NFL Nation: Lorenzo Alexander

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- With another summer in the books, it’s that time of the year again. Football is back. The Arizona Cardinals report to training camp Friday and will have their conditioning test in the early afternoon. Camp starts in earnest Saturday with the first of five straight practices.

And with the beginning of camp comes a plethora of questions. Here are my top 10, and No. 1 should be no surprise:

When will defensive back Tyrann Mathieu return?

Mathieu
It is looking less likely that Mathieu will return during any part of training camp. He was put on the preseason physically unable to perform list, which means he can do everything with the team except practice. And as soon as he is able to practice during training camp or preseason, he is allowed to come off the PUP list. If that occurs, it likely won’t be until the final weeks of August. Arizona doesn’t want to rush Mathieu back. Any setback with his LCL could lead to long-term issues. The Cardinals are not in a rush, even though I have heard his rehab is ahead of schedule.

Will the offense be able to pick up where it left off?

Like any new season, there will be an adjustment period so new and old players can get used to each other, but that shouldn’t last very long. The Cardinals can make major strides during camp if the offense doesn’t digress much from where it left off in the final nine games of the season. They seem to have added the missing pieces, so all signs point to them building quickly on the foundation set in 2013.

Who will win position battles at right tackle and right guard?

Each battle has essentially come down to a two-man race. At right tackle Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie will continue to duke it out. Will the time away have helped either? Only the next month can answer that. Next to them, second-year guard Earl Watford will be pushing starter Paul Fanaika. The coaching staff knows what Fanaika is capable of, so Watford needs to impress during camp to win the job. Then there is the possibility of someone not on the roster now starting Week 1.

Who will replace linebacker Daryl Washington?

Washington
At this point there is really one legitimate option -- a linebacker by committee, leading with Larry Foote -- unless head coach Bruce Arians has changed his opinion that Foote is not a three-down linebacker. During camp, Foote, Ernie Sims and Lorenzo Alexander will be given an opportunity to earn the job, but rookies Glenn Carson and Jonathan Brown would have to really impress to find the field. As with right guard, there is the possibility of someone not on the roster now starting Week 1.

Can place-kicker Jay Feely keep his job?

Yes and No. Feely knows Arians isn’t afraid to try someone else out for the job. Arians loves competition, which is why he brought in two other kickers to push Feely. Danny Hrapmann is a journeyman, but rookie Chandler Catanzaro might have what it takes to outkick Feely. I wouldn’t be surprise if Catanzaro wins the job.

Can running back Andre Ellington carry a full load?

Ellington
Ask anyone who knows Ellington and the answer is yes. But in order for Ellington to succeed in that role as Arizona’s feature back, he needs to stay healthy. Arians said during the offseason that he wants Ellington to get 25-30 touches per game. A little ambitious, but we’ll see how he is used during camp.

How healthy are the injured players?

The list is long, but the first few days of camp will be telling. A lot of eyes will be on left guard Jonathan Cooper (leg) and left tackle Jared Veldheer (tricep). Cooper missed all of his rookie season with a broken leg, and Veldheer returned from a tricep injury for the final five games. Three linebackers -- Sam Acho (leg), Alexander (foot) and Alex Okafor (biceps) -- will also be returning to practice, and each of them has something to prove after John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy filled in for them and flourished last season.

Are cornerback Antonio Cromartie's hip issues a thing of the past?

Cromartie
A hip flexor hampered Cromartie for the majority of 2012, but he claims he’s fine. In order for the Cardinals’ secondary to be as good as advertised, he needs to be as healthy as he says he is. A lot of attention will be paid to him in the first week of camp.

Can Carson Palmer cut down his interceptions?

Palmer tied for second-most interceptions in the NFL last season. Of his 22, 14 were in the first eight games when the Cardinals were figuring out Arians’ scheme. Logic would say the interceptions will go down, but Palmer has a penchant for underthrowing deep balls. With an improved knowledge of the offense and the lessons learned from last season, his interceptions should be reduced.

Will the defense regress without Karlos Dansby and Washington?

Arians came out this week and said it would not, but it will be tough for the defense not to regress at least a little. Not only is the veteran quarterback of the defense gone (Dansby), but so is its most athletic player (Washington). What they were able to do by covering sideline-to-sideline, helping plug the run and lining up in coverage might not be replaced by Kevin Minter and Foote, or whoever takes over for Washington. In place of the veteran Dansby setting up the defense, the inexperienced Minter will be charged with that role, at least for the time being.
From the day linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for at least a year after violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy again, the Arizona Cardinals adopted a ‘next man up’ mindset.

But who that next man will be isn’t as clear as the message circulating the locker room.

By not re-signing inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley, the Cardinals sacrificed depth in the middle of their defense. By losing Washington, the Cardinals lost any remaining experience from last year’s club. So, head coach Bruce Arians is left re-building the middle of his defense with a group that, according to ESPN Stats & Information, has a combined seven snaps at inside linebacker for the Cardinals -- six from Kenny Demens and one from expected starter Kevin Minter.

[+] EnlargeKevin Minter
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesKevin Minter seems the only sure thing as the Cardinals figure out who their inside linebackers will be.
Lorenzo Alexander was penciled in as a backup at both inside and outside linebacker after playing 72 snaps outside last season before a season-ending Lisfranc injury in Week 3. Arizona signed two veterans in the past month, Larry Foote and Ernie Sims, to fill the rotation that will be circulating next to Minter.

“We’ve got a number of guys that are capable,” Arians said. “Larry, obviously, is a veteran with outstanding leadership qualities and has played really good football in the league for a long time.

“Larry’s very capable. We’ve got a couple of young guys. Kenny Demens is having a great camp, and there’s a couple young guys that are playing pretty well out there.”

But the answer to who the next man up will be isn’t cut-and-dried.

Arians said Foote can’t play the role of a three-down linebacker, but he’s expected to have a role on at least a couple of downs.

“I don’t know about three-down, but two downs for sure,” Arians said. “And whether or not we have a linebacker in the game, we got a lot of good safeties that can play linebacker, and we played a lot of dollar (package) last year, we call it. That’s a situation (where) we’ve got three guys that are more than capable of playing that linebacker position as a dollar.”

Sims enters the fray with experience as a replacement. He helped replace Dallas linebacker Sean Lee the past two seasons after Lee went down with injuries.

The Cardinals are spending the final week of organized team activities adjusting to life without Washington. Foote has played alongside Minter with the first team. Demens has been getting more reps. But Arizona won’t settle who is on the roster this week. Arians and general manager Steve Keim have about three months until the season starts on “Monday Night Football” which gives them plenty of time to keep the linebacker carousel rotating with options.

“It’s always an ongoing process,” Arians said. “The bottom half of your roster and veteran free agency, it’s changed a little bit this year with the cap going on. There are fewer guys out there that are available, but you’re always looking.

“(On) cut-down day, is there somebody that you’ll claim and put on your roster and then try to teach him on the fly? ... but those are things that happen every year, so this is nothing new.”

Arizona will have to wait until training camp to get a full sense of how Alexander will play into the rotation at inside linebacker. He is still recovering from his Lisfranc but said he’s hoping to start working with special teams this week and progress into seven-on-seven drills.

Even though Alexander started outside last season until he got hurt, the veteran believes he is better suited to play inside.

“I love it,” he said. “I think it’s better fitted towards my skill set. I’m not a natural pass-rusher, but if I get out there and work at it I’m able to do it. Obviously, playing special teams and playing in space covering kicks is more like a linebacker -- sideline-to-sideline making tackles, covering guys. I definitely think it’s going to be a better fit for me as far as making impact plays on the defense.”

Arians is confident defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will adjust the scheme to fit the strengths of Arizona’s starters.

“Todd will do everything he can to make sure that he puts the guys in positions to do what they do best and not ask them to do things they can’t do just for a scheme’s sake, which he does a great job of,” Arians said.

For example, Minter doesn’t have the same speed as Washington -- then again nobody does -- but his quickness coupled with his physicality make for a different type of linebacker than Arizona had a year ago.

Minter is penciled in as one starter, Arians said, so the next three months will decide who will be along side him for the first defensive snap against the Chargers on Sept. 8 at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Will it be Foote? Sims? Demens? Alexander? Somebody not on the roster?

They are all options at this point, but they will have a week of veteran minicamp and training camp to prove they have what it takes.

“I think the biggest thing is consistency and play-making ability,” Alexander said. “I think that’s what you got to lean on especially that inside guy, especially (if) you’re Mike. He’s like the captain, just like the quarterback of the defense as far as making calls, making sure everybody’s on the same page. Leading by example, also by voice and making sure everybody is accountable.

“Just showing all those traits consistently throughout the week and throughout training camp, and we’ll see who wins that spot.”
Eric WinstonAP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerEric Winston becomes the president of the NFL Players Association during labor peace, but with plenty to resolve.

Four years ago, this would be a different conversation.

It would be about millionaires versus billionaires, about how one document will shape the course of professional football for the next decade and how Eric Winston would be the face of the future of the sport.

Fortunately for Winston, the former Arizona Cardinals right tackle who was recently elected president of the NFL Players Association, he doesn't have to worry about that. He doesn't have to worry about his constituents being locked out by the owners or sitting down at the negotiating table to hammer out a collective bargaining agreement. His two-year tenure begins amid labor peace, allowing Winston to spend most his time this offseason on specific issues that face the players and the game.

Timing is everything.

"Yes and no," Winston said. "I think in those negotiations, that's where you're going to accomplish a lot. I think that's where you're getting, whether it's benefits, whether it's salary, whether it's health and safety, all those are up for grabs at that point.

"With a lot of that stuff being settled I can focus in on some topics, and focus on and find out what's hurting our players today and what are the few things we can do right now that can improve the lives of all of our players. I think that's kind of my mission, so to speak."

Winston's mission, to serve as the collective voice of the players, came about with a simple question, he said: "Would you be interested in running?"

He was at the biannual NFLPA meetings when the question was posed. If he was nominated, Winston said, he'd run. It didn't take long for someone at the meetings to follow protocol. A speech later and Winston was the new face -- clean-shaven after a season of growing out a hockey playoff-like beard -- of the players' association.

"It happened fast, that's for sure," Winston said. "I'm happy it happened. I'm eager to try to make a difference."

[+] EnlargeEric Winston
Michael Starghill, Jr. for ESPNEric Winston wants to "find out what's hurting our players today and what are the few things we can do right now that can improve the lives of all of our players. I think that's kind of my mission."
Whether he knows it or not, Winston has already made a difference. And it's built an air of confidence from his side of the table and the other.

Cardinals linebacker Lorenzo Alexander knew Winston but never spent much time around the hulking right tackle. After spending last season with him, Alexander, who has been an NFLPA player rep and was voted onto the current association's executive committee, believes the NFLPA has the right leader.

"He has great leadership qualities and I think a great grasp on the vision he has for the PA," Alexander said. "I think all those things really help him as far as moving forward and strengthening our union as a whole and the perception, I guess, internally and externally from the players."

The perception of Winston was built two years ago, when he was protecting Matt Cassel's strong side for the Kansas City Chiefs. Winston showed everyone -- thanks to countless replays -- that he's more than a big, burly blocker. After Cassel was knocked out of a game against Baltimore and booed by Chiefs fans, Winston verbalized his frustration with the fans and his disdain for their gesture. As Winston's voice rose, his passion for the sport filled the locker room.

Troy Vincent, recently appointed NFL executive vice president for football operations, is also a former NFLPA president. He thinks Winston's passion is only part of the reason he will succeed.

"That says a lot about who an individual is," Vincent said. "I think he's going to be a great leader.

"I know what it takes to be elected. That's not a given and I think he's going to be a fine leader. He's very thoughtful. I think Eric is also very reasonable. I think at that position it has to be balanced to get things done, where you're not always going to agree on everything but you've got to find a common ground that works for everybody and I think, with his experience, I think with his values, I think he's going to be a very good leader for the union."

Assuming the presidency at a time of labor peace gives Winston the opportunity to focus on the players. Winston can lean on the experience of eight NFL seasons of serving as part of three different organizations and apply it to make the difference he's seeking.

The question Winston has to answer first: Where to start?

His overarching goal is to improve the day-to-day lives of the nearly 2,000 players in the NFL, but to do that, Winston understands he has nearly 2,000 different sets of issues to tackle. Each player has his own concerns about the direction of the league and his own career, but Winston has narrowed his first set of priorities to three areas: health and safety, financial literacy and working conditions.

When it comes to health and safety, Winston, who's second among active tackles in consecutive games played and started, thinks looking toward the future can help players now. Continuing to invest in technology and research is a priority, Winston said, because it'll help the league and its players learn more about the health and safety issues that they face on a daily basis, namely head injuries.

[+] EnlargeEric Winston
AP Photo/Greg TrottEric Winston has played eight NFL seasons with three different organizations.
"Doing that now is going to help the guys when they become former players and I think it's going to help the research side of it and it's going to help our former players now that have been suffering," Winston said.

Having watched thousands of players come and go during his career, Winston is also placing an emphasis on teaching players -- young and old -- the importance of taking care of their finances.

"Guys need to understand how to budget, guys need to understand what it means to have a mortgage, what it means to pay something like that, what does the typical cost of living [look like]?" Winston said. "It sounds clichéd but those checks are going to run out at some point. They're not always going to be there and what is really enough, so to speak, to retire on? And, in a way, [I want to] get that word ‘retire' out of the lexicon. You play 10 years and you're 32. There's other things you could do, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't have a nest egg, you shouldn't have something you can fall back on if you can't play that long."

Winston also wants to address workplace conditions, especially when it comes to the locker rooms.

A year ago at this time, Tampa Bay's locker room hadn't been infected by the MRSA outbreak, which occurred in October, nor had the situation in Miami involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin been exposed. Both will help shape the way Winston approaches changes in the locker rooms, albeit in extremely different ways.

"Working conditions are something that's going to be coming up, and we have to do something," Winston said. "I think there needs to be some standardization throughout the NFL and of course, you never know what's going to happen around the corner."

When it comes to approaching the locker room culture, which has come under siege since the reports of bullying in the Dolphins' organization were revealed in November, Winston believes his experience in the league is a bonus. But he's careful to warn that what happened in Miami isn't permeating through the NFL.

"I always think you're going to have something that's out of your control," Winston said. "You're always going to have a 'bad apple,' something that just happens. For whatever reason it happens and obviously it needs to be fixed.

"It's a challenge for all of us," Winston added. "We're professionals now. We got to act professionally. We can't be doing immature things."

Vincent wants to make sure he and Winston work together to "preserve our game."

"Have we forgotten the art of sportsmanship?" Vincent asked.

Vincent foresees working together to educate "all audiences" on eliminating facets of the game that either lead to injury or cast a negative light on the league, such as "harmful" plays.

Another one of Winston's priorities is curbing fines, an interesting dynamic since Vincent is the man responsible for assigning the fines. Winston would like to see fines eliminated for first-time incidental offenses. He thinks they should be levied for a second or third offense.

[+] EnlargeTroy Vincent
AP Photo/Doug Benc"When you watch him, when you look at his demeanor, you see how he answers questions, he's very thoughtful," NFL Executive Vice President for Football Operations Troy Vincent said of Eric Winston. "Frankly, I think he's going to do a phenomenal job."
"I know plenty of guys that whether you fine them $5,000 or $15,000, it's the same to him," Winston said. "They get it. I don't think we have to fine guys an extraordinary amount to get their attention.

"They understand the value of money and what it means to them. To get the fines going up at a rate, it doesn't make sense. It seems much more punitive more than sending a message."

Winston will also help usher in a new era for the NFL when it welcomes its first openly gay player; Missouri's Michael Sam is expected to be drafted in May. The league, Winston said, is more ready than it gets credit for, mainly because this generation of players -- even on the older side -- is more accepting than previous generations.

One issue Winston said the players won't accept, though, is an 18-game schedule.

"I just don't see how that would ever make sense for us," Winston said.

"I don't think there's a need for it. I don't think there's a want for it. There's not a lot of scenarios that I'd say, 18 games in that context make sense. I just don't understand why that would make sense for our players and our guys."

While it's still early, there's an outside chance Winston may not play in any of the 16 games next season. He's been a free agent since March 11. But he's not fretting. Last season, Winston didn't sign with the Cardinals until the first day of training camp.

If Winston isn't signed for the 2014 season, he'll still hold onto his role as president. He'll just have more time on his hands to advocate for the players. Vincent would know. He was the NFLPA president for a year after retiring following the 2006 season and spent it crisscrossing the country, meeting with players, listening to their issues and helping them when called upon. Winston is ready for the responsibility if his career should go that way, but he'd rather be on the field.

Winston admits he has plenty to learn. He's served on NFLPA committees and understands the politics and policies, but has never held a role comparable to this.

Even though Vincent has crossed over to the league, he still offered a piece of advice to Winston: Listen. Vincent told him he doesn't need to have every answer, but he needs to be a great listener.

The more he listens, the more Winston will learn about his constituents. And the better president he'll become.

"You got to have balance," Vincent said. "There's a reason you have to be able to make sure that you're hearing all arguments, all positions, all opinions and then be able to come back to your group and properly inform the player on what is taking place and what has happened. That itself is one of the responsibilities for that position.

"When you watch him, when you look at his demeanor, you see how he answers questions, he's very thoughtful. He's not jumping out there. Frankly, I think he's going to do a phenomenal job as a leader."
It’s been a little more than six months since Arizona Cardinals linebacker Lorenzo Alexander tore his Lisfranc tendon against the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 22, 2013, but he’s on the verge of being ready for offseason workouts.

Alexander said he plans to participate in Arizona’s OTAs and minicamp, which can officially begin as early as April 21. But the former special teams Pro Bowler won’t rush back just to get on the field this spring.

Alexander
“I’m talking to the training staff and coaches,” Alexander said. “We’re going to be smart about how much I do in my workload but physically I should be cleared to participate.”

Alexander said his rehabilitation has sped up since the season ended in December. That’s when he was cleared to start walking again, after six weeks of getting around using a leg scooter and another six weeks wearing a boot.

By time he started walking around in early January, the foot had atrophied, leaving Alexander with a lengthy uphill recovery.

“The initial process was real slow, a lot of pain, a lot of soreness, a lot of weakness,” Alexander said. “Really, since the end of the season, I’ve taken some pretty good strides as far as getting that strength back in there and the explosion.”

He’s running, jumping and cutting “pretty well” but is focusing on regaining the strength back in his right foot so it’ll match his left. Besides his regular weight-lifting regiment, Alexander’s rehabilitation consists of isolating his left foot through box jumps, one-legged jumps and a variety of change of direction and running drills.

He’s past the point of inconvenience and frustration, which was shared by more than Alexander.

At the NFL scouting combine in February, Arians questioned Alexander’s progress.

“I’m a little concerned with Lorenzo’s foot right now,” Arians said, according to the team site. “Hopefully it will show improvement.”

Alexander and Arians spoke after those comments, which stem from Arians' experience with a former player who came back from a Lisfranc injury too soon, compensated for it with his other foot and hurt that foot in the process, Alexander said.

But Alexander is pleased with his rehab, which is just ahead of schedule. Doctors put his complete recovery at nine months, which would put him at the end of June, about a month before training camp starts. If there was one benefit to suffering the injury in Week 3, it’s that Alexander’s explosiveness will return before training camp is expected to start, he said.

Alexander will do as much as he can during OTAs and minicamp but his eyes are set on a return in late July.

“[It’s] just going to take time,” he said. “I’m seeing great progress with that but the key is being ready for training camp.”

Redskins receive no extra picks

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The Redskins received no compensatory draft picks, putting them in line with the majority of NFL teams. Only 13 teams received compensatory picks, the league announced Monday.

The formula is based on players lost and gained in free agency the previous season. Washington lost Lorenzo Alexander. He was a Pro Bowl special teamer for them, but not a full-time player from scrimmage. He only played parts of three games for Arizona before suffering a season-ending Lisfranc injury. The Redskins signed cornerback E.J. Biggers.

According to the NFL’s release, “a team losing more or better compensatory free agents than it acquires in the previous year is eligible to receive compensatory draft picks…. Compensatory free agents are determined by a formula based on salary, playing time and postseason honors. The formula was developed by the NFL Management Council. Not every free agent lost or signed by a club is covered by this formula.”

Dallas received three compensatory picks, all in the seventh round. The New York Giants received a fifth-round selection.

Philadelphia did not get any. Baltimore and the New York Jets tied for most received with four.

Washington has received only 12 compensatory draft choices since the NFL started awarding them in 1994. Only New Orleans, Denver, Houston and Cleveland have received fewer.
TEMPE, Ariz. – While Wednesday’s news conference was about the Cardinals’ new left tackle, head coach Bruce Arians hinted toward who’ll replace the recently departed Karlos Dansby at inside linebacker.

And, apparently, the Cardinals won’t have to look past last year’s second-round draft pick, Kevin Minter.

“We drafted him for a reason,” Arians said. “We love him. He should assume that role.”

Minter played just one snap on defense while sitting behind Daryl Washington and Dansby last season, waiting in the wings even during Washington’s four-game suspension. Minter's chance may come this year at left inside linebacker, the position vacated by Dansby. But it’s not guaranteed.

Arians said the Cardinals will still look for linebackers in free agency and may give Lorenzo Alexander a shot at earning the job. Alexander, who was signed as an outside linebacker, has also played inside, Arians said. In Week 3 last year, Alexander suffered a Lisfranc injury and missed the rest of the season. He's expected to be healthy for training camp.

“That’s what we love about him is his flexibility,” Arians said.
The Arizona Cardinals won’t draft Missouri defensive end Michael Sam in May.

And it has nothing to do with his sexual orientation.

The Cardinals are stocked, if not overstocked, at outside linebacker, the position Sam will most likely have to transition to if he gets drafted in a 3-4 scheme, which the Cardinals run. At about 6-foot-2, 260 pounds, he’s too short to play off the edge for Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles – especially when Arizona’s starting defensive end is 6-8, 300-pound Calais Campbell.

Sam would be better fit as an OLB, but during their mad dash through free agency last year, the Cardinals made the position a point of emphasis. Already with Sam Acho, Arizona added Lorenzo Alexander, Matt Shaughnessy and John Abraham through free agency and drafted Alex Okafor. During the season, the Cardinals signed Dontay Moch and Marcus Benard, who also contributed this past season.

Sam’s spot on the Cardinals' roster is essentially filled by Acho, who at 6-3, 257, has the most similar body type to Sam. And Acho, most likely, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Arizona was able to fight through a decimated OLB corps last season to still register the top-ranked run defense in the league and the sixth-best defense overall. In Week 3 against New Orleans, the Cardinals lost Acho, Alexander and Okafor in a freak series of injuries within one game. In their place, Abraham became an every-down linebacker and Shaughnessy stepped up and proved worthy of his one-year deal.

Sam came out publicly Sunday night, making him the first openly gay college prospect in the history of the NFL. By now, less than 24 hours after his story was aired on ESPN and printed in The New York Times, it’s well known. He came out to his Missouri teammates back in August and proceeded to have a stellar season.

If the Cardinals pass on Sam, it’s not because he’s gay. It’s because they don’t need him. It’s a football decision.

Darrell Green wrong on RG III, Fletcher

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ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins have a number of issues, which is why they’re 3-6 and need a miracle finish for a second straight season to reach the playoffs. Their defense has struggled. The offense has been inconsistent. And the special teams? How much space do I have? Not enough, probably.

The area I wouldn’t say needs repair? Leadership. Which is why it was surprising to hear what Redskins Hall of Famer Darrell Green said the other day, questioning not only Robert Griffin III, but London Fletcher as well.

“I don’t know if they have a leader,” Green said on Showtime’s Inside the NFL this week.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Jack DempseyThe Washington Redskins are 3-6, but Robert Griffin III's leadership isn't among the reasons why.
I covered Green, respected him and his career, got along with him and still enjoy seeing him and catching up. I’ve been around Redskins teams that lacked leaders; this isn’t one of them. One player, talking privately, called those remarks, “B.S.” But he didn’t use initials. Of course, no team wants to admit they lack leaders. But until Green’s comments this wasn’t even a topic because it’s not something that was viewed in a negative light.

Now, Green has a terrific perspective as a Hall of Famer and someone who played a long time and played the right way. He led as much by example, how he took care of his body and withstood numerous changes to the staff and the game to survive as long as he did. Green still occasionally talks to players, but he's not in the building or around the team that much. That in and of itself doesn't make his comments wrong. And I certainly can see why some outside the organization can view things differently. Griffin made some P.R. missteps in the offseason and the summer with comments that could, if reading between the lines, be damaging.

But when you talk to players, they don’t question his leadership. Just the opposite. They’ll point to how he prepares and how he plays and how he’s willing to say things to the group. He doesn’t duck from the responsibilities of his position or standing on the team. There are times he won’t speak on controversial topics, though that doesn't necessarily make you a leader, and other times he might not want to admit a failing or a play he did wrong. I think he'll always need to be careful balancing the attention he receives without coming across a certain way in the locker room. But even after an offseason of attention and much focus on him, players who don't hang around him still view him as a leader.

He’s not an in-your-face guy who is going to threaten someone if they don’t play better. It’s not his style. If that’s what someone wants, they have the wrong guy.

But the players he’s with view him as a leader. They want to follow him because they also know he lives what he says about work, and that he’ll do what it takes to win. Hence the dives in traffic each of the past two games. He can improve as a leader, but he is a leader and it does not seem unnatural for him at all.

Green also said Fletcher’s age prevents him from being the sort of leader the Redskins need. Green played a long time, so he has a unique perspective and felt he was not the same leader when he was older. But again, I disagree that it means Fletcher isn’t as well. Fletcher’s play hasn’t been the same this season; I’m not breaking news with that comment. However, Green was not the same sort of leader that Fletcher has been throughout his career. Green was highly respected, no doubt. But it’s tough for corners to be true leaders. Green was never considered a coach on the field. Like Fletcher.

No player is thought of the same way by everyone in the locker room. There will be some who dislike a guy or think he’s just out for himself. It’s true of many players I’ve covered. But Fletcher remains a voice players listen to. In the end, leadership also is about making plays, and if you say that’s where Fletcher hasn’t led this season, that’s fine. But I haven’t seen or sensed a big drop-off in this area in the locker room since last season.

The Redskins do miss former special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander. But it's his play as much as anything that they miss most. Despite being 3-6, the Redskins haven’t changed their approach. What they need are more playmakers who can change their record.
SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Dontay Moch that Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles knows on the Cardinals practice squad has been flying by the first-team offensive line.

Bowles hasn’t had time to pay attention to Moch’s underwhelming two-year stay in Cincinnati. He remembers Moch coming out of the University of Nevada as an undersized pass-rusher who made up for whatever he lacked with sheer speed. He ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at the 2011 NFL scouting combine and hasn’t slowed down.

“He’s fast. He came in fast,” Bowles said. “I remember him coming out he had a lot of production in college and he can get on the edge. He’s a tough kid. I haven’t seen much film on him from Cincinnati. It’s been about two years. I can only go by what I’ve seen in practice.”

[+] EnlargeDontay Moch
AP Photo/Al BehrmanDontay Moch mostly struggled in his two seasons with Cincinnati. Now he's starting in Arizona.
Whatever Moch has been doing behind closed doors, it’s been enough to convince the Cardinals coaching staff he would be the best fit to replace Lorenzo Alexander as a starting outside linebacker against Tampa Bay on Sunday. Moch's two seasons as a Bengal was limited by injuries and off-field issues. According to an article in the Dayton Daily News, he missed his rookie season with a foot injury and migraines. Then in 2012, he was suspended the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s drug policy, according to that same story.

Arizona coach Bruce Arians said he talked to his counterpart in Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis, who didn’t want to lose Moch. As has been a common refrain this week in the Tampa area, football is a business, and Moch gets it.

“It’s tough but at the same time you got to understand it and come ready and be prepared,” he said. “I got the opportunity to come home to my hometown and do something that I as blessed to do with my life and just have to go out there and prove it now.”

And proving himself, he has.

Moch’s long arms and speed were the reasons why Arians wanted him and they’ve been the reasons why he’s been able to make a mark in Arizona. He’s stayed in his playbook since moving back, with the goal to eventually not think when he’s on the field.

“Just react and play,” Moch said. “So far, so good. Just going to go out there and make no errors.

“I’ve been at the SAM and doing my typical rush things and just go to be a factor and really not think and just play.”

For a team that’s been lacking a speed rush, Moch might have found himself in the right place at the right time. The Cardinals have just five sacks this season, due largely in part to a lack of a speedy outside rush.

If Moch can use his speed to get off the edge, the inside can open up for the likes of Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell.

And Arians is looking forward to seeing that happen.

“We had a lot of high grades on him,” Arians said. “I think he’s going to bring a speed asset to us, increase our team speed. I’m anxious to see him play. In practice he’s been tough to block. He’s earned this right.”

Moch has been frustrated with how the past couple of years have unfolded. But he’s turned it into motivation, working harder and longer to see the field.

He knows what his strengths are and he’s been playing to those because, above all else, they’ll help him see the field.

“I’m a predator out there,” he said. “I’m not no prey. And that’s for sure.”

If Moch can stay healthy and clean in Arizona, he could find a home in his hometown. Moch grew up in Chandler and attended Hamilton High School, so returning to the Cardinals was an easy choice when they signed him to the practice squad on Sept. 2.

“It was great,” Moch said. “Hometown, you can’t get any better than that. You kill both things with one stone -- I get to be home with family and at the same time do my job.

“Can't get no better than that.”
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Amos Jones has been around for a long time and he's seen his fair share of oddities in football.

And that includes Arizona coach Bruce Arians with hair.

But Jones, the Arizona Cardinals'special teams coordinator, had never seen 11 substitutions on special teams in one game, the number Arizona totaled last weekend against New Orleans because of injuries. Jones' previous high was nine.

Already down one special teams starter, rookie linebacker Kevin Minter (hamstring injury), Jones lost one of his special teams captains, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who ruptured his Lisfranc ligament, and another stalwart, linebacker Sam Acho, who broke his fibula. If that wasn't enough, backup rookie linebacker Alex Okafor tore his left biceps and is out for the season. He played the second-most snaps on special teams against the Saints.

“I compared it to coaching in the Canadian League or coaching in high school ball where somebody gets hurt, you gotta go,” Jones said. “Same thing in the NFL when you only have 53 men. You just got to be prepared for those scenarios. Luckily our guys have accepted that from Day 1.”

It didn't take long for their losses to impact the Cardinals.

Without Alexander and Acho, Arizona's punt-return defense suffered. It came into Sunday's game allowing 0.8 yards, in large part because of second-year gunner Justin Bethel. But without Alexander, who would command a double team, thus opening lanes for his teammates to streak down field, the Saints could focus more on Bethel and slow the downfield stampede. After their 31-7 loss to the Saints, the Cardinals are allowing eight yards per punt return, still impressive, but 10 times what they were previously giving up.

Assuming the roles vacated by Alexander, Acho and Okafor will be the Cardinals' three most recent additions: Dontay Moch, Vic So'oto and Kenny Demens.

Their first challenge will be a top-10 punt return unit and the third-best kickoff return team. Tampa Bay averages 7.8 yards per punt return and 31.3 per kickoff return. The Bucs have had three players return kicks this season and all averaging at least 25 yards per return.

Arizona, meanwhile, has allowed 17.3 per kick return.

“We [are] ready with the backups,” Jones said. “Some of those backups will be starting this week. We went out and acquired three guys that have unique skill sets so we'll utilize them the best we can.

“So, it'll be a bunch of unselfish guys who'll step up and fill in. Some guys will get a little bit more playing time at other positions, and some of these guys we just acquired will come in and put a hand in the pile.”

Alexander was the NFC's Pro Bowl special teams representative last year with the Washington Redskins and Acho was starting to hit a stride on special teams, but it's not their physical skills Amos will miss most.

It was their leadership, their dependability, their experience. Amos could look at Alexander and bounce ideas off him.

“Those guys had great presence in the room,” Jones said. “We have other guys. We're not just about one or two guys, that's not how we're built, but it was always a pleasure.”
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Handling a loss is part of the game. And waiting on a star to return from an injury also comes with the territory.

Having to rebuild an entire position because of injuries, well, that might have been coach Bruce Arians’ "Welcome to the NFL" moment. And how he responds could spell out the rest of the season for the Arizona Cardinals.

A depth chart is built with this type of situation in mind. Both of Arizona’s starting outside linebackers, Lorenzo Alexander (Lisfranc) and Sam Acho (fibula), left Sunday's 31-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints with season-ending injuries. It was a blow to the defense, but it’s not the end of the world. Enter the backups. Rookie Alex Okafor filled in for Acho, but saw only five plays. Which, Arians said on national radio Tuesday night, was all he needed to tear a biceps tendon.

Okafor is out for the season, too.

Enter … well, nobody.

Teams aren’t built to back up the backup. Anyone who posits otherwise simply doesn’t understand the dynamics of football. With a 53-man roster, 22 spots are slotted for starters. Give each one a backup and that’s 44 players, with nine openings left for special teams and specialists.

[+] EnlargeSam Acho, Drew Brees
AP Photo/Bill HaberSam Acho recorded a sack of Saints QB Drew Brees before leaving with a broken fibula.
The only two outside linebackers to survive Sunday were John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy, both of whom tend to play as outside rushers off the line, or, in Shaughnessy’s case, sometimes in the middle of the line.

Losing three of a unit’s five players, no matter what team it is, can bring panic. But the Cardinals have reacted swiftly, trying to piece together a competitive outside-linebacking unit.

They filled out the roster with a couple of internal promotions, Dontay Moch and rookie Kenny Demens, from the practice squad (the latter move according to Arians) and signed Vic So'oto to the active roster. It’s a solid start to a process that may last the rest of the season. The outside linebackers could be liability until at least two of the injured players return next year.

Arians likes Moch’s speed, which can help this defense improve its pass rush. Arizona has recorded just one sack off the edge this season, by Acho, against the Saints.

The Cardinals have three primary options at this point: Stay with the new outside linebackers, revamp the entire unit -- inside and out -- when Daryl Washington returns Monday or change the defense, putting more men at the line of scrimmage and keeping the inside guys at their natural position.

If Arizona stays in a 3-4 with its current players, there’s a good chance the outside backers will be rotated throughout the season because of general manager Steve Keim's penchant to comb the waiver wire. If Moch produces, he can earn himself a consistent starting job because of how Arians operates. Arians works with who’s in front of him, and if Moch can prove he’s worthy of staying on the field, Arians will leave him there.

But if the Cardinals decide to revamp the entire unit, the new faces on the roster may be relegated to the sideline. There’d be a learning curve, however. With Washington returning, Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles could play him, Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley together. Herein lies the problem. All three are inside backers -- and so is rookie Kevin Minter, who’s out with a hamstring injury and isn’t expected back for a few weeks. If one is willing to convert to outside and the Cardinals want to keep their 3-4 scheme, they could move Moch or another addition to the outside until Minter returns.

If Arizona decides to change schemes, it could keep Washington, Dansby and Brinkley as the linebackers, although two would have to learn outside-LB tendencies. Then the Cardinals could bring Abraham off the edge more often, especially against pass-happy offenses -- of which the NFC West is full. According to Pro Football Focus, Abraham led Arizona with five quarterback hurries on 29 pass rushes.

There’s a lot to be decided in the next couple weeks, although most of the major decisions that would affect the rest of the season won’t likely happen until Washington returns.

This is the equivalent of a vacation gone wrong but you can’t leave. The weather is bad. Nothing seems to go right. But the Cardinals are just trying to get through this week, miles away from home, and salvage their trip by getting back to .500.

Cards make IR moves, promote Moch

September, 23, 2013
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SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Arizona Cardinals announced Monday afternoon that outside linebackers Lorenzo Alexander (foot) and Sam Acho (leg) were placed on injured reserve and will miss the rest of the season.

Later, outside linebacker Dontay Moch was promoted from the practice squad.

The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Moch in the third round in 2011, but the Arizona native played in just one game last season and was inactive for all 16 games in 2011.

This leaves the Cardinals with one open spot on the 53-man roster. GM Steve Keim and vice president of player personnel Jason Licht will likley look churn over the waiver wire, don’t be surprised to hear about a few tryouts or a signing quickly.

Practice squad linebacker Kenny Rowe said Monday that he played some defensive end at the University of Oregon in a 4-3 system and could play outside linebacker if needed.


SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Arizona Cardinals lost their two starting outside linebackers in Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said Monday Lorenzo Alexander and Sam Acho will be placed on season-ending injured reserved. Alexander suffered a Lisfranc injury in his right foot and Acho broke his left fibula.

“Obviously, they’re core people. Their energy will be missed as much as their play,” Arians said. “They’re both high-energy guys and that part of it as a football team will be hard to replace but somebody is going to have an opportunity to step up and do it.”

Who, though, is the question of the day. Arians said the Cardinals will begin addressing the roster voids left by Acho and Alexander later this week.

One option is Alex Okafor, replaced Acho, and played five snaps. Okafor, a rookie from Texas, saw his first action of the season this weekend because fellow rookie Kevin Minter was out with a hamstring injury.

“[He] did fairly well,” Arians said. “[The Saints] did take a long run around his end when he was misaligned one time. But with a full week’s practice, I think he should be fine.”

Behind Alexander on the depth chart is Matt Shaughnessy, who’s often a down lineman, and John Abraham, a pass-rush specialist. Options are limited for a three-down linebacker.

The Cardinals have an internal option besides Shaughnessy and Abraham. Dontay Moch is an outside linebacker on the practice squad and has caught Arians’ attention.

“He’s one of the guys we’ll consider strongly,” Arians said. “He’s done a nice job since he’s been on the practice squad.”

Another potential stopgap could be practice squad linebacker Kenny Rowe, who played defensive end at the University of Oregon.

Upon Further Review: Cardinals Week 3

September, 23, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the Arizona Cardinals' 31-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints:

No stopping Jimmy: The Cardinals shouldn’t feel bad. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is doing this to everyone he plays against. He finished with 134 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches, and just abused whoever the Cardinals sent out to defend him. However, stopping big tight ends has been troublesome for the Cardinals this season without linebacker Daryl Washington.

“I mean, he’s tough,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “He’s a big body. It’s hard to cover those big-body guys, especially by him being a basketball player. He knows how to maneuver his body real well and he did a great job of boxing us out and going up and getting the ball.

“All Drew has to do is throw it in his vicinity.”

Everyone knew he was good when he averaged 65 yards per game, but he's at another level thus far in 2013, averaging 119 per game.

[+] EnlargeArizona's Tyrann Mathieu
AP Photo/Bill HaberRookie Tyrann Mathieu, who intercepted this pass, is looking like a third-round steal.
Third-down progress?: Winning can heal a lot, such as last week’s 1-for-11 performance on third down. However, a loss and a 5-for-13 day on third downs? That won’t please anyone. The Cardinals can’t seem to figure out how to get first downs when the down marker rolls to third. Palmer was 3-for-11 on third-down dropbacks against New Orleans, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Just on third downs, Palmer was 4-for-9 for 46 yards, threw for three first downs and was sacked twice. And the Cardinals aren’t looking for their best receiver on third downs, either. In the past two weeks, Palmer has targeted Fitzgerald just once on third downs in each game.

Mathieu proving himself: Three games, three big plays. The cream of the rookie class may be rising from the third round. Tyrann Mathieu proved he doesn’t just make big plays in the NFL, but he does it on the biggest stage. Sounds familiar? It’s the storyline of his career. Mathieu had another play Sunday, intercepting Drew Brees in front of Mathieu’s hometown crowd at the Superdome. Mathieu downplayed the pick, but it was hard to ignore the media attention he received. He could be the biggest steal of the 2013 draft when it’s all said and done.

When it rains it pours: Any time a player tweets the words, “God has a plan,” attached to a photo of his foot on a private jet, it can’t be good. Those words and that photo came from linebacker Sam Acho, one of three starters left Sunday’s game and didn’t return. He was out with an ankle injury, while linebacker Lorenzo Alexander suffered a foot injury and safety Rashad Johnson left the game with a finger issue. Injuries are a part of the game, and they can quickly derail a season (see: 2012), but the Cardinals have enough depth at those positions to help make up for their losses. With how poorly the offense played after that initial touchdown, the injuries were adding insult to literal injury.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald missed a second straight day of practice Thursday as his left hamstring continues to improve.

Fitzgerald made a brief appearance during the portion of practice that was open to the media inside the Cardinals' bubble, working on the hands team during onside kicks. After that period concluded, Fitzgerald ran outside where he worked with Cardinals’ trainers doing some jogging and running through drills.

“Did everything, full day’s workout,” Fitzgerald said. “It was all good.”

When asked if his hamstring was sore, Fitzgerald was succinct.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m fine.”

If it was up to Fitzgerald, he will play Sunday in New Orleans.

“I’m expecting to play every Sunday,” he said.

On Wednesday, Arizona coach Bruce Arians said Fitzgerald has earned the right to play Sunday after missing an entire week of practice. The final injury report will be released Friday afternoon.

In other injury news…

Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (biceps) was upgraded to full. Running back Rashard Mendenhall (toe) and linebacker Kevin Minter (hamstring) did not practice. Tight end Rob Housler (ankle) was limited.

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