up multiple positions. The team also needs safety help after letting Oshiomogho Atogwe leave. Finding a change-of-pace back to supplement Steven Jackson's contributions might count as a luxury.

Seattle Seahawks

Quarterback will be a primary need if the Seahawks fail to re-sign Matt Hasselbeck. The position needs to be stocked for the long term even if Hasselbeck does come back for an 11th season with the team.

Restocking the offensive line must take priority no matter what happens at quarterback. The Seahawks’ running game has disappeared in recent seasons, putting too much pressure on the rest of the offense. Drafting left tackle Russell Okung sixth overall a year ago was a start. Seattle needs to find answers at both guard spots and probably right tackle (assuming Max Unger returns from injury and takes over at center, as expected). Adding Robert Gallery in free agency could take off some pressure in the draft. Gallery played under Seattle's new line coach, Tom Cable, in Oakland.

The cornerback situation needs attention. Marcus Trufant’s salary jumps significantly, raising questions about how the team will view him coming off an inconsistent season. Another corner Seattle chose in the first round, Kelly Jennings, is without a contract and lacks the size Seattle prefers at the position.
Rodgers, Matthews & Driver US PresswireGreen Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and Donald Driver are all playing in Super Bowl XLV, but how might they have fit into the NFC West's draft plans?
DALLAS -- Every Aaron Rodgers touchdown pass and playoff victory makes the San Francisco 49ers look worse for drafting Alex Smith over Rodgers back in 2005.

A victory for Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl 45 would only sanction additional mutilation of this rotting equine carcass.

Some criticism is justified, obviously, but with Rodgers and key Packers scheduled to make their Super Bowl media debuts Monday afternoon, another line of thinking occurred to me. The 49ers weren't the only ones to bypass Rodgers and other key players in this Super Bowl. Why should they absorb such a disproportionate amount of the blame?

The Green Bay players making Super Bowl media appearances Monday -- Rodgers, Donald Driver, A.J. Hawk, Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson -- all qualify for analysis and reflection.

Let's take a look at them through NFC West lenses, beginning in chronological order:

1998 Draft: Charles Woodson, CB, Michigan

Round: First (fourth overall, by Oakland)

NFC West spin: The Cardinals passed over Woodson to select defensive end Andre Wadsworth third overall. The decision seemed defensible at the time. Wadsworth was a freakish talent at a premium position, but chronic knee injuries prevented him from approaching his potential. Wadsworth underwent microfracture knee surgery after only his third NFL season. He never played again, despite a 2007 comeback attempt.

First-round selections in the division:

  • Cardinals (third overall): Wadsworth, DE, Florida State
  • Rams (sixth overall): Grant Wistrom, DE, Nebraska
  • Seahawks (15th overall): Anthony Simmons, LB, Clemson
  • 49ers (28th overall): R.W. McQuarters, CB, Oklahoma State
1999 Draft: Donald Driver, WR, Alcorn State

Round: Seventh (213th overall, by Green Bay)

NFC West spin: Good for the Packers. They found a steal in the seventh round. Driver developed into a full-time starter in 2002, his fourth season. He has 698 career receptions. Driver reflects well on the Packers, but not negatively on anyone in the NFC West.

Seventh-round selections in the division (Seahawks did not have a pick): 2005 Draft: Aaron Rodgers, QB, California

Round: First (24th overall, by Green Bay)

NFC West spin: Only the Seahawks, who held the 26th choice that year, escape second-guessing for this one. To be fair, however, the Rams' Marc Bulger was coming off a breakout 2004 season in which he had thrown 21 touchdown passes while leading St. Louis to the playoffs. There was no reason for the Rams to target a quarterback in the 2005 first round. Rodgers might have wilted in St. Louis while the organization crumbled around him (a fate that might have awaited him in San Francisco as well). The Cardinals could have used a young quarterback to build around, but they signed Kurt Warner to a free-agent contract that offseason. Warner went 2-8 as a starter in 2005, but the Cardinals eventually went to the Super Bowl with him under center. Warner even edged Rodgers in the playoffs following the 2009 season.

First-round selections in the division:

  • 49ers (first overall): Alex Smith, QB, Utah
  • Cardinals (eighth overall): Antrel Rolle, DB, Miami
  • Rams (19th overall): Alex Barron, T, Florida State
  • Seahawks (26th overall): Chris Spencer, C, Mississippi
2006 Draft: A.J. Hawk, LB, Ohio State

Round: First (fifth overall, by Green Bay)

NFC West spin: The 49ers in particular were monitoring this choice closely. They were picking sixth overall that year and trying to find weapons for their second-year quarterback. Tight end Vernon Davis, chosen sixth overall, is becoming a perennial Pro Bowl choice. Hawk was an all-rookie selection, but he has not played well enough overall to cause much second-guessing in NFC West circles. The Cardinals ultimately whiffed on a quarterback that year, but no one is telling them they should have drafted Hawk instead.

First-round selections in the division:

  • 49ers (sixth overall): Davis, TE, Maryland
  • Cardinals (10th overall): Matt Leinart, QB, USC
  • Rams (15th overall): Tye Hill, CB, Clemson
  • 49ers (22nd overall): Manny Lawson, OLB, North Carolina State
  • Seahawks (31st overall): Kelly Jennings, CB, Miami
2006 Draft: Greg Jennings, WR, Western Michigan

Round: Second (52nd overall, by Green Bay)

NFC West spin: The Cardinals and Rams passed on Jennings in the second round, but that was understandable. Both teams were already strong at receiver. Looking back, however, the Rams certainly would have gone in another direction. They whiffed on tight end Joe Klopfenstein six spots before the Packers took Jennings.

Second-round selections in the division (49ers traded their pick):

  • Cardinals (41st overall): Deuce Lutui, G, USC
  • Rams (46th overall): Klopfenstein, TE, Colorado
  • Seahawks (63rd overall): Darryl Tapp, DE, Virginia Tech
2009 Draft: Clay Matthews, OLB, USC

Round: First (26th overall, to Green Bay)

NFC West spin: This draft hurts. Surely the Seahawks and Rams could have put Matthews' pass-rush ability to use even if he didn't fit their schemes precisely at the time. Both teams passed on him. Worse, the Packers used an additional 2009 first-round choice, this one ninth overall, for another key contributor, B.J. Raji.

First-round selections in the division:
Hope you enjoyed the exercise. I'll be heading to the Pittsburgh Steelers' media session in the not-too-distant future, with plans to check back at the next opportunity.


Aaron Rodgers touchdown pass and playoff victory makes the San Francisco 49ers look worse for drafting Alex Smith over Rodgers back in 2005.

A victory for Rodgers and Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl 45 would only sanction additional mutilation of this rotting equine carcass.

Some criticism is justified, obviously, but with Rodgers and key Packers scheduled to make their Super Bowl media debuts Monday afternoon, another line of thinking occurred to me. The 49ers weren't the only ones to bypass Rodgers and other key players in this Super Bowl. Why should they absorb such a disproportionate amount of the blame?

Rodgers' case isn't the only relevant or interesting one along these lines. The Green Bay players making Super Bowl media appearances Monday -- Aaron Rodgers, Donald Driver, A.J. Hawk, Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson -- all qualify for analysis and reflection.

Let's take a look at them through NFC West lenses, beginning in chronological order:

1998 Draft: Charles Woodson, CB, Michigan

Round: First (fourth overall, by Oakland)

NFC West spin: The Cardinals passed over Woodson to select defensive end Andre Wadsworth third overall. The decision seemed defensible at the time. Wadsworth was a freakish talent at a premium position, but chronic knee injuries prevented him from approaching his potential. Wadsworth underwent microfracture knee surgery after only his third NFL season. He never played again, despite a 2007 comeback attempt.

First-round selections in the division:

  • Cardinals (third overall): Wadsworth, DE, Florida State
  • Rams (sixth overall): Grant Wistrom, DE, Nebraska.
  • Seahawks (15th overall): Anthony Simmons, LB, Clemson
  • 49ers (28th overall): R.W. McQuarters, CB, Oklahoma State.
1999 Draft: Donald Driver, WR, Alcorn State

Round: Seventh (213th overall, by Green Bay)

NFC West spin: Good for the Packers. They found a steal in the seventh round. Driver developed into a full-time starter in 2002, his fourth season. He has 698 career receptions. Driver reflects well on the Packers, but not negatively on anyone in the NFC West.

Seventh-round selections in the division:

  • 49ers (23rth overall): Kory Minor, OLB, Notre Dame
  • Cardinals (239th overall): Chris Greisen, QB, Northwest Missouri
  • Rams (252nd overall): Rodney Williams, P, Georgia Tech
2005 Draft: Aaron Rodgers, QB, California

Round: First (24th overall, by Green Bay)

NFC West spin: Only the Seahawks, who held the 26th choice that year, escape second-guessing for this one. To be fair, however, the Rams' Marc Bulger was coming off a breakout 2004 season in which he had thrown 21 touchdown passes while leading St. Louis to the playoffs. There was no reason for the Rams to target a quarterback in the 2005 first round. Rodgers might have wilted in St. Louis while the organization crumbled around him (a fate that might have awaited him in San Francisco as well). The Cardinals could have used a young quarterback to build around, but they signed Kurt Warner to a free-agent contract that offseason. Warner went 2-8 as a starter in 2005, but the Cardinals eventually went to the Super Bowl with him under center. Warner even outplayed Rodgers in the playoffs following the 2009 season.

First-round selections in the division:

  • 49ers (first overall): Alex Smith, QB, Utah

The Arizona Cardinals could have had Rodgers, but they drafted cornerback-turned-safety-turned-New York Giant Antrel Rolle. The St. Louis Rams could have had Rodgers. They selected tackle Alex Barron, a player St. Louis sent to the Dallas Cowboys for Bobby Carpenter.

Rapid Reaction: Raiders 33, Seahawks 3

October, 31, 2010
10/31/10
7:35
PM ET
What it means: Seattle needs to get healthier to bounce back from this defeat in the short term. The Seahawks have fared well in patching their roster, but their depth isn't good enough to overcome this many injuries. They played all or some of their game Sunday without starting left tackle Russell Okung, second-team left tackle Tyler Polumbus, No. 1 receiver Mike Williams, starting right cornerback Kelly Jennings, second-team right corner Walter Thurmond, starting defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, starting nose tackle Colin Cole and starting defensive end Red Bryant. Starting left guard Ben Hamilton left the game after getting poked in the eye, but his replacement, Chester Pitts, might have played anyway. Pitts wound up playing left tackle after Polumbus departed.

NFC West race: The Seahawks fell to 4-3. The Arizona Cardinals were in danger of falling to 3-4 as they trailed the Tampa Bay Bucs in the final minutes. St. Louis pulled close at 4-4. Even the San Francisco 49ers (2-6) gained ground.

What I liked: Leon Washington provided a spark on punt returns. Washington's role on offense has disappeared since the team acquired Marshawn Lynch from Buffalo. Washington's big-play ability does have value, however. His 43-yard punt return put the offense in prime position in the first half. Washington also had 45- and 37-yard kickoff returns.

What I didn't like: Seattle suffered some unsightly miscues on defense, resulting in big plays for the Raiders. Free safety Earl Thomas went for the pick, helping the Raiders score one long touchdown. Strong safety Lawyer Milloy and linebacker David Hawthorne collided on another Raiders touchdown. The offense suffered too many penalties, putting Seattle in unfavorable down-and-distances. On special teams, kicker Olindo Mare missed two field goal tries after previously making 30 in a row. This defeat was a team effort.

Trending: Seattle's run defense faltered some against Arizona last week. The Raiders had their way running the ball. Darren McFadden had more than 100 yards in the first three quarters. The Raiders also burned the Seahawks with misdirection plays, including when receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey busted a 30-yard run on a reverse. Losing Bryant hurt against the run. Seattle had owned the NFL's second-ranked run defense, but that ranking will surely fall. And with the New York Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw visiting Seattle in Week 9, the trend could continue.

What's next: The Seahawks face the Giants at home in Week 9, followed by trips to Arizona and New Orleans.

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