NFL Nation: NFC West

NFC West is best in 2013

December, 18, 2013
Go west young man, if you want to be where the best teams are in the NFL. Specifically, the NFC West.

The 12-2 Seahawks lead the best division in the league with two weeks remaining in the regular season. The combined record for the four NFC West teams is 37-19, a .661 winning percentage.

The NFC West is the only division that has three teams with at least nine victories -- Seattle, San Francisco (10-4) and Arizona (9-5). It's also the only division where the worst team has six wins. The St. Louis Rams are 6-8.

And the NFC West is going to stay on top this season. Factoring in games against each other, the worst the division can do is 40-24. No other division can reach that win total.

It's quite a turnaround in three years. The Seahawks won the division in 2010 with a 7-9 record. The combined record of the NFC West that season was 25-39, a .390 winning percentage.

Second best on that division list in 2013 is the AFC West, thanks to the top two teams at 11-3 -- Denver and Kansas City. San Diego is 7-7, and Oakland has the only losing record in the division at 4-10. But the AFC West is 33-23, a .589 winning percentage.

No other division in the NFL is better than two games over .500 entering this weekend's games. The AFC East is 29-27 and the NFC South is 28-28.

Seahawks can clinch at Candlestick

December, 3, 2013
RENTON, Wash. -- Who would have thought it?

In only the 13th game of the season, the Seahawks will go to San Francisco this weekend with a chance to clinch in the NFC West title at Candlestick Park against their bitter rivals. And the 49ers are just trying to stay in the playoff picture.

"This is fun for everybody," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said Monday on his 710 ESPN Seattle radio show. "We've been preparing for this moment the whole time.”

Most fans of both teams thought this game would have title implications, but only the most optimistic Seahawks fans envisioned this game would have a clinch scenario for 11-1 Seattle and title elimination for the 8-4 49ers.

But it won't be easy. Seattle has lost the last four times it has played in San Francisco. And the 49ers feel like they have something to prove after losing 29-3 at Seattle in the second game of the season.

It's extra special for Carroll, who grew up in the Bay Area. This will be the last time he will be involved in a game at Candlestick. The 49ers move to their new stadium in Santa Clara next year.

"It's a big deal for me, growing up there and going to all those games there," Carroll said. "I go all the way back Seals Stadium and Kezar Stadium, so I can't believe [the 49ers] are going to play in Santa Clara."

Rapid Reaction: Rams 27, Cardinals 24

September, 8, 2013

ST. LOUIS -- Quick thoughts on the St. Louis Rams’ 27-24 season-opening win against the Arizona Cardinals at the Edward Jones Dome:

What it means: Those expecting a big offensive explosion from the Rams didn’t exactly get what they wanted, though the Rams did do most of their offensive damage through the air. Still, quarterback Sam Bradford got the job done with a late scoring drive and started an important season for him by leading his team to a comeback victory. This team is his team without Steven Jackson, and Bradford led it when it needed him most.

Stock Watch: Up -- tight end Jared Cook had a tough start with his early fumble on what looked like it would have been a touchdown, but he bounced back and gave the Cardinals fits all day. He was the one weapon the Rams had been waiting to “unleash” who actually was unveiled Sunday. He finished with seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns.

Down -- cornerback Cortland Finnegan is supposed to be the reliable, veteran linchpin of the Rams secondary, but he had a rough day at the office. Larry Fitzgerald makes plenty of corners look bad, and he did it to Finnegan on a third-quarter touchdown. But Finnegan also racked up a pair of costly unnecessary roughness penalties.

Something’s “off”: The Rams spent large chunks of last season playing soft coverage with their outside corners. Many believed it was a product of having young corners like Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson playing a lot of snaps. Not much changed in Week 1, though. Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer got the ball out quickly and efficiently for most of the day.

Quinn’s big day: Rams defensive end Robert Quinn made life miserable for Arizona left tackle Levi Brown by beating him for three sacks and forcing two fumbles, one of which the Rams recovered late before tying it up. Chris Long is the more established of the two ends but Quinn’s upside is that of an elite pass rusher.

What’s next: The Rams will be off for the next two days to regroup from a dramatic win before beginning a difficult stretch of schedule with back-to-back road trips to Atlanta and Dallas.
Injuries are a tricky thing in the NFL. There is no rhyme or reason to it. You never know when they're coming, and they can happen in bunches or not much at all.

For the most part, the AFC East was fortunate with injuries in 2012. For example, no starting quarterback in the division missed a start due to injury. New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was benched for poor performance, and Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffered a quad and knee injury in Week 8 but started the following week against the Indianapolis Colts.

The Dallas Morning News kept an injury database for the entire season. It turns out the AFC East was the second-healthiest division in the NFL, with players missing 152 combined games. The NFC West was the healthiest division, with players missing 97 games.

Here is the breakdown of games missed for the AFC East:
  • Dolphins: 23
  • Patriots: 27
  • Jets: 47
  • Bills: 55

Every team but the Bills was in the top half of the league with the fewest games missed. Buffalo ranked 22nd.

However, good health did not translate into victories. The AFC East had just one team -- the Patriots (12-4) -- with a winning record. The division record overall was a meager 31-33.

It's clear that 2012 was not a health issue with the Bills (6-10), Jets (6-10) and Dolphins (7-9). It's more a talent issue with these teams. All three need to work harder in the offseason to add difference-makers who can win games.

With 49ers' help, West can pull rare sweep

September, 16, 2012
SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco 49ers are one half away from giving the NFC West a 4-0 record in the same week for the second time since the NFL realigned its divisions in 2002.

How odd would it be if the 49ers were the one team failing to hold up its end? They hold a 14-6 halftime lead and are controlling the game overall, but they haven't been as crisp as they were against Green Bay last week.

All four NFC West teams won in Week 10 last season. St. Louis defeated Cleveland, 13-12; Arizona defeated Philadelphia, 21-17; Seattle defeated Baltimore, 22-17; and the 49ers defeated the New York Giants, 27-20.

So far Sunday, Arizona has defeated New England, St. Louis has defeated Washington and Seattle has defeated Dallas. All three of those opponents had been 1-0 entering Week 2. The Lions were 1-0 entering this game at San Francisco.

Enjoy the second half.

Note: Some apparently thought I was kidding earlier Sunday when I suggested all four NFC West teams would win. In retrospect, I've decided I was serious at the time.

The West was won, but not by enough

December, 2, 2011
People sometimes tell me I look at the schedule too much. To which I say: No. I play Zombie Farm too much. I look at the schedule as much as is appropriate to aid my analysis of the NFL. The schedule is important because, while we obviously cannot accurately predict results of individual game, over the long haul playing weaker teams helps your chances and playing stronger teams hurts them. A month ago, for example, it wasn't hard to figure out that the Cowboys had a good chance to overtake the Giants by now, given the relative strengths of the teams they were going to play in November.

Back in August, when we were forecasting the season, a theory emerged that the records of the NFC East's teams would be helped this year by the fact that they were playing all of the teams in the NFC West. The West, you'll remember, failed to produce a winning record last season, as the Seahawks and Rams finished tied for the division lead at 7-9 and Seattle won on a tiebreaker. John Clayton was the first I saw to put forth this theory, based on the idea that the NFC South came up with three 10-win teams last season, in part because the West was on its schedule.

Well, playing the NFC West has helped the Cowboys. And the Redskins, actually. But it hasn't worked out exactly the way we imagined it would. No one expected the 49ers to be one of the best teams in the league, and the fact that they're 9-2 has kept the West from being the same kind of laughingstock it was last season. But the other three teams in the West are a combined 11-23, which means teams that get to play them should be taking advantage.

The NFC East has gone a combined 9-6 against Mike Sando's division with only one game -- Dallas' game this Sunday in Arizona -- left to play. Here's how it breaks down:

Cowboys (3-0): The only team in the division (and one of only two in the league) to beat the 49ers, the Cowboys can complete the NFC West sweep Sunday. And if they do that and the Giants lose to Green Bay, the Cowboys can clinch the division the following Sunday by beating the Giants.

Redskins (3-1): Three of Washington's four wins have come against the NFC West. And frankly, they played the Niners kind of tough, losing 19-11 in Week 9 during the John Beck era. Early season victories against Arizona and St. Louis helped them to their 3-1 start, and Sunday's victory in Seattle broke their six-game losing streak. I think the Redskins will miss playing the West.

Giants (2-2): The home loss to Seattle really stings as they find themselves one game out of first place. That and the loss in San Francisco hurt them in their tiebreaker efforts against the Cowboys, who beat both of those teams. They had to come back to beat Arizona, and they beat St. Louis in a sloppy Week 2 game at home.

Eagles (1-3): Surprised? Everyone's favorite underachievers won their opener in St. Louis. But they blew a 23-3 third-quarter lead to the Niners in Week 4 before everybody knew the Niners were legit and the Eagles weren't. Michael Vick and Jeremy Maclin haven't played since the Week 10 collapse and loss to the Cardinals. And Thursday night's loss in Seattle ensured that the Eagles can't have a winning record. There are a lot of places you can look to find missed Eagle opportunities, but those games against the West stand out as big ones. Sweep the West, and they're 7-5 right now.
Baltimore Ravens receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh caught a game-winning, 18-yard touchdown reception in last week's win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The catch was a relief for "Housh," who joined the team late and is trying to fit into an all-star cast that also includes former Pro Bowlers Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, Ray Rice, Todd Heap and Le'Ron McClain.

Afterwards the AFC North blog caught up with Houshmandzadeh, who was excited and very optimistic about the prospects of Baltimore's offense improving as the season goes on.

"We could literally, no lie, be like the Rams or Arizona of the last few years," Houshmandzadeh said. "With the guys we got and the quarterback [Joe Flacco]? We should be scoring and we got a defense, too. We should be smacking people like the Florida Gators with Tim Tebow. That's the type of weapons we have, and we have a defense where if we get that lead, it's over."

Houshmandzadeh mentioned he hopes last week's key drive late against Pittsburgh was the spark the Ravens needed to get the offense rolling. Baltimore's offense is off to a slow start in four games, ranking just 22nd in the NFL at 306.5 yards per game.

The Ravens (3-1) will host the Denver Broncos (2-2) Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

Ravens trade WR Mark Clayton to Rams

September, 6, 2010
T.J. Houshmandzadeh in, and Mark Clayton out.

That's the best way to sum up the Baltimore Ravens' Labor Day, as ESPN's Chris Mortensen reports the team traded Clayton to the St. Louis Rams for a late-round draft pick.

Clayton showed flashes, but was mostly a disappointment in Baltimore. Despite being a former first-round pick, Clayton never developed enough consistency to be a great NFL receiver. There were times when he would record more than 100 yards receiving and then completely disappear the next two or three games, which was puzzling.

The inconsistency was part of the reason Baltimore traded for Anquan Boldin this offseason, to take Clayton out of the starting lineup. But Monday's signing of Houshmandzadeh made Clayton expendable.

The bad news is Baltimore didn't get much value for Clayton. But adding Houshmandzadeh to the roster and trading Clayton is a significant upgrade in my book.

AFC North preseason recap

September, 3, 2010
The preseason is finally over. All four AFC North teams were in action Thursday night for their exhibition finales.

Here are some notes from each game:

Pittsburgh Steelers 19, Carolina Panthers 3

The Good
  • Rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Jonathan Dwyer both made strong cases in their final chance to impress before Saturday's cuts. Dwyer, a sixth-round pick, led the Steelers in rushing for the second straight week with 86 yards on 20 carries. Sanders, a third-round pick, led Pittsburgh in receiving with 66 yards and a touchdown. Both players were up and down in training camp but came on strong late in the preseason to likely earn roster spots.
The Bad
  • The huge negative was the left knee sprain to quarterback Byron Leftwich, who was expected to be Pittsburgh's Week 1 starter. Leftwich was hit low in the first half and didn’t return. Now his status is in question for the regular-season opener, where quarterbacks Dennis Dixon or Charlie Batch may have to step in against the Atlanta Falcons.
Cleveland Browns 13, Chicago Bears 10

The Good
  • We mentioned quarterback Colt McCoy's perfect 13-for-13 passing earlier in the AFC North blog. So let's shift the focus to Cleveland running back James Davis, who likely claimed a roster spot. The backup was on the bubble but led the Browns in rushing with 66 yards against Chicago. Davis also caught five passes for 53 yards and showed good elusiveness to break tackles. Davis was the talk of the preseason last year when he led the Browns in rushing. But he's been quiet this exhibition season until Thursday.
The Bad
  • Browns rookie running back Montario Hardesty's much-anticipated debut ended poorly as he suffered another knee injury. Hardesty missed all of training camp and three preseason games with a right knee injury. After seven carries, he hurt his left knee and was on crutches after the game. Hardesty came to Cleveland with a reputation of being injury-prone in college.
Baltimore Ravens 21, St. Louis Rams 27

The Good
  • Baltimore rookie WR David Reed showed flashes. Reed recorded 138 yards on four kickoff returns. The fifth-round pick also caught three receptions for 65 yards. Reed is on the bubble but helped his case to be one of the final receivers to make the team.
The Bad
  • We also mentioned Ravens quarterback Troy Smith earlier. But let's discuss the most unnecessary move we've seen in the AFC North this preseason, which was Dannell Ellerbe stopping at the goal line to taunt the Rams before scoring a defensive touchdown. Where to start with this one? First, the Ravens were losing. Second, it was the preseason. Third, Ellerbe is fighting for playing time and made a good defensive play look unprofessional. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh cleary wasn't happy with Ellerbe's antics.
Cincinnati Bengals 30, Indianapolis Colts 28

The Good
  • The Bengals finally got great quarterback play from backups Jordan Palmer and J.T. O'Sullivan. Both players have been inconsistent this preseason but had their best efforts against Indianapolis. O'Sullivan was 9-for-12 for 102 yards, and Palmer was 10-for-14 for 114 and two touchdowns. This should bring a little bit of calm in relation to Carson Palmer's replacements heading into the regular season.
The Bad
  • Cincinnati had another double-digit penalty game with 11 infractions. Sure, a lot of backups played Thursday, but there were some on the field who will contribute in the regular season. Cincinnati doesn't seem concerned about its penchant for penalties. But we will see if it disappears or carries over when the games count.

Updating AFC North quarterbacks

August, 26, 2010
We are halfway through the preseason. Therefore, it's a great time to take a look at the NFL's most important position: Quarterback.

Here is an update on how AFC North starting quarterbacks are performing so far:

Carson Palmer

Team: Cincinnati Bengals

Stats: Three starts, 292 yards, two interceptions, 67.4 completion percentage.

Analysis: With so many new receivers, Cincinnati's passing offense remains a work in progress. Palmer has been decent, but not great, in limited action during the Bengals’ three preseason games. I like the fact that he's making a strong effort to develop a rapport with receiver Terrell Owens, and they are getting more comfortable each week. Palmer's passer rating (67.2) took a hit last weekend after throwing two interceptions against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Joe Flacco

Team: Baltimore Ravens

Stats: Two starts, 192 yards, one touchdown, 60.7 completion percentage.

Analysis: There are high expectations for the Ravens' offense, which is why this unit has taken some heat recently in the Baltimore media. The Ravens' starters are not playing poorly on offense, but they aren't scoring many points, either. A fake punt led to the first team's only touchdown last week against the Washington Redskins. With a solid 93.2 passer rating, Flacco is playing efficiently and not turning over the football. Flacco also hinted that Baltimore isn't showing everything this preseason.

Jake Delhomme

Team: Cleveland Browns

Stats: Two starts, 193 yards, one touchdown, 78.3 completion percentage.

Analysis: Sporting a 116.1 passer rating, Delhomme is playing as well as the Browns could hope for in the preseason. He's been accurate and decisive in his reads, and Delhomme even played well through rainy field conditions last week against the St. Louis Rams. There are a lot of concerns about Delhomme this season. But based on his preseason performance, Delhomme has done everything in his power to quiet those concerns.

Ben Roethlisberger

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

Stats: One start, 76 yards, one interception, 75.0 completion percentage.

Analysis: Despite a poor deep throw to Mike Wallace that was intercepted, Roethlisberger played well overall in his 2010 debut against the New York Giants. He completed 6 of 8 passes in limited playing time, and it appears Roethlisberger might start again Sunday against the Denver Broncos, despite his conditional six-game suspension. Meanwhile, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are battling it out to start in Week 1. Dixon has performed better so far against lesser competition. That is why the Steelers intend to get the third-year quarterback some playing time with the first team against Denver to see what he can do.

AFC North preseason recap

August, 22, 2010
Three AFC North teams played their second preseason game Saturday night.

Here are some thoughts and observations:

Pittsburgh Steelers 24, New York Giants 17

The Good
  • The quarterback play was solid across the board for Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger made his 2010 debut and completed 6 of 8 passes for 76 yards and one interception with the first-team offense. His interception was thrown short on a deep pass intended for receiver Mike Wallace, which was Roethlisberger’s only poor pass of the night. Byron Leftwich had his best preseason game, throwing for 95 yards and a touchdown. His 68-yard bomb to Wallace in the second quarter was the highlight of the game for Pittsburgh. Dennis Dixon continued his sharp preseason by completing 7-of-8 passes for 82 yards. Dixon also added 27 yards rushing, as he pushes for more opportunities with the first team.
  • Reserve tailback Isaac Redman continues to make a strong impression. "Red-zone" lived up to his nickname with a tough, 12-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He recorded 34 yards on six carries and averaged 5.7 yards per attempt. The AFC North blog predicted this week that Redman will make the 53-man roster, and he continues to help his case.
The Bad
  • Steelers No. 1 cornerback Ike Taylor was ejected in the first quarter following his fight with New York receiver Hakeem Nicks, who also was ejected. Sure, it's the preseason, but Taylor is a veteran who should know better. Pittsburgh cannot afford to lose its top cornerback under these circumstances in the regular season.
  • The defense was pretty good overall, but there was one drive by New York that will get some attention in Pittsburgh's film room. Third-string quarterback Rhett Bomar marched the Giants 75 yards for a touchdown against Pittsburgh's first-team defense. The Giants were short-handed with starter Eli Manning (head) and backup Jim Sorgi (shoulder) sitting out. The defensive standards are always high in Pittsburgh, which is why the Steelers have to be disappointed that New York's third-string quarterback had a successful drive in the first half.
Baltimore Ravens 23, Washington Redskins 3

The Good
  • Baltimore linebacker/defensive end hybrid Terrell Suggs is rounding back into form. Suggs was consistently in Washington's backfield Saturday, recording a sack, a tackle for loss and an additional hit on the quarterback. Baltimore's pass rush looks improved, and Suggs' resurgence from a poor 2009 season is a big reason. Baltimore had four sacks and seven hits on the quarterback.
  • Backup quarterback Marc Bulger had his best preseason game. He completed 13 of 16 passes for 130 yards. Bulger was solid during my time in Baltimore's training camp last week, and it's clear he's solidified the No. 2 quarterback job behind starter Joe Flacco.
The Bad
  • Despite the low point total, the Ravens allowed 206 passing yards to Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb. Backup Rex Grossman threw for 195 yards. Nineteen of Washington's 20 first downs were passing, and the Ravens allowed five pass plays of 23-yards or more. Baltimore doesn't have many weaknesses, but opponents will continue attacking the secondary until the Ravens prove they can cover receivers consistently.
  • Baltimore's offense stalled on third down. The Ravens were 1-for-10 in third-down efficiency. That number should be better with all the weapons Baltimore has on offense. But putting everything together remains a work in progress.
Cleveland Browns 17, St. Louis Rams 19

The Good
  • Starting quarterback Jake Delhomme continues to play well. Despite a slow start, Delhomme put up good numbers for the second straight preseason game, completing 12 of 16 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. Delhomme handled the rainy weather conditions in Cleveland well, and was decisive. He zipped a 6-yard pass to tight end Ben Watson through good coverage for a second-quarter touchdown.
  • One Browns player who stood out was fullback Lawrence Vickers. He punished Rams linebackers and defensive backs. The Browns like their big package with Vickers blocking for running back Peyton Hillis, who had a team-high 12 carries for 51 yards.
The Bad
  • Cleveland did not take care of the football. The Browns are a bad-weather team, but sure didn't play like it. Cleveland had five turnovers (three fumbles, two interceptions) and didn't force any on defense. Browns head coach Eric Mangini despises sloppy play, and the Browns must play much smarter.
  • Surprisingly, the Browns' pass rush didn't show up. Cleveland had zero sacks against the shaky offensive line of the Rams, who are projected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. St. Louis passed 34 times without allowing a sack.
BEREA, Ohio -- Former Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren admits that he still thinks about the outcome of Super Bowl XL. Seattle lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 21-10, in a game filled with questionable calls that went against the Holmgren-led Seahawks.

More than four years later, referee Bill Leavy put Super Bowl XL back in the spotlight by recently admitting he blew some calls in the game. On Tuesday Holmgren, now president of the Cleveland Browns, reacted to the news.

"Of course I was disappointed at the time, and because it was the Super Bowl, I still think about it on occasion," Holmgren said. "But like anything in this business, if you let it linger it's going to have an adverse effect on what you do moving forward.

"We didn't play our best football that day. Had we played better and coached better, those calls might not have made a difference. Everyone is human and everyone makes mistakes, and you can't hold one person accountable for the final outcome of that game."

Several former Seahawks applauded Leavy's admission but said the loss still stings.

"On a whole, unless they're going to come out and say 'Hey, here's the trophy and here's your ring,' it's not going to make a difference," Browns quarterback and former Seahawk Seneca Wallace said.

Added former Seahawk Bobby Engram: "I hope [Leavy] feels better about himself. He's human and we all make mistakes. I'm sure he was trying his hardest, but it was difficult for us to overcome some of those missed calls."

Holmgren led two different franchises -- Seattle and Green Bay -- to Super Bowls and is now in his first year attempting to turn around the Browns, who finished 5-11 last season.
» NFC On the Radar: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

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

It's both a blessing and a curse to be a fearless and physical receiver.

The positive is Anquan Boldin plays with a toughness and reckless abandon that should fit in well with the Baltimore Ravens. The negative is Boldin's style has resulted in injuries, and he hasn't played a full 16-game season since 2006.

Will Boldin's health be an issue in Baltimore? The Ravens hope that's not the case, because they will need the three-time Pro Bowler on the field to remain strong Super Bowl contenders.

Baltimore recently traded for Boldin to get over the hump against teams like the high-powered Indianapolis Colts. After losing to Indianapolis in the playoffs last season, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome came to realize that Baltimore cannot always rely on defense in today's NFL. There are too many rule changes favoring the offense and too many great quarterbacks leading playoff teams.

That's where Boldin comes in. His job is to become the No. 1 target for third-year player Joe Flacco, who is trying to become one of the NFL's better quarterbacks. Boldin's presence also should take some of the pressure off Pro Bowl tailback Ray Rice and the running game.

The Ravens sought out Boldin's medical records before finalizing the trade with the Arizona Cardinals. So there is some concern. Last postseason Boldin dealt with an injured left ankle and in 2008 he took a crushing blow to the head against the New York Jets that required facial surgery.

Baltimore's best-case scenario is that Boldin left his history of ailments in Arizona. His style of play won't change, but perhaps his luck will.

AFC North roster bubbles

July, 13, 2010
Every year teams have tough decisions to make to trim their rosters to 53 players. Sometimes the coaching staff and front office can't agree on who stays and who goes, and the debates get pretty heated.

With training camp approximately two weeks away, here are eight AFC North players who could be heavily debated and on the roster bubble this summer:

1. Adam Jones, CB, Cincinnati Bengals

[+] EnlargeJones
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBengals cornerback Adam Jones looked good in training camp.
Case for: There is no denying Jones' talent. The former first-round pick looked quick and athletic playing cornerback and returning kicks during last month's mandatory minicamp. What's interesting is Jones is still working himself back into football shape after sitting out the 2009 season. The Bengals lacked a reliable third cornerback to go with starters Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. So there is a role available.

Case against: Jones sat out last season for off-field reasons. He has said and done the right things so far in Cincinnati, but he's on a very short leash with the league office. One mishap and Jones could be off the team and out of the league for the rest of the year. But if he stays clear of trouble, he has enough ability to make the team and contribute.

Chances of making team: 80 percent

2. Matt Jones, WR, Bengals

Case for: Jones has good size and experience. The former first-round pick had 166 career receptions and 15 touchdowns during his stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Outside of starters Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant, Cincinnati has a pretty young group of receivers. That could give Jones a chance to earn roster spot if he's polished enough to contribute now for the defending AFC North champs.

Case against: After sitting out all of 2009 because of off-field issues, Jones appears to have lost a step. This spring he hasn't looked nearly as explosive as the freakish athlete who impressed at the NFL combine in 2005. Similar to Adam Jones, it's possible that Matt Jones can regain some of his form in the process of a grueling training camp. Jones also has an inexpensive, team-friendly contract, which the Bengals can easily terminate if they don't like what they see.

Chances of making team: 40 percent

3. Jerome Simpson, WR, Bengals

Case for: Despite a lack of production, Simpson has stuck around for two reasons: draft status and lack of receiver depth. It's hard for teams to give up on second-round picks. The Bengals invested a lot in Simpson and still want to get a return on their high pick, even if it means an extended wait. In the past, the Bengals haven't had a lot of receiver depth, which has allowed Simpson to make the 53-man roster. But that has changed this year, as Cincinnati's receiving corps has a lot of competition.

Case against: The Bengals appear tired of waiting on Simpson, who has one reception in two seasons. They drafted two rookie receivers to compete for roster spots, Jordan Shipley and Dezmon Briscoe. This is a make-or-break training camp for Simpson. He showed occasional flashes in practice but not nearly enough to earn the trust of the coaching staff when it matters in the regular season. Entering his third NFL season, there are no more excuses for Simpson not to produce.

Chances of making team: 50 percent

4. Demetrius Williams, WR, Baltimore Ravens

[+] EnlargeDemetrius Williams
AP Photo/Rob CarrRavens receiver Demetrius Williams could be the team's deep-threat option.
Case for: With his speed and athleticism, a case can be made that Williams potentially is Baltimore's most dangerous deep threat. Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason are more savvy, consistent receivers, while Donte' Stallworth is trying to get his legs under him after sitting out a year. Williams has averaged an impressive 16 yards per catch in his career, including two touchdown receptions of 70 yards or more. There is an open role for someone to get deep in Baltimore's high-powered offense, and Williams has a chance to be that player.

Case against: Health has always been an issue for Williams. He has played in 16 games once in his four-year career. Baltimore has kept Williams because of his potential, but at some point the Ravens would like to see consistency. To do that, Williams must stay healthy to find a role on a Ravens team with very high expectations.

Chances of making team: 70 percent

5. John Beck, QB, Ravens

Case for: Beck knows offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's system well from their days together with the Miami Dolphins. Beck's future in Baltimore could come down to Troy Smith's situation. There have been rumors of interest in Smith from the Philadelphia Eagles. Quarterback injuries in training camp and preseason could also increase Smith's trade value this summer, which would gift wrap the No. 3 quarterback job for Beck.

Case against: If nothing happens on the trade front, the Ravens have an interesting decision to make between Smith and Beck. With Joe Flacco, Marc Bulger and Smith, Beck is probably the team's fourth quarterback right now, which naturally makes him the odd man out. If Smith is still on the roster, Beck will have to make up ground the old-fashioned way and outperform Smith in the preseason to win a roster spot.

Chances of making team: 40 percent

6. Bobby Engram, WR, Cleveland Browns

Case for: The Browns have little depth and little experience at receiver. Engram potentially could provide both. The 14-year veteran played for Cleveland president Mike Holmgren when both were with the Seattle Seahawks and knows what to expect. Engram recently had a big year in 2007, when he had 94 receptions for 1,147 yards and six touchdowns. He also can serve as a mentor to young receivers such as Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie.

Case against: It's questionable what Engram, 37, has left. Last season he had only five receptions in five games for the Kansas City Chiefs. Holmgren is hoping Engram has one more decent year left in him to help Cleveland's struggling offense, which finished last in the NFL in 2009. But if there's any team Engram can make this year, it's the Browns.

Chances of making team: 60 percent

7. James Davis, RB, Browns

Case for: Davis was arguably Cleveland's biggest rookie surprise last summer when he led the team in rushing during the preseason. But high expectations were crushed when a season-ending shoulder injury limited Davis to only two games. Now he's back for his second season and looks healthy.

Case against: Cleveland's situation at running back is very crowded. One of the best things Holmgren and new general manager Tom Heckert did this offseason was put together a solid group of rushers. The Browns traded up to draft tailback Montario Hardesty in the second round and got Peyton Hillis from the Denver Broncos in the Brady Quinn trade. Last year's leading rusher, Jerome Harrison, also returns to make for a versatile group of ball carriers. All three running backs are ahead of Davis on the depth chart. So barring injury, Davis looks like a strong candidate for the practice squad.

Chances of making team: 35 percent

8. Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

[+] EnlargeJonathan Dwyer
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesPittsburgh sixth-round pick Jonathan Dwyer might be headed to the practice squad.
Case for: Despite being a sixth-round pick, Dwyer has a chance to contribute early for the Steelers. He displayed strong legs and good power in college, and that could translate into a short-yardage option for Pittsburgh. The Steelers struggled in the red zone and in short-yardage situations. If Dwyer proves he can move the chains, that would be more than enough to earn a roster spot.

Case against: Although the Steelers may end up with a bargain, no team is afraid to put a sixth-round pick on the practice squad. Dwyer played in a triple-option offense at Georgia Tech, which means he may need some time to learn a pro-style offense. But Dwyer could pan out in a limited role.

Chances of making team: 75 percent
CameronGeorge Gojkovich/Getty ImagesBaltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has high expectations for his offense in 2010.
The Baltimore Ravens are a proven defensive juggernaut.

But can they be a legitimate offensive juggernaut, too? Thanks to some key additions, Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron believes it's definitely possible.

"If we had our way, we'd like to lead the league in scoring and lead the league in ball security," Cameron said in a telephone interview with's AFC North blog. "I think being in the top five in that this year is realistic."

If Cameron's vision of an elite, high-scoring offense becomes a reality in Baltimore, the rest of the NFL has a major problem on its hands.

Few teams have the potential to be as stout on both sides of the football in 2010 as the Ravens.

The acquisition of three-time Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin and the growth of third-year standouts Ray Rice and Joe Flacco have Baltimore's offensive expectations at an all-time high. And the Ravens' stellar track record on defense is well-documented: They've ranked in the top six defensively for 10 of the past 11 years.

But despite Baltimore's consistent success, the franchise has struggled for years to win offensive shootouts. As recently as last season, teams like the Indianapolis Colts have given the Ravens fits because the opposing offense was good enough to put up points and the Ravens' offense couldn't keep pace.

This offseason, it was the goal of Baltimore's front office to put together a roster that could win in a variety of ways, which includes high-scoring affairs if necessary.

"There are going to be times during a game where the defense has to carry the offense, just because you have those days. And vice versa, when the offense has to carry the defense," Boldin told reporters during minicamp. "For me, I love to play with a great defense, because they get you the ball. As an offense, you want the ball as much as possible."

There has been plenty of debate in Baltimore about whether Cameron can keep everyone happy this season. With the exception of Flacco, every starting offensive skill player for the Ravens has at least one Pro Bowl on his résumé. That means there's plenty of talent but also plenty of egos to massage.

It was challenging enough in recent years to get adequate carries for Rice, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain. Now the coaching staff has to worry about the running backs and an assortment of talented receivers and tight ends in the passing game.

(Read full post)




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