NFL Nation: Kourtnei Brown

Though the Houston Texans announced last week they'd be placing No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney on injured reserve after his third surgery of the season and second on his right knee, they didn't actually do it until Wednesday.

Clowney
Clowney had microfracture surgery in Houston on Monday.

With Clowney down, the Texans called up Jason Ankrah to their active roster. When the season began, Ankrah was the only undrafted rookie to make the team's active roster. He went back down to the practice squad for several weeks before being called back up Wednesday. Ankrah is now one of two undrafted rookies on the active roster, joining tight end Anthony Denham, who was signed from the practice squad last week.

The Texans filled their practice squad with Kourtnei Brown, a defensive end who came out of Clemson in 2012.

Steve Johnson to make debut for Bills

August, 24, 2013
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Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson will make his preseason debut on Saturday against the Washington Redskins.

Johnson had missed the first two preseason games with a hamstring injury, but was not among those players the Bills announced as inactive for Saturday's game.

The following players will not be in uniform for Buffalo:
Safety Jairus Byrd is not expected to play, but was not included in the Bills' announcement of inactives. If Byrd plays on Saturday, the team will lose its roster exemption for him, which is set to begin Tuesday and run through next Friday.

Other Bills expected expected to play for the first time this preseason are cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Justin Rogers.

Mario Williams among Bills' inactives

August, 16, 2013
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Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams (foot) will not play in tonight's preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings, the team announced.

Williams played two series in the Bills' preseason opener last Sunday, and has been limited throughout training camp with a foot injury.

"He keeps getting treatment to take care of his body," coach Doug Marrone said Wednesday. "Again, we’re just trying to be smart up and down, resting him for some time, just so he can make sure he just gets ready. Especially coming off this short week."

The Bills said Williams will dress for the game, meaning he would be available to play in an emergency.

Other Bills not playing tonight:
Not listed among the inactives are quarterback Kevin Kolb, wide receivers Brad Smith and Kevin Elliott, tight end Scott Chandler, and linebacker Keith Pough. All missed Sunday's win over Indianapolis.

Camp Confidential: Buffalo Bills

August, 4, 2013
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Travel to most NFL training camps, and this passing drill is the same: A ball boy snaps to a quarterback, who throws to a receiver practicing a specific route.

But make a stop at St. John Fisher College in upstate New York, site of the Buffalo Bills' training camp, and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel isn't receiving the ball from just another member of the equipment staff.

Instead, you'll see head coach Doug Marrone snapping it to Manuel.

It's appropriate, because the fate of Marrone, a former NFL offensive lineman, will be tied to the success of Manuel, the first quarterback chosen in April's draft.

Through his first week of an NFL training camp, Manuel has looked the part, avoiding the critical mistakes that rookie quarterbacks often make as the intensity of practice picks up.

Which raises the next point: These Bills want to play fast.

Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett installed a no-huddle offense last season while working under Marrone at Syracuse, and will bring the same concepts -- borrowed from the Bills' "K-gun" offense of the early 1990s -- to Buffalo.

As training camp rolls on, Manuel has been eased into the first-team offense in practice, and he appears comfortable running Hackett's up-tempo system. Having poise in practice is one thing, though, and expecting Manuel and Hackett, who was last in the NFL as a quality control coach with the Bills in 2009, to light up NFL defenses this season is probably asking too much.

The Bills want to bring Manuel along slowly, and there will be growing pains along the way. So despite the rookie's passing the first few tests of training camp, don't look for Marrone to accelerate the process too much.

But for now, it's so far, so good for the 16th overall pick out of Florida State.

"He's going to be the face of our franchise," general manager Doug Whaley said. "And it's not too big for him."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
AP Photo/Bill WippertMario Williams was bothered by a wrist injury in 2012, and this year he has already missed time in training camp with a sore foot.
1. Can they stay healthy? When the Bills took the practice field for the first time last weekend, nearly the entire roster was able to participate in practice, leading Marrone to note afterward how the team was fortunate to begin camp that healthy. Yet defensive end Mario Williams was one of the few exceptions, watching from the sideline because of a sore foot. He later left camp to have it examined by doctors, and the Bills' highest-paid player had not returned to practice by Friday.

Last season, Williams dealt with a wrist injury that limited his productivity until he underwent a procedure during the bye week. He came back strong, finishing with 10.5 sacks. But the Bills need more out of him, and his latest injury isn't a good sign for the team.

Likewise for wide receiver Steve Johnson, who pulled up with a hamstring injury during Friday's practice, and could miss time this preseason. The Bills dealt with a number of injuries to key players last season -- tight end Scott Chandler and running back Fred Jackson among them -- and they haven't built enough depth on their roster to withstand the blow of losing a player like Johnson.

2. When does Byrd return? Safety Jairus Byrd remains unsigned and away from Bills training camp, another less-than-ideal situation for one of the team's top players. The Bills failed to reach a long-term deal with Byrd, who is the only franchise-tagged player in the NFL yet to sign his tender, by the July 15 deadline.

Ultimately, it would be surprising if Byrd doesn't report to the team by the start of the regular season. By doing so, he would earn a guaranteed $6.9 million, and still have the possibility of a long-term deal come next March.

The question is if the Bills can persuade Byrd to return earlier, forgo the risk of injury and use the preseason to get acclimated to the new defensive scheme. But one way or another, these situations tend to work themselves out, and Pro Bowl-caliber players like Byrd quickly get back up to speed.

3. Can Pettine turn around the defense? It didn't take long last season for the Bills' porous defense to be exposed. The New York Jets, owners of the NFL's 28th-ranked scoring offense by season's end, hung 48 points on Buffalo in the season opener. Three weeks later, the New England Patriots erased a 21-7 third-quarter deficit to come away from Orchard Park with a 52-28 win, lighting up the Bills for 580 total yards.

Such performances, especially against division opponents, will drown the Bills again this season if new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine can't turn things around. Pettine is known for blitz-heavy schemes that pressure opposing defenses, but his defensive remake will also have to address a run defense that allowed opponents 145.8 yards per game last season, second-worst in the NFL.

Pettine has several pieces to work with, including Byrd, Williams and top cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The key will be filling holes elsewhere. Can rookie Kiko Alonso step in right away at inside linebacker? Can former third overall pick Marcell Dareus benefit from a fresh start and contribute along the defensive line? And where does the pass rush come from if Williams goes down with another injury? These are just a few of the questions facing Pettine and his staff.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Beyond the early positive signs from Manuel, the Bills' offense has the potential to be explosive, especially if healthy. They addressed deficiencies behind Johnson at wide receiver by drafting Robert Woods (second round) and Marquise Goodwin (third round). They have one of the NFL's better running backs in C.J. Spiller and a receiving threat at tight end in Chandler. The offensive line could prove problematic, but Hackett's fast-paced system could help take pressure off blockers.

Having not made the playoffs since 1999, the Bills' annual problem is getting over the hump in their division, which includes defeating New England. They will host the Patriots at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the Sept. 8 season opener, which is perfect timing for Buffalo. Fans will be excited, parts of Hackett's offense will yet to be revealed on film and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski may not be ready to play. It will be a challenge for Buffalo, but kicking the season off by beating New England would be big.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The NFL saw three rookie quarterbacks take their teams to the playoffs last season, but it's hardly been an annual occurrence. Manuel will need to exceed expectations if he is to repeat the successes of Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck from last season. It won't doom his career if Manuel struggles for stretches this season (assuming he becomes the starter) and the results for the Bills follow suit. It's just the way things go in the NFL, and improvement can take time.

Beyond that, the Bills have a top-heavy roster that will require more than one season under Whaley to develop depth across positions. The offensive line lacks starting-quality players at at least one position, there are question marks behind Chandler at tight end and the defensive line includes several underachieving, younger players. The rigors of an NFL schedule may prove too difficult to overcome for the weak points on the roster.

OBSERVATION DECK

[+] EnlargeEJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb
AP Photo/David DupreyThe Bills drafted EJ Manuel (left) in the first round, but Kevin Kolb has been ahead of him in taking most of the first-team reps at quarterback during camp.
" For all the talk about Manuel, it has been veteran Kevin Kolb taking the majority of the first-team reps at quarterback in camp. The Bills have dismissed talk of Kolb being a "placeholder" while Manuel adjusts to the NFL, but Kolb will have to step it up if he wants a legitimate shot at holding onto his role as the starter. He has struggled, and would hardly inspire confidence if under center on opening day.

" Spiller had a breakout season in 2012, but don't overlook Jackson, who could create an impressive one-two punch at running back. Jackson is 32 and coming off a knee injury that lingered last season, but is just two years removed from averaging 5.5 yards per carry in 2011. The Bills have used two-running back sets frequently in practice, and between Spiller, Jackson and Tashard Choice, they have backfield threats that will force defenses to adjust.

" The battle at wide receiver behind Johnson has several candidates, and the Bills haven't been afraid to throw different players into the mix with the first-team offense. From this standpoint, Goodwin has performed better in camp than Woods, who struggled with drops through the first few practices. Undrafted rookie Da'Rick Rogers figures to factor into the mix as well. It's no coincidence the Bills opened their first practice of training camp with a deep-ball drill; it's a receiver group that has the potential to take the top off of opposing defenses.

" Marrone has routinely named Jamie Blatnick and Kourtnei Brown when mentioning pass-rushers on his defense, especially following the surprising release of Mark Anderson shortly before training camp. But it may be more out of default than anything: the Bills lack depth at the outside linebacker position. Blatnick spent most of last season out of football after being released from Denver's practice squad, while it took Brown until Week 14 to hook onto Washington's practice squad. It's possible either player could emerge, but if Marrone has practice-squad-level players on the field to provide pass-rush during the regular season, the Bills will be in trouble.

" It's a similar situation along the defensive line, where the Bills are searching for options both alongside and behind Mario Williams and Kyle Williams. The top option is Dareus, but the Bills will need more quality play out of him if he takes 50 percent or more of defensive snaps. Other possibilities include more players who have largely underachieved in the NFL, including Alex Carrington and Alan Branch.

" The absence of Byrd in practice has been alleviated by an impressive start by Aaron Williams, the team's second-round pick in 2011. He struggled at cornerback through his first two seasons, but his switch to safety looks to be paying off early in camp. He has been around the ball and come down with interceptions.

Camp Confidential: 49ers

August, 16, 2012
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- One school of thought says the San Francisco 49ers got the most they'll ever get from quarterback Alex Smith last season.

What if last season was only the beginning?

That question ran through my mind while watching Smith fire passes on time and on target during a recent three-day stay at 49ers training camp. The answer became clearer every time Smith connected with newcomers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, which was frequently. He appeared more accurate, more confident and more in command than I can ever recall seeing Smith during a training camp -- or any other time, for that matter.

"He's letting the ball go, he's making the right decisions and he's not afraid," tight end Vernon Davis said. "He's playing ball, he's having fun."

Of course, it figures a quarterback would look better throwing to proven targets than when operating without them. Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams, Brett Swain and Joe Hastings were the only wideouts available to Smith in the NFC Championship Game last season. Williams, now fighting for a roster spot, ranked second among the 49ers' wide receivers with 20 catches during the regular season.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Ed Szczepanski/US PresswireThe 49ers brought in more weapons for Alex Smith to work with on offense.
Life for Smith is better now.

"If you watch our team last year, we were kind of one-dimensional as far as offense," left tackle Joe Staley said. "The passing game went through Vernon and Crabtree. The running game was Frank [Gore] and Kendall [Hunter]. We've added a lot of talent. The more weapons you have, the more versatile you can be. Our coaches are very creative."

Smith proved last season he could be a trusted extension of the 49ers' coaching staff. He threw five interceptions in 445 pass attempts, playing to the team's strengths on defense and special teams.

Smith has what offensive coordinator Greg Roman calls a "unique" ability to grasp a game's dynamics in real time for the purposes of managing risks. On the surface, that sounds like a creative way to avoid slapping the dreaded "game manager" label on a quarterback with limited skills. The 49ers don't see it that way at all. They think Smith has demonstrated all the intangibles great quarterbacks should possess: mental and physical toughness; an off-the-charts football IQ; a level head no matter the circumstances; a passion for preparation; and the ability to perform in the clutch. They see him leading an offense that wasn't as bad as advertised, one that should only get better.

"Without an offseason here, we finished 10th in the NFL in scoring [actually 11th] and fourth in time of possession," Roman said. "That is in spite of being poor on third down, which is pretty remarkable.

"We're going to be opportunistic, strike when we feel it's time to strike," he said. "The other part of it is, when we make decisions on offense, it's big picture. The offense, defense and special teams are all intertwined. But we have an offseason under our belt now and are working through our second camp together. We certainly expect a lot of ourselves this year."

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Crowded offensive backfield. Frank Gore is going to get his carries. Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James will be competing for what's left over. Their roles haven't solidified, but Hunter has enjoyed a tremendous camp. He caught my attention this week by hauling in a deep pass up the sideline, the type of play running backs rarely make. Hunter is going to play. James, as a rookie, figures to need time.

Jacobs, signed from the New York Giants, has been getting work in short-yardage situations, an area in which Anthony Dixon struggled in the postseason.

After collecting two Super Bowl rings in five seasons with Kevin Gilbride as his coordinator, Jacobs has been blown away by Roman's ability to showcase each player's individual strengths. That is a recurring theme among 49ers players.

"That is what this staff does the best," Jacobs said. "'G-Ro' is a genius, man. I've seen it, mainly these last couple days, we started doing some different things on offense, things out of different formations and basically putting the defense in sets he wants them to be in, versus what they want to be in."

Based on what he's seen, Jacobs said he thinks Gore would have six or seven Pro Bowl appearances by now, instead of three, had this 49ers staff been in place the whole time.

[+] EnlargeRandy Moss
Ed Szczepanski/US PresswireAfter sitting out for a season, Randy Moss joined a revamped 49ers receiving corps.
2. Role for Randy Moss. The passing game went through Crabtree and Davis last season. Both are in the primes of their careers. Neither figures to see his role diminish appreciably. With Manningham joining the mix and rookie first-round choice A.J. Jenkins lurking, a rotational role for Moss appears likely.

The sentiments Jacobs expressed regarding Roman and the 49ers' coaching staff could be important to keeping Moss from growing frustrated. Moss never has been one to suffer fools, even perceived ones, especially if the ball stopped coming his way. He did buy into "the New England way" when the Patriots' offensive staff was at its best and the team was winning. Moss also was catching balls left and right from an all-time great quarterback back then, circumstances the 49ers will not replicate.

The question then becomes whether Moss, 35 years old and coming off an idle season, will put team goals ahead of personal ones no matter what.

Davis, probably the most emotionally authentic player on the team, said he "loves" Moss for having "a great heart" and being a selfless teammate.

"Not only has he extended some knowledge to me, he has shown me that being great requires you to work even when you've had tons of success, with people saying you're a potential Hall of Famer, first ballot," Davis said of Moss.

3. Potential sophomore slump. Aldon Smith has incurred a DUI arrest, suffered stab wounds at a party and been carted off the Candlestick Park field with a preseason hip injury since setting a franchise rookie record with 14 sacks last season. That sounds like a sure-fire recipe for a sophomore slump.

Smith has been getting around slowly with the help of a forearm crutch. Hip injuries can be terribly painful. Athletes as lean as Smith have so little padding in that area. On the positive side, Smith has bounced back quickly from injuries in the past. He missed three games after suffering a cracked fibula during the 2010-11 season at Missouri.

The 49ers are asking Smith to transition from situational pass-rusher to full-time outside linebacker. Missed practice reps could slow that transition in the short term.

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

The 49ers brought back all the important players from a team that finished 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game last season. They added weapons at receiver and running back after falling short offensively.

Both sides of the ball figure to benefit from a full offseason after scrambling to learn new schemes on the fly following the lockout.

The progress Davis showed late last season comes to mind as an extreme example. Adapting to yet another offense was tough in the beginning, but once he grasped the concepts more fully, there was no stopping him (10 receptions, 292 yards and four touchdowns over two playoff games).

Finishing 13-3 again would break from precedent, but all signs point to the 49ers as NFC West favorites.

Much will hinge on whether the offense improves, and to what degree.

The line appears in position to take a step forward. Four of the five starters played at least 92 percent of the offensive snaps last season. The new starter, right guard Alex Boone, is entering his third season with the team. The best offensive lines play together for years. This one increasingly has continuity. There's talent, too, with first-round choices in three of the five spots.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

Niners fans should be familiar with the warning labels by now.

Injuries: The 49ers were unusually healthy last season. Alex Smith took a league-high 44 sacks and somehow started every game. He started 16 games in a regular season for the first time since 2006 and the second time in his career. The defense suffered very few meaningful injuries in 2011-12, but the hip bruise Aldon Smith suffered last week highlighted the implausibility of a repeat on that front.

Turnovers: History says San Francisco's plus-28 turnover differential will be unsustainable.

Targets on backs: The 49ers are going from hunters to hunted. Opponents will be gunning for them. Opponents will also have fuller, more accurate reads on the schemes Jim Harbaugh and staff brought to the NFL from Stanford. The unconventional shifting and personnel combinations San Francisco unleashed on opponents might not have the same effect a second time around. That might have begun to happen last season, when the 49ers proved far less dominant when facing opponents a second time.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Tarell Brown has been the best cornerback in camp. Teammates say he puts in the prep time. It shows when the 49ers do situational work. The more specific the situation, the better Brown seems to fare. Brown is also probably the 49ers' best corner in press coverage, an asset in short-yardage situations, whereas the other starting corner, Pro Bowl choice Carlos Rogers, tends to prefer off coverage.
  • Jacobs has run effectively in short-yardage situations. I did notice rookie linebacker Kourtnei Brown rocking Jacobs twice in one-on-one pass-rush drills during the team's recent Fan Fest practice.
  • When the 49ers enter their locker room from the practice field, a sign meets them with a list of five points: work hard, stay loose, stay focused, be accountable and take care of one another. The sign greeting them as they leave the locker room reads, "You are getting better or getting worse. You never stay the same."
  • Versatile corner Perrish Cox is making a strong push to unseat Chris Culliver in the nickel role. No matter what happens, Cox figures to play this season. He's made an impact on special teams as well. Seeking continued improvements in the secondary was additionally important with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, Drew Brees and Tom Brady on the schedule this season.
  • While Harbaugh has defended Jenkins from premature and unfair criticism, all indications point to a gradual assimilation for the receiver San Francisco selected in the first round. Veteran safety Donte Whitner: "When he gets there, I would compare him to a guy like Robert Meachem. He's not really big in stature, but he has a lot of speed. He has some quickness."
  • Safety Michael Thomas could be an undrafted free agent to watch for the 49ers this season. He knows the defense after playing for coordinator Vic Fangio at Stanford. Whitner: "If I was a betting man, at the end of the season, he'll be somewhere around this football team, whether it be on practice squad or on the 53[-man roster] because he wasn’t drafted, he’s not the biggest guy, not the fastest guy, but he has football instincts and he has football smarts. He’s around the football in practice."
  • The 49ers do a good job maximizing roster spots. They used nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga at fullback in power packages last season. Staley and Sopoaga caught passes. Bruce Miller successfully converted from college defensive end to starting fullback. Defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs is the latest project. He's working as a blocking tight end and could conceivably push Nate Byham for the third roster spot at that position. Harbaugh: "He's definitely far enough along. We still don't know what that ceiling is yet."
  • The defense has a firmer grasp of Fangio's playbook entering a second season together. The team had 42 defensive calls installed when this week opened. That's not an unusual number, but Fangio should be able to call more of them with confidence.
  • Every player I spoke with -- Alex Smith, Davis, Williams, Jacobs, Staley and others -- mentioned putting team goals before individual ones. Harbaugh and staff have ingrained that mindset in players. It's a storyline to watch now that the 49ers have additional offensive weapons, a strong personality in Moss and higher expectations overall.

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