NFL Nation: minicamp

CINCINNATI -- The mandatory minicamp portion of the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason has come to an end, meaning summer is well within view.

Following three voluntary organized team activity practices next week, the Bengals are off until July 24, when they take to Paul Brown Stadium's practice fields for the start of training camp. The only day next week media are permitted to watch the team practice is Monday. After that day, we won't see all 90 players on a field together until training camp.

That makes Thursday's final minicamp practice an important last step in springtime football.

Here are a few brief observations from the workout:
  • As they continue experimenting with offense and defense combinations, the Bengals shuffled players around all practice. Linemen who had been getting some run with the second- and third-team units were practicing with the first-teamers. The same went for reserve running backs and receivers, who were taking handoffs and catching passes from starting quarterback Andy Dalton. It was the coaches' chance to see which backup players could shine with the first-teamers, and which starters could play alongside which backups. It's all part of the tinkering that goes on in June.
  • That said, undrafted free agent Trey Hopkins was among those backup players who got some playing time with the first-team offense. The offensive lineman played both left tackle and left guard during the practice. Running backs Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis also were among those who played with the first-team units. Since rookie Jeremy Hill was drafted, Green-Ellis has slid from running with the first team alongside Giovani Bernard, to the lower quadrant of the backfield depth chart. On defense, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was one of the backups who mixed in with the first-teamers on both sides of the ball.
  • Like we mentioned Wednesday, rookie quarterback AJ McCarron has been cleared to throw after dealing with "arm tightness" during the first two weeks of OTAs. He threw a little bit more and threw deeper passes Thursday. One of his best of the day was about a 15-yard comeback route to Cobi Hamilton, who broke sharply away from his defender thanks to a quick cut. McCarron also was picked off late in the practice when the Bengals were going through a two-minute drill. Safety Shawn Williams jumped a short throw.
  • Finally, after missing Wednesday's practice, Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth was back Thursday, getting his normal reps.
CINCINNATI -- Since his Queen City arrival about a month ago, AJ McCarron's nights have followed a distinct pattern.

If the rookie quarterback is not at a Cincinnati Reds baseball game or taking in a quick meal at a local eatery, he is in his new Ohio River Valley abode with his nose buried in a Cincinnati Bengals-issued iPad until past midnight while his famous fiance looks on.

Still six weeks and one day shy of the start of training camp, it's all about learning for the first-year player. It's not about trying to supplant the veteran starter from Day 1 of training camp, or taking first- or second-team reps throughout the preseason. For the foreseeable future, it's about learning the Bengals' offense, adapting to it and playing as well within it as he can.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron is spending his early days with the Bengals just trying to get a handle on the playbook.
All of that means it's also about subjecting his partner, Sports Illustrated model and former Miss Alabama Katherine Webb, to hours upon hours of football.

"She's having to sit there and watch the game when she probably didn't want to," McCarron said Wednesday, adding that he felt bad for subjecting her to it. "But right now, it's just a lot of studying and trying to make everything like it's natural and I don't have to think about it."

McCarron added that part of his Sunday night was spent watching the Miss USA beauty pageant with Webb.

Tuesday night, though, it was back to football. McCarron said he stayed up to 12:30 a.m. breaking down protections, coverages and blitzes as he sifted through offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's new system. He thinks the study has been paying off.

"I feel like I'm in a good groove right now, and I feel like I'm in a good place," McCarron said. "I'm catching on."

He's also healing. After being forced to only hand off the football during the first two weeks of voluntary organized team activities, McCarron has been throwing during the minicamp all this week. On both Tuesday and Wednesday, he was mostly firing shorter passes to running backs tucked at the bottom of coverage patterns. After dealing with so-called "arm tightness" the first two weeks, he's been cleared to at least throw in a limited capacity. Eventually, the Bengals will work up to allowing him to make longer throws.

Still, he was glad to have a chance to make the ones he did.

"Just to get back in the swing of things and being able to have reps throwing the ball instead of just run plays the whole time; it's definitely good," McCarron said.

In addition to his late-night film study, McCarron credited Jackson and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese for helping him quicken his pace of learning.

"It's Coach Zamp. We're really close," McCarron said. "He's a really good friend and a great coach. He's helped me a ton. We've spent a lot of hours together going over everything. He's been a huge help to me so far, and he pushes me. That's what I like. I want somebody where, if I don't do right, they get on me and just throw me in the fire. Coach Hue and Zamp have done that."
CINCINNATI -- Hue Jackson has little trouble keeping himself grounded these days. All he has to do is look at the calendar.

It's June 10.

Still, it's been hard for the offensive coordinator to avoid getting even just a little giddy at what he's seen so far from his quarterback through the first three weeks of offseason practices. Sharp throws, well-placed passes and a sound understanding of a stepped-up offensive tempo are just a few examples of the type of play that has Jackson trying to contain his excitement about Andy Dalton.

Yes, the words "excitement" and "Andy Dalton" were used in the same sentence. That Andy Dalton.

About seven months after he was last spotted, "Good Andy" has returned to Paul Brown Stadium. Jackson hopes he'll stay, too, and do whatever he can to keep "Bad Andy" out.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's Andy Dalton
AP Photo/Al BehrmanAndy Dalton will be leading a Bengals offense that is looking to be more physical than in recent seasons.
"There's more urgency in his body," Jackson said of Dalton following the Bengals' first minicamp practice Tuesday. "All the way around, he's improving.

"But we've got to keep improving."

While he was wowed by the 40-yard in-air bomb Dalton delivered from the left hashmark to a well-covered A.J. Green along the right sideline, Jackson still wants to be patient with trumping up his quarterback too much.

Even the 60-yard "Go" route completion in the end zone to Green, followed by the quickly-delivered 20-yard post pass across the middle to Marvin Jones in one-on-one drills with defensive backs, kept Jackson reserved in his judgement on Dalton's day.

"Again, we have a lot more practices before we get ready to play a game," Jackson said. "So I'm excited about what the upside is, but I know we've got to go get there. We've got to keep chasing it every day to get there."

All of this comes as Dalton continues to deal with the potential distraction of contract negotiations. He said earlier Tuesday that he believes enough in himself that if forced into signing an extension that was structured similarly to Colin Kaepernick's unique and controversial new deal, he could do it.

It mostly has been Dalton's decision-making and arm strength that has caught Jackson's eye during the voluntary organized team activities and Tuesday's mandatory minicamp.

"He's throwing the ball fantastic," Jackson said. "He's more compact. The ball comes out quicker."

A large credit for those passing improvements will go to Southern California-based throwing instructor Tom House, a former major league pitcher who worked with Dalton on his mechanics earlier this offseason. House has trained the likes of Drew Brees and Tom Brady, trying to get them to focus on the fundamentals that will get the ball exactly where it needs to be at the speed it needs to be there.

Earlier this offseason Dalton explained that House's main point of emphasis was to get Dalton to keep his front arm tucked close to his body when he threw, much like a pitcher does when throwing a baseball. In doing so, House told him he would keep his body under better control. Before, Dalton had a tendency to open up his front shoulder too quickly, causing his throws to sail wildly and lack velocity. A number of his 20 interceptions last season were the result of overthrown passes that wobbled slowly beyond their targets.

Some credit for Dalton's improvements also should go to Jackson, whose quicker tempo offense has seemed to put him in better position to get passes off in a faster, more fluid rhythm. The pace the Bengals have been practicing at this spring will closely mirror the high-speed play they'll showcase when they take the stadium for live games in the fall.

"Hue tries to create that atmosphere in practice," Dalton said. "We want to do everything quick. We want our drops to be quick. We want to get back and be ready to go. And so the emphasis is on tempo this whole offseason. We've really been moving forward in that direction and it's been great."

At the start of Tuesday's practice, Bengals quarterbacks were going through a quick-throw drill that forced them to throw the ball to a receiver on a quick screen. There were no dropbacks to the exercise. It was all about getting the ball, turning, finding the target and throwing toward the target. Drills like that can help reinforce the urgency Jackson wants to see.

From those exercises to Dalton's passes in one-on-one, seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 scenarios, Jackson has seen enough to believe his quarterback is trending in the right direction.

Those exercises and Dalton's passes in one-on-one and 11-on-11 scenarios are just small pieces to the improved play Jackson has witnessed so far.

"There's not a lapse in play," Jackson said. "Again, I can only speak from what I can encounter, but I see a very confident player who goes in and calls the play and makes decisions, who redirected things and gets us in the right place. There's not a lot of negative football plays. That's what you want. He's taken charge and control."
CINCINNATI -- With one tight end nursing an unspecified injury the Cincinnati Bengals on Tuesday re-signed another.

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Alex Smith, a 10-year veteran who had been an unrestricted free agent this offseason, was added just as tight end Jermaine Gresham goes through his own injury.

A league source told ESPN's Field Yates on Tuesday that hernia surgery has kept Gresham out of on-field practices since they began two weeks ago. Coach Marvin Lewis admitted to reporters last week that Gresham was hurt, but he declined to go into specifics of the injury. Not only has Gresham missed all of the voluntary organized team activities to this point, he also wasn't practicing in Tuesday's mandatory minicamp, although he was in attendance. Before that sighting, he hadn't been seen by media since early May, when he was around for voluntary offseason conditioning workouts.

According to Yates, there is no exact timetable on Gresham's return.

With Smith's return, the Bengals are officially at full capacity on their roster. They now have 90 players. While they can cut players and add others at any time between now and training camp, this figures to be the roster they will carry into the preseason.

"Alex played significant snaps for us last year, and it's good to get him back in the fold," coach Marvin Lewis said. "He's ready to go physically, and it's minicamp week, so he jumps right back in there for us."

Smith's only season with the Bengals was 2013. He signed last offseason as an unrestricted free agent from Cleveland. He played in every one of Cincinnati's regular-season games last year, starting two of them. His last start came during the regular-season finale, when he played in place of both Gresham and Tyler Eifert, the Bengals' top two tight ends who had suffered injuries the week before.

Eifert also has missed time this spring. He didn't practice last week after battling through a minor shoulder injury. He began Tuesday's minicamp, but didn't finish the workout.

Smith has played in 119 career games, making 57 starts. He also has 163 catches for 1,473 yards and 13 touchdowns.
CINCINNATI -- The Bengals begin the mandatory phase of their offseason practices Tuesday morning when they host the first of three consecutive minicamp practices at Paul Brown Stadium.

Each player on the team is required to be in attendance for the minicamp sessions that last until Thursday morning. The arrival of minicamp in Cincinnati signals the start of the second half of the practice portion of their offseason calendar. After this week, the Bengals revert back to the voluntary organized team activity (OTA) model of practice for three days. After that, they'll break for the summer.

Training camp starts July 24.

As the mandatory minicamp -- all of which will be open to media -- gets going this week, here are five things to watch for:

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1. Will Gresham be there? Through the first two weeks of OTAs, tight end Jermaine Gresham has been a noticeable absence. He didn't participate in either of the two practices that were open to media, and he wasn't even seen around the stadium in any other capacity those two days, either. Coach Marvin Lewis said last week that Gresham was in Cincinnati, though, and that he was rehabbing from an injury the coach said wouldn't keep him out of training camp. At this point, Gresham's absence is a mystery. We'll perhaps get a few more definitive answers during the minicamp. If any do come, don't expect them to come from the often media shy Gresham. It bears noting that he has been around the locker room during other voluntary workouts this offseason. He just has yet to be seen by reporters since OTAs began. Will Tuesday by that day? We shall see.

2. Will Still be there? Presumably, defensive tackle Devon Still will be in attendance for the minicamp after missing OTAs to deal with a personal issue last week. Along with Gresham, Still was a noticeable absence when media viewed an open OTA session last Tuesday. He revealed in a post to social media later in the week that he and his family learned his young daughter has cancer. Earlier this week, he tweeted a photo showing he's shaved his head to support his daughter who will go through chemotherapy. Although injured for much of the latter half of last season, Still was and continues to be a key piece to the Bengals' defensive line depth chart. Assuming Geno Atkins returns during training camp from his ACL injury, Still and Brandon Thompson are right now the first two defensive tackles off the bench behind Atkins and Domata Peko.

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3. RB rotation getting set? We are still about three months from the start of the regular season, but it appears we may be getting a general idea of what the Bengals' backfield may look like this fall. Giovani Bernard has been moved into a more prominent role, although the Bengals are expected to continue with the committee approach to delegating carries and receptions. Alongside him often during the two open OTAs was rookie Jeremy Hill, the team's prized second-round pick who promises to be a key piece in the backfield as veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis enters the final year on his current deal. Speaking of Green-Ellis, the Bengals have been adamant in their belief a roster spot remains for the 28-year-old, but Hill's arrival hasn't made it easy to justify Green-Ellis' future in Cincinnati. As the Bengals go through this week, it still will be interesting to see how the running back rotations shake out. Will Green-Ellis stay in the mix? Or is Hill starting to push past him?

4. Making tempo a priority. Offensively, the Bengals' charge this offseason has been to adopt coordinator Hue Jackson's tweaked scheme that includes a quicker tempo and a faster pace. His goal has been to get his players to come out of the huddle quickly so they can get to the line of scrimmage much earlier in the play clock, effectively allowing them to run more plays in a drive and game. It's been an offensive priority, but we haven't been able to gauge how much of a priority it's been for the defense, too. Overall, practices seem to be conducted at a faster speed than they were last season, particularly during 11-on-11 drills when the defense is shifting fronts, moving around constantly, and the offense is making pre-play calls to counter. Jackson isn't the only coordinator trying to spice up his unit. It appears Paul Guenther has done the same with the defense. The minicamp should show a little more of that.

5. Grooming the rookies. The Bengals have eight draft picks and 11 undrafted free agents they still are trying to both groom and assess before the season begins. Many of the evaluations will be done in training camp, but coaches are looking right now to see how well the first-year players can adapt to the coaching and new playbooks. A foundation for late July is being at this time, and these three practices can go a long way toward giving the Bengals a better idea of who the young players they just brought on are. Among the rookies who will be scrutinized the next few months, cornerback Darqueze Dennard may top the list. While Hill's place in the backfield is beginning to take shape, the first-round pick Dennard has a more difficult obstacle to overcome to play; he has several veterans ahead of him. Already, though, Dennard has gotten his share of early instruction and played with both the first- and second-team defenses in open OTAs.
DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins wrapped up their first of three practices at mandatory minicamp Tuesday. The AFC East blog was live at Miami’s practice facility to take in all the action.

Here is a recap:
  • The big story Tuesday was the return of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Randy Starks, who held out of all of Miami’s voluntary activities due to getting the franchise tag. Starks signed his tag for $8.5 million. Therefore, he was required to show up or risk a fine. Starks didn’t take part in any team work, and it appears Miami will bring him along slowly. Starks didn’t discuss his contract situation, but he did discuss missing OTAs. “It was kind of lonely at first,” Starks said. “It was something to get used to. But I kept in contact with some of my teammates and felt like I was still here a little bit."
  • It was a good day for Miami starting receiver Brian Hartline, who made a series of nice catches in team drills and 7-on-7 drills. Hartline made two deep, sideline catches from quarterback Ryan Tannehill and also made the routine plays over the middle. Hartline recorded his first 1,000-yard season in 2012 and could be poised for another good year in 2013.
  • It was also a good day for interceptions on defense. There were four picks by my count in team drills by Miami defenders. Dolphins starting safety Reshad Jones, linebacker Philip Wheeler, safety Chris Clemons and cornerback Don Jones all recorded interceptions. The Dolphins are focusing on creating more turnovers this offseason, and it was a good day for the defense in that regard.
  • As far as attendance, everyone was present with the exception of rookie No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan, who has a quarters academic system at the University of Oregon and cannot attend. Jordan also is recovering from shoulder surgery and will not join the team for practice until training camp. Fellow rookie second-round pick Jamar Taylor (sports hernia) worked on the side and didn’t practice. Starting tight end Dustin Keller also sat out of team drills on Tuesday, and backup tight end Michael Egnew got plenty of first-team reps.
  • Dolphins receiver and free-agent pickup Brandon Gibson is looking more comfortable this week in the slot. He seemed a step hesitant earlier this offseason but looked more fluid running and catching inside on Tuesday. Gibson did not play much in the slot during his time with the St. Louis Rams. But Miami needs Gibson inside after trading Davone Bess to the Cleveland Browns this offseason.
  • Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman offered high praise for Tannehill, who is entering Year 2 as Miami's starting quarterback. According to Sherman, the growth in Tannehill is apparent. "He's doing more as far as what he sees," Sherman said. "He's doing things better than he did a year ago."
  • A player who had a surprisingly good practice was undrafted rookie wide receiver Brian Tyms. He flashed several times Tuesday with some tough catches and displayed good size and athleticism. Miami is stacked at wide receiver, so Tyms could be a long shot to make the 53-man roster. But Tyms could be a developmental possibility for the practice squad if he keeps making plays in practice.
We have yet another wrinkle in the Tim Tebow saga.

The New York Jets, who traded for Tebow this offseason, plan to use him as many ways as possible this season. In addition to working Tebow as a punt protector in minicamp, Jets assistant special teams coach Ben Kotwica told the New York Daily News the team also is considering using Tebow on the kickoff team.

"I think there might be some value there on kickoff returns,” Kotwica told the Daily News. "It’s something that we’ve talked about. I don’t think there’s any option with Tim that we’ve taken off the table."

Is this a good idea?

I'm all for the Jets getting the most out of Tebow. Despite criticism of his throwing ability, Tebow is a solid football player who is strong and athletic. But using Tebow on the kickoff team might be going too far.

Many of the NFL's biggest collisions and subsequent concussions take place on kickoff returns. That number decreased last year with the new kickoff rules, but subjecting a backup quarterback to that is risky. Tebow will take enough big hits this year running the ball in the Wildcat offseason. The Jets need to protect him to some degree.

Physically, Tebow probably could get the job done on the kickoff team. But there are plenty of players on the Jets' 53-man roster who can run 60 yards down the field and make a tackle. The Jets should leave that to players who are fighting for roster spots. Tebow has more important roles to worry about.
New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow continues to work on his quirky throwing motion. Tebow has one of the slowest releases in the NFL, and it continues to be his biggest weakness.

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The latest chapter in fixing Tebow's poor throwing takes us to Southern California. Tebow has been working with passing guru Tom House at USC this week, reports Pedro Moura of ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Tebow has worked with several throwing coaches, dating to 2010, when he entered the NFL draft. Tebow also had a quarterbacks coach during his two seasons with the Denver Broncos, and has one now that he's with the New York Jets. After plenty of work, Tebow's throwing motion still is not up to par.

I most recently watched Tebow throw during New York's mandatory minicamp last month, and there continued to be stretches of poor accuracy. One play that stood out most, during which Tebow pump-faked and tried to reload to throw. The pass seemingly took forever, and the defensive line was all over Tebow by the time the ball left his hands. It's hard to see that changing by New York's Week 1 game against the Buffalo Bills.

Tebow deserves to be applauded for the immense work he's put in this offseason. Physically, he looks to be in the best shape of his career as he competes with Jets starter Mark Sanchez. Tebow's toughness, character and athleticism should make him an immediate contributor.

But you wonder if Tebow's throwing motion will ever change dramatically enough to where it is no longer a question. I haven't seen enough evidence for that to be the case.
DAVIE, Fla. – During Tuesday's minicamp, Chad Ochocinco sprinted up the right sideline as fast as he could.

After the Miami Dolphins' newest receiver gained a step on cornerback Sean Smith, quarterback David Garrard threw a back-shoulder pass deep that forced Ochocinco to make a quick adjustment. Ochocinco spotted the ball, stopped on a dime and leaped over Smith while keeping his feet in bounds to make an acrobatic catch. It was one of several great plays the 34-year-old receiver made in Miami's first day of minicamp.

"He definitely has 'it,'" Smith said of Ochocinco. "I know a lot of people wrote him off. If you look at his numbers last year, they weren't productive. But he's out here, his routes are crisp and he's coming out of his breaks. He looks good. He's definitely going to be one of those guys who turns heads this year."

Although it's just one practice, Ochocinco was the best receiver on the field for Miami on Tuesday. It's been awhile since that was the case.

[+] EnlargeChad Ochocinco
AP Photo/J Pat Carter"He definitely has 'it'," new teammate Sean Smith said after getting beaten by Chad Ochocinco.
The six-time Pro Bowler spent most of his 2011 season on the bench with the New England Patriots. Ochocinco recorded a career-low 15 receptions for 276 yards. He fell as low as fourth or fifth on New England’s depth chart before finally being released June 7. It was the first time in the NFL that Ochocinco was ever cut.

Now, for the first time in a long time, Ochocinco has something to prove. Ochocinco was very business-like in his approach this week, and he looks determined to show his critics he still has something left in the tank.

"I'm getting back to what we're all used to seeing, the basic fundamentals of how I came to what I am," Ochocinco said. "I think I kind of lost that. Now, I'm looking to go back to Chad Johnson, just making it live again."

Sometimes it takes going back home to get back to your roots. Ochocinco grew up in Miami and went to Miami Beach High School. As soon as he was cut by the Patriots, he came back to South Florida to work out with his friend and fellow free agent Terrell Owens.

The receiver-deprived Dolphins worked Ochocinco out a few days later and signed him to a modest one-year contract. It’s a team he always rooted for growing up. Ochocinco cited “The Marks,” as in Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, and quarterback Dan Marino as some of his favorite players.

More importantly, the Dolphins are more accepting than the Patriots to let "Ocho be Ocho." He is charismatic and has a unique personality. At any moment, Ochocinco can say something funny, something from way out in left field. It's a big part of who he is, and the Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick took that away from him. Ochocinco had the muzzle on his mouth from the day he arrived until the conclusion of the Super Bowl. It was an uncomfortable year to say the least.

But Ochocinco is back to having fun again in Miami. He's already chirping to the defense and his quarterbacks, which is something he was scared to do in New England. Ochocinco was that way earlier in his career, and that's when he was confident and played his best football.

"Chad thinks he's open on every play," said Garrard. "Even when it's the punt team [on the field], he's open. So it's been great. He will remind you that whoever he's got on him, he's open."

Smith said he wants Ochocinco to let his personality show this season, because that will help the receiver be more comfortable as a player.

"As a player and a teammate, I would like for him to go out and be him," Smith said. "Let it loose, and give it everything you got. If you have to talk when you play, talk when you play, as long as you back it up."

Ochocinco is winning over his new teammates and coaches in Miami. That's a great first step. No one has ever questioned Ochocinco's work ethic. He's always been a hard worker and showed up for Dolphins camp in great shape.

Miami rookie head coach Joe Philbin told a story this week displaying Ochocinco's dedication to getting back to his old form.

"Last Wednesday we had a team meeting and we called off practice to go and perform some community service," Philbin said. "This is my 10th year in the NFL and I have been around practices that have been canceled and I've never been around a player that wanted to practice, but Chad wanted to practice, so he’s been good. So far it seems that he is fitting in well."

At the end of Ochocinco's meeting with the media Tuesday, he said "enjoy the show."

Perhaps Ochocinco has something in store for 2012 that will surprise a lot of people.

Live from Dolphins minicamp

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DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins open their 2012 mandatory minicamp Tuesday, and the AFC East blog is here at the team's training facility to take in all the action.

Miami is trying to keep the momentum going after last year's strong finish. The Dolphins have a new coach and a new attitude. We will be checking out all the competition going on the practice field, especially the three-way battle at quarterback between Matt Moore, David Garrard and Ryan Tannehill. This is also a big week for new wide receiver Chad Ochocinco.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for real-time updates from Dolphins' practice. Find out who's looking good and who's struggling.

We will have a full report from Dolphins' minicamp later this afternoon.
Tom Brady, Joseph AddaiAP Photo/Charles KrupaWill Joseph Addai, the most experienced running back on the Patriots roster, step up to take some presure off Tom Brady and the offense?

Not even the great Tom Brady can throw 70 times per game. At some point, the New England Patriots must rely on their running game this season to complement their future Hall of Fame quarterback and high-powered passing attack.

But who is ready to carry to load this year for the Patriots? That is a question the defending AFC champions are not ready to answer.

Consider New England's ground attack a journey into the unknown. Its running back roster reads like a waiver wire scrap heap in fantasy football: Joseph Addai, Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. These four combine for nine career starts in New England. Addai, a free-agent signing, has 60 starts but all were with the Indianapolis Colts.

None of them stand out on their own. But the Patriots are hoping for strength by committee.

"We're not really focused on who's going to be the guy or anything like that; we're just trying to help each other out and learn together," Ridley said during last week's minicamp. "If we can all [learn] that playbook, then they can put us anywhere on the field and we can go out there and be successful. That's when we do better as a unit.

"One person is not going to get it done all the way through the season and we know that, so we have to be able to depend on everybody."

After the offseason departure of former starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Patriots' coaching staff is trying to figure out who they can trust most with the football in 2012. Green-Ellis was not an elite back, but he was good for New England's pass-heavy system. Green-Ellis was tough, dependable and never lost a fumble in four seasons.

While Brady and New England's dynamic receivers and tight ends put up points and made big plays, Green-Ellis did most of the dirty work between the tackles. The Cincinnati Bengals signed Green-Ellis to a three-year, $9 million contract this offseason. Add the loss of trusted veteran Kevin Faulk, 36, to the mix and New England is virtually starting over at the position.

"We have a bunch of young kids that have a lot more to learn," Patriots running back coach Ivan Fears said. "I had a lot of guys [last year] who experienced the game and knew what to expect in the pro game. These guys are young."

The Patriots spent last week's minicamp in the exploratory phase. New England's running backs shifted in and out with different personnel groupings, and it's too early to tell if there's a clear-cut player ahead in the race to be the starter.

This is a group that very much needs coaching, experience and attention to detail. It will be up to the coaching staff to determine which running back is best suited for certain in-game situations.

Each tailback brings certain strengths to the table. Ridley and Vereen, for example, are 2011 draft picks and have fresh, young legs. Addai has the most experience. Woodhead is quick and has value as a third-down back.

"Everybody is different, and everybody has a style that made them what they are," Fears said. "A lot of guys have been successful doing it in various ways."

Heading into training camp, Ridley and Vereen most likely have the inside track on the starting job. Ridley had two starts and showed flashes last year. He gained 441 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Vereen battled injuries and recorded just 15 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown in 2011.

Both joined the team together and have created a healthy bond and competition. They are neighbors and spend time studying the playbook together. Ridley and Vereen also plan to make a significant jump in their second season together, which would help the Patriots tremendously.

"I definitely think so because we're going through the same struggles on the field and off the field at the same time," Vereen said. "Both of our heads were spinning 100 miles an hour last year. It’s a very good bond between me and Stevan."

New England's passing game should take pressure off its running backs. Defenses cannot stack the line of scrimmage against Brady and New England's spread formations. The Patriots also added fullbacks Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta to the roster. One fullback will probably make the team, and the position could be used more this season.

Ridley described New England's tailback situation as "wide open." He is exactly right. The Patriots' offense should be a juggernaut again in 2012, as long as at least one player from this unproven group of running backs steps forward.

2012 NFL OTA, minicamp dates

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Offseason programs kicking off

April, 16, 2012
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Most of the NFC South gets back to work Monday, but not the division’s best player.

Barring a sudden turn in contract talks that didn’t appear to be heating up recently, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is not expected to be in Metairie, La., as his teammates begin their offseason program. The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers also begin their offseason programs Monday.

Brees
The three teams will begin with conditioning and meetings, but the Saints begin their offseason program with perhaps the most intrigue ever surrounding an offseason program. Coach Sean Payton begins his season-long suspension Monday, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt takes over. But Payton won’t be the only leader missing for the Saints.

Brees has been hit with the franchise tag, and has not signed his tender. Brees has said throughout the offseason that he was optimistic a long-term contract would be agreed to, but that hasn’t happened. Brees could take part in the offseason workout if he signs a waiver, but franchise players almost never do that.

As much as it would appear to hurt the Saints that they’re opening the offseason program without their leader, it’s mostly just a symbolic thing. The Saints won’t hit the practice field for a couple of weeks. It’s a virtual certainty that Brees, who always has taken good care of himself, will work on conditioning on his own.

Brees’ absence isn’t that big a deal right now. But it would be in the best interest of the Saints and Brees to get a contract done before the team holds its minicamp. The exact date for that hasn’t been announced, but it’s likely to be in mid-May.

Speaking of minicamps, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin one on Tuesday. The Bucs got to start their offseason program two weeks earlier than the other NFC South teams because they had a coaching change. New coach Greg Schiano will get his first real on-field look at his team in a minicamp that starts Tuesday and continues through Thursday.
The NFL lockout has put players and owners in limbo. The ripple effects are also felt by people whose lives or business touch their teams. Here are their stories:

[+] EnlargeBryan Shepherd
Courtesy of Bryan ShepherdBryan Shepherd is the general manager of Marriott hotel properties in Berea, Ohio. His hotels could lose revenue if the lockout eats into training camp.
According to Bryan Shepherd, the NFL lockout is tough. But the situation still has the potential to get worse.

The general manager of Marriott hotel properties in Berea, Ohio, where the Cleveland Browns train, lost his biggest business client for the spring because of the lockout. But Shepherd is hopeful he won't lose the substantial amount of revenue he receives from the Browns later this summer when the team fills up his hotels during training camp.

"The Browns are still holding the rooms but it keeps getting pushed back," Shepherd said. "Chances are rookie camp [will be lost]. So we've worked hard on replacing business we might not have from the Browns right now. But the toughest thing is to anticipate and be there for them when they need the rooms."

Marriott owns a Courtyard, TownePlace Suites and Residence Inn in Berea and has been a partner with the Browns since the team returned to the NFL in 1999. The practice facility is close by, making it easy for players to get to and from practice during the warm spring and summer months.

For offseason workouts and minicamps, the Browns rent an estimated 20 to 25 rooms at the Courtyard property for up to 45 days for drafted and undrafted rookies and a few veterans without residences in the Cleveland area. During training camp, which lasts about five weeks, the Browns have rented as many as 94 rooms depending on the year, according to Shepherd. It is annually the hotel's most reliable source of revenue in an unstable economy.

But Shepherd says he is fortunate the NFL lockout did not take place last year or two years ago, when the travel industry hit a major dry spell and the financial loss would have been tougher to absorb. Business travel is finally starting to show growth nationally and in the Cleveland area.

"In 2009 and 2010, most hotels saw anywhere between a 10-18 percent decrease in total occupancy and rate," Shepherd said. "In 2011, research is showing people are traveling more and companies are starting to let their associates travel more."

With the lockout reaching its 78th day and counting, it appears the start of training camp could be in jeopardy. Shepherd, like all NFL fans, hopes the players and owners can reach a timely agreement before it gets to that point.
How do you explain signing a major free agent and then cutting him before he plays a game?

In one word: strange.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Bryant
AP Photo/Al BehrmanThe Bengals gambled that Antonio Bryant would recover from his knee injury.
The Cincinnati Bengals have been known to do odd things with personnel over the years. But signing receiver Antonio Bryant to a four-year, $28 million contract in March and releasing him five months later before the regular season is near the top of the list.

There were red flags with this signing from the beginning.

Bryant had offseason knee surgery and never looked right in minicamp. I covered Bryant in 2005 when he played with the Cleveland Browns and remembered thinking at the time that something wasn't right. He didn't look nearly as explosive.

It turns out Bryant's knee never healed properly. The Bengals rested him during a portion of minicamp and were very cautious with him during training camp. Then the organization got eerily quiet when questioned about Bryant's progress -- more red flags -- and the rumors began to swirl.

Cincinnati ended speculation by cutting ties with Bryant on Sunday. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, $8 million of Bryant's contract is guaranteed. Between Bryant and Laveranues Coles, the Bengals have wasted a lot of money at wide receiver. Both signed $28 million contracts and neither lasted more than a year in Cincinnati.

But the Bengals were fortunate in several ways.

First, Cincinnati will not take a salary cap hit because it's an uncapped year. An educated guess is the Bengals may have stuck with Bryant to see how he recovers had there been a stiff cap hit for the life of the contract.

Second, signing Terrell Owens and drafting Jordan Shipley made Bryant expendable. Both receivers have looked superior to what Bryant showed in Cincinnati with a bad knee.

Owens' and Shipley's production will likely make Cincinnati forget about Bryant. But that doesn't make Bryant's signing and quick release this year any less strange.

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